It was around this time last year that B.C. Premier Christy Clark provided some insight into her views of the provincial capital.
She was quoted as saying that she tried to stay away from Victoria as much as possible because of the “sick culture” that existed there. She was talking about the corridors of power, not the city itself, and said she preferred travelling the province and talking to those amorphous “real people” politicians love referencing to being trapped inside the legislature.
As jarring as the comments were, there was some truth to what the Premier had to say. The legislature can, at times, feel like an unbearable bubble wrapped inside a petulant and querulous enigma. Question Period is often 30 minutes of bad theatre in which little of substance is accomplished.
But despite its many flaws and shortcomings, the gathering of legislators to debate public policy is a cornerstone of our democracy. It is a fundamental tenet of holding the government of the day to account. Without it, you have a dictatorship.
Which is why the news this week that there will be no fall session of the B.C. Legislature is disconcerting.
The decision means the government and loyal Opposition will have sat for a whopping 36 days in 2013. This puts B.C. in the company of such jurisdictions as Yukon and the Northwest Territories, whose legislators have sat for 32 days so far this year. Manitoba, on the other hand, has sat for more than 100 days and isn’t scheduled to wrap up debate for a few days yet. Ontario has been in session 55 days and is scheduled to meet for another 44 days before year’s end. Alberta is scheduled to sit 59 days.
In fact, as Mark Jarvis, a doctoral candidate at the University of British Columbia recently pointed out, the B.C. government’s move will mean that the legislative assembly will actually have sat for 36 days going back to May 31, 2012, a contemptible 579-day absence from any form of answerability.
The Premier’s rationale is that she and her government are working on some major policy initiatives and would rather wait until next spring to introduce and debate them. But surely there are other matters of some urgency that could be discussed in the meantime.
Just this week, for instance, leaked documents indicate that BC Hydro has plans for massive rate increases to cover all manner of capital costs it must finance.
The crunch that the Crown utility faces is severe and has unquestionable bottom-line implications for both the government and ratepayers. Surely, this is a subject that should be debated in the political arena, a perfect example of why the province’s elected politicians should be convening in Victoria this fall.
My guess, however, is that the governing Liberals are delighted the House is not in session. The Hydro issue would invariably produce some uncomfortable questions, particularly of the “what did you know and when did you know it” variety.
The Liberals made a big show of cutting proposed Hydro rate increases prior to the 2013 election. They were determined, Ms. Clark and others said at the time, to protect the middle class against an assault on their pocket books. Yet it seems inconceivable that the same government didn’t know what was coming down the pipe with Hydro, the massive rate increases the corporation was going to need to address major capital project commitments.
It simply stalled those increases until after the election. Or at least that’s how it looks. If that’s not the case, then the government should be in the legislature to defend itself. Otherwise, what is the point of even having a legislative assembly?
I doubt the Liberals are troubled much by the charges that their move to limit debate to such an extent is shameful. They’ve been getting away with it for years. Fact is, the public is too busy, too stressed out to be worrying about such problems. People are concerned about their jobs, their kids.
Whether the legislature sits is only a preoccupation of the Opposition and the media, the government believes. It may be right.
The state of democracy in B.C. is in a sad place at the moment. Fewer and fewer people want to vote. And the government doesn’t believe it should have to hold itself accountable in the legislature.