© Keith Gosse/The Telegram
Members of the House of Assembly listen as Finance Minister Tom Marshall brings down the 2011 provincial budget this afternoon.
A meeting between house leaders today has left Darin King to conclude there will be no special debate in the province’s House of Assembly this fall concerning the feasibility of the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project.
“The Liberal Party has pulled the plug on the debate,” said the Government House Leader, speaking with The Telegram this afternoon.
The Liberals were looking for a debating arrangement under which expert witnesses could be called to take questions from members. This was something the governing Progressive Conservatives would not agree to.
“It’s been our position as government that we’d be willing to compromise on the hours the house sits, on the type of question period, on the amount of time that members — including leaders and critics — get to speak,” said King. “All of those things we were willing to compromise on.”
King said the New Democratic Party and independent MHA Tom Osborne were in agreement with government on how the debate would proceed, but the Liberal Party would not take part under the conditions proposed.
The House of Assembly is scheduled to open for the fall session on Nov. 19.
(Story from today's Telegram print edition)
By James McLeod/The Telegram
Unless somebody backs down in a big way, there will be no special debate on Muskrat Falls in the House of Assembly.
In all likelihood, when the House of Assembly reconvenes on Nov. 19, politicians will be talking about whose fault it was that a debate in the House fell apart instead of talking about the
$7.4-billion Muskrat Falls project.
The divide comes down to whether a special debate in the Legislature will involve expert “witnesses” answering questions from MHAs about the project.
“We’re not prepared to bring so-called experts in. That’s a deal breaker,” Government House Leader Darin King said Monday afternoon. “So if one party decides that they’re not going to participate in a debate because of that, then there will be no debate.”
Liberal deputy House leader Andrew Parsons said witnesses are a deal breaker for him, too.
“No witnesses, no special debate,” Parsons said.
“We’re not going to have a special debate that they dictate the rules on us. It’s just not going to happen,” Parsons continued.
Premier Kathy Dunderdale promised this spring that the government would hold a special debate on the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project. Dunderdale has always said she envisions that debate following a similar format to the Voisey’s Bay special debate in 2002.
But a special debate in the House of Assembly requires that MHAs suspend the regular rules of the legislature, and that has historically involved political parties negotiating mutually acceptable provisional rules for a debate.
“When the Voisey’s Bay special debate was done, all three parties agreed to it, right? It wasn’t dictated by the government of the day,” Parsons said.
The Liberals say they need the ability to question Nalcor officials and independent consultants the government has hired to review the Muskrat Falls deal in the legislature.
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“I think that the people of this province should have a right to turn on their television and watch this debate and see the experts that the government are relying on,” Parsons said. “If there’s no witnesses then we’re not prepared to consent to these rules, and we’ll have to go into the House under the standing rules as they are currently laid out.”
Legally, there’s no requirement for the government to debate the Muskrat Falls project in the House of Assembly, and a regular session of the House wouldn’t give politicians to talk in as much depth about the project.
A regular session of the House would also open the government up to the possibility of a filibuster — something the Liberals have already threatened to do.
King said as far as he’s concerned, the province’s legislature just isn’t the right place for questioning experts.
“There’s been ample time for public debate, public critique, public criticism, public questions and so on,” he said. “But in the House of Assembly, that’s where politicians get to debate the merits of the project and then vote yea or nay on it.”
If the government doesn’t get unanimous consent from all MHAs on Nov. 19 when they come back to the House, they’ll proceed with their regular fall legislative agenda.
King said they may look for some other way to debate the project, but it won’t be a special debate.
“We could bring a private member’s motion on a Wednesday afternoon, for example, and debate it for two hours, and get our speaking time in and get our points across,” King said. “If the opposition parties are not prepared to co-operate with us, then they can defend that to their constituents as to why they won’t participate. We’ll try to find another way so we can have our say on the project, because we want people to understand where we all stand on this project and why we believe in the project so passionately.”
One person who seems to be looking for compromise and accommodation in all of this is New Democrat Leader Lorraine Michael.
She said she’s used to private, frank meetings between party house leaders, and the three parties haven’t spent much time doing that in this whole process.
“I want a meeting of the House Leaders so we can talk about this; I’m not going to have a discussion around this with the minister through the media,” she said. “I think it’s absolutely essential. We need to sit and talk to find out what it is we’re agreeing to. You know, what is the unanimous consent? What is it we’re agreeing to? I have no idea at this moment.”