Sask. NDP leader asks Premier Moe to resume legislature so MLAs can ‘do our jobs’

Saskatchewan Opposition NDP Leader Ryan Meili has sent a letter to Premier Scott Moe calling for a meeting to discuss how the suspended legislative sitting can be resumed.

Both parties agreed to suspend the legislative sitting on March 18. 

Now Meili says the government is misrepresenting the terms of that agreement.

“When we met and decided that was the right thing to do for public safety and to set an example, that’s what was agreed to, that [the government] would not go to an election without introducing a budget and the full-time to debate that budget.”

Provincial rules require any budget to be debated for 28 days after its introduction.

On March 18, Finance Minister Donna Harpauer revealed the government’s spending plans but not its revenue projections. The provincial election is slated for October 26.

“Now it seems that he is attempting to avoid presenting a full budget before sending Saskatchewan people to the polls this fall,” Meili said Monday.

He said that without accountability the government is running a “one-party state” with a “blank cheque.”

In April, cabinet approved an order-in-council for $4.6 billion to spend this year. Last week, it announced a $2 billion “economic booster shot” for infrastructure. The NDP has been asking for details on the spending plans.

Meili has asked Moe to form a task force of some kind, made up of leaders from municipalities, Indigenous leaders and the NDP. Those requests have not been formally acknowledged.

More recently, Meili has increased calls to resume the legislative sitting, culminating in Monday’s letter.

“The people of Saskatchewan deserve oversight and accountability when it comes to your government’s choices. Since March, your government has authorized billions of dollars in new spending with no legislative scrutiny,” Meili wrote.

Meili said the NDP is not set on how a resumed sitting would look. He said it could be in-person with a reduced number of MLAs, or via video.

“It’s absolutely possible. You can do this while still respecting physical distancing and I would suggest not only can you, you must. It is our responsibility. This is our job, we have to do our jobs,” Meili said.

Moe says spending and revenue forecast was ‘presented’ prior to election

On Monday, Moe said he was “quite surprised” to receive Meili’s letter. He said the government and opposition house leaders have met and are meeting again this week.

“This is work that traditionally in this province, historically has been undertaken by the house leaders. It is critical that work continue at the house leader level.”

Moe said the government House Leader Jeremy Harrison and the NDP House Leader Cathy Sproule are discussing “how legislative oversight can occur, whether that is committees or legislative sittings can occur safely.”

Moe said the government’s partial budget spending plan was “tabled” in the assembly, “essentially that is presented prior to us going to polls on October 26.”

The government did not table the spending plan on March 18 because the legislative sitting was suspended before it could.

Moe said the government has not presented its revenue projections in the legislature but did so publicly last month.

Moe also said Monday he “has never precluded” the legislature from resuming.

Last Tuesday, Moe said he had not “given thought” to recalling the legislature. He had said previously that the daily COVID-19 media briefings, where reporters collectively get 25 to 30 minutes for questions and are allowed one follow-up each, amounted to accountability.

Two weeks ago, Moe said, “we have not discussed whether or not, or when, we would resume legislative services. I doubt whether we would utilize platforms such as Zoom.”

Days later he said he would not recall MLAs to enact back-to-work legislation to end the labour dispute between refinery workers and the Federated Co-op.

The government’s daily COVID-19 media briefing will be broadcast Monday, Wednesday and Friday on the Saskatchewan Legislative television channel at 2:30 p.m. CST, the same time question period normally would be.

Manitoba, Alberta and Quebec all sitting this week

The assembly only needs 15 of the 59 current MLAs to achieve quorum. 

The government has already met once this year and is not required to resume the sitting. 

When asked about doing question period or committees over Zoom, Moe ruled it out and said the government had security concerns.

Moe also has said many provinces were not back conducting debates or committee. Meili said this is “untrue.”

The degree to which legislatures across Canada are functioning varies.

The federal government has been conducting committees via video conference and has held virtual question period since late April.

Quebec has done committees via video and will reconvene its legislature on Wednesday, with a reduced number of elected members present.

This week, Ontario will hold its fourth in-person emergency debate. Manitoba is conducting question period once a week, having resumed on May 6 after suspended its sitting on March 20.

“We recognize it is important to allow the opposition to fulfil its role regarding its questions of the government, as well as to protect the health of all members by limiting large gatherings,” said Manitoba Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen on May 1.

Alberta’s government was an outlier early on, in that it continued to hold regular sittings three days a week through April.

“The work of democracy does not end in a crisis. The British House of Commons met every day during the blitz of the Luftwaffe on London,” Premier Jason Kenney on April 9. 

The opposition NDP in Alberta had raised concerns about being at the legislature when people were being told to stay home.

Alberta’s legislature will resume sitting on Wednesday to debate various bills.

Elections Sask. seeks legislation change

Last Monday, Elections Saskatchewan chief eectoral officer for Michael Boda sent a letter to Moe and the party house leaders recommending how the government could operate a successful and safe fall election.

Boda said he will need legislators to work together to give him the emergency powers to adjust the electoral process to “reduce risk of COVID-19 and adjust for inefficiencies that come as a result.”

Section 7 of the Election Act does not afford the chief electoral officer powers during a pandemic.

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