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Hold me back

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Rob Shaw: It’s always the smaller spending controversies that trip politicians up – and the NDP’s justification for ending a “holdback” for ministers was ridiculously bad.

In politics, it’s always the small spending controversies that trip people up.

You can misspend millions on useless projects, but expense an $18 glass of orange juice at a posh hotel like Canada’s former international aid minister Bev Oda did in 2012 and, well, you’ll end up resigning in disgrace from the public backlash.

That’s what makes BC’s recent provincial budget so interesting.

The document outlines $71 billion in spending – a figure so enormous as to be meaningless to ordinary British Columbians. But it also very quietly gives cabinet ministers an extra $5,551 a year in salary they’d otherwise forfeit each year the provincial budget is in deficit. That’s worth more $22,204 per minister, because the budget projects this year and the next three years as being in deficit.

A “$20,000 raise” as the Opposition BC Liberals charged in question period is a relatable amount to ordinary voters. The BC NDP should be cautious about the message it sends, at a time when the wallets of most British Columbians are being squeezed by a variety of cost pressures.

But that, apparently, does not concern New Democrat strategists, who crafted one of the most ridiculous explanations ever heard in the legislature for Finance Minister Selina Robinson to read as a defence for the decision.

BC Liberal critic Todd Stone was up first on the issue in Wednesday’s question period.

“At a time when British Columbians are being hit with higher housing costs, higher rents, higher fuel and grocery costs, higher taxes on heating bills and used cars, higher taxes on online marketplaces, how could the Premier possibly justify providing himself and his cabinet ministers with a $20,000 raise?” he said.

New Democrat strategists crafted one of the most ridiculous explanations ever heard in the legislature.

“It’s a holdback,” replied Robinson. “This measure sent the wrong message. What it says is that it prioritises austerity and cuts over investment, even in an emergency.”

“It forces government to balance books on the backs of British Columbians, making sure that we…. And if we followed that holdback provision, we wouldn’t have supports for business. We wouldn’t have vaccination clinics. It is the wrong message.”

No vaccine clinics unless ministers are paid their extra $5,551? No supports for hard-hit business owners facing bankruptcy after being forced to close due to COVID-19 unless ministers get a little extra scratch first?

The mind boggles at how such an utterly absurd explanation could have made its way through the various levels of strategists, communications experts, issues managers and political staff before working its way into the minister’s question period binder. But there it was, a sort of naked quid pro quo between public health, business supports and cabinet pay.

No vaccine clinics unless ministers are paid their extra $5,551? No supports for hard-hit business owners facing bankruptcy after being forced to close due to COVID-19 unless ministers get a little extra scratch first?

I don’t for a second think Robinson actually believes that, nor do New Democrats. It was undoubtedly a clunky turn of phrase gone wrong. But misspeaks are the kryptonite of politicians, and it shows the peril of trying to defend small amounts of misspending that can easily capture the public’s ire.

BC New Democrats will likely shrug the exchange off, because what voter was watching question period, and in the immortal words of Premier John Horgan on previous scandals: “Who cares?”

But they should think long and hard about how sloppy mistakes like that are made. This government survives largely on the record-high popularity of the premier, who is even more beloved by the BC public after successfully beating throat cancer.

Without Horgan, the unforced errors that have grown from arrogant decision-making over cabinet pay, old growth forests, freedom of information, cruise ships, and other files will one day catch up to the party. This government doesn’t enjoy record voter popularity because of the day-to-day way it runs operations and how it makes decisions, but in spite of it. The cabinet holdback issue is just the latest example.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 13 years covering BC politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for The Orca. He is the co-author of the national best-selling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

rob@robshawnews.com

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