01 March 2012

The Old Boys (and Girls) Club #nlpoli

The always provocative and informative labradore posted a chart on Wednesday showing the number of days the House of Assembly sat in each session since Confederation.

The information to make up the chart came from the legislative library,  the group of people who provide information and research for the members of the legislature.


That period marked by the black band is the period in which the House typically sat for the greatest number of days. It runs from 1972 to 1996.  For the 22 years before that and for the 16 years after that period, the legislature hasn’t sat more than 60 days a year.

There’s more.  Since 1996 or so, the House has also sat for fewer days per week when it is in session.  The members decided that they didn’t want to have a session on Friday mornings as the rules used to require.  They decided to cancel the Friday sitting and add an hour to three of the other four days.  Same number of hours, they explained, so there was no loss to the amount of time.

They just left out a couple of details.  One of the biggest ones is that they chopped off a Question Period on Friday morning.  That meant that the opposition parties had one fewer chance during the week to grill the government party.  It also meant that House lost a day on which to debate legislation.  While they theoretically had the same number of hours in total, the members actually cut off the amount of effective time they had for discussion.

They made a few other changes as well.  Once upon a time, not so very long ago, members of the legislature would ask for information from government departments.  They got them through something called Questions on the Order Paper.  Departments were obliged to deliver the information, free of charge, and without much – if any – deletions or omissions.

The idea behind that was that the members of the legislature had an inherent right to inquire into what the government was doing with public money and how they were doing it. The legislature is supposed to be about more than a place for rackets and speeches. It’s supposed to be a place where the members found out stuff.

After all, the legislature is not the government.  It is the place where the government goes to get permission to do things with the people’s money.  They get the permission from the men and women the people elected to keep an eye on things. That’s the idea at the heart of democracy based on popular sovereignty.  Power  - the right to make decisions - comes from the people.

In any event, all that’s as maybe.  In the late 1990s, the government and opposition cut a deal among themselves.  Instead of asking questions on the order paper, the opposition agreed to submit access to information requests, which they would pay for out of the money they got to run the House.  The government could then censor the documents as if the members of the House had no right to information other than what the ordinary punters could get.

Everyone had less work to do, the government could keep more information from the public and – don’t forget – they all agreed to give themselves extra cash to hand out in their districts as they saw fit and without receipt.

No one objected.

Not a one.

No one did anything to change any of it until 2006 and even then, the only reason they changed was because some of them got caught breaking the law.  Even then the only thing that changed out of the convenient deal was the slush fund.  All the other parts stayed in place. 

It’s that sort of general understanding among the political parties - the back-room agreements among da b’ys - that helped create the current state of the House of Assembly.

What will be interesting to see in the new session that starts on Monday is whether the sort of easy relationship among the members will carry on.

- srbp -