Les Leyne: Coronavirus drama deflects from NDP budget hash

The drama in what is hopefully the last phase of the COVID-19 pandemic is working to the NDP government’s advantage when it comes to the legislative sitting.

It’s drawing attention away from the hash that’s been made of the budget process. While provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry takes the spotlight most days, the legislature side-stage has been taken over by a clown show, as far as the budget preparations are concerned.

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That arcane process isn’t much of a draw to begin with for most people. But the political distortions the NDP has imposed on the budget preparations are as remarkable as the debt load will be when it’s released next month.

The pandemic is the standard excuse for all the bypassing that’s going on. But the self-serving, deal-breaking election call last fall has at least as much to do with it, if not more.

They’ll get away with it, because — back in the centre ring — the compelling race between the vaccination effort and the relentless virus has everyone’s attention.

The contrast was particularly vivid on Thursday afternoon.

Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix stepped up at 1 p.m. to announce major news on the pandemic front. Even in the face of increasing cases, the distressing isolation of long-term care patients is coming to an end and restrictions on religious services are being eased, just in time for various high holy days in the next few weeks. It was a big jolt of optimism and relief to thousands of people.

Scarcely an hour later, Government House Leader Mike Farnworth interrupted proceedings to invoke a form of closure on the Opposition.

He told them they had to wrap up debate on a key move being made in advance of the budget within 90 minutes. It went to a quick vote and with the NDP’s new majority it carried easily, 51-24. “I had not expected or had not hoped to do this,” he told the house. “I had hoped that we would have been able to reach an agreement.”

It was a particularly cunning move. He essentially told the Opposition MLAs to sit down and shut up at 3:30 p.m. because they were getting in the way of the patchwork effort the NDP has put together to try to stay within the law when it comes to spending accountability.

By parliamentary standards, it was an affront. So it was slipped onto the agenda while Henry and Dix had everyone’s attention.

What they jammed through the house was a vote on ­approving $13.5 billion in spending to tide the government through the next few months until the budget is fully approved in mid-June.

As the parliamentary calendar currently stands, the budget will finally arrive April 20, which allows for just over six weeks of scrutiny and debate between then and the June 17 adjournment date.

B.C. Green Leader Sonia Fursteneau said the time set for budget debates under the NDP has gone from 10 weeks to nine, eight and now six.

The budget will be about nine weeks past the previous deadline. The last one was presented in February 2020, just as the pandemic hit.

In summer 2020, the NDP changed the deadline for budgets following an election, to March 30 from late February. Then Premier John Horgan called an election in the fall, which he and his party won. In December, the budget deadline was extended again, to April 30.

(Imagine school boards deciding they need an extra two months to submit budgets. The government would unseat them in a minute.)

It created a bizarre situation where the supply bill, which is based on budget estimates, is coming before a budget. To get around that, this one is based on last year’s budget. That budget is now over a year old, was invalidated within weeks by billions in new pandemic spending, and is entirely imaginary.

B.C. Liberals equated the supply bill to a bridge “from nowhere to nowhere.”

Defending this adventure in rule-bending, Finance Minister Selina Robinson equated it to a humanitarian move, to ease the strain on Finance Ministry staff.

They were “stretched considerably … working 16-hour days … Sunday afternoon.”

The pandemic “was pushing everything to the limit” and the deadlines were “going to break people.”

B.C. Green Leader Sonia Furstenau said the explanation was ironic, given that Horgan called the election in the middle of that and “threw a whole new level of turmoil” into the mix.

Last year, the ombudsperson rapped the government for enacting emergency measures contrary to law. Hopefully the auditor general takes a similar critical look at this mess.

lleyne@timescolonist.com

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