Saskatchewan

'We've got our priorities wrong' with golfers on but legislators off in Sask., says prof

The spring Saskatchewan legislative sitting was suspended indefinitely on March 18. A Saskatchewan political scientist says the government needs to call MLAs back to work.

Spring sitting suspended indefinitely with no signs of return

Premier Scott Moe and Opposition NDP Leader Ryan Meili last debated in the assembly in March. Meili would like the sitting to resume in some sort. (Michael Bell/The Canadian Press)

The spring Saskatchewan legislative sitting was suspended indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic on March 18. Now, a Saskatchewan political scientist says the government needs to call MLAs back to work.

"If golf courses are open and the ledge isn't, we've got our priorities wrong," said Jim Farney, department head of politics and international studies at the University of Regina.

Recalling the legislature was not included in the government's reopen plan, which was unveiled last week.

"I get very uncomfortable with the government spending over $4 billion by special warrant and knowing that we're headed into an election at the start of what some analysts are calling a Great Depression without parliamentary debate," Farney said.

"That should not happen in our system of government."

The premier's message that he has been focused on COVID-19 and not on reopening the legislature is "fair," said Farney.

But he said the longer Saskatchewan manages a relatively low number of new cases, "the harder it is to justify not having a discussion about reopening the legislative session."

Parliament resumes via video

Saskatchewan is in the minority when it comes to having no debate or committee meetings since the pandemic was declared in March.

Other provinces like Alberta and Manitoba have held in-person debates. B.C. and Quebec have held committees via video conference.

On Tuesday, the House of Commons held a virtual debate with 280 MPs taking part. It included a five-minute question and answer from Opposition leader Andrew Scheer and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

"It worked," Farney said. "One thing that I noticed — I've never loved the heckling that you do in parliaments, and there wasn't any of it, because there couldn't be."

MPs participate in a dry-run of a virtual sitting of the House of Commons. (Michelle Rempel Garner/Twitter)

Farney said nothing is preventing Saskatchewan from doing something similar.

"I find it really hard to believe that we couldn't make a video conference work with 15 or 20 MLAs to provide some public accountability."

If the government prefers to be physically inside the assembly, he said, it only needs a quorum of 15 of the 59 current MLAs.

No discussion of recalling MLAs: Moe

When asked about recalling the legislature on Monday, Premier Moe said the government has been focused on its COVID-19 response. 

"We have not discussed whether or not, or when, we would resume legislative services. I doubt whether we would utilize platforms such as Zoom."

Moe said video conferencing may not have the security needed to conduct legislative business.

The premier said he would not rule out resuming business in the future.

But on Wednesday, he ruled out recalling the legislature to enact back-to-work legislation to end the labour dispute between refinery workers and the Federated Co-op.

NDP questions $4.6B in spending

The NDP asked the government to suspend the legislature in March, as COVID-19 was hitting Canada. The legislature was suspended after a mutual agreement by both parties.

With the legislature on hiatus, the government has been spending money through special warrants, which are used to fund government programming when the legislature is not sitting.

That spending now adds up to $4.6 billion, the Opposition says.

"This is a massive amount of money, but the government's special warrant provides no clarity at all when it comes to how this money is to be spent," NDP finance critic Trent Wotherspoon said Monday. 

NDP Leader Ryan Meili suggested the government could operate for a time using special warrants when he asked for the sitting to be suspended, citing safety and social distancing advice.

But he said on Wednesday the public has questions about the reopen plan, community safety and the safety of workers, questions that should be addressed in the legislature.

"We should not have a government that is doing things in secret, doing things behind closed doors. This needs to happen openly and transparently, and that's exactly why we need to get to some form of legislative oversight very soon."

Meili said the reopen plan should have included detail on what phase the legislature would resume.

"It blows my mind that Mr. Moe thinks it's time to open hair salons but he can't have any opportunity to open up some form of legislative accountability," Meili said.

Committees, debate needed: Farney

Farney said during the spring sitting, committees go through the accounting of the previous year in estimates. That's missing right now, he said.

"It's also easy to forget that committees do lots of kind of detailed work on legislation and ministerial oversight. So it's not just the question period that stops."

Farney said any legislative sitting would look and likely sound different, given the circumstances.

"We need accountability and debate, but we also don't need people scoring cheap political points off of each other," he said.

"I think coming back would require a lot of trust and a lot of maturity from both sides of the aisle."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Adam Hunter

Journalist

Adam Hunter is the provincial affairs reporter at CBC Saskatchewan, based in Regina. He has been with CBC for more than 14 years. Follow him on Twitter @AHiddyCBC. Contact him: adam.hunter@cbc.ca

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