REGINA - Are the opposition New Democrats against the Saskatchewan First Act, or for it?
That’s what the Sask Party government and others wanted to know on Tuesday, after several NDP MLAs surprisingly joined government members in voting 43-0 for second reading of Bill 88 on Monday night.
Bill 88 now heads to the Standing Committee on Intergovernmental Affairs and Justice, before coming back for third reading and passage.
The move by New Democrats to not oppose second reading - and in fact cast six votes in favor of it - raised a lot of eyebrows, especially given the public criticism of the Act seen from Opposition Leader Carla Beck and other NDP MLAs in recent weeks on social media. The bill has also faced opposition from organizations such as the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, which had denounced the Sask. First Act as a violation of their treaty rights.
Bill 88 — The Saskatchewan First Act is the high-profile legislation brought forward by Minister of Justice and Attorney General Bronwyn Eyre which asserts Saskatchewan’s exclusive legislative jurisdiction over natural resources. It was a centrepiece of the government's Speech from the Throne as well as their White Paper “Drawing the Line” presented prior to the fall session.
How the vote unfolded Monday
On Monday night, Bill 88 came up as an adjourned debate during a rare nighttime sitting of the Legislature.
A voice vote on second reading took place, with the House voting audibly in favor. But then the Saskatchewan Party’s House Leader Jeremy Harrison asked the Speaker for a recorded division.
The MLAs then each stood to have their vote counted for that recorded division. In that vote, six NDP MLAs — Doyle Vermette, Vicki Mowat, Trent Wotherspoon, Matt Love, Meara Conway and Jennifer Bowes — stood up and voted in favor.
There were no votes against. Opposition Leader Beck and five other NDP MLAs were absent, as were several Sask Party MLAs.
In the media scrum the following day, Harrison responded to questions on why he had asked for a division.
“It’s not at all unusual to have recorded divisions at second reading,” said Harrison.
He pointed to Bill 70, the legislation brought in last session to overhaul security at the Legislature, as another example where second reading went to a division.
“It’s not unusual on significant pieces of legislation, and this is a very significant piece of legislation.”
When NDP MLAs were asked by reporters, they insisted they were in support of the bill going to committee for further questions.
“We’ve been super clear on the record in all of our adjourned debates in social media on this bill so far,” said Opposition Justice Critic Nicole Sarauer, who was absent from Monday’s vote. “You can check our Hansard. Of course, we support standing up for Saskatchewan, especially our rights to resources. We support the Constitution. It was an NDP government that helped us get the protections that we have in the Constitution. This bill is already a copy-and-paste from what already exists in the Constitution, so of course we support those things.”
Sarauer added her party had “some serious concerns about consultations on this bill, and that’s what we have been hearing from stakeholders. So we’ve been raising those concerns. We haven’t gotten a lot of feedback about that from the government, which is why we’re looking forward to going to committee to ask some of these questions.”
Trent Wotherspoon had provided reporters a similar response when asked earlier about Monday’s vote. He told reporters the NDP “supported having the bill go to the committee phase where we can have a more substantial exchange about consultation and details and process and impact. And so that’s where we are going as a caucus.”
That same morning, Saskatoon Centre MLA Betty Nippi-Albright posted on Twitter: "Just for clarification on the Sask First Act. No, WE did not pass it, contrary to how this narrative is being spun! It is only going to committee! There will be more questions asked in committee! #skpoli #FSIN"
Harrison made it known he found all of this talk from the NDP amusing.
“I saw some commentary this morning, which was interesting, (of) NDP MLAs trying to make the case that a second reading vote really doesn’t mean they’re supporting or opposing it,” said Harrison to reporters.
“Well, that’s exactly what it means. That’s exactly what it means. Second reading is the most important stage of debate in the Chamber. That is where you debate the principle of the bill. That is where you have a vote on the principle of the bill, and that is where if the bill is voted against, it dies… Their commentary was very disingenuous about the importance of second reading. And on the basis of that logic, they should be voting for everything on second reading and send it to committee if that’s actually what they believe.”
Harrison also noted the NDP could have introduced amendments on second reading. He later added that he had "actually never heard of a party before anywhere saying that, okay, we're going to support something at second reading even though we oppose the bill. That has never happened before. If they're going to oppose the bill and vote against it, it would have gone to committee one way or another, and they can do what they're going to do at committee."
The situation also drew attention on social media from NDP supporters. Former NDP leadership candidate Kaitlyn Harvey took to Twitter on Tuesday, and made known her own displeasure about it.
“The @Sask_NDP caucus just made it clear they don't care about the concerns brought forward by @fsinations or @metisnationsask,” she posted. “As Vice President Métis of the Indigenous New Democrats of Saskatchewan, I will tell you our wing was also not consulted.”
Harvey also Tweeted the following: “The problem with the ‘it's only the 2nd reading’ excuse is the silence leading up to it. The Act was intended to divide and it's doing just that. Now, let's all hate on the NDP! Anyone else see this coming? Doesn't anyone play chess anymore? Your move, @CarlaBeckSK. We're waiting”.
When asked about Harvey's Twitter comments, Sarauer said: "I would encourage her to check our Hansard. We've been pretty clear. Our colleague Betty Nippi-Albright read a whole bunch of letters into the record during her adjourned debate, and we still have committee. We still have a lot of work, that's where really the rubber meets the road in terms of the work that can get done, and I'm really looking forward to the opportunity to ask officials more questions."
NDP also sides with government on gun motion
Adding to the intrigue is that the Sask. First Act wasn’t the only vote that the NDP sided with the government on on Monday.
The Opposition also didn’t oppose Minister Christine Tell’s motion that “this House condemns and denounces the most recent attack on lawful firearms owners by the Liberal-NDP coalition federal government through amendments to Bill C-21,” as well as call on the Government of Saskatchewan “to explore all options to protect the rights of firearms owners.”
That recorded division, which took place right before the vote on the Sask. First Act second reading, carried 42-0. Again, six NDP MLAs voted in favor.
During Question Period on Tuesday, Premier Scott Moe called out the opposition’s tendency to criticize government bills, only to turn around and support them.
“Day after day we see the opposition members get up and criticize the Affordability Plan that we’ve put forward to Saskatchewan residents, and then when it comes time to support that plan, they vote for it, Mr. Speaker,” Moe said.
“Mr. Speaker, we see criticism from the opposition members on The Saskatchewan First Act. When it comes time, they vote for it. We see them complaining about police measures and community safety in this province, about the policing measures that this government is putting forward. A gun bill comes to the legislature, they vote for it, Mr. Speaker. I’m not so sure that next election they’re going to criticize the Saskatchewan Party, but on election day they’re likely going to vote for us, Mr. Speaker.”