PEI

Bill to expand emergency cabinet powers gets rough ride in P.E.I. Legislature

A bill that would give Premier Dennis King’s cabinet the power to suspend or alter provincial laws during a state of emergency faced stiff opposition in the P.E.I. Legislature Thursday.

Government has already tabled amendments to legislation in response to concerns from opposition

A bill to provide P.E.I.'s cabinet with expanded powers during a state of emergency is being debated in the provincial legislature. (Kerry Campbell/CBC)

A bill that would give Premier Dennis King's cabinet the power to suspend or alter provincial laws during a state of emergency faced stiff opposition in the P.E.I. Legislature Thursday.

MLAs from both opposition parties have characterized the bill as a "government power grab."

"The minister is proposing a law that will effectively give cabinet unprecedented power to change laws without the approval of this house," said Liberal MLA Gord McNeilly.

Currently changes to legislation can only be made by the legislative assembly.

If the cabinet really has the laws it wants to change, why are those amendments not on the legislative agenda right now?— Liberal MLA Gord McNeilly

Under the proposed amendment to the Emergency Measures Act, cabinet would be able to alter or suspend any provincial legislation during a state of emergency and for 90 days afterward, provided it deemed the move to be in the public interest.

"We have no hidden agendas," said Justice Minister Bloyce Thompson. "We're just trying to keep the health and safety of Islanders, and we are doing it with [Chief Public Health Officer] Dr. Morrison in the lead."

Where are the amendments?

McNeilly said when the Liberals were briefed on the amendment, they were told cabinet wanted to make changes to the legislation governing the province's plastic bag ban "apparently due to the shortage of paper shopping bags."

Liberal MLA Gord McNeilly argued if the King government has changes it wants to make to legislation, those amendments should be put before the legislative assembly. Instead, government is looking to give cabinet the power to make those changes. (Government of P.E.I.)

"If the cabinet really has the laws it wants to change, why are those amendments not on the legislative agenda right now?" McNeilly asked Thompson.

"I believe the Emergency Measures Act is on the agenda," responded Thompson.

Another amendment put forward by government would give cabinet similar powers under the Public Health Act during a declared public health emergency.

'Carte blanche' powers

Both the Liberals and Greens voiced a reluctance to give up, even temporarily, the powers they have as MLAs to question and ultimately approve or reject changes to provincial laws.

"We have a good king that's our leader in this province today," said Liberal Robert Henderson. "But we could have a bad king that's in this legislature at some point … I just find it hard to support something that's that carte blanche."

The proposed changes received a rough ride even before the sitting began, with opposition MLAs expressing their concerns to government following private briefings, making those concerns public once government published a draft of the legislation.

So just minutes after Thompson initiated debate on the bill, he tabled government's own amendments to scale back the powers cabinet would be granted if the legislation passes.

The issue that we had with the original draft was there really is no comparable reach of powers in any other province— Green Leader Peter Bevan-Baker

That scaling back would prevent government from increasing taxes, and require any cabinet changes to laws "be used to prevent, respond to or alleviate the effects of the emergency and for no other purpose."

But some MLAs didn't appear mollified by government's attempts to place further caveats on the additional powers it would receive during an emergency if the bill passes.

"The issue that we had with the original draft was there really is no comparable reach of powers in any other province," said Opposition leader Peter Bevan-Baker.

He said if MLAs are to concede some of their authority to pass legislation to cabinet, "we need to do it on our terms."

Competing amendments

The Greens have introduced their own amendments to government's bill that would further restrict the ability of cabinet to change laws during an emergency.

While government's amendment would prevent cabinet from making changes to six specific laws, the Greens' list includes 23 laws cabinet couldn't change, among them the Environmental Protection Act, the Employment Standards Act and the P.E.I. Lands Protection Act.

Dennis King says his government needs to be able to act quickly to make changes during an emergency like the current pandemic. (Brian McInnis/CBC)

Speaking to reporters, King denied the legislation would give cabinet more power.

"What we're trying to do is learn from the current state of emergency that we're in," he said, adding the amendment would give the Emergency Measures Act more "teeth … to allow governments to do some things a little bit more quickly if they need to be."

King's government is a minority so there's no guarantee the legislation will pass.

While P.E.I.'s legislation was being debated Thursday, a similar bill was facing criticism in New Brunswick.

More from CBC P.E.I.

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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