July 9, 2020

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Free rein over the public purse

Role of opposition parties, journalists, advocates diminished as federal, provincial legislatures reduce sittings

Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press files</p><p>As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks at a streaming House of Commons COVID-19 committee meeting Wednesday, his image is projected onto large screens.</p>

Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press files

As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks at a streaming House of Commons COVID-19 committee meeting Wednesday, his image is projected onto large screens.

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OTTAWA — From his Toronto home, Liberal MP Arif Virani spoke admiringly about his wife and other health-care workers on Wednesday, his face beamed into the House of Commons on two newly installed massive screens.

Few of the roughly 50 MPs who were sitting in the Commons listened to Virani. Some jovial banter broke out in the chamber, with Liberal and Conservative MPs joking about getting along with their spouses. They spoke across the aisle, louder than Virani’s voice, which boomed through large speakers.

In a regular sitting, only one person in the chamber has the right to speak at one time. MPs usually heckle and hold side conversations, but whoever has the floor must be heard over everyone else.

Yet, these are not normal times, in Parliament and in legislatures across the country.

The Manitoba legislature has held just five sittings since declaring a state of emergency on March 20 — and it’s among the more open assemblies in Canada.

That’s upended the role of opposition parties, journalists and advocacy groups in shaping the unprecedented spending and public health restrictions over the past two months.

"During emergency circumstances, especially of a life-threatening nature, there is even more reason why we should see Parliament and legislatures as crucial mechanisms, as forums for accountability," said Paul Thomas, a University of Manitoba professor emeritus.

Conservative House Leader Candice Bergen flew to Ottawa for some of the few sitting days in the chamber. The federal cabinet and courts are operating under COVID-19, but the House of Commons is barely functioning.

"This is the actual foundation of our democracy: the legislative, the executive and the judiciary. But the legislative (branch) has been completely neutered."

 


 

The primary role of a legislature is to scrutinize the use of taxpayer money. That is why elected MPs can table bills involving spending, but appointed senators can’t.

Even in a majority government, opposition MLAs have tools to change and stall budget bills, as seen recently at the Manitoba legislature.

Yet, since that budget passed March 19, MLAs have had just five sittings to scrutinize the province’s cuts and COVID-19 support programs.

Last year, the legislature ramped down operations ahead of the fall election. Over the past year, MLAs have only sat 37 days; recent years have had double that amount, NDP Leader Wab Kinew points out.

"Manitobans, at the end of the day, may agree with these decisions or disagree, but at the very least they should pass through the filter of our democracy, so that Manitobans know there has been due process," Kinew said Friday.

MLAs normally spend 100 hours scrutinizing departments’ projected spending for the year, grilling ministers and the premier in the spring estimates process.

Now, there’s no guarantee the legislature will sit before October, or estimates will be studied this fall. Those will likely reveal the effect of university and Manitoba Hydro cuts, and the reasons for outsourcing online counselling.

"Control of the public purse is the essential function of the legislature," said Thomas. "It’s not done well anywhere these days, but to have it completely disappear… that could be a huge sacrifice."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has barely left his home, instead giving election campaign-style speeches almost every day.

"That’s taken a lot of the wind out of the opposition’s sails; not having the regular forum of question period," said Christopher Adams, a U of M political scientist.

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister similarly announces measures to respond to COVID-19 at regular news conferences, which he said shows he’s being held accountable.

Thomas strongly disagrees.

"That’s not a substitute for the legislature; that’s not Manitoba’s 57 elected representatives of constituencies across the province being able to question the premier and other ministers about how COVID and the decisions are affecting people across the province."

 


 

On Parliament Hill, the Commons has officially sat six times since mid-March, all for emergency spending votes.

MPs have spent much more time attending a committee solely dedicated to the COVID-19 issue, mostly online.

The committee sits for roughly nine hours per week, compared to the 40 hours of Commons sittings during the week before the World Health Organization declared the pandemic.

Initially, the committee met through the Zoom teleconferencing app, and a handful of times in the chamber with a few dozen MPs, largely from Ontario and Quebec.

The new hybrid sittings launched on Wednesday combine both.

This week, the NDP gave the minority Liberals the votes they needed to suspend real parliamentary sittings until Sept. 21, in exchange for Trudeau pressing the provinces to offer 10 days of guaranteed sick leave.

The hybrid committee will continue to meet for another month, and then once a month during summer.

Under the deal, MPs will have just four hours to debate estimates for the various COVID-19 programs, estimated to be worth $150 billion. That’s 43 per cent of the government’s total spending in the last fiscal year.

Bergen said Trudeau has far too much power for a minority government.

"At a time where the country needs Parliament more than ever, Trudeau has shut it down. I’m just beside myself," Bergen said Friday.

The MP for Portage-Lisgar is particularly upset the House didn’t get to vote on whether to give the auditor general the money and mandate to review COVID-19 spending, to ensure it isn’t misused.

Until Wednesday, MPs could not raise topics unrelated to the pandemic during the committee’s sittings. Now, there’s limited time to debate issues such as the Liberals’ unilateral ban of scores of firearms.

Without a regular sitting, MPs cannot compel the RCMP to testify about their handling of the mass shooting in Nova Scotia last month.

 


 

Across Canada, provincial assemblies are following a patchwork of policies.

Some legislatures have extended seasonal breaks for months. Others, such as British Columbia and Quebec, have held videoconference meetings about COVID-19 measures.

New Brunswick, which is governed by a slim minority, established a multi-partisan committee similar to a wartime cabinet, with opposition MLAs helping to craft the government’s response.

Its chamber resumed regular sittings Tuesday, with MLAs at a distance both on the floor and the second-level banisters normally reserved for the public. (The plan was suspended Thursday when a new outbreak hit the province.)

Saskatchewan has spent billions via cabinet orders instead of legislative sittings. Alberta passed a controversial law that gives ministers overwhelming authority to regulate and issue fines.

An analysis of these various systems by the non-partisan Samara Centre for Democracy argues virtual sittings that allow opposition scrutiny would be best for Canadians, instead of backroom deals by MLAs and MPs who live in urban areas, or are closest with their party’s leader.

"Given that the COVID-19 pandemic may last for another year or more, provinces and territories will need to find ways of considering non-pandemic business," reads the Tuesday report.

Kinew said businesses across Manitoba are returning to work, so the legislature should as well.

"We get one kick at the can per week, and there have been so many things happening," he said. "It does a disservice to our democracy."

 

dylan.robertson@freepress.mb.ca

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Updated on Friday, May 29, 2020 at 10:58 PM CDT: Fixes formatting

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