Sask. spring sitting dominated by pandemic, punctuated by personal shots in house

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Premier Scott Moe, Opposition Leader Ryan Meili and their respective caucuses disagreed on the government's pandemic response and who behaved worse during the past six weeks of the sitting. (Michael Bell Canadian Press, Bryan Eneas CBC - image credit)
Premier Scott Moe, Opposition Leader Ryan Meili and their respective caucuses disagreed on the government's pandemic response and who behaved worse during the past six weeks of the sitting. (Michael Bell Canadian Press, Bryan Eneas CBC - image credit)

Saskatchewan spring legislative sitting was dominated by COVID-19. Its completion seemed to be welcomed by the province's 61 MLAs, some of whom spent their time in the house bickering about who would be worse to lead the people of the province.

The tone of the debate was more combative and disrespectful than the pre and post-election sittings in 2020.

The requirement that MLAs stay in Regina for the duration and not return to their hometowns on the weekend to see their families may have contributed to the increased level of angst. Or it could have been the pandemic's third wave, which peaked in the province on April 15 with Regina at its epicentre.

That peak came nine days after Finance Minister Donna Harpauer released her 2021-22 budget.

The second "pandemic budget" delivered by Harpauer was highlighted by a record deficit of $2.6 billion and a projection that the province won't see a balanced budget until 2026-27.

The government boasted about its recording spending in health, education, social services, and protection of people and property. The budget has a total of $17.1 billion in expenditures, up 6.3 per cent from 2020-21.

Roadmap to recovery

Daily question period debates focused almost solely on COVID-19 response and the vaccination process.

Premier Scott Moe and his front bench ministers government focused on the vaccination effort, which at times led the country for pace and per-capita rollout of first doses.

Moe called the release of the "reopening roadmap" on May 4 the "highlight" of the sitting.

The plan lays out how Saskatchewan will ease restrictions as more people receive their first dose of vaccine.

Opposition Leader Ryan Meili directed his questions in the chamber at the province's pandemic response. In the closing days, Meili asked if Moe would order an independent inquiry into the government's handling of the pandemic.

Moe told reporters Friday that answers to how the government has handled the pandemic have been provided at weekly news conferences and through questions in the legislature.

On missteps made, he mentioned that the government is awaiting a report from the ombudsman into the outbreak of COVID-19 and subsequent deaths at Parkside Extendicare in Regina.

"Yet to learn where some of the decisions could have been different," Moe said.

He said that, in retrospect, an earlier investment in long-term care in Regina was warranted.

Opposition attacks criticized by government

The spring sitting featured a noticeable hostility in daily debates.

Opposition jobs critic Aleana Young repeatedly referred to Trade and Export Minister Jeremy Harrison as "the worst jobs minister in the country."

Harrison responded using Saskatchewan's unemployment rate, arguing the NDP would be worse for the economy and, more recently, pointing to the NDP's use of out-of-province staff for election work.

"I think they've been very bitter, personal and vindictive. They can say whatever they want about me. I don't particularly care. I even find some humour on occasion in the kind of over-the-top rhetoric from [Young]."

Harrison took exception to Meili calling Moe a "coward" in the house and accused the Opposition Leader of "gutter politics."

"I haven't seen the approach from the Opposition that they took this session since the session that Lingenfelter was a leader in the lead up to the 2011 election."

On Thursday, Harrison said Meili had only "two days" left as leader during an answer to a question about the NDP "Save our Summer" pitch.

On Friday, Harrison said during the debate that the NDP was focused on "Twitter and their stunts."

Moe referenced a post-election report by the NDP which recommended "365-days-a-year campaigns."

He said that was driving the NDP strategy and said he heard "very personal insults."

"Of the apologies I saw in the house, none were delivered by government members," Moe said.

Meili called the claim that it was his party alone driving the lack of decorum, "a load of bull."

Earlier in the sitting he accused Health Minister Paul Merriman of, "constantly yelling foul, rude things and in particular focusing on young new female MLAs. I mean, he's repulsive."

Meili did not cite any examples and the Opposition did not alert the Speaker to any comments that required an apology.

"I do think the intensity of the session, five days a week, people away from their families. It raises people's level of emotion. Heck the whole province is under a higher level of stress and anxiety," he said.

Meili said he was reflecting on "how bad things are and the way people across the province are feeling."

"We've been asking tough questions and the government's record is really, really bad. They've made major mistakes and they don't want to answer that and that's why you see the level of heat you have seen."

The sides took a break from squabbling to show bi-partisan support for a private members' bill on suicide prevention put forward by NDP MLA for Cumberland Doyle Vermette. The bill was passed after being voted down two times in previous sittings.

What's next?

The end of the six-week session provided a needed breather for both leaders.

During a speech in the house on Wednesday, Moe got choked up discussing "difficult decisions" made by the government during the pandemic, most notably restricting visitation in long-term care.

"We had families across this province who weren't able to see their loved ones for months — most certainly an important and necessary decision to keep our family members safe from this awful virus," he said.

Moe said Friday any sacrifices he has had to make "pale in comparison" to others in Saskatchewan.

Premier Scott Moe received his first dose of vaccine at the drive-thru clinic at Evraz Place in Regina on April 15. According to government and opposition staff, 60 of the 61 MLAs have received at least one dose and the remaining MLA has appointment booked.
Premier Scott Moe received his first dose of vaccine at the drive-thru clinic at Evraz Place in Regina on April 15. According to government and opposition staff, 60 of the 61 MLAs have received at least one dose and the remaining MLA has appointment booked.(Mark Taylor/The Canadian Press)

Meili has had to deal with his father being hospitalized with a serious health issue, which landed him in Regina's ICU just days after the sitting began. Meili said he saw first-hand what families and doctors in Regina were dealing with at the height of strain on the ICU.

He said Thursday that his father has since moved to the hospital in Moose Jaw.

Moe said the government's plan moving forward is to continue to promote vaccinations as a path to return to normalcy.

The government is backing up its words, with 47 of 48 members having at least one dose and the remaining member awaiting a booked appointment. All 13 opposition members have received at least one dose.

One of those "normal" activities was raised by Moe on Friday. He said a goal would be to "fill Mosaic Stadium" in late summer for the Saskatchewan Roughriders season, although he said letting fans back in might be gradual.

Moe also said he looked forward to having masks removed "as soon as possible," as long as it is in line with public health recommendations. He pointed to the U.S. Center for Disease Control's recommendation on Thursday that fully vaccinated people would not need to wear masks.