N.B. Legislature begins preparing for hybrid sittings

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WATCH: Work to implement a system for virtual or hybrid sittings of the New Brunswick legislature is still underway. A Fredericton company began assessing the legislature on Monday, but lawmakers aren't sure if the new system will be ready for when the assembly is scheduled to return next week. Silas Brown has more. – Nov 30, 2020

Work to implement a system for hybrid sittings of the New Brunswick Legislature is underway, but it’s uncertain when it will be ready.

A Fredericton-based company has been contracted to implement the system and began examining options for installation on Monday, following approval from the Legislative Administration Committee (LAC) last week.

“The work is going on, some testing is happening right now, as we speak,” said government house leader Glen Savoie.

“I don’t know if it will be ready by the 8th … but if everything goes well, we could be ready for a virtual sitting by (then).”

Read more: New Brunswick could use hybrid legislature to continue meeting during pandemic

The Legislature adjourned for two weeks on Nov. 24 in the face of COVID-19 outbreaks across the southern part of the province. The Legislature is scheduled to return on Dec. 8, but the speaker can push that to a later date if the technology needed for a hybrid sitting is not yet ready.

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“Today, we started the process to implement and test a system, to allow some Members to participate in debate in the Assembly Chamber, while others participated virtually from another location, with full broadcasting and web-streaming capabilities,” said acting clerk Shayne Davies in an email.

“The process is ongoing and we hope to have a system in place as soon as possible. As we are in the early stages, it would be premature to comment on a timeframe.”

Discussions around systems for virtual or hybrid sittings have been taking place behind closed doors at LAC meetings since May, but no decision was made until the end of last week.

Read more: New Brunswick legislature adjourns as at least 3 MLAs return home after new coronavirus cases

Liberal interim leader Roger Melanson says he’s relieved a decision has finally been reached to prevent further interruptions to the Legislature.

“It’s not only about time, it’s overdue,” Melanson said.

“We have a pandemic that we all have to deal with, but we need to keep doing our jobs as legislators.”

Green party leader David Coon says he understands that even if a hybrid sitting isn’t possible, a virtual sitting should be within the realm of possibility for next week. He added that the system may even be tested later this week during a meeting of the Committee on Economic Policy.

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Coon says that it’s essential that further interruptions to the Legislature be avoided. This is the third time the Legislature has been interrupted by the pandemic, following the decision to adjourn the spring sitting as the virus arrived in New Brunswick in March and a two-week adjournment in June after an outbreak in the northern part of the province.

Read more: N.B. Legislature to take over public gallery when it returns next week

“It brings the work of the Legislative branch of government, the Legislative Assembly, to a screeching halt. While the premier and cabinet, the executive branch, can largely continue its work, the Legislative branch is stopped in its tracks,” Coon said.

While lawmakers see virtual and hybrid sittings as a necessity now, both Coon and Melanson see the potential for them to become a regular fixture of the Legislature.

“We’ve got to evolve the way the Legislature operates. There’s a lot of history and a lot of old ways of doing things, some of which need to be respected, but some of which need to evolve so we can eliminate the barriers for more types of people to run for office including women and single parents,” Melanson said.

“There’s a model out there that can be used. … Why can’t New Brunswick be one of those jurisdictions?”

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