Thursday, July 05, 2007

A very brief history of parliamentary reform in New Brunswick

Bernard Lord came to power with a massive majority of 44-11 in 1999, this majority would grow over the course of his term to 47-8. If anyone ever had a desire to institute reform, that would be the time, however the only changes to the standing rules of the legislature were to make it sit at 10am and 1pm depending on the day instead of beginning the work day at 8:30am.

In 2003, Lord was re-elected with the narrowest possible majority of 28-27. He had a very difficult time respecting this and, in the name of reform, began a series of proposals to completely re-write the rules of the legislature to give more power to the government irrespective of the size of its majority.

Prior to 2003, it had been the custom of the legislature to sit in the evenings until 10pm while the budget was being debated. During the 1999-2003 legislature, it was not uncommon to see budget measures pass with only 20 government members (out of 47!) present in the chamber. In the 2003-2006 legislature, Lord refused many Opposition attempts to have the routine evening sittings because Lord's full caucus - not less than half of it - would have to be present to guarantee the passage of votes.

You see, in 2003 the voters were not satisfied with Lord's performance and they were not yet ready to give the government to Shawn Graham. As a result, they elected the closest thing possible to a tie. Voters are pretty smart. I spend a lot of time watching elections and, despite the odds, voters tend to end up with what their heart's desire. They wanted consensus, not the unbridled will of Bernard Lord.

Rather than see the results that way, however, Lord insisted that a majority of 1 seat was as good as a majority of 20 and governed as such. When the opposition got in his way, he tried to change the rules to get it for him. When he was forced, by public outcry, to step back from the changes he would widen his majority by appointing opposition MLAs (such as Bernard Richard and Elizabeth Weir) to plum government posts and he made offers to others including but not limited to Eric Allaby, T.J. Burke, Stuart Jamieson and Burt Paulin.

Prior to 2003, any attempts to change the rules of the legislature was done by consensus. You see one of the primary purposes for the Standing Rules is to provide continuity and to protect minority groups and individual members. Thus, it is only apporpriate to change the rules by unanimous consent. Obviously, the Opposition would not agree to throw out their guarantees in exchange for the government having full and total control of the agenda. What would be the point of having a legislature if the opposition was silenced?

Each time Lord was frustrated he would try a different tweak to the rules.

Despite the fact that Lord refused to allow the legislature to sit evenings to debate the budget, the fact that we had the largest opposition caucus since 1982 and the fact that the budget was introduced every year through the session on the last possible date, the legislature completed the budgetary process and adjourned by the end of June.

This year, the Graham government came to the floor of the legislature with a relatively narrow majority of 29-25. They made no effort whatsoever to change the rules. They introduced the budget two weeks earlier than had been done under the Lord Government. They allowed the legislature to sit an extra 9 hours per week in the evenings to debate the budget. Notwithstanding this, the legislature has still not passed the budget and we are into July. In response, the government has proposed to implement the rule changes that were written by the Progressive Conservatives last year, but only in the fall when a new session begins so that the rules do not change half way through the game. The Tories have cried bloody murder and the government is accomodating them by allowing hearings to take place over the summer and if there is consensus that the proposed rule changes (written by Opposition House Leader Bev Harrison when he was serving as Government House Leader) are unfair to the opposition, new rules can be drafted and implemented instead.

Doesn't anybody else see the ridiculous hypocricy here? Will no one call the Tories on it?

The Liberals now have a majority of 32-23 and could do whatever they want. Yet they are allowing the Opposition to hold up the debate on the budget for record time, in fact the Tories have now debated the budget for well over twice as long as the Liberals ever did under Lord when the Grits were deemed by the Tories as "obstructionist" for wasting "too much time" on the budget. And the Liberals are also allowing the Opposition an appeal of the rules they themselves proposed 13 months ago.

Now you know why I am a member of the New Brunswick Liberals and long ago threw up my hands and left the New Brunswick Tories in the dust.


Anonymous said...

The Tories really need to get some new leadership. They are lost under Volpe who has no control at all over his caucus. They need a new leader to come in and crack the whip and stop their MLAs from going on these pointless long repetitive speeches and instead work towards providing an effective opposition.

Kit said...

Anonymous - I fully agree. The Tory's need to sort themselves out. Graham is getting a virtually free ride and there is no way that the this Government deserves that!

nbpolitico said...

It is indeed a pretty sad state of affairs and I think every New Brunswick blogger on the web predicted Volpe would be an awful leader. I have no idea what they were thinking.

Worse it seems the only MLAs that get any limelight outside of their critic areas are Volpe's Madawaska neighbours Mado Dube and Percy Mockler. If rumours are true and Mado takes a run for the leadership I can imagine people will be very pleased. In any event, why is your caucus led by three Francophones none of whom have a good command of English. Trever Holder, Kirk MacDonald and newcomers Mike Olscamp and Bruce Northrup could be strong Anglophone voices in that caucus but are largely silenced. Moreover, I think Claude Landry and Paul Robichaud would be far better from the Francophone corner.

Someone relatively senior in the Liberal Party told me that one of the driving reasons for the Stiles' departure was that the Tories truly believed that it was inevitable that the government would implode, resign and they would retake office before the end of the Spring.

If you watch their performance, I think you can see that that shows.

Anonymous said...

The only person currently in caucus that they should even *consider* to be the new leader is Claude Landry. He's very well spoken and seems to know his stuff. A little work on his English and he'd be set.

Northern NB said...

Claude Landry is a good health critic but he's not enough charistmatic to be a leader. Paul Robichaud would be a good pick. He's really popular among the francophones and his english is not that bad. He also had a Cabinet experience. Paul all the way !