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Vaughn Palmer: | Vancouver Sun

Opinion: NDP’s verdict first, evidence later, approach leaves opposition struggling to judge legislation

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VICTORIA — The New Democrats claim their legislation to end single-family zoning in B.C. cities and towns will lead to the creation of “130,000 small-scale multi-unit homes” in the next 10 years.

The claim has been cited in NDP speeches, announcements and news releases ever since Bill 44, the enabling legislation for the zoning makeover, was introduced Nov. 1.

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The 130,000-homes forecast is grounded in an economic-modelling report, commissioned by the government and shared inside the bureaucracy and around the cabinet table.

But when Green MLA Adam Olsen challenged the government to release the modelling report during debate on Bill 44 this week, he ran into a stone wall in the person of Housing Minister Ravi Kahlon.

The exchange between the two, which unfolded during debate on the bill Wednesday evening, illustrated this government’s secretive ways as well as anything that has happened during the fall session of the legislature.

“Will the minister make the report — will he table it with the house here?” asked Olsen.

“I can’t make it public today, but we will be making it public in the very near future,” replied Kahlon.

There was a certain urgency to the request, noted Olsen.

The government intends to use its legislative majority to pass Bill 44 and several related housing measures before the house adjourns on Nov. 30. When the Green MLA posed the question, there were but five sitting days left in the fall session.

“As we’re trying to analyze the impact that this bill has,” continued Olsen, “can the minister provide a timeline for when the report will be tabled with the house so we can see the information that’s informing the decision-making?”

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The government will be releasing the report when it releases the cabinet-approved-standards for the preferred multi-unit zoning, replied Kahlon.

Those standards are not completed yet. They are scheduled to be approved by cabinet regulation before the end of the year.

“The information about modelling will be released when we release the regulations in a few weeks.”

Whereupon Olsen drew the inescapable conclusion: “So the information that justifies the Bill 44 can be scrutinized once Bill 44 is passed?”

Well, yes, conceded Kahlon: “The information that tells us the potential amount of units that can be built will be released when the (cabinet) document comes forward.”

Olsen then proceeded to demonstrate why he is one of the most effective members of the house — an eloquent, tightly focused, watchdog of a critic, who just won’t quit when he has the hide of a minister between his teeth.

“We have to take the minister on his word that the number is 130,000, that there was a consultant, and a report. All of this information is going to be coming available to the members of this house after the bill is passed.”

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Only then would MLAs be able to scrutinize the quality of the report, its methodology, the terms of reference that were given to the consultants that yielded up the claim of 130,000 new units over 10 years.

“This is ridiculous, this is absurd,” declared Olsen, standing on open and transparent ground in contrast to the shadowland of the minister.

Later in the same debate, the Green MLA moved on to another of Kahlon’s claims — that the province could experience a seven to 14 per cent reduction in housing prices over the next five years.

Could the housing minister provide the analysis to back up that to-date, undocumented (and, frankly, hard to believe) claim?

“It is part of an economic analysis that we’ve done, and we will be releasing that publicly when the regulations come out,” Kahlon replied.

Why, asked Olsen, had not the NDP government made all this modelling and analysis available to MLAs so they would be “able to feel much more confident in the minister’s hopes and beliefs?”

“A lot of the policy, the modelling, is based on the regulations, and the regulations have not gone to cabinet yet,” said Kahlon, inviting the image of the government as a snake devouring its own tail.

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“We get into pretty hazardous terrain here, then don’t we?” countered Olsen.

A lengthy bill, one of several that will give the province broad powers over housing approvals and municipal zoning. Municipalities are waiting to hear back about how all of this is going to impact them.

But to hear the minister tell it: “Don’t worry about it. It’s all good. It’s going to be fine.”

Yet as Olsen went on to note, the debate in the legislature is the only part of the process that is public. Everything else will be tightly controlled inside the bureaucracy, the cabinet room and the premier’s office.

Could the housing minister at least provide some persuasive detail as to how the government arrived at the forecast of a drop of up to 14 per cent in housing prices?

Not a chance, Kahlon indicated.

The modelling will be based on the regulations. The regulations haven’t gone to cabinet. So the two will be released at the same time.

Verdict first. Then the evidence. Such is the Alice-in-Wonderland world of NDP legislation.

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