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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The absentee B.C. legislature

  1. LOOK OUT ! A Democracy that is absent .

  2. With a government like the BC Liberals, it is a good thing they are not sitting very long. At least they are not forcing omnibus bills on us no one wants!

  3. “a government … without significant checks and balances”

    “information is the lifeblood of democracy”

    Here in BC, the lack of info, checks & balances is due
    to much more than the absence of a sitting legislature … we are also missing an
    effective fourth estate. Our MSM prefers to dwell on stories of kittens &
    Canucks and even on those rare occasions when the legislature sits, the
    resulting news stories rarely linger on the front pages. Our current Clark/Campbell
    government is so intertwined with the media that all semblance of accountability
    has been lost. Clark’s publication relations & communications departments
    have been a revolving door of media personalities, reporters and their spouses
    (Pamela Martin, Ken Olsen, Rebecca Scott, most recently Ben Chin). Those BCers
    who which to stay politically informed are abandoning the MSM in droves for
    political blogs of all stripes.

    … So thanks Mark for throwing a little light on the “darkness”
    of BC’s political scene. Much appreciated.

    • you hit the nail on the head!

  4. “And yet, there has barely been a murmur of discontent.”

    There is in fact extreme discontent on the part of anyone who is politically aware but it is muffled by an inert or complicit press and an opposition that is not doing its job. The NDP seem so sure the voters will destroy the Liberals, they have taped their own lips shut. It may be astute politics but it is shameful governance. They probably will win but their dereliction shows they will be no more principled in office than their disgusting predecessors.

  5. What sort of dream world is the author living in? As a close observer of the B.C. legislature over many years, I never saw the government being “held to account.” Question Period is nothing but a series of desperate bids for sound bites on the evening news. Debate, on the rare occasion where it rises above self-serving blather, is utterly ignored by the media and therefore has zero effect on public awareness or opinion. The whole institution exists only to give the illusion of democracy, and that is true whether the House sits for 10 or 300 days a year.

  6. We in Alberta would be delighted to trade Allison Redford for Christy Clark.

    • I would call this being on the horns of a dilemma!

    • we in BC would be happy to let you have both. Heck, we’ll even throw in a Coleman.

  7. I had letters to the editor published to this effect in The Sun And Province in Sept.. one of the very few on this topic. We were supposed to see the new regs for the HST then but they have melted away.There were to be reports on other key portfolios as well-where are they? Unless a cabinet minister sends out a press release,we are in the dark. One month to go before the budget which will take up most of the time allotted with nothing remaining to deal with issues and fiascos that unfolded since Christy shut things down so her new ministers could get on top of their portfolios. Looks like it was a steep learning curve given the time they will have taken !

  8. 19 days. Thats nothing. The Ontario legislature hasn’t shown up for work in months.

  9. Given the level of efficiency many governing bodies are delving into; only 19 days wasted doesn’t sound that bad.

    Seriously though a sitting majority tends to dismiss dissenting views too flippantly. Pending elections and polls too often are what they pay attention to.

  10. Experiment with
    Monkeys.-
    C.L.E.V.E.R.

    If you
    start with a cage containing five monkeys and inside the cage you hang a
    banana on a string from the top — and then you place a set of stairs under
    the banana, before long a monkey will go to the stairs and climb toward the
    banana.

    As soon as he touches the stairs, you spray all the other
    monkeys
    with ice cold water.

    After a while another monkey
    makes an attempt with the same result …
    all the other monkeys are sprayed
    with ice cold water. Pretty soon when
    another monkey tries to climb the
    stairs, the other monkeys will try
    to prevent it.

    Now, put the
    cold water away.

    Remove one monkey from the cage and replace it
    with a new one.
    The new monkey sees the banana and attempts to climb
    the
    stairs.To his shock, all of the other monkeys beat the crap out
    of
    him. After another attempt and attack, he knows that if he tries
    to
    climb the stairs he will be assaulted.

    Next, remove another
    of the original five monkeys, replacing it
    with a new one.

    The
    newcomer goes to the stairs and is attacked. The previous
    newcomer takes
    part in the punishment… with enthusiasm, because
    he is now part of the
    “team”.

    Then, replace a third original monkey with a new one,
    followed by
    the fourth, then the fifth. Every time the newest monkey takes
    to the
    stairs he is attacked.

    Now, the monkeys that are
    beating him up have no idea why they
    were not permitted to climb the
    stairs. Neither do they know why they
    are participating in the beating of
    the newest monkey.

    Finally, having replaced all of the original
    monkeys, none of the
    remaining monkeys will have ever been sprayed with
    cold water.
    Nevertheless, not one of the monkeys will try to climb the
    stairway
    for the banana.

    Why, you ask? Because in their
    minds… that is the way it has
    always been!

    This,
    my friends, is how Parliament operates… and this is why, from time

    to time ALL of the
    monkeys need to be REPLACED AT THE SAME TIME.

  11. Though parliament is regularly dismissed as ineffectual by the cynics and the jaded, its essential importance to a functioning democracy is more or less given, and thanks to Mark Jarvis for reminding us of that.
    What’s forgotten too often in discussions of our system of parliamentary democracy, as opposed to our American cousins’ “separation of powers” system, is that the Chief Executive Office, Prime Minister or Premier, in our houses of parliament is expected to stand before her or his critics and face challenges of competency or integrity. That’s why governments tend to dislike parliaments and oppositions tend to love them. That’s also why Premier Clark and her colleagues have effectively decided to circumvent parliament.

    Another important fact: when parliaments are sitting the media have to cover what goes on there; when a parliament is not in session government can more or less control the political coverage, and the opposition parties tend to be ignored.
    Again, thanks to Mark Davis.

  12. As Skookum states it’s “an illusion od Democracy.” So true and the MSM are totally negligent in their duties, too busy sucking up for the millions of dollars Christy is pouring into advertising in her disgusting hate campaign against the NDP. 19 days with no debate, absolute power, coming to an end May 14, 2013.

  13. Thank you Mark Jarvis of Macleans Magazine, it’s like living behind a Liberal curtain in real darkness in BC.

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