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Emergency sitting

Maclean Kay: The legislature will resume sitting next week – very briefly, and in much-reduced numbers.

Today, Solicitor General Mike Farnworth announced a provincial state of emergency – and that the legislature will resume sitting next week…sort of.

Details are still being worked out, but on agreement with all three parties and the Speaker’s Office, the bare minimum possible will be in Victoria Monday – and possibly just Monday.

What’s quorum?

Quorum is the minimum number of a governing body (anything from your strata council all the way up to the Disney board of directors) required to be present to officially conduct business. In the context of the legislature, Standing Order 6 requires a bare minimum of 10 MLAs to debate and pass bills. Farnworth mentioned a total of 12 for next week.

Whoah, only 10?

It’s not as unusual as it may sound. For things like Question Period, major ceremonies, and votes – in fact, pretty much just those things – the house is full, or close to it. But if you accidentally tune in for a committee, or ordinary bill debate, chances are you won’t see many more than 10 MLAs. That’s total, not 10 from each side.

Isn’t that a problem?

Not really. MLAs can’t sit in the chamber all day long – they have meetings, committee and question period preparation work, and they’re even allowed to eat every so often. In fact, owing to some injuries and family concerns, the legislature hasn’t been 100% full once this year.

Could the government fall?

Short answer: no.

Long answer: The government can only fall if it lost a Confidence Vote, usually just the budget, and sometimes the Throne Speech. Monday will see an interim supply bill – basically just authorization from the legislature for the provincial government to continue spending money – and one or two emergency measures. Barring some massive surprise, they will not only pass, but pass quickly. (More on that below.)

Even if it were technically possible, a move to defeat the government just simply wouldn’t happen. Politically, neither the BC Liberals or Greens are so reckless as to force an election over and during a pandemic. (In fact, the NDP government has repeatedly commended the BC Liberals and Greens for setting political differences aside and working together on the pandemic, unlike the situation in other provinces.)

Beside that, the BC Liberals are only sending two MLAs, and Farnworth today said both Greens would be there. That still leaves the presumptive six or seven NDP members with an absolute majority – again, just for the afternoon.

Can they do that in just one afternoon?

Ordinarily, no. Bills must pass through several stages of scrutiny: First Reading; Second Reading; Committee; Report; Amendments (if any); Third Reading; and Royal Assent. After that, it’s the law of the land. To allow for detailed scrutiny, each stage occurs on a different day.

But these are not ordinary times. Parliamentary Procedure allows for a faster process in “urgent or exceptional cases,” and a Public Health Emergency definitely qualifies. Farnworth confirmed the bills will still be examined and debated by the MLAs present – which is a good thing – but barring some unforeseen mistake or circumstance, it will likely pass through all stages on Monday.

Can MLAs practice social distancing in the legislature?

They have assigned seats, but will be allowed to spread themselves out. Again, it’s (probably) just for one afternoon.

What about staff?

This is still in the works. Hansard will need to be present to broadcast and transcribe proceedings. Protective Services will remain. The legislative dining room has become takeout-only. I’m told non-essential in-person caucus and government staff will be skeleton crews, at best.

Maclean Kay is Editor-in-Chief of The Orca