Virtual legislature sittings stuck on pause as PCs block decision

·5 min read
The New Brunswick legislature has been forced to adjourn several times since the pandemic began, including because of regional outbreaks that led to travel restrictions. (CBC News - image credit)
The New Brunswick legislature has been forced to adjourn several times since the pandemic began, including because of regional outbreaks that led to travel restrictions. (CBC News - image credit)

A year into the COVID-19 pandemic, New Brunswick MLAs have again failed to make a clear decision about whether daily sittings of the legislature can take place virtually in order to lower the risk of infection.

The Progressive Conservatives used their majority on a procedural committee to kick the issue back to the full legislature, without making any recommendations.

Less than a month ago, the PCs said the legislature should not be bogged down by that debate and argued it should be taken up by the committee on procedure.

Now that committee has opted not to act beyond asking all 49 MLAs to "review" options, PC members watered down an opposition Liberal motion calling for hybrid virtual sittings during the COVID-19 state of emergency.

"It takes virtual sittings and throws it out the window, into the air, the virtual air," said Liberal house leader Guy Arseneault. "It'll never see the light of day with this motion."

Liberal house leader Guy Arseneault
Liberal house leader Guy Arseneault(Jacques Poitras/CBC)

Green Party Leader David Coon said the PC move makes "a mockery" of the committee's role.

"We now are facing potentially a third wave driven by variants and we still have no Plan B," he said.

But PC house leader Glen Savoie said members of the committee "did their work" and now it's time for the full legislature to ponder the issue. "We're talking about the very basis of our democracy and how we function."

The New Brunswick legislature has been forced to adjourn several times since the pandemic began, including because of regional outbreaks that led to travel restrictions.

MLAs in Nova Scotia participated in their first virtual legislature vote Tuesday.
MLAs in Nova Scotia participated in their first virtual legislature vote Tuesday.(Nova Scotia legislature video archive)

Arseneault said Wednesday there had been an understanding among all parties that even if MLAs from health zones in red phases got permission to travel to the legislature, they would agree to stay away.

Wednesday's punting of a decision took place one day before the anniversary of the first COVID-19 case in New Brunswick, which led the legislature to hastily shut down last March.

And it occurred a day after the Nova Scotia legislature held its first hybrid full sitting, in which MLAs at Province House held up printed cards to cast their votes.

Premier Blaine Higgs has said he's in favour of some form of virtual sitting and that it might not be avoidable in a serious COVID-19 outbreak.

"If it becomes a heightened concern because of the pandemic, not being able to conduct the business of the province is not an option," he said in February. "We have to find a solution."

While committee meetings have taken place with some members and witnesses taking part virtually, Education Minister Dominic Cardy has repeatedly argued against the same system for a full sitting of all MLAs, saying it violates parliamentary tradition.

Education Minister Dominic Cardy has argued against virtual sittings.
Education Minister Dominic Cardy has argued against virtual sittings. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

Last month the Liberals accused him of holding up virtual sittings on his own but Arseneault says it's now clear Higgs ordered his caucus to fall in line behind Cardy.

"All of a sudden the whole committee votes in a bloc. It's quite obvious they got the orders from up above: 'Hey, let's delay this, let's wash this out.'"

Cardy said Wednesday that virtual committee meetings, along with distanced seating and masking for MLAs when the full house is sitting, is the government's Plan B.

The Liberals forced the issue last month when they stalled the approval of several PC government bills to protest the lack of movement on virtual proceedings.

At the time, Savoie decried the move and said the issue should be discussed by the committee of MLAs that deals with procedural rules.

"It should go there. It should be discussed: some parameters, all the kinds of ideas that come and go when you're working in a committee," he said then.

But Wednesday his PC colleague Richard Ames effectively sent it back to the full legislature.

Progressive Conservative Carleton-York MLA Richard Ames
Progressive Conservative Carleton-York MLA Richard Ames(Jacques Poitras/CBC)

The Liberals had introduced a motion to have the committee "urge" the full legislature to allow hybrid sittings during the COVID-19 state of emergency.

But Ames, the MLA for Carleton-York, said a report by the clerk of the legislature, which committee members reviewed in a secret session in the morning, had persuaded him to oppose the change.

"Coming into this this morning, I thought, you know what it's 2021, we should be doing this. Why not? But there's more to it than that. I'm picking that up from the report that was done."

Ames introduced an amendment to ask the house to simply review the clerk's report.

That passed and then the amended motion passed as well.

The report, published on the legislature web site late Wednesday, makes no recommendation but lays out "issues for consideration."

While the Zoom-based system now in place for committee meetings "has generally worked well," having all 49 MLAs take part would increase the chances of technical problems, it says.

Issues in the report include whether all parties should have to agree on virtual sittings and whether allowing them should be temporary or permanent.

It also says the legislature doesn't have the resources to ensure individual MLAs have internet service of "sufficient quality" to take part at home or in their riding offices.

And it notes the requirement for bilingual proceedings presents a challenge: in the House of Commons, interpreters have complained of "hearing issues, health incidents and stress" as a result of poor audio equipment used by some MPs.

It also says renting the equipment required for virtual proceedings would cost $2,500 per day.