New Brunswick

PC government limiting debate on several key bills

The Higgs government is using its majority to limit the time MLAs have to debate a number of major bills, including a cap on apartment rents, and legislation to let municipalities change how they tax heavy industrial property.

Opposition says motion won’t leave enough time to properly scrutinize legislation

After some procedural maneuvering, debate on 12 bills will be limited to 50 hours. (Karissa Donkin/CBC)

The Higgs government is using its majority to limit the time MLAs have to debate a number of major bills, including a cap on apartment rents, and legislation to let municipalities change how they tax heavy industrial property.

The procedural move will limit debate to a total of 50 hours for 12 bills now before the New Brunswick legislature.

The Opposition Liberals denounced the motion and tried to challenge it on procedural grounds.

"It's like putting a gun to your head," Liberal house leader Guy Arseneault told reporters.

Liberal house leader Guy Arseneault compared the move to limit debate to "putting a gun to your head." (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

He complained that time allocation is normally invoked for individual bills, not for everything before the house.

History of use

But in the legislature, Progressive Conservative house leader Glen Savoie said Arseneault's own party had used the same tactic.

"From 2014 to 2018 under the Gallant government, this form of motion was used exactly in that form," he said.

Arseneault brushed that off. 

"I wasn't there when it was done, but we don't live in the past. At one time women weren't allowed to vote. Do we live in the past? No, we have to be progressive."

In fact, governments of both parties have used various procedures to limit debate time over the years, provoking howls of protest from their opponents who promptly do the same thing when they return to power.

Government house leader Glen Savoie said previous Liberal governments have also limited debate in the legislature. (CBC)

The PC motion, which MLAs will vote on next Wednesday, would ensure all bills go through all stages of debate in time for royal assent scheduled for June 10, the day the legislature adjourns for the summer.

"This is just simply a legislative tool that I've put in place just to make sure, all things being equal, that government business gets done in the time that's being allocated," Savoie said.

The 50-hour limit applies retroactively to all debate and committee study of the bills going back to May 10. The PCs and Liberals have different calculations of how many hours have already been used up, but both say it's more than 20.

Devil in the details

Green house leader Kevin Arseneau said the decision could mean flaws in some bills will slip through.

During one committee study of a bill Wednesday night, Green MLA Megan Mitton spotted a one-word error in a local government bill that caused the section to say the opposite of what the government intended. 

Arseneau said the motion is in keeping with Premier Blaine Higgs's impatience with the legislative process.

"It's no secret that the premier doesn't like sitting through question period," Arseneau said. "He sees it as a waste of time. This legislator stuff is a waste of time. He'd rather be CEO of something than in a democratic institution.

The bill that would give municipalities the power to set property tax rates on heavy industry, within limits, was introduced Tuesday.

Green house leader Kevin Arseneau said Higgs would "rather be CEO of something than in a democratic institution." (Jacques Poitras/CBC News)

Now MLAs will be forced to rush discussion of that legislation and several others. 

"If those bills were that important, why did they wait so long to present them?" Arseneault said.

The Liberal house leader singled out the 117-page Child and Youth Well-Being Act, introduced May 18, that would overhaul the child protection system. 

Child, Youth and Seniors Advocate Kelly Lamrock called for that bill to get special scrutiny to address any flaws before passage, given its potential impact on the lives of children.

Shortly after Arseneault spoke to reporters, Savoie said the three parties in the legislature had negotiated a separate agreement on that bill that will allow the committee on economic policy to hear from witnesses on the legislation, something it normally can't do.

That special session will count as part of the 50 hours allocated for debate. 

Arseneault acknowledged to reporters that the procedural battle would not be a top-of-mind issue for New Brunswickers.

"I know that's boring procedure and this and that, but there has to be some rules in the house and we need to follow them."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jacques Poitras

Provincial Affairs reporter

Jacques Poitras has been CBC's provincial affairs reporter in New Brunswick since 2000. He grew up in Moncton and covered Parliament in Ottawa for the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. He has reported on every New Brunswick election since 1995 and won awards from the Radio Television Digital News Association, the National Newspaper Awards and Amnesty International. He is also the author of five non-fiction books about New Brunswick politics and history.

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