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The Globe and Mail

B.C. MLA’s e-mails shed new light on ALR backroom politics

Liberal MLA Bill Bennett leaves Caucus after the release John Dyble's report on the use of government resources in Victoria, B.C., Thursday March 14, 2013.

Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press

Bill Bennett, the minister who crafted proposed legislation that will redraw B.C.'s Agricultural Land Reserve, complained bitterly two years ago to a cabinet colleague that the independent agency tasked with protecting farmland wasn't moving fast enough on changes he wanted in his home riding.

The e-mail exchange in July, 2012, obtained by The Globe and Mail, sheds new light on the backroom politics that shaped Bill 24, the amendments Mr. Bennett is pushing through the legislature this spring to allow more non-farm use of agricultural land in most parts of the province.

The correspondence shows Mr. Bennett and others in the B.C. Liberal caucus were pressing the Agricultural Land Commission chair, Richard Bullock, to approve changes to protected farmland that would "muster up some support for our team."

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In one incendiary e-mail, the MLA who would later be appointed agriculture minister, Pat Pimm, griped that he had been blocked from lobbying Mr. Bullock.

"Every time I try to contact Mr. Bullock, I am told that he is an arms length body and for me to get the hell out of his hair. Who the hell is running the province anyway," Mr. Pimm wrote in a reply that echoed Mr. Bennett's concerns.

Mr. Pimm was named agriculture minister last year and would have been the minister officially fronting Bill 24, but he is on leave as he battles colon cancer and was replaced by Norm Letnick in April.

Mr. Bennett, in an e-mail to then-agriculture minister Don McRae, said "there has to be room for other job creating, tax-paying activities [on farmland]."

He cited an example of an RV park on farmland. "We do not need people from outside our region telling us we should cease developing our tourism industry."

The Kootenay East MLA also reminded Mr. McRae that he had been promised a review of the ALR boundaries in his riding, and that he had the backing of rural caucus members in his demands. "Your apparent lack of recollection about this commitment … was surprising and concerning," he wrote.

"It is nearly August now and there is no sign that a review is under way … After 11 years of advocating on behalf of the vast majority of my constituents for this review, I expect a clear answer. Is it happening? If so, when?"

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The commission recently approved boundary changes in his riding, removing 1,400 hectares of land from the ALR, and substituting 700 hectares elsewhere.

Mr. Bennett did not respond to interview requests on Tuesday, deferring to Mr. Letnick, who was not available.

At the time he wrote to his cabinet colleague, Mr. McRae, Mr. Bennett was tapping into discontent within the B.C. Liberals' rural caucus. He copied Mr. Pimm and other MLAs, as well as including Mr. Bullock, on his correspondence.

Mr. Pimm responded to everyone on the e-mail thread, including Mr. Bullock. "Mr. Bullock seems to be able to tell a great story but to this point I have not seen any delivery," he wrote. "Here is an opportunity to actually muster up some support for our team but instead we will ignore it and go out and find some way to give the Indians more money which doesn't get me one vote! I am very tired of this kind of nonsense."

Nicholas Simons, the NDP agriculture critic, said the exchange shows Mr. Bennett has used the core review process to pursue a vendetta against the ALC. "The government is trying to micromanage an independent tribunal; they have a goal and nothing is going to get in their way."

He said it was inappropriate for government MLAs to try to press Mr. Bullock, and called Mr. Pimm's complaint about First Nations "sad."

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The NDP has been leading a "Kill Bill 24" campaign but the legislation is due to be passed into law this week.

The commission manages 4.7 million hectares of agricultural land in B.C. Under Bill 24, the ALR will be divided into two zones and the commission will be required to provide more flexibility in land use in Zone 2 to allow activities such as food processing and potential oil and gas development.

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