Double crossed for their cooperation throughout the pandemic, B.C.’s reconfigured Liberal Opposition may take a more aggressive, combative role in the legislature, predicted political analysts.
The first post-election legislative session began on Dec. 7.
“Before COVID, they were combative, but in a clumsy way, trying to be populist,” said former long-time senior Liberal strategist and now-political pundit Martyn Brown. “It's going to be more combative than it was before. But it will be fair, and it will be smart.”
The fair and smart refers to the change Brown expects under Shirley Bond’s leadership. The MLA for Prince George-Valemount was elected interim leader by her 27 caucus colleagues two days after the former Liberal leader, Andrew Wilkinson, stepped down on Nov. 21.
“Bond will be more sensitive to human needs and more compassionate, but razor sharp in her criticisms,” said Brown.
“These are challenging times in British Columbia,” Bond said last week. “Question period is always going to be a place that has more vigorous debate.”
Premier John Horgan seemed to expect no less. “Shirley and I are mature enough to take these things in stride,” he said when Bond was named interim leader. “I know she'll be quick to respond to any failings of mine, but I also know she'll be quick to offer support where it's required.”
In fact, prior to the election, and throughout the pandemic, the Liberals and BC Greens have worked with the New Democrats to present a united front and maintain strong support in public health officials, led by Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix.
Things went well for B.C. in the first wave of the pandemic, in part, because of that cooperation among the three parties, said long-time Vancouver Sun political columnist Vaughn Palmer. “They even held joint town halls together.”
In March, all parties approved the government’s $5 billion emergency COVID-19 funding package on a single day – an unprecedented feat – including $1.5 billion for economic recovery.
“The New Democrats sat on the $1.5 billion for six months, from March to September, then announced it as Stronger BC, (which became) the first plank in their election campaign,” said Palmer. Seven days later, Horgan called the election and the government took credit for managing the pandemic just as the second wave was building.
“New Democrats double crossed both them and the Greens for their cooperation on managing and communicating the pandemic,” said Palmer.
The Liberals didn't want to do anything that would be seen to undermine their support for Dr. Henry, said Brown.
The result was a cooperative, collegial Opposition that avoided pointed criticism of the government in the six-month lead-up to the election, he said.
“It was admirable, laudable, but politically, strategically, it was a glaring error,” said Brown.
Even if the party ultimately lost votes by cooperating, former Liberal house leader Mary Polak stood by the strategy.
“There were choices that we made and one of those choices was to cooperate with the Greens and the NDP throughout the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Polak after being defeated in her own Langley riding on election night. “Did that hurt us electorally? Probably. But it was still the right decision to make."
The appointment of Peter Milobar as house leader might signal the Official Opposition’s intention to take a more aggressive role, said Palmer.
A former mayor of Kamloops and MLA for Kamloops-North Thompson, Milobar was appointed house leader and critic for Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation on Nov. 30.
“Milobar was one of the more effective members in the last house,” said Palmer. “He was effective holding government to account in question period and during estimates, particularly, as a first-term MLA. He got the hang of it quickly.”
Milobar works very collegially with Liberal members, said Bond, adding that any strategy the Opposition puts in place will be done as collaboratively as possible within its caucus.
“We are going to be laser-focused on making sure we try to get answers for the public,” said Milobar of the session that began on Monday.
Instead of a more typical eight to 10 weeks, the abbreviated winter session is expected to run one or two weeks to pass a couple bills.
“None of the legislation that was supposed to be coming forward in the fall is anywhere to be seen,” said Milobar.
The main bill on the docket covers $1.4 billion in funding for the Recovery Benefit, a one-time COVID-19 relief payment of up to $1,000 for eligible families and $500 for qualifying individuals. Premier John Horgan promised the payment during the October election campaign.
“We see a legislative calendar that's essentially one bill to fill a mid-election, scribble-on-the-back-of-a-napkin campaign promise,” Milobar said.
The Opposition understands the urgency in getting relief money to the people, but also wants to make sure all legislation goes through proper rigor, debate, and scrutiny, he said.
The Recovery Benefit legislation amounts to $1.4 billion in taxpayer spending, Milobar said. “We want to make sure it's being done properly.”