Opposition says it's still holding P.E.I. government to account — you just can't see it
Opposition says it's doing its job 'within a very strange environment'
With the P.E.I. Legislature suspended and no plan currently on the table for MLAs to return to the House, Opposition leader Peter Bevan-Baker says his party is still holding the government of Dennis King to account — just not in a way Islanders can see.
"It feels like I am operating, you know albeit within a very strange environment, with the same goals and the same sets of responsibilities that I was before," said Bevan-Baker.
The spring sitting of the legislature had been set to open Tuesday but has been suspended indefinitely in response to the pandemic.
Both Green Leader Bevan-Baker and Liberal Leader Sonny Gallant have been recruited by government to sit at its COVID-19 situation response table. Each leader has also been given a position with one of three new cabinet committee working groups struck to deal with the crisis.
"In some respects you know our role hasn't changed," said Bevan-Baker. "We don't have question period. We don't have standing committees. So those things are gone, but in the environment that we have we still have opportunities to hold government to account in terms of the programs that they are involved with and also hopefully to improve those programs."
Bevan-Baker said he takes part in two daily conference calls with members of cabinet, where he gets to critique how the province is responding to issues like evictions and rent subsidies through the pandemic.
"I'd much rather be part of the conversation than to simply sort of critique things after the fact," he said.
All parties 'have a role to play,' say Liberals
CBC asked for an interview with the leader of the third party Sonny Gallant, but instead received a statement.
"In the midst of this national emergency, government and opposition parties all have a role to play," the statement read.
"We believe opposition politicians have a responsibility to Islanders first, but also have a responsibility to support government when it's warranted.… As we work through the difficulties we are facing, it's important for government to hear the concerns of Islanders. That's where we as an opposition party can help."
Bevan-Baker said he hasn't been sworn to secrecy — as opposition leaders in New Brunswick taking part in cabinet committees have been — but he's treating some of the discussions he takes part in as if they were cabinet confidences he's not allowed to share with the public.
While things are under wraps for now, Bevan-Baker said he's keeping a paper trail to show where his positions have differed from government, because once the crisis is over he expects a public accounting of how all MLAs responded.
"Whether you're government, whether you're Official Opposition or whether you're, you know, individual Islanders, we all carry responsibilities through this," he said.
"And I think how we conduct ourselves during this is going to be looked at very closely when all of this is over."
Like a war-time coalition
UPEI political science Prof. Don Desserud said just like members of the war-time coalition government in Canada during the First World War, P.E.I.'s opposition parties are having to walk a fine line between supporting government and holding it accountable.
"So frankly, I think this is the best they can do; try to voice their concerns within those meetings, but be prudent about what they say outside."
Desserud said recalling the legislature for a short sitting, if it can be done safely, would let "the public know that the legislative system is still functioning," and give "the premier, his ministers, the party leaders, and backbench MLAs an opportunity to let the public know what their stance on this crisis is, and how they think it should be handled."
The clerk of the legislature Joseph Jeffrey has said the legislature is prepared to host an emergency sitting with a quorum of 10 MLAs, and can accommodate physical distancing for that number.
Government 'solely focused' on pandemic
But in a statement attributed to Premier Dennis King, the premier's office told CBC "our government is solely focused on our health, economic and social response to COVID-19," and that all three party leaders have agreed "there is no reason to open the legislature at this time."
While he said in itself it wouldn't warrant recalling the legislature, Bevan-Baker said he would like for the assembly to appoint new officers — especially the province's first child and youth advocate.
Bevan-Baker also expressed a concern over a lack of oversight of government spending in response to the pandemic.
Without a budget coming before the legislature, extra spending measures are approved by cabinet through special warrants.
"As far as I can see there is no oversight or accountability for that outside of cabinet," Bevan-Baker said.
He said his caucus has discussed concerns around special warrants before, but have not come up with a solution.
One possibility, he said, could be to mirror what Ottawa has done under similar circumstances, which is to ask the federal auditor general to conduct an immediate audit of the spending.
COVID-19: What you need to know
What are the symptoms of COVID-19?
Common symptoms include:
But more serious symptoms can develop, including difficulty breathing and pneumonia, which can lead to death.
Health Canada has built a self-assessment tool.
What should I do if I feel sick?
Isolate yourself and call 811. Do not visit an emergency room or urgent care centre to get tested. A health professional at 811 will give you advice and instructions.
How can I protect myself?
Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly.
Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.
Clean regularly touched surfaces regularly.
Practise physical distancing.
More detailed information on the outbreak is available on the federal government's website.