The absentee B.C. legislature

Why we should be worried about a government that sits for only 19 days in a full calendar year

British Columbia Premier Christy Clark. (Andrew Vaughan/CP)

Mike de Jong, the Government House Leader and Minister of Finance, announced last week on Twitter that Christy Clark’s Liberal government in British Columbia planned to recall the Legislative Assembly on February 12 for a speech from the throne and to sit until March 14.

The legislature would then be dissolved on April 16. How do we know this? Basically, it is a matter of counting backwards. The province’s Constitution Act requires a general election to be held on the second Tuesday in May every 4 years. That falls on May 14 this year. And, the province’s Election Act requires a 28-day campaign period.

Taking into account that the B.C. legislature doesn’t sit Fridays, and the usual spring break, the parliamentary calendar shows a maximum of 24 sitting days before dissolution. But there is a report that the legislature will not sit at all in April. That would mean there will only be 19 sitting days before the election in June, one of which will be the speech from the throne and another the budget, assuming the current plan holds.

Why is this important? Why should we care about the technical minutiae of the B.C. parliamentary schedule for the upcoming weeks?

Because the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia has already not sat since May 31, 2012. The cancellation of the fall sitting by Premier Clark, left open the question as to whether the legislature would sit at all before an election this May.

It is not simply that the legislature will have only sat for 19 days this spring, it is that B.C. legislature will have only sat for a total of 19 days in nearly a full calendar year (between May 31, 2012, when it last rose and the election on May 14, 2013).

This would appear to fit the trend I wrote about previously of first ministers seeing legislatures as an undue burden, whose work they are free to inhibit as they fancy. And yet, there has barely been a murmur of discontent.

As part of its year-end wrap-up, the CBC nominated 10 stories for the B.C. news story of the year. The 10 stories offered up are fine; many even very important, like the pipeline debate, the Haida Gwaii earthquakes and Amanda Todd’s tragic death. But that the B.C. legislature had not sat since May (and, at that time, had no timeline for sitting again) did not even make the list.

Some might suggest this is much ado about nothing. After all, British Columbia is heading into an election in a few months and elections have long been celebrated as the ultimate accountability mechanism—the chance, as they say, to “throw the bums out.”

While elections are an important mechanism of accountability, accountability also requires compelling the government of the day to provide information about its decisions, behaviour and policies—in short, holding government to account. Members of legislative assemblies who are not part of the executive have a responsibility to ask questions, extract those accounts and to scrutinize them. Because we do not expect governments to commit political hara-kiri, parliamentarians’ primary responsibilities include holding government to account: scrutinizing government performance and administration and either withdrawing or extending confidence. The government’s capacity to disrupt its ability to do so undermines the efficacy of our parliamentary system. As Peter Aucoin and I have argued:

Without robust parliamentary scrutiny the system can easily slide into what commentators like to label an “elected dictatorship,” namely, a parliamentary government where the Prime Minister operates without significant checks and balances from the legislative assembly of the people’s representatives.

When a legislative assembly can be sidelined—in addition to normal concerns about opposition incompetence or ineffectiveness—the government is able to operate in greater secrecy. As Stephen Harper put it so clearly in an op-ed on government transparency and potential reforms to the Information Act that was published by the Montreal Gazette when he was leader of the opposition:

Information is the lifeblood of democracy. Without adequate access to key information about government policies and programs, citizens and parliamentarians cannot make informed decisions, and incompetent or corrupt government can be hidden under a cloak of secrecy.

While Harper did not address the sitting of legislatures in the essay, the same principle applies: a robust democracy requires that governments must not be able to unduly interfere with the flow of information to citizens.

Voters rarely, if ever, have full information when they cast their ballots. This means citizens vote in in a state of relative darkness, inhibiting their ability to fully hold the government to account. Worse still, they can be seen as conveying electoral legitimacy, when, had they been better informed, they might well have voted differently, even to the point of the election a different government.

Having severely limited the legislature’s ability to hold it to account, the government will effectively be asking the citizens of British Columbia to cast their ballots in the dark this May. These are dark days for democracy indeed.

Mark D. Jarvis is a doctoral candidate at the University of Victoria. His 2011 book, Democratizing the Constitution: Reforming Responsible Government, co-authored with Lori Turnbull and the late Peter Aucoin, was awarded both the Donner and Smiley book prizes. Mark adapted some of the book’s proposals for a contribution to our series on the House last year. You can find more information about the book here.

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