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Expert testimony allowed for new N.B. child welfare legislation but debate will be limited

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WATCH: In an act of cross-party cooperation, an agreement has been reached to hear expert testimony on a new child welfare bill in New Brunswick. Silas Brown has more. – Jun 2, 2022

A combination of procedural wrangling and cross-party cooperation are allowing landmark child welfare legislation to get special treatment as it makes its way through the N.B. legislature.

According to the house leaders of all three parties, an agreement has been reached to call witnesses to speak to the propoed Child and Youth Welfare Act next week.

Normally, that would mean referring the bill to the standing committee on law amendments, which would schedule public hearings. But it would also delay its passage. All three parties have agreed to temporarily change the scope of the standing committee on economic policy in order to allow for witnesses to give testimony next week.

“They don’t normally call witnesses, but through unanimous consent we have the ability to do anything,” said Liberal house leader Guy Arsenault.

In an analysis of the new child welfare legislation child and youth advocate Kelly Lamrock said the bill was a solid first draft but would benefit from additional consultation with subject matter experts. The Liberals have been intent on sending the bill to law amendments to do just that, but social development minister Bruce Fitch said the government didn’t want to see the bill delayed.

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A motion will be presented in the coming days to allow the change, which will result in witnesses appearing before the committee on Thursday, before the committee returns to its more traditional format, when the minister who tables the bill appears with department staff to answer MLA questions.

Read more: N.B. child welfare legislation a good ‘first draft’ but changes needed, says advocate

“We’re working with the opposition to ensure they’re performing their function, and we’re performing ours, in the most efficient way possible that works in the best interest of New Brunswickers. That’s what this is all about,” said government house leader Glen Savoie.

But another procedural motion will limit how much time the opposition has to ask questions about the child welfare legislation and several other important bills. On Thursday the government introduced a time allocation motion, limiting debate on bills before the legislature to 50 hours retroactive to May 10, in order to ensure all government bills are passed and ready for royal assent by June 10.

That includes committee time, meaning witness testimony on the Child and Youth Welfare Act will count toward that tally. Savoie estimated that as of Thursday afternoon there was about 29 hours of debate remaining.

The motion led to cries of protest from the Liberals, but Savoie pointed out that the former Liberal government was no stranger to using such motions in order to keep debate on schedule.

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“This is just simply a legislative tool that I’ve put in place to make sure, with all things being equal, government business gets done in the timeframe that’s allocated,” Savoie said.

That’s of little comfort to his Liberal counterpart.

“I wasn’t here when it was done,” Arseneault said. “But we don’t live in the past. At one time women weren’t allowed to vote. Do we live in the past? No.”

Read more: New Brunswick introduces new child protection legislation

Opposition parties say careful consideration of each piece of legislation is needed and that limiting debate has consequences beyond allowing MLAs to have their say. Green party house leader Kevin Arseneau argues that the move to limit debate shows premier Blaine Higgs’ impatience with the legislative process.

“I never like to see those kind of motions. I mean there’s been 30 bills introduced in the last five weeks that we’ve been here,” he said. “It’s no secret that the premier doesn’t like sitting through question periods. He sees it as a waste of time … he’d rather be CEO of something (other than) a democratic institution.”

“There’s no stalling here, we’re just having an honest debate,” he said. “And if those bills were so important, why did they take so long to introduce them.”

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