Messy showdowns like the one Wednesday, by increasing suspicions, make it much harder to establish common ground among MLAs and their crusading Speaker.
VICTORIA — The precarious balance of power in the B.C. legislature, coupled with finger-pointing over the spending scandal, has the potential to disrupt even the most routine proceedings.
Witness what happened this week, when NDP fumbling and B.C. Liberal opportunism brought a premature end to the annual debate on the speech from the throne.
The debate was just getting underway Wednesday afternoon. Two New Democrats had spoken, followed by one Liberal, Andrew Weaver of the Greens, then another Liberal. But when he sat down, the unexpected happened.
No New Democrats got up to take their turn at praising the government agenda for the year ahead. No other Greens were ready to speak. Whereupon the Liberals, spotting an opening to embarrass the government, decided to collectively remain seated.
There being no further speakers from any side, the presiding chair — Deputy Speaker Raj Chouhan — called the vote on the speech from the throne.
Division was called, meaning a recorded vote, and the bells were rung to summon all members to the chamber.
The standing orders (house rules) are clear about what should happen next. “Not sooner than two nor longer than five minutes” after the bells begin ringing, the Speaker calls the vote and the doors are locked to deny entry or exit while members vote.
The five-minute rule has been enforced with some rigour over the years. Longtime observers recall how Premier Glen Clark was once locked out of the chamber for what proved to be a tie vote, broken only by the New Democrat chairing the proceedings.
But there was no such respect for the rules after Speaker Darryl Plecas entered the chamber to take charge of proceedings Wednesday. He allowed the bells to ring well past the five-minute mark, despite being reminded of the rule by Liberal house leader Mary Polak.
“We’re wanting to make sure we have the issue that ought to be before the House clarified before we move forward,” said Plecas. “If you could be patient for a moment.”
Finally, after more delay, Plecas called the recorded vote. The results were 40 New Democrats and three Greens endorsing the throne speech, 40 B.C. Liberals against.
Liberals Tom Shypitka and Ian Paton were absent with leave. But had all 42 Opposition members been there for the vote, the government would still have had enough support to carry the day.
Still, the close result and the Speaker’s decision to allow the voting to go into overtime, raised suspicions.
Plecas has made no secret of his hostility toward his former party the B.C. Liberals. Did he extend the time on the division to allow enough New Democrats to get to the chamber for the vote?
Meanwhile, New Democrats and Greens blasted the Liberals for a double cross — agreeing to put up a list of speakers in advance, then ensuring that none of their members got up when the NDP lineup faltered.
With the government adjourning the house immediately following the division, those intrigues spread through the night on social media.
Thursday morning, Plecas opened proceedings with a statement by way of justification for his handling of things.
He blamed what happened on procedural confusion, brought on by a surprising turn of events on the opening day of a debate that can run for six full days.
“The chair wanted to ensure that this unexpected division was in order,” he explained.
The Speaker then admitted to a double violation of procedure on his watch — the division bells were allowed to ring for 10 minutes, twice as long as provided for in the rules, and the doors were not locked after five.
But having said that, he insisted the delay made no difference to the outcome.
“To my knowledge, the fact that the chamber doors remained open for an additional five minutes beyond the time permitted, did not result in any additional members entering the chamber. Therefore, I conclude that the result of the division would have been the same.”
Still, the New Democrats are bereft of a throne speech debate with only two of their members having the opportunity to sing the praises of the government agenda for the year.
But by way of consolation, the house did end up voting confidence in the NDP legislative agenda for the year, never mind that it was not the government’s intention for any such vote to be called.
Regrettably, the departure from the rules added to an atmosphere of mutual suspicion and mistrust, at a time when the legislature has been placed under a cloud by the allegations of its Speaker.
Plecas is now threatening to raise the stakes by putting out a second report by way of one-upping the suspended clerk and sergeant-at-arms for their responses to his first report.
I gather the government would sooner put a lid on things. Let the police and the special prosecutor do their jobs. Let the auditor-general dig into the allegations of spending irregularities.
They could then recruit a workplace law expert to review all of Plecas’s allegations about wrongful dismissals and unjustified severance payouts to some 20 former employees and whistleblowers.
Then LAMC — the legislative assembly management committee — could get on with a long overdue cleanup of rules and procedures.
Commonsensical, one might say. But messy showdowns like the one Wednesday, by increasing suspicions, make it much harder to establish common ground among MLAs and their crusading Speaker.
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