Governments of all kinds must be tired of being told they have to improve consultation and ensure transparency when making decisions. B.C.’s ombudsperson, Jay Chalke, is the latest to deliver such a lecture, in a new report that takes the provincial government to task for the way it handled the lease of a Crown water lot in Victoria’s Harbour for the Victoria International Marina.
The $35-million, 28-slip marina is an important project to the city because it will change the harbour, offering moorage for vessels 65 to 175 feet in length and cramping what is already a tight waterway for commercial and recreational vessels, ferries, floatplanes, kayaks and other users.
Something that significant and controversial has to be handled fairly and openly, so the many competing interests are treated with respect.
“I think that the public needs to have confidence that when government is allocating a public resource, that the process for doing that is fair and reasonable,” Chalke said. “And a transparent and clear process contributes to public understanding and acceptance, even when people aren’t necessarily in agreement with the decision that government makes.”
In his report, Chalke found that the province didn’t measure up when it approved an application from Community Marine Concepts for a licence of occupation and a 45-year lease of a Crown water lot in 2011.
The government had lots of warning that the project was controversial, and that should have ensured it brought its A-game. Opposition was so strong to the original concept in 2008 that the size of the moorage was cut in half, and the marina was redesigned so kayakers could paddle a lighted route under the buildings.
Despite those red flags, the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development was slow in communicating to the public, didn’t provide enough information, consulted poorly and gave inadequate reasons for its decision.
Although Chalke didn’t suggest that the decision should be rescinded, he made eight recommendations to improve the process for future projects, all of which have been accepted by the government. They include: posting decisions and reasons on the ministry website within two weeks (it took five years in the marina case), creating a framework for public consultation, writing a policy guide on measuring risks and benefits of granting leases, and clearly spelling out the information that was used to support the decision.
Chalke’s report said: “Social licence derives from the public’s belief that government has been open and fair in its decision-making, has considered all relevant perspectives and, even if the decision is not one some would favour, a reasonable decision was reached and an adequate public explanation is provided for the decision.”
It’s a good explanation, because the term “social licence” is widely used, and everyone seems to have their own definition.
If social licence implies unanimity, it’s a useless concept. As a society, we couldn’t get anything done if one person or one group held veto power. Yet some people seem to suggest that there is no social licence unless everyone is on board.
If politicians, bureaucrats and proponents of projects are skeptical of public consultation, perhaps it’s because so many people seem to believe that “consult me” means: “Give me the answer I want.”
Greater Victoria’s sewage system is an example. Even after years of public meetings, surveys and other forms of feedback too numerous to list, many residents still maintained that they weren’t properly consulted, apparently because the project went ahead over their objections.
In our commitment to social licence, we have to agree on what it means and how to ensure we have it — if that’s even possible. Chalke’s report is a useful guide.