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Debate over hybrid sittings of N.B. legislative assembly pushed to March

Click to play video: 'N.B. legislative assembly hybrid setting debate pushed to next month' N.B. legislative assembly hybrid setting debate pushed to next month
Debate over rules for a hybrid sitting of the New Brunswick legislative assembly have been pushed to next month. After a standoff over the lack of hybrid sittings last week, MLAs were unsure of how to push the process forward on Friday. It will now be up to the clerk to prepare a draft report of rules to guide debate in March. Silas Brown has more – Feb 19, 2021

MLAs will wait until March 10 to debate and draft proposals for how a hybrid sitting of the legislative assembly would take place.

The standing committee of privilege, procedure and legislative officers (PPLOC) met Friday to begin discussing the necessary changes to the standing rules of the house that would allow hybrid sittings to take place, but quickly became bogged down as members were unsure how best to proceed.

The Liberals suggested that a draft document of rule proposals was needed to guide debate.

“Our intent is to have a discussion,” said Liberal house leader Guy Arseneault.

“I find it a little difficult to have a discussion without having information here in front of us.”

The committee is considering hybrid sittings after opposition parties forced a standoff in the assembly last Friday, preventing the government from moving forward several pieces of legislation unless they agreed to table a motion clearing the way for hybrid sittings.

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Read more: Opposition forces standoff in N.B. legislature over lack of hybrid sittings

Government house leader Glen Savoie told reporters that the appropriate forum to have that discussion was the PPLOC and Green Leader David Coon tabled a motion to do just that on Tuesday.

But despite the urgency of last Friday’s push from the opposition, the debate over rules for hybrid sittings will be put on hold while the clerk of the legislature prepares a report including draft rules and to address potential consequences of the decision.

In a rare procedural move, clerk Shayne Davies appeared before the committee to answer some questions. Davies said he and his office had been working on a draft report for some time, looking at other jurisdictions including federal Parliament, Prince Edward Island and Manitoba.

“We do have some draft report prepared in case it is the will of this committee or another committee to recommend to the house to adopt presumably a hybrid model,” Davies said.

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Davies told committee members that the legislature was prepared to move ahead with a hybrid sitting on Dec. 8, until they became aware that the unanimous consent required to make the change with little notice would not be given. Education Minister Dominic Cardy confirmed to reporters that he told the caucus that he opposes hybrid sittings and would not give his consent.

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Cardy has said that the Westminster parliamentary system depends on members gathering together in one place, hence the name assembly. On Friday he expanded on his comments, worrying that moving towards hybrid sittings despite his concerns sets a dangerous precedent that would allow majority governments to change the standing orders of the house to suit their needs.

“The precedent, again, of using a majority vote to override a member’s right is something I still remain somewhat surprised the opposition is even countenancing,” Cardy said

There is nothing currently in the rules to prevent that from happening, but changes to standing rules are often done by consensus.

Read more: New Brunswick legislature returns in person, does not make use of hybrid system

A motion being granted unanimous consent is just one way to move forward with a hybrid sitting model. The PPLOC has the ability to draft and recommend the adoption of rules guiding hybrid proceedings, which would then go to a debate in the assembly to decide whether or not to move forward.

Davies said his recommendation would be to introduce special orders of the house, that would have a defined expiry date, rather than change the standing rules permanently.

The report from Davies will also include a list of other issues that might arise through the use of a virtual sitting that will be discussed by MLAs.

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Cardy asked several pointed questions about potential issues including how quorum would be maintained.

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N.B. Legislature begins preparing for hybrid sittings – Nov 30, 2020

“My recommendation would be that, assuming that we decide that the hybrid virtual model is the way to go, meaning some members present, my preference would be to always maintain a quorum of members present,” Davies said.

“The House of Commons brought in experts and witnesses when they were reviewing this and the comment was made that if you didn’t have a quorum and perhaps you went to a full virtual sitting, would the courts accept whatever legislation was passed by that entity.”

Whether privilege or the legal protection for MLAs regarding things said on the floor of the legislature, would be extended to those not in the chamber is another matter of concern.

The report from the clerk’s office is expected to be discussed on March 10, with a recommendation forwarded to the assembly by March 16.

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