Last Splash - The Orca

Last Splash

Maclean Kay

The most newsworthy and tempestuous Speaker in BC history goes out with a series of recommendations to overhaul the Legislature.

This coming Monday, the Legislature will select a new Speaker. The likeliest candidates are Spencer Chandra-Herbert and Raj Chouhan, who fit the basic qualification: NDP MLAs (a majority government need not cajole opposition members) who aren’t in cabinet. Both have served as Deputy Speaker, and could handle and possibly even enjoy the role.

Whoever emerges, they will succeed arguably the province’s most newsworthy and tempestuous Speaker in Darryl Plecas, who chose not to run for re-election.

Yesterday, his office released Speaker’s Forum on the Role of Members: IDEAS FOR CHANGE. It’s a series of recommendations for parliamentary reform.

One was a lengthy collection of suggestions from invited stakeholders and experts. The list does contain some interesting and worthwhile nuggets, such as Incorporate Opposition Days in the Legislative Assembly’s calendar. But like gold, you have to sift through a lot of pebbles.

These are either nebulous and impractical (Encourage, as best practice, the role of emotionality, compassion and lived experience in politics), flat-out undemocratic (Remove Hansard cameras from the Chamber) or well, WELL beyond any reasonable understanding of the Speaker’s mandate (Encourage the Legislative Press Gallery and other media to present news to the public more like an accessible briefing note on relevance and less like a story about villains and heroes, and even Mandate Civics 12 in high school.)

The Speaker’s Office is important, but has no more say in news reporting or school curriculum than it does on Canucks draft choices, naming the next SpaceX rocket, or bringing back the McRib.

Okay, fair enough, it’s essentially a grab-bag of blue-sky ideas from those invited to submit them. It’s fine for what it is, but the title of the report suggests it’s on the role of MLAs – and yet, no current or former MLAs were included. A group of former Legislative interns was brought in. I know several quite well, and they’re all brilliant. (One created my post-it caricature atop this page.) But why that group, and not anyone with firsthand experience?

(As an aside, the stakeholder list provides a glimpse into the outgoing Speaker’s relationship with the Press Gallery, in that his Journalism Group included exactly zero members of it. Described as “members of the media,” it comprised three professors, TheBreaker’s Bob Mackin, and the late Dermod Travis, who ran a hard-to-categorize democratic reform advocacy group.)

Fine, they published the lot, even the impossible ones. Recommendations from the Speaker himself are more significant.

Plecas makes 20 suggestions, too lengthy to fully list here, but following several broad themes.

First, expanding initial orientation, ongoing supports, and possibly mandatory training for MLAs. These would mostly build on and update existing programs, and do not seem unreasonable.

Second, improving behaviour in MLAs and staff through a new Code of Conduct and other measures. Interestingly, Plecas specifically includes ministerial staff – those who work for specific cabinet ministers and who often work in the Legislature, but not for the Legislature. What’s the difference? The Speaker doesn’t have any jurisdiction over them. But, details.

Third, parliamentary reform. Plecas characterizes the legislature’s procedural structure – accurately, in my view – as one that “heavily favours the government of the day,” and leaves precious little time or oxygen for opposition or backbench MLAs, and proposes some ideas to create some.

Fourth, behaviour. This is where it gets challenging.

Plecas wants to ban everything from heckling down to clapping; these are perhaps best described as aspirational targets. The recommendations also include a suggestion to reform “the purpose and ‘rules’ of Question Period.” Plecas also officially recommends requiring questions be written and submitted in advance.

This is, to use a technical term, a terrible idea. It could only further “heavily favour the government of the day,” which Plecas identified as a problem just two pages before. And as the Greens learned late in their erstwhile partnership with the NDP, even submitting questions in advance is no guarantee of a sincere attempt to answer.

There are a few other items of interest, including a massive increase in online polling and petitioning, which would add a mandatory response from government. This would have to be protected from being hijacked by special interests.

Another recommendation is giving the Select Standing Committee on Parliamentary Reform, Ethical Conduct, Standing Orders and Private Bills “expanded independent powers of inquiry.”

This perhaps isn’t surprising, as former Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin described Plecas as viewing his role “through the lens of a police investigation and criminal prosecution, rather than the lens of an administrator.”

Plecas’ time in the Chair will be remembered and studied for a long, long time. Start with the way he resigned/was ejected (still not clear which) from the party he was elected under. Which led, through a series of escalations, into a state of unprecedented open warfare with the Official Opposition, up to and including an earnest (and very loud) attempt to remove him.

From there, a series of reports, hints at more reports to come, fact-finding trips, allegations both broad and hyper-specific, late night computer hard drive harvestings, and the most stultified, uneasy atmosphere I’ve seen in 10 years of the Legislature, and a few more in Parliament.

And last but certainly most, the investigation and expulsion of the now-former Clerk and Sergeant-at-Arms, which expanded into a more general investigation of the Legislative Assembly (and well beyond), and hints of revelations that would make BC “vomit.” Most of it just fizzled out.

After such a wild ride, The Speaker’s Forum report is more epilogue than final act. Whoever the next Speaker is, they’re nowhere near as likely to find themselves in the evening news.

Maclean Kay is Editor-in-Chief of The Orca