Greens in the Leg - Summer Sitting Roundup

The new 8-member Green Official Opposition Caucus got to sit in the Legislature for the first time starting on June 13th. If you’re someone who watches the Legislature from time to time, you would likely have noticed a markedly different (more collegial) tone compared with past legislative sittings, and are hopefully as proud as we are of how quickly and well our new MLAs have learned their roles as legislators.

As Official Opposition, the Green Caucus has a special responsibility to hold government to account, and it takes that responsibility seriously by asking real questions, demanding real answers, and offering constructive criticism of government proposals and actions. At the same time, particularly in this minority legislature, there are many more opportunities for Green MLAs to bring forth legislation of their own, and to help set the agenda for the province.

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

Speech from the Throne

The Speech from the Throne is a speech written by the government and read out loud by the Lieutenant Governor at the beginning of a new legislative session. It sets out what the government hopes to accomplish during that session. The Speech from the Throne is the first critical “confidence test” of a new government - it must receive the support of the majority of MLAs, or else the government falls.

The Speech from the Throne contained many wonderful goals that Greens can wholeheartedly support, including a commitment to better collaboration between the government and opposition parties, investing in people and communities, addressing climate change, reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples, and restoring government accountability. The priorities of all parties were reflected to a greater or lesser extent in the speech, reflecting the fact that the minority government needed to obtain multi-partisan support in order to pass.

While the throne speech passed with unanimous support from all MLAs, in his response to the speech Opposition Leader Peter Bevan-Baker said “I think we can take from this that the Premier does, indeed, have a vision.... But once we get past the articulation of that vision, there’s actually very little substance in this throne speech. We do not learn what these building blocks are. We do not know how this foundation is going to be built and it’s implied that something truly transformational is going to happen within the first six months of the Premier’s administration, but yet, here we are over two months in, and really nothing in this speech to indicate that they actually have a plan to make this vision a reality.

Compared with throne speeches in the recent past, this one contained very little in the way of detail and concrete plans - and very few of the 150 distinct promises found in the PC election platform.

Some of the shortcomings identified by Peter Bevan-Baker include:

  • Rural internet: Like many throne speeches and election platforms before it, this one contains a promise of enhancing rural internet, but an extremely vague one. As Peter said “ I don’t want to spend another election night in my home, unable to see the results of the election, just because our Internet is really so inadequate.”
  • Climate Change: The speech states that it is “a long term vision for P.E.I. to achieve a carbon neutral society.” However, the lack of any sort of timeline, plan or sense of urgency for achieving that vision is troubling.
  • Governance: The PC platform contained several key promises for better governance and greater government accountability that, for some reason, did not make their way into the throne speech. These include:
    • Increasing the resources of the Auditor General and Privacy Commissioner
    • Banning partisan government advertising
    • Establishing an independent provincial Ombudsperson
    • Separating the roles of Attorney General and Minister of Justice

 

In conclusion, Peter Bevan-Baker said in his response to the Throne Speech:

“These are early days in the new government, and I hope that I speak for all members of this Legislature when I say I truly hope that the Premier will succeed in his desire to lead a government that I quote: “puts people at the heart of our decisions”, and that he will be able to bring a new collaborative tone to the Legislature with the help and the support of all sides of this House. 

For those of us on the opposition benches one of the best ways that we can support this government is by holding it to account. That does not mean opposing policy for the sake of being oppositional, but it does mean taking government at its word and holding the executive branch to the highest standards, to the standards that they set out for themselves in the election campaign.”

Read Peter Bevan-Baker’s full speech in response to the Throne Speech here: https://www.greenparty.pe.ca/response_to_the_speech_from_the_throne2019

Green bills

The Green Party’s new standing in the Legislature provides many more opportunities for Green MLAs to make and amend laws, and our caucus has wasted no time in making its mark! Let’s take a look at the bills that Green MLAs have introduced and passed in this sitting:

Government Advertising Standards Act - PASSED!

This bill has been in the works for a while - it was initially tabled in the Legislature by Peter Bevan-Baker in the last session. The bill comes in response to a number of recent, controversial cases of taxpayer-funded government advertising appearing distinctly partisan in character (Peter wrote a blog about this problem here). 

The new Government Advertising Standards Act establishes standards for government advertising here on Prince Edward Island to ensure that that is done in a nonpartisan manner, and allows any MLA who believes that government has funded partisan advertisements with public money to ask the Auditor General to investigate the complaint. If government is uncertain of whether an advertisement that they plan on using meets the standard, they are able to have the office of the Auditor General review that advertisement and assess its compliance with the legislation. 

See the bill here: Government Advertising Standards Act

An Act to Amend the Climate Leadership Act - PASSED!

Lynne Lund’s first private member’s bill was simple on the surface, calling for PEI’s 2030 greenhouse gas emissions target to be changed from 1.4 Mt to 1.2 Mt to bring it in line with the increased urgency of emissions reduction underlined by the most recent IPCC climate change report. However, it turned out to be the most contentious bill of the entire sitting, eliciting more than three hours of debate!

As Lynne Lund said in the introduction of her bill: “There is a trend in this area for climate change to outpace the models. We saw a report on it just this morning that sea ice is melting at a rate of about 70% faster than we expected. I can give a lot of examples where this has been true, but suffice it to say, we know we cannot continue on track to reach carbon neutrality in 2065, because that means we’re advocating for 2 degrees of warming. The IPCC report was unequivocal that we must hold global average temperatures to 1.5 degrees of warming to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change. This will not be easy and I’m not pretending it will be, but the challenge is still easier than trying to govern in a world that is 2 degrees warmer. IPCC models predict that warming of 2 degrees will double the catch losses for fisheries compared to 1.5 degrees. We can expect similar impacts to our agriculture and tourism sectors, the foundation of our economic well-being. If we’re going to keep PEI safe from catastrophic climate change, we need to challenge other provinces to tougher targets; we need to lead by example. The lower targets contained in this bill do exactly that by putting us on a path of carbon neutrality by 2050. We need to be leaders and I hope you’ll consider supporting this.” 

With the debate showing hesitation to take that climate leadership on the part of many MLAs, including the Minister of Environment, Water and Climate Change, Lynne Lund organized a rally outside the Legislature on July 9th - just before MLAs were due to return to vote on her bill. With more than 100 people filling the lawn of the Coles Building and passionate speeches by Lynne Lund as well as by young Islanders, who described how angst over climate change is affecting them personally, the rally had its intended effect. Climate Change Minister Brad Trivers addressed the crowd, telling them that he had spoken to his children and come to the conclusion that strengthening our climate targets was the right thing to do, and he would be supporting the bill. Minutes later, the bill passed second reading with 18 votes in favour from all parties!

See the CBC news story here.

With the passage of this bill, PEI is taking leadership within Canada, with the strongest emissions reduction targets (43% below 2005 levels by 2030, carbon neutrality by 2050) of any province.

Now the real work begins: on July 11th, MLAs unanimously adopted Lynne Lund’s motion to strike an all-party special committee to work on a plan to make sure we achieve the new targets. We have the right destination, now we need the road map!

See the bill here: An Act to Amend the Climate Leadership Act

An Act to Amend the Employment Standards Act - PASSED!

The principle behind this bill sponsored by Hannah Bell is, quite simply, that Islanders working on a minimum wage should not live in poverty.

Hannah’s bill is a small but meaningful amendment to the Employment Standards Act to incorporate measures of poverty, and to allow the Employment Standards Board to have a more meaningful and fulsome conversation about these measures when they consider increases to the minimum wage in their annual review. It codifies the practice of soliciting in-person and written submissions from the public when reviewing the minimum wage, and of taking into account cost of living increased for the necessities of life since the last minimum wage review, as well as the economic conditions within the province. The reports produced from these reviews will be made publicly available, increasing transparency regarding the rationale for minimum wage increases.

See the bill here: An Act to Amend the Employment Standards Act

An Act to Amend the Rental of Residential Property Act - PASSED!

This is also a simple bill designed to take one small, immediate step to help alleviate the plight of tenants being evicted for causes not of their own fault, such as for renovations (“renovictions”), by doubling the amount of time a tenant has to appeal such an eviction to IRAC from 10 to 20 days. 

There is evidence that in the current record low rental vacancy rate of 0.3% across the Island, evictions on the pretext of renovations have been increasing. In such a low-vacancy market, this puts significant stress on tenants who face not being able to find new, appropriate and affordable housing in their communities. While the doubling in the appeal period alone will not stop renovictions, it does provide tenants with a bit of breathing room in a stressful time to file an appeal and at least have IRAC investigate the lawfulness of the eviction.

A much bigger overhaul of the outdated Rental of Residential Property Act is needed urgently to better protect the rights of both tenants and landlords, and the Greens will be eager participants and advocates in that overhaul and in addressing the housing emergency facing this province.

See the bill here: An Act to Amend the Rental of Residential Property Act

Response to the Budget

On June 25th, the government introduced its first budget. Unfortunately, the budget did not quite live up to the lofty expectations created by the throne speech, consisting largely of plans and programs inherited from the former Liberal government - or as Green Finance Critic Michele Beaton called it “warmed-up Liberal leftovers”. While the Green and Liberal caucuses were consulted on the budget, our asks weren't reflected as we would have liked, and in some cases (like basic income vs. secure income), what was in the budget was not what we were led to believe would be. Major issues including poverty, climate change and housing will require substantially greater efforts, bolder action and more innovative solutions than are currently indicated in this budget.

For example, while more and more Islanders are getting left behind (and this was a major theme during the election and on the doorsteps), this budget sticks with the mere 6% increase in social assistance rates already announced by the Liberal government - not even enough to catch up with cost-of-living increases since the last time the rates were adjusted.

As Michele Beaton put it: “It is as if this new government has inherited an old house, one we all know is in need of significant renovations, and they don’t quite know where to start work so they have decided to carry on with the plan of the previous owners and are conveniently ignoring the major structural repairs that need attention now.

 

Things we like about the budget

Things we feel are lacking

Program to plant 1 million trees

No new increases to inadequate social assistance rates

Midwifery program - although funding for midwifery is inadequate compared with the need.

Basic personal exemption increase does not target support to the most vulnerable Islanders.

Adding 32 new teachers and 42 new educational assistants to our educational system.

Unclear if there is a plan to pursue a Basic Income Guarantee pilot program.

Wage increase for early childhood educators promised by the previous government has been kept - but more must be done to reach wage parity with educational assistants.

Inadequate investment in affordable housing in the midst of a housing crisis.

100 new long-term care beds are sorely needed.

No mention of measures to address labour gaps in the skilled trades.

New investments in mental health services.

Little to no new spending on measures to fight climate change and invest in renewable energy.

Continued commitment to fiscal responsibility with small surplus.

No long-term funding for a women’s shelter.

 

No funding for full school food program.

 

Decreased funding to UPEI and Holland College, with no additional financial aid for students who will have to bear the costs of increased tuition.

 

Steep increases to public long-term care fees are not being addressed.

 

Read Finance Critic Michele Beaton’s full speech in response to the 2019 Budget here: https://www.greenparty.pe.ca/response_to_the_2019_budget

Green Party Motions

In addition to the bills mentioned above, the Green Party passed a number of important motions. Unlike bills, motions do not become laws, but motions that pass indicate that a majority of MLAs are in support of a particular course of action and can be effective in establishing the political consensus for legislative and policy changes.

At the beginning of the session, the Green motion Ending the Practice of Heckling received unanimous support (CBC news story here), helping establish the environment for what has been described as one of the most - if not the most - civil and collegial legislative sittings ever.

We also passed two motions sponsored by Karla Bernard to improve sexual health of Island youth. The first motion calls for Improving the Sexual Health Curriculum taught in Island schools, recognizing that PEI’s sexual health curriculum has not yet been updated to reflect the social progress and realities of the present day (CBC news story here). Bernard’s second motion calls for PEI to adopt the Canadian Paediatric Society’s recommendation that contraception be made available free of charge to youth, avoiding unwanted pregnancies that can seriously disrupt young lives, with cost savings to the medical system alone more than offsetting the cost of free contraceptive coverage.

In the final week of the sitting, Green motions calling for the creation of two new special committees of the Legislature were passed.

One Special Committee on Climate Change would be tasked with making recommendations to government as to how best to meet its emission reduction targets.

A Special Committee on Poverty will be responsible for consulting with members of the public and community groups to, within 12 months a) establish clear definitions of poverty for PEI, including defining a “living wage”, and b) bring back recommendations regarding the creation of a Basic Income Guarantee pilot for Prince Edward Island.

Other Green Party Motions tabled but not voted on in this sitting:

 

Notable stories

A significant part of the Official Opposition’s role is to hold the government to account by asking important questions and bringing important issues to the government’s attention. The following collection of news stories highlights just some of the questions asked and issues raised by Green MLAs during the summer sitting.

PCs to stick with previous government's internet plan

Green MLA calls on province to regulate short-term rentals

Why are constituents asking MLAs for jobs? Green MLA asks

PCs to stick with Liberal increases in long-term care rates

P.E.I. schools 'scrambling' to meet staffing needs, says Opposition

Why Green MLA Hannah Bell says she plans to vote against PC's budget

P.E.I. legislature could see ‘radical change’ with expanded role of standing committees

P.E.I. Greens question role of PC MLA, business group in forming economic plan

P.E.I. targets early 2020 for midwifery, but Islanders may have to pay out of pocket

P.E.I. Green leader questions why 13 fire departments without non-cellular communications system

No more public funding for holding ponds, says P.E.I. government

As surgery wait-list grows, province looking into need for more ophthalmologists -  Following questions from Green MLA, health minister called wait times 'deplorable'

Green P.E.I. MLA raises cabinet approval of land leases of Irving-owned company

P.E.I. government keeping registry of students who attended TOSH during renovations

P.E.I. considering homeless shelters across province

Sale of Bedeque land to Irving-owned company may be imminent, P.E.I. Green MLA suggests

Opposition leader urges government to pull fossil fuel investments

Minister promises extra $900K to extend secure income pilot - Green MLA questions system to select which Islanders benefit

'It's discrimination': Group questions change in hearing aid coverage at age 65

King government passes budget as spring sitting comes to a close

Summerside Green MLA says children have aged out of disability support program