Kiik: Center kindergarten bill support was based on incomplete information
The Center Party changed course on a law which would reform the kindergarten sector in Estonia once it had come to understand the bill's details, health minister Tanel Kiik (Center) says.
Kiik had, as a government minister in office with the Reform Party, which tabled the bill, approved it at cabinet stage. However, his party voted with the opposition Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) and against Reform, leading to the bill, which would have made Estonian-language instruction mandatory in all kindergartens, being scrapped on Wednesday.
When asked by ERR's Indrek Kiisler the reasons for Center's change of heart on the bill, Kiik said there had been insufficient discussion on its provisions, within the cabinet.
He said: "There were a lot of different question marks with the pre-elementary education bill.
"The Center Party group at the Riigikogu has actually discussed it many times, and seen different concerns there," he added.
"For us, this hasn't been unexpected or a surprise, but rather the question is what the Riigikogu's attitude will be. Wednesday's parliamentary process demonstrated that there was more opposition to the bill, despite the fact the other three parties would have had more votes than Center and EKRE," Kiik, who as a government minister, does not sit in the Riigikogu, went on.
While Isamaa MPs voted with Reform, the other opposition party, the Social Democrats (SDE), abstained from the vote.
"Later, when the bill was substantively debated in the Riigikogu, we looked at what had been agreed and what the feedback from various parties was, and many questions and concerns arose. The Center Party Riigikogu group decided that if it was being proposed in the parliament that the draft would be rejected at its first reading, then the party would vote in this way too."
Meanwhile Center MP and Riigikogu culture committee chair Tõnis Mölder shed a bit more light on his party's issues with the Reform-backed bill, telling ERR that there was no financial plan via which it would be implemented, though he said the bill's content and intent was sound.
"In fact, there are no clear and concrete financial plans, nor is there a plan for how to implement these drafts in real life. That was the main thrust of the criticism," Mölder said.
Putting in place the bill's requirements would have required substantial additional funding to local government and a boost in the number of Estonian language teachers employed by the public sector by 25 to 30.
"We have a very clear commitment, but we will not provide additional resources here," Mölder said.
When Mölder became cultural committee chair on April 19, replacing Aadu Must (Center), he had already stated that the bill could be taken down, ERR reports.
Wednesday's vote came at a time of high tension between Reform and Center, in office together since January 2021.
Reform has started a filibuster of a Center-sponsored bill on family benefits, while opposition parties have been playing both sides.
The Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) tabled Wednesday's motion, to scrap the kindergarten bill, and its leader, Martin Helme, is in the process of putting forward a vote of no-confidence in education minister Liina Kersna – in relation to the procuement of rapid Covid tests last October.
Isamaa voted against Reform on the family support bill but with Reform on the kindergarten bill.
Meanwhile, Reform leader and Prime Minister Kaja Kallas has been outside of Estonia – in Brussels for a European Council meeting on sanctions on Russia – and will be visiting London at the start of next week.
Tanel Kiik said that within Center itself, opinions differ on whether the coalition with Reform should continue, adding that the picture is changing rapidly.
"I think that no later than Monday, the coalition council should sit down calmly, take a deep breath and take an overview; look at the situation and honestly assess what the steps that can still be taken at present might be," Kiik said.
"Understandably, both the public and the Riigikogu parties expect some clarity on the future, whether the current coalition will continue or what the real situation will turn out to be. Those messages that have been heard in the media from the leading party (i.e. Reform - ed.) that the coalition is no more or that it is in a minority government, these are all just slogans, whereas in terms of substance, we have a ruling coalition."
"In a few minutes' time, the next government sitting and cabinet meeting is to begin," he added, referring to the regular government Thursday meeting.
To his knowledge, Kiik said no talks are currently being held at the Riigikogu with the aim of forming up a new coalition.
Center's chief Riigikogu whip Jaanus Karilaid has said that the party's MPs will continue to support the status quo so far as the coalition goes, provided an agreement is struck on the family benefits bill.
Meanwhile, Reform has tabled over 2,000 amendments to that bill, as a filibuster.
Follow ERR News on Facebook and Twitter and never miss an update!
Editor: Andrew Whyte