Some things just need to be said...

Monday, May 30, 2005

The James gang and the Campbell clan

BC is at a critical point in its political development. Carole James managed to set a differing tone in the last election, leading many people to yearn for the illusive constructive debate that rarely occurs in BC politics.

Much of BC politics has been a blood sport for 40 years. WAC Bennett was a master at it. Dave Barrett was likely BC's most exciting premier and as opposition leader lead a very vocal group.

Barrett did make some changes to the political debate in BC. In 1972 as Premier he introduced two significant changes to the Legislature. Those changes included Question Period and Hansard. Prior to 1972 BC did not have a record of debates in the house, nor was there an opportunity for the opposition to question the government on issues of the day.

Ironically, it was question period led by Bill Bennett, son of WAC Bennett that benefited from the change and helped defeat the NDP in the election of 1975. Bennett used the red scare attack, which was far from truth, but helped re-establish a perception of socialism gone wild.

Bennett led an rejuvenated Social Credit party to victory using a couple of issues, the most famous being "not a dime without debate" referring to the NDP's use of special warrants for spending. Again irony surfaces as Bennett used special warrants more than any BC Premier in history.

The election was also fought on two other big issues, the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) and public auto insurance, ICBC. The Socreds said the ALR was unfair to farmers and were committed to removing it and as far as ICBC was concerned, they were opposed to it.

As we can see, many elections have been fought in the 28 years since. The ALR is still here, ICBC is still here. They have survived because the ALR was good public policy and Public Auto Insurance was cheaper. The debate over these two entities has been far from civil however.

The NDP added to the blood sport as well. Often accusing the government of wrong doing, looking for scandal and exaggerating government mistakes.

In 1990's the NDP government brought in freedom of information to open government records to more scrutiny. This was good policy and long needed. The biggest user of this new tool was again the opposition, the BC Liberals made by far the most use of act. As with the initiation of question period in 1972, the opposition used this new tool to great advantage.

After the 2001 election, Gordon Campbell knew how successfully he had used the law, was determined to ensure he as Premier would not face the same problem the NDP government faced. New fees were added, more information was withheld, more government bodies were removed from scrutiny, in fact under the NDP law, the BC Rail sale would have fallen under the scrutiny of the freedom of information law. As would BC Ferries, now a private company, wholly owned by the BC Government, and projects like the Abbotsford Hospital, a Public Private Partnership.

The law was further hampered when the Liberal government slashed the operating funds for the agency that oversaw freedom of information.

The last election saw the public demand for change and accountability, returning up to 34 opposition members, defeating eight cabinet ministers and approximately 57% support for change to the electoral system. The Liberal's support fell from 57% to 46%. They can no longer claim they have support to do what they like.

Will Campbell and the Liberals embrace change? Will an NDP be more constructive in its opposition? Some changes will need to made, an increase in time allotted to question period, more power and discussion of issues using legislative committees and more funding to independent legislative offices such as the Auditor General, Ombudsman and Privacy Commissioner.

"Please leaders, end the legislature zoo story" says columnist and blogger Paul Willcocks ...
"What's needed is a change of mindset on both sides of the legislature. Voters didn't elect MLAs to come here and wage some sort of political war for four years. They want their MLAs to solve problems, and make things better. That does mean holding the government to account, but that can be done in way that is effective, yet civil. (As James showed through much of the election campaign.)"

Willcocks has much more to say here at Paying Attention.

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