It’s time for the Premier to give British Columbians the certainty they deserve

Over the last few weeks there have been many political pundits, reporters and commentators speculating as to what will transpire when the BC Legislature sits on June 22. Some have questioned how a stable government could be maintained with such a slim majority of seats.

Below I outline what should transpire if the Premier lives up to her word that she plans to follow constitutional and parliamentary convention. Without any doubt, there are procedural opportunities for shenanigans to occur. But these would most certainly go against constitutional and parliamentary convention and practice.

First I note that last Sunday, Adam OlsenSonia Furstenau and I penned an opinion piece in the Times Colonist pointing out that in the days following the election, all three political parties acknowledged that the result presents an historic opportunity to do politics differently. We further outlined the reasons why, faced with the responsibility of determining which of the other two parties we would support in forming this government, our lengthy discussions with both parties led us to come to an agreement with the B.C. NDP — an agreement that will provide stability while enabling collaboration across party lines. We are excited by the opportunity of working with MLAs on both sides of the house to uphold our commitment to serve the people of B.C. who elected us.

Part 1: The Speaker

Let’s take a look at constitutional and parliamentary convention.

Section 37 of BC’s Constitution Act states:

(1) On its first meeting and before proceeding to business, the Legislative Assembly must elect one of its members to be Speaker.

Now longstanding parliamentary practice in British Columbia is that the Speaker is put forward by government and subsequently elected in due course. But as also noted in Section 37,

(2) On being confirmed by the Lieutenant Governor, the election of a Speaker under subsection (1) is effective until the general voting day for the next general election, or until the Speaker dies, resigns the office by writing addressed to the Lieutenant Governor, or ceases to be a member of the Legislative Assembly.

The Constitution Act also enables parliamentary convention in British Columbia for the government to provide a Deputy Speaker and for the Official Opposition to provide an Assistant Deputy Speaker.

Following convention, and as indicated in Section 37 of the Constitution Act, the Speaker would be expected to stay in place until the general voting day of the next general election. The Deputy and Assistant Deputy Speakers can be changed at every session of the legislature.

This is an absolutely critical first point.

The Premier wants to follow convention by testing confidence in the house instead of stepping down and asking the Lieutenant Governor to see if the BC NDP can form a government that has confidence of the house (which it would in light of our accord). I respect that this is her prerogative. However, in light of accord, the Premier could have simply stepped down and asked the Lieutenant Governor to approach Mr. Horgan to see if he could gain the confidence of the house. She chose not to do this.

In appealing to convention, the Premier should also allow a speaker from her party to be elected and that Speaker should be in place until the general voting day for the next general election. Failing to do so would be hypocritical and would amount to political shenanigans.

In addition, if an elected Liberal speaker were to subsequently resign because government fell on a confidence vote, it would deemed highly unusual and would point to BC Liberal political games. Frankly, it should be viewed as nothing more than a cynical act of desperation.

I reiterate that a speaker is elected until the next election and does not arbitrarily resign because he or she desires to play partisan political games. Resignation typically only occurs when scandals erupt like in the UK in 2009 or Australia earlier this year, due to illness, or in a case where the Speaker is moving to take up a cabinet position. In fact this was the case in all prior Speakers resignations from the BC Legislature that I have looked into: Dean Smith (Social Credit; 1976–1978), Harvey Schroeder (Social Credit; 1979–1982), John Reynolds (Social Credit) (1987–1989), Joan Sawicki (NDP; 1992–1994), Laurence Dale Lovick (NDP; 1996–1998) and Gretchen Mann Brewin (NDP; 1998–2000).

It would be deemed highly unusual and totally inappropriate for a speaker elected next week to suddenly resign after a throne speech confidence vote failed. In fact, in the UK a Conservative speaker was subsequently elected in 2009 (during a Labour government) and has remained speaker ever since.

In Canada, Liberal Peter Milliken was first elected as Speaker in January 2001 when Jean Chretien was Prime Minister. He was reelected several times through successive Conservative and Liberal majority and minority governments. Upon retirement in 2011, he was Canada’s longest serving speaker. Milliken was widely praised  and highly regarded by MPs from both sides of the house.

Another Canadian precedent-setting example can be found following the 1925 general election. That election resulted in the Liberals under William Lyon Mackenzie King winning 99 seats,  the Liberal-Conservative party under Arthur Meighen winning 116 seats, the Progressive Party of Canada under Robert Forke winning 22 seats and 8 other seats going to Labour, United Farmers of Alberta and other independent candidates. In the previous (1922) general election won by the Mackenzie King Liberals, Rodolphe Lemieux was elected speaker of the house. He was re elected Speaker in 1925.

Following the 1925 general election and despite having fewer seats, Mackenzie King formed a minority government with the help of the Progressive Party of Canada. But shortly thereafter, a major bribery scandal emerged and a subsequent motion to remove censure from a non confidence motion was defeated. Prior to the vote, Mackenzie King had approached the Governor General (Lord Julian Byng) and asked him to dissolve parliament so that a general election could be held. Lord Byng declined and instead asked Arthur Meighen to see if he could form government. Meighen was indeed able to form government.

What’s important about this so-called King-Byng affair, was that during this entire time, Rodolphe Lemieux remained Speaker of the House. In fact he remained in this position until 1930. As the government changed from a Liberal majority, to a  Liberal minority to a Conservative-Liberal minority and then back to Liberal majority.

In summary, the issue of electing a speaker should not be controversial at all. The Premier has committed to follow convention and that convention is quite clear. A BC Liberal who has the confidence of all sides of the house should be available to be elected as a speaker next week and that Speaker should be prepared to remain in place for the next four years.

Part 2: The Throne Speech

Once a Speaker is in place, the Lieutenant Governor will read the Speech from the Throne prepared by the BC Liberals. The practice is to debate the Speech from the Throne for four consecutive days if a budget is to be introduced. In British Columbia it would be considered unusual if bills were introduced and subsequently debated at second reading during these first four days.

It is also possible to both amend and sub-amend the throne speech. This is precisely what was done in Ontario in 1985 when Frank Miller’s conservative minority government was defeated and replaced by a minority Liberal (led by David Peterson) / NDP (led by Bob Rae) minority government.

The motion for an address in reply to the June 4, 1985 throne speech of the Lieutenant Governor was amended (on June 7) by David Petersen by adding following words:

That it is our duty to respectfully submit to Your Honour that Your Honour’s present government does not have the confidence of this House.

Immediately after David Petersen moved his amendment, Bob Rae rose to speak and introduce a subamendment. He added the following to the end of the previous amendment:

since the Miller Conservative government, even while borrowing frantically from the policies of other parties, has failed to provide progressive leadership for Ontario, and failed to deal with the major challenges facing the province; and since it is the responsibility of this Legislature to reflect the democratic will of the people as expressed in the election of May 2, 1985.”

On June 18, the 8th day the legislature sat, the subamendment, amendment and motion (as amended and subamended) all passed. The government had lost a confidence vote and the Lieutenant Governor then asked Liberal David Petersen to attempt to gain the confidence of the house, which he did when the legislature resumed two weeks later (July 2, 1985).

In theory, this is how things should play out in the BC Legislature. But the question is whether the premier was sincere when she claimed “British Columbians sent a very strong message to all sides of the legislature: They want us to work together collaboratively and across partisan lines“, or whether this was just empty rhetoric.

The BC Greens, for which I am leader, have always said that we want to do politics differently and that we will work across party lines.

While we will collaborate on many issues with the NDP government, we will remain a distinct caucus. There are many other policy areas where the Greens will advance ideas not shared with other parties. Our caucus ran on a bold, principled platform with a strong vision for B.C., and we will work hard to implement its best ideas.

We will also consider legislation proposed by the other opposition caucus, the B.C. Liberals, and support their bills if we believe they are in the best interests of British Columbians.

In the previous government, we worked with the Liberals to advance legislation to require that post-secondary campuses develop sexual assault policies. Together, we also banned employers from requiring their employees to wear high heels. These examples prove that when we work together across party lines to advance the interests of the people we all serve, government is at its very best.

But before all of this can happen, a new government must be formed.

Part 3: Games that could but should not be played

What I outlined above is  convention as to how the first session of the legislative should play out. But the recent actions by the BC Liberals suggests that they might be willing to play partisan games in a desperate attempt to hold onto power.

The first partisan game would be to insist that a BC Liberal elected speaker should resign. As I outlined above, that would be highly unusual.

An additional trick that could be played would be for the BC Liberals not to put the throne speech on the order papers for four days thereby breaking a longstanding tradition. The Standing Rules in British Columbia require any amendments to the address in response to the Throne Speech be dealt with on that fourth day. By only debating the throne speech for three days, these would never be voted upon.

At this point the BC Liberals could start introducing bills and attempt to govern in the absence of a confidence motion. The next opportunity for a confidence would be the budget. And that doesn’t have to be in place until the end of the summer.

The Premier has chosen a specific path forward and here we stand 36 days after our election and she has still not clarified specifically how and when she will test the confidence of the house, despite the existence of a signed accord between the BC Greens and the BC NDP. While we have been waiting, the UK has undergone an election campaign, put in place a speaker, reconvened parliament with a minority government and the queen will deliver her speech in a few days.

While Britain very briefly delays the opening of the parliament after their election because of their longstanding practice of printing the Queen’s speech on goatskin, in British Columbia, the delay is purely because of political calculation by the BC Liberals.

It’s time for the Premier to give British Columbians the certainty they deserve. It’s time for us to start addressing the many issues facing British Columbians on a daily basis. It’s time for all of us to offer respect to the electorate.

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