Premier John Horgan announced as part of his restart plan that the British Columbia Legislature would return in the coming weeks. Unlike Alberta and Ottawa, the B.C. Legislature has been adjourned since early March other than a one-day session on March 23 to pass a supply bill which allowed government to spend money until the end of the year.
Negotiations underway on potential June siting
Representatives of all three parties have been working with the Speaker’s office to decide how to reconvene the Legislature while following the directives of Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, specifically around physical distancing and limits on the size of gatherings. While March’s emergency session only included the Premier, a dozen MLAs, and minimal staff, it is expected that even a shortened Spring session will involve bringing more – but not all 87 – MLAs into what is a relatively small chamber.
While there have been no decisions on dates for sittings, there is speculation that the Legislature would resume on Monday June 1st and sit until Thursday June 25th. Given the House sits Monday to Thursday this would provide 16 sitting days, far fewer than the 24 days they would have sat had they not adjourned.
Debates will reveal differing views on recovery priorities
Bipartisan cooperation has been the surprising by-product of the pandemic, but with an election scheduled for October 2021, the BC Liberals and BC Greens will be looking for the opportunity to demonstrate their alternate priorities for economic recovery. MLAs were also tagged in the provincial reopening plan as a point of contact for local businesses needing to engage with public health and WorkSafeBC. One side effect of this extra work for MLAs will be that political parties will come armed with local anecdotes about how various parts of the reopening plan are – or are not – working for their communities.
Finance Minister Carole James has set aside $1.5 billion to fund economic recovery as the pandemic eases, but there are already different opinions emerging on whether that money should fund existing companies or help the province accelerate its plans to move to a lower-carbon economy. BC Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson recently penned an op-ed recommending additional tax breaks, while Interim leader of the BC Green Party Adam Olsen, said the pandemic provides an opportunity to green our economy by investing in energy efficiency and reducing emissions. When announcing the re-opening plan, the Premier specifically mentioned the need for government to continue to work towards pre-pandemic priorities like Indigenous reconciliation and mitigating the impacts of climate change.
In addition to discussions on how to best allocate resources towards economic recovery, government has mused publicly about looking at ways to ensure people are not penalized for staying home from work when sick, the need to look more closely at the long-term care and assisted living sector, the costs and timeline associated with the resumption of postponed surgeries, and the need to spend the summer preparing the health care system for another wave of COVID-19 during influenza season this fall.
Question Period and estimates will be similar but different
While it won’t be business as usual, there will be two elements of legislative business that observers will recognize: question period and estimates. The single question period during the emergency sitting in late March was unusual due to the lack of heckling and surprisingly constructive questions. We should expect the gloves to come off at least a little bit, but it will be interesting to see who goes there first.
Estimates are the debates about each individual Ministry’s budget and priorities, and are conducted like one long question period, with lengthy delays as Ministers consult with staff on how to answer extremely pointed questions. It often requires a war room of Ministry officials and political staff feeding in numbers, statistics, and program information details to help flesh out answers. With 21 Ministries still to face Estimates, it will be interesting to see how in-depth opposition parties choose to go on ministerial budgets, and to what extent they will find that these priorities are still relevant. In the past, the Legislature has usually added a second or even third chamber to allow the capacity. But perhaps given all that is happening politicians will be able to come to agreement where to focus their energy to make the debate fit the time available?
Another change will be what happens when an MLA, a Minister or even the Premier doesn’t feel well and does not attend the session. In some cases, others can step in but for key debates, such as when the Leader of the Opposition questions the Premier on his office’s budget and priorities, both may feel it’s important that they take part which may therefore require rescheduling.
Media and stakeholder interactions will require adjustments
A key opportunity for media to interact with members of government is during “ins and outs”, where Ministers have to walk by the media when entering and exiting the chamber. Media have traditionally used this opportunity to ask politicians questions, and at times, get surprising or even controversial answers. Scrums like this can be a physical sport – people packed tightly together, with media jockeying for position, trying to get close enough to ask a question or get a newsworthy clip. With politicians and media now needing to maintain two metres of physical distancing between them, the logistics of media relations in the Legislative Assembly requires a re-think. The tight quarters of the actual press gallery offices would make Dr. Henry shudder so will probably require limits on seating and distancing to ensure physical distancing can be maintained.
Stakeholders have often used the fact that MLAs are restricted from leaving the buildings while the Legislature is in session to hold lobby days and try to meet as many politicians and staff as possible. Whether Ministers and MLAs will transition back to in-person meetings or continue to rely on virtual technology is an open question.
Government has already announced that 2021 budget consultations and upcoming consultations of the Special Committee to Review the Personal Information and Privacy Act will be conducted online.
We will continue to monitor for news about a spring session and what opportunities this may provide.