British Columbia’s 39th parliament sputtered to an end this week and for a lot of the politicians involved, it was like waking up from an Alice in Wonderland opium dream.
Cast your mind back to the first sitting of the legislature in 2009, after the B.C. Liberals won a third straight election. A disengaged public (50 per cent turnout) gave them a 49-35 seat edge. Gordon Campbell became the first premier in 23 years to last three elections. His party’s hold had slipped from the historic 77-2 win of 2001, but was still secure.
Facing Opposition leader Carole James, who they were utterly certain would never become premier, they gave every indication of being partway through a dynasty that could last several more years.
Since then, after almost four years of chaos, the legislature wound up Thursday afternoon. Both original leaders are gone. The Liberal margin is reduced to just a handful of seats.
The government lost a historic referendum, its surplus for three years, two byelections, two MLAs and all of its edge in all of the polls.
It sounded like a platitude when Campbell told the house on opening day in 2009: “We are living in significantly changing times.” It turned out to be an understatement.
The throne speech opened with an urgent explanation of why the HST was a great idea. Nobody bought it. The tax change was the root cause of nearly every major change in the past four years.
The biggest single change was the election of Christy Clark as premier by Liberal party members on Feb. 26, 2011. She won it almost completely on the strength of having had nothing to do with the HST.
So it was fitting that one of the few bills of any consequence in the brief fifth and last session was the law restoring the separate provincial sales tax.
On April 1, the HST will be gone, along with a lot of other things the Liberals were banking on.
The rest of the legislative package was a small-change assortment of modest ideas. Considering that the government went eight months between sittings, it proved the sincerity of Clark’s views — caught last year by a reporter — that she thinks the legislature is a “sick culture” she’d sooner avoid.
Her party is in desperate need of a big new idea. They have one in liquefied natural gas. But that is seven or eight years away, so even Clark recognized that legislating the prosperity fund she mentioned in the throne speech would be premature.
Apart from resurrecting the PST, they managed to create a seniors advocate, enact some justice system reforms and expand the jurisdiction of the representative for children and youth.
But they couldn’t even finish the very limited job they set out for themselves. The worthy idea of creating a pooled-pension opportunity, for the majority of people who don’t have one, died on the order paper. So did the showy idea of allowing for provincial elections of federal Senate nominees.
During the spring session, the government waited until the last week to introduce more than a dozen bills and wound up having to jam some of them through the process by forcing debate.
This time around, they lowered their sights, but still didn’t manage to reach their targets.
The overall tone of the brief finale wasn’t found in the legislation. As usual, it took shape in question period. And despite Clark’s penchant for counter-attacking, the lasting impression was one of an apologetic government keen to make amends.
The ethnic-outreach scandal that dominated the past two weeks prompted profuse apologies from Clark and ranking cabinet ministers.
With a last-day-of-school feeling in the air on Thursday, Clark stood up during question period to make another round of apologies for the aborted, ill-conceived project.
“I’ve apologized for the mistake. Two members of staff have resigned … When you make a mistake, the right thing to do is own up to it.”
She urged the Opposition to do the same for the suspicious use of constituency allowances that they appropriated for ethnic outreach.
They could conceivably be the last words she utters as premier in the house.
An abject apology and a defensive rejoinder. Those are hardly the notes you want to start an election campaign on.
© Copyright 2013