BALDREY: The wackiness of B.C. politics takes a short break

The legislature is now in its two-week Easter recess and the break could not have come at a better time, given some of the oddities that characterized the session’s first half.

First, a snap confidence vote caught the NDP government by surprise and it was almost defeated. Such a defeat would have been embarrassing but not fatal, as another confidence vote would have been quickly convened once enough NDP members were in their seats.

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Still, the episode showed how thin the NDP’s majority is on any given day and how the governing side has to constantly be on guard for any accidents.

Second, the precariousness of that ruling majority was again exposed when the NDP actually did lose a vote – courtesy of its comrades-in-arms, the B.C. Green caucus.

The Greens called for a “division vote” (one that requires MLAs to stand and be counted on the record) on a B.C. Liberal-sponsored amendment to the LNG legislation.

However, after demanding such a vote, the three Green MLAs promptly left the legislative chamber. They left behind a tied house with the B.C. Liberals and the NDP each having 42 MLAs in the house.

The presiding chair (B.C. Liberal MLA Joan Isaacs) defied convention and tradition and voted for the B.C. Liberal amendment, thus defeating the NDP’s position.

Next came the so-called “right to bare arms” fiasco. One day, unexpectedly, a legislature hallway officer decided to enforce what few people actually knew even existed: a dress code for women who enter the Speaker’s Corridor.

The corridor is where pretty much everyone – the MLAs, the political staff and the press gallery – hangs out in for about an hour before and after question period every day.

Men have long been required to wear a jacket and a tie – and no denim or running shoes please – if they need to be in the corridor for any reason.

However, the requirements for women have always been less well defined.

On this day, a senior female government staff person was ordered out of the corridor because she wore a sleeveless top. Also told to leave were a couple of other women wearing similar styles of tops.

The next day a number of women – political staffers and press gallery women – defiantly wore sleeveless tops to work and showed up in the corridor, defying the hallway staff to do anything about it.

It all ended with a new dress code that essentially allows women to wear “professional attire,” the meaning of which is determined by them.

Finally, just before the Easter break, Speaker Darryl Plecas tried (or so it seems) to ban the time-honoured practice of “heckling” during question period. He apparently thinks the din of noise and occasional unruly behavior during QP is rude and unseemly.

While things can get a bit out of hand at times, the fact is that it is a longstanding tradition in Westminster parliaments that members engage in the “cut and thrust” of debate and that things are indeed expected to get noisy at times.

This issue has yet to play itself out. Question Period is a 30-minute exercise in attempted accountability and political theatre and yes, people yell at each other.

The rest of the proceedings in the legislature – second reading of bills, ministry spending estimates and clause-by-clause examination of bills – are fairly dull and sparsely attended gatherings.

Question period in the B.C. legislature has not changed much since its inception in the 1970s (other than being lengthened to 30 minutes from the original 15 minutes).

No matter how engulfed in controversy the government of the day may be, there is usually close to 100 per cent attendance by MLAs and that has not changed for decades. Neither has the right of the Opposition to heckle cabinet ministers when they obfuscate and essentially refuse to answer questions.

Until, apparently, now.

We will see where this goes – Plecas has become increasingly partisan as he continues to call B.C. Liberal MLAs to task while ignoring any transgressions by NDP MLAs, so this is a mounting problem – when the House reconvenes.

Whatever happens, you can be sure more oddities lie ahead in an increasingly wacky legislature.

Keith Baldrey is chief political correspondent for Global BC.

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