Do we really need MLAs anymore?

They’re nice enough people. But as the legislative session ended Thursday after just 24 sitting days, I wondered if we need to pay 85 people salaries starting at $100,000 a year to fill the seats in the red-carpeted chamber.

At least as it operates now.

It’s not as if they changed anything in the 24 days. The government introduced its budget. The Liberal MLAs voted for every element of it; the NDP voted against.

There was debate on spending, but because the session was so short MLAs were reviewing and approving about $2.5 billion in spending a day. People spend more time choosing a new sofa.

Bills were passed, but the debates and votes were largely irrelevant. Once the governing party introduced the legislation, passage was a done deal.

There were some excellent private members’ bills – legislation advanced by MLAs without official government support. But they went nowhere, as is the norm.

The opposition got the chance to raise issues in question period, which is 30 minutes each day. But maybe there’s a cheaper, better way to accomplish that. Issues were raised in other debates, but who reads Hansard?

Really, the elected MLAs could have stayed home. A few performers could have read the expected lines from both sides of the house, MLAs could have given their proxies to the party leaders and nothing would be much different.

MLAs do other work, of course. But constituents’ issues could he handled by a competent manager in each riding.

And I am unconvinced that the views of a backbench member often have a great role in shaping party policy.

And if MLAs hadn’t shown up, they would have been spared the embarrassment of thumping their desks on cue and shouting insults – or watching as their peers shouted – across the floor.

In fact, do we even need candidates to stand for election in 85 ridings, if their role is peripheral? Perhaps it would be more efficient to just let people vote for the parties in each riding, and give the leaders chits for each one they win. They could then use those to cast votes in the legislature.

Since the 2009 election, the legislature has sat for less than 120 days. That’s not an indication that there is much pressing work to do.

It might seem radical to suggest MLAs’ time in the legislature is largely irrelevant.

But Liberal House leader Rich Coleman apparently shares the view.

The New Democrats had suggested spending another two weeks to deal properly with the budget and the legislation.

But Coleman said no, the government would use closure to end debate on any outstanding business and force bills and budget through the legislature.

He could offer no reason for shutting down the legislature. It’s not as if MLAs are exhausted after 24 days, or have somewhere else pressing to be.

Coleman is not out on some partisan limb here. The New Democrat governments of the 1990s showed no more respect for MLAs and the legislature. (Though they did have the legislature in session about 76 days a year, much more than the Liberals have done since 2001.)

I’m overstating the case. Debate can be useful and even, on occasion, bring improvements to bills.  MLAs get a chance to raise issues of concern to constituents, or propose legislation. (Independent MLA Bob Simpson had several useful proposals.)

But those are the exceptions.

It’s not supposed to be like this. Traditionally, voters would elect MLAs. Those who won the most seats would chose someone to be premier.

The premier would owe allegiance to MLAs, who would have the support of voters. We’ve turned the relationship upside down. And as MLAs’ roles have shrunk, the pay scale has risen.

Party leaders have little interest in giving up power. That means MLAs have to find some way to demand it – more Independent MLAs would be a start – or voters have to reward a party committed to real change.

Footnote: It was interesting to see the attention focused on the way Simpson and fellow Independent Vicki Huntington voted on the HST changes. (They both supported them, without saying they supported the tax.) Presumably, their votes mattered because they were the only two MLAs actually using their own judgment on the issue.



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