PEI·Analysis

PC MLA proposes party parity on committees after feeling 'stifled' in the past

The minority government of Dennis King is about to give up the majority status P.E.I.’s governing parties have traditionally held on legislative standing committees.

New balance of power could save Greens, Liberals from ‘frustrations’ PCs experienced in opposition

The minority PC government under Premier Dennis King has asked for changes to the rules that dictate how legislative committees are appointed, suggesting each party in the legislature be given an equal number of seats on each standing committee. (Kerry Campbell/CBC)

The minority government of Dennis King is about to give up the majority status P.E.I.'s governing parties have traditionally held on legislative standing committees.

The move will make it easier for the Green Party and the Liberals to do what the PCs in opposition often complained they couldn't do: call witnesses, set agendas and use standing committees to probe government.

A report from the standing committee on rules, regulations, private bills and privileges to be tabled this week is expected to lay out a framework giving each party in the legislature an equal number of seats on each standing committee.

That would mean the opposition Green and Liberal parties would control two-thirds of the seats on each committee.

Work 'stifled,' says former opposition MLA

"I was frustrated for a long time about government majorities on committees," PC House leader Sidney MacEwen told the rules committee when it met last Thursday to discuss the issue.

"When it stifled the work of the opposition, it frustrated me.… So I want to make it so government does not have a majority, especially because we're in a situation where government does not have a majority in the House anyway."

The model MacEwen put forward to the committee was for each party to have two members on each standing committee.

The committee went in camera before arriving at a final decision on the issue, and their report hasn't been tabled yet.

PC MLA Sidney MacEwen has proposed that all parties in the legislature be given two seats on each standing committee. (Alastair MacCormack/CBC News)

But MacEwen's position was supported by the only cabinet minister on the rules committee, Matthew MacKay, who said of all the committee meetings he attended in opposition there was only "one time that I really felt good after we left committee right? Because the government members had always controlled the votes and so forth."

That one meeting, MacKay said, was on the topic of improving school bus safety.

On the proposal to give all parties equal standing on committees, he said "we could do a lot of good things when everybody has a voice. I'm happy to see it."

Existing rules would also lead to minority for PCs

Under the current rules, MLAs are supposed to be appointed to committees in "generally the same proportion" as their parties occupy seats in the legislature "if such approach is practicable."

Following that existing rule would likely have led to committees where the PCs held three seats, and the Greens and Liberals each held two seats.

Changing the rules would tilt committees further in favour of the opposition parties. It could also prevent a future majority government from regaining control of standing committees, unless that government was prepared to go back and change the rules again.

Have you ever seen, in this legislature in its history, where all three parties would have equal representation at the standing committee level?— Premier Dennis King

During the election campaign, the PCs promised to change the rules of the legislature to allow opposition parties to hold a majority of seats on committees.

The last 12 years of Liberal rule were filled with a fairly constant refrain of complaints from the PCs about government using its majority on committees to stymie opposition efforts to delve into controversial topics like e-gaming and the provincial nominee program.

"Have you ever seen, in this legislature in its history, where all three parties would have equal representation at the standing committee level?" Dennis King asked, rhetorically, in question period last week, responding to a question from the Green Party. "Have you ever seen in the history of this legislature where the governing party gave up full control of these committees? No, you have not."

But equal representation on standing committees could also lead to moments of indecision, if last week's rules committee meeting is anything to go by.

First test for 2-2-2

In another first for the current legislative assembly, the rules committee itself is made up of two PC members, two Greens and two Liberals.

The first order of business for the committee was to elect a chair. One candidate from each party was nominated.

'Have you ever seen in the history of this legislature where the governing party gave up full control of these committees?' asked Premier Dennis King recently during question period. 'No, you have not.' (Legislative Assembly of P.E.I.)

The first round of voting ended in a three-way tie, each candidate having two votes.

That led to a second round of voting with the same three candidates, but with one of the three, Liberal Sonny Gallant, throwing his support behind the Green candidate Hannah Bell, who emerged the eventual winner.

"And the two-two-two structure becomes a challenge," Bell joked after the first round of voting.

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About the Author

Kerry Campbell

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Kerry Campbell is the provincial affairs reporter for CBC P.E.I., covering politics and the provincial legislature. kerry.campbell@cbc.ca

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