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LNG, Health Firings, Climate Crisis: Who Said Summer Governance Was Relaxed?

Rare BC legislature sitting proves far from serene.

By Bob Mackin 14 Jul 2015 | TheTyee.ca

North Vancouver-based journalist Bob Mackin, a regular contributor to The Tyee, has reported for local, regional, national and international media outlets since 1990. Find his Tyee articles here.

The BC Liberals brought the legislature back for a rare summer sitting this week, to give their liquefied natural gas ambitions a moment in the sun. But the session as it opened on July 13 was interrupted with accusations, admonishment and even a dose of heckling.

One item up for debate was Bill 30, the Liquefied Natural Gas Projects Agreements Act, which would satisfy one of two conditions set by Malaysia's Petronas to go ahead with its proposed $36 billion Pacific NorthWest LNG plant near Prince Rupert. The project still needs environmental assessment approval.

With less than two years until the next provincial election, pressure is slowly mounting on the Liberals to show results from their effort to create an industry to export fracked shale gas to Asia.

When she rose to give her speech on the bill's second reading, Premier Christy Clark was interrupted by protesters from a group calling itself No Consent, No LNG. "LNG is worse than coal!" shouted one woman. Microphones were cut and Speaker Linda Reid ordered an immediate recess for a return to order. That took all of one minute.

Clark continued: "As I said, we don't have many opportunities in this legislature to truly make history, and this is one of them -- 4,500 jobs from this project alone; 100,000 new jobs in the province over 30 years from all of the projects, should they get started. Today we are really doing nothing less than building the future."

Another interruption: "Sellout!" shouted a man.

NDP leader John Horgan said the tax breaks and rebates offered to Petronas over the 25-year deal would benefit the company and temporary foreign workers more than British Columbians.

"Of course, when the premier was trying to get elected, she made a commitment to 100,000 jobs," Horgan said in response to Clark's speech. "So 100,000 jobs would flow to British Columbia as a result of the possibility of liquefied natural gas. Now, how many jobs are guaranteed to British Columbians in the project development agreement that we're about to debate here in this chamber, the first deal signed by the Premier in her three-year quest to find yet another photo opportunity? Zero."

Health firings fired back and forth

Earlier, during Question Period debate over the controversial 2012 B.C. health firings, Speaker Reid declared that Horgan had uttered unparliamentary language for accusing Clark of "misleading" the legislature about an RCMP investigation into the matter that never happened.

"Mr. Leader, Mr. Leader, you need to withdraw that remark," Reid commanded.

"'Misleading' is perfectly parliamentary and always has been in this House," remarked NDP house leader Mike Farnworth. But Horgan consented and continued, resolving to say the premier had made "less than accurate statements."

The NDP renewed calls for a public inquiry into the firings after it came to light that the RCMP was never provided evidence to investigate the matter. When asked for her reaction at a June 5 news conference, Clark apologized for both the firings and misleading the public about the non-existent investigation.

"My question to her is," Horgan said, "why didn't you say that in the legislature six days ago?"

Clark replied by accusing Horgan of a "willingness to drag reputations through the mud, to cast aspersions on public services and on other members of this House."*

In September 2012, after inheriting the portfolio from Mike de Jong, then-health minister Margaret MacDiarmid announced the firings and suspensions of eight people and that the RCMP had been called in to investigate a data breach and contracting irregularities. The government has since reinstated two of the people who were fired and settled out of court in three wrongful dismissal and defamation lawsuits.

The BC Liberals say a public inquiry into the firings would be too expensive, so their solution is an investigation by newly sworn Ombudsperson Jay Chalke.

Chalke expressed reservations about conducting the probe last week in a 16-page letter to the Finance Committee, claiming he doesn't have the necessary powers or budget.

"The Finance Committee is doing their work now," Clark said. "If and when they ultimately request the Ombudsperson to look into this, we will get many of the answers that he asks about. In the meantime, unlike him, I am not prepared to speculate about what those answers will be."

NDP health critic Judy Darcy took issue with Clark attacking Horgan: "It boggles the mind that the Premier of this province can stand here and accuse this side of the House of ruining the reputations of public servants in this province after the outrageous firing scandal of health researchers in this province."

One of the fired researchers, University of Victoria PhD student Roderick MacIsaac, died of suicide in December 2012.

Green presses for 'urgent' climate debate

Meanwhile, the lone BC Green Party member in the legislature applied for an emergency debate (under the rarely used Standing Order 35) on what he said is an environmental crisis in the province.

"I move that this House do now adjourn to discuss a matter of urgent public importance," said Oak Bay-Gordon Head MLA Andrew Weaver, "namely, that in light of this year's record temperatures, drought, lack of snowpack and forest fires, and with a 90 per cent probability that El Niño will persist into the winter, exacerbating present conditions, whether we as legislators are acting with sufficient urgency and demonstrating the appropriate leadership on preparing for and mitigating the escalating impacts of climate change on our province."

Weaver said Clark is expected to attend the United Nations' Paris conference in December, and there was no guarantee that the legislature would sit before then.

House leader de Jong suggested there are other times "to raise these matters and have them considered by members." The NDP's Farnworth agreed. "A fall session, which we are all expecting, would be an appropriate time."

Reid ruled against Weaver. She said climate change policy and impacts, while of "great importance," can be debated during budget estimates and committee meetings. Standing Order 35 applications "must relate to a genuine and immediate emergency" to set aside other business, she said.

*Story corrected July 15 at 8:45 p.m.  [Tyee]

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