An MLA and new mother has been denied permission to attend today’s 2pm emergency session virtually. Premier Tim Houston called the legislature back in to vote against a binding recommendation for a 12% pay raise for MLAs. And Kendra Coombes, NDP MLA for Cape Breton Centre-Whitney Pier, won’t be there.
“I feel very disappointed that I’m being denied the ability at the moment to represent my constituents,” Coombes says in an interview with The Coast, “and to bring forward their issues—whether it's the housing crisis, the healthcare crisis, the cost of living crisis that we are in—so I feel like they're disappointed.”
She gave birth to her second child via C-section just two weeks ago, on July 12. “I want to be in the legislature, typically. I can't at the moment,” she says. “I just had major abdominal surgery and cannot drive—I can’t be in a car for five hours to drive to Halifax.” In order for her to attend today’s session virtually, all of the MLAs had to vote on it, and the consensus had to be unanimous. That failed. And because the poll took place outside of the legislature, how each of the 55 MLAs voted isn’t public.
At least one MLA has made his stance public—Liberal MLA for Halifax-Atlantic Brendan Maguire—who posted his “yes” email on Twitter. Communications lead for the NDP caucus Meredith O’Hara confirmed that all six NDP MLAs voted in favour of Coombes attending the meeting virtually. And the Halifax Examiner reported that all 17 Liberal MLAs supported Coombes, according to their caucus’ senior communications advisor Caitie Clark. As for the 31 PCs, we don’t know, and likely never will.
According to the NS NDP, Coombes is the first sitting MLA to give birth in Nova Scotia. Hybrid work models are the norm everywhere now thanks to COVID, including the legislature. Accommodations for new parents are also expected in basically every workplace. Just a few weeks ago, the MLAs voted unanimously to let Coombes attend sessions remotely leading up to her delivery date. Why wasn’t it the same today?
“People want to see themselves represented in the legislature,” Coombes says. “Having a new parent being denied the ability to come in virtually sends the wrong signal, that, you know, they're not wanted because the accommodations that can be made for them aren’t going to be there.”
An order of business at the legislature today is a vote on allowing all MLAs to be able to attend sessions virtually, which of course would include Coombes. This would also need to be approved unanimously. But the NDP opposes a blanket permission to go fully hybrid. Coombes says that would mean a “complete overhaul of the legislature,” as opposed to giving accommodations in extreme circumstances.
“My child is two weeks old. I can't be in the legislature. And there's a difference between that and an MLA who just doesn't want to be physically there, because they're on vacation or what have you,” she says. “There's no reason for an MLA not to be there unless there are other circumstances at play.”
Coombes says the decision to allow any MLA at any time to work remotely is a decision that needs to be taken seriously, with time to consider the rationale and debate—not hold a one-off vote during a summer session.
She’ll be watching today’s meeting, and if that remote work vote passes unanimously, she’ll be ready to join the session. But Coombes would rather be locked out today than see that vote pass.
UPDATE: Kendra Coombes has been let into the session. The motion to make the rest of the legislature's summer session hybrid did not pass unanimously, and was tabled for later. But Susan Leblanc of Dartmouth North, the NDP House Leader, put forward a motion to allow Coombes to attend the rest of the summer session virtually, including today. That motion passed unanimously.