VICTORIA – If you think the last session of the B.C. Legislature was nasty, get set for a real Donnybrook this time around.
Only extreme incompetence on the part of the Liberals can save the government from a harrowing experience during the next four or five months. With a little focus, the opposition forces can put the government troops on the run and keep them there.
Heaven only knows why on top of all the problems the NDP has, it chose to tweak the opposition’s nose by scheduling the release of the budget for the day after Lieutenant-Governor Garde Gardom read the throne speech.
Normally, the throne speech is followed by a few days of debate and the budget comes down the week after. Dispensing with the throne speech debate shows an alarming disregard for legislative tradition.
It also was designed to see Liberal leader Gordon Campbell make his first speech of the session, while reporters are busy digesting the budget, a fact that hasn’t escaped Liberal house leader Gary Farrell-Collins, who vowed all-out war if the NDP were to go through with the plan.
But even if the government had a last-minute change of heart – or brains – the Liberals are clearly in a position to dictate the agenda of the session.
The NDP’s greatest Achilles heel will be the budget. Recent efforts to cut spending notwithstanding, Finance Minister Andrew Petter will have one hell of a time keeping the budget deficit under half a billion dollars.
The false claims of having balanced the budget last year will come back to haunt the government, which only admitted to a deficit last September. Any claims this year by the NDP of being good fiscal stewards will invoke vicious attacks or worse, ridicule and laughter.
Next, you can expect fire works over casino gambling, an issue badly mishandled by the government from the disastrous press conference at which Dan Miller, the minister put in charge of the gaming issue, did little more than stumble, to the way the government is trying to extract hundreds of millions of additional dollars from the gambling public while, at the same time, pretending there’s little change in gaming regulations.
Nor will the opposition be satisfied with the report by B.C. Hydro chairman Brian Smith about the Raywind Power scandal.
No matter how damning the report was in its conclusions about the role former Hydro chairman John Laxton played in the affair, the Liberals and the media expected Smith to hand them Premier Glen Clark’s head. The simple fact that all the probing by the investigative team, which had Victoria hotshot lawyer Chris Considine on it, didn’t unearth one shred of evidence that Clark knew about the affair won’t appease the critics.
The legislature will also come to blows over the Forest Renewal issue. Strapped for revenue, faced with a sea of red ink, the government will probably accept the "offer" from Forest Renewal B.C. to roll $400 million of its money into general revenue.
That offer was made last year, but before any money is transferred from the Forest Renewal fund to the government, some form of legislative blessing is needed, because Forest Renewal revenues, paid for by the forest industry, can now be spent only on forestry-related projects in communities affected by reduced annual allowable cuts and a general thrust to place the industry on a sustainable basis.
Add to all that the government’s razor-thin majority, plus the Liberals’ firm conviction that, based on their majority in popular votes, they were the moral victors in the last election, and you have the perfect recipe for a legislative session that will, at times, resemble a brawl.
The only sane moments in this session will probably turn out to have been the lieutenant-governor’s delivery of the throne speech, a delivery only the suave and urbane Garde Gardom is capable of.