New Brunswick

PCs follow Liberal practice of having few sitting days at the legislature

There won't be another regular sitting day with bills being introduced or a question period with ministers in the hot seat until May 7.

Tories railed against reduction in regular sitting days when Liberals first proposed it in 2014

The PC calendar allows for just three more weeks of regular sittings this spring, two in May and one in June, for a total of 12 days. (CBC)

When the New Brunswick legislature adjourns Friday after a vote on the Progressive Conservative government's first budget, it'll be the last time all 49 MLAs are together until May.

There won't be another regular sitting day — with bills being introduced and ministers on the hot seat in question period — until May 7.

Members aren't going on vacation: for three weeks in April, a committee of MLAs will hold hearings to examine the spending estimates of government departments.

It's a timetable that the PCs condemned as anti-democratic when they were sitting on the opposition benches, but that they're now more comfortable with as the governing party.

"Certainly committee has become a very important part of the work that we do," Government House leader Glen Savoie told reporters this week.

The Tories railed against the reduction in regular sitting days when former premier Brian Gallant first proposed it in 2014.

They said fewer question periods — when they, as Opposition, got 30 minutes a day to grill the government on topics they chose — represented less transparency and accountability. 

Fewer sitting days also meant fewer Opposition days where they could set the agenda by introducing bills and motions designed to embarrass the government.

As it turned out, the PCs frequently used the new committee process to hold the government's feet to the fire on a range of issues.

But they said nothing compared to the daily spectacle of bombarding ministers with questions.

PC MLA Bruce Fitch complained in 2018 about the reduced number of sitting days in the legislature. (CBC)

"You don't have that pointed question period," PC MLA Bruce Fitch said on a 2018 CBC political panel. "You don't get a chance to put other bills on the floor that would bring the government to account."

Fitch speculated at the time that the Liberals made the changes because they held only a narrow majority in the legislature. Governments can't be defeated in committee sessions, only during regular sitting days.

By last spring, the Liberals were down another MLA following the resignation of Donald Arseneault.

"They're probably pretty thankful that they're not in the house, in the legislature, because that put them in a position where they could be defeated," Fitch said.

Now it's the PCs who are in power — but with only 22 members in the 49-seat legislature, it's their turn to worry about losing a vote unexpectedly.

New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs is making economic growth his government's central priority and borrowing heavily from Prince Edward Island's playbook to do it. (James West/Canadian Press)

Savoie said, however, that that has nothing to do with the Tory decision to stick with the legislature-lite approach of the Liberals.

The PC calendar allows for just three more weeks of regular sittings this spring — two in May and one in June — for a total of 12 days.

An extra week has been set aside in June as a cushion, and the Tories could also resume the session for a few weeks in October before a throne speech, and a new session, in November.

But if those extra weeks don't happen, that will mean 32 sitting days in the current session, with only 26 of them featuring question period. 

Under the Liberals, there were two 39-day sessions, in 2015-2016 and 2017-2018, making the current session even shorter.

"I think it's the fewest days we've ever had in the legislature," Liberal house leader Guy Arseneault said this week.

Arseneault says he welcomed the committee days because they've proven an effective way of scrutinizing individual bills and departments. 

But that doesn't justify the low number of sitting days, he said.

"My citizens expect me to be in the house and to be voicing their opinions."

He said with other PC rule changes including shorter sittings on Thursdays, "we're dealing with the budget and we're not getting a lot of time on budget speeches. We have 21 MLAs in our caucus and a lot of us won't have time to speak on the budget." 

Arseneault says his stance isn't a reversal of what the Liberals advocated in government.

At that time, Gallant said the changes, which allow some committee sessions to be televised, were designed "to improve efficiency in the legislature and make it more transparent." 

Savoie blamed the reduced number of sitting days on Liberal attempts to hold onto power after the election by trying to govern with the support of other parties in the legislature.

The Liberal session featured eight sitting days, including Nov. 2 when the party lost a confidence vote.

"That took weeks of time away from what would otherwise be a normal sitting time," Savoie said.

He said the new session starting in the fall "will have more sitting days. We're looking at that right now." 

Even the two smaller parties have adopted different views on the sitting days. Green party leader David Coon said the Liberals and PCs are blatantly adopting positions that suit their interests now — even if "they've totally switched positions" since the Liberals were in office. 

Kris Austin says there must be adequate time for debate in the legislature, but also says he's learning how much work is done 'behind the scenes.' (CBC)

People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin, whose party is supporting the PCs on confidence votes, is prepared to cut the Tories some slack.

When the Liberals reduced sitting days, Austin said MLAs should be in the legislature, "where you actually debate hard policies and you actually get to debate and discuss these real issues that affect people's lives."

Austin called the Liberal move another sign of a broken system. 

Now, as the leader of a three-member caucus that has been consulted by the PCs on several major issues, he says he wants to see "adequate" time for debate but also acknowledged the work that happens "behind the scenes" in committees and meetings.  

"And really when you look at it, that is the engine of change — not what happens on the floor but what happens before we get to the floor," he said. "I've realized that over the last couple of months." 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jacques Poitras

Provincial Affairs reporter

Jacques Poitras has been CBC's provincial affairs reporter in New Brunswick since 2000. Raised in Moncton, he also produces the CBC political podcast Spin Reduxit.

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