The leaders of B.C.’s two major political parties signalled this week they have no real intention of reforming the toxic culture at the provincial legislature.
Premier David Eby announced he’d punted the entire issue over to Speaker Raj Chouhan, effectively abdicating a promise to listen and act in the wake of MLA Melanie Mark’s resignation speech two weeks ago. Meanwhile, BC Liberal leader Kevin Falcon pointed the finger at anonymous trolls on social media, while complaining that any reforms would be unfair to his party in Opposition.
Both are wrong. And deep down, both know it. But they are too concerned with winning and holding power over the next year to think about anything other than milking the existing, broken, dysfunctional political system for maximum gain for themselves and their parties.
Mark’s emotional denouncement of B.C. politics as a “torture chamber” and “character assassination” hung heavy over International Women’s Day at the legislature on Wednesday.
Eby was asked during a roundtable with female leaders what he was doing to make politics a safer and more inclusive space for diverse politicians, such as Mark, the first Indigenous cabinet minister in B.C. history.
He said Mark’s resignation was “really a profound call to action from her for our government.” So profound, apparently, he chose not to expend one iota of political capital calling together the three party leaders to find common ground – instead, fobbing the political hot potato onto the desk of someone else.
“I asked the Speaker, and he was already in a frame of mind to do this, to bring together all the parties in the legislature, as well as other key stakeholders that he felt appropriate, to convene discussion about how we can move forward together,” said Eby.
Speaker Chouhan is a nice guy, who is widely liked by all parties. But he doesn’t have the power, scope, mandate or chops to address the enormous reforms required to make B.C. politics a safe space for women and other diverse candidates. At best, he can tinker with small procedural changes.
And besides, the BC Liberals made it quite clear this week they aren’t interested in reforms either.
“I do think it’s important to remember there’s 800 years of parliamentary history and one of the jobs of Opposition is to ask tough questions of government,” said Falcon.
There are deep suspicions inside the building that New Democrats plan to use the Mark resignation as cover to accomplish something they’ve been longing to do since they took power: Eliminate heckling in question period.
On the one hand, the amount of yelling, name-calling and shouting that goes on daily during the 30-minute question period is an appalling and embarrassing display for everyone involved. It is completely out of step with acceptable behaviour in the real world.
But on the other hand, eliminating the groans, boos and shouts of indignation in question period really only benefits one party: The one in power that is refusing to answer questions.
New Democrats were once vicious hecklers in Opposition. But they aren’t big fans of having the same thing done to them. They’d much prefer to have respectful silence while their ministers read evasive non-answers, punctuated with partisan talking points, into the official record.
Falcon pointed out how an earlier experiment to improve decorum in the 2000s, when he was a BC Liberal cabinet minister, failed because the then NDP opposition (a caucus of only two MLAs, without official party status, mind you) realized it needed to show the public some visible outrage as part of the act of opposing government policy.
“This is something that worked out fantastically for us in government, but it was terrible for the Opposition, if I’m totally honest about it,” said Falcon.
“And they would tell you the same thing … and there’s a reason for that, because the legislature is really the Opposition's opportunity to have their voices heard.”
Heckling in question period isn’t really the problem, anyway. It’s just a symptom of a larger dysfunctional system that prioritizes lying and dehumanizing our politicians – all because it’s easier to reach voters by using fear to paint your opponents as monsters, than it is to offer positive change.
The only party whose hands are clean on this file right now is the BC Greens.
Leader Sonia Furstenau has been pushing hard behind the scenes to get reforms started. She wrote Eby a letter and then met with him in person to pitch many of the ideas outlined in this recent column. She called on him to convene a meeting with her and Falcon. He chose not to.
All party leaders will soon begin the process of recruiting candidates for the next election. They’ve all admitted publicly it's getting harder to convince young, diverse people, of various ethnic and social backgrounds, to enter politics.
It’s a tough sell to get good candidates to enter what is so obviously a dysfunctional political system. And we’ll never fix it, if our leaders can’t even get in a room together to start talking about much-needed change.
Rob Shaw has spent more than 15 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.