Friday, May 27, 2005

Please leaders, end the legislature zoo story

VICTORIA - It's encouraging to hear Gordon Campbell and Carole James talk about co-operating to make the legislature work better, especially for someone whose job involves sitting in the gallery.
The legislature - for all the grandness of the building, and the many fine people inside it - is often a depressing place, many days a genuine embarrassment. I cringe for the school teachers who bring their students to watch Question Period and see adults shouting abuse at each other, posturing and preaching what they know to be nonsense.
These are bright, compassionate people, elected in part because they were good at bringing people together. They'd never shout insults across the room at a community meeting, or mindlessly heckle a speaker
But somehow, inside this building, they lose their bearings.
James has made some useful proposals, including lengthening Question Period. That's the 15 minutes each day that draws much of the media and public attention. Now it's mainly a time for the Opposition to raise issues that they think will result in news stories that make the government look bad.
Not always, of course. There are real questions about real issues. But they are the exception. The opposition looks for the one or two big stories; the government ministers look to avoid answering.
A longer Question Period - B.C. has the shortest in Canada - might help. With 30 minutes, more MLAs would get the chance to raise issues that mattered to their constituents. Cabinet ministers would be less able to simply run out the clock with non-answers.
That's not the only useful reform. The Liberals borrowed an idea from Alberta and set up government caucus committees after the last election, backbencher-dominated groups that were supposed to keep an eye on policies in areas like health, and be watchdogs.
Some Liberal MLAs believe it worked, but it's impossible to tell. The meetings were behind closed doors. No one knew what they were doing (with the result that MLAs looked like they were doing nothing about some issues important to their community).
Campbell should follow through on a 2001 promise to give a bigger role to legislative committees, which have representatives from both parties. The health and education committees did some useful work over the last four years, although relatively little. But others, like the committee on aboriginal affairs haven't met since 2001.
What's needed is a change of mindset on both sides of the legislature. Voters didn't elect MLAs to come here and wage some sort of political war for four years. They want their MLAs to solve problems, and make things better. That does mean holding the government to account, but that can be done in way that is effective, yet civil. (As James showed through much of the election campaign.)
Campbell could send an important signal by consulting with James about who will be the new Speaker, the legislative referee. (Claude Richmond is expected to move to a ministry.) B.C. has an unfortunate tradition of Speakers who are seen as overly partisan.
There's lots of chance for structural reform.
But ultimately, it all comes down to people and how they behave. I rest my biggest hopes hopes on the new MLAs.
Almost half the MLAs who will sit down in the legislature in September - 12 Liberals, 25 New Democrats - will be new, untainted by past practices. They'll be shocked, I expect, when they sit through their first week of the session. And they can either say well, this is the way things work, I guess, or they can make it better.
The opposition can ask questions that seek information, instead of levelling accusations. Ministers can repond fully, tackling the issue head-on. Real information can be provided, and good decisions made.
It would be a leap - each party would have to trust the other. But the new NDP MLAs can treat ministers with respect; the new ministers can answer in the same way.
It might even be catching. Root for them.
Footnote: A Grade 4 teacher here in Victoria wrote the newspaper after taking her class to Question Period. The MLAs' behaviour showed the bullying, rudeness and abusiveness that schools are attempting to eliminate on the playground. Any student would have been sent from class if they acted like the MLAs, she added.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

with over 70 mlas, virtually none of them representing those who elected them, the liberals had to create the illusion that these people were not just collecting govt $ to reiterate campbell propaganda.
hence, the caucus committees.
my back bencher, the invisible woman, was on so many committes she did not have time to serve her constituants.
they have since given her all the time she needs by un-electing her.
that is the same reason so many other liberals have been given the opportunity to explore new challenges.
as for these new people, the liberals will all express the opinions of the leader only, save for 2; oppal and taylor, who at least appear to be their own persons.
they both have honourable reputations, in direct contrast to the premier.
i wonder that this may be a thorn in gordo's side sooner than later, or will they go along to get along, waiting for the timely opportunity to take over party leadership?

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