Monday, March 29, 2004

Legislature an embarrassment to British Columbians

VICTORIA - It was a sleazy week down at the legislature, one that should make every MLA rethink what they are doing here. No one can be happy with the way the legislature has worked for the last decade.
Last week was a particularly low point, on both sides of the House.
The New Democrats have been raising questions about alleged financial and personal improprieties by Liberal MLAs, based on information provided to them by unidentified sources. It's a risky area; great damage can be done with false accusations.
The Liberals opened the door for the questions. When MLA Elayne Brenzinger quit the party and criticized Premier Gordon Campbell, whip Kevin Krueger revealed that she had been secretly suspended from caucus last year after an altercation with a staff member.
Has anyone else been secretly suspended, reporters asked. A few, Krueger replied, before deciding it was time to invoke caucus secrecy.
Too late, though. Because now people wondered which MLAs had been suspended, and what they had done that was bad enough to get them booted.
And they wondered why the Liberals didn't tell suspended MLAs' constituents that they weren't represented within the government. (It didn't used to be that way. The NDP had no secret suspensions; in Opposition the Liberals said when and why MLAs were suspended.)
The NDP has been pushing for answers. They have made specific charges, asking if MLA Richard Stewart had been suspended for "inappropriate behaviour involving a staff member" and whether Burnaby-Willingdon MLA John Nuraney had been suspended from caucus for "financial improprieties."
The Liberals were outraged. Stewart denied the charges. MacPhail acknowledged she had no proof, and accepted the denial. But she wouldn't apologize. (Nuraney wouldn't confirm or deny his suspension.)
A case can be made for raising the issue. McPhail said Krueger opened the door, the issue is significant, and her source had previously proved accurate.
But once she accepted Stewart's denial, she should have apologized.
MacPhail didn't. So when she rose in Question Period, the Liberals shouted, booed and then walked out. Finance Minister Gary Collins said MacPhail's questions would be ignored until she apologized.
MacPhail attempted to remedy her error, apologizing the next day.
But the Liberals also need to acknowledge their errors. Walking out of the legislature was wrong, and abused the voters who sent them there. The Liberals are free to be angry, but in any workplace, you are expected to swallow your anger and do your job.
And the voters in MacPhail's riding sent her there to represent them. Part of that representation includes asking question of the government. The Liberals may not like that. But voters, not governments, get to decide who can be an opposition MP.
The Liberals also have to lift the secrecy from these suspensions of caucus members. They did when it was useful to make Brenzinger look bad; they can't go all noble now.
Voters have a right to know. Liberal MLAs don't work for the party, or the caucus. They work for the voters. And if the voters are deprived of their representation in government because of alleged misconduct, they should know.
The principle of caucus secrecy is fine, allowing governments to have intense internal policy debates before emerging with a common position. But it wasn't intend as a way to cover up serious wrongdoing by members of a government.
Much is made of tradition down at the legislature; it sometimes inures us all to reality.
Force an average British Columbian to spend a day watching the legislature at work and he would be angry and ashamed - at the rudeness, the mindless obstructionism, the foolish posturing, the softball questions, the negativity.
The legislature should represent our best ideals, a place of compassion and commonsense, of meaningful debate and honest answers.
It's not. It's so far removed from that ideal that we should all be a little ashamed.
Footnote: Several Liberal MLAs wrote letters to the editor disputing my suggestion that they were doing themselves and their constituents a disservice by using Question Period to lob softballs at ministers. Here's Brenzinger on the process: "The questions are given to us. We're told who's going to say it, at what time. We practice in caucus what the question is. The minister knows the question and answers it. I just thought: 'This isn't democracy.'"