Les Leyne: B.C. politicians are back in (virtual) business

NDP government house leader Mike Farnworth watched a televised premier league soccer game from Britain on the weekend.

It was a good warmup for the resumption of the B.C. legislature on Monday — they played the game as usual even though hardly anyone turned up.

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About 20 of the 87-MLA complement were on hand to start meeting the legal necessity of passing a budget that’s been completely overtaken by events, and enacting assorted bills to deal with those events.

Another four dozen or so appeared in Hollywood Squares format. New jumbo screens on either side of the assembly hall beam them in a seven-by-seven grid over the heads of the skeleton crew sitting two metres apart.

It takes some getting used to.

For example, normally Health Minister Adrian Dix stands up when asked and belts out reams of statistics from memory.

On Monday, asked a detail about the new single-site rule for long-term care workers, he recited them via the two huge screens.

“We’re going to move from 3.1 care hours per resident day to 3.37 care hours ... 75 care homes were funded at under 2.9 care hours per resident day at that time ... under the provincial standard. Now there are zero.”

It’s hard to heckle that at the best of times. When he’s a disembodied headshot hanging up on the wall, it’s impossible. No one even tried.

It was also a bit jarring to watch the combined leadership of B.C. step back into the public role without Dr. Bonnie Henry being present.

She’s been more or less running the show for three months to the point where people are hanging on her every word.

Now the politicians will have their own daily format for a few weeks. It’s unlikely her ratings will suffer. All the new online interfaces can’t reproduce face-to-face communication. The expensive refit of the legislature will get part of the job done, but it’s no match for the real thing.

Henry held her usual briefing later, with Dix, and both cautioned that B.C.’s extraordinary success at fighting the pandemic is a global anomaly. The disease is gaining ground around the world and they fully expect B.C. cases will increase.

The government plans to announce a slightly more open phase this week, but it’s going to be a cautious refinement.

As for the first sitting since March 23, the spirit of cooperation held, but a few arguments are definitely pending. That’s what the place is for.

The point of passing the budget escapes some people, given that the government hiked spending by almost 10 per cent overnight as an emergency measure. Even more distorting to the February plan, government revenues across the board are slumping in unprecedented fashion.

Finance Minister Carole James would not disclose how much, but she’s getting daily updates and will reveal a new outlook on July 14. It won’t look anything like the picture she drew in February.

The Opposition Liberals’ first line of attack was to scoff at last week’s announcement that the NDP is going to collect “feedback” on what to do next.

Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson demanded a 90-day suspension of the sales tax, employer health tax and hotel tax to jump start the economy.

That would sink revenues even further, and Premier John Horgan, as cooperatively and congenially as possible, signalled the idea is going nowhere.

Liberals made slightly more headway with a specific discrepancy on the economic side. The NDP’s recovery and mitigation measures for businesses hit by pandemic losses include slightly extending the period employees can be laid off before they’re legally considered terminated and therefore become eligible for severance.

That gave employers who are in pandemic suspended animation some breathing room in figuring out re-opening issues, without having to pay substantial severance costs.

The B.C. Chamber of Commerce asked for more time recently but Labour Minister Harry Bains said no last week. They went public with the problem Monday and prompted a quick shuffle-step by Bains and Horgan.

All of a sudden the issue is to be “revisited.”

Horgan told the Opposition: “I’m absolutely prepared to go back and take another look at it.”

The politicians will dwell on the economic side for a while, but Henry’s public health decisions are still the main event.

lleyne@timescolonist.com

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