Analysis

Brian Gallant 'chips away' at legislature's integrity by lack of sitting days

New Brunswick opposition leaders continue to complain about the Gallant government avoiding the legislature as a place to present and debate its agenda and although experts say the critics have a point, they also say little can be done about it.

Legislature on pace for 32 sitting days in current session, the fewest in a non-election year since 1969

Premier Brian Gallant announced free tuition for low and middle-income students at an event at the University of New Brunswick, instead of in the legislature. (Harry Forestell/Twitter)

New Brunswick opposition leaders are continuing to complain about the Gallant government avoiding the legislature as a place to present and debate its agenda.

Although experts say the critics have a point, two political scientists also say little can be done about it.

Opposition Leader Bruce Fitch once again expressed frustration during CBC's political panel on Thursday that a major policy shift on tuition funding announced by Premier Brian Gallant last week was not brought to the legislature first — or at least revealed — during budget debates.

"An act of contempt for the legislature," Fitch called the policy announcement which came while the people's house is on one of its increasingly long recesses.

By popular demand, the panel discusses the Gallant government's announcement of free tuition for post-secondary students from low-income families. 39:45

Genevieve Tellier, a political scientist at the University of Ottawa, says Fitch is not wrong but there is no way to compel a majority government to obey parliamentary traditions.

"We would expect normally that big announcements, major policy shifts would be presented first in the legislature because they must be debated among the legislators," said Tellier.

"It is the basis of our own parliamentary system If the government wants to spend money it must first need the approval of the assembly."

Over the last two months the New Brunswick, Ontario and federal Liberal governments all announced significant changes to the way university and college tuition paid by students will be subsidized in the future including the elimination of widely used tax deductions. 

But while the governments in Ontario and Ottawa both presented those plans inside their parliaments in budget documents, the Gallant government kept details away from MLAs in favour of a press event held outside the legislature two months after budget debates were already over.

'Chips away' at legislature's integrity

J.P. Lewis, a political scientist at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John, said the legislature's lack of sitting days is chipping away at the institution's integrity. (CBC)

J.P. Lewis, a political scientist at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John, says that undermines the role of elected representatives.

"We want our legislators to use the legislature. That's where we find accountability and answerability and so anytime it's avoided it's problematic," said Lewis.

"It all chips away at the integrity of the institution."

Governments bypassing legislatures to make major announcements — especially those that involve raising money from the public — is a practice that has been widely criticized as wrong but unstoppable in many jurisdictions.

Two years ago, Ontario Speaker Dave Levac sympathized with opposition MPPs, who complained about the practice in that province but said nothing could be done.

"Whether it be the government's financial plan, or any other measure or announcement, Speakers have repeatedly looked unfavourably upon it when the House has not been the first to receive such information," said Levac

"There are rulings almost too numerous to compile, in which Speakers have admonished governments for doing this and defending the Legislature's claim to be the first recipient of major announcements."

Ontario Speaker Dave Levac said two years ago that he sympathized with concerns about announcements being made outside of the legislature but there was little he could do about it.

Levac said these rulings have observed that announcements in the legislature is "at minimum" a courtesy if not an expectation.

"Speakers have consistently stated they have no authority to compel these types of announcements to be made in the House first," he said.

Although announced last week the Gallant government's tuition plan cannot be debated by New Brunswick MLAs until the middle of next month because the legislature is in the middle of a five-week recess. It is the third extended break since December.

Only 32 sitting days

The legislature has met so little this year the Gallant government is on a schedule to end its second legislative session on May 20 after just 32 sitting days and 26 question periods. 

That's the least the New Brunswick legislature has sat in a non-election year since Louis J. Robichaud was premier 47 years ago.

The legislature is on pace to sit for 32 days, which is the fewest number of days in a non-election year since Louis J. Robichaud was premier 47 years ago. (Daniel McHardie/CBC)

But the Gallant government rejects the idea that it has been snubbing the legislature this year.

In an emailed statement to CBC News, Post-Secondary Education Minister Francine Landry said government fulfilled its obligation to inform the legislature of its tuition overhaul during two sentences in the budget speech which mentioned an upcoming "new tuition assistance program" with details to follow later.

The speech made no mention that tuition tax deductions currently used by 42,000 students and their families were being cancelled.

"The tuition assistance program was announced in my colleague [Finance Minister Roger] Melanson's budget speech," says Landry's statement.

"He stated that a tuition assistance program would be announced pending final consultations with student groups. We completed the consultations and the details of the program were announced shortly thereafter."

On CBC's political panel on Thursday ,Energy Minister Donald Arsenault said opposition MLAs can have their say on the tuition overhaul when the legislature reopens for the final time this session in mid-May.

"We've announced this last week and we're going back to the legislature. We'll have ample time to ask questions on that policy decision we made," said Arseneault.

Legislature Sitting Days in New Brunswick (Past 10 sessions)
Premier SessionDays
Graham#179
Alward#470
Graham#468
Graham#364
Graham#263
Gallant#163
Alward#158
Alward#357
Alward#254
Gallant#232 (Scheduled)

About the Author

Robert Jones

Reporter

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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