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Early session will focus on economy

Liberals to rework anti-deficit law as MLAs return to legislature today

Politicians from across B.C. return to the legislature in Victoria today to begin what will likely be a raucous four months of political grandstanding as the province heads toward a May election.

The slumping economy is set to dominate the agenda, and one of the first moves by the Liberal government will be to change its own laws so it can legally run a deficit.

Premier Gordon Campbell said last week the "seismic shift" in the world's economy will force the province to run deficits for the next two years to prevent cuts to programs such as education and health care.

But to do that, the government must first amend or suspend its Balanced Budget and Ministerial Accountability Act. That process is expected to start today and run most of this week.

The following week, the legislature begins a new session with its usual ceremonial flourish. Monday is the throne speech, Tuesday is budget day and then the government returns to normal daily work.

"It's mostly going to be grandstanding for the election, that's what this session is going to be all about," said Dennis Pilon, University of Victoria political science professor.

"Campbell has made it clear in his reign he's not terribly interested in the kind of accountability the legislature offers. Sometimes, in the fall, he hasn't even opened it.

"There's a reason why it's all theatre in there, because everybody knows that's where the power isn't. The power is in the premier's office."

The rhetoric will be particularly loud as the parties try to appeal to the "flexible partisan" pool of lower-middle-class voters who flop between NDP or Liberal support depending on the year, said Pilon. They are also most affected by the economic downturn, said Pilon. Expect more than the usual shouting and screaming in the hallowed halls of the house.

NDP house leader Mike Farnworth said the Opposition intends to hold the government's "feet to the fire. I expect it will probably be a lively session.

"Clearly the main issues are going to be this government's arrogance and what we're seeing with its failure to deal with a lot of the problems that matter to ordinary people."

Liberal house leader Mike de Jong summed up the government's priorities for the session in four words: jobs and the economy.

The government wants to ramp up infrastructure development to create jobs and a sense of economic stability, said de Jong.

He said during tough economic times, it's important that real work not be trumped by a war of words.

"These are serious circumstances that the province and the country are confronted by. This is not the time for political grandstanding. This is not the time for reckless or irresponsible statements or posturing."

After the throne speech and the presentation of the budget, the government will decide whether to go ahead with changes to the Police Act or to implement lobbyist reforms, said de Jong.

The legislative session is expected to run until April. The provincial election is May 12.


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