Bill Bennett, the minister responsible for conducting a “core review” of the B.C. government, has vowed that the Agricultural Land Commission will not be dismantled despite a leaked cabinet document that recommends its demise.
In fact, of the 90 Crown agencies under his microscope, the ALC is the only one that is assured of remaining independent.
At a news conference where Mr. Bennett announced that two small agencies will be brought into direct government operations, he told reporters his cabinet committee “immediately discarded the idea” of axing the governing body responsible for protecting 4.7 million hectares of farmland.
The proposal, to bring the autonomous commission directly under government control, was tabled by by Agriculture Minister Pat Pimm – just months after ALC officials complained that Mr. Pimm had wrongly tried to politically interfere with their work. Mr. Pimm’s conduct is under review by the province’s conflict commissioner.
While that is continuing, Mr. Bennett has rejected some of Mr. Pimm’s proposals. “I know that it is sacrosanct,” he said, referring to the Agricultural Land Reserve, the protected land under the commission’s authority. “We are not considering dismantling the commission.”
After touting his own deep agricultural roots – “I’m not a city boy, in case you haven’t noticed” – Mr. Bennett said he had encouraged cabinet minsters to bring forward bold proposals, but this was too bold.
“We can’t protect farmland adequately in the province unless there is an independent agency like the commission doing the work,” he said. “It will remain independent and it will continue to protect good agricultural land in the province.”
Mr. Bennett said he has not seen the leaked proposal that was obtained by The Globe and Mail, however he said the concepts were discussed in several meetings that are subject to cabinet confidentiality.
Officially, cabinet has ruled only on the fate of the Provincial Capital Commission and the Pacific Carbon Trust, the two agencies that are being brought into government. The remainder are are still in limbo pending the resolution of Mr. Bennett’s core review.
In an interview later Tuesday, Mr. Bennett said the independence of the commission will be protected, but other aspects of its work could still be changed under the terms of his efficiency exercise. “It is under review … They are still creatures of government. They are accountable to the people of the province. We have every right to look at all 90 of those Crown agencies,” he said.
“That doesn’t mean we think the commission is perfect or that every piece of land that was put in there, should be there.”
The New Democrats seized on Mr. Pimm’s proposal as a cause célèbre to rally supporters and have called for Mr. Pimm’s resignation. The ALR was established by the NDP government in the 1970s and remains a point of pride. At their convention last weekend – a gathering dominated by hand-wringing over the party’s defeat in the last provincial election – the main source of unity was over the perception that the Liberals are poised to attack farmland.
Harold Steves, who helped create the Agricultural Land Reserve 40 years ago, even thanked the Agriculture Minister in his remarks at the convention: “Pat Pimm has united us all,” he said.
NDP agriculture critic Nicholas Simons welcomed Mr. Bennett’s comments but said he wants assurances that the government won’t tinker with the commission’s powers. “This has been a valued public policy through every stripe of government.” If anything, the province needs to boost the commission’s funding, he said.