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'An intense process': Committee nixes giving P.E.I. government emergency powers

Premier King speaks to media outside of the Coles Building on Wednesday. King said he hoped the legal costs owing from the Abegweit and Lennox Island First Nations related to the Mill River legal battle could be better used for other projects.
Premier King speaks to media outside of the Coles Building in this June file photo. - Stu Neatby
CHARLOTTETOWN, P.E.I. —



An all-party standing committee has recommended against allowing extra powers for the Progressive Conservative cabinet to deal with the current COVID-19 pandemic.

In a report tabled on Tuesday, the standing committee on health and social development recommended against amendments to the province’s Emergency Measures Act that would have allowed cabinet to alter existing legislation during a state of emergency, without these bills coming before the legislative assembly.

The amendments were introduced by Justice and Public Safety Minister Bloyce Thompson.

Bloyce Thompson
Bloyce Thompson

 

During debates, Thompson had said the amendments were needed to allow the province to react swiftly in case of a second wave of COVID-19.

He said public health officials strongly believe a second wave could have a greater impact on P.E.I. than the current pandemic has.

Thompson specifically cited a cumbersome process his department went through to halt evictions in the province earlier in the pandemic, a process that required obtaining a court order from the Supreme Court.

The report, due to come up for debate on Thursday, means the governing Progressive Conservatives will have difficulty in passing the emergency legislation. This bill was considered a key part of the government’s legislative agenda for this sitting.

The committee’s report said legislature is still able to meet, even in the midst of a pandemic.

“If there is an immediate requirement to make changes to any statute due to the COVID-19 pandemic or any other state of emergency, there are provisions in the rules of the legislative assembly that allow for the House to meet in urgent or extraordinary circumstances,” the report said.

“Allowing changes to these laws without this level of public oversight should only happen if it can be determined that it would be impossible for the legislative assembly to convene in certain circumstance.”

The report also noted that the speaker can waive giving 60 days' notice for the opening of a session, allowing emergency sessions to be called quickly.

The committee heard from representatives from 11 departments, as well as the Executive Council Office. A total of 35 individuals also wrote in submissions to the committee.

Gord McNeilly, chairman of the standing committee on health and social development, said the committee debate on the bill was “an intense process.”

Gord McNeilly
Gord McNeilly

 

The committee included two cabinet ministers, Brad Trivers and Jamie Fox, as well as two Liberal members and two Greens.

"The way that the bill was set up where they would just have blanket power was looked at as a difficult step to fix a problem," McNeilly said.

McNeilly said that in the event of a second wave, the rules of the legislative assembly allow a reduced quorum of 10 MLAs to meet if a full sitting is deemed a risk.

The Chief Public Health Office does not have authority to limit sittings of the provincial legislature.

At present, the rules governing P.E.I.’s legislature do not allow for virtual sittings.

Another standing committee is currently reviewing the rules governing the legislature, but recommendations related to rule changes to allow virtual sittings are not expected to be released before the fall.

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