Bickering erupted among MLAs Wednesday after a motion to extend the mandate of the all-party ethics and accountability committee was defeated the previous night. 

The committee is looking at strengthening legislation on whistleblower protection, conflicts of interest and campaign financing.

Its mandate expires in September. 

The committee has met only seven times in the last eight months. Opposition MLAs say they are concerned they have too much left to do and may not complete their work in the next four months. 

Opposition members, except for Liberal Leader David Swann, walked out of Tuesday's meeting after NDP MLAs defeated a motion to extend the committee's mandate to March 2017.

Alberta Party Leader Greg Clark introduced the motion and said he's puzzled about why the timeline can't be extended.

"It really created the unfortunate perception that the NDs [New Democrats] are using this committee as a smokescreen to do whatever they want," he said. 

Clark said parliamentary counsel told MLAs it was unprecedented for any committee to review four pieces of legislation in a single year. Clark said they have yet to start debating changes to the acts. 

The whistleblower legislation must be reviewed by September. Clark doesn't think it's unreasonable to take another eight months to look at the other three pieces of legislation. 

"This is about how we run democracy in Alberta," he said. "So let's have a bigger conversation and take the time to do what's necessary to do it right."

Four months is enough time

Clark said he was willing to meet through the summer to advance the committee's work. His statements were echoed by fellow committee members Jason Nixon, Sandra Jansen and Richard Starke.

The minister in charge of democratic renewal, Christina Gray, chaired the committee until she was appointed to cabinet in February.

Gray said four months is a reasonable amount of time to get everything done, and she called on opposition members to do their part.

"The opposition chose to stand up and leave," she said. "They left the meeting. They didn't want to work with us on the legislation. And that's not going to get us anywhere."

Asked what the harm was in extending the committee another eight months, Gray said changing the timeline now makes no sense.

"We knew this was going to be a lot of important and hard work. That's what we're asking the opposition to do."

PC MLA Starke said he has heard no good reason against the extension. He said opposition MLAs suspect the outcome has already been predetermined. 

"It calls into question what exactly or why exactly the other members of the legislature should be there," he said.

'NDP members don't seem to agree'

"This is supposed to be an all-party committee, it's supposed to be non-partisan, and it's supposed to do good work on behalf of Albertans. And the NDP members don't seem to agree."

Nixon, the Wildrose MLA for Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre, was equally puzzled by opposition to an extension. 

"I think it's incumbent on the government members who voted against that motion to explain why," he said. 

Swann was the only opposition MLA to stay for the whole meeting.

He said there may be a point later this summer where the committee may decide it needs more time, but it's premature to talk about it now. 

He rejected any suggestion the government has predetermined the outcome of the committee.

"I don't see any indication that they are coming to this job with prejudice," Swann said.

The issue also flared up in question period. Starke asked committee chair Jessica Littlewood how much time she estimated would be required to complete the committee's work.

Speaker Bob Wanner ruled the NDP MLA would only be able to answer questions about the schedule of the committee's meetings. He ruled all other questions out of order.

michelle.bellefontaine@cbc.ca

@MBellefontaine