Pandemic enables evasion of accountability
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/05/2020 (1109 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
It’s safe to say the COVID-19 pandemic has upended virtually every aspect of life inside and beyond Manitoba’s borders — from public-health concerns to the economy, employment and individual financial well-being to the simplest of interpersonal normalities, such as family gatherings and basic social interaction.
Slowly, as this province eases into Phase 2 of its pandemic recovery strategy, many of these things are being allowed to return to a “normal” that won’t quite resemble what that label used to describe.
Province's top doctor focused on limiting risk of importing virus
As Manitoba approaches a possible June 1 reopening of most businesses and services, health officials are keeping a close eye on COVID-19 entering the province.
The chief provincial health officer said he is considering asymptomatic COVID-19 testing for those who often leave Manitoba for work.
"We might look at groups that are required to leave the province frequently due to their occupation," Dr. Brent Roussin said Monday. "We might offer regular asymptomatic testing to them and asymptomatic surveillance or sentinel surveillance at health-care facilities (where) anyone presenting for any reason, we would offer them a test just to ensure we're getting a community sampling to ensure we're not missing any of the virus."
Last week, the province quietly introduced asymptomatic testing at hospitals and health-care facilities where COVID-19 testing is offered. But don't expect random testing to pop up everywhere, Roussin said Monday.
One aspect of day-to-day existence that seems, lamentably, to have eluded the push toward recovery is the manner in which Manitoba’s legislature functions. Having essentially had its business — other than a few sparsely populated and physically-distanced attempts at question period sittings — shut down since mid-March, the storied edifice on Broadway and the provincial government it houses show no signs of moving toward a more aggressive legislative agenda, even as Premier Brian Pallister touts a fairly formidable plan to reopen other parts of Manitoba’s economy.
Today’s question period is the last such scheduled encounter on the current calendar. Manitoba’s opposition parties have continually pressed the government for more sittings, but (so far) to no avail.
“The democratic functions of the Legislative Assembly are an essential part of our province,” NDP Leader Wab Kinew said in a letter to Dr. Brent Roussin, in which he urged the province’s chief medical health officer to include restoring regular legislative sitting days and question periods in Phase 2 of the province’s recovery plan, alongside green-lighting the reopening of gyms, restaurant dining rooms and tattoo parlours.
“Other provincial legislatures and Parliament are ensuring that regular sittings of their Houses will take place in June and during the summer.”
Mr. Kinew’s concern is well founded. Manitoba’s government — as well as those in other provinces and the federal government in Ottawa — has seemingly taken full advantage of the opportunity, presented by pandemic necessity, to essentially eliminate opposition from government function.
Instead, the business of government has been reduced mostly to briefings by the premier and the now-familiar duo of Dr. Roussin and Shared Health chief nursing officer Lanette Siragusa. Pandemic-related announcements are provided without opposition input or reaction; questions from media members participating remotely are limited in number and include little opportunity for followup.
In Ottawa, where “virtual” sittings of Parliament have been slightly more common than activity in the Manitoba Legislature, the business of government has still been limited mostly to daily on-camera updates from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Opposition leaders Andrew Scheer and Jagmeet Singh have essentially been rendered irrelevant by the pandemic-related reconfiguration.
In fact, Parliament Tuesday approved a Liberal proposal — in the guise of pandemic need — to extend the suspension of House of Commons activity until mid-September.
It’s time for this to stop. Or, rather, it’s time for these things to restart — governments, both provincial and federal, must end their opportunistic abandonment of parliamentary tradition and move immediately toward a more robust procedural agenda.
Accountablity and good government depend on it. As Mr. Kinew rather aptly put it, “It seems odd … that when we look at Phase 2, I might be able to get a tattoo on my way to the gym, after which I visited a patio, but I wouldn’t be able to hear the premier answer accountability questions in question qeriod.”
Pandemic or not, parliamentary tradition demands our governments be held to account. Elected officials, both here and in Ottawa, must stand in the house and answer the question. Period.
Updated on Tuesday, May 26, 2020 9:23 PM CDT: Updates to final version.