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Opinion
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BC Politics

Six New Things You Need to Know About the Legislature Scandal

Yes, the wood splitter is weird. But there’s much more to this still-unfolding story.

By Paul Willcocks 24 Jan 2019 | TheTyee.ca

Paul Willcocks is a journalist and former publisher of newspapers, and now an editor with The Tyee.

Wood splitters, luxury overseas trips and generous payouts dominated the headlines after Speaker Darryl Plecas released his bombshell report alleging widespread spending abuses by British Columbia’s two top legislature officials.

But in the flood of coverage, it’s easy to lose track of some of the bigger issues raised in the report.

Here’s an updated guide on things you need to know.

First, the new allegations around Linda Reid. She’s the Liberal MLA for Richmond East and was Speaker from 2013 to 2017, when Plecas catalogues many alleged abuses and excesses. (Clerk Craig James and Sergeant-at-Arms Gary Lenz — currently suspended with pay — both deny any wrongdoing.)

And perhaps even more seriously, a whistleblower told Global News his employment at the Legislature had ended after he raised concerns about Reid’s expense claims. He confirmed he was “AB,” whose experience was documented in the report, including his belief that “for refusing to do something that he thought was unethical, he had been fired.”

Yet Reid refused to respond to interview requests, and Wednesday finally issued a brief — and odd — statement that ignored her role in the report and answered no questions. It also failed to respond to Green leader Andrew Weaver’s call for Reid to step down from her current role as assistant deputy speaker. Her statement said she would co-operate with auditors and other investigators, and a Liberal caucus spokesperson said Reid would not be responding to any questions about the allegations.

Reid had her own expense problems while Speaker, including claiming — and then repaying — $5,600 for a business class ticket to fly her husband to South Africa for a conference. (Her explanation at the time was telling: “It’s a practice,” Reid said. “What this place has always done, they tell me… ”)

Former Speaker Bill Barisoff — specifically named in the report — has also failed to provide needed answers for alleged abuses that occurred under his watch.

Second, all the politicians involved need to explain what appears to be either incompetence or negligence. The Legislature budget is about $70 million. Oversight of spending and operations is supposed to be provided by the Speaker, but also by the six MLAs on the Legislature Assembly Management Committee — sort of a board of directors.

The Plecas report, even if only partially accurate, suggests they have been doing a terrible job. And no MLA who was on the committee over the last decade has stepped up to argue that they were in fact paying attention or fulfilling their roles.

The Legislative Assembly Management Committee has a checkered history. It traditionally met behind closed doors, infrequently, with no agendas or minutes posted online. That changed after a scathing 2012 report by the Auditor General, but the committee was apparently no more effective.

Third, citizens should be alarmed that much of the material in the Plecas report is not new. In a 2013 report, for example, the Auditor General questioned the $258,000 retirement allowance paid to James and cited by Plecas, and the fact that it and other similar payments were kept secret. Barisoff dismissed the concerns.

A 2012 Auditor Generals’ report found, “the Legislative Assembly Management Committee, the governing body of the Legislative Assembly, appears to have had little or no involvement in either providing governance over the Legislative Assembly’s financial and operational activities, or in this audit.” Financial records were inadequate, controls were missing — it was basically a mess. (Despite a 2007 audit report that also found “the informal nature by which some significant areas are dealt with and unclear or absent procedures or controls.”)

Fourth, the rush to criticize Plecas when he first raised the issues offers a useful lesson for citizens. Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson was typical. “There’s a grave concern that the Speaker is out of control,” he said last month. “We need to be concerned that he’s building his own little empire, staffed with expensive lawyers, with investigators with no credentials and he’s being allowed to get away with it.” Many media commentators took a similar view.

But in fact we needed to be concerned about Legislature management, not the Speaker. Wilkinson — and others — chose to defend the status quo and attack the elected representative raising serious allegations.

Why? Politics plays a role. The Liberals loathe Plecas, who pushed out former leader Christy Clark and, by defecting to become Speaker, gave the NDP a chance at forming government. They’re keen to see a recall campaign against him succeed, giving them a chance to regain his Abbotsford South seat in a byelection. (Plecas now sits as an Independent.)

It’s also important to remember that the legislative assembly budget includes funding that is important for MLAs — about $19 million a year for MLA allowances and expenses, for example.

The politicians have demonstrated a preference to continue with the comfortable, old-school way of operating — even going so far as to keep the Legislature exempt from Freedom of Information requests that might have shone light on its practices.

Fifth, concerns that James was perceived as partisan, with ties to the BC Liberals, are serious and fuelled by Liberal missteps. As The Tyee’s Andrew MacLeod reported, the Liberals parachuted James, then legislative clerk of committees, into a position as acting Chief Electoral Officer at a critical time as the HST referendum unfolded. While there, he fired the deputy CEO, who had been with Elections BC for 28 years. She had displeased the Liberals with a ruling that limited their publicly funded efforts to campaign for the tax.

The Chief Electoral Officer is supposed to be the unanimous choice of an all-party committee of MLAs. Instead, the Liberal government picked James.

The Liberals did the same when it came time to fill the Clerk’s position. Candidates had required the support of all parties. When the NDP called for an open competition, the Liberals unilaterally installed James.

That’s significant on two levels. For all the emphasis on ritual and costumes, the Clerk is powerful. On occasion, rulings by the Speaker — based on advice from the Clerk — can have great political significance. And creating the appearance of a partisan choice undermines the basic authority of the role.

And sixth, citizens have a right to be angry — at the apparent failures, the clubby unwillingness to deal with issues, the sloppy approach to spending and the “culture of entitlement,” as the Auditor General described the Legislature operations.

We have been let down by our elected representatives, especially those who chose to attack Plecas rather than accept the possibility of real problems.

And the result has likely been serious damage to public confidence in our democracy.  [Tyee]

Read more: BC Politics

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