04 December 2013

Making them answer for their actions #nlpoli

Anyone who wants to understand the value of the House of Assembly need only look at Question Period on Tuesday.

Liberal Andrew Parsons threw question after question at child, and family services minister Paul Davis about a report by the Child and Youth Advocate into the case of a young man, aged 16 years, who went to jail a couple of years ago for killing a man in a fire.  The young man was living alone, unsupervised, at the time, having been taken into custody by government officials.

Parsons asked question after question and Davis through out anything but a direct answer in reply, time after time. 

The value of the House in this instance is not in getting important information.  Rather, the value lay in exposing Davis’ weakness in not having good answers in reply to the Advocate’s damning report.

The exchange in Question Period is as good an example as we have had in the past decade of the way the opposition is supposed to hold the cabinet to account for how they are running the province.

Reporters described the mood in the House as tense.  That’s a good thing. The House is supposed to be adversarial.   The members of the House who are not in cabinet, and especially the official opposition, are supposed to ask questions.  They are supposed to probe.  They must not shirk from pressing with the same question - as Parsons did – when ministers wriggle and avoid a straight answer.  Parsons did his best to make the government answer for its actions.

Parsons showed what former prime minister John Diefenbaker meant when he described the role of the opposition in the legislature.  The opposition “ asks questions and elicits information”, said Diefenbaker in a 1957 speech.  “arouses, educates and molds public opinion by voice and vote. It must scrutinize every action by the government and in doing so prevents the short-cuts through democratic procedure that governments like to make.”

There have been far too many short-cuts through democratic procedure over the past decade.  We saw two more this week in a long list of fundamental abuses visited on the House by the Conservatives since 2003. 

The Speaker remains in contempt of the House

On Monday, Speaker Ross Wiseman fabricated a version of events in the House last Wednesday.  Wiseman said that it“is clear that, in the following order: the question on the resolution was put to the Assembly; there was a voice vote on the question; the Speaker voiced the carriage of the decision; and then a Division was called.”

The fabrication – the falsehood – in Wiseman’s version is that he omits a key point:  he adjourned the House.  Both the written record and the video recording confirm the same sequence of events. By established parliamentary practice, the official business of the House ceased at the moment the Speaker adjourned the House.  The parliamentary audio staff stopped recording at that point, demonstrating the point further.  They only switched the recording equipment back on once it became clear Wiseman was going to carry on with the sitting.

Instead of leaving the chair, Wiseman then carried on with a recorded vote after some further discussion.  He had no authority to do so and on Monday Wiseman cited no parliamentary authority to justify what he had done.  Instead, he made up a version of events at odds with the official record and therefore at odds with the truth. He then cited irrelevant authorities to justify his improper actions.

What Wiseman has done is yet again take the House on his back.  He abused his authority last spring in his ruling against Gerry Rogers for a contempt she did not commit.  He apologised as if that would erase his action. 

Now Wiseman has shown even greater contempt for the House and for the people of the province than he did earlier this year by tossing parliamentary procedure out the window for no good reason.  When will he do this next?  No one can tell.  What other abuse will he commit next?  Again, no one can tell.

Financial Accountability Suffers Again

The second abuse of democratic procedure was the release on Monday of the annual financial statement.  This  has now become so common that few would likely recognize it as an abuse but that is what the government did by making the financial statement outside the House, toward the end of the fall session.

Official comments by the finance minister about how the government is spending public money ought to be delivered in the House.  The annual financial statement is akin to the budget and should be delivered in the House

What’s more, the statement should be delivered before the fall sitting starts.  That would give members of the House enough time to prepare and then to ask detailed questions when the House is open.  In a properly functioning legislature, the public accounts committee would hold hearings during the fall.  The committee could hold hearings to elicit information, as Diefenbaker said,  as well as to arouse, educate, and mould public opinion.

What the current administration has taken to doing is to release less and less information, later and later, usually accompanied by flimsy excuses or weak explanations.  That is what people saw on Monday.

Regular readers will know that reform of the House of Assembly is an issue dear to your humble e-scribbler’s heart.  That’s why columns like a recent one by Telegram editor Russell  Wangersky get a hearty round of applause.  More and more people are recognising the sorry state of the provincial legislature and want change.

A key step on the road to reforming the House is recognising that it did not fall into its current state by accident.  Nor is it in disrepair because all politicians have acted in the same way.  Far from it.

The House is desperately in need of reform because for the past decade the members who control it – on the Conservative side – have made it that way.  They deliberately and repeatedly show their contempt for the legislature, what it stands for, and what it means as part of our democratic society.  True, they have been aided by naive politicians who shun confrontation because it is not “nice”, but responsibility for the mess of the House must rest with those who control it.

They must answer for their actions.