TOP TEN LIST OF GOVERNMENT CLANGERS, CONT.

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Herewith, the next two items on my year-end, Top Ten List of ‘baddies’ by the B.C. government. First instalment here. If it’s all just too gloomy, you can still access my list of good deeds by that same gang we voted in.

3. Democracy in this strange century is fragile at the best of times, but B.C. Liberals seem to have taken us into a new realm of non-accountability. What else to say about a government that has presented itself in the legislature for a grand total of 36 days over the past year 20 months.

While Premier Clark’s vow that B.C. would lead the country in job creation floundered long ago, it turns out we are still leading Canada in at least one category. Yep, when it comes to number of days failing to put bums in legislative comfy chairs, we’re number one! Cue the Seahawks’ seismic roar.

Despite the many issues and controversies that have cried out for accountability in recent months, B.C was the only province in all the land not to have a fall sitting of its legislature. Not surprisingly, Canada’s third most populous province ranked dead last in days when their elected assembly was in session, trailing even Mike Duffy’s brief nesting spot, mighty Prince Edward Island, with its 140,000-strong population. B.C. was also at the bottom of the provincial table in 2012 with but 47 session days. Cross-Canada totals here. 

So, Premier, what happened? You used to love the legislature, so.  (For the quotes that follow, I am indebted to the incomparable Vaughn Palmer, whose political recall easily outshines “the Google”.)

In 2005, during her “farewell to politics” speech, Clark waxed eloquent on “this chamber that I’ve loved so much”.  Added she: “I have a profound respect for the work that this legislature does….The work that we do here is so important….I love question period. I love debate….I’ve loved every minute of it. I hope the MLAs who occupy this seat after me love this place even half as much as I have.”

Six years later, in 2011. after her “return to politics”, Clark’s passion for the legislature seemed undiminished. As newly-minted Liberal leader and Premier, she said could hardly wait to get back to where she once belonged. “As you know, I love question period and I hate to miss it,” she told nodding reporters. “Premiers in the past aren’t always tied to Victoria, but I want to be [there]. This is where decisions are made…”  After winning a by-election to re-gain official admission to the exalted chamber, she proclaimed how “excited” she was to return. “[It’s] familiar territory for me.”

Alas, Clark’s long ardour began to fade with the reality of married life. Within a year, the relationship was off the rails, and the once-gushing bride was professing a loathing for the “sick culture” of Victoria and all that that entailed, her change of heart set off, no doubt, by one too many “positive” questions from Adrian Dix or perhaps the mere sight of Harry Lali.

So the fickle leader waved goodbye to the precincts she once adored and set sail for B.C.’s wide-open spaces, where seldom in heard a discouraging word and folks appreciate a beaming Premier in a hard hat. According to Ms. Clark, she is serving the province better by “meeting with the people” than spending time in Victoria doing the people’s business before those actually elected to represent them. But it’s a shabby, self-serving version of democracy that recalls the bad old days of W.A.C. Bennett, who  disdained the legislature and those pesky opposition MLAs.

Meanwhile, a majority of MLAs continue to receive their $1,000 monthly stipends to defray accommodation expenses in Victoria, despite the paltry 36 days the house was in session. And backbenchers and opposition members struggle to find things to do to justify their $100,000 annual salaries. I hear some are finally reading War and Peace. Nice work, if you can get it. At the same time, veteran scribes report that cabinet ministers these recent months have rarely bothered to show up at all in their cobwebbed Victoria offices. Government by cell phone and email is so much easier. The ghost wandering the parliament buildings in Victoria is no longer Francis Rattenbury. It’s speaker Linda Reid, and she has a lot of spooky company.

Photos from Vale Farms on a Monday evening after a day of rain.

4. The Agricultural Land Reserve, policed by an independent land commission, is one of this province’s great treasures. Not only has it saved the Lower Mainland from the appalling urban sprawl that has gobbled up good farmland and ruined the landscape outside so many North American cities, it has helped preserve vital agricultural acres across the province.

Before the election, the B.C. Liberals appeared to recognize that. Backroom strategists produced a pre-election document for caucus members that included the winning message: “Unlike the NDP, we have never politically interfered with the independence of the Agricultural Land Commission.”

Once the election was safely past, however, the tune changed. Bill Bennett, the rambunctious Energy and Mines Minister from East Kootenay, mused openly about all the land “covered by rocks and trees” that “flummoxed” land-owners can’t get out of the ALR. It got scarier. Given the task of directing the government’s core review of public services, Bennett quickly served notice that the sacrosanct ALR and the ALC were in his sightline.

Then we learned cabinet documents had been prepared proposing to erode the independence of the ALC and include government “economic priorities” as a valid reason to remove land from the ALR. All very, very worrisome.

Oh, by the way, in case  you wanted to check out those positive words about the ALR that Liberal caucus members were told to hammer home during the election campaign, you’re out of luck. The B.C. Government Caucus Information Resource, dated March 7, 2013, has disappeared from the web.

To be continued….

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BC LIBERALS SING DIFFERENT TUNE ON TREASURED ALR, NOW THAT ELECTION IS OVER

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The Agricultural Land Reserve is one of those magical creations that materialized because of courageous, far-sighted, politicians, who thought beyond votes and the next election. The province’s first NDP government, under Dave Barrett, established the ALR 40 years ago, because they believed it was the right thing to do, at a time when prime farmland was being gobbled up by developers at a terrible rate.

There was virtually no precedent anywhere for banning such a vast expanse of agricultural land from being sold for non-farming purposes, and the Barrett government had to weather a storm of furious protests from farmers, developers, and political opponents.

But a funny thing happened on the way to wiping out the NDP’s radical proclamation, once the “socialists” were thrown out of office. The public liked the ALR, and, over time so, too, did farmers. When Social Credit leader Bill Bennett was campaigning to unseat the Barrett government in 1975, he found it politically prudent to promise not to dismantle the Agricultural Land Reserve, despite his party’s earlier, fierce opposition.

The ALR, which has done so much to preserve the liveability of the Fraser Valley and save the Lower Mainland from the ghastly fate of the huge swath of farmland that once surrounded Toronto, is still with us, basically intact despite a long string of so-called ‘free enterprise’ governments. (Of course, the ALR also stretches beyond the Fraser Valley to all corners of B.C.,  ensuring that the relatively small, land area suitable for agricultural in this mountainous province is kept for its noble purpose, everywhere.)

In a wonderful twist of fate, Richard Bullock, the current chairman of the Agricultural Land Commission that presides over the ALR, was one of those protesting outside the legislature against the NDP’s farmland freeze.

Today, few are more passionate about the Agricultural Land Reserve than the successful Okanagan orchardist. For an article I wrote last year celebrating the ALR, Bullock told me that he thought the days were over, when farmers and developers with dollar signs in their eyes would live in hope of getting their land out of the ALR. “We’ve been down that road too long,” he said. “People have got to get it through their head, that if they buy a piece of agricultural land, they are going to be selling it as agricultural land.”

Now, out of nowhere, with no hints by the Liberals during the recent provincial election, the ALR may be facing its gravest peril since it came into being in the 1970’s.

Energy and Mines (!) Minister Bill Bennett, who has rarely seen a government regulation he likes, is presiding over a “core review” of government services, which, for some reason, also includes the Agricultural Land Commission and the ALR.

Last August, Bennett demonstrated his grasp of the issue with his provocative observation that “people who are sitting on a piece of land that is covered by rocks and trees, land that should never have been in the ALR boundaries in the first place, are constantly being turned down when they want to use their own private land…for the purpose of maybe a small subdivision, or maybe they want to put a small campground on it, and they’ve been flummoxed by the land commission for years.” The minister provided no examples of ALR land “covered by rocks and trees”. Talk about the fox in charge of the henhouse.

Recent disclosures are even more worrisome. Last week, the Globe and Mail’s Mark Hume revealed the existence of frightening cabinet documents that propose a dismantling of the ALC as an independent body and changing its mandate to include the government’s “economic priorities”, as well.

Then, we learned, again courtesy of the redoubtable Hume, that none other than the Agriculture Minister himself, Patrick Pimm, had personally lobbied the ALC to have a chunk of farmland up by Fort St. John hived out of the ALR, so its owner could build some rodeo grounds. Pimm was properly rebuked by the ALC for his political interference in the affairs of an independent commission.

The Liberals seemed to understand that principle in those halcyon, pre-election days last March, when they were desperate to keep the guns blazing against the NDP and its leader, Adrian Dix, who, yes it’s true, lobbied the ALC on behalf of then-Premier Glen Clark to have the Six Mile Ranch taken out of the ALR back in the late 1990’s.

I have before me a document entitled B.C. Government Caucus Information Resource, dated March 7, 2013. It’s all about ALR talking points. Among the “key messages” Liberal caucus members are asked to hammer home is point three: “Unlike the NDP, we have never politically interfered with the independence of the Agricultural Land Commission.”

The Liberals further trumpet their budget commitments to bolster enforcement by the ALC and support its “increased oversight” of the ALR. Wait, there’s more. The same budget increase will also enable the ALC to “continue with East Kootenay boundary review”, the document noted.

Oh, well. That was so eight months ago. What have we today, now that the election is safely passed?

The core review that seems to go against everything in the Liberals’ March “information resource” is continuing full steam ahead, Mr. Pimm remains Agriculture Minister, the owner of the ALR land he lobbied for went ahead and built his rodeo grounds anyway, defiantly daring the ALC to do something about it, and the ALC’s East Kootenay boundary review has been halted in its tracks, pending the vaunted core review.

For those concerned about the fate of the precious Agricultural Land Reserve under the post-election Liberals, these are worrying times, indeed. Be afraid. Be very, very afraid.