If one wasn’t paying attention one might assume this could be the latest comedy to be shown at the Confederation Summer festival this year. One could be forgiven for making such a mistake, after all there is a star studded collection of well known island comedians starring in this production. However, it is not a new show, in fact it is more of the same old political antics we islanders have become accustomed to over the years. It does not take place at the Confederation Centre but in the legislature where there is a full cast of comics. The nonsense continues!!! Buck Watts (speaker of the house) claims he was ambushed by Jamie Fox (leader of the opposition) his integrity has been impugned, his impartiality called into question. My goodness what serious accusations, quick the members must immediately form a committee to contemplate this serious crisis. Hey!! what about the budget?? never mind that, this is important. Hey!! what about the E Gaming scandal, never mind that either, this is more important. So another one in the long and endless processes of committees is formed. This committee was very efficient and swiftly reached a conclusion! Neither Buck Watts or Jamie Fox are at fault, No, it was the fault of the media!!!. Apparently the Guardian Newspaper completely misrepresented the facts. Thank heavens for that, now can these comics get back to the serious business of government, please Mr Speaker. I honestly despair at the nonsense and waste that elected officials continue to perpetuate year after year.
Democracy suffered a serious setback during a P.E.I. legislative committee meeting on Friday.
It suffered equally on the floor of the P.E.I. legislature Tuesday afternoon. What transpired was an astonishing and disturbing series of events, abetted by MLAs from all political parties.
It amounted to an attack on a free press and didn’t stray far from an attack on freedom of speech – two key foundations in any democracy.
The media generally, but The Guardian specifically, were singled out for almost unprecedented attack by committee chairwoman Kathleen Casey and members of her all-party committee.
The series of events was brought to a head Friday when the Standing Committee on Rules, Regulations, Private Bills and Privileges was to hold its first public meeting since 2009.
The meeting was called to discuss important issues involving the Speaker of the House but it quickly bogged down amid petty, partisan bickering. It wasn’t long before members of the public and media were given the boot as MLAs went behind closed doors. It was a disgrace.
At issue was a demand from Speaker of the House Buck Watts to deal with what he termed was a breach of privilege amid attempts to intimidate him.
A related letter from Opposition Leader Jamie Fox, calling for the committee to consider a rule preventing the Speaker from attending partisan party events, was also on the agenda. The rule change was to strengthen the independence of a key member of our province’s democratic institution.
After half an hour of bickering, the Liberal majority hijacked the public meeting, which moved in camera. So much for government promises of transparency and accountability.
That letter written April 15 by Mr. Fox to committee chairwoman Casey raised concerns about the Speaker’s impartiality because of his attendance at Liberal nominating conventions and numerous Liberal caucus events.
Interviews by The Guardian’s political reporter with Opposition members expanded on those concerns, suggesting that recent rulings from the Speaker seemed to unfairly target the Opposition. It was suggested the Opposition was so upset that a motion of non-confidence in the Speaker was being considered.
The Guardian subsequently wrote several editorials and news stories on the matter, urging that the committee pass a rule preventing the Speaker from attending partisan political events, a rule generally followed by a majority of provinces and the federal government.
The Guardian and Mr. Watts both obtained a copy of the confidential letter. The Speaker voiced his anger and concern inside the House about the contents and subsequent press coverage that he vowed must not go unchallenged.
Friday, MLAs were more concerned with who leaked the letter instead of the serious issues it raised. Liberals wondered how the newspaper got the letter and the Progressive Conservatives raised the question how the Speaker received the same document.
In a reasoned Guardian commentary last Friday, Mr. Fox argued that a rule to prevent Mr. Watts from attending partisan events would serve the Speaker and legislature well – now and in the future.
But Friday’s meeting quickly dissolved into procedural chaos about witness lists, work plans, leaks and petty bickering. The media and members of the public concerned about these serious issues were then kicked out of the meeting.
Later that day, Ms. Casey remained mum on what was decided but indicated the committee was continuing its work and had nothing to report.
Apparently, the committee concluded its work on those two issues and had much to report. The committee – especially its Opposition members – performed an amazing flip-flop behind those closed doors. It presented a stunning report to the legislature Tuesday that unanimously supported the Speaker, confirmed his neutrality and declared there was no need to investigate the matter further.
The committee’s underwhelming recommendation limits the Speaker from attending partisan events while the House is sitting, a month afterwards and 60 days prior to the House opening. It’s almost identical to what the Speaker voluntarily does now.
It’s insufficient. The ban should apply throughout the year and the only exemption is for essential constituency events. It’s called common sense. If a Speaker feels that his or her abilities to help constituents would be limited, then don’t run for the job.
The committee said it concurs with the Speaker’s finding of a prima facie breach of privilege based on the media’s interpretation of Mr. Fox’s letter, and “subsequent irresponsible and unsubstantiated reporting on the subject.” It’s an outrageous conclusion.
There’s more. The committee – now arm in arm in a display of MLA solidarity rarely seen on the floor of the House – took more direct aim at the media.
The Opposition, in effect, threw the media under the PC bus. It said no members of the Opposition are contemplating a motion of non-confidence in the Speaker, and that Mr. Fox’s letter never intended to question his impartiality. Then why did he bother to write it?
The committee said that certain media stories on the matter lapsed into reporting rumour, innuendo and speculation as fact. The Opposition then agreed that these reports were not accurate and that the Speaker has its full and unqualified support. The committee hinted that the Opposition had never considered a motion of non-confidence.
This was the same Opposition which was eagerly looking forward to an open, public committee meeting last Friday.
What cowed them, changed their minds or whipped them into dutiful supporters of chairwoman Casey? What did happen behind those closed doors Friday. It’s almost beyond belief.
Mr. Watts has emerged triumphant, MLAs closed ranks in a display of unanimity and the media was assessed full blame.
We hope all MLAs are proud of their behavior. It turned into a real gong show Friday and it wasn’t much different Tuesday afternoon.
The government might have applied pressure to bring the Opposition in line, but The Guardian and other media will not be intimidated. We stand by the reports as accurate and repudiate in the strongest possible terms any suggestion of inaccurate reporting, or printing rumour and speculation.
The legislative committee is advised to stop hiding behind closed doors. Let the public see what is really going on and who is telling the truth. They have a right to know.
God Bless and keep reading