Rob Shaw: Normally better known for knock-down, drag-out political brawling, last week the BC Legislature also saw one incredibly respectful debate.
The B.C. legislature can be a brutal and combative arena, where political careers are made by destroying the credibility of others.
So it’s worth taking time to note when the opposite happens, however briefly in the grand scheme of things.
Health Minister Adrian Dix and Opposition leader Shirley Bond deserve credit for their masterclass in debating ministry estimates this past week.
Almost no one in the real world watched it, but it’s the kind of performance that might restore your faith in our political processes if you did.
It all began in the tiny Birch Room, wedged into an attic-like space on the top floor of the legislative building. There was only one stationary camera at a distance to view the proceedings. You couldn’t get further away from the performance theatre of the main chamber if you tried.
It was the first time the two veteran MLAs had been in the same room since the pandemic began in February 2020.
“I apologize for being a little more emotional than usual, but it’s unusual to have people in the room to see this and be here,” said Dix.
“It has been a long time. For us, this has been our life for a long time, too, this debate in this place. It’s a significant moment.”
Dix offered to debate his ministry’s programs and spending in a “respectful” way, acknowledging “it’s absolutely legitimate for the opposition to disagree with actions we’ve taken on any number of issues.”
That’s usually boilerplate from a minister, and evaporates into a puff of smoke as soon as both sides take up arms and the first partisan exchange occurs.
But not this time.
The two spent almost six hours, over two days, on their feet pleasantly but thoroughly discussing almost $24 billion in spending – roughly 40 per cent of the entire government’s annual budget.
No cheap shots or snide remarks. Just a quick, responsive, factual back-and-forth that began with an obvious observation: Dix has actually done a pretty good job as minister of health during this crisis.
“To the minister and, obviously, Dr. Henry, I want to express my gratitude,” said Bond.
“I can’t imagine the personal strength that it has taken for you to manage British Columbia through this very difficult time. So I do want to express my respect and gratitude. I can’t imagine how difficult it has been for you.”
“The minister and I have had a long working relationship,” added Bond. “I have developed a great deal of respect for his efforts.”
Respect. It’s a good place to start analyzing why this debate was so different from much of what we see at the B.C. legislature.
First, you have to first understand Dix and Bond.
Each has almost two decades of experience, where they’ve taken various jobs as ministers, critics, and leaders of their parties.
They are also remarkably similar politicians – intense workaholics who demand mastery of their files and don’t slough off the small details. Every policy, figure and public statement crosses their desk for personal approval. Every briefing note is questioned for accuracy. Every decision note is carefully considered. They demand a high bar for their staff and those around them.
Another similarity is that while they are two of the most fierce combatants in the building, they also, paradoxically, wear their hearts on their sleeves.
One such example is when Bond’s husband of 41 years, Bill, died June 6, 2020. There was an outpouring of condolences. Dix went a step further and made phone calls of personal support – a gesture that clearly moved Bond, and which she took time to acknowledge at the start of estimates.
“He was very quick to reach out to me personally during what has been the most difficult year of my life,” Bond said. “I’m very grateful for that.”
Then, during the pandemic, when the health minister was under a crushing workload of public health orders and crisis management, Dix still carved out time to make daily calls to opposition MLAs, including Bond, to keep them up-to-date on the latest data.
“He has been incredibly respectful in our dialogue and, throughout the pandemic, has taken every opportunity to pick up the phone or have me reach out to him and receive briefings from Dr. Henry, and (deputy minister Stephen Brown) as well,” said Bond.
All this may sound like simple stuff. But politics is heavily influenced by personal dynamics. You’d be amazed how far minor gestures go between powerful players.
It’s also a two-way street.
During the height of the first wave, when public fear over a relatively unknown virus was sweeping the globe, then Opposition health critic Norm Letnick asked Dix if he’d be willing to hold bi-partisan virtual public town halls, to deliver a unified public health message during a state of emergency.
Dix took him up on the offer, and so began a very unusual partnership between Dix and BC Liberal MLAs to deliver medical information to constituents, free of politics. BC Green leader Sonia Furstenau, who was her party’s health critic at the time, also joined the events.
“I can tell you that when I asked the then member for Kelowna–Lake Country (Letnick) if members of the opposition would be prepared to help us on seniors issues, in community, there was no hesitation from him, no hesitation from the hon. member,” Dix said to Bond.
“I don’t forget these things.”
(Side note: Dix is literal when he says he doesn’t forget these things, he has a near-photographic memory.)
All this set the stage for last week’s display of good faith in ministry estimates. The debate covered seniors care, dementia support, personal protective equipment, rapid COVID-19 tests, long-term care home visitation policies and outbreak protocols. More topics will be canvassed starting Monday.
There were tough questions, and direct answers, especially around decisions made about pandemic management.
“I think all of us need to demonstrate to British Columbians that we’re prepared to ask the hard questions about the issues that were uncomfortable during this process,” said Bond at one point on the second day of questioning.
“Did we do well as a province? Yes. I think most British Columbians would say that. But they also have specific questions.”
“This is not a partisan issue,” she added, on the decisions made about seniors care homes during the crisis. “All of us have frail, elderly people in our lives that we absolutely cherish and love. Together we need to make sure that they are protected and cared for and given the quality of life that they deserve, and that means asking hard questions about what families have faced.”
Dix said the overall effect of the working relationship during the last year has been to boost public confidence.
Some BC Liberals undoubtedly think the extra public confidence wasn’t worth the lost chance to score more traditional political points at the NDP government’s expense – especially given Premier John Horgan’s ruthless decision to call a snap election in October.
We’ll never know for sure. But there seemed little public appetite for partisan games during the first few months of the pandemic last spring, amid the fear and anxiety of this new virus and the global shutdown. It’s more likely the BC Liberals would have faced intense public backlash for being unable to rise above cheap political finger pointing during a moment of crisis.
Besides, the party’s own internal election post-mortem released this week revealed that most felt the race was unwinnable, for a variety of reasons.
“I personally think that throughout the pandemic the people who elected us can be proud of how we’ve conducted ourselves,” said Dix.
“I include in that all of the members in the opposition, their former members who have retired or weren’t re-elected or didn’t come back, who contributed enormously… and the members of the Green Party. I think collectively, we have shared information –– confidential cabinet information –– repeatedly with the opposition, and not on a single occasion that I know of has that ever been leaked in advance of an announcement.
“It’s that level of trust that’s taken place, of authentic conduct, which I think has served people well.”
It has indeed. All three parties deserve credit for it. Sometimes, amid the roar of partisanship and cynical theatre at the legislature, it’s worth acknowledging when our politicians rise above it.
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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