22 October 2007

Shame! Shame!

senate

The red line: The number of sitting days, by year, in the unelected Senate, from 1996 to 2007. The last number is estimated, since the Senate is still sitting. It's current total of 54 days (as of 22 Oct 2007) will likely hit the 70 days or thereabouts which have been typical over the last five years.

The blue line: Sitting days in the elected House of Assembly, over the same time period. The 2007 figure is accurate since the Williams administration has decided to cancel the usual fall sitting of the provincial legislature.

For all the jokes about the Senate being the ante-chamber to the Kingdom of heaven and the the cracks about senators not showing up for work and still getting paid, here are the bare facts. It should be an embarrassment to every legislator in Newfoundland and Labrador that the senators put in more time doing their jobs than their local elected cousins do.

Consider that senators spend considerable time outside the chamber attending committee meetings on a variety of subjects like the fishery, national defence, or federal-provincial relations. Members of the House of Assembly are not burdened by such responsibilities; they just get to show up and, if the last sitting is any guide to the future, nod their approval when the House leader gestures such that 70% of the bills presented get passed with a mere couple of hours of discussion. Legislation in the local chamber are never subjected to detailed scrutiny by the elected representatives of the province.

The men and women who fought to have responsible government established in Newfoundland and Labrador are surely spinning in their graves.

Those of us who voted in the recent general election are just plain appalled.

-srbp-

Almost immediate update: Since 2003, the House of Assembly has met, on average, about the same number of days each year that Tom Rideout spent as Premier in 1989.

5 comments:

Jason Hickman said...

Mark your calendar - I agree with your underlying premise, which is that the House isn't sitting enough.

I would be interested in comparing the # of sitting days with other provincial legislatures, rather than the Senate. It's my vague (and possibly quite wrong) understanding & recollection that as a *general* rule provincial legislatures from coast to coast sit for fewer days than either House of the federal partliament, barring elections, etc.

In terms of the NL case: I can see a government taking a couple of months or so after an election to prep a throne speech, draft (or finalize) legislation, etc. I would be interested in knowing what the "gap" between E-day and when the House of Assembly re-opened the last few times a government was re-elected ('93, '96, '99 all come to mind), but a couple of months seems fair, if pushing it a bit.

So that would push us into Chrristmas (God, already?) - but there's no reason the HOA can't come back in, say, mid to late January with a new Throne speech.

Edward G. Hollett said...

Jason:

While there has been a general reduction in the number of sitting days, the situation in this province is considerably more dramatic, especially over the past three years.

I used the Senate here simply to draw embarrassing attention to the state of affairs in this province.

If you follow the link I included in the article on Yvonne Jones' comments, you'll see the trend much more clearly.

In 2006, for example, only the legislatures of the territories and Nova Scotia sat for fewer days than the House of Assembly.

You asked about the time span between elections and the House opening in the past. Bear in mind that elections took place in the spring or winter, typically, and not in the fall, as in the case of this fixed date. As well, we are talking of a re-elected government, which ought to have been developing legislation anyway as part of the normal process of government.

In 1989, the newly elected government called the House within 30-45 days of the election and included a new budget. Of course, since the legislature had been closed since the previous spring, there was no alternative. In 1993, the election came after the spring session and the House re-opened for a full session in the fall (if memory serves).

In 1996, the election was in February and the House was called to session in March or April. Ditto 1999.

2003 was an understandable situation, although in practical terms the House could have been called in late November or early December for a short session. this certainly would have been desireable given the bomb Williams dropped on 5 Jan 04.

The other problem I've identified is not just the dramatic reduction in sitting days; rather it includes the short shrift given to debate. In the spring session 70% of the bills were passed with less than two sitting days of debate. Now what that really means is that bills were rammed through the House with less than three hours devoted to some pretty significant measures. That took collusion - and i use the word advisedly - between government and opposition, so this isn't a partisan problem. it is a problem with elected officials who simply have no regard for or appreication for the role of the legislature. Take as an example the way the Green bill was passed.

WJM said...

Using the stats from the link Ed gave...

The HoA has sat, on average, only 59% as often since 2000 inclusive, as it did, on average, from 1987 to 1999, inclusive, or, in other words, there's been a 41% drop.

That is the largest drop of any provincial or territorial legislature, or the House of Commons, for comparable years. (Nunavut and the Senate excluded.)

The next-worst record is Manitoba, at 32%, followed by NWT (31%), BC (29%) and AB (22%).

All other provinces and territories have reduced sittings, per the above comparison time-frames, by 20% or less, or, in the case of NB and PEI, there are actually MORE average daily sittings in the 2000s than in the 1990s and late 1980s.

Most legislative bodies in Canada are getting "slacker"... but the Bow-Wow Parliament is in a league of its own, and getting more so.

Jason Hickman said...

Bear in mind that elections took place in the spring or winter, typically, and not in the fall, as in the case of this fixed date.

I'm not sure why that would unduly lengthen (or shorten) the period between e-day and when the House ought to re-open, unless you're talking about the weather (in cases of winter elections - which begs the question of why the heck they scheduled an *election* during the winter in the 1st place).

As well, we are talking of a re-elected government, which ought to have been developing legislation anyway as part of the normal process of government.

Only to a certain extent. An election, even one that seems to be in the bag, can cause some surprises and force some re-thinks.

In 1993, the election came after the spring session and the House re-opened for a full session in the fall (if memory serves).

In 1996, the election was in February and the House was called to session in March or April. Ditto 1999.


So again, an interval of up to two months or so isn't outrageous, even in a re-election scenario (and in neither the 96 not 99 elections was there a huge risk of the government being replaced, and '96 arguably came somewhat close to '03 on the 'wipeout' scale).

So in this case, let's say 60 or so days after e-day, which again puts us on close to the Holidays. Like I said, having a break till mid-January or so would be reasonable in my books.

The real issue, as I see it, is not so much the length of time the HOA spends in session. While I do believe in "earn-what-you're-paid", I don't like the thought of legislators drafting new legislation for the heck of it. In fact, as a smaller-govt type of guy, I'm not sure I want a whole bunch of new laws on the books! But that's enough of my idle "Atlas Shrugged"-like dreams for one day ;)

What does concern me is this point you made:

... the short shrift given to debate. In the spring session 70% of the bills were passed with less than two sitting days of debate....

This is important, and troubling, no matter who's in charge. I'm not sure what, precisely, can be done to change it around especially if the opposition of the day refuses (or is unable) to do its job of reasonably scrutinizing legislation, and/or if the government of the day deprives the House as a whole of the means to do so.

As for WJM's stats - it seems that NL is close to the head of a very dismal pack - assuming, of course, that there are good reasons for the leg. to be sitting. (PEI's an interesting case but I think the rise in sitting day % there is because they used to meet on an incredibly infrequent basis.)

Edward G. Hollett said...

Jason:

In the case of either new governments or re-elected governments over the past 18 years, and with the sole exception of 2003, the House was called to session either at the regular time in the fall (for a late spring election) or within four to six weeks after voting day.

There simply isn't any reasonable excuse for missing the fall sitting this year.

Four to six weeks from Oct 9 would put us in mid to late November which is, oddly enough, when the legislature has opened each of the last three years for its fall sitting.

As for the qorkload, the way to deal with it is to:

1. identify it is a problem; and,

2. push legislators to do their bloody jobs.

Over the past decade the two sides of the House have found it convenient to make side deals and little arrangements to minimise the amount of work done in the House.

The opposition has been effectively co-opted by the government - starting under Tobin and continuing today - thereby making the legislature dysfunctional. The roots of the spending scandal are actually in this fundamental dysfunction.

None of that has changed. The House remains dysfunctional.