VICTORIA -- To be accused of misleading the legislature is a serious matter for any MLA; when that MLA happens to be the premier, you'd expect the proverbial manure to hit the fan.
Yet, when Premier Vander Zalm and a handful of past and present politicians were accused of having mislead the House, the story was buried on page two of Victoria's daily newspaper and rated little more than 15 seconds on the CBC's provincial news.
Politicians have been forced to resign over charges of misleading the House, which is the same as saying they lied to the House, but nobody seems to think it's a big deal when someone accuses the premier of it.
Perhaps everybody is getting sick and tired of the issue that gave rise to the charges. Would you really feel hard done by if you never again heard another word about the Coquihalla Highway scandal? Probably not. But before you turn to the sports pages, read the rest of this column; it just might rekindle your interest in the subject.
The first day the MLAs returned to Victoria, the NDP's Moe Sihota rose in the legislature to accuse four current and two past politicians of having mislead the legislature with regard to thetrue cost of the Coquihalla Highway. They were former premier Bill Bennett and current premier Bill Vander Zalm, former finance minister Hugh Curtis and current finance minister Mel Couvelier, plus former highways ministers Cliff Michael and Alex Fraser.
It took a solid 75 minutes for Sihota to present his case to a silent and attentive legislature. The aim of his exercise was to have a special committee of the legislature investigate not only the cost overruns of the Coquihalla Highway project, but also the subsequent coverup of that financial scandal.
Sihota built his case on the premise that the cover-up -- an attempt to deliberately mislead the legislature with regard to the true cost of the project -- constitutes contempt of the legislature and a breach of privilege of all MLAs.
If that sounds a bit convoluted and innocuous, Sihota's presentation was anything but that. It was a scathing indictment of former and currently-serving politicians who first failed miserably at managing the public purse, and then did their best to sweep the scandal under the rug.
What's especially galling is that for the better part of 36 years, the people responsible for this disaster had us believe they were fiscal supermen. We know all about business, they said. We know how to look after your money. Like hell they did. A project that was to cost taxpayers $375 million came in at about $1 billion.
So much for financial mismanagement. What about the cover-up? A few examples will suffice to make what lawyers would call a "prima facie case."
On July 15, 1985, Alex Fraser, then minister of highways, asked then finance minister Hugh Curtis for approval of a "supplementary highway capital construction program." His request included an additional $37 million for the Coquihalla Highway. In other words, Fraser knew the project was in trouble.
Two months later, on September 23, Curtis sent a "personal and confidential" letter to Fraser, saying the treasury board had approved the request. Since Curtis was on the treasury board, it can be assumed that he now knew the project was in financial difficulties.
On November 20, 1985, Fraser told the legislature that the highway would cost no more than the originally estimated $375 million. That was four months after he knew there was no way to bring the project in at the original cost estimate.
For some strange reason, no special warrant for the additional funds was ever issued. Instead, the government went through a number of contortions to hide the cost overruns. Specific cost- related budget items, called votes, were switched, and the government now tried to finance the mounting overruns out of votes that hadn't been approved by the legislature.
Sihota cites many more examples, too numerous to mention here, of what looks for all the world like a deliberate deception of the public with regard to the true cost of the Coquihalla Highway.
The 46th edition of the Financial and Economic Review, authored Premier Vander Zalm, then also finance minister, fails to mention anything about the Coquihalla. Sihota says Vander Zalm should have and probably did know about it by then. Couvelier, he says, also had a chance to set the record straight when the public accounts were tabled in the legislature in March 1987, but didn't.
Sihota's case is a detailed and chronological account of the greatest financial boondoggle in the history of B.C., and a convincing argument that the legislature and the public were deliberately misled. It should not be allowed to rest.