New Brunswick

Double-decker legislature part of new House rules for MLAs

New Brunswick will soon have a two-tier legislature — literally.

Vaccination bill among key items up for debate when MLAs return in physically distanced manner

On March 17, enough MLAs to make quorum attended the House sitting to pass essential legislation. But now the legislature is reorganizing to allow for the safe return of all MLAs later this month. (Twitter/David Coon)

New Brunswick will soon have a two-tier legislature — literally.

Nineteen MLAs will sit upstairs in the public galleries, looking down on 28 colleagues on the floor of the chamber, when the legislature gets back to work next week.

That's to allow all 47 current members to take part in debates while physically distancing from each other.

"Voting, when it occurs, will involve everyone," Green Party Leader David Coon told reporters Tuesday.

"The way the seating will be arranged, everyone will be able to get where they need to get without having to climb over anybody or come within two metres." 

Progressive Conservative government house leader Glen Savoie said he's comfortable that, combined with precautions they take individually, elected members will be protected.

Glen Savoie, PC Government House leader, says he's comfortable individual measures coupled with new House rules will ensure MLAs are protected. (Radio-Canada)

"I believe that the people who work at the legislative assembly, the clerks, everyone involved, have done their utmost to make sure that each one of us can have a safe work environment," he said.

What's on the agenda

Savoie confirmed that Education Minister Dominic Cardy's bill to eliminate non-medical exemptions to the mandatory vaccination policy for school children will be debated and come to a vote before the summer break.

Three other government bills introduced earlier, and two new pieces of legislation about COVID-19, should also come up for debate, along with departmental budget estimates that were postponed in March.

Other than two abbreviated sittings with a skeleton crew of 14 MLAs, the legislature hasn't sat since March 13, when the Higgs government's budget was passed in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

During those two shortened sitting days, there was no Question Period and no debate on legislation that was rushed to a vote in record time.

The leaders of the three opposition parties have been sitting on an all-party cabinet committee with Premier Blaine Higgs and key cabinet ministers.

But those meetings are confidential, and the Liberals and Greens began chafing recently to publicly debate some policies, especially those outside the realm of the immediate health emergency.

All parties agreed to resume quasi-normal business May 26 at 1 p.m. 

The exact details for frequency and length of the sittings this session have yet to be decided. (CBC)

The all-party cabinet committee will continue to operate even as the legislature resumes its work.

"The opposition parties have shown a willingness to work within this new normal that we have … so I think we can continue to work on that new way of doing things, while we also do the work that's already in the system, as it were," Savoie said.

The daily sittings will include normal business such as Question Period, committee hearings, debates on legislation, and time set aside once a week for opposition business.

Details to come

It remains to be worked out how many hours MLAs will sit each day, how many days per week and how many weeks the session will last before it ends for the summer.

Coon said 2-3 days per week for 3-4 weeks looks likely now, but those negotiations are still going on.

Coon said his party also hopes to force a debate on the government's ban on temporary foreign workers, which farms and seafood processing plants say have left them with labour shortages.

Coon says it's "possible" the government can be persuaded to change its mind and allow foreign workers by July, especially since Higgs acknowledged last week it's been harder to fill the vacancies with New Brunswickers.

The impetus for the ban was the pending arrival last month of 175 foreign workers, all at once on short notice, to work in fish plants, Coon said. 

"We now are in a different reality and I think we can think about this very differently," he said, suggesting there's now time to set up a system to house the workers so they can isolate for 14 days.

There are two vacancies in the legislature, for the ridings of Saint Croix and Shediac Bay-Dieppe.

By-elections for both had been scheduled for June 15, but under legislation passed in March, those votes were put off. They must be held no later than 30 days before the legislature starts a new session this fall.

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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