Editorial: NDP should pay for new office

The new NDP government of B.C. says it will set up a Confidence and Supply Agreement Secretariat to manage relations with the Green Party. It might be a necessary office, but it crosses a line that shouldn’t be crossed.

The secretariat will be headed by executive director Donna Sanford, who is the sister of the NDP’s deputy director and the wife of former Victoria mayor Dean Fortin. And, controversially, it will be staffed by civil servants, and paid for out of the public purse.

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Let’s suppose some form of marriage counselling might indeed be necessary to prop up John Horgan’s minority administration. In order to govern, the NDP signed a confidence and supply agreement with Andrew Weaver’s Green Party. It sets out the terms under which the Greens will vote with the NDP on confidence and money bills. It also gives the Greens extensive access to the decision-making of the new government.

That adds a level of complexity to the already complex business of creating and implementing government policy. So, yes, a clearing house might be needed to ensure both parties are satisfied, although we’re not being told how much this exercise will cost.

However, there is no excuse for asking B.C.’s taxpayers to foot the bill. Even more important, this arrangement rides roughshod over the longstanding convention that civil servants do not engage in politics.

The job of the public service is to run government programs as servants of the people. Indeed, they are explicitly forbidden from engaging in partisan matters on the job.

It’s true that some staff who work in the premier’s office have party backgrounds, but even so, they are obliged to avoid political activities of any kind. If they wish to engage in such activities, they are expected to take a leave of absence.

But partisan politics is exactly what the new secretariat will spend its time engaged in. That being so, it should be funded by the parties and should use political staff. It should not use public money and public servants.

Liberal MLA Andrew Wilkinson makes this clear in a letter of complaint to acting comptroller general Carl Fischer: “By placing this so-called secretariat within the Office of the Premier, this political office would be funded and supported by the B.C. public service resources.”

Wilkinson is right, and Fischer should tell the new government the secretariat is not an acceptable use of public money and civil servants.

The secretariat’s single function is to keep the alliance viable. It will have to smooth over any political difficulties and prevent the Greens from mutinying and sinking the ship. That’s not a job for public servants.

What happens, a few months or years down the road, if the Greens balk at some new NDP initiative? Sanford and her staff would be scrambling to save the agreement and the NDP majority. Their priority would be the best interests of the party, not of the people of B.C.

Difficult as the line might be to draw, civil servants are responsible for running the business of the people, not the business of the parties. And no matter how much a party might think it is in touch with the mood of the voters, its interests don’t always coincide with ours.

The NDP and the Greens have promised high ideals and a new way of governing. Using civil servants and public money to run their secretariat does not live up to those ideals.

They made the deal. They should pay for it.

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