Rule changes would require timely P.E.I. government responses to petitions, written questions

·3 min read
A petition tabled on behalf of the Black Cultural Society of P.E.I. in the summer of 2020 prompted a response from the premier. But many petitions tabled in the P.E.I. Legislature receive no official response. (Nicole Williams/CBC - image credit)
A petition tabled on behalf of the Black Cultural Society of P.E.I. in the summer of 2020 prompted a response from the premier. But many petitions tabled in the P.E.I. Legislature receive no official response. (Nicole Williams/CBC - image credit)

A pair of rule changes proposed for the P.E.I. Legislature would require government to provide timely responses when petitions are put forward on behalf of the public, and when MLAs submit written questions to a cabinet minister.

The two recommended changes are contained in a report from the province's standing committee on rules, regulations, private bills and privileges, which was supposed to be debated Friday, but the house adjourned to recognize the passing of the Duke of Edinburgh.

Committee chair Hannah Bell said there are exacting standards that have to be met by members of the public in order to have their petition tabled in the house by an MLA, but no requirement for any government response.

"What would be the point? If the government isn't required to respond, why would people put all that effort in?" said Bell.

She said the committee, made up of two members from each party in the legislature, "agreed that we should be giving more value to the work that happens when people put that kind of effort in" to get a petition onto the floor of the legislature.

"Even if that's an acknowledgement that 'yes, we've seen it and we've read it and we're going to do something,' that's important here."

The rule change proposed by the committee would require government to respond to a petition within 14 days. While the legislature can't actually compel government to do that, Bell said the rule would allow for "moral pressure" to be applied to prompt a response.

Time limit on written questions

Another rule change addresses an issue that's proven contentious in the past — giving cabinet ministers a time limit to respond to written questions submitted by MLAs.

Under the current rules, ministers are required to respond "without any unnecessary delay." There are more than 300 unanswered questions listed in the database on the legislative assembly website, most dating back to the days of the previous Liberal government, some questions dating as far back as 2015.

Records show that 1,149 written questions were submitted in 2016 — the vast majority by the PCs who were the Opposition at the time.

In 2017, the Tories tried to get a rule change to require responses to be submitted within 45 days, but when that recommendation came forward from the committee, the report also included a new rule to limit MLAs to submitting just 15 questions per session.

The PCs openly wondered how the question limit made it into the committee's report. PC MLA Steven Myers, now the environment minister, attributed it to Liberal committee members "drunk on their power" trying to protect government.

In the end the rule changes were never put forward for a vote, and so were never adopted.

MLA Hannah Bell, chair of the standing committee on rules, regulations, private bills and privileges, says it's important for government to respond to issues brought before the house in the form of petitions from the public.
MLA Hannah Bell, chair of the standing committee on rules, regulations, private bills and privileges, says it's important for government to respond to issues brought before the house in the form of petitions from the public.(Al MacCormick/CBC)

Now the 45-day limit is back in play, but also an allowance for ministers to provide a rationale if they can't answer a question in that time limit.

Bell said the fact committees now have equal representation from all parties leads to recommendations more likely to be adopted by the house, because they "come from that thoughtful place where we found compromise and balance across the caucuses."

Bell said she'll present the committee's report for debate when the legislature resumes sitting Tuesday, April 20.

While it's not included in the current recommendations, the committee is working toward developing a protocol for the legislature to be able to accept petitions in electronic form. Bell said that should be ready for the fall sitting.

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