A Memorial University political science professor says functioning legislatures find a way to listen to the experts.
“Any proper legislature has a place for expert testimony,” Kelly Blidook told The Telegram this week. “Now, whether it has to be with a committee of the whole or whether it has to be with a strong standing committee that can use expert testimony and report on it, legislatures always make space for experts and this one should too.”
Political negotiations have broken down over the format of a debate on the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project, with the opposition Liberals demanding expert witnesses be called into the House of Assembly, and the governing PC Party saying that’s not going to happen.
Blidook, who studies legislative behaviour, said it’s not common that experts are brought in before an entire legislature, but it does happen.
“It happens rarely, but the process still allows it to happen,” he said. “Typically you can have a committee of the whole which is where the entire legislature acts as a committee, and that’s where you can have witnesses that are called, right? And I think most people would think that’s the preferred method if you have something of broad public concern.”
The Newfoundland and Labrador legislature routinely resolves itself into a committee of the whole to examine legislation, but that does not involve questioning witnesses.
Unless all the parties in the House come to an agreement, they won’t have the unanimous consent to hold a special debate. Based on the current impasse, it seems unlikely they’ll find some common ground before the House opens on Nov. 19.
Blidook said it’s not surprising that the government is looking to bolster the public confidence with a public debate. Because the House of Assembly is structured as an adversarial crucible, if a proposal passes muster, it’s generally accepted as truth.
“At least in the Westminster parliamentary system, it’s designed to be government and opposition, right?” he said. “If something looks OK after it’s been exposed to that kind of setting, then chances are that it’s OK.”
On the other hand, he said, bringing in experts adds an extra political element, and something that’s difficult for the government to control.
“They want to be able to attack any of the points that come up in the debate. So if it’s all just opposition parties, it’s easy to say it’s just the opposition, it’s just the NDP, it’s just the Liberals,” he said. “You can’t really attack the experts the same way you can attack the other parties, right?”
As for the Liberals, they’re making a strategic gamble, too.
“I think the Liberals ultimately say, ‘look, we think there’s enough support on the side for having a debate and we think there’s even enough support on the side of having a debate with experts that we’re going to say no,’” he said. “To be fair, I mean, the reason why the government is suddenly interested in public debate is probably based on public pressure. Now, the Liberals are essentially saying we think there’s enough public pressure to keep this thing going.”
Government House leader Darin King has argued that the legislature, at its core, is a place for elected politicians to have their say.
“It’s our view that the legislature is a place where politicians sit. You walk in there because you get elected,” King said earlier this week. “The House of Assembly, that’s where politicians get to debate the merits of the project and then vote yea or nay on it.”
Blidook had a different take on it, though.
“Well, he’s wrong,” he said. “That’s why you normally have a strong committee system. A strong committee system, ultimately, that functions effectively, will be able to write reports based on expert testimony and report those back to the House.”