The politics of (not) collaborating

Written By Fran Yanor

Grappling with two public health emergencies, flood and wildfire-devastated communities, and the complexities of Indigenous reconciliation, the provincial government has its hands full.

In the midst of this avalanche of crises, B.C.’s two opposition parties have repeatedly asked to help.

To no avail.

“Are there ways that we can and should work together? Yes, there are,” said BC Liberal interim Official Opposition leader Shirley Bond during the last legislative session.

“We’ve made those offers to government,” she said. “And at this point… those offers have been rejected.”

For more than a year, Bond and her colleagues petitioned Premier John Horgan to restart the select standing committees on health and Aboriginal affairs to deal with the opioid crisis, the pandemic, and reconciliation. 

Comprising members from all parties, the committees cover sectors such as agriculture, finance, children and youth, and more, but remain inactive unless directed by government to examine a specific policy or issue.

“We are obviously in the midst of the worst health crisis in our province’s history,” said BC Liberal MLA Mike de Jong in the legislature way back in December 2020.

“I cannot think of a more appropriate time… to activate the talent and the goodwill that exists on that committee to assist with the challenge that lies before us,” de Jong said.

Since then, the premier, along with the minister of health, and the minister responsible for reconciliation, have each deflected calls for cross-partisan cooperation via a formal committee or even an informal working group.

“I cannot think of a reason why the government or the premier would be hesitant about… (activating) the health committee.”

Mike de Jong

Meanwhile, the premier encouraged MLAs to embrace their collective responsibility, urging them to work together.

“To focus on the societal disaster is the responsibility of all of us… I know with absolute certainty that 87 people in this place are committed to that,” Horgan told elected representatives at the beginning of the March 2021 legislative session.

Yet, he remained vague about how exactly they might manifest that acceptance of responsibility.

“If we keep our shoulder to the wheel, keep focused on that and have respectful dialogue… we will make the progress that all of us demand, not just now, but in the future,” he said.

“To focus on the societal disaster is the responsibility of all of us.”

John Horgan

When Bond and BC Green Party leader Sonia Furstenau again pressed Horgan last June to reactivate the health committee or pull together a cross-partisan working group, the premier instead offered the two leaders a briefing with the minister of mental health and addictions, a ministry whose usefulness has been called into question.

Briefings were a matter of course and the bare minimum expected, responded Furstenau at the time.

The two opposition parties wanted something more substantial – a genuine process of collaboration between all parties – a condition that could only be initiated by the premier himself, said Furstenau.

“The table for collaboration needs to be set by the people with power,” she said.

The Premier countered with a refrain echoed by his cabinet ministers: “A committee of the legislature is not the only way that we can collaborate,” he said.  

“If not now, then when should parties work together to actually deal with this kind of crisis?” asked Bond in a subsequent interview.

“If not now, then when should parties work together to actually deal with this kind of crisis?”

Shirley Bond

On the reconciliation front, the Greens and the BC Liberals both requested a reactivation of the Aboriginal affairs committee.

“We’re at a historic moment where British Columbians and Canadians are asking the leaders to do something,” said BC Liberal Skeena MLA Ellis Ross in an exchange with Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Minister Murray Rankin.

The premier made a commitment that legislators could address reconciliation together, said Ross, a former chief counsellor of Haisla Nation. “There’s no need to think about anything unique or extravagant. You’ve got a process already – it’s called a legislative committee.”

Reconvening the Aboriginal affairs committee was “an idea worthy of consideration,” Rankin said. “(but) there are many vehicles we need to work on together to achieve reconciliation.”

For Bond’s part, she doesn’t pretend to know the best way forward on these complex issues. “None of us have all the answers.” And the parties won’t agree on all things.

“But let’s have the discussion transparently, in the open, across party lines,” she said.