MARK JARVIS

B.C. legislature sits 36 of 579 days. Is this responsible government?

Contributed to The Globe and Mail

The B.C. legislature in Victoria. (CHAD HIPOLITO For The Globe and Mail)

After some speculation last week, Premier Christy Clark announced on Tuesday that there would be no fall sitting of the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia. Although not entirely unexpected it still is a disconcerting development.

By cancelling the fall sitting, Ms. Clark is effectively announcing that the legislature will not sit again – pending some unforeseen emergency – in 2013. The announcement effectively means that the legislature will have only sat for a total of 36 days in 2013, the fewest number of days in any year since 2001. In case you have forgotten, this is not Ms. Clark’s first go-around with limiting how frequently the legislative assembly sits. Indeed, with her party burdened by the weight of political scandal, Ms. Clark also cancelled the fall sitting last year after the assembly rose in May, 2012. As an indicator of what might follow, the B.C. legislature did not meet again after last year’s cancelled fall sitting until Feb. 12, 2013, before rising again March 14, 2013 in advance of the May, 2013, provincial election.

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So actually, it is not just that the legislative assembly will have only sat 36 days in 2013, it is that by the end of this year the B.C. legislature will have only sat for 36 of the previous 579 days going back to May 31, 2012 – 17 days in the seven months that followed the election earlier this year plus 19 days between June, 2012, and May, 2013. That the B.C. legislature will only sit 36 days in 2013 is shameful enough, combine it with the previous sitting and it’s astounding.

Ms. Clark’s decision to have the legislature sit for only 19 days in the year before the 2013 election meant citizens were asked to vote in a state of relative darkness, inhibiting their ability to fully hold the government to account. This was met with barely a murmur of discontent, including by the opposition parties. This shows that the problem is larger than just Ms. Clark’s government or her party.

In Westminster parliamentary systems the operation of the legislature is of paramount importance. The legislature represents the critical, democratic link between citizens, who sit at the apex of democracy, and the executive, who govern on their behalf. While the actual authority that the executive exercises in governing may originate elsewhere – in the case of Canada mostly from the Crown – the executive is drawn from, and held to account by, the people’s representatives who comprise the legislative assembly. Responsible Government requires that the executive govern only so long as it enjoys the confidence of the legislature. For Responsible Government to operate in a meaningful way, it is necessary that the House is actually in session for an adequate amount of time in order to fulfill its fundamental responsibilities: To review government legislation, to scrutinize government administration and performance and to extend and withdraw confidence as it sees fit. This has become increasingly important as the size of governments and the scope of their activities has grown.

What constitutes an adequate amount of time for a legislature to sit? There is no touchstone that provides a definitive answer this question. Section Five of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms states, “There shall be a sitting of Parliament and of each legislature at least once every twelve months.” This is meant as a democratic right, guaranteeing at least a basic functioning of our democratic system. It is doubtful whether many citizens would concede meeting only 35 days per year, let alone one, meets the test of a basic functioning democracy. At best, it pays lip service to the functioning of responsible government. Without a sitting legislature there is no real link between citizens and what the government does.

In cancelling last year’s fall sitting, Ms. Clark suggested that the legislature suffered under a “sick culture”, where “all they can think about is government” and that she tries “never to go over there”. While she didn’t define exactly whom or what she meant by “they” and “there” in her comments at the time, she later clarified that “she was talking about the legislature.” Capital cities, be they provincial or federal, can no doubt be insular and suffocating places, but Ms. Clark seems to forget that the very purpose that we send members of the legislative assembly to Victoria is to focus on scrutinizing the government. Ms. Clark’s disdain for the legislative assembly’s function has been as clear in her actions as in her words.

Mark D. Jarvis is a doctoral candidate at the University of Victoria. His 2011 book Democratizing the Constitution: Reforming Responsible Government (http://www.emp.ca/democratizing-the-constitution-reforming-responsible-government.html) , co-authored with Lori Turnbull and the later Peter Aucoin, was awarded both the Donner and Smiley book prizes.

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