Rob Shaw picks his all-star performers from the fall legislative session.
Politicians from all parties paid tribute to outgoing interim Opposition leader Shirley Bond on the last day of the legislative session, highlighting her remarkable ability turning a beleaguered party back into a fighting force in the legislature.
“What I’ve seen in the last year has been, under the leadership of the member for Prince George–Valemount, a caucus that has turned into a team, and a team that has purpose and vision and commitment to the work that they are doing as the official opposition,” said Green leader Sonia Furstenau.
“I’ve been watching and — she may not know this — seeing her as a mentor.”
It’s not surprising that the six-term MLA – once nicknamed “The General” for taking on the dual roles of Attorney General and Solicitor General – was able to whip the BC Liberals into shape.
She’s a famously hard worker, with an attention to detail that rivals the highest-functioning politicians, like Health Minister Adrian Dix. After 20 years in BC politics, holding virtually every cabinet portfolio, including deputy premier, she knows how to get the job done.
“I learnt very early on… that when you’re going to ask the member for Prince George–Valemount a question, you better know your question, and you better know the topic because if you didn’t, you were going to be humbled very quickly and very publicly,” said current Solicitor General and deputy premier Mike Farnworth.
Farnworth himself was the subject of an all-party tribute earlier in the session, to celebrate his 30 years in politics, with BC Liberal MLA Mike de Jong describing him a universally-respected legislator the likes of which is rarely seen in BC politics.
The tributes to the contributions of Bond and Farnworth were well deserved.
It’s easy to focus on the MLAs who landed themselves in controversy and scandals during the fall session of the legislature, due to program changes or legislation of their own making. I’ve written about several during the past few months.
And much digital ink has already been spilled on high-profile performers like Attorney General David Eby, Finance Minister Selina Robinson, Dix and Economic Recovery Minister Ravi Kahlon. They continue to do well.
But in the spirit of the Bond-Farnworth tributes, it’s also worth highlighting some of the other MLAs who maybe didn’t grab the spotlight the past few months but appear to be excelling in their portfolios.
Agriculture Minister Lana Popham has long since put her rocky start in the job in 2017 behind her and stepped up in a big way during the recent flooding disaster to oversee aid to the province’s hard-hit farmers.
She knows the file, the industry’s main players, and the challenges they face in getting food and water to their livestock, or rebuilding their farming operations. She’s twice overhauled BC’s farm regulations, and the depth of her knowledge shows in her daily emergency disaster briefings. She’s appeared genuinely emotional at the scope of the devastating damage to livestock and farmland, and motivated to reach across party lines to help — even inviting BC Liberal Delta South MLA Ian Paton to go with her when she toured the Fraser Valley flood zones, because of his connection to the community and his knowledge as a farmer. It was a classy move. The BC NDP government is fortunate to have her in the portfolio during the crisis.
Abbotsford South MLA Bruce Banman leapt from the opposition backbench to one of its top critics in the session, effectively prosecuting the government’s Freedom of Information legislation, which adds new fees to FOI requests. Banman, the former mayor of Abbotsford, doesn’t appear to be an FOI specialist, but he’s dived into the weeds of the file, fleshing out criticism that the changes are a financial barrier to open government.
Elected in 2020, he doesn’t carry the baggage of the previous BC Liberal government’s mishandling of FOI. And on several occasions, he’s got the best of struggling Citizens’ Services Minister Lisa Beare, scoring wins for the opposition in question period and bill debate.
Mental Health and Addictions Minister Sheila Malcolmson has found herself under fire for months over government’s response to the opioid crisis and mental health wait times, but this was the session she pushed back. The Opposition tried to target her with entire question periods designed to focus only on her file, and embarrass her. It didn’t work, as Malcomson stood her ground several times. She’s clearly found her feet in her file – though she has the unenviable task of trying to slow an overdose crisis that’s been raging for five years and shows no sign of ending.
Saanich North and the Islands MLA Adam Olsen has been impressive since his election in 2017, but in this session he continued to rise as a passionate voice for forestry reform, First Nations reconciliation and addictions treatment. Olsen went public in the legislature with his story of cocaine use in his 20s, hoping to use his high profile to help destigmatize addictions and encourage those who need help (including young men who continue to die of overdoses at a record rate, mostly alone) to step forward without fear or shame.
Formerly part of the confidence and supply agreement that kept the BC NDP in power, he’s now outspoken in his disappointment at the majority government’s arrogance, and in doing so he’s adding a much-needed perspective to the opposition side of the house.
Raj Chouhan made headlines when he became the first South Asian Speaker of the Legislature in 2020, but his performance in the job has been so good you’d think he’d been speaker for decades.
He’s brought a sparkle of humour and compassion to the role, often issuing a wry joke from the chair or adding a human element to the otherwise dusty rules of order that govern the ancient legislative assembly. Instead of using fear and intimidation to achieve order in the house, as his predecessor did, the five-term MLA for Burnaby-Edmonds very clearly commands so much respect and goodwill from MLAs in all three parties they listen to him and calm down when he asks.
Fraser-Nicola MLA Jackie Tegart started the fall session fighting to help constituents from Lytton who’d lost everything when the town burned in summer wildfires, and ended the session fighting to help constituents in Merritt who’d lost everything when their town was flooded and evacuated. She’s proven to be an eloquent and powerful advocate, often reading stories into the house with emotion and then grilling the heck out of the ministers responsible for their inaction.
Tegart’s also taken those stories and applies them to government legislation, such as when she appeared during committee stage of the Freedom of Information bill to tell the minister about people who’d used the FOI act to get information about their properties after the wildfire and would now be subject to new application fees that were ludicrous. Tegart has spent much of her third term behind the scenes chairing her party’s caucus, but in this session she was very much an up-front force as a critic.
Labour Minister Harry Bains has spent much of his political life as a hardcore labour rights activist, so it’s continually surprising to see him over the past four years bring in labour legislation that is moderate, considerate and listens to not only organized labour but the business community as well. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve interviewed the business community after a labour law change and heard surprise that the minister charted a middle course that incorporated their concerns.
The most recent example was during the fall session with legislation that set five days of paid sick leave annually for workers. In the months prior, the BC Federation of Labour organized a public campaign that exerted immense pressure on Bains to set the number of sick days at 10. The business community wanted zero. Bains split the difference at five – a move that surprised many; with the NDP majority he could easily have given organized labour everything it wanted. But Bains stuck to the data in his ministry on average sick days used, survey results and incorporated feedback from hard-hit small businesses. The result is a sick pay program that pleases no one on the extremes – businesses say it’s too much, organized labour says it’s too little. But it’s a sign he struck the right balance. We’ll one day look back on paid sick leave as a cornerstone of basic labour rights in this province, like minimum wage and overtime.
Kamloops-South Thompson MLA Todd Stone was elected with high hopes in 2013 as a young, articulate, good-looking tech executive from the interior who could be the future leader of the BC Liberal Party. He’s spent years struggling under the weight of those expectations, first as a Transportation Minister saddled with a series of no-win decisions on Metro Vancouver transit funding by a premier who wanted to pick fights with mayors, then in Opposition as the man many thought could win the 2018 party leadership race (he finished fourth).
In January, Stone said he wouldn’t run in the party’s current leadership race. And, paradoxically, for the first time in his eight years at the legislature, he’s begun to resemble the BC Liberal heavyweight many thought he could be. Stone was one of the party’s sharpest critics in the fall session, and a reliable front bench performer. He no longer struggles to deliver his lines, or find his feet. His proficiency at skewering ministers on FOI, autism funding, transit and health care rivals that of Bond. Freed from the shackles of expectation, he’ll be one of the most valuable players for the party’s next leader.
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.