Rob Shaw: Given a set of recommendations from BC’s coroner to blunt the overdose crisis, the NDP government and two opposition parties can’t agree how, when, or who should work on implementing them.
The creation of a new all-party committee to study BC’s worsening overdose crisis was supposed to be an experiment in depoliticizing an issue, where all parties finally put aside partisan bickering to tackle one of the largest public health emergencies of our time.
But within minutes of the committee’s terms of reference being tabled in the legislature this week, it was clear that none of the sides were quite yet willing to put down their political weapons.
It started with the BC NDP government soliciting feedback from the BC Liberals and Greens on the committee’s scope, and then choosing not to listen to their suggestions, instead jamming its own terms into the house using its majority.
That prompted a joint press release from the Liberals and Greens, with Opposition house leader Todd Stone quoted as saying it was “devastating” Premier John Horgan chose to “ignore” their advice, and Green leader Sonia Furstenau estimating 1,417 British Columbians will die of overdoses before the committee produces its final report by the NDP’s deadline of Nov. 2.
The BC Liberals and Greens wanted the committee to focus entirely on implementing the recommendations made in a March report from the BC Coroners Service, which examined more than 6,000 overdose deaths and made a series of recommendations on safe drug supply, care, treatment and expansion of services within 30, 60 and 90 day timelines.
The BC NDP turned around and instead gave the committee a wide scope to look at the increasing toxicity of drugs, government’s response, and any reports it wanted to examine over the next seven months.
There are a few things actually going on here.
First, the BC NDP clearly will not meet the timelines in the coroner’s report. Mental Health Minister Sheila Malcolmson made that clear to the legislature Monday.
“I suppose the actions described in the death review panel,” she said. “For me to give communities and people that are losing loved ones every day a false sense of confidence that we can do in 30 days what this province has been trying to do for the last five years…. what would be gained from that?”
Faced with such a reality, there’s no way the government wanted to strike a committee of political foes to focus entirely on attacking it over timelines it knows it won’t hit.
But there’s also some opposition politics at play here as well.
“We made the case that, frankly, this health committee should be actually an implementation-focused committee, should be focused on taking the work that’s already been done, that’s in the Death Review Panel report and ensuring that the government… folks that have the policy levers, they have the resources, they’re the decision-makers, ultimately, that, that they begin to implement the solutions that have been have been laid out,” said Stone.
That’s an ambitious and impractical role for an all-party legislative committee. It’s filled with government backbenchers and opposition MLAs, who have no resources, no access to ministry staff, no spending authority, and no power whatsoever to do the work of implementing anything.
Committees of MLAs are meant to study and recommend. Only the government is in a position to act.
At a press conference, Stone and Furstenau bristled at the idea their proposed terms were an overreach.
“There’s a role for every elected representative to play in this legislature,” said Furstenau. “And there are roles for committees to play. And I think that’s what’s important, is recognizing our democratic processes are only as strong as we make them.”
She argued that “we do not want to find ourselves in a place where the executive council exists, and the legislature just has to get along and carry on as though they have no role to play.”
True, perhaps, but the BC NDP has a majority government. The system is the way it is, whether Furstenau likes it not – with the power centralized in cabinet. Only the ministers can implement the report’s recommendations.
Stone, a former cabinet minister himself, later relented the point.
“I completely understand who actually implements stuff around this place, it is the government,” he said. “But I thought Sonia’s point was very well said, that there are some issues, some challenges we face as a province, as we’ve just seen through the pandemic, that it’s way more impactful for everyone to come together and do that work together.”
Furstenau did, however, offer a better argument for compromise between all sides during the press conference. She said if the BC NDP, Liberals and Greens could come to a consensus on what to do to combat overdose deaths, through the committee, then the opposition parties would back down and support the government on the issue.
“It was a consensus across all three parties that this is the way to go, and what message that sends to the government is when you implement these solutions, because you need to implement them, you are going to have the opposition parties at your back,” she said. “We are not going to criticize you for bringing these recommendations and these implementations forward, because we are the ones that have participated in bringing forward these recommendations.”
On that Furstenau is entirely correct. The great experiment on de-politicizing the overdose crisis with an all-party committee is off to a rocky start. But the hope is that it can still get there in the end.
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.