Vaughn Palmer: Eby promises time to debate housing bills.

Opinion: Premier’s office will continue to dictate to legislature as election looms

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VICTORIA — Premier David Eby responded this week to suspicions that his government was preparing to ramrod passage of its contentious housing legislation by insisting he would allow ample time for debate.

“It is an important role for opposition parties to be able to do that,” the premier told reporters Wednesday.

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“We will continue to look for ways that we can improve the way this place operates to provide opportunities for opposition parties to not just examine government bills but also bring forward their own proposals as well.”

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The premier made those reassuring comments during a 1 p.m. news conference. Shortly before 3 p.m., his house leader, Ravi Kahlon got up in the legislature to disclose the Eby government’s actual policy regarding further debate.

“I move that all remaining stages of consideration of Bill 44 be disposed of by 3:30 p.m.,” said Kahlon, who is also housing minister.

Bill 44 is the most far-reaching of the five housing bills the New Democrats brought in this fall. It eliminates local control over zoning for single-family housing and substitutes an NDP preference for several units using guidelines that have yet to be defined.

The formal name for Kahlon’s motion is “time allocation” or “closure.” The informal term is “the guillotine.” As B.C. United MLA Mike de Jong quipped in a related context, thus did the fall session of the B.C. legislature have its “Robespierre moment.”

I’ve seen many closure motions during four decades covering the legislature. Several were introduced by de Jong during his days as house leader for the B.C. Liberals.

Usually, the motion allows a day or two before closure takes effect. I don’t recall one as ruthless as Kahlon’s, which cut off debate 30 minutes after it was introduced.

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After a couple of procedural wrangles, there was almost no time left on the clock

“Thanks to the government house leader for being generous with the time to debate this bill,” jeered B.C. United MLA Peter Milobar. “We now have 10 minutes left to canvass 21 more sections in a bill that is supposed to somehow address housing in this province, but the government doesn’t want to actually talk about it or the detail in any great degree.”

Compounding the outrage was Kahlon’s claim that he’d imposed closure after consulting with the leaders of the other parties.

Not so, said Adam Walker, a former NDP MLA now sitting as an independent, and doing an effective job holding his ex-colleagues to account.

“The minister mentioned that efforts were made with all three parties and an independent member to negotiate scheduling,” said Walker. “That conversation never did take place.”

Green house leader Adam Olsen agreed: “There was no discussion on this. There was no effort to get consensus. This is an appalling misuse of this house.”

Likewise, said United house leader Todd Stone: “It is absolutely incorrect, it is not factually accurate that there was an attempt to achieve consensus. The official Opposition was not in any way consulted on this.”

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The complaint against Kahlon spilled over to Thursday’s proceedings, when the NDP house leader mounted a feeble defence on the charge of having misled the house.

He contacted only one party, the Conservatives, on time allocation. When they turned him down, he decided there was no need to even talk to the other house leaders.

“I stand by my statement and actions,” said Kahlon, reading from a statement that may have been vetted in the premier’s office.

Later, the housing minister again refused to release the economic model which reputedly backs up his dubious claim that the NDP legislation will create 130,000 new homes over 10 years and lead to a drop of up to 14 per cent in housing prices.

The deliberate withholding is in keeping with NDP message control, which dictates everything from the timetable for releasing information to the schedule for the legislature.

The Eby government’s control freak ways prompted a telling comment from Olsen.

“At times, it feels like we should just have the Premier’s office move right on into this chamber and just make decisions,” he said during an earlier showdown over government-imposed time allocation.

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“We have essentially given power to a group of people, the executive, and they have full control over what we debate, when we debate it and for how long we debate it.”

The New Democrats “act like they are going to be sitting in these seats forever,” said Olsen. “I know they don’t believe that that’s going to be the future, but a different group might be sitting across there, and the very same tools and tactics that have been used to capture this place by the premier’s office could be used against them.”

He said all this to no avail of course. The New Democrats remained on track to put through every scrap of housing legislation, never mind how many unanswered questions remained.

With an election year approaching, it is a safe bet that the next sitting of the house will follow the same script, dictated from the premier’s office, as the one just concluded.

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