Legislative prioritiesMLAs talk what can be accomplished in three years and what's not on the agenda
Northern News Services
Friday, October 14, 2016
There are only three more years for the 18th Legislative Assembly to accomplish a legislative agenda that only seems to be growing longer.
The issue of what can be accomplished arose when Yellowknife council sought changes to enable a hotel tax and local improvement charges. The government stated it wouldn't be making changes until after the next election, prompting questions about what's taking priority.
The mandate of the government, approved by all MLAs this year, includes a list of laws to be introduced or changed this term.
It includes the Lands Act, Mineral Resources Act, Territorial Parks Act, Petroleum Resources Act, Oil and Gas Act, Waters Act, Environmental Protection Act, Forest Management Act, tobacco control law, Civil Emergency Measures Act, Fire Prevention Act, the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act and a law creating an independent ombudsman office that could investigate complaints about the government.
Legislative changes not on the agenda so far include amendments to the Cities, Towns and Villages Act sought by the city, changes to allow 911 emergency service and amendments to the Elections and Plebiscites Act that the chief electoral officer has called for following the last territorial election.
For some MLAs, the agenda is thin and at least one suggests they should be spending more time in the assembly where questions and speeches can hold the government to account.
A six-year average shows the assembly sits 46 days per year. The figure doesn't include 2016. Only Prince Edward Island and Nunavut legislators spend less time in their chambers, at 36 and 35 days respectively. Ontario ranks first with an average of 83 days.
"Honestly, I would like to add more days to the calendar for both the legislative assembly and the standing committees," said Kam Lake MLA Kieron Testart.
Looking just at days the assembly sits won't paint a full picture of much of their work, MLAs cautioned. Much of the work is carried out in meetings held behind closed doors and out of public scrutiny (A committee is examining the idea of holding more meetings in public).
Yellowknife North MLA Cory Vanthuyne said often the hearty debates are held in those closed-door meetings. He compared it to how city councillors tend to hash out issues at municipal services committee meetings - which are public - prior to issues reaching regular council meetings.
"Getting work done legislatively is not about more days on the floor of the house," Vanthuyne said.
He pointed out that MLAs just spent about three weeks in committee meetings examining what are called business plans from each department. Those plans are used to formulate the budget that will be introduced in the assembly next year.
"Session is only part of what you see. There is a lot of work put in by both sides - cabinet and regular MLAs," he said.
Vanthuyne pointed out adding more days may cause ministers to be absent more often because they have to travel for meetings with provincial and federal counterparts and attend events. As well, MLAs from outside the city have to deal with travel home and between communities to see constituents.
Several departments provided a more detailed idea of when bills may hit the assembly floor.
Municipal and Community Affairs plans to "modernize" the Civil Emergency Measures Act by introducing changes next year, start consultation on the Fire Prevention Act this fall with a new law sometime this term and changes to the Western Canada Lottery Act to move administration of the program under the GNWT. That's expected to reach the assembly in 2017 or 2018.
The Department of Justice has been reviewing the territory's outdated access to information regime with amendments in 2017. Health and Social Services will formalize doctor assisted death in legislation expected sometime between 2017 and 2018. That department will also draft a Marriage Act.
Asked what's missing from what's planned for the next three years, Vanthuyne had a quick answer.
"I think glaringly it's 911," he said.
Testart said regular MLAs could introduce private member's bills, legislation that doesn't spring from departments, to deal with things like the Cities, Towns and Villages Act.
"If the government is not prepared to move forward with these changes, then I and other members will through private members legislation," Testart said
He's also preparing a private member's bill regarding Dechinta, the land-based education program.
"It's very disappointing that there are these clear issues that we were elected on that are being pushed to the back burner," he said.
Vanthuyne was more hesitant about a private member's bill, adding that the time to consider what's missing from their mandate is the mid-term review which would occur next year.