Les Leyne: Changes to ALR cause for suspicion

You can understand why some are suspicious of the B.C. Liberals’ changes to the Agricultural Land Reserve, given the cockeyed way they made them.

Look at the terms of reference for the core review that Energy Minister Bill Bennett was made responsible for last year.

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It’s mostly about controlling spending. It’s simply an efficiency drive. That’s fair enough. Every government should do one occasionally.

But they took that hawk-eyed crusade against unnecessary spending and turned it loose on the philosophical principles of the ALR. It’s the wrong tool for the wrong job. The commission operates on a relatively small budget of a few million a year. Even if it were wasting money, you’d scarcely notice it.

The review zeroed in on the preservation policies that have irked Bennett and other B.C. Liberals for years. He loosened them as much as he could get away with, on the pretext of doing a core review. It’s a case of a minister who has resented some aspects of the ALR for years using the new power he was given to make the changes he wants.

“I’ve waited a long time for this,” Bennett said as an aside during his news conference. He had the look of a dog who’s finally been given the bone.

The ALC is actually going to cost more after the changes are made, because it’s going to take more staff to run the new two-zone approach the way Bennett wants it run.

If you want a measure of how much expert consultation went into this redesign, consider the letter that ALC chairman Richard Bullock posted on the website this month. To put it bluntly, he didn’t have a clue what was going on.

“The timing of this message … reflects my awareness that a government review process continues … While the nature, timing and outcome of those deliberations is not known, I want to provide whatever assistance I can to facilitate the development and discussion of public policy.”

As for public consultation, that was another misfit of tool to task.

In a letter to cabinet colleagues last September, Bennett said: “The public will have an opportunity to provide input to core review as part of the [finance committee] budget consultations being undertaken in September and October.”

But, as the Vancouver Sun’s Vaughn Palmer noted last fall, when people started showing up to talk ALR, the MLAs didn’t have the faintest idea why they were there.

Their hearings schedules were mostly booked and their mandate was completely devoted to the upcoming budget. After some confusion, a few ALR concerns were heard. But the promised public hearings never materialized.

In Bennett’s meandering news conference outlining the changes, he offered a “mea culpa” for the confusion. The rest of his presentation was a long exercise in minimizing the potential impact of the biggest change in the ALR since it was invented by the NDP government 40 years ago.

Putting new economic, social and cultural values on the table along with preservation of farmland everywhere except Vancouver Island, the Okanagan and the Lower Mainland-Fraser Valley writes an entirely new equation.

Everything in the bill and in Bennett’s briefing is aimed at making it easier to develop or redesignate ALR property in much of B.C. But nowhere does the government explicitly admit it.

Protecting farmland is now the sole criterion. Once the bill is passed, there will be three new factors: economic, social and cultural values. By definition that weakens the original purpose. But they can’t bring themselves to admit it.

Part of the big argument that’s about to start will be about getting the B.C. Liberals to be more straightforward about what they’re doing.

Just So You Know: Apart from all the implications for farmland and development, the ALR changes are also a gift to the NDP. The party functions best when it has a cause. Now one has been handed to them on a platter, one that’s likely to bring donations pouring in. You could see them rising to the challenge at their convention last fall.

The ALR was the most effective call to arms, the one that got nearly everyone out of their seats.

lleyne@timescolonist.com

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