Greens in the Leg - Fall Sitting Wrap-up

This fall sitting was short, lasting only 20 days, but a lot of bills (20 Government, 3 Opposition and one Private Member's bill) and motions were passed, many of them with the unanimous approval by MLAs from all three parties in the Legislature. One thing about the current Legislature that is very different from past legislatures is how much work happens on bills before they come to the floor for debate. Knowing how important buy-in from the opposition parties is to pass legislation in this minority legislature, the government has consulted with both the Green and Liberal caucuses on most bills in advance of the fall sitting in order to address questions or concerns ahead of time. This has given Green MLAs more influence over government bills than most other Official Oppositions in the past.

At the same time, as Official Opposition, the Green Caucus has a special responsibility to hold government to account, and it takes that responsibility seriously by asking tough questions, demanding real answers, and taking government to task when it fails to uphold the principles of good governance.

Here’s a brief roundup of what your Green MLAs have been up to in the Legislature over the past few weeks:

Green bills

Let’s take a look at the bills that Green MLAs have passed in this sitting.

Bill no. 111 - An Act to Amend the Tourism Industry Act - Sponsored by Hannah Bell, MLA for District 11

Airbnb_(1).pngThis law requires require operators of short-term rentals to, upon request, provide the province with their contact information, the number of nights the establishment is rented and the price charged for the rental. The purpose is to provide the PEI government with crucial data it needs to understand the scope of the short-term rental market on PEI, in order to better regulate it to prevent short-term rentals from eroding the Island's increasingly scarce housing supply.

>>IN THE NEWS: 

P.E.I. Greens introduce bill aimed at clarifying data, definitions of short-term rentals

Green Party bill to provide snapshot of short-term rentals on P.E.I. using 'accurate, objective data'

Bill no. 109 - An Act to Amend the Employment Standards Act (No. 2) - Sponsored by Karla Bernard, MLA for District 12

Domestic_violence.jpgThis bill is a simple amendment to the Employment Standards Act to ensure that employees who are part of a collective labour agreement are also entitled to leave due to domestic violence, intimate partner and sexual violence.

 

Bill no. 110 - An Act to Amend the Highway Traffic Act (No. 4) - Sponsored by Steve Howard, MLA for District 22

Screen_Shot_2019-11-30_at_3.26.43_PM.pngThis is also a simple amendment that makes it an offence for vehicles that are not in the process of being charged from being left unattended at an electric vehicle charging station.

 

Capital Budget

Capital_budget.pngThe Capital Budget is a forecast of spending for infrastructure and capital projects such as roads and bridges, public buildings, and equipment (as opposed to the Operational Budget delivered each spring, which details other government program and service expenditures). 

The Capital Budget, like all budgetary matters, is a matter of confidence, i.e. the bill must pass in order for the government to survive. The defeat of a budget bill means that the government has lost the confidence of the House, which typically triggers a new election.

Ultimately, the 2019 Capital Budget passed with the support of four Green and four Liberal MLAs. Some key reservations from the Greens which resulted in half of the Green caucus voting against the budget include:

  • The government's neglect to include the Hillsborough Bridge Active Transportation Lane in it's capital budget for the next four years, despite the commitment by the previous government to build it and the huge support for the project which resulted in the Island's largest ever petition (3255 signatures!) being tabled this month.;
  • Delays in the much-needed construction of a new Stratford High School, as well as the planned expansions of other Charlottetown High Schools currently struggling with severe overcrowding as enrolment as exceeded projections;
  • Lack of information provided to the Opposition about the details of the Capital Budget - Opposition MLAS received no greater information than what the public has access to.
  • Ministers were not invited to speak to the impact of the budget on their departments, as was the case with the Operational Budget in the Spring sitting.

Green Party Motions

Motions do not have the force of law, however they are useful ways of discussing and raising awareness about issues in the Legislature that can then go on to inform laws or government policies (for example, Peter Bevan-Baker's motion to ban conversion therapy last year led to a law being passed this sitting to make conversion therapy illegal on PEI).

Motion 20 - Net Zero Now 

(Sponsored by Ole Hammarlund, MLA for District 13) - PASSED!

[This motion], which has perhaps seen the most debate over the fall sitting, called for the province to only construct buildings that meet net zero standards. These buildings would generate 100 per cent of their energy needs on-site, said Green MLA Ole Hammarlund, who introduced the motion.

"The good news, of course, with net zero buildings is that savings and operating costs – basically you don't have to pay power, lights, heat – completely offset the extra costs," Hammarlund told The Guardian.

"They're paid over the next 20 years of operating the building."

Hammarlund’s motion saw two amendments added. One amendment from the government side changed the language, urging the province to “target the net zero or beyond building standards”.

A further amendment introduced from Opposition Leader Peter Bevan-Baker urged government to build the Sherwood school according to zero carbon building standards.

-Stu Neatby/The Journal Pioneer

Motion 24 - Creating a Rental Registry 

(Sponsored by Hannah Bell, MLA for District 11) - PASSED

Bell also introduced a motion calling for the creation of a rental registry, a free, searchable database of rental units. The registry would include past rent prices, increases beyond the allowable limit and legal orders for repairs. 

"It's about the property. It's not about the landlords or the tenants,” Bell said. 

“For landlords, it means they can show what they have available.”

Tenants would be able to search the rent that previous tenants in the unit were paying.

-Stu Neatby/The Journal Pioneer

Motion 39 - Prohibit Construction that could result in the release of dangerous particulates in Schools with Children Present

(Sponsored by Trish Altass, MLA for District 23) - PASSED!

The motivation behind this motion was of course to prevent further situations such as the one which occurred at Three Oaks High School (TOSH) in Summerside during the 2016-2019 renovations which exposed children there to airborne asbestos particulates. 

Trish Altass's questions in the Legislature also revealed that the government had initially abandoned an earlier pledge to create a health registry for possibly affected students of TOSH, only to once again reverse course the following day.

>>RELATED: 

No registry created to track TOSH student health

Motion 41 - Providing an annual report on progress by PEI Government on implementation of the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC) and Calls for Justice of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG)

(Sponsored by Peter Bevan-Baker, leader of the Official Opposition and MLA for District 17) - PASSED!

The lengthy title of this motion pretty much sums it up - here on PEI we must do our part to ensure that the recommendations coming out of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission and the MMIWG Inquiry are actually implemented as part of a process of Reconciliation with indigenous peoples.

Peter Bevan-Baker's motion calls on the government to establish an advisory committee, including representation from Lennox Island and Abegweit Band Councils, the Native Council of PEI and the Aboriginal Women’s Association, to oversee the implementation of these recommendations, and for government to produce an annual report about how it is implementing these recommendations.

 

Motion 49 - Calling on Government to improve fiscal accountability

(Sponsored by Michele Beaton, MLA for District 5) - PASSED!

This motion by Finance Critic Michele Beaton was debated and passed on the very last day of the Legislature. The motion speaks to concerns about the two consecutive "surprise surpluses" announced by the government this year, which may speak to poor financial forecasting and which actually limits the ability to use more of those funds on underfunded programs relied upon by Islanders.

Michele Beaton also took the time to speak about her concern about more than $17 million in spending by the Minister of Transportation earlier this year without the approval required by law.

To quote Michele Beaton as she opened debate on this motion:

"The Financial Administration Act prohibits expenditures from being incurred unless provided by an appropriation... in other words, approval for expenditures beyond what's approved in the budget must obtain a special warrant before the expenditures are incurred. And earlier this year, government spent more than $17m on roads without obtaining that appropriate approval. And when we asked in this House - when we asked the Minister - what those expenditures were on... the Minister was unable to provide the specifics of the work that required the expenditure. And this does concern me, because if we're to approve something in this House, we should have the opportunity to have that information so that we are actually making very sound decisions on behalf of Islanders. ...After all, Islanders should be able to trust that the government is spending their government wisely and in appropriate ways."

 

Motion 50 - Drug Treatment Courts

(Sponsored by Lynne Lund, MLA for District 21) - PASSED!

[This motion], introduced by Summerside Green MLA Lynne Lund, called for the implementation of a drug treatment court pilot program in Summerside. The courts would provide court-monitored treatment and community service support for non-violent offenders with drug addictions.

Last Tuesday, an amendment to the motion was proposed by Justice and Public Safety Minister Bloyce Thompson to “explore the possibility” of establishing “specialty courts such as voluntary drug treatment court".

Lund indicated she would vote against the amendment.

“I would have supported an amendment to see a pilot provincewide but not to water down what the intent of this needs to be – and that’s drug treatment courts,” Lund told the House.

In a rare moment, both the Liberal and Green caucuses out-voted the minority government side, defeating the amendment. The original motion would pass on Tuesday night.

-Stu Neatby/The Journal Pioneer

Motions tabled but not called for debate this sitting

Motion 40 - Call on the Legislative Assembly to refer Social Determinants of Health to the appropriate Standing Committee (Sponsored by Trish Altass, MLA for District 23)

Motion 42 - Urging the Child and Youth Advocate to undertake a preview of the Public School Branch sexual violence policy (Sponsored by Karla Bernard, MLA for District 12)

Motion 48 - Improving social assistance for Islanders in need (Sponsored by Hannah Bell, MLA for District 11)

Motion 51 - Motion on expanding publicly funded dental services (Sponsored by Peter Bevan-Baker, MLA for District 17 and Leader of the Official Opposition)

Motion 60 - Increase support for COPD Management (Sponsored by Trish Altass, MLA for District 23)

Motion 61 - Calling on Government to Divest Fossil Fuel Investments (Sponsored by Peter Bevan-Baker, MLA for District 17 and Leader of the Official Opposition)

Motion 62 - Practicing Life-cycle Costing (Sponsored by Michele Beaton, MLA for District 5)

Motion 63 - Urging government to support Island farmers in developing a sustainable agricultural sector on Prince Edward Island (Sponsored by Peter Bevan-Baker, MLA for District 17 and Leader of the Official Opposition)

Motion 64 - Addressing the Impacts of Loneliness (Sponsored by Michele Beaton, MLA for District 5)

Motion 65 - Addressing Period Poverty (Sponsored by Hannah Bell, MLA for District 11)

Good questions

 

The daily Question Period is one of the key opportunities that our Green MLAs have to hold the government to account. Here are just a few highlights from Question Period in the sitting that just ended.

 

 

On poverty

MLAs Hannah Bell (Charlottetown-Belvedere) & Karla Bernard (Charlottetown-Victoria Park) highlighted the gaps and shortfalls for necessities like food insecurity and feminine hygiene that currently exist for Islanders receiving social assistance. She pointed to impossible situations faced by many recipients, including insufficient food budgets to properly feed their families, and women unable to afford feminine hygiene products and who suffer and are sometimes forced to miss work as a result.

On addiction recovery supports

MLA Trish Altass (Tyne Valley-Sherbrooke) questioned the Premier about the lack of mention of addiction supports in the Health & Wellness Minister's mandate letter, and was assured by the Premier that support for those struggling with addictions was indeed one of the government's priorities, calling the lack on mention in the mandate letter "an oversight". Altass went on to question the Health & Wellness Minister about what can be done to better coordinate addiction services on the Island.

On heating public buildings with biomass

The capital budget tabled by the government last week commits $6.6 million to add 13 more public buildings to the list of 33 schools, hospitals and other buildings converted from heating oil to biomass heat. But as MLA Steve Howard (Summerside-South Drive) pointed out in question period, the environmental benefits of switching to wood heat depend on how the wood is harvested, whether plantings keep up with harvested trees, and how long trees are allowed to grow before they're cut. He has also tabled documents that throw into doubt the government's claim that there is a sustainable supply of wood on PEI to feed the new biomass heating systems being proposed.

On ride-hailing

The government's announcement that it would create a restricted class four license for drivers working for ride-hailing services (such as Uber and Lyft) was light on detail - including about what other regulations the government might introduce in order to ensure the public is kept safe when riding in such services.

The Minister of Transportation replied that he does not believe any further legislation is required for ride-hailing services at this point, and that in his opinion ride-hailing services are and have always been legal on Prince Edward Island.

See https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/prince-edward-island/pei-ride-booking-regulations-1.5357205

Concerns about the Eastern Kings wind farm expansion

MLA Lynne Lund raised several concerns about a wind farm expansion in Eastern Kings during question period on Wednesday.

The expansion of the farm from 10 windmills to 17 has caused concern from local residents, who say the expansion could threaten local bird species. Lund raised several of these concerns during question period and referred to a recently completed environmental assessment of the project.

"The assessment, which is currently subject to public review and comment, identified some concerning potential impacts," Lund said.

"Eight endangered bird and bat species are in the area, as are four previously unmapped wetlands."

On the response to Hurricane Dorian

Opposition Leader Peter Bevan-Baker contrasted P.E.I.'s response to a situation in Manitoba last month, after a storm in that province left thousands without power.  

"In Manitoba, Premier Brian Pallister declared a state of emergency within hours of recognizing the extent of the damage," Bevan-Baker said.  "Why did P.E.I. not very early on declare a state of emergency as Manitoba did?" 

Some on P.E.I. were without power for more than a week after Dorian, and Bevan-Baker said declaring a state of emergency would have allowed the province to access more resources. 

See https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/prince-edward-island/pei-question-period-dorian-response-1.5356888

On "surprise" budget surpluses

The first question period of the fall sitting of the legislature kicked off with a back-and-forth over P.E.I.’s recently announced $57-million surplus.

Opposition Leader Peter Bevan-Baker suggested the surprise surplus was an indication of inaccurate revenue projections on the part of the Department of Finance.

During the tenure of the previous Liberal government, the province had projected the surplus would be $1.5 million for the 2018/19 fiscal year. Actual tax revenue was higher than projected and accounted for the majority of the $57 million surplus.

Last year, Health MacDonald, the finance minister of the previous Liberal government, announced a $75-million budget surplus for the 2017/18 fiscal year after projecting a surplus of $600,000. 

"Any private business that was so wildly inaccurate in its financial budgeting would have to answer some pretty uncomfortable and serious questions," Bevan-Baker said.

On rural internet

Opposition Leader Peter Bevan-Baker asked for an update on the status of a $74 million plan to improve rural internet infrastructure in P.E.I.

The plan, which will be carried out by Bell Canada and Xplornet, has the goal of improving broadband internet services to 30,000 Island residents and businesses. The project was announced by then-Liberal premier Wade MacLauchlan two weeks before the beginning of the 2019 election. 

A March 15 media release announcing the initiative stated the province expected to improve internet access for 6,000 people by the end of 2019.

But, as Bevan-Baker noted, a final agreement has yet to be signed between the province and the two internet providers.

“How close are you to signing a final agreement with Bell and Xplornet, and when can we expect to see work begin on that?” Bevan-Baker asked Matthew MacKay, the current minister of economic growth, tourism and culture.

MacKay said he expects to sign final agreements with Bell by as early as Friday.

“Either by Friday or the first of next week, we’ll be able to roll out that. Xplornet is not far behind. So, within the next two-three weeks, you’re going to see this rolled out and away we go,” MacKay said.

On the Hillsborough Bridge Bike Lane

Green MLA Michele Beaton, who represents Mermaid-Stratford, grilled the government about why it is not building the promised Hillsborough Bridge active transportation lane at the same time as current work to install a new sewage pipe on the bridge.

“Can you explain why the promised bike lane was not included in the Hillsborough Bridge renovations that are currently underway?” Beaton asked Transportation Minister Steven Myers.

Myers replied he could not explain the reasons, as they had been made under the previous government. 

“There was no money put forward in the capital budget by the previous government to do that project during this period, or any period, other than 2023 and that’s when it appears in the budget,” Myers said.

On a Universal School Food Program

Green MLA Karla Bernard asked the Minister of Education, Brad Trivers, for an update on government's new plans for a universal school food program — and Trivers said work is underway, and he intends to make an announcement soon.   

"It is definitely my goal to have a universal school-food program in every school across Prince Edward Island by September 2020," Trivers said.

Bernard said a universal lunch program was identified as a priority by all three parties — and she said access to healthful food affects students' academic performance. 

"A school lunch program then is not just a way to address health inequity, it would also ensure that everyone of our kids gets a fair shot at achieving the success they deserve, whatever that looks like to them," Bernard said. 

Trivers said he "couldn't agree more" with how important such a program would be. He said there will be a pilot program in some schools during the current school year, which will help to determine the exact details of an Island-wide program for next fall.

Active Transportation on the Hillsborough Bridge

Peter Bevan-Baker was honoured to accept and table a petition from Bike Friendly Charlottetown, calling for the current government to build an active transportation lane for cyclists and pedestrians on the Hillsborough Bridge within its mandate - as had been promised by the previous government. In the photo to the left, he his pictured receiving the petition from Sally MacDonald (mother of the late Josh Underhay), Scott Brown and Josh Weale of Bike Friendly Charlottetown.

With a total of 3,255 signatures, this petition is believed to be the largest ever tabled in the PEI Legislature! Way to go to the many volunteers who worked so hard to collect them!

The impetus for the Hillsborough Bridge Bike Lane was inspired by the late Josh Underhay, who had spearheaded the initial petition that caused the previous government to commit to the project, and was an avid active transportation advocate. In table the petition, Peter Bevan-Baker called it "the beginning of what I believe will be a large and great legacy for a large and great human being."

Related to this issue:

WATCH: Mermaid-Stratford MLA Michele Beaton questions Finance Minister Darlene Compton on the failure to include funding for the bike lane in the current capital budget.

IN THE NEWS: Opposition puts pressure on P.E.I. government for active transportation

 

Support for Government Bills

While working to hold the government to account, our Green MLAs were also pleased to support the passage of several pieces of government legislation, contributing to a very productive fall sitting.

Closing loopholes in the Lands Protection Act

Groups such as the National Farmers Union and the Coalition for the Protection of PEI Land have been raising the alarm bell for years about the practice of large corporations circumventing land ownership restricts through practices including registering land purchases under holding companies with non-transparent ownership.

Now, changes made this sitting to PEI's Lands Protection Act (LPA) and the Business Corporation Act will re-introduce public transparency of shareholders in land-owning corporations, and see an increase in fines for companies that contravene the LPA.

See https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/prince-edward-island/pei-legislature-lands-protection-act-legislation-changes-1.5374529

Tackling the vaping "epidemic"

The dramatic and troubling increases in the use of electronic cigarettes (vaping) by youth in the past two years, coupled with growing health alarms around vaping, prompted the Legislature's youngest MLA, Cory Deagle, to introduce a private member's bill that both increases the minimum legal age for both vaping and smoking on PEI to 21 (the first province to do so), and will eventually limit the flavours that the vaping industry is allowed to sell on PEI, to limit the appeal of vaping to youth.

See https://www.theguardian.pe.ca/news/local/what-should-the-legal-age-for-vaping-and-smoking-be-pei-government-says-21-378204/

A truly independent Child and Youth Advocate

When former Premier Wade MacLauchlan created the position of Child and Youth Advocate last January, it was criticized by both Green and PC opposition MLAs for not being a truly independent role, but one that was answerable only to Cabinet.

Now, with the unanimous support of the House, PEI has a truly independent Child and Youth Advocate.

See https://www.theguardian.pe.ca/news/local/pc-bill-establishes-independent-child-and-youth-advocate-for-pei-378851/

Opening adoption records

The province has introduced long-awaited reforms that will allow adoption records to be unsealed.

The amendments to the Adoption Act were introduced by Social Development and Housing Minister Ernie Hudson on Tuesday afternoon. The legislation would allow adoption records to be opened up by default, but both parents and children will be given an option of filing a veto on disclosure of their identity. However, current adoption records will not be opened before Jan. 31, 2021.

See https://www.theguardian.pe.ca/news/local/pei-introduces-changes-to-adoption-records-378507/

Supports for persons with disabilities

The Supports for Persons with Disabilities Act establishes a legislative framework for AccessAbility Supports, a program established in 2018 for individuals living with disabilities.

Banning Conversion Therapy

Conversion Therapy refers to any practice intended to change a person's sexual orientation or gender identity. While there is no evidence that it is currently being practiced on PEI, other jurisdictions in Canada have begin banning the practice, and local groups including Pflag and Pride PEI have called for a PEI ban lest this province attract conversion therapy programs being forced to cease operations in other parts of Canada.

Peter Bevan-Baker passed a motion in 2018 calling for a Conversion Therapy ban, and this time he worked together with Health Minister James Aylward on a bill to make such a ban law.

See: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/prince-edward-island/pei-conversion-therapy-bill-passes-second-reading-1.5358759