Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

MLAs are legislature laggards

In house for much less time than in previous eras: stats

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The fierce battle over the government's decision to raise the PST might eat into MLA summer holidays, but a Free Press analysis shows that, under the NDP, provincial politicians are spending far less time in the legislature than they used to.

The drawn-out debate over Bill 20 -- which would allow the province to raise the retail sales tax without a voter referendum -- is likely to spill well into July. In recent years, the house has risen for the summer in mid-June. The last time MLAs sat into July was in 2002.

But even if MLAs are hard at work well past Canada Day this year, they'll still have a long ways to go to match the number of days they used to sit in the early 1990s.

In 1991, the legislature was in session for 104 days, a total that has not since been matched. In 2012, MLAs sat for 61 days. So far in 2013, they've sat 32 days, enacting laws and debating.

From 1991 through 2000, legislators were in the house an average of 82 days. Since 2005, they've sat an average of only 61 days -- if committee sitting days between legislative sessions are excluded.

'(A shorter sitting) limits the government's need to defend their initiatives. And, unfortunately, it limits the opportunity for the public to become aware of the government's agenda'

-- Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister

Opposition Leader Brian Pallister said the shorter sittings are the sign of a government that is long in the tooth and less accountable than it should be.

"It (a shorter sitting) limits the government's need to defend their initiatives. And, unfortunately, it limits the opportunity for the public to become aware of the government's agenda," the Progressive Conservative leader said.

Pallister said a comparison of provinces west of the Maritimes shows Manitoba at the bottom of the list, along with Alberta, when it comes to the number of hours legislators spend in the legislative chamber each year.

British Columbia's MLAs sat for only 48 days in 2011, but put in 28-hour weeks in the house. Manitoba MLAs sat for more days that year but most weeks sat for only 16 hours. Ontario's legislature sat for 69 days in 2011, but MLAs there spent 34.5 hours per week in the house, according to information supplied by Manitoba's Conservatives Wednesday.

NDP house leader Jennifer Howard said although the number of sitting days in Manitoba has declined in recent years, the responsibility for that rests largely with the opposition.

She said there is an adage in Manitoba politics that the government decides when a sitting begins and the opposition decides when it ends.

"We are following exactly the tradition that's been in Manitoba for many, many, many years. The difference, I think, is that for the first time in many years the opposition is choosing to use the house to oppose," Howard said.

In Manitoba, the rules say the house may meet any time from the first Monday in February to the Thursday of the second full week in June and from the first Monday after Labour Day to Thursday of the first full week of December. The spring sitting began this year on April 16.

As Howard was speaking to the Free Press Wednesday, the house was in the midst of an hour-long delay, sparked by a PC motion to challenge a ruling of the Speaker -- one of the many procedural tactics the Opposition Tories have used to stretch the legislative session, primarily in defiance of the government's decision to raise the PST to eight per cent.

The PCs were preparing Wednesday for a lengthy one-man filibuster.

Tory house leader Kelvin Goertzen has been granted unlimited speaking time in the legislature on Bill 20. And he intends to use it, in part by listing the thousands of items covered by the tax.

"I'm going to speak for as long as I'm able to," Goertzen said Wednesday.

 

-- with file from The Canadian Press

larry.kusch@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 6, 2013 B1

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