On June 22, in a time-honoured tradition, members of the B.C. Liberal government will symbolically drag one of its own MLAs up to the Speaker’s throne.
It is all a mummery – the demurring Speaker of the House gets paid more, and it’s a relatively cushy job, though not particularly glamorous, so the show of reticence is just that – all for show.
But this time around, there will be some real reluctance. The Speaker will take his or her seat knowing that it's a temporary position. It's presumed that the Liberal government will soon be defeated on its throne speech.
And once the Liberal government is defeated, the Liberal Speaker is expected to resign, which will force the new NDP government to sacrifice one of their own MLAs to become Speaker, something both the Greens and NDP have expressed reluctance to do.
The May 9 provincial election gave the Liberals just 43 seats. With a total of 44 seats, the Greens and NDP plan to form a Green-back minority government.
On June 14, in a public show of solidarity, NDP Leader John Horgan and Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver reiterated that an agreement to govern as a minority government is solid, and slammed the Liberal government for dragging its feet by delaying its throne speech until June 22.
Weaver suggested that the Liberals are obliged to continue to provide a Liberal MLA as House Speaker, and that failing to do so could trigger a crisis in government.
“I heard terms yesterday like constitutional crisis,” Mike de Jong, Liberal finance minister and government house leader, said at a press conference June 15. “There’s no constitutional crisis. We had a close election, and we are now endeavoring to address that.
“The only crisis…is the one that I think is emerging on some people’s part who didn’t think through the implications of the deal they did.”
Armed with three tomes on parliamentary rules and procedures, de Jong appeared to school Weaver and Horgan in both parliamentary math and history.
De Jong dismissed as “bizarre” and “desperate” Weaver’s suggestion that the Liberals are obliged to leave a Speaker in place for the new NDP minority government.
He said that, when he was in opposition, the NDP went through four Speakers in four years, so it is not unprecedented for a Speaker to resign before the end of a parliamentary session.
“So to hear now that, somehow an opposition party… has the responsibility for propping up the government by providing a speaker is utter nonsense and, I think, really speaks to an element of desperation that is setting in around the realization that what Mr. Horgan and Mr. Weaver have crafted simply isn’t a workable approach to governing," de Jong said.
Asked if it’s possible that some Liberal MLA – perhaps nearing retirement age and lured by the additional pay the Speaker receives – might actually consider standing as Speaker for an NDP government, de Jong said he didn’t think that would happen.
“None of the colleagues that I have spoken with possesses any enthusiasm or have expressed any interest in serving as Speaker in a parliament where the now-opposition – the NDP in alliance with the Green Party – purport to govern,” de Jong said.
“I can also tell you that my expectation, in that circumstance, would be the same as it is today – that those seeking to govern would accept responsibility for something as basic as ensuring that there is an MLA in the chair acting as Speaker, and not trying to change rules that have been in place for, not just decades, but centuries.”
Weaver has suggested that a Speaker could be named from outside of the legislature, and referred to an obscure precedent in Guyana, according to a column in the Victoria Times-Colonist penned by former Liberal MLA Gary Collins.
Mike Farnworth, the NDP’s government house leader, has dashed cold water on that idea.
“We will be putting up a Speaker,” he told Business in Vancouver. “There will be a Speaker in place.”
Asked if the Speaker will come from Green or NDP ranks, Farnworth would only reiterate: “There will be a Speaker.”
When asked if the NDP might consider Weaver’s suggestion that a Speaker be appointed from outside of the legislature Farnworth said: “The rules are really clear on that. The Speaker must be one of the members of the house.”
As for charges the Liberals are deliberately delaying the convening of the legislature, De Jong pointed to the last six May elections, and said that the current sitting is actually being convened earlier than it has been in the past.
“The notion that this parliament has somehow been delayed from the last five or six elections are utter nonsense,” he said. “We are essentially following the same schedule that has normally occurred.
“We’re probably a week behind where we would normally be, but it took two or three extra weeks to find out what the final results were of the election. This is part of a narrative that just doesn’t withstand scrutiny and is inconsistent with the facts.”
Although the NDP and Greens have reiterated their solidarity in cooperating to form a minority NDP government, they are now faced with some serious questions on how they will be able to effectively govern.
“There are some practical challenges that I think Mr. Horgan and Mr. Weaver are waking up to,” de Jong said. “We have to provide a speaker, we have to provide a chair of the committee of the whole, the committee of supply. Suddenly, you no longer possess a working majority. Suddenly the numbers don’t add up.”
But they don't add up all that well for the Liberals, either, which have only two seats more than the NDP.
“If you abstract from the ideological positioning of the parties, then the Liberals would have slightly more comfort than the NDP," said Richard Johnston, a political science professor at the University of BC. “But that assumes that the Greens might be willing to sustain the government.
“It is still possible that these are arguments that (Premier Christy) Clark would make to the (lieutenant-governor) about the reality of the alternative government.”
Farnworth said the dilemma can be solved by having the speaker serve dual roles, as both speaker and committee chair.
“It may well require a change in the standing orders that would allow the Speaker to chair that committee when a vote is being taken,” Farnworth said.
After the throne speech has been delivered on June 22, Farnworth said the NDP and Greens will make an amendment to it.
It will then be debated on June 26. The vote to defeat the government voting against the throne speech takes place on June 29.