11 July 2008

When the trend becomes an excuse

Bond Papers has noted before the once lamentable, now deplorable, trend to reduce the number of sitting days of the House of Assembly.

The issue is not one merely of the number of days the House sits.  The root of the problem is the increasing tendency for the legislature to pass bills with only a cursory glance. 

In the spring 2007 sitting, for example, 57 out of the 72 bills passed through the major stages of debate in less than a day.  That's a House of Assembly day, by the way, which is typically a few hours in the afternoon Monday to Thursday. 

One of those bills was the Green accountability bill which was pushed through on the last day of the sitting.  The public, and indeed, many members didn't realize that a few amendments made quietly ensured that some of the more important parts of the legislation setting controls on spending wouldn't take effect until the fall.

In most legislatures, ordinary members of the House, that is those without ministerial portfolios sit on committees.  Those committees take legislation, examine the bills in detail, sometimes holding public hearings and discussion to gather public reaction.  Sometimes bills get changed from what government intended,.  Sometimes they pass, as is.  Sometimes they get killed.

That's an important part of the process.  The public gets to know what the government is planning.  Interested individuals and groups can study a bill and figure out it will affect them.  They can recommend changes which may or may not be accepted.  The public gets to see the laws being made, they are consulted and, in some instances they can actually change the direction that government - in its wisdom  - thought was the right way to go.  If nothing else, including people in the process gives the outcome greater legitimacy and acceptance than it otherwise might have.

In the session just ended - the first since the election last fall - the House struck some committees but purely for the purpose of expediting passage of the budget.  They didn't get to study the energy corporation bills for example. 

Heck, the whole House didn't get to even know the bills were coming until the last week or so of the session. When it did come, there were some inconsequential amendments to the bill restructuring the energy corporation but for the most part, most people had no idea what the implications were of the measure. 

The pernicious impact of this approach is easy to see.  Even one seasoned reporter who has covered the legislature thought the bill would let reporters find out about corporation spending but protect sensitive commercial information like technology secrets from disclosure. 

He couldn't have been more wrong if he tried but, in fairness, the words "commercially sensitive information" are in the bill.   If you didn't carefully read the bill or if you didn't get the chance to read it at all you might assume those words had the typical meaning.   They don't.  It's in the bill.

Sensitive commercial information is basically any information related to the business of the company.  Number of pencils and pens used?  Apparently that's sensitive. As the legislation put it:

"commercially sensitive information" means information relating to the business affairs or activities of the corporation or a subsidiary, or of a third party provided to the corporation or the subsidiary by the third party, ...

As if that all weren't bad enough, the province's education minister is now saying legislation to create a second university in the province will be delayed until at least the fall sitting. 

The idea was approved by government a year ago and it's been a controversial decision.  Rumblings around the university in St. John's would have you believe that the external recruiters hired to find a new president found one.  But their choice - the current acting president - was turned down by government since the fellow is not all that thrilled with the Grenfell scheme.

That's really all to one side.  Legislative drafting on an issue like this shouldn't this long.  But if it does, there must be a reason for it more convincing than this one:

"We are just at the point, I guess, with a busy schedule in the house of assembly and certainly the tedious work in developing the legislation, that we didn't have sufficient time … for the full debate that it deserved"...

CBC's television report gave a bit more information than that though.  West coast reporter Doug Greer there are indications one minister was not satisfied the bill lived up to what Grenfell had been promised. Now it may be the fall of 2009 or later before the changes take effect, according to CBC news.

All of this is to suggest that a decision like creating a second university can appear to be a good one at the beginning but that, at the very least, other information can lead to a reappraisal or an adjustment of the course. 

Your humble e-scribbler changed his mind as he found out more about the proposal.  Obviously - if the education minister's comments are taken at face value - others much more intimately involved in the process have been adjusting things as well.

In other words, time and the supposed business of the legislature isn't the problem here.  Something else is. If the Grenfell decision is controversial as it has been presented, maybe other ideas can come forward from a full debate in the legislature.

The same can be said of other pieces of legislation which have been rammed through the House with barely enough time for the ink to dry on the order paper.

Maybe it's time to reform the House of Assembly and let the rest of us in on the discussion of public business.  That's one of the things legislatures are for and its one of the potential solutions to the government's problem with the Grenfell bill.  A properly functioning legislative committee system could take this one on and navigate the controversial waters exactly as they are supposed to do in this messy, complicated thing called democracy.

As it stands, though, the current House with its handful of short sitting days each year hasn't been the source of the delay in this decision.

In blaming the delay on a busy schedule in the House, Joan Burke just offered a huge excuse that obviously isn't true.



nottawa - "Busy, busy, busy" and "Busy, busy, busy (II)"