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MLAs divided over office safety despite recent attack on constituency assistant

Kelly Gomes is shown at her desk in the constituency office of Brendan Maguire, the MLA for Halifax Atlantic. Gomes was recently attacked in the office. She said she was saved by a student on a work term who intervened. (Codie Dionne - image credit)
Kelly Gomes is shown at her desk in the constituency office of Brendan Maguire, the MLA for Halifax Atlantic. Gomes was recently attacked in the office. She said she was saved by a student on a work term who intervened. (Codie Dionne - image credit)

Opposition members of an all-party committee of the Nova Scotia legislature were able to convince their PC counterparts to keep talking, but the debate over how to keep MLA staff safe remains unresolved following a meeting on Wednesday that stretched into the evening.

Opposition members believe having two constituency assistants working together will make the job safer, but PC MLAs are worried about the cost and suggested that added security and better training will mean a safer workplace.

The issue was before the House of Assembly management commission, the body that oversees the budgets of MLAs and sets House rules, in response to the fact the constituency assistant of Liberal Brendan Maguire was violently attacked last month.

Six weeks ago, a man grabbed Kelly Gomes by the throat and pinned her to the wall at the constituency office on Herring Cove Road in Halifax. Her attacker let her go when a student, who was in the office that day on a work term, intervened.

"If she wasn't here, I don't know what would have happened," Gomes told CBC in an interview. "I think what really saved me, this time, is having the student in the office."

Police have charged a 47-year-old man with assault and property damage.

Liberals, NDP say attack was a 'wake-up call'

During the committee meeting Wednesday, Liberal House Leader Derek Mombouquette called that attack "devastating" and urged government members to boost MLA budgets to allow provincial politicians to hire a second constituency assistant.

"Unfortunately what happened in MLA Maguire's office was a big wake-up call," said the representative for Sydney-Membertou.

"There are other examples that are out there and these are offices that are predominantly operated by women."

Nova Scotia Liberal House leader Derek Mombourquette.
Nova Scotia Liberal House leader Derek Mombourquette.

Nova Scotia Liberal House leader Derek Mombourquette said the attack on Gomes was a 'wake-up call' for MLAs. (Michael Gorman/CBC)

His caucus colleague Keith Irving put it succinctly.

"Those constituency assistants have our back, we need to have their back," said Irving.

He reminded the committee that after a gunman stormed Parliament Hill in Ottawa in 2014, members of the legislature were quick to authorize measures to keep themselves safe, including paying for police to be stationed outside the legislative chamber during sittings.

"We didn't hesitate to up security for ourselves at the legislature," he said. "We didn't talk about budget."

NDP House Leader Susan Leblanc supported the Liberal's call to increase the budget for more staff.

"We need to make sure that our staff are as safe as any other public employee, any other Nova Scotia employee," said Leblanc. "That requires people working together."

"I just don't understand how this could even be an issue right now. I think that this should be a given."

PCs resist calls to allow more assistants

But PC MLAs on the committee offered other solutions.

Danielle Barkhouse, MLA for Chester-St. Margaret's, suggested MLAs could better manage the money they already have in their office budgets.

"Is it advertisements and dinners or events or is it staff?" said Barkhouse.

Nova Scotia's 55 representatives receive constituency expenses that range from $5,454 a month to $5,829 a month, depending on the size of the constituency. Constituency assistant salaries are paid over and above those office expenses, but according to House rules, MLAs are only allowed one of them.

Finance Minister Allan MacMaster at Province House on Nov. 2, 2023.
Finance Minister Allan MacMaster at Province House on Nov. 2, 2023.

Finance Minister Allan MacMaster at Province House last November. MacMaster suggested Wednesday that opposition MLAs were taking advantage of the attack on Gomes to get a boost in staffing. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

John White, who represents Glace Bay — Dominion suggested constituency assistants weren't the only ones who work solo.

"There are many, many, many people out there that work alone," said White. "Whether they work for the province or work in a candy store. It doesn't matter.

"Are we opening up something here? [Are we saying] people can't work alone now, anymore?"

Allan MacMaster, the finance minister and deputy premier, said extra security measures might be a less expensive alternative.

"Just because we have taxpayers' money doesn't mean we should to be able to just say, 'Oh, we're going to [add staff].'"

Speaking to a reporter outside the meeting, MacMaster suggested the opposition parties were trying to take advantage of the attack on Maguire's constituency assistant to get extra help.

"I know that the opposition wanted bigger constituency office budgets before this event happened at MLA Maguire's office," he said. "They've been wanting to add staff to their budgets.

"This event happens, suddenly they have a good reason to ask for more staff."

The committee, which normally meets only three times a year, has agreed to regroup and meet again on this issue in the coming weeks.

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