Legislature sessions end with itchy clash

Moments after Andrew Wilkinson won the BC Liberal leadership last February, he summed up his new gig: “My task is to make sure we hold the NDP to account with smart, incisive questions that will make their skin crawl.”

The routine chances to do so through the legislative session culminated in a showdown this week between Wilkinson and Premier John Horgan. It was the traditional debate on the premier’s office budget, open season for any question on any portion of the NDP’s agenda.

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By the time the two leaders were through with each other, everybody’s skin was crawling.

Wilkinson looked frustrated with what he said were evasive, fictitious and nonsensical responses from the premier. “That answer is worse than the previous one,” he snapped at one point.

Horgan was exasperated by Wilkinson’s aggressive preoccupation with parts of the NDP agenda that he said don’t add up. “Sanctimony sits well for the member.”

The premier did score an important victory. It was in the contest with his own temper. There were flashes of impatience, but he kept his winning record as premier of controlling his tendency in opposition to lash out in anger. After going about five hours toe-to-toe with Wilkinson, that’s saying something.

It was only two years ago that Horgan abruptly gave up questioning then-premier Christy Clark and let her budget pass with several hours left on the on the clock, out of frustration at the non-answers he was getting.

This week, the only moment of temper was when he was assailed about BC’s dismal relationship with other governments. “Like that [disagreement] has never happened in Canada? Come on, man.”

Wilkinson used to make a living as a litigator. So he has some experience interrogating — and goading — hostile witnesses. Here’s a sampling from the B.C. version of Suits:

• Wilkinson cited three statements from candidate John Horgan about the promise of a referendum on proportional representation that didn’t materialize after he became premier. He said an all-party committee would hear from citizens then formulate a question. He said people would be given one system to vote on. And he said the approval threshold would include some kind of requirement for regional support.

Instead, the government determined the question; it turned out there are two of them, one with three choices; and approval is just a bare majority provincewide.

Horgan stressed that the process was put together by the attorney general who has a unique role to “independently review and assess the best way forward.”

He also said it’s not practical to get maps drawn showing voters what the potential new ridings would be. But if a new proportional-representation system is approved, the maps will be drawn by an independent body, not the politicians.

• Wilkinson landed hard on incongruities in BC’s pipeline stance. The NDP wants a court ruling on whether it has jurisdiction to restrict the flow of bitumen in and around the province. But the question cites only the flow by rail and pipeline, not ships. And restrictions would only be on the volumes over current amounts. Wilkinson said the case, which is a key flashpoint in the national argument over the pipeline expansion, is a completely pointless exercise. The federal buyout of the project happened just before the debate began. Wilkinson said it makes the case even more futile.

Horgan said he was delighted to hear the Liberals worrying about the pipeline. “I wish that curiosity and interest existed when the former government gave up its ability to regulate not just existing flows, but projected flows.”

• Also up for argument were some suspected holes in the NDP budget. The per-unit cost of new housing units promised is suspiciously low. There was no price tag available for the “$10 a day child care” program, and that figure might not now apply to all parents. And speculation tax revenues look problematic, given the modifications being made.

On the last point, the premier said: “There is a hole in the budget. We’ll meet our targets.”

Given the potentially catastrophic trade war with the U.S. that just broke out, on top of all the arguments BC has going on nationally, along with an assortment of expensive promises that are just starting to cost money, it could be his most ambitious promise yet.

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