B.C.’s two opposition parties united Tuesday to start a low-percentage, high-risk project: Make people care about the NDP government’s disdainful attitude and bumbling management of legislative debate.
It’s a big challenge, because it’s mostly about old rituals and arcane procedural points that no one 50 metres away from the building care about. The risk is that they’ll come off as whiners who are wasting time complaining about how hard it is to do their jobs.
But the two opposition house leaders — Todd Stone (Liberal) and Adam Olsen (Green) — held an unusual joint news conference to warn about the dangers of the NDP’s inept and arbitrary management of legislative time.
The issue simmered during the legislative sitting last fall. It burst into full view again last week, when the government abruptly adjourned the house about four hours ahead of schedule because it ran out of things to do. That peculiar situation developed due to a combination of mismanagement and disrespect for established processes.
MLAs resumed sitting Tuesday and it looked like the same issue was developing. There were only two innocuous bills up for debate, but the NDP wasted hours running out the clock for lack of anything else to do.
Stone urged the NDP to “get its act together on legislative priorities.”
Although the government said earlier about 24 bills were going to be introduced during the spring sitting, it has been a very thin agenda so far.
Stone also warned that the parliamentary calendar this year allows for much less time on another major element of debate — scrutinizing spending plans ministry by ministry.
It’s because the budget is being introduced Feb. 28, later than usual, which, he said, cuts about 100 hours of time available to debate the spending estimates.
The opposition parties want the schedule changed to make up for that cut and allow as much scrutiny of the spending plans as possible.
On another problem that was obvious last week, Stone encouraged the NDP to “make sure there’s professionalism in terms of ministers showing up on time, showing up with their officials, with briefing materials, not calling multiple recesses, as we witnessed last week, which is a bad look for this entire building and this institution. “There’s no excuse for it, no reason for it.”
That was a reference to Attorney General Niki Sharma’s attempt to get a grab bag assortment of minor changes passed last week. It included multiple time-outs and stalls while her staff scrambled to get the right people on hand to answer questions.
Olsen said: “Democracy is more than just a single voting event every four years. … Democracy happens in this chamber every single day. There’s a responsibility for the governing party to be ensuring that the debate that happens here is democratic.”
Just days after David Eby was sworn in as premier last year, the NDP cut off debate on some major bills in order to get them passed. It was partly because the government had subtracted a week from the fall sitting to give time to plan his swearing in ceremony.
The pair suggested that all three house leaders need to sit down and map out “what needs to change to actually get this place back on track so that we don’t find ourselves without anything to do.”
Stone speculated the empty legislative agenda arises from NDP house leader Ravi Kahlon’s inexperience, or from micro-management by Eby.
“The government’s mismanagement of the house on all fronts has been at a level that none of us have seen for a good number of years.”
Eby told reporters later that his government’s legislation is really important and there is more to come. If opposition MLAs don’t want to ask questions about it that’s their prerogative. “We have had an ambitious legislative agenda and that is not going to change.”
Nonetheless, on Day 96 of what Eby dubbed his “100 days of action” debut, the legislature spent hours on a two-sentence bill that changes one seat on the board of a foundation. Everyone agrees with the move. The housekeeping measure would take 10 minutes normally.
But the government MLAs spent the entire afternoon droning on about it, because there’s nothing else ready to talk about.
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