10 June 2007

A lamentable trend

God bless his heart, but on Friday Bill Rowe - unabashed cheerleader for a series of provincial governments of a certain approach - questioned the idea that the legislation to implement Chief Justice Derek Green's excellent report on legislators' indemnities should proceed through the House of Assembly without delay.

He wondered why this legislation should not be debated and discussed for some considerable period. Rowe recalled the good old days when legislation was tabled early in the session, thereby giving the public and members of the opposition time to review the implications of proposed legislation.

Rowe is generally right of course, but not about this particular bill. Green's report came with its own enabling legislation attached as an appendix. The report itself is as thorough and detailed as any report presented to government has been. The issue has been widely discussed and the various pernicious practices in the legislature over the past decade have been well exposed. The remedy is pretty clear too: Green's legislation would stop legislators from doing the things that most of us would generally consider inappropriate.

The whole thing is cut and dried.

On the other hand, Rowe does not appear to have any trouble with other pieces of legislation sailing through the House with only cursory debate even though they carry serious implications for the province.

  • Take for example, changes to the Hydro Corporation Act that, as a consequence of of its provisions hooked electricity rates to activities by the Crown-owned utility not related to electricity generation or distribution. Given first reading (but not distributed) on March 22, 2006. Distributed on May 18, pushed through second reading the same day and given third reading and approved on May 23.
  • Or a series of changes to the provincial court judges pension act and related legislation. Run through all three stages in a single day last spring.
  • Or a bill to establish regional health authorities that flew through the House the day before the judges bill, and like the judges bill having been read a first time only a week beforehand.
  • Or changes to the Fishery Products International Act that actually made it easier to break up the company and sell it off than the legislation originally provided. First reading 18 may, second reading 23 May, committee stage and third reading on May 26.
  • Or the bill to repeal the FPI Act that was introduced at the start of the session but only distributed after the deal was announced publicly. That bill will also be pushed through in a few hours of debate in all likelihood.
The trend here is not a new one, nor does it reflect one political party or another or even one individual legislator or another.

It dates back the better part of a decade and reflects, as much as anything else, an attitude that the legislature is an inconvenience or that public disclosure and public debate are undesirable on most pieces of legislation.

There are a great many routine pieces of legislation that come to the legislature and many that can indeed be passes with a minimum of debate. The list above does not contain any of those, since even the changes to the judges pension plan change eligibility for pensions. Those carry financial implications for the public treasury if nothing else.

The FPI and Hydro bills each contain very significant provisions which were missed - in their entirety - by the opposition and were never commented on by the government. In the case of the Hydro bills, the government didn't comment on them until this year when another new piece of legislation was rammed through the House unopposed. Perhaps the basic flaws in the first bill would have been caught if Government wasn't intent on ramming ill-considered changes through and the Opposition was not anxious to go along for the ride. Perhaps the same flaw would not have been continued in the second bill if anyone was focused on the job of being a legislator.

This trend to limit debate - and limit public access to bills before debate even begins - coincides with the steady reduction in the number of sitting days in the legislature. Before 1996, members of the House of Assembly sat in the legislature for three months of the year. They put in long hours in various committees and in debating bills. Most worked very hard for their pay.

These two trends - fewer days and little or no debate - means that the public are being ill-served by what Brian Tobin used to refer to - somewhat ironically it seems - as "the people's House". Fundamentally, the same attitude appears to be taken taken to the fundamental business of the legislature that was taken to administrative business, as Chief Justice Green noted. Lip service is being paid to accountability and transparency, but the reality is that far too often over the past decade, significant measures have slipped through the House of Assembly as if they were covered in API 70 oil from Garden Hill.

It is far too easy to forget that the legislature exists to keep the government accountable to the residents of the province. It is fundamental in our system of democracy that any power sought by any government must be subjected to scrutiny by the elected representatives of the common citizens. That is the essence of responsible government.

There are greater implications to the House of Assembly scandal than how the members handled public cash for the House administration, as grave as that issue is.

The trends over the past decade go to the very heart of how our elected representatives view their role and responsibilities in our must fundamental of democratic institutions.

In this election year, perhaps Newfoundlanders and Labradorians should insist on a discussion of how our democracy runs. We should look to alter fundamentally the relationship between voters and those we entrust with the responsibility of looking after the affairs of our province.

Rather than listen to pledges that one side will be "Putting People First" or that another will be "Getting Our Fair Share", we should start from the most basic point: these men and women want to be tenants in our House of Assembly.

The crew that have been there over the past decade, generally speaking, haven't been living up to the terms of their historic lease. The place is run down and needs some serious attention.

As their landlords, let us see how they - individually and collectively - propose to run the place for the next four years. Let's see how they propose to restore the proper functioning of our democratic institutions.

If they merely offer the same approach as we have seen for the past 10 years, then perhaps we need to issue some eviction notices or, in other cases, not lease out the seat in the first place.

Either way, it is time for the landlords to assert their rights.