A recap of the Spring 2020 sitting of the Legislative Assembly of PEI
By Honourable Peter Bevan-Baker, Leader of the Official Opposition
Lately, I have been thinking about how this current assembly of MLAs has made some significant changes in how we do politics on Prince Edward Island. So much has changed during the last year and a half. There are a few moments from this sitting, in particular, that demonstrate just how much transformation has taken place.
The most obvious change is the presence of three strong parties in the House. No longer is our province a place of ping-pong politics.
One of the most significant, yet least obvious, changes since the last election is a change in committee structures. In the past, legislative committees were dominated by government members, who would shut down a committee’s work when it didn’t suit government.
With the support of all parties, this was changed last year. Each party is now equally represented on each committee. I will need to write an entire blog on just how transformational the new committee structure has been, but for the moment I will stick to a few highlights.
Adoption of the Rules Committee Report
Although much of the debate and media coverage centred around whether to eliminate evening sittings, the Report of the Standing Committee on Rules, Regulations, Private Bills and Privileges (or just plain Rules Committee) introduced significant changes that improve how our legislature functions. The most important is that the spring sitting has been moved forward to February so we can now debate the budget before the start of the fiscal year on April 1.
Opposed the power grab of the PC government of Premier King
During the debate around government’s proposed changes to the Emergency Measures Act that would allow them to vary or suspend ANY provincial legislation during an emergency, the Green Caucus introduced a motion to send it a standing committee for review.
The committee met a number of times, heard from all government departments, and received 30 public submissions. The committee found the attempted power grab was unjustified and unnecessary. This ultimately led to government withdrawing the legislation.
Improved accountability and transparency measures for record keeping
A motion put forward by the Official Opposition led to the formation of a mechanism to finally establish an oversight framework that will provide true accountability and transparency in record keeping.
Our province has been mired in a string of scandals that have remained veiled in secrecy because there was no mechanism to ensure government records are kept properly. This all happened as government came forward with its own wishy-washy proposal to investigate the e-gaming scandal.
I was personally very surprised at how the debate on the motion went. The Liberal caucus for the most part supported the motion, even though the scandal happened when Liberals were in power. The PCs, on the other hand, opposed the motion after years of loudly demanding to know who deleted the emails when they were in opposition.
In particular, I was both amused and concerned to watch the Minister of Transportation, Infrastructure, and Energy first state he agreed the issue should go to committee, but one of our standing committees. So, we tried to amend the motion to send it to a standing committee. Less than 30 minutes later, he was arguing the legislature shouldn’t be telling a standing committee what to investigate, even though we do this all the time. His verbal acrobatics were so impressive he may have a future with Cirque du Soleil.
In the end, the motion passed and, finally, we may get to the bottom of some issues that have blemished our political culture for far too long.
Appropriately and effectively holding government to account during crisis
Navigating through the impacts of COVID-19 was, and is, a challenge for governments everywhere. Endorsing and amplifying the messages coming out of the Public Health Office is critical. As the Official Opposition, we made this our priority as we responded to the world-wide pandemic.
Yet, it is also important government is held to account, even during times of emergency.
We had some serious concerns around decisions being made on how and when to open our economy and our borders. We have seen in other jurisdictions these decisions have resulted in significant outbreaks. I was especially alarmed by the Premier’s plan to open our border to cottagers from Ontario and Quebec, when those two provinces’ COVID cases were still rising. Since that time the situation has improved in those provinces, but it has worsened significantly in the United States.
We also consistently, and loudly, raised concerns around education, child care, health care, mental health and addictions, and the abysmal state of rural internet.
Promoting sound legislation
During the Spring 2020 sitting, we had three pieces of our own legislation pass in the House. For me, a personal highlight was bringing in amendments to the Employment Standards Act that would provide whistleblower protection for employees. A couple of years ago, I introduced essentially the same bill, and it was soundly defeated by the MacLauchlan majority.
Michele Beaton, Opposition Finance critic, passed “follow the dollar” amendments to the Audit Act. The amendments empower the Attorney General to seek records on how public funds have been spent by private or non-profit sector organizations when it is conducting an audit.
Another important Bill was the creation of the tort designed to protect intimate images. Introduced by Karla Bernard, our critic for the Status of Women, the new act will provide victims of “revenge porn” new mechanisms to protect their intimate images and seek damages.
As a matter of fact, we have passed important bills at every sitting since becoming the Official Opposition. It is easy to forget this is not how things have typically worked on PEI. During the days of the two old parties, there was little legislative ambition shown when either of them found themselves in opposition.
Return to old style politics
For me, one of the great disappointments of the sitting was the return to politics as usual by the PCs. Premier King came in promising a commitment to openness, transparency, and civility. Yet, in less than year, the behaviour of some members on the government side is indistinguishable from previous administrations.
For example, it is discouraging to consider how few of our questions during Question Period were actually answered. Instead, we were fed government talking points and spin. Their responses often lacked substance, proof, or even coherence.
We have also seen the return of heckling to the legislature. The Premier has gone from being the defender of civility to PEI’s heckler-in-chief.
Most disturbing was a late sitting admission by the Minister of Economic Growth, Tourism and Culture that our internet procurement process is tainted—so tainted that he felt it necessary to rip up a just signed contract and start from scratch. Yet, he was unable to answer substantive questions on how far back this issue went or what he intended to do about it in the future.
An effective Official Opposition is making a world of difference
As I look at the list of accomplishments above, I think our caucus is contributing substantially to my often-stated goal of promoting good governance and placing the well-being of all Islanders at the heart of every policy. I look forward to the opportunities that are presenting themselves as we emerge from this pandemic.
Our caucus is committed to working in partnership with other members of the House to build our post-COVID Island on behalf of the long-term well-being for all. We are looking forward to a society built on the Green principles of equity, community strength, ecological health, and self-sufficiency. This is our promise to you.