30 November 2009

The Twelve Days of Nothing

Unless Danny Williams plans to expropriate something or unilateral declare independence from Canada, this fall sitting of the House of Assembly will be one of the shortest and least productive in living memory.

That’s counting – it should be noted -  the short and very unproductive fall sittings of the legislature since Williams took power.

Overall, the House of Assembly now sits annually for fewer days than Tom Rideout was Premier.

That’s 43 for those who don’t recall.

That’s also about half the number of sitting days a decade and more ago.  There were plenty of days in the spring and the fall where members sat in the legislature and they had plenty of time to discuss and debate legislation.  Plus the legislation they debated was substantial stuff.

This fall sitting – delayed supposedly to allow for a couple of by-elections -promises to be even shorter and lighter than usual.

For starters, the House only sits for a few hours each afternoon from Monday to Thursday, anyway. It used to sit five days a week but under amendments brought in during Brian Tobin’s tenure, the house added enough hours so that members could shag off home or to sunnier climes for a long weekend.

Wednesday afternoons are still given over to debate opposition motions.  That leaves three debate days per week for government business.  And with about two hours per day, that adds up to a total of six hours a week in which the members of the legislature will discuss whatever happens to come forward from the government benches.

The House will likely sit for no more than three weeks so, all told, there will only be 12 days of the legislature this fall.

And that would be 18 hours of debate time.

Once that’s done, we won’t see them back until after Easter, most likely.

Meanwhile, don’t count on much happening.

Last fall,  the House debated 38 bills.  That included 15 amendment acts, mostly for minor changes to existing legislation.  Another 13 were one-clause wonders that repealed an obsolete statute or one that would be replaced in the spring sitting.  They could have been handled in a single bill or, more likely included as transitional clauses at the end of the new midwives act or whatever the new bill would be called when it came into effect.

The remainder were new statutes.

It’s pretty bad when 73% of the legislation in a sitting is either minor amendments or busy work.  That’s really all it was:  legislation to make it look like government was doing something when, in fact they had nothing at all.

But it’s not like there aren’t plenty of commitments – some dating back to 2003 – that still haven’t seen the light of day or are otherwise in some sort of political limbo.  Your humble e-scribbler has even gone so far as helping out by providing draft legislation on one of the government’s biggest commitments from 2007:  a whistleblower protection law. Still, they wind up resorting to busy work.

Now to be fair, a couple of the amendments last fall had serious implications.  Bills 63 and 64 created a new regime that further shields a whole new class of government records from scrutiny under the province’s open records laws.

For all the implications of the bill, though, it wound up getting only got cursory discussion.  New Democrat leader Lorraine Michael even breathlessly  endorsed the bill as if she was a Tory backbencher:

We have an excellent committee and this committee will be accountable to the minister. This committee will be the committee that will determine how the government records are managed. This committee will be the committee that will establish and revive schedules for the retention, disposal, destruction or transfer of records. They will make recommendations to the minister respecting government records to be forwarded to the Archives, will establish disposal and destruction standards and guidelines for the lawful disposal and destruction of government records and make recommendations to the minister regarding the removal, disposal and destruction of records.

The committee may well be excellent but Lorraine’s grasp of the legislation was evidently limited.

In any event both bills sped through the house over a few hours in December.

And that was it, except for the flurry on December 16 in which the government was able to ram a bill through the House seizing the hydro assets of at least three companies, quashing an active court case – find another such statute in the country – and generally creating as gigantic legal and financial battle which has not yet been settled.

We might only hope that something quite as entertaining come sup again.

But then again, maybe not.  The opposition parties went along with the seizure bill without so much as a question.

Let’s see if the 2009 fall sitting winds up being a productive time or, as past experience shows, winds up being a raft of busy work spread over 12 calendars days.