Ethics committee has an ethics problem
Accusations of unethical behaviour have called into question the future of the provincial ethics committee.
Two area MLAs, NDP member Marie Renaud and Wildrose member Glenn van Dijken, serve on the committee. They both acknowledge there have been challenges, but say the committee just needs more time to do its work.
On Monday morning, tensions came to head when the Alberta Legislature's all-party Select Special Ethics and Accountability Committee meeting opened with accusations that the chair, Jessica Littlewood , the NDP MLA for Fort Saskatchewan-Vegreville, had violated her role as an impartial leader.
Littlewood removed herself as the committee chair after PC member Richard Starke accused her of asking his party's stance on election funding and sharing the NDP stance on the issue during a phone call.
“I have to say that I was shocked by this,” Starke said. “I was shocked that you would even know what those positions would be because as chair of the committee you are to be impartial, and you are to be nonpartisan.”
The opposition wanted to refer the matter to the Speaker, but the NDP members – including Littlewood – outvoted them and closed the matter.
Following Monday's incident, house leader Brian Mason accused the opposition of filibustering and intentionally derailing the efforts of the committee. He said the opposition does not want restrictions placed on their ability to tap their rich friends for campaign money.
“Absolutely not,” van Dijken, Wildrose MLA for Barrhead-Morinville-Westlock, said to the accusation of filibustering.
“We are raising concerns with regard to the government trying to force through election financing considerations without hearing the concerns of the opposition members,” van Dijken said.
Renaud, NDP MLA for St. Albert, said that the problems run deeper than having questions about the chair and the opposition has problems with the actual work of the committee.
“They say they weren't filibustering but I can promise you, after having been on that committee for about a year, that's exactly what was happening,” Renaud said.
The committee's one year mandate expires on Sept. 28. Mason said the working group might not be worth extending because the opposition is opposed to reform.
NDP MLA Graham Sucha, chair of the economic futures committee, defended Littlewood's actions, saying reaching out to committee members is necessary to “ensure that the committee moves as smoothly and efficiently as possible.”
Sandra Jansen, PC MLA for Calgary-North West, was “stunned” at Sucha's comments.
“There is a fine line between having conversations to make things as efficient as possible and making backroom deals – a fine line – and I would suggest that that line might have been crossed in this instance,” Jansen said.
Littlewood voted with the opposition to remove herself as chair for that meeting in “the interests of moving the committee forward and wanting to support the work of the committee.” She plans to return as chair for the remainder of the meetings.
Greg Clark, leader of the Alberta Party, said the behaviour of the chair is unfortunate and has created a distraction from the issue at hand, which is the NDP using their power to further their own interests.
“Unfortunately they are using their majority to do exactly that and that's the sort of stuff people kicked the PCs out for doing,” Clark said. “It's sad to see the NDP in less than a year and a half fall into the same old pattern of behaviour.”
The committee had successfully tackled reforming whistleblower legislation but conversations hit a snag when the topic of election campaign financing was brought to the table.
Despite their disagreement, the committee members think they can continue to work together to achieve their mandate, but would need an extension past their original Sept. 28 deadline.
The team has already worked through difficult whistleblower legislation and Renaud, van Dijken and Clark all think that the committee will be able to effectively get through the rest.
Van Dijken says the amount of legislation the team was handed was large and it was not realistic to expect them to get through it all in one year. He said the trouble was compounded by the fact that the group did not meet much during the winter months.
The house will decide on whether to extend the committee's deadline or dissolve the group.