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Committee punts further consideration of New Brunswick hybrid sittings to assembly

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WATCH: A committee of the New Brunswick legislature has opted to punt discussions on virtual sittings back to the assembly itself. Silas Brown reports – Mar 10, 2021

A committee of the New Brunswick legislature has pushed further discussion on hybrid sittings to the assembly, without recommendations for how they would work.

Government MLAs used their majority on the committee of procedures, privileges and legislative officers to punt the review of the issue to the entire assembly. But the opposition said the move goes against what the committee was trying to accomplish.

“I find this amendment abhorrent, based on the need, the impacts of the legislative assembly to do its work,” said Green leader David Coon.

“Our purpose here under the motion that we’re working is to report our findings and recommendations to the legislative assembly.”

The motion to study the issue was moved by Coon during a meeting of the committee in February, following a standoff in the legislature, in which opposition parties denied expedited passage of several government bills in an attempt to force a debate on hybrid sittings.

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

At the time, government house leader Glen Savoie said the PPLO committee was the proper forum to discuss rules and procedures around hybrid sittings.

“The opposition is trying to make this a very simple thing, which it is not. We’re talking about the fundamental rights and privileges of members,” Savoie said on Feb. 12.

“Ultimately, it’s not as easy a putting a motion on the floor because putting a motion on the floor and voting on it doesn’t put any parameters around things necessarily, you don’t have any of the details that would be required to move forward.”

Coon’s motion called on the committee to develop draft rules for hybrid sittings, to be returned to the assembly for discussion by March 17. The government motion passed Wednesday does not have draft rules attached, nor does it provide a date for when the assembly will discuss the clerk’s report.

Liberal house leader Guy Arseneault accused the PCs of trying to avoid consideration of the topic.

“There’s no mechanism; that’s why the amendment is a lost amendment. They didn’t put a mechanism in there, they didn’t put a time factor in there, so it’s all up to the provincial government,” he told reporters after committee.

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“They just want to bury it.”

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

Arseneault had proposed a motion recommending the implementation of hybrid sittings, lasting until the state of emergency is lifted, at which point the PPLO committee would meet to discuss if it should be kept or permanently scrapped. That motion was ultimately amended by the government to remove the recommendation and passed along party lines.

Education Minister Dominic Cardy, who has been outspoken in his opposition to hybrid sittings, said that all MLAs should see the report and have an opportunity to weigh in on it.

“What we’ve got today is a report that all members of the legislature should see and when they see it they can make a decision on that,” he said.

“And I think that’s how the committee system is supposed to work, how our legislature is supposed to work and how democracy is supposed to work.”

The Liberals had accused Cardy of trying to block the adoption of hybrid sittings, an accusation to which he assents, but began saying Wednesday that its clear premier Higgs is in opposition to the move as well.

Arseneault called on the premier to ensure the debate happens swiftly.

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“They are a majority government, the premier has said he supports it, so it will fall on his shoulders if it doesn’t occur,” he said.

“I’m fearful that is what will happen.”

Higgs has said previously that he is in favour of having a hybrid system available and said in February that he wouldn’t wait for an outbreak to implement one.

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

“Not being able to conduct the business of the province is not an option,” Higgs said on Feb. 12.

“It will be a discussion over the next few weeks about how can we do this and what things can we do it [for], because you’re exactly right, we can’t just hope that we don’t have an outbreak.”

The report on hybrid sittings, prepared by clerk Shayne Davies, is a scan of what other jurisdictions have done to implement hybrid sittings, as well as what potential issues need to be addressed.

That report was initially confidential and was discussed during a two hour in-camera meeting of the committee, but was released on Wednesday evening.

Some of the questions raised include if the system will be temporary or permanent, how quorum would be maintained and on who’s authority the system would be utilized.

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The pandemic has forced an interruption to every legislative sitting since New Brunswick recorded its first presumptive case of COVID-19 364 days ago.

“We have a situation where we now are facing a third wave driven by variants and we still have no plan B,” Coon said.

The assembly will return for the tabling of the provincial budget on March 16

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