MLAs found their way back to the legislature last week. It might have been tricky for some. There have only been four sitting days in the past 10 months.
And since the 2009 election – two years, in which most working British Columbians have put in 472 days on the job – the legislature has been in session for 90 days.
MLAs are still working when the legislature isn’t sitting. They deal with constituents’ issues and go to meetings. The caucuses talk about strategy and issues.
But is that a $100,000 a year job?
MLAs could also be working in legislative committees, examining important issues.
Except the committees don’t meet. There’s a legislative committee on health, for example. But the MLAs haven’t met to do any work since 2006. I can think of about 20 issues the committee could have explored.
It’s the same for the education committee, which also has been inactive for five years.
It’s the premier’s decision to sideline the committees. But MLAs take the insult.
MLAs used to send more time in the legislature – about 76 days a year through the 1990s, compared with 45 days in the last two years.
More sitting days isn’t automatically a good thing, of course. There’s no sense having MLAs fill time or pass unnecessary laws.
But real, important work has been neglected.
We’re a month into the fiscal year, and the government has already spent some $3 billion. But the budget hasn’t even been reviewed by MLAs. What’s the point of budget debate after the money is spent?
And Clark is shutting down the legislature June 2, after just 20 sitting days.
That means MLAs will have 17 days for estimates debates – the formal review of the budgets and programs of every ministry and Crown corporation.
The debates are central to any attempt at accountable government – the one chance MLAs on both sides have to question spending plans, raise concerns and suggest alternatives. They should be a time for careful, detailed review and answers from ministers.
Instead, much of the budget will be passed with little or no discussion, because there won’t be time. MLAs will be reviewing and approving $2.5 billion in spending plans per day.
There is no reason for the rush. MLAs could stay on the job through June. Last year, the spring session lasted 46 days – twice as long.
So either Clark doesn’t like the idea of oversight by the people’s elected representatives or she wants the budget passed quickly to clear the way for an early election.
The government’s failure to let the legislature do its work has been damaging in other ways.
Liberal house leader Rich Coleman says the government doesn’t have much of a legislative agenda anyway.
But important legislation has been stalled as the legislature sat empty over the past 10 months.
Take one example.
The government set up a task force to look at the serious problems in the rules governing municipal elections. There are, practically, none. Anyone with enough money could buy control of a council. The public doesn’t know who funds candidates. The door is open to corruption and campaign abuses.
The task force made useful recommendations. And Ben Stewart, the minister responsible at the time, said all 31 recommendations would be implemented in time for this fall’s municipal elections.
But two weeks ago, the Liberal government reneged. It was too late to make the changes, said Ida Chong, the minister responsible. They would be introduced in 2014.
That’s inexcusable. The reforms are needed, as Stewart acknowledged. And a competent government – and a legislature sitting for more than four days – could easily have passed the laws early enough to allow candidates and municipalities to prepare.
Instead, voters will have another round of flawed municipal elections.
The government just isn’t letting MLAs do their jobs.
And accountability to elected representatives – central to democracy – is being lost.