What are our MLAs doing?

According to the B.C. legislature's calendar for 2019, the house will sit for just 62 days this year. Throughout six whole months - December, January, and June through September - not a single meeting is scheduled. And during March and November, our MLAs will be present just eight days each month.

May was the busiest period, and even then the house met for just 14 days.

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Regrettably, there is nothing exceptional about absenteeism on this scale. In 2018, the legislature sat for 67 days, and just 61 in 2017.

In effect, our representatives are present for the equivalent of a mere two months each year in the arena where they do the people's business.

Some of this can be justified. MLAs are obliged to spend a reasonable amount of time in their ridings.

There are town hall meetings to attend, constituents to talk with and public events that demand their presence. There are also family obligations to take care of.

But while conceding these necessities, we also have to consider the damage that is done. The legislature is where the government is held responsible for its policies. This takes place through debates, examination of ministry budgets, scrutiny of proposed new legislation, and most important of all, question period. If ministers are not present to explain and justify their actions, those actions become, in effect, unaccountable.

To take just one example, there are 20 ministries in our provincial government, with combined expenditures of $58 billion. Yet the legislature devoted just 31 days to examining these expenditures, or roughly a day and a half per ministry. How can this possibly be adequate when such large sums are involved?

There are other consequences of prolonged absence. We are in the midst of an opioid crisis. Are the measures being taken to combat this threat adequate or not?

Who can say? Certainly the epidemic won't shut down for the summer, as the house has done.

Then again, during the last provincial election, the government promised $10-a-day day-care. Where is it? Only a handful of pilot projects have been announced so far.

Some cancer patients in Haida Gwaii face an eight-hour ferry ride to the mainland because the local clinic cannot find a pharmacy technician to mix the required drug cocktails.

In fairness, the shortage of technicians seems to be a nationwide problem, but again, what is the government doing to correct it?

And now, Speaker Darryl Plecas has announced that his chief of staff, Alan Mullen, has embarked on a cross-continent tour to collect "evidence" that the outgoing sergeant-at-arms, Gary Lenz, has committed undefined infractions.

Lenz has already been cleared by Beverley McLachlin, retired Supreme Court of Canada chief justice, who was engaged to review this allegation.

But Mullen is touring Canada and several U.S. states to conduct a "multi-jurisdictional forward-looking review... looking at security policies and procedures." So we can learn from Alabama how our legislature should perform?

This is exactly the kind of extravagant nonsense that Plecas accused former clerk Craig James, of committing. And where is the legislature? On holiday.

No one suggests ministers are inactive when the house isn't sitting. Neither are they silent. Bucket loads of media releases issue forth on a near-daily basis.

But these announcements are largely self-congratulatory. It's almost unheard of for a ministry to confess a screw-up, at least voluntarily.

It takes the work of an informed Opposition to elicit that kind of admission, and for the equivalent of 10 months a year, those Opposition members are scattered to the four corners of the province.

It has long been a concern that legislatures are becoming ever less important - that too much power is vested in the premier's office. But this trend accelerates when the house doesn't even sit.

Parliament met for 122 days last year, and the federal government has nothing like the range of program responsibilities that provinces do.

If our MPs can measure up to the task, there is no reason whatsoever that our MLAs can't. As it is, they're only halfway there.

-- Victoria Times-Colonist

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