PCs, Liberals trade barbs over death of reform committee

A seven-member committee of New Brunswick MLAs set up to help the province's bitterly divided legislature become more inclusive and less divisive has accomplished none its assigned tasks with Liberals and Progressive Conservatives blaming each other for its collapse.

Premier David Alward promised legislative reform 4 years ago

A seven-member committee of New Brunswick MLAs set up to help the province's bitterly divided legislature become more inclusive and less divisive has accomplished none its assigned tasks with Liberals and Progressive Conservatives blaming each other for its collapse.

A committee of MLAs was formed to study a report on improving how the legislative assembly functions. (CBC)
The Select Committee on Legislative Reform was appointed two and a half years ago to give life to Premier David Alward's vision of a more "collaborative" legislature.

But the committee itself couldn't collaborate for more than two meetings and has become subject to the same partisan finger pointing it was supposed to help fix.

"The Liberal party wasn't very interested in being engaged,” said Alward last week when he was asked about the committee’s failure to prepare a report as it was directed to do on how the legislature might improve itself.

"We've been looking to find, I'll say, different ways to engage the other parties but thus far the Liberal party hasn't been interested in being involved." 

But Liberals say the Progressive Conservatives killed legislative reform by forming the select committee and then failing to call any meetings.

"They chair this committee and they set the agenda and they control when you meet," said Dieppe Centre-Lewisville MLA Roger Melanson, one of two Liberal members and who attended its second and final meeting 15 months ago.

"We haven't heard since from the government party," he said.

Alward promised reform

Four years ago this week, Alward delivered a major speech in Fredericton outlining his views on democracy in New Brunswick and promising sweeping changes to the legislature once he became premier.  

David Alward speaks with a protester at an anti-NB Power sale protest in March 2010. Alward committed to improving how the legislature works after the demise of the NB Power sale deal. (CBC)
Moved by citizens who successfully faced down former Liberal premier Shawn Graham's government over its plan to sell NB Power, Alward vowed to throw the doors of the legislature open to increased public participation, work to lessen partisan bickering and give unelected third parties the chance to participate on legislature committees and question government ministers.

"The Legislative Assembly is an important and treasured institution but it needs to evolve to continue meeting the needs of a 21st century province," said Alward at the time.

"That is why I propose new ways of making the people's house more collaborative and inclusive.' 

Following the election, Alward commissioned Don Desserud, a former New Brunswick political scientist and now the dean of arts at the University of Prince Edward Island, to develop ways the legislature could make itself friendlier and more accessible 

Desserud and Cody Waite, a graduate student at UNB, authored a 66-page report entitled, “Proposals for Legislative Reform in New Brunswick.” The select committee was appointed to examine and develop recommendations from the report.

"What we tried to do with that report is to see if there was a way the legislature could operate where the public would have better access to it, better understand how it worked and in some sense perhaps improve the collegiality and the ability of particularly backbench MLAs to work together," said Desserud.

'I thought they were very open to suggestions'

The select committee was given the authority to retain experts and conduct public hearings and it was instructed to report back to the legislature with recommendations on how to proceed, although it did none of that.

Don Desserud, a former political scientist at the University of New Brunswick, co-authored a 66-page report that outlined ways to reform how the legislature functions. (CBC)
After hearing from Desserud and Waite in February 2013, the committee never met again.

Desserud said he has no idea what happened.

"It was a good committee of Liberals and Conservatives. I thought they were very open to suggestions,” Desserud said.

“I made a presentation, I had some very good questions — positive response — I think it went fairly well and I think the MLAs believed that what we were doing, what we were proposing was worthwhile.”

Meanwhile MLAs inside the legislature complain that partisan attacks have become worse than ever.  

"The decorum in this house is deplorable," said Miramichi-Bay du Vin MLA Bill Fraser at the conclusion of question period last Wednesday.

"It has been brought to a level I have not seen in seven years that I have been here."

Desserud says he's not sure what will convince MLAs to change the way they conduct business.

"Institutional reform takes a long, long time and it’s rarely a priority. There's other things that jump ahead of you when you're actually in office," said Desserud. 

"You know four years later not much has happened. I wouldn't call it a surprise, it's disappointing but I guess that's the way things go."

About the Author

Robert Jones


Robert Jones has been a reporter and producer with CBC New Brunswick since 1990. His investigative reports on petroleum pricing in New Brunswick won several regional and national awards and led to the adoption of price regulation in 2006.


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