Les Leyne: Suspicions over the fine print

Les Leyne mugshot genericThe legislature filled with talk of conspiracy theories last week, as the single most suspicious piece of legislation on every parliamentary calendar was introduced — a miscellaneous-statutes-amendment act.

They are always a hodge-podge collection of minor changes to other statutes, recommended by staff trying to fix glitches. But they are always suspected of hiding sneaky bombshells deep in the fine print.

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During a long afternoon appearance designed to run some time off the clock, government house leader Mike Farnworth, who was as skeptical as anyone during his years in opposition, tried to reassure everyone the latest one is on the up and up.

He failed.

“It’s not the conspiratorial theory amendment act,” he said. “There’s nothing untoward … they’re not brought forward in some nefarious way … [by] a cabal.”

Dairy plants are redefined so that restaurants can make their own yogurt and paneer, for example. Yawn.

A metro Vancouver sewage law is also changed. Farnworth pictured “a secret cabinet committee sitting down and going: ‘We’ve got something really bad we’ve got to do, the only way we can do it is by making an amendment to the Greater Vancouver Sewage and Drainage District Act.’

“That would really smell.”

Opposition MLA Sam Sullivan was amused but unconvinced. He said he’s looking for nefarious sleeper clauses and insidious amendments. “I haven’t found them yet, but I am looking. I’m sure there’s something evil.”

Nothing evil has cropped up yet, but the Opposition did latch onto one aspect of the bill.

It’s a one-line change to the University Act, and two related laws, that drops a restriction on who can sit on the boards of colleges and universities.

Specifically, it eliminates the bar that precluded union or employee-association executive members from sitting on boards that oversee institutions where their members are employed.

That was put in place seven years ago to effectively prevent union officials from sitting on both sides of the contract negotiating table.

Attorney General David Eby said the provisions were unnecessary, and repealing them would broaden representation on post-secondary boards.

Liberal MLA Michael Lee said the bar is “there for a good reason,” since employee representatives are in a direct adversarial role with the board during contract negotiations.

But cabinet ministers said existing conflict-of-interest requirements can handle the situation and there’s no need to bar such officials from the boards of B.C.’s 23 post-secondaries.

“We are levelling the playing field to ensure that there’s representation that reflects the diversity of our province,” said Advanced Education Minister Melanie Mark.

The argument is that there will be broader representation, and any conflict problems that come up with can be dealt with via bylaws.

Education Minister Rob Fleming said the prohibition assumed such officials “would be hopelessly conflicted and only acting in their own self-interest if they happened to be an employee of one of these institutions.

“If that was caution or whether that was ideology, it hasn’t served the governance of those institutions well.”

Finance Minister Carole James said: “It doesn’t make sense to cut those people out simply because they bring that expertise.”

Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver said he understood B.C. Liberal suspicions.

“The first thing I did was pull out my conspiracy theory hat, thinking that perhaps we were seeing a political payout for union friends here and perhaps this was a way to try to get negotiators on the board of governors.”

A former faculty negotiator, Weaver said the change suggests negotiators might be in a conflict by being in the position of negotiating with themselves.

“My Spidey senses were raised when I saw that being removed. Is this some nefarious backroom deal to pay back friends?”

His answer: No. The change isn’t what he first thought it might be. He said B.C. is the only province with such a bar, and conflict-of-interest provisions already cover the potential problem.

Liberals eventually dropped the concerns and voted for the change, and the rest of the bill as well.

The ban on union executives sitting on university and college boards raised hackles when it was introduced. The resentment lingered for six long years, but now it’s gone.

lleyne@timescolonist.com

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