Back when he was an opposition critic, Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth had some fervent thoughts about what the legislature was all about.
After the B.C. Liberals tinkered with the process in 2008, Farnworth said: “We’re not here to see how short a session we can make. We’re not here to make it as convenient as possible … because we don’t like how things are structured.
“We’re here to do the business of the people legislatively and by scrutinizing expenditures. If we don’t respect and believe in that, then we really have no business being here.”
Now that he’s the house leader of a majority government, those views have … evolved.
This week, he brought the hammer down multiple times to cut off debate on four bills. One of the two major forestry bills was put to a vote while a committee was only part way through it.
“I’m still in the middle of my speech,” sputtered a Liberal MLA. He was cut off and the vote was ordered.
Another bill — the Interpretation Amendment Act — has major implications on how recognition of Indigenous rights is to be knitted into all B.C. statutes. It stipulates that every single law and regulation in B.C. must be construed as being consistent with the declaration on Indigenous rights. It was further through the process, but still not concluded when it was dealt with the same way.
Meanwhile, MLAs were only a third of the way through the other major forestry bill when questioning was cut off. Seventy-six complicated clauses were passed in one motion with no debate. Subject to a sudden attack of conscience, the NDP plan is to carry on today and cut off debate on the controversial amendments to the information and privacy law. They have been scrutinized extensively, but questioning is not over. Final stage debate on the second forestry bill will also be curtailed, as will questioning on anything else not wrapped up.
In that same long-ago speech about the importance of legislative scrutiny, Farnworth said: “We know how our system works. Government has most of the power — some days it feels like all the power — but the opposition still had the ability to ensure that some of those estimates were debated in this chamber, in this House and not pushed aside, not squeezed up against a deadline.”
A lot of that reverence for due process has vanished over the course of the seven-week fall sitting of the house. It turns out opposition scrutiny is awkward and inconvenient. So better to snuff it out.
Government members may be tempted to blame the storm crisis. But MLAs routinely handle constituency issues even while the legislature sits. The assembly hall is full for only a half-hour a day. If the legislature could meet through the worst of the pandemic, it could manage through a natural disaster.
Shutting down debate has got more to do with the NDP piling more bills on the agenda than there was time to handle, and then running out of patience.
Veteran Liberals don’t have clean hands when it comes to forcing issues. When they were governing, they did the same thing several times over the years. So their objections this week are ironic.
But the irony is more bitter when watching the NDP adopt the same tactic they used to condemn.
Premier John Horgan led the charge a decade ago as an opposition member when the Liberals cut off debate.
“We are under the expectation when we come here that there are rules,” he told the house at that time. “The government house leader stood in this place and said to 84 other members: ‘Tough luck. So sad. So sorry. We’re done Thursday at five o’clock come hell or high water.’ ”
He painted a particularly vivid picture of people “who came here to watch democracy unfold … seeing the guillotine slammed down on debate.
“They’ve seen the government use their majority, use their ability to contort, to bend the rules to their will. I reject that.”
He rejected it heroically and valiantly, right up to the point where his government realized how convenient it is to do the same thing.