Nova Scotia Premier Hamm: On the Ropes

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As a re-election strategy, beating up on Florence Nightingale seemsless than shrewd. To take on Nightingale and find oneself on thereceiving end of a sound thrashing shows special ineptitude.

For two weeks, Premier John Hamm's Tories have been on the ropes,absorbing blow after blow in the ring of public opinion. Theirill-conceived plan to impose below-market wages and working conditionson health-care workers has met nearly universal public disapproval.

On Thursday night, Hamm found himself flat on the canvas, blinkingback stars, the sound of the ref's count ringing in his ears.

On that chaotic evening, his government lost control of thelegislative timetable, ensuring that 2,900 health-care workers will beable to strike at least two days before government can order themback.

It will take more days of dire threats to get them to comply,followed by work-to-rule campaigns or mass resignations that willcripple the province's largest hospitals.

Much of the credit for derailing Bill 68 belongs to an adroitmanoeuvre by Nova Scotia Government and General Employees' Union (NSGEU) president JoanJessome.

The bill had made it through first and second reading and had beenreferred to the Law Amendments Committee, where hundreds of citizenslined up to condemn it. The order paper called for the committee toreport to the house by 8 p.m. Thursday, in time for the legislature toschedule debate by the committee of the whole, beginning 12:01 a.m.Friday.

At 2 p.m., after hearing only a third of the 500 people signed up tospeak, Justice Minister Michael Baker cut off public presentations.

Jessome offered the government what appeared to be a face-saving wayto avoid cutting off public participation. Let the hearings continue,she said, and we will delay the mandatory 48-hour strike notice untileveryone has had a chance to speak.

The Tories didn't relish more days of hearings in which sympatheticnurses would tearfully denounce them. But neither did they want toappear to be gagging the public.

So they adjourned for two hours to consider their options. Theyquickly realized that 48 hours wouldn't give them enough time to pushthe bill through. In effect, Jessome was offering 48 hours in returnfor a procedural change that would chew up 72.

So the Tories rejected the compromise, but offered one of their own.They would allow another day of hearings if the opposition would agreeto pass the bill by Tuesday night.

After another adjournment, the Opposition said no, followed by morewrangling over the details of the Tory proposal, a slightly revisedproposal, another adjournment to consider it, and another oppositionrefusal. The manoeuvring saw unheard of co-operation between normallyhostile NDP and Liberal MLAs, united by a desire to run out the clock.

Suddenly, it was 7:30, without a vote having taken place on any ofthe opposition amendments, or the government amendment, to the bill.Baker came to the belated realization he'd been hornswoggled byopposition stalling.

Baker panicked and, amid rising chaos, gavelled through a vote thatreported the bill back to the House for third reading. In a violationof house rules, he refused opposition demands for a recorded vote, oreven for a clarification of what was being voted upon.

That set the stage for Speaker Murray Scott to rule on what NDP MLAJohn Holm describes as the first point of privilege to succeed in his17 years in the house. After a 90-minute discussion with Houseleaders, Scott ruled Baker had violated MLAs' privileges, and sent thematter back to committee.

That meant the committee couldn't report back until Friday, whichmeant committee of the whole can't meet until tomorrow, and Bill 68likely can't be passed before Thursday.

Scott's ruling deserves special notice. In a highly charged politicalcontext, it took courage for a Speaker to rule against his own party,with what is obviously a devastating result for its strategy on a keyissue.

Scott also deserves praise for curbing his police officer's instinct forsecurity, and heeding those who cautioned him to respect theimportance of citizen access to Province House.

With a few exceptions, the hospital workers likewise deserve praisefor their restrained approach to confrontations with governmentministers. The ability of citizens to engage the highest officials ofthe province in face-to-face is a democratic treasure.

In the face of these defeats, Hamm has shown no readiness to backdown from the untenable position he staked out two weeks ago. Perhapsthe weekend break will give him time to reflect on the collisioncourse he has set for the province and its health-care workers.

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