New Brunswick’s Legislature will hold its first hybrid sitting day on Tuesday, but the discussions that cleared the way for it to happen took place behind closed doors.
Some opposition leaders are calling for that to change.
The Legislature Administration Committee (LAC) is responsible for managing the physical buildings and grounds of the legislature, but also, more generally, the Legislative Assembly itself. All meetings of the committee, that is chaired by the speaker and features MLAs from all parties, take place in-camera.
“It’s time for LAC to do as much of it’s work publicly as it can,” said Green party leader David Coon in an interview.
“We just need to recognize that it’s the 21st century and stop meeting privately.”
The official opposition is also calling for the meetings to be held publicly, even if members of the public are not clamoring for the change to be made.
“I don’t think New Brunswickers are thinking too much about this, I doubt they reflect on this regularly,” said Liberal interim leader Roger Melanson.
“That being said, I do know and I think we all understand that New Brunswickers, in general, want to see more transparency.”
Both Coon and Melanson acknowledge that there will be certain meetings that must take place in-camera, when the committee speaks about HR issues or other sensitive topics, but hold that the default should be out in the open.
Lyle Skinner, a constitutional lawyer and parliamentary process expert, says the change would be an important step for transparency and would be keeping in line with the House of Commons federally.
“It’s a move in the right direction. It’s important to have transparency in what’s known as the people’s house. Most importantly, it wouldn’t be unprecedented,” Skinner said.
The federal equivalent of LAC, the Board of Internal Economy, began meeting publicly in 2017. The committee does still move in-camera when dealing with certain subjects, but the default process is that meetings are open.
Skinner says the conversation surrounding whether or not to make meetings of LAC accessible to the public shouldn’t happen in LAC.
“Should LAC meet in public? That decision should not be made by LAC itself because those meetings are in-camera, so I think that discussion should happen either in the Assembly or in New Brunswick’s procedure committee,” he said.
In the interim, there are other changes that could be made quickly to increase the transparency of the currently opaque committee like publicly publishing minutes and decisions.
Some worry that bringing LAC before the public may result in unintended consequences.
“The advantage of an in-camera session is that members are free to express their opinions in the safety of that room and to achieve a consensus where everybody is in agreement and they move forward together,” said government house leader Glen Savoie.
“One of the downfalls of public discourse is that it oftentimes can devolve into finger-pointing and so on and so forth and LAC is supposed to be non-partisan by its very nature.”
Savoie’s concerns were echoed by People’s Alliance Leader Kris Austin.
“I understand both sides of this argument. The reason for confidentiality is the opportunity for members to speak freely and openly,” he said in a statement.
“With that said, there does need to be an opportunity for accountability when decisions are made in-camera.”