February 15 & 16, 2023 were terrible days in the legislature for David Eby’s BC NDP government.
I have been deeply concerned about how the provincial government has mismanaged the legislative calendar and agenda for months now. I’ve written about it several times. (BC NDP Must Stop Undermining Democracy and Trust in Government – MLA COLUMN: The Public Circle aims to increase transparency and accessibility)
This week it went from bad to awful. On Wednesday, they failed to get Ministers in the Chamber, supported by staff and information, to answer basic questions about their own bills. Then when they failed to stand up a Member to respond to the Throne Speech, debate was closed and a vote called.
This took away one of government’s fallback time fillers – the response to the Throne Speech. The government can fill more than 25 hours debating the Throne Speech. Once it is voted on however, if they don’t have bills on the order paper, and the budget is not yet delivered by the Finance Minister, the Government House Leader, Hon. Ravi Kahlon, is left with nothing.
This may all seem like a big nothing-burger to the public. But, it is a big deal. Remember, this is the crew that is managing the rest of the province too, and if they cannot effectively manage a calendar and agenda, I urge British Columbians to be concerned!
The government and opposition house leaders have been in conversation for more than a year to find a way to better utilize private members time. The British Columbia assembly is one of the least democratic in the country. The government uses their power to all but shut out anyone other than Cabinet Minister from proposing bills. Well, the other Members can propose them, but they are almost never debated and voted on.
On Monday, I was told that enabling a committee to look at this issue was not a priority for government right now, perhaps in a couple of months. Then when they were left with nothing else to debate on Thursday afternoon, suddenly private members bills were a priority and several backbench NDP MLAs wanted to speak to a motion that had to be tabled without notice.
Well, the Government House Leader was not granted leave to introduce the motion and so he had nothing to debate except committee stage of Bill 2: National Day for Truth and Reconciliation Act. If the opposition has no questions, then the Speaker closes debate and calls the vote.
Then we witnessed in the rarest occurrence in my 6 years in the assembly – NDP MLAs asking the Minister questions. They were prepared to filibuster their own bill that already had the unanimous support of the MLAs. It was a shameful display, especially considering the topic content.
After two days of total mismanagement of our democratic institution, I stood to warn the government against leveraging a bill that demands British Columbians pay respect to the survivors of the horrific residential schools.
I warned the BC NDP that they were treading on dangerous territory. After all the point of the bill is to recognize the abusive behaviour of Crown governments toward Indigenous people. They were about to cross the line. I reminded them that dragging out the discussion because they can’t properly manage their own business is disrespectful. Residential school history is not an easy topic for Indigenous people and must be done respectfully.
It was an embarrassing afternoon not only for the BC NDP government but for all MLAs. The Government House Leader was forced to adjourn four hours early, which he will certainly be reminded of if he tries to invoke time allocation on bills at the end of the session, and as many times as needed in between.
It appears that members of this House are supportive of this bill. I guess I just want to urge some caution here that we are getting dangerously close to what this institution has done for decades: to take advantage of Indigenous people and their experiences with the colonial and Crown governments for the purposes of the colonial and Crown governments.
We are in this unique situation today where members of the government are asking their own ministers questions — not because of a legitimate reason that we want to get to these answers. This never happens in this House. We are here because the Government House Leader attempted to table a bill in the spirit of debating private members’ bills, to put together a special committee to do that. Leave was not granted, and the statement was: “We’re doing this because there’s a genuine interest from the government to debate private members’ bills.”
The project has been ongoing for the last year and a half, but all of a sudden, due to events that happened last night, it’s now a priority. The intention of getting private members’ bills debated was a genuine intention, to ensure that this House operates properly for all members. That didn’t happen. So now we are going to be, potentially, debating this bill that the members of this House agree on.
As I said in my second reading speech to this bill, every time this conversation happens, every time we get to September 30, Orange Shirt Day, National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, that is not a day of celebration; that is a day of pain, of suffering, of reopening wounds. That’s not a day of the past; that’s a day of the current generation, who has experienced intergenerational trauma.
If the government was genuine about private members’ bills, there are private members’ bills on the order paper today that could replace this debate. I recognize we’re getting very close to lunchtime. My sincere hope is that we do not return after lunch to debate this bill on and on, when the members of this House agree that it should move forward and should be passed.
The Minister of Indigenous Relations in his second reading speech…. I think that we had several second reading speeches identifying the importance of this bill. I just urge caution that we do not use this bill because of House management, whatever the members of this place might consider it to be — good, bad, indifferent — to just debate this ad nauseam when there is already agreement.
Let’s ensure that we are respectful to the issue, and I’m not suggesting that the minister has been disrespectful to the issue. The minister has not been disrespectful to the issue. The minister is simply doing what the minister has been asked to do. The Minister of Indigenous Relations has been very respectful. The members who have been asked to stand up and ask questions, my colleagues from the government side, have been respectful.
What I’m urging caution and what I’m making warning about is that if we spend 4½ hours debating this bill because the Crown institution can’t manage the legislative calendar, their own legislative agenda, that is bordering on disrespectful, and I just urge caution in that regard.