Record breaking

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Nobody made a cake and nobody set off fireworks, but last Thursday (June 7) was a day for celebration in the Newfoundland and Labrador House of Assembly.

As of the end of last week, our honourable members have logged more sitting days in a spring session than any previous spring since 1994.

(A lot of other records have been broken since June 7, but that's a whole different kettle of fish.)

Really take a second and think about that.

1994.

Clyde Wells was premier of the province.

Then-prime minister Jean Chretien was leading a Liberal Party that managed to win elections.

Tupac Shakur was still alive and living the thug life.

Disney released "The Lion King."

The word "blog" didn't exist.

And way back in 1994, the House of Assembly sat for a remarkable 59 days in the spring. Just to really knock it out of the park, our honourable MHAs sat another 24 days in the fall of 1994. (By comparison, the last time we had a fall sitting, back in 2010, our MHAs sat for a much-less-impressive eight days.)

It's worth noting here that it's not totally fair to compare 2012 to 1994. Back then, when the House was sitting, MHAs managed to put in a five-day week. In 2000 they changed the practice and started sitting Monday to Thursday instead, giving rural MHAs a bit more time to get back to their districts.

(I'm told that when they shortened the legislative week, they started sitting for longer each day, so it evened out.)

A while back, I wrote about how the opposition parties had run out of things to say, and that the spring session had been dragging on for a long time.

It seems like Premier Kathy Dunderdale and Government House Leader Jerome Kennedy have decided to really hammer the point home.

What's weird is that even though the House has been sitting for a really long time by recent standards, they haven't actually passed that many new laws.

Assuming they pass everything currently on the Order Paper, the fine politicians of our province will have passed 38 pieces of legislation. (Well 36 really, since two of them are related to the budget, and basically pro-formal bills that are passed every year. But let's just never mind about that for the moment.)

In 2009, the House managed to pass 36 pieces of legislation in total, despite the fact that they only sat for 28 days. (Don't let that link confuse you, by the way. In 2009, they passed 76 bills, but the lion's share of them were put through during the three-week fall session.)

It's worth noting that the vast majority of the legislating was done in the past week or two.

On the other hand our honourble members spent more than a month - from April 24 to May 29 - dithering over whether or not we should spend $8 billion and keeping having a government. (You'll be happy to know that in the end our MHAs chose to pass the budget, thereby averting a slide into total anarchy for another year.)

The basic point I'm trying to make here is that a lot of sitting days does not mean a lot of legislation passed.

And even when the government is apparently passing legislation, it often bears a closer look.

Take, for example, the Obsolete Actions Act, which was passed last week. This is an act which, according to the plain-language explanatory notes, would do the following:

"· extinguish the common law torts of breach of promise of marriage and the loss of services of a female in consequence of rape or seduction; and

"· remove references to these torts and the already extinguished tort of criminal conversation in the Evidence Act, the Jury Act, 1991, the Small Claims Actand the Survival of Actions Act."

If I'm being honest, I don't know exactly what any of that means, but I'm glad we're getting rid of it. All the same, it doesn't exactly seem like earth-shattering stuff that will reshape Newfoundland and Labrador society as we know it.

Same goes for the Act to Amend the Municipalities Act and the Urban and Rural Planning Act, which would do the following:

"This Bill would amend the Municipalities Act, 1999 to authorize the Provincial Court to collect an administrative fee for processing tickets for violations of that Act or a regulation or by-law made under it.

"The Bill would also amend the Urban and Rural Planning Act, 2000 to direct the court to forward a fine recovered under that Act to the council to which the fine relates and to authorize the Provincial Court to collect an administrative fee for processing tickets for violations of that Act or a regulation or by-law made under it.

"The Bill would make consequential amendments to each of the City of Corner Brook Act, the City of Mount Pearl Act and the City of St. John's Act to achieve consistency with the proposed amendments."

Again, it all sounds important, but I don't think it's going to change the way I live my life. Not exactly bold public policy.

Another great example is the Rail Service Act which was passed in 2009, and then amended earlier this spring. That's right, twice in the past few years our honourable elected representatives have passed legislation governing rail services in a province with only one privately-owned railway that's used pretty much exclusively for industrial shipping.

It's also worth noting that by Canadian standards, our province passes a trickle of legislation, not a flood. In Ontario they're currently considering at least 106 different bills this spring, although to be fair, some of them appear to be fairly esoteric housekeeping items.

OK, so what's my point with all of this?

Dunderdale is clearly making a point of keeping the House open for a long time this spring. She's already kept the legislature open for the longest period in recent memory. And by all accounts, there's another two weeks of legislating to be done before things clew up and MHAs can all go home and take it easy for the summer.

If she finds herself facing criticism like she did last fall, about not opening the House, expect Dunderdale to snap back saying how long the House was open this spring.

The thing is, it shouldn't really be about how many days the House of Assembly is open each year. That's not much more than a crude yardstick, and a count of how many question periods the opposition has had to try to score political points at the government's expense.

Personally, I think more people should be talking about how much legislation the government is passing, and what kind of laws they're considering.

Never mind how many days they're sitting, or whether or not Dunderdale chooses to open/close the House. That's a really facile debate.

Let's talk about public policy instead.

Let's debate how the province should be reforming the laws that are on the books now, and what new laws should be brought in.

And - please, do this one little thing for me - when we do bring in new pieces of legislation, let's actually talk about it.

FINAL NOTE: This entire blog post was written last Sunday before things went crazy. You already know about what happened with the filibuster, I'm sure. If not, read this. As a final note related to this post, though, Kennedy has said with the legislation on the Order Paper that they need to pass, the House could end up sitting into July. This would be unprecedented territory in the past two decades. The very longest sitting going back to 1991 (which is as far as the records go online in an easily accessible way) is 61 days. Conceivably, the current government could beat that.

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  • sam
    June 16, 2012 - 07:39

    All i heard from the media from October to March was how the HoA wasn't open! Now some seem to be saying...awww well it doesnt matter how long it is open, now its all about the bills being passed. I make no wonder changes are being made to the Information Act. The media is probably most of the reason. Imagine David Cochrane might not be the first person to crack a story...imagine that! Maybe we should have all the information before we kill the messenger.