New Brunswick’s opposition parties continue to push for a legislative calendar that would set out when the legislative assembly sits in a given year.
The opposition forced a lengthy debate on Thursday over a routine adjournment motion, setting when the house will return. They argue a calendar would go a long way towards making the legislature more inclusive, increase sitting days and take responsibility for setting when the house sits away from the premier’s office.
“We’re talking about making the legislature more family-friendly, we’re talking about making the legislature more accessible for women, for caretakers, for different people,” said Memramcook-Tantramar MLA Megan Mitton.
“Not having a calendar is one of the barriers that has been identified in various places by various organizations that research these things.”
Mitton has been at the forefront of a conversation on how to make the legislature more family-friendly, after announcing that she is expecting her second child in June. Mitton will be the first MLA to give birth in office since Carole de Ste-Croix in the mid-1990s.
The legislature recently established a committee to look at how to make itself more family-friendly and to increase the number of women running for office.
During the debate, Mitton cited the Gender-Sensitive Legislatures report, prepared by Equal Voice in 2019. One of the key recommendations of that report is to establish legislative calendars to provide more certainty on when and how long legislatures will sit.
“Unpredictable and unconventional job hours make it difficult to have work-life balance for legislators with families,” the report reads.
Others argued that the unpredictable schedule can make serving constituents difficult.
“I’ve had some meetings in the riding cancelled, or asked about it and said, ‘well I can’t really make a commitment on that because I’ll be in Fredericton,'” said Liberal house leader Guy Arseneault on Thursday.
The New Brunswick legislature has traditionally had a fall and a spring session, though dates for the sessions and how long they last can vary. Other jurisdictions in the country have implemented calendars, including Prince Edward Island and the House of Commons.
But government house leader Glen Savoie says those who enter politics do so knowing what’s involved.
“Everybody knows that we come in in the fall and we come in in the spring,” he told reporters on Friday.
“When you put your name on a ballot you’re very much aware, or at least you should be, of what the commitments are going to be.”
Savoie says he’s not opposed to a calendar in principle, but questioned the hour and a half spent on Thursday’s adjournment motion, since all parties received a tentative schedule for the year about a month ago.
“I would just question their priorities in terms of, is it more important for them to play politics on something, or is it more important to get work done on behalf of New Brunswickers.”
“If they’re opposed to something, then state your opposition, but all they did was filibuster.”
Other concerns raised during Thursday’s debate include the number of sitting days. The opposition has criticized the government over the number of days the house sits. They say there is little time for anything outside of government priorities. Opposition day falls on Thursday afternoons and is the only time parties not in the government benches can move forward legislation or motions.
“Two weeks plus a day since Christmas is unacceptable, Mr. Speaker, for the sitting of this legislative assembly and that’s got to change,” said Green Leader David Coon.
“The people’s business in no way has been completed. What’s sitting on the agenda in terms of debatable motions and private members bills, we haven’t gotten anywhere near dealing with those.”
Even important government business has had to either be expedited or will wait until May when the assembly is next scheduled to return.
A piece of legislation that will allow polling day for the upcoming municipal elections to be moved in the case of a severe outbreak of COVID-19 needed unanimous consent to be passed in time for royal assent on Friday. Bill 32, legislation that would raise carbon pricing to $40 per tonne on April 1, as mandated by the federal government, did not get passed, though a government spokesperson says that was accomplished through the budget motion passed on Friday.
Opposition parties hope a calendar would take the responsibility for setting the schedule out of the hands of the premier’s office, but Savoie notes that schedule making has traditionally been the purview of the government.
“The government, by virtue of having won a majority, has the right to set the schedule and set the agenda as it sees fit,” Savoie said.
“That’s all that’s been done in our democracy for decades and decades and decades.”
The chafe between government and opposition over sitting days and scheduling is not new. As People’s Alliance leader Kris Austin pointed out on Thursday, when the Liberal government of former premier Brian Gallant cut sitting days, the PCs made many of the same arguments now being voiced from the opposition side of the house.
Austin also agrees that a calendar is necessary, for long-term scheduling.
“When I was elected in the fall of 2018, I was quite surprised to learn there was no long-term schedule for sittings in the house,” he said.
“When you look at the amount of sitting days that we have, no doubt not adequate based on past precedent, but really what’s important is there is no long-term schedule here. We just get the schedule a short time prior to the sitting and to me, it just doesn’t make sense.”
Savoie points to the existence of the tentative schedule that has already been circulated to parties and he argues that the tentative nature of it is a feature, not a bug.
“Are we opposed to a calendar? No,” Savoie said.
“But in the time of a pandemic we need to make sure that we have flexibility and that is important.”