Three-dimensional chess - The Orca
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Three-dimensional chess

Kent Verge
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A political strategist-eye view of some of the thinking that goes into selecting committees.

The BC government recently created a Special Committee on Reforming the Police Act, charged with making recommendations on a wide range of issues related to policing. This is important work that needs doing, and the government is to be congratulated on starting the process.

At the same time, if we gave awards for artistic merit in political strategy, the committee would surely be in the running. It has been designed for public consumption as much as policy improvement.

The composition, terms of reference, and associated timelines are all constructed to benefit the NDP’s political needs in the run-up to the next provincial election. For a government currently enjoying widespread public support, the NDP are showing no signs of coasting through the fall and winter.

With this one act, they’re doing three things. They can say action is being taken on four important policy areas; they have made things politically treacherous for the opposition parties; and they have created a platform for increasing the profile of several MLAs in vulnerable swing ridings.

The committee’s terms of reference has four priorities, each addressing hot button policy issues. First, they are tasked with presenting recommendations on modernization, transparency, and independent oversight of police forces. Second, they will “look at the role of police with respect to complex social issues including mental health and wellness, addictions, and harm reduction.” That includes a review of relevant sections of the Mental Health Act. Third, the committee should address systemic racism within BC’s police agencies. And fourth, the committee should identify any changes to the Police Act to bring it in line with the United Nations Declaration on the rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

Any one of those could consume a legislative committee and supporting army of government officials for years. The committee is due to report back by May 2021, the fourth anniversary of the last provincial election. They met for the first time on Monday, July 20th. They will be unlikely to fully address all four priorities in such a short time, so a delay in reporting is likely. We can expect a partial report by next May, with a request for extension. That means an opportunity to pick and choose politically desirable reports – just in time for the next scheduled election.

The political, regional and demographic diversity of the committee has been carefully thought out, effectively blunting criticisms of bias. Reflecting the composition of the house, the government does not hold a majority on the committee. There are four NDP members, four BC Liberal members, and one BC Green. Among these are two former RCMP members (one NDP, one BC Liberal), and two former BC Liberal ministers, including a former solicitor general. There are three female members, two Indigenous MLAs, and representatives from the island, Lower Mainland, and North. Committee members can credibly represent voices from the LGTBQ+, immigrant, and BIPOC communities.

So, you’ve got a committee given a herculean task with an impossible timeline and a membership carefully designed to be fair and representative. How does that help the government get re-elected? It works as both a defensive and offensive tactic.

Defensively, the government can point to the committee as action taken on addiction, systemic racism, UNDRIP, and transparency. Significantly, all issues that traditionally rank as higher priorities among NDP voters than BC Liberals.

The BC Liberals will have to work even harder to get traction on those issues, having to simultaneously push the government for reform while defending their own policy record. If the they push for police reform, why now and not during their 16 years in power? If they criticize the government’s approach on Mental Health Act reforms, why don’t they care about vulnerable populations? Committee meetings will be a minefield, carefully scrutinized by political staff on all sides looking for the kind of pithy quote that drives advertising campaigns.

It’s not just playing defence. The committee also advances the NDP’s electoral prospects in key ridings. Three of the four NDP members are in their first term, and face relatively tough re-election campaigns. They’re now set up to be highlighted in government and caucus communications. The government can ensure that communications from the former best effect the latter.

Four significant policy issues, three re-election campaigns, and a weakened opposition playbook with one committee. It’s some nice strategic footwork.

Kent Verge is a Victoria-based government affairs and strategic planning consultant. He can be reached at kent.verge@gmail.com

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