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Les Leyne: Museum questions piling up, answers aren't

Finance minister has difficult time explaining museum decisions to legislature committee
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The Royal B.C. Museum in downtown Victoria. DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST

No cabinet minister who gets asked about the decision to tear down the Royal B.C. Museum and build a new one has a straight answer. So the questions keep piling up about the strange, opaque back story behind the stunning decision.

After the big reveal Friday, during which zero documentation was released, Premier John Horgan and Tourism Minister Melanie Mark have come up well short in explaining themselves. So as the fallout spread, attention turned to Finance Minister Selina Robinson. Maybe she could explain the financial decisions that turned a modernization plan into a megaproject.

She chairs the Treasury Board committee of cabinet that approved the $789 million project. She happens to be defending her ministry’s spending estimates this week. So she was subjected to a lengthy grilling by B.C. Liberal MLA Peter Milobar. But watching her initial attempts to explain the government’s handling of this top-secret decision verged on excruciating. Anyone hoping to be comforted by a coherent account of a logical well-grounded process is curled up in the fetal position now.

There were long pauses Wednesday to consult with senior staff who tried to help her extricate herself from contradictions that developed the previous day. She repeatedly fobbed off responsibility for answering questions to the tourism minister. (“I could point him down the hall to where she resides. He’s welcome to ask her.”)

And the justification for the proposed timeline that calls for the RBCM to shut down Sept 6, years before anything happens to the building, is incomprehensible.

Asked point-blank about it, Robinson replied: “Those are questions that are most appropriate for the minister responsible.”

As for budgeting, Robinson said that costs won’t show up until the public accounts reports are released this summer. But moments later she cited a mention in the current budget of a $56 million entry in an obscure capital spending report.

She said B.C. would welcome federal dollars for the project. But contributions like that are almost always finalized before the announcement. There’s not much impetus for Ottawa to chip in if B.C. is already committed to the job anyway.

Earlier, the B.C. Liberals’ first line of attack was about how much the community-benefits agreement would add to the cost. That’s the deal that mandates only workers from 19 selected trade unions can work on selected major public-sector projects.

Surprise. Robinson said: “This is not a CBA project. … It was determined that this would not work. … Making sure that we could deliver it as a CBA project did not make sense.”

The $224 million collections and archives building previously approved for Colwood is also not a community-benefits agreement project.

So the flagship labour deal that governs a dozen or so big public works jobs and is designed to encourage hiring of local workers and women, and the establishing of Indigenous apprenticeships, won’t apply to a billion dollars’ worth of museum work. She said it is for reasons to do with the locale and the timing. But then she gave a lengthy account of how important community-benefits agreements are.

That was just a sideshow to other revelations.

Robinson told the legislature the Treasury Board decision was made in March. No specific date was offered, but March was also when the tourism minister was explaining her ministry’s budget. There was no mention or even hint of the demolition-replacement plan she had presented, or was about to present, to the Treasury Board. The only renovation noted was the shutdown of the Old Town exhibit a few months earlier, which came almost as abruptly as Friday’s bombshell did.

And why no business plan on the day of launch?

Robinson referred the question to her colleague, Mark.

Mark said this week the business case is coming as early as Friday.

But asked if it will be a full and unredacted release, Robinson hedged.

“There is information in any business case that could potentially jeopardize procurement. … Protecting the public interest to make sure that we can get a good deal would be very important.”

Horgan stepped up Wednesday to defend the project again, saying the previous Liberal government looked at Royal B.C. Museum seismic worries numerous times and nothing was done until the NDP took over.

As it stands, the museum teardown and rebuild is the most expensive museum project in Canadian history, according to one expert, with the shortest, skimpiest story as to why it is needed.

lleyne@timescolonist.com