Opinion

Stage set for B.C. senate election

Gerry St. Germain - Senate of Canada
Gerry St. Germain
— image credit: Senate of Canada

VICTORIA – Cannon will roar across the Inner Harbour on the morning of Feb. 12 to mark the opening of the 2013 legislature session.

Lieutenant Governor Judith Guichon will inspect the troops and present her inaugural Throne Speech, setting out the B.C. Liberal government’s goals for the coming year.

This ritual will kick off a legislative session that is expected to run until March 14, where the official Parliamentary Calendar shows a three-week break for Easter. Debate is unlikely to resume in April, as the election campaign will be in full roar by then.

This means there will be a grand total of 19 sitting days to push through a budget and a raft of legislation. Here’s my unofficial preview.

The pre-election budget will be presented Feb. 19 by Finance Minister Michael de Jong. Premier Christy Clark has decreed that it must be balanced, and the government has made extra efforts to armour itself against what will likely be the loudest debate ahead.

First, de Jong held a pre-budget meeting of the government’s blue-chip forecast council in public. This provided a visual record of what happens every year, when the finance ministry solicits the same sort of independent advice as most competent democracies, and bases its numbers on that.

Then the finance ministry hired former Bank of Montreal chief economist Tim O’Neill, who will act as an unofficial version of the parliamentary budget officer in Ottawa. Now that we have simultaneous oversight of child welfare and the police, the next step is to extend it to finance bureaucrats.

Regardless of party, the government has to produce a three-year set of forecasts to replace the current one. A lot of election energy will go into competing claims about who is better at predicting the future.

Another new law to be given high priority is one setting up senate elections, to be run in connection with the May 14 provincial vote. Alberta pioneered this, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s recent round of senate appointments included Calgary lawyer Doug Black, who won an Alberta senate election held last year.

There was no one appointed to replace Gerry St. Germain, who bid an emotional adieu as a Conservative senator for B.C. last year. St. Germain was instrumental in uniting the splintered federal Conservatives, but he reached the mandatory retirement age of 75, having been appointed by Brian Mulroney in 1993 after losing his seat as an MP.

Why would this senate reform be so urgent for the B.C. Liberals now? Well, turnout for the 2009 election fell to around 50 per cent, a record low for a provincial vote. If that downward trend is reversed this year, it will be in large part because people are still mad enough about the harmonized sales tax and a range of other issues to get off the couch and kick some B.C. Liberal butt.

Electing senators remains a popular notion, especially with older, conservative-minded voters in B.C. who identified with the Reform Party. The first-ever senate election looks like the best available shot at boosting turnout among people who are not likely to vote NDP, and who may also be disengaged from provincial politics.

And then there is the provincial sales tax bill. Another kick in the slats for the movie business, for one, and don’t hold your breath for NDP leader Adrian Dix to produce a solution in the wake of his recent trip to Tinsel Town.

The performance of the governing party and the opposition will be scrutinized as never before.

Tom Fletcher is legislative reporter and columnist for Black Press and BCLocalnews.com

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