The legislative branch is an essential function of our governance system. While it is a privilege for Members to sit in the House, there is also an obligation that accompanies that privilege. As legislators we have a mandated responsibility to do the work of careful oversight and to provide accountability to the Islanders we represent. Recalling the Legislature is a critical necessity to meet our obligations and to ensure no Islander is falling through the cracks.
For example, there are important amendments that are required to be passed in order to protect the wellbeing and livelihoods of Islanders now and for any future disruption such as what COVID-19 is causing.
Principal among these is amending the Employment Standards Act. Under existing legislation employees are not adequately protected should they need to take leave due to quarantine and self-isolation orders, or illness due to COVID-19. Existing sick leave policies, either provincial, private, or unionized, fall short of the mandated 14 days of isolation. This means in order to meet the public health order, workers have to take leave without pay if it is available, or run the risk of losing their jobs. This means Islanders who are asked to stay home are not incentivized to stay home, as they risk losing their employment. Despite this being one of the first pieces of legislation passed in other provinces after COVID-19 became an emergency, PEI still has not implemented COVID-related leave.
Then there is the need for real time oversight of expenditures by government in response to COVID-19. While government has indicated a report will be done by the Auditor General (AG), this is actually an after the fact report that evaluates the spending. It does not audit or monitor spending as it happens to ensure the funds are being spent in the most effective manner. Without appropriate oversight, how do we know whether or not the programs and spending are meeting the needs of Islanders most effectively? Are there gaps in programs that people are falling through?
It is also important we empower the AG with the means and authority to audit the use of government dollars and how organizations receiving these funds are spending them. Again, it is about meeting the needs of Islanders and ensuring we are doing the most and best to protect them.
We also need to have a change in rules that will ensure the work of the legislative branch is able to continue during any type of disruption to society such as we are experiencing now. Under existing rules, MLAs must meet together in the Legislative Assembly to carry out the legislative business of government. This is nearly impossible to do given our current circumstances. Government cannot simply exist and attempt to carry out the business of caring for Islanders by special warrants alone. We must provide options for virtual meetings so the essential legislative business can continue. Without those necessary changes, how will we manage a second wave of illness if it comes, or should another similar disruption happen on PEI?
For these reasons, it is essential the Legislative Assembly be reconvened to pass legislation to protect our workers, our public health, and our ability to govern effectively.
Honourable Peter Bevan-Baker
Leader of the Official Opposition
MLA District 17 New Haven-Rocky Point
April 24, 2020