While question period was cancelled on Thursday, the Government House Leader says the Alberta legislature will continue operating as normal as it possibly can during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The legislature was adjourned Thursday but MLAs expect to be back in the House for a rare Friday morning sitting.
“We’re in a pandemic,” said Opposition House Leader Heather Sweet, who suggested question period be cancelled. “It didn’t make sense for us to come into the house today when the government is trying to draft legislation to help Albertans.”
Government House Leader Jason Nixon said the government was happy to oblige.
He said the United Conservatives weren’t quite ready to move on a piece of legislation — adjustments to the Emergency Management Act — Thursday but hoped to write it Thursday night and pass it Friday, if possible.
“I think the NDP will be in full co-operation,” Nixon said.
“We’re not sure what changes to the EMA might be taking place,” said Joe Ceci, the NDP’s critic for Municipal Affairs. “From my read, it has all the powers that the province needs and municipalities require… I’ll be interested to see how they’re proposing to change it.”
Nixon said the bill is meant to ensure better co-ordinate the province and municipalities as the province works to reduce the spread of the virus. He said that it is the only planned emergency legislation tied to the outbreak, but adds things can change quickly.
Nixon said, in the past, this legislation has been used in emergencies that were regional or local — the Fort McMurray wildfires or Calgary floods. This time, it’s province-wide. The coronavirus pandemic impacts everyone and each municipality is using a slightly different approach to handling the impacts of the virus, which they should be allowed to do, Nixon stressed.
The province doesn’t want to take over management from all municipalities if Alberta had to use the Emergency Management Act, he said.
“We don’t want to automatically trump all municipalities,” Nixon said.
“We don’t want to step on municipalities’ toes.”
Nixon said no UCP Caucus members have tested positive for COVID-19 but 12 are self-isolating because they had recently returned from travel or were feeling other symptoms.
Sweet said there are some NDP MLAs also self-isolating. None has tested positive for COVID-19, she said Thursday.
Nixon said the Assembly hopes to continue meeting as long as it’s safe to do so.
“Our goal is to try and keep the chamber open… as long as we can,” he said, stressing the importance of assuring Albertans that democracy is functioning.
“Our government is focused on people and… protecting the people of Alberta,” the Government House Leader said. “We’ll do everything we can to do that.”
Nixon said the legislature is to continue sitting next week, but with a reduced schedule of legislation.
Sweet said the NDP would work with the United Conservatives to swiftly pass needed legislation related to the pandemic but urged the UCP not to introduce any other, unrelated bills.
“Right now we’re in a pandemic,” she said. “We’ll support government in doing what they need to do.”
She said both sides recognize the priority is making sure Albertans have the supports they need to get through the pandemic.
A Government Motion introduced March 17 gives the Assembly more flexibility in terms of sittings, given the current health situation, the government told Global News.
The Government House Leader and Opposition leader worked together to give MLAs more flexible sitting options in order to best meet the needs of the house. The decision was not made because any member was feeling ill; but rather to increase options for the Assembly to safely meet under these unprecedented circumstances.
Nixon proposed the motion:
“At any time during the 2020 Spring Sitting of the Second Session of the 30th Legislature the Government House Leader may
(i) advise the Assembly that the public interest requires that the Assembly adjourn, or
(ii) if the Assembly stands adjourned, advise the Speaker that the public interest requires the period of adjournment to continue … and the Speaker shall give notice that the Assembly shall remain in a period of adjournment until the Government advises the Speaker that the Assembly must meet to transact its business.”