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Les Leyne: Horgan ignoring the woolly mammoth in the room

Premier's recap of legislative session's accomplishments does not include $789 million museum project.
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The abrupt closure earlier this year of the Royal B.C. Museum's Old Town and early-settler exhibits, for reasons that shifted from decolonizing to seismic and asbestos concerns, prompted massive indignation, writes Les Leyne. But that was just a warm-up for the decision to shut the whole museum down, demolish it and build a new one. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

Premier John Horgan’s official recap of all his government’s accomplishments during the legislative session leaves out the last desperate weeks his ­government spent defending the plan to demolish the Royal B.C. Museum and spend a minimum seven years and $789 million building a new one.

Talk about ignoring the woolly mammoth in the room.

He was bursting with pride when he announced it, but two weeks later it didn’t even make his highlights list. Maybe the explosion of hostile incredulity had something to do with it. Or maybe he’s tired of talking about it already, since the RBCM got more attention this year than it has in the last 50 years.

The abrupt closure ­earlier this year of the Old Town and early-settler exhibits, for ­reasons that shifted from “decolonizing” to “seismic and asbestos” concerns, prompted massive indignation.

But that was just a ­warm-up for the decision to shut the whole museum down, demolish it and build a new one.

In Horgan’s mind, the spring session was about an Indigenous reconciliation action plan, a new oil and gas royalty program and an assortment of other good news stories. The government passed 22 bills on the theme of “putting people first.”

But the legislature, the capital and the province have been gripped since Friday the 13th with his out-of-left-field ­revelation about the plan to rebuild the museum.

The preoccupation continued through the traditional cross-examination of the premier by the Opposition on the last days of the session.

“The premier won’t have to worry,” Opposition Leader Kevin Falcon purred at the outset. “I’m not going to spend a lot of time here talking about things in the past.”

(That’s what cops say when they want to put the prime ­suspect at ease.)

Through dozens more ­questions about the decision, Horgan barely advanced the understanding of how years of vague talk about “modernizing” the destination attraction turned into a decision to tear it down and build a new one over the course of at least seven years.

His first line of defence was that the previous B.C. Liberal government got numerous reports that work was needed, but didn’t get it done.

“Years of inaction by the former government” led to a more concentrated look at what was needed. Replace on site, rebuild at a new site or renovate were the options. Horgan said: “We did due diligence for four years — not four weeks, not four months, but for four years — to find the best way forward.”

The community was ­canvassed (on entirely ­theoretical options) and the ­current Inner Harbour location was widely preferred, he said.

He also downplayed the ­astronomical $789-million price tag, saying the roughly $100 million a year for eight years is just one per cent of B.C.’s annual capital budget.

Scope creep overrun ­warnings are ringing about the subsidiary $224 million ­project underway to relocate the archives and collections to a new facility in Colwood. It showed up on the books a year ago as a $177-million job to be finished in 2024, but now it’s 30 per cent higher and the completion year is different.

Horgan said the first amount was a preliminary budget. “The project is now of a scope and scale that it has 25 years of expansion potential rather than just the initial five. That’s the justification for the increase in budget, but it is on time.”

Although the technical ­seismic ratings are a mixed bag of indicators, the NDP has been escalating the threat level posed by the RBCM to justify the­ ­decision to demolish it. Asbestos, arsenic, flooding dangers and earthquake hazards have been cited in the past two weeks.

Horgan said: “Those artifacts are at risk. The people going into the building are at risk. The ­people who work there are at risk.”

He also said people shouldn’t be surprised by the decision. “To declare that [it] came out of the thin blue sky is just not true.”

It’s a logical, well-researched project that is urgently needed, according to Horgan.

According to Falcon: “In the real world, if you came to a board with the kind of proposal that you’re putting forward here, you’d be fired in minutes.”

The intense focus will shift now that the session is over. But the legislature will resume in the fall and the museum will have been shut down permanently for weeks by then.

The big empty building next door will be a prime ­conversation starter.

lleyne@timescolonist.com

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