P.E.I. Speaker settles rare tie vote by keeping Opposition bill alive

The PC government of Dennis King, handed a slim majority in a byelection last fall, looked to flex some of that majority muscle in a vote in the P.E.I. Legislature Thursday, but things didn’t go the government’s way.

Slim PC majority not enough to kill legislation aiming to restore powers to Health PEI board

Speaker Colin LaVie broke a tie vote in the P.E.I. Legislature Thursday by voting to keep a bill from the Official Opposition on the order paper. (P.E.I. Legislative Assembly)

The Progressive Conservative government of Dennis King, holding a slim majority since a byelection last fall, looked to flex some of that majority muscle in a vote in the P.E.I. Legislature Thursday, but things didn't go the government's way.

Speaker Colin LaVie settled a rare tie vote in the legislature by voting to keep a private member's bill from the Green Party alive, giving the Opposition the chance to bring it back before the House for further debate.

The bill, An Act to Amend the Health Services Act, would restore some powers to the board of the provincial health agency that were stripped away by the previous Liberal government in 2018 and given to the minister of health.

The changes in 2018 gave the health minister the authority to set out the organizational structure of Health PEI, put the minister in charge of setting strategic direction for the agency, and provided the minister with the authority to "do any thing that the minister considers advisable" in pursuit of that direction.

All of those changes would be repealed by the Green bill, sponsored by Opposition health critic Trish Altass.

When the bill came to a vote following debate in committee of the whole, the PCs seemed to have carried the day. Thirteen PCs on the floor voted against the bill, which was supported by all eight Greens and four Liberals on the committee — resulting in a 13-12 vote.

Then the numbers changed

But when the committee of the whole dissolved and Speaker Colin LaVie returned to the chamber to ask if the committee's report should be adopted — in this case, a vote in favour killing the bill — the numbers changed.

Hal Perry, a Liberal, hadn't voted on the previous motion because he was acting as chair of the committee. His vote now made it 13-13.

While the PCs hold 14 of the 27 seats in the P.E.I. legislature — a bare majority — one of those seats belongs to the speaker.

"Honourable members, tie vote," LaVie said. "I have a couple questions I'd like to ask. So I'm going to take a short recess."

Twenty-six minutes later, LaVie returned to make a prediction that proved correct — that he would "finally make Compass," CBC Prince Edward Island's supper hour TV news program.

"Honourable members, I've been here for 10 years, I don't think this ever came about," he said about the vote, once the laughs died down.

Opposition health critic Trish Altass says she was pleased with the Speaker's decision, and hopes to find support among the PCs for her private member's bill. (Province of P.E.I.)

Afterwards, legislative staff clarified that what the Speaker was referring to was the legislative assembly rejecting a report from the committee of the whole — which the assembly was about to do, with the help of his vote. 

"We all learn something in this job. But honourable members, in order to preserve debate and allow further discussion on this bill … I am voting against the report from the committee, so the bill remains on the order paper."

LaVie was called on to break a tie once before, but without the fate of a piece of legislation hanging in the balance. 

In June 2020, when the PCs still ruled with a minority, he voted with the government to uphold the same principle — to allow debate to continue on a motion before the House.

Speaker did the right thing, says prof

"The speaker did what speakers are supposed to do: keep the debate going," UPEI political science professor Don Desserud said after the development. "This was not a confidence motion, so he had no obligation to support the government."

Altass said she was pleased with the speaker's decision, and said she'd discuss with her caucus whether to bring the bill back for further debate.

She said she would also contact PC MLAs to find out why they wouldn't support a bill that she said would take politics out of health care administration.

"We only have to look at how well we have been navigating the COVID-19 pandemic to see how important and beneficial it is for P.E.I. when we trust the experts to make the right decisions about our health," Altass said via email.

"This bill returns the decision-making authority to the experts while keeping government accountable for the implementation of the guidance provided by the experts."

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Kerry Campbell

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Kerry Campbell is the provincial affairs reporter for CBC P.E.I., covering politics and the provincial legislature.