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Challenges await Liberals in spring legislative session
Published Monday, February 13, 2012 10:18AM PST Last Updated Saturday, May 19, 2012 4:26AM PDT
The B.C. Liberals launch the spring legislative session -- and the race towards the next provincial election -- on Tuesday, but Premier Christy Clark is taking an unconventional route to laying out her priorities.
Rather than stand up before elected members in Victoria, she will broadcast her agenda over private radio.
Serious and wide-ranging challenges face the government when the legislature resumes: Getting Community Living BC, the agency that provides services for mentally disabled adults, back in order, concluding the ongoing teachers' job action, dealing with a justice system on the brink and uncertainty around a major employer being able to resume operations in northern B.C.
Clark is helming the province as it faces a major financial squeeze, and will be tested on her government's ability to make ends meet in the budget that comes down next week. Meanwhile, the move to revert from the harmonized sales tax back to the old provincial sales tax must be completed.
The Liberals also have two seats at stake when byelections are called in Port Moody-Coquitlam and Chilliwack-Hope in the coming months.
Public opinion polls are already trending low for the premier, which may partially explain why she elected to release details of her party's upcoming agenda on Vancouver's CKNW radio on Monday morning, says a retired University of Victoria professor.
"It's suggestive of contempt for the legislature," said political scientist Norman Ruff. "To say you're going to pronounce on your policy aspirations on a radio show is demeaning."
The Liberals and Opposition New Democrats had agreed last year not to start the session with the usual formality, owing to the timing of Clark's election as leader last February. A throne speech outlining the government's objectives was read instead during the start of last fall's session.
But Ruff characterized the Liberals' decision to open the legislature this week without another throne speech as a "missed opportunity."
"There's a kind of a sense they've been drifting. The policy changes (Clark has) made so far are very reactive," he said. "Why they're not doing so well in the polls is that there isn't a sense that she really has firm control over her policy agenda."
Clark will deliver a statement about the Liberals' plans on Bill Good's popular morning program at the radio station where she held a talk-show host gig in the years preceding her successful run at the party leadership.
That announcement, late last week, was immediately condemned by opposition politicians and political commentators.
New Democrat House Leader John Horgan said the premier should use the mechanisms available at the legislature if she has something to say to British Columbians.
"To put all her eggs in one basket seems a bad, short-sighted communications strategy for someone who's been focusing on photo-ops for the past number of months," he said.
John Cummins, a former federal MP who now leads the BC.Conservative Party but does not hold a seat, agreed Clark should be delivering her plans to citizens' elected representatives.
"Ignoring the legislature for a radio show is disrespectful to the institution and to the electorate," Cummins said in a news release. "Announcing this on the Bill Good Show is nothing more than a communications stunt designed to avoid debate in the House."
A spokesman for the Liberal Party said no members would be available for an interview about the session opener until after Clark's 90-minute interview.
When the House convenes on Tuesday, a raft of business will be waiting for attention.
Last week, Clark appointed nine new judges to the provincial court. But critics -- including a top judge -- say neither that move nor a wholesale review of the justice system will do much to stem rising costs or the flow of cases tossed out due to lengthy delays.
A week earlier, Clark laid the foundation for a revamped clean-energy strategy that will emphasize liquefied natural gas plants and their job potential. It's a file that will likely require refinement due to the possibility of problems around supplying energy to run the operations.
And last month, she swooped into the small town of Burns Lake, west of Prince George, to reassure a devastated community her government has its back after the local sawmill exploded and burned down.
There's also no signs the albatross of the public school teachers' job action will be yanked off the government's neck any time soon.
"I've been talking to people around town for the past month or so. (Clark) comes across as policy-lite," said Ruff. "That's not to say a vacuum and there hasn't been important changes. But they've been reactive changes. She hasn't put a future-looking stamp on her administration."
The NDP will be looking for funding commitments and for a better understanding of the "true state of the books" when the budget comes down on Feb. 21, Horgan said.
"Whether it be the impact of deferral accounts of BC Hydro, whether it be how much money can be extracted from other Crown corporations, some reality in budgeting rather than fiction is desperately needed as well," he said.
"If we don't have certainty in the numbers, we don't have certainty about tax policy -- very difficult for businesses to plan, (for) families to plan."