Deflecting questions on drug use, Eby ignores public concerns

Written By Fran Yanor

Premier David Eby is an intelligent person. Unusually so. He’s able to hold nuance and speaks in extended, complex sentences (journalists notice these things). Yet often in Question Period, he feigns simplistic interpretations of the Opposition’s position to deflect uncomfortable political questions.

Throughout this past session, when opposition members repeatedly demanded a ban on hard drug use in public places, Eby sidestepped and deflected. Instead of answering the question – no, the government will never in a million years decree a provincial ban on hard drug use in public, for instance – Eby and his ministers, again and again ignored the question and pivoted to BC United’s support for decriminalization. 

“The challenge I have is that the opposition leader wants to have it both ways. To some people he wants to say ’Hey yeah, absolutely, we support [decriminalization].’ To other people he wants to say, ‘No way. We don’t support it.’ It’s crazy,” Eby said, ignoring the nuance of being able to support a concept while simultaneously asking for rules around its implementation. 

The BC United supported decriminalization as part of an all-party response to the illicit drug overdose crisis. BC United Leader Kevin Falcon has said support was contingent on certain health supports being in place and the federal government decriminalization exemption requirements being fulfilled.

“You haven’t put in the guardrails, Premier,” Falcon told Eby, echoing the sentiments of a  growing number of municipal councils drafting bylaws restricting hard drug use in their communities.

The whole session, Eby and his ministers would not veer from their talking points. They gave vague non-answers about how decriminalization will de-stigmatize hard drug use, without acknowledging, answering or seeming to consider the possibility of having rules around drug consumption in public. As if BC United MLAs were asking for restrictions as a political prank. 

Meanwhile, as more mayors, councillors and regional representatives shared the very real concerns they and their residents have with unfettered drug use in public, the responses from Eby and his ministers sounded increasingly disconnected from British Columbians and disrespectful of the struggle facing locally elected officials. 

The relevance of Question Period

That said, distract-and-attack is a tried-and-true political strategy (and the tragic element of many doomed personal relationships) and no doubt we all need coping strategies to get through the excruciatingly banal and politically vacuous exercise that Question Period has sometimes been. 

Yet, as tedious as the partisan parlay can sometimes get in QP, the thing itself is an essential and integral element of our democracy. For 30 straight minutes, four days a week when the legislature is sitting, government ministers must stand up, cameras rolling and account for their actions and their ministry’s work.

When else, how else, can Jane Public, through the opposition parties, ask questions directly of lofty cabinet ministers?

Arcane as the parliamentary process is in some ways, QP is as relevant as ever. Both government and the Opposition are duty-bound to serve the public good. Government must work for the public interest and the opposition parties must hold government to that ideal, as well as pursue the public’s right to know. 

Over the decades, Question Period has helped change public policy for the better. Pressure from the Official Opposition has forced many a government to reveal new information or to alter its direction on an issue. Stories of regular citizens have been read into the record and ministers have responded to them directly. QP has great merit.

During the peak of his good health and popularity, former premier John Horgan clearly relished the heated cut and thrust of a vigorous QP match-up, whereas Eby seems less inclined to put up with it. He’s so far missed or canceled 60 per cent of the Question Periods during his tenure as B.C.’s top boss.

It’s hard not to interpret his frequent absences as dismissive or disdainful, particularly when everyone knows he’s in the building taking other meetings throughout the day and choosing not to show up.

The slippery slope of majority governments

After a few years of governing, criticisms inevitably mount, the grace period for manifesting election promises closes and the proverbial honeymoon is effectively over. It can be a rude awakening for some elected officials. 

Still riding the fresh-new-face-of-government wave, they suddenly find themselves in the hot seat, being attacked for underperformance and held responsible for the lumbering dysfunction of a government built on decades of other peoples’ seemingly shoddy work (‘It’s not our fault!’) or policies that no longer reflect public sentiment.

Eventually most governments, if they’re around long enough, grow so cynical or overwhelmed or burnt out by what feels like a constant barrage of negative feedback, they fall into a pattern of ignoring or quashing dissent (the so-called bunker mentality). They begin to rely too much on their majority mandate and the ability to rule unilaterally.  

Which leads to making change without proper consultation. The quickest way to make things happen is to forge ahead despite critical misgivings from the sidelines. But it’s a slippery slope. Whether driven by impatience, ideology or naivete, it comes off as arrogance.

And it usually comes with some version of the you’re-with-us-or-against-us trope. No nuance tolerated, just two stark choices with no man’s land stretched dangerously in between.

All that said, the buck stops at Eby’s door. And it’s his for the opening.  

Knock, knock, knock

On the second last day of the session, he gave his first public impression of, if not answering the door, at least acknowledging someone was knocking.

During the premier’s office estimates committee, after Falcon asked Eby for the umpteenth time if he would ban hard drug use in public parks, playgrounds and beaches, Eby suddenly conceded “there is no reason why, when we have an overdose prevention site available, that someone is using in a park, in the doorway of somebody’s store, on a beach, on a playground.” 

It was the most straightforward answer he, or anyone from his cabinet, had given to the question all session. It was almost an admission that public drug use could have dangerous consequences on others. Almost. He quickly backstopped it as “the legitimate concerns of these parents,” and framed the rest of his answer in a bouquet of generalities. 

Municipalities already have the authority to enact bylaws and police can enforce laws around public intoxication, although both have asked for more “tools” from the province, he said. If new tools could address both public health’s and parental concerns, Eby said, “I’m all for it.”

What “it” is exactly is anyone’s guess. But Eby did commit to an undefined consultation between himself, the ministers of Public Safety and Mental Health and Addiction and unspecified municipalities. The next day in QP, Eby refined his still vague commitment to action.

Conversely, several mayors have been quite explicit about what they want from Eby and his government: everything from a province-wide ban in playgrounds, to a full-on exemption of decriminalization in public, to a lot more mental health and addiction services.  

Whatever happens, the next move is Eby’s. 

Open the door, discussions will flow, with genuine collaboration the result. If his door stays closed, complaints will pile up, chaos will escalate, and it all starts to resemble the end days of a government.