BALDREY: B.C. MLAs terrified of losing control over legislature

It looks like the inmates have reclaimed control of the asylum. That’s one takeaway from the collective decision by B.C.’s MLAs to hire an esteemed former chief justice of the highest court in the country as the special investigator to examine allegations against the legislature’s clerk and sergeant-at-arms.

The move to hire Beverly McLachlin to get to the bottom of a number of allegations made by Speaker Darryl Plecas against the two table officers is impressive.

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We will now have a highly respected professional examining a controversy that has rocked the legislature like nothing before, as it was slowly but surely sapping the MLAs of their ability to control the place.

With each passing day since Plecas’ explosive allegations, power shifted out of the MLAs hands and into the Speaker’s, and his own special aide, Allan Mullan.

It took several weeks for the MLAs, through their own Legislature Assembly Management Committee, to figure out a way to regain control. LAMC meetings were, for a time, standing room only events as a huge crowd would gather to watch the MLAs struggle through things.

First, they called in B.C.’s respected and independent auditor general to conduct an audit of legislature finances. Originally, they were going to go outside the province for that job, until it was pointed out to the MLAs that only Carol Bellringer, the B.C. auditor general, has the statutory authority to dive into the legislature’s books.

Bellringer’s appointment began to lower the temperature, although it is unclear how broad her audit will be or when it will be completed. The LAMC members also agreed to bring in an “eminent jurist” to handle the investigation.

Most observers thought a retired B.C. Supreme Court judge would be asked to do the job. I don’t think many folks saw last week’s startling announcement of McLachlin’s hiring coming (strangely, it came the same day her name surfaced in connection with the SNC-Lavalin affair, as someone the federal government felt could provide a second legal opinion on whether the company would face corruption charges).

The former chief justice has played a prominent role in many Supreme Court of Canada rulings that have helped shape public policy over the years. As chief justice, her court made a historic (and unanimous) ruling that the Tsilhqot’in First Nations had title to its ancestral lands.

She practiced law in B.C. for years before being appointed to the Supreme Court of Canada and presumably somewhat understands the history of provincial politics here. 

Because of her sterling reputation, her findings will likely be deemed unassailable. This is critically important, since only she is stepping into this whole mess with any kind of credibility and non-partisanship.

For example, the relationship between the Speaker’s office and the Official Opposition appears to have completely broken down to the point of almost open warfare between the two sides, an unheard of situation in a Westminster parliament model.

The NDP and the Greens have also seemed bewildered and uncomfortable by the current situation, and it has been obvious that everyone was looking for a way to calm everything down.

Given Plecas’ lack of neutrality in the matter, it was urgent that an independent outsider step in to be the final arbiter and restore some normalcy to the situation.

The three house leaders actually hired McLachlin (the MLAs agreed to her hiring by unanimously approving a motion in the house), and her terms of reference require her to report out to them – not LAMC, of which Plecas is a member.

This is another deft touch by the MLAs to regain control of the legislature and of this controversy, and that will come at the Speaker’s expense.

One could almost sense a collective sigh of relief in the legislature corridors as word spread of McLachlin’s hiring spread. Many legislature staff members seemed genuinely excited by the prospect of such a learned and independent person coming in to take control.

Last year, McLachlin, retired from the bench, published a crime novel, entitled Full Disclosure.

Ironically, that title reflects exactly what is needed in this controversy. Depending on what she digs up in this thing, she may have another book on her hands.

Keith Baldrey is chief political correspondent for Global BC.

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