Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Ability to hold government to account impeded by new bill, says North Coast MLA

"This move to limit debate is fundamentally undemocratic," --North Coast MLA Gary Coons

A procedural move by the Liberal government has the NDP angry with what they call an attempt to squash open and accountable government. What has the opposition so angry, is the use of closure that the Liberals invoked to pass Bill 37, a bill that will move the location where budgetary estimate debates take place.

Debate will be exorcised from the Legislature when its tied up with other legislative matters and farmed out to the Douglas Fir room, a move that the opposition suggests limits the transparency of government.

The Liberals on their part deny that any underhanded thoughts are behind the move, just legislative expediency, as they seek to move along Chamber legislation.

Of course, if the Liberals would actually hold a full year of sessions in the Legislature and not the rather MLA friendly patchwork of occasional sessions, interspersed with rather lengthy breaks from the rigours of Victoria, perhaps then they would have more time to conduct the province's business.

The Daily News featured details on the controversy in Tuesday's paper.

MLA feels muzzled as debate is cut short in Victoria
By Leanne Ritchie
The Daily News
Tuesday, March 18, 2008
Pages one and five

North Coast MLA Gary Coons is deeply angered by controversial legislation the provincial Liberal government "hammered through" the legislature two weeks ago.

"This move to limit debate is fundamentally undemocratic," said Coons. "And it concerns me because it means the government is going to be less accountable to people on the North Coast."
He said the Liberals invoked closure to force through legislation (Bill 37) that puts severe limits on public scrutiny and debate in the legislature.

"Gordon Campbell used a legislative sledgehammer to squash open, accountable government," said Mike Farnworth, New Democrat House Leader.

"By invoking closure, this arrogant government showed they couldn't even tolerate debate on their motion to severely limit debate."

The new rules around budgetary estimates mean it is much less likely that Coons will be able to bring up the issues that are important to people in his constituency, he said.

"Anything that limits the transparency of government is something that the people of this province need to be concerned about," he said.

"Since they are spending our money, I think it is important for us to have rigorous process around the budget.

"This legislation weakens the power of the public to ask questions."

According to Mike de Jong, who introduced the motion, the legislation would split up where budgetary estimate debates take place, moving it from the legislature into the room known as the Douglas Fir Room, unless the legislature was available.

"I do want to emphasize this fact to the House. This is not in any way, shape or form an attempt to hide proceedings.

"They are as open, as accessible and as available to the public from the Douglas Fir Room as they are from this chamber by virtue of the broadcast that takes place," he said when legislation was introduced.

"What it does do and what it is intended to do is send a clear signal that within this chamber legislation will be given the priority," de Jong said.

Other Liberals argued that virtually every other jurisdiction in Canada has assigned responsibility for estimates debates to committees outside the main chamber. Furthermore, a number of jurisdictions limit their estimates debates to 100 hours or less. The Liberals argued they are not reducing the time for debate, but are merely changing the venue where these debates take place.

However, Coons disagreed.

In the legislature, he noted that debates on budgetary process are the only time that the public is provided with the opportunity to see government answer detailed questions in the legislature about ministerial budgets.

"If the members on that side of the House are willing to commit to a fall session, there will be more than enough time to allow the full proceedings of estimates to go forward. No one on this side of the House wants to see the process of this legislature subverted for political convenience," he said.

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