The sudden instability of the minority provincial government has generated interest in the ancient machinery of the B.C. legislature, its roots deep in British parliamentary tradition.
It’s shaping up like a lost seventh season of Downton Abbey, where the servant class finally takes over upstairs. Christy Clark, the Duchess of Dunbar, might have to don the apron of opposition leader. The coming weeks will be a live-action drama on how the B.C. government works, or doesn’t work.
I had a mix of responses to last week’s column, which described how Clark’s B.C. Liberals technically won the election and remain the government. By the second half of June this will be demonstrated, and the people who said I was (to put it politely) wrong will have a chance to learn more about the process that is now underway.
The latest crop of 87 MLAs will be sworn in by Lt. Gov. Judith Guichon. Clark’s temporary cabinet will then swear their oaths of office, and the stage will be set to convene the legislature and present a Speech from the Throne.
But before that or any other business can be conducted, MLAs must elect a Speaker from among their ranks in a secret-ballot vote, just like the one that citizens cast in the May 9 election. Since the tradition is that the Speaker only votes in cases of a tie, and then only to uphold the current government or to continue debate, the selection of Speaker is critical in a case where a single vote can spell defeat for either side.
The B.C. Liberals will have to provide a Speaker before they can present their throne speech, on which Clark expects to lose a vote after a few days of required debate. That Speaker would then resign to force the NDP-Green alliance to appoint their own. That individual has to come out of their 44 MLAs before they can send 43 B.C. Liberals to the opposition side.
Clark had the option to resign as premier once the two opposition parties signed an agreement to vote down the government’s throne speech or budget, with the three B.C. Green Party MLAs supporting a new NDP government on money bills and other “confidence” votes.
But “the lady’s not for turning,” as British PM Margaret Thatcher once said of herself. And Clark insisted that her government be defeated in the traditional way, in the “people’s house,” not in a “backroom deal.”
Speaking of backroom deals, and palace intrigue, the Province of B.C., a $50-billion-a-year operation, runs out of money in September. Clark’s move delays the NDP’s access to the transition information they need in order to prepare their own budget. The NDP could get spending warrants signed off by the Lt. Governor, but that never looks good. Sort of like going to one of those payday lenders.
Green Party leader Andrew Weaver, so pleased with himself he can barely contain it, may lose some of his enthusiasm soon. He and NDP leader John Horgan arranged a media turn to present their letter of agreement to Government House, where everyone seemed disappointed that Her Honour didn’t come to the door personally to collect the mail.
Weaver was emphatic that his deal with Horgan is not a “coalition,” and he won’t be Minister of Environment. So this is an NDP government, period.
Their deal talks about consultation and “no surprises,” but here’s one problem. Legal advice to the government can’t be shared with outsiders. Solicitor-client privilege and all that. It’s an upstairs thing.
Tom Fletcher is B.C. legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press.