Rob Shaw: BC’s legislature returns back to normal Monday, with all 87 MLAs shoulder to shoulder. As cases and hospitalizations continue to mount, it’s a bad look – even if Dr. Bonnie Henry says it’s safe.
BC’s legislature reopens Monday with a special back-to-normal plan for politicians, so off-base with the reality facing the rest of the province that it could only have been crafted inside the bubble that is the capital building.
The legislative assembly resumes business as usual Monday, allowing all 87s MLAs to return in person for the first time since March 2020.
They’ll be squeezed into a chamber that could barely accommodate them before the pandemic, sitting elbow-to-elbow with their neighbours while above them the doors are thrown open for visitors to return to the public gallery.
At its peak, with security, parliamentary pages, staff, tourists, and media present, you could easily expect more than 100 people stuffed into the poorly-ventilated 123-year-old chamber, where doors will be sealed for security.
It will all paint a nice quaint picture of pre-pandemic normalcy (if you ignore the masks, which remain mandatory).
Too bad it’s significantly out of step with the reality for everyone else.
BC’s daily COVID-19 death rate now exceeds what the province saw at the peak of the third wave. Critical care patients continue to overwhelm hospitals and force the cancellation of surgeries. Cases amongst kids have spiked while worried parents call for reforms.
Much of the province is under special restrictions to limit gatherings in Northern Health, Interior Health and areas of Fraser East like Abbotsford, Chilliwack, Hope and Mission.
Ordinary folks in BC still fall under rules that limit their indoor organized gatherings to 50 people or 50 per cent of capacity – whichever is greater. But the legislature gets a waiver to run at 100 per cent.
You would think politicians, ever-sensitive to the optics of getting special treatment and appearing out of touch, would take all of that into account before approving rules that will no doubt breed resentment in many of the communities they represent.
And apparently some were.
For a time last month, house leaders were working to continue the previous hybrid session model, where 50 per cent of the MLAs would dial in remotely via videoconferencing feeds broadcast onto giant televisions hung from the legislature balconies.
But Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry told legislature officials a couple of weeks ago that it was safe to have all 87 MLAs physically present in the chamber as long as everyone who works in the building was vaccinated and proved it under the new provincial vaccine card program.
MLAs of all stripes remain loath to contradict Dr. Henry. And so, they’re gathering under her plan, despite some significant reservations about the optics and message it sends to the public that things are back-to-normal for the politicians but not necessarily for everyone else.
BC NDP government house leader Mike Farnworth and BC Liberal leader Shirley Bond both defended the plan last week, saying if it was signed off by Dr. Henry, that was good enough for them.
BC Green leader Sonia Furstenau broke ranks.
“Given the case numbers we’re seeing and the ongoing pressures in the health care system I am anxious about us resuming full capacity not just in the legislature but generally,” she said in an interview.
“I think, as with everything right now, there should be very close monitoring of how this plays out and the ability to change direction if that’s what the evidence and data shows.”
The legislature has retained the technology to have some MLAs appear remotely – but has left it up to the caucuses to decide whether to extend that privilege to politicians uncomfortable with returning in-person, or restrict it only to those who feel sick and are getting tested.
So far, the expectation from the two main caucus, the NDP and BC Liberals, is that MLAs report back-to-work in person as ordered, unless they are sick or have an extraordinarily compelling case why they should get special treatment.
For MLAs with young kids who can’t yet get vaccinated, or who live in close proximity to elderly relatives, this will be a tough pill to swallow.
Proponents of the plan point out that there are some mitigating factors that will make the legislature safer.
All 87 MLAs aren’t expected to be in the chamber together for more than an hour a day (usually the 30-minute question period, plus votes on key bills), because most of the time during routine business the house runs at part capacity anyway. And the session is only scheduled to be six weeks long.
Still though, that’s the kind of hair-splitting detail that will fly over the heads of the general public.
All this has left politicians in a tough spot.
They, like the rest of us, heard Dr. Henry speculate last month that if vaccination rates improve then she might throw open to full capacity indoor concerts and sports games this fall. Things have worsened substantially since then, even as vaccination rates have risen. Nobody is sure if Dr. Henry is still considering more freedoms, or what exactly is on the horizon for the province.
In the face of that uncertainty, a different approach by MLAs would have been advisable.
They didn’t need to reject Dr. Henry’s advice, so much as to say they were more comfortable with a more cautious plan than the full freedoms she offered. The hybrid model has been used successfully several times in previous sessions.
The legislature is a symbol for the province, especially during difficult times. It’s supposed to represent everyone. But not everyone who tunes in this fall will see the reality of what they are facing reflected back at them.
That only serves to further isolate the capital building and all who work there. Victoria is often accused of being in its own bubble of reality. Unfortunately, MLAs are proving that criticism true.
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.
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- In June 2020, Maclean Kay ventured into the legislature for the first time since the pandemic hit. It was a very different place indeed.
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