MLAs to vote on whether to allow virtual sittings of N.B. legislature

·3 min read
Saint John East MLA and house leader Glen Savoie announced he'll introduce a motion to let some MLAs participate in regular sittings using Zoom. (Radio-Canada file photo - image credit)
Saint John East MLA and house leader Glen Savoie announced he'll introduce a motion to let some MLAs participate in regular sittings using Zoom. (Radio-Canada file photo - image credit)

New Brunswick MLAs will finally vote next week on whether to allow hybrid virtual sittings of the legislature.

Government house leader Glen Savoie announced Friday that he'll introduce a motion that will let some MLAs participate in regular sittings using Zoom to comply with COVID-19 travel restrictions.

No such restrictions exist at the moment but recent cases of health zones in orange, red and lockdown phases created a renewed push for some kind of virtual participation.

All four party leaders agreed last December to a model for hybrid sittings, but implementation stalled. In February, the opposition Liberals blocked several government bills to protest the lack of movement on changes to house rules.

At the time, Savoie argued the issue should be sent to a committee on procedure, but that committee failed to make any recommendations and sent the issue back to the full legislature.

His motion next week will finally resolve the issue one way or the other.

"I like to think it's a logical outcome of the process," Premier Blaine Higgs said. "You bring it to the house, you have a free vote on it and it is what it is."

Virtual sittings face criticism

The Liberals accused Education Minister Dominic Cardy of blocking a vote by holding out against the unanimous consent required to fast-track rule changes.

But at the inconclusive committee session March 10, other PC MLAs joined him in raising red flags.

Cardy said Friday he'll vote against Savoie's motion when it's debated March 25.

Education Minister Dominic Cardy says he plans to vote against the motion.
Education Minister Dominic Cardy says he plans to vote against the motion. (CBC News file photo)

"It's going be a free vote on virtual sittings and I am going to vote against it," he said.

Cardy refused to predict the outcome of the vote but said during the drawn-out tussle over the issue, he's discovered "a number of folks who share my thoughts on it."

"Being a legislator means being in the legislature and the legislature is here in Fredericton and that's where those debates should take place."

Rules would govern its use

Savoie's motion would approve a "special order" allowing virtual participation while requiring at least 14 MLAs to be physically in the legislature, the current minimum threshold.

The order would remain in effect only during the current COVID-19 state of emergency and would have to be invoked by the speaker of the legislature after consulting with Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Jennifer Russell.

It would also require the agreement of the house leaders of all four parties in the legislature.

MLAs would have the same rights and privileges virtually as if they were attending in person. During votes, the members would have to be visible on their screens for their votes to count.

Higgs said he wasn't sure how his 26 fellow PC MLAs will vote. "Maybe there's a general feeling that some things need to be changed but I didn't take a poll on it."

Liberal Leader Roger Melanson said he was glad to see the motion, which he said is similar to what the four party leaders agreed to in December.

He also said it's time to talk about allowing virtual participation for other reasons, including for MLAs with newborn children, to make it easier for young women to run for office.

"We have to have a larger conversation around the barriers that exist in the way that the legislature functions," he said.