P.E.I. Legislature prepared to sit with 10 MLAs
Party leaders to discuss possibility Wednesday of House reconvening
Staff with the P.E.I. Legislative Assembly have made preparations to accommodate 10 MLAs — the bare minimum required to pass laws — in an emergency session of the legislature, should one be called.
But it's not clear whether or when the Dennis King government, whose responsibility it would be to ask the Speaker to convene the legislature, will actually do that. Party leaders are scheduled to discuss the possibility during a conference call Wednesday.
Speaker Colin LaVie announced earlier this month the regular spring sitting — which had been set to begin April 7 — was being suspended in light of concerns over COVID-19.
Clerk of the legislature Joseph Jeffrey said since then, staff have considered what would be required to allow a quorum of 10 MLAs to sit while minimizing the risk of spreading coronavirus.
"We can respect social distancing requirements, just barely … and that's how we would proceed," Jeffrey said.
According to the rules of the legislative assembly, a minimum of 10 members is required, including the Speaker, in order for the legislature to exercise its powers.
Jeffrey said other jurisdictions, including the federal parliament in Ottawa, have met with quorum in order to move ahead with government business, and P.E.I. can do the same.
But the decision on how to proceed rests first with government, if it chooses to ask for the legislature to be convened, and then with MLAs themselves to decide how to respond.
"It's really up to them at the end of the day," Jeffrey said.
Legislative changes may be required
The P.E.I. Legislature last sat in November. Every other provincial legislature in the country sat at some point in the month of March. Some have since suspended operations, while others operate with a reduced number of members to accommodate physical distancing.
There was no official response from the premier's office when asked about the possibility of convening the legislature. But a staff person said government is compiling a list of legislative amendments the House could be asked to pass as part of government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are also concerns around pending vacancies among some key oversight positions within the legislative assembly.
Auditor general's retirement 'delayed'
Tuesday was supposed to be the last day before retirement for Auditor General Jane MacAdam. However she told CBC "given COVID-19 and the public health state of emergency in P.E.I., my retirement is delayed."
Set to depart in June is Privacy Commissioner Karen Rose.
The legislative assembly has concluded competitive processes to fill both positions, as well as a third process to hire the province's first independent child and youth advocate.
However all three positions can only be filled following a vote by the legislative assembly.
"I would like to see the new independent officers installed," said Official Opposition leader Peter Bevan-Baker.
"My caucus and I are available to debate any emergency legislation that may need to come forward and address any time-sensitive routine business such as the approval of independent officers."
However Bevan-Baker said the Greens "have no interest in pursuing a regular sitting until after the immediate public health emergency has receded."
Quorum would require more collaboration
Operating at quorum would involve some agreement among the parties over seat allocation — a potentially prickly issue, particularly in the current minority situation.
It would also require parties themselves to decide which MLAs to send.
An MLA who insisted on being part of proceedings could not be held back without restricting their parliamentary privileges.
New budget will be required, eventually
The province's new fiscal year begins April 1. Without a new budget passed in the House, government is only authorized to allocate funds based on what was available in the previous year's budget. Expenditures beyond that require cabinet approval.
It's normal for a new fiscal year to start on P.E.I. without a new government budget having been approved.
In 2019, government's operating budget didn't pass until July 12, delayed by the April 23 provincial election, which brought the minority PCs under King to power.
Delaying approval of the budget can create logistical difficulties for some government operations — such as hiring teachers and other staff for the coming school year.
Without government asking for the legislature to be convened at some point, the next regularly scheduled sitting of the legislature won't begin until Nov. 12.
While the Speaker is usually required to provide MLAs with 60 days notice before the start of a sitting, that requirement can be waived "in urgent or extraordinary circumstances," according to the rules, at the Speaker's discretion.
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.