The word "parliament" is derived from the Latin term parliamentum, which originally applied to conversations between monks and later to diplomatic conferences. The French verb parler means to speak, and freedom of expression is the basic means by which parliament holds government accountable.
The Legislative Assembly performs three important roles in its job of overseeing government: a legislative role, a financial role and an inquiry role.
The passage of laws is the function most commonly attributed to the Legislative Assembly. Because our province is governed by rule of law, it is essential that each piece of legislation introduced in the Assembly is given effective consideration. To understand the legislative process, terminology is important. Legislation being considered by the Assembly is called a Bill. After a Bill is passed, it becomes an Act or statute.
Stages of a Bill All Bills introduced in the Assembly must go through the following stages to become law:
First Reading: The Bill is introduced and read for the first time. No debate occurs at this stage. Printed copies of the Bill are distributed for further consideration. The option exists to refer the Bill to a committee that will conduct public hearings on its content.
Second Reading: The Minister begins a debate of the Bill by outlining its purpose and its provisions. Other members join in debating the principle of the Bill.
Committee Stage: The Bill is referred to a standing committee or a Committee of the Whole on Bills for a detailed examination. Public hearings may be held before the Bill is examined clause by clause. Amendments may also be proposed before the Bill is reported back to the Assembly.
Third Reading: Members may debate the Bill one final time before voting on it.
Royal Assent: The Lieutenant Governor or his/her representative gives Royal Assent to the Bill.
For a more detailed explanation of Bills, see How Laws are Made.
Each year the Minister of Finance proposes a budget to the Legislative Assembly. Estimates on the anticipated expenditures for each ministry and agency are tabled so that members may review in detail each minister's budget. This process occurs primarily in the policy field and House committees and consists of the minister and his/her officials responding to questions from committee members before the funds requested are granted. The estimates for Executive Council, for which the Premier is responsible, are considered in the Committee of Finance.
The Assembly has the right to deny the amounts requested or to reduce the budget as it sees fit. This process is known as grievance before supply and dates back to the beginning of parliament when control of the purse strings was wrested away from the king.
Once the Assembly and its committees have concluded their consideration of the estimates, an appropriation Bill is introduced to grant the approved funding. The government has no authority to spend public money until this process is completed, unless the Assembly allows temporary financing by passing interim supply Bills.
The Assembly's financial role also includes the oversight of expenditures. After funding is approved, the audit process begins. At the conclusion of the fiscal year, the government must table the public accounts. The members' review of the books is aided by the Provincial Auditor, an Officer of the Assembly, who issues formal reports. All these publications are referred to the Standing Committee on Public Accounts, which determines whether the expenditures were made with proper legislative authority and with value for the money spent. The Standing Committee on Crown and Central Agencies conducts a similar review of the activities of Saskatchewan's Crown corporations.
In order to effectively examine government activities, the Legislative Assembly must have the opportunity to seek information. The ability of members to ask questions helps form public opinion on numerous issues of importance to the province. Two common ways members can obtain information are to either ask a question of the government or to move a motion for return requesting that certain information is returned to the Assembly.
Question Period: This is probably the best known of all the Assembly's inquiry processes. Each day for 25 minutes when the legislature is in session, members have the opportunity to direct questions to a cabinet minister on any topic within that minister's responsibility.
Written Questions: Members can also direct written questions to a minister, who has the option to answer directly within five sitting days or to convert the question into a return. A return is necessary when a response would be too detailed to prepare within the normal time limit. A controversial question is usually converted to a motion for return, which can be debated and amended.
Committee review: Members must often deal with complex issues that require a good deal of consideration. In many cases, the whole Assembly does not have time to properly deal with certain important matters that demand attention. Legislative committees allow members to carry out detailed investigations before the Assembly must come to a decision. Committees afford members the opportunity to pursue a detailed line of inquiry and allow ministers to bring their departmental officials into the room to help answer members' questions.
In addition to their regular work reviewing Bills and estimates, committees undertake specialized tasks such as reviewing the rules of the Assembly or examining specific issues like energy options or tobacco control. Meetings are scheduled as needed during a legislative session and between sessions. All committees report their findings to the Assembly.