Q8. How does the Law Amendments Committee really work?

The government will do everything it can to move a bill through the committee quickly

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A8. I have explained in other posts what the Law Amendments Committee (LAC) is and offered some tips on how to make a good presentation to the LAC. Now I’m going to tell you how it really works. (I’ve also written a post about the unique features of the LAC hearings on Bill 59 in March 2017.)

In particular, a common question I’ve heard is “Can the government limit the number of speakers at the LAC?”

The LAC is where the public is heard. It should be the centrepiece of a democratic legislature. It isn’t. It is not at all user-friendly. That is not an accident.

(By the way, nothing that follows is a knock on the Liberals. The slow march towards an ever more tightly-controlled LAC has occurred under PC, NDP and now Liberal governments.)

A government’s primary interest, especially on a very controversial bill like Bill 75, is to pass the bill as quickly as possible. The rules set some limits on how long each stage of the legislative process can go on.  The only exception is the LAC, which has no official time limit.

As a result, the LAC has become in recent years—at least when it comes to controversial bills—a battleground between government, opposition, and citizens. The procedure is a moving target, and seems to change a little bit with each new controversy. As it turned out, the LAC hearings on Bill 75 in February 2017 featured a hard cut-off. Over 300 of the 400 registered speakers were not heard.

Always remember that the government wants the LAC to be as short as possible, and that they’ve already decided what they want the bill to say. Those are the keys to understanding everything. If you keep those keys in mind, you will understand the following features of the LAC:

  1. The LAC meets only at Province House. That is inconvenient for any citizen who cannot get to downtown Halifax. The government doesn’t care.
  2. The LAC sometimes meets at short notice. That is inconvenient for any citizen who does not have a very flexible schedule. The government doesn’t care.
  3. The LAC sometimes has very, very, very long meetings. That is inconvenient for any citizen who cannot, for example, be available to present at 2:25am on a Thursday morning. The government doesn’t care.
  4. Committee members receive written submissions but don’t usually read them.
  5. Government members on the LAC don’t ask questions. That’s because if they do, it just adds to the time.
  6. Government MLAs sometimes don’t pay a lot of attention to what’s being said. That’s because their instruction is to pass the bill through the LAC as quickly as possible without amendment. Sometimes government MLAs make it a little too obvious that they’re bored and not paying attention to the citizen who is speaking.
  7. Sometimes the MLAs will bicker over procedure. It’s almost always about time. The chair will make rulings on any procedural question, and will almost always favour the government. Because the government members have a majority, they can essentially dictate what the answer to any procedural dispute will be.

On most bills, there are no presenters at LAC. On some bills, there may be one or two presenters. They may get up to 20 minutes. On a controversial bill with a lot of presenters, the presentations can be shortened to as little as five minutes. I’ve never seen the time set at fewer than five minutes. When the five minutes is up, the presenter is cut off and the committee moves to the next presenter.

Can the government limit the number of presenters? If you had asked me 15 years ago, I would have said No. If you ask me today, I would say Yes. The precedent has been established.

After trying different tactics over the years, the government seems to have settled on the position that the LAC can set an overall time limit on its proceedings. They can (for example) declare on Wednesday that they will accept no more presenters after midnight on Thursday.

And if that means some citizens will not be heard, then so be it.

 

 

Author: Graham Steele

A former MLA in Nova Scotia, currently Professor of Business Law in the Rowe School of Business at Dalhousie University

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