We’re close to the halfway mark of the spring session of the legislature, and I’m still waiting for something substantial to happen.
Our law-makers have been sitting for over two weeks in the legislature, debating issues, poring through government’s spending plans for the year and yes, taking pot shots at one another, hoping for political gain.
There have certainly been some pot shots – mainly coming from the general direction of the Opposition Progressive Conservative caucus’ corner of the chamber.
Their two biggest issues so far this session have been:
– Accusing Finance Minister Wes Sheridan of cooking the province’s books two years ago with his accounting of a $25 million HST transition payment from Ottawa;
– Going through minutiae of cabinet ministers’ expenses and finding small amounts charged to taxpayers for personal expenses (i.e. George Webster’s hotel room movie; Valerie Docherty’s hotel room upgrade)
While these issues are by no means insignificant, I’ve found it surprising how much precious question period time the Opposition Tories have devoted to them.
The $25-million HST payment took up all or most of the first four question periods. In P.E.I. legislature terms, that’s a whole week, since the house only sits four days a week.
The issue is difficult to explain and has a lot to do with accounting rules (which can make even the most ardent political watchers’ eyes glaze over), yet the Tories believe this is a big political point-scorer for them.
On the first day, OppositionLeader Steven Myers accused Sheridan of committing a ‘breach of privilege,’ which essentially means he purposely lied in the legislature. This is a strict no-no in the parliamentary world, and Speaker Carolyn Bertram had to treat it very seriously.
In the hallways, Tory staffers buzzed with excitement over their procedural move, telling reporters they believed this would ‘bring Sheridan down.’
Not surprisingly, it didn’t.
Bertram ruled last week there was no breach of privilege – making a point of even detailing the dates on which the auditor general told Sheridan he had to change his accounting of the $25 million from the 2012-13 fiscal year to the following year.
As for the ministerial expenses – I agree that all MLAs should be held to account for their spending (and it sure would be nice to, in fact, see all MLA expenses, as currently only cabinet minister expenses are publicly available).
I agree that cabinet ministers should not charge personal expenses to taxpayers, whether it’s a $16 hotel room upgrade or a $40 movie.
But it should be noted the Opposition would’ve had to go through a significant amount of time to obtain the information they have been bringing up in QP for some pretty small-ticket expenses.
Only aggregate expense data is available online — detailed hotel bills like the ones tabled last week by the Tories must be obtained by filing Freedom of Information requests – a painstakingly long process that often takes months.
Granted, I don’t know how much time their staff dedicated to poring over Valerie Docherty’s hotel bills, but given that the most salacious expenses they’ve been able to uncover so far have amounted to less than $100, I’m left to wonder how these issues are resonating with Islanders.
Prince Edward Islanders are very plugged in and their level of understanding and engagement should not be underestimated on issues of importance.
Take deep-water wells. Committee meetings on this issue were overflowing with Islanders wanting to speak or to hear the testimony of people who hope to sway government to lift the moratorium on high-capacity wells for irrigation or leave it in place.
In my seven years as a political journalist in P.E.I. I’ve never seen this amount of public engagement on any topic. People on both sides are taking the time to really inform themselves on the science and nuances of the issue, rather than resorting to political mud slinging or finger pointing.
Yet, for all this public interest and the tangible impacts lifting the moratorium would have on Prince Edward Island and its citizens, it has been mentioned only once during question period, and not by the Opposition – but by a Liberal backbencher.
I understand political pot shots and mud slinging are part of the game, and an integral one in the legislature.
But I’m still waiting for some questions on issues that affect Islanders and will really capture their attention and engagement.
Because when it really comes down to it, I don’t think Islanders who are struggling to find a job or to keep their business afloat really care about what movie George Webster watched in his Texas hotel room three years ago.