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Les Leyne: Parliamentary reform idea resurrected

The first-term B.C. Liberals were mad keen about electoral and parliamentary reform. They brought in budget-transparency legislation that lessened the likelihood of monkey business.

The first-term B.C. Liberals were mad keen about electoral and parliamentary reform.

They brought in budget-transparency legislation that lessened the likelihood of monkey business.

They talked about free votes of the legislature, where MLAs would vote based on what they think, rather than what the party whip tells them to think.

They held open cabinet meetings once a month. They were scripted events that no one took too seriously. But the concept was revolutionary at the time.

They brought in a fixed date for elections, which eliminated the custom of government manipulating affairs to its advantage.

They even attempted a wildly ambitious rewrite of the electoral system. They commissioned an assembly of random citizens who came up with a different voting system that would have revolutionized elections.

Some of the ideas worked and some didn’t. Open cabinet meetings were abandoned and the new voting system was rejected by the people.

The budget-process changes remain in effect. Budgets have to be certified by a ranking deputy minister. And cabinet ministers are being docked pay today ($5,100 a year) for their collective sin of running a deficit.

But the reform initiatives landed as one package in the first term. There was no commitment to ongoing reform. And as some of the bits and pieces fell off the table, the effort stalled out.

Three independent MLAs resurrected the idea on Wednesday with a grab-bag assortment of ideas. The trio came at the issue from three different perspectives. Delta MLA Vicki Huntington won as an independent in 2009 and has never sat in a party caucus.

Cariboo North MLA Bob Simpson did a term as a New Democrat before he was booted out early in his second term. He’s been an independent since then.

And Abbotsford South MLA John van Dongen served 15 years as a Liberal, some of them in cabinet, before quitting the government caucus last year.

They made the valid point that parliamentary reform isn’t a concept you just execute once and then tick off as done. Politics is changing as quickly as everything else these days. So it should be an ongoing process, designed to keep all facets of the system up to date.

Here are some of the ideas they pitched:

• Ban political contributions from corporations, unions and non-residents. Barring the first two has been argued for years, but adding non-residents is a new twist, apparently brought on by suspicions over Alberta energy companies’ interest in supporting the Liberals. An NDP government would likely go for the idea, because it penalizes the Liberals ($5 million from corporations) more than it does the NDP ($865,000 from unions). Keep in mind, though, it’s a step on the road toward subsidizing the parties with tax dollars. It happened federally to the tune of $2 per vote, although that’s been cancelled.

• Give Elections B.C. oversight over party leadership contests. The independents with no worries about party chicanery would be smacking their lips in anticipation if this ever came to pass. Two of the last three NDP leadership contests featured heated arguments about perceived dirty dealing (wholesale membership sign-ups by Ujjal Dosanjh in 2000, and questions about who was paying the fees for new members Adrian Dix signed up in 2011).

Two of the disenchanted candidates in that contest later recommended leadership races be policed by Elections B.C.

• Move election day from spring to fall. Every four years, the budget cycle coincides with the election cycle, so a budget gets introduced (February) and an election intervenes (May) before the final reckoning of the previous year is tabled (July). A fall election would eliminate that uncertainty. People would go to the polls with an independently certified view of the state of the province’s books. The NDP favour it and Liberals in the past have expressed some support for the idea.

The rest of the proposals are less-visible changes. Free votes in the legislature is a noble-sounding idea that the B.C. Liberals aired, but it gradually faded away. Rejuvenating the committee system is similarly a refreshing concept that would see MLAs working at solving social problems in a collegial fashion. But it’s been talked about for as long as there have been committees. And it never seems to go anywhere.

Just So You Know: There’s already a committee on “parliamentary reform, ethical conduct, standing orders and private bills.” It would be the perfect place to start talking about these ideas. But it has met fewer than 10 times in the past 10 years.