The B.C. legislature is set to resume sitting mid-June (starting on either the 15th or 22nd) and when it does it will have a surreal feel to it.
That new reality comes with living and working in the middle of a global pandemic. Things that were commonplace before are now distant memories for now.
And the legislature is no different from anywhere else on that point.
Right now, it is a fairly barren place. The offices that remain open have few staff (I am, for the most part, the only reporter present since my office is actually located in the Armory, an ancient behemoth behind the main building) and it remains closed to the public.
The only people I bump into are security personnel, and politicians such as Premier John Horgan, Finance Minister Carole James and Education Minister Rob Fleming, who are in attendance only because they live in the capital (plus, of course Dr. Bonnie Henry – another capital resident – and Health Minister Adrian Dix, who is the only MLA doing any commuting these days).
This will all change when the house “comes back”, but not radically so. That is because our new rule of employing our social distance measures – that two-meter gap between ourselves and almost anyone else – will be in effect in the legislature as well.
The physical dimensions of the legislature – narrow hallways and corridors, small meeting rooms and a beautiful legislative chamber that feels quite cramped at full capacity – dictate historical changes will have to be made.
For example, approximately only 30 of our 87 MLAs can be in the chamber at the same time and they will sit two or three desks apart. Four large TV screens have been installed, two on each side of the house.
Many MLAs will participate in debates through such means as Zoom and Skype, many from their home or their offices. Steps will be taken to ensure votes are held when it most convenient to MLAs (likely at the end of that day’s sitting).
In addition, they will not have to be physically present to vote (unlike now, when the MLAs have a few minutes to race to the chamber when the voting bells ring, and if they are late they are locked out).
Adding to the strangeness will be the absence of staff and press gallery members. In normal times, the Speaker’s Corridor is an extremely crowded stretch of hallway, as cabinet minister and their staff mingle with reporters and guards as they make their way into the chamber.
Those days are over for the near future. The MLAs will be assigned one of the four doorways into the chamber for their entrances and exits.
There will be no media scrums, and cabinet ministers and Opposition MLAs will be directed to microphones to take questions via a phone line (as is the case right now with government news conferences). The press gallery’s three camera operators will record everything.
Much of the house business will be taken up by debate over individual government ministry spending estimates (their budgets and work plans). However, these proceedings will be done virtually, with a minister in his or her office and likewise the same for Opposition members posing the questions.
It is going to be a strange time, no question. The pandemic is changing so many things, and the many traditions associated with the legislature for decades are not immune to its reach.
Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC