Beat the Clock: Trying to Delay Bill 68

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At 12:05 a.m. Tuesday, Halifax Fairview MLA Graham Steele begged Speaker Murray Scott's leave to table the first petition he had ever presented to the Nova Scotia legislature. Six minutes later, he tabled another - his second ever. Minutes later a third, followed by a fourth, then a fifth. In between, a tag team of NDP and Liberal MLAs presented petitions of their own, going 'round the opposition benches in turn, like kids playing one-a-cat.

In truth, they were playing Beat The Clock, a joint effort to delay Bill 68, an act to delete the collective bargaining rights of health-care workers. If they could just keep debate going another 24 hours, a strike would be assured. This was the start of yesterday's session. Under House rules, each day begins with an opportunity to present petitions - and to delay Bill 68's passage.

The petitions had a stupefying monotony. Government back-benchers chatted quietly or stared glumly at the petition readers. Health Minister Jamie Muir reclined in his chair. Each reading added fresh weight to the eyelids of the handful of spectators in the gallery.

Among those was Dan O'Conner, NDP chief of staff and, absent an ailing Paul MacEwan, the reigning expert on parliamentary tactics.

"Is there a limit to the time spent on petitions?" a reporter asked.

"No," said O'Conner. "The House of Commons once spent an entire day reading petitions. It takes a lot of organization to have enough petitions, but it can be done."

At 1:15 a.m., after Scott voiced mild irritation at the repetitive quality of the petitions, opposition MLAs brought the presentations to a close, and the house moved on to resolutions. Each MLA can present two of those, a process that ran the clock to 2 a.m., and a further hour set aside for question period.

Nova Scotia Government and General Employees' Union (NSGEU) members Karen Campbell and Lynn Stanton, registered nurses at the Victoria General Hospital medical surgical intensive care unit, arrived in the gallery just before two. They were in the middle of a 12-hour shift, spending their allotted 1.5-hour break time - half paid, half unpaid.

A 19-year veteran, Campbell makes $23.32 per hour. As charge nurse, Stanton, with 16 years on the job, makes an extra 70 cents.

Question period had stirred the MLAs out of their torpor. Like many first-time visitors to Province House, Campbell, clad in hospital greens, was taken aback by the catcalls and heckling on the floor below.

Debate on Bill 68 would not resume until after 3 a.m. Legislature insiders were speculating on what would happen when the NDP moved dilatory - ledge-speak for delay-inducing - motions.

Rumours had fellow Tories lambasting Speaker Murray Scott for sending Bill 68 back to the Law Amendments Committee after its chairman, Justice Minister Michael Baker, ran roughshod over house rules. If Scott ever wanted a Cabinet post, he might rule the motions out of order.

Every opposition member can speak for an hour on each motion, so allowing one motions for each opposition party had the potential to delay Bill 68's passage - and the end of the legal strike - into next week.

Michelle Cole, an licensed practical nurse (LPN) from Dartmouth General Hospital's long-term care unit, listened attentively, looking sharp in her formal whites.

"I haven't worn them since our last rally, about three years ago," she laughed. "I do wear the white uniform occasionally, but not the cap and the whole nine yards."

A member of the moderate Nova Scotia Nurses Union, Cole admires the more militant leadership of NSGEU president Joan Jessome. She expects the government to try to play the two unions off against each other, but believes nurses across the province are so angry and upset, it won't work.

At 4 a.m., perhaps signalling his desire to join cabinet some day, Scott rules an NDP motion out of order. Opposition MLAs react angrily, but don't formally challenge the ruling.

By late morning, concern is mounting that the government might get the bill through. If every opposition MLA uses his or her allotted hour for debate, they will finish at 15 minutes to midnight. An hour of bell-ringing would push the matter over to Wednesday, but Speaker Scott could short-circuit that by curbing any member who strays too far off topic.

At noon, MLA Howard Epstein ends that speculation with a surgical strike. Borrowing a government tactic, he moves a closure motion, thereby giving every MLA one more hour to speak. The bill isn't expected to pass until noon tomorrow.

Question: why didn't Epstein wait until 10 p.m. to move closure? That would have stalled the bill until tomorrow evening.

Answer: the game is Beat The Clock, But Not By Much.

All parties to the dispute feel vulnerable if things go badly in a strike.

No one wants to bear the recriminations of bereaved relatives in the event of an avoidable death.

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