Tuesday, December 6, 2016

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum

With apologies to Stephen Sondheim, the past 24 hours in Nova Scotia politics has competed for antics with his famous musical. We have a Premier claiming that legislation was being brought in to protect student safety, when it was blatantly obvious to anyone watching that an imposed contract would change nothing related to safety of students as the same rules would continue to apply in work to rule and an imposed contract, all the while some Ministers and MLAs were saying in messages to constituents that it was about costs, and not even mentioning safety.

One MLA claimed the Fire Marshall said schools would be dangerous. This is unproven and the Fire Marshall's office has not responded, but if it is true then we have a major issue because it means schools are always dangerous based on the wording of the teachers' contract. So this seems far fetched. Moreover, I don't know any teacher who would put their students' safety at risk.

A friend of mine posted this on Facebook, quoting one of her friends:
Told my daughter about the Minister closing schools to students on Monday. Wasn't sure how to reply when she commented that she thought only corrupt third world nations blocked a student's access to an education.
It may very well have been the pressure and comments from students and parents that really started the ball rolling towards the intended legislation being cancelled. Being seen as using students as pawns had to make government MLAs uncomfortable. Between Saturday's press conference by Minister Casey and Monday morning, my office received so many e-mails and calls we stopped counting at 500 (all of which we responded to as the weekend went on). I received only two largely supporting the government position.

The government's approach did change. It happened chaotically. I am prone to long blogs so I will avoid all the details of what happened, it’s been well articulated elsewhere. 

I was out of the country (not government funded) when an announcement came that the legislature was being recalled for Monday. I was on the first available flight returning to the legislature. I did not land in Halifax until Monday evening. I was expecting to be in the legislature for a 12:01am Tuesday sitting and the start of debate on what would have been Bill 75. Sitting on the flight, I was preparing comments for that 2nd reading debate. By the time my first flight landed 13 hours later, my Blackberry (yes I still have one) was full of e-mails, texts, and phone messages telling me the legislature had been adjourned and no bill introduced.

In the midst of rumours of a government caucus revolt Minister Michel Samson said the bill was delayed for discussions with the union, something the union denied. So the official line became that legislation to impose a contract on teachers was withdrawn because safety concerns had been addressed. That's spin. And not very good spin. First, the Nova Scotia Teacher’s Union had addressed each of the concerns on Friday, not only before the legislature resumed, but the day before Education Minister Karen Casey announced her bill. In fact, as an MLA, I was one of many responding to concerned parents with this information on Friday about what would happen Saturday. Second, teachers (nor anyone else with a contract) are not ever required to do work beyond their contract. It doesn't take a work to rule situation. So if a safety issue exists with teacher's possibly not being at the school until 20 minutes before class (or any other issue) then it always exists.This may be why the Halifax Regional School board brought in guards today for monitoring.

The Liberal Party has since released unattributed quotes from various schools boards saying the 20 minute window would mean the safety of students could not be assured. If that's the case, legislating a contract which maintained the 20 minute requirement was not going to solve this problem.

This is what the teachers' contract says (you can read the whole contract here):
13.01 Teachers shall not be required to perform supervision of pupils who travel to and/or from school by School Board operated vehicles, be they publicly or privately owned: 
 (i) prior to the first run of vehicles arriving at the school or twenty (20) minutes before the teacher’s classes begin, whichever is the lesser; 
(ii) after the first run of vehicles leaves the school or twenty (20) minutes after the teacher’s classe send, whichever is the lesser
13.02 Teachers shall not be required to perform supervision of pupils who do not travel to and/or from school by School Board operated vehicles be they publicly or
privately owned:
(i) prior to twenty (20) minutes before the teacher’s classes begin;
(ii) subsequent to twenty (20) minutes after the teacher’s classes end.
The bill which would have been introduced does not change any of the issues the Liberal government suggested were safety issues. Saying they would solve the safety issue raised by the boards about the 20 minute window by legislating the contract was more than a red herring. It was a lie. This was about the wage pattern.

There was almost certainly some kind of caucus revolt over the proposed bill. Whether people told the premier they wouldn't vote for the bill I have no idea. The Premier says every Liberal MLA was going to vote for it. So if your MLA said they stood up and said no in caucus, ask them the difference between their words and the premier's. 

Something happened in that caucus meeting. By Sunday, I’d had a few short discussions with four Liberal MLAs who wanted to know what it was like to be an independent, what kind of staffing there was, what happens to campaign funds, and so forth. I didn't particularly expect anything to materialize of it, or if it did, I figured it would happen at the time of the vote. I was  surprised by media reports of anywhere from six to nine MLAs opposing the government. That's a lot. If true, the Premier and his cabinet have a serious confidence issue in caucus. Lack of internal morale might also be why the Speaker's annual Christmas Party, which had been scheduled for tomorrow evening, has been postponed indefinitely.

As the days move forward here are a few other things to consider:

1. The legislature requires 30 day notice to resume. The exception is if the Speaker of the Legislature (Kevin Murphy) believes that there is an emergency that must be addressed. While the Speaker is, in this situation, a government MLA, he is still responsible for making the decision independently about whether an emergency truly exists. The government says it made the case there was a safety emergency in the schools. Citizens could ask the speaker to release the information he was presented making the case of an emergency situation.

2. Premier McNeil is determined to implement a wage pattern. He has a solution to do this. NSGEU will almost certainly reject their contract in a vote this week. My understanding is that means their contract goes to arbitration. Proclaiming Bill 148 will force the wage pattern in the arbitration process. Notwithstanding the possibility a court might overrule the bill at some future point, in the meantime this will then set the wage pattern for all other unions, including NSTU.

3. If a wage pattern is set, what will happen to all the classroom issues? Will they be forgotten? One thing this protracted labour dispute has caused is an understanding very broadly by the public that there are very serious issues in classrooms across the province. The government cannot pretend now it doesn’t realize they exist.

In all of this we cannot lose sight of the students. Our education system is in crisis. That is not the fault of the union, any one government, or the teachers. It has happened as a slow spiral over time. But as I've said before if we're going to fix the education system it means working together and cooperatively towards solutions on having an education system that works. There seems little willingness, today at least, on the part of the government to be part of those solutions.