Opinion

Independent MLAs have a dream

The B.C. legislature
The B.C. legislature's pre-election session begins today with a throne speech setting out Premier Christy Clark's agenda. There will be plenty of discussion of a promised balanced budget.
— image credit: Black Press files

VICTORIA – Imagine a province where party leaders are chosen in an independently supervised vote, with 12-year-olds, dead people and pets prevented from voting.

Imagine a province where roving gangs of influence-seekers aren’t allowed to join multiple parties, and the rule is actually enforced. One where corporations and unions have to advertise in their own name instead of financing political parties and then disclosing millions in donations months after the election is over.

Imagine a province where elections are held based on audited financial statements, not a collection of election promises that will be dismissed as a work of fiction by the new regime if the incumbent party is defeated.

A cat joined the B.C. Liberal Party to support Christy Clark. Adrian Dix won the NDP leadership with the help of bags of $10 bills stapled to new memberships. As parties go to online voting, multiple PIN numbers may be activated from the same phone number or the same address.

These and other glaring problems with our party-based political system were highlighted last week in a set of reforms proposed by three independent MLAs. Vicki Huntington broke the party choke-hold on B.C. politics by getting elected as an independent in Delta South in 2009. Bob Simpson was kicked out of the NDP caucus shortly after winning re-election for the party in Cariboo North, because he dared to criticize then-leader Carole James for a lack of policy specifics.

They were belatedly joined by Abbotsford South MLA John van Dongen, who quit the B.C. Liberals in an orchestrated move to the B.C. Conservatives, and then quit that party soon after. Van Dongen does not have the credibility of the others to speak on integrity, given his self-serving party antics and his questionable decision to hire his fiancée and pay her one and a half salaries to serve as his constituency assistant.

Leaving that aside, there are some good ideas in the independents’ reform package. One is to give backbench MLAs a meaningful role in policy-making.

Simpson gave the example of Prince George MLA Shirley Bond’s term as education minister, where she had to reverse ministry policies that didn’t make sense in rural school districts. The all-party standing committee on education could have prevented this error, he said, but it didn’t because it never meets.

The party voting irregularities described above could be addressed by giving Elections BC authority to supervise party leadership votes, the way it does elections and referenda. There are unknown costs for this, and other problems. For instance, should the Marijuana Party be subject to this, or the Work Less Party, should either one muster enough organization to stage a leadership contest?

The independents had high hopes for one fundamental reform, moving B.C.’s set election date from the spring to the fall. This would take a simple amendment. The idea is for the government to table the annual budget, present the audited public accounts for the previous year, then have an election that rests on tested financial statements and initial results for the current forecast.

Both the B.C. Liberal Party and the NDP have expressed support for this idea. The independents suggest that this brief three-week legislative session is a good time to do it, so the next government can implement it.

I asked Mike de Jong, the B.C. Liberal finance minister and house leader, if he would consider it.

He allowed that it is interesting, but it’s not contemplated for the pre-election session. That will be dominated by returning the provincial sales tax, and the usual jousting over untested spending and revenue proposals.

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

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