'Essential' for P.E.I. Legislature to sit, says Opposition
Greens calling for changes in Employment Standards Act, while premier considers other venues for MLAs to meet
P.E.I.'s Official Opposition is taking its hardest line yet calling for the provincial legislature to sit, saying it's "essential" to allow government to pass necessary changes in legislation and provide "real-time oversight" of more than $100 million in COVID-19 relief measures announced so far by the government of Dennis King.
In a statement sent to media Friday, Green Party Leader Peter Bevan-Baker said "important amendments" are required to legislation "to protect the well-being and livelihoods of Islanders."
Chief among these, he said, is an amendment to the Employment Standards Act to protect workers required to take leave to self-isolate, as required under order from the province's Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Heather Morrison.
"Existing sick leave policies, either provincial, private, or unionized, fall short of the mandated 14 days of isolation," Bevan-Baker said. "This means in order to meet the public health order, workers have to take leave without pay if it is available, or run the risk of losing their jobs."
Other provinces have made similar changes since the pandemic struck, Bevan-Baker said, but P.E.I. has not been able to because those changes would require the house to sit.
Spring sitting suspended
A week ago the Greens issued a release asking government to either recall the legislature or provide an opportunity for legislative committees to provide oversight of government spending and programs in response to the pandemic.
The traditional spring sitting of the P.E.I. Legislature had been set to begin April 7, but was suspended by Speaker Colin LaVie.
In an interview Friday morning on CBC Radio, King said he'd asked the other two party leaders in the house to join him on a conference call next week "to look at what the legislature rollout could look like."
He said the house "could sit hopefully sometime soon," but that he "would have a really difficult time" accommodating a reduced sitting with fewer MLAs.
Sitting with fewer MLAs 'not ideal,' says premier
The clerk of the legislature told CBC in late March the house was prepared to host an emergency sitting with a quorum of 10 MLAs if called on to do so, and could do that while accommodating requirements for physical distancing.
"That's not ideal for me," said King.
A better option, King said, would be to find a different, larger venue that could accommodate all MLAs.
"I think the legislature should present some options to Dr. Morrison," he said.
At King's request, P.E.I.'s auditor general is reviewing government's COVID-19 spending. Her report is due to be presented to MLAs by August 2021.
Interim Liberal leader Sonny Gallant said his caucus is "ready and willing to sit if there's a full agenda, a constructive agenda…. If the premier calls a sitting of the legislature through the Speaker, we'll be there."
Gallant said his caucus is okay with the idea of an emergency sitting with a quorum of MLAs, but if government is prepared to go through regular business such as the budget, all 27 MLAs should be present.
"There's 27 of us, 27 districts representing a spectrum of all Islanders. If we can at all possible, it's best if we're all there."
Change rules to allow virtual sittings: Greens
The Greens are calling for changes to the rules of the legislature to allow MLAs to conduct virtual meetings.
"Government cannot simply exist and attempt to carry out the business of caring for Islanders by special warrants alone," Bevan-Baker said, referring to the mechanism cabinet uses to authorize government spending which hasn't been put before the legislative assembly.
"We must provide options for virtual meetings so the essential legislative business can continue."
Every other provincial legislature in the country has met at some point in March or April. The last sitting of the P.E.I. Legislature ended Nov. 28.