On the last day of the fall sitting of the P.E.I. legislature, Morell-Mermaid MLA Sidney MacEwen tabled a number of written questions for the government. Under his breath, the Progressive Conservative member was heard to say something like; “I’ll see those answers in a few years.”
The frustration level was evident for the opposition member and reflects the recurring roadblocks that PC and Green party members encounter getting answers to written questions. The issue has been raised before and apparently, the response time from government hasn’t improved. Answers take months - and it was no exaggeration from Mr. MacEwen - yes, even years.
The government likes to brag that it is more accountable and can cite various improvements to defend its case. But its response to written questions helps negate those claims; and then going to court to challenge a ruling of the privacy commissioner blows a bigger hole in that argument. When answers are finally provided on Freedom of Information requests, whole paragraphs and pages are blacked out.
Written questions are an important part of the legislature. There is limited time allotted in Question Period and there are certain topics that require details best supplied in written form. Government has failed to make a serious effort to provide answers in a timely fashion.
The issue boiled over in May 2017 when the opposition complained it was waiting for answers from written questions posed in 2015. The response from government, instead of offering an acceptable solution, turned into a threat. After complaining it was swamped with written questions and suggesting that opposition MLAs were abusing the system, government tossed the issue to the standing committee of rules and regulations, which proposed limiting the number of written questions each MLA can submit to 15 per session. It was a thinly-veiled attempt to limit opposition scrutiny and smacked of censorship.
At that time, Mr. MacEwen suggested a 45-day maximum time period for an answer to a written question. It seemed like a sensible proposal. Based on his comments several weeks ago, it hasn’t gotten much traction.
The issue reflects opposition parties’ complaints that their biggest challenge over the past year was trying to effectively hold Premier Wade MacLauchlan’s government to account.
Both PC Leader James Aylward and Green Leader Peter Bevan-Baker feel Premier MacLauchlan’s promises of transparency are mostly rhetoric. They are frustrated when they ask questions and don’t get an answer - just political spin. Or in the case of written questions, silence.
Mr. Bevan-Baker says his biggest challenge was coming to terms with his limitations as a legislator when dealing with a majority government, which simply refuses to give ground.
Both Mr. Aylward and Mr. Bevan-Baker are trying to rethink their strategy to better hold this government accountable. Despite promises to do things differently, the MacLauchlan government hasn’t shown much willingness to compromise.
The co-operative efforts by the PCs and Greens might be a harbinger of things to come. A possible coalition following the next provincial election may not sound so far-fetched.