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Rob Shaw: We can fix B.C.'s broken political system, if we want to. Here are seven starting points

MLA Melanie Mark’s stinging rebuke of B.C.’s political system during her retirement speech has once again shone a spotlight on how dysfunctional our legislature has become.
We can fix B.C.'s broken political system if we want to, writes columnist Rob Shaw | Province of BC/Flickr

MLA Melanie Mark’s stinging rebuke of B.C.’s political system during her retirement speech has once again shone a spotlight on how dysfunctional our legislature has become.

Mark, who was the province’s first female Indigenous cabinet minister, likened her experience in politics to a “torture chamber” where her critics engaged in an unfair “character assassination,” her successes were ignored, her public performance was overemphasized and the colonial institution of the legislature was resistant to change.

Premier David Eby and BC Liberal leader Kevin Falcon both expressed a willingness to consider reforms.

So what comes next?

Well, it’s not hopeless. We can start to fix B.C. politics, if we truly want to.

Here are some ideas to start.

(I’m indebted to my colleagues at Political Capital for helping brainstorm this list during a fascinating discussion on a recent show.)

1. It’s up to the leaders

For any hope of lasting change, it has to come directly from the party leaders. When the bosses agree to shift the tone, it trickles down through everyone beneath them. Eby, Falcon and BC Green leader Sonia Furstenau must get in a room together, hash something out, and then emerge to announce it together. If they can't come up with a plan, hire an outside group – but then stand together again to publicly endorse it. The reforms won’t stick any other way.

2. Get over the hypocrisy

We all know some of the loudest complainers about meanness in politics have themselves been some of the most vicious people in the legislature. Ministers from both the NDP and Liberal governments have been reduced to tears by attacks from critics in other parties, some of whom now unironically lobby for reform. Fine. Almost everyone is a hypocrite in this particular argument. But if we get stuck on that point, nursing grudges from years past and wallowing in the double-standard, we’ll never change anything for the better. So, collectively, get over it.

3. Stop lying

The greatest political minds of our generation are primarily dedicated to one thing: Lying to us all.

It can be by a lie of omission, obfuscation, mischaracterization or just flat-out peddling bald-faced untruths. Finding ways to hide certain facts from the public, while malevolently twisting an issue back on to your enemies even if it’s not true, has become the basis of our daily political transaction.

There are assumptions built into why politicians don’t consider too much honesty a good idea: Your enemies could use the information against you to make you look incompetent, the media could blow it out of proportion into a scandal, and the public might not understand what you are trying to do.

Yet much of the anger in the legislature simply boils down to not being able to get straight answers on issues out of politicians.

How much will it cost to build that thing in my community? Why did government change that policy? What is a party’s position on that hot-topic issue? You can frame the question a thousand different ways, but you’ll always get back the same bland talking point, the same canned message box, the same duck and dodge, the same block and counterattack.

The single biggest step toward changing our political discourse is first agreeing to dial back the spin and misdirection that underlines every answer, on every topic, from every party, all day, every day. We have genius-level brainpower, in all parties, actively working on making us all stupider. We must redirect that to something better than spin.

4. Depersonalize

Every step towards increased honesty must be accompanied by a corresponding step to decreasing personal attacks.

Ascribing personal motives to policy changes, whether it be corruption or incompetence, is the acid that eats away at the foundation of public trust in politics.

Insert more neutral language into the framing of the questions. No, the health minister is not trying to kill people by neglecting an investment in one particular health-care facility. No, a party leader does not hate a certain equity-seeking group because one MLA said something stupid.

The more upfront honesty we get from politicians and their strategists, the fewer personal motives we can ascribe to their policy decisions. Less manufactured intent leads to less misplaced outrage. Nobody in the legislature is actively trying to ruin lives, despite what you might hear embedded into today’s talking points.

The fact some politicians can say that out loud (and even worse, some of the people who write those lines actually believe it) shows how off course we’ve gotten.

5. Change procedures and supports

Just because some old white dudes in England came up with legislature debate rules many centuries ago, does not mean we should shoehorn a diverse, multi-gendered, multi-ethnic group of B.C. MLAs into those narrow parameters every day in the year 2023.

The confrontational system works to hold the government accountable, true. But it fails to accommodate a neurodiverse group of MLAs, some of whom suffer from anxiety in public speaking, crowds and adversarial debate. Surely, we can tweak this to make it more comfortable, to encourage more people of different backgrounds to participate? Yet right now, all of those procedural issues are off limits. They shouldn’t be.

The governing party could take the lead here too – create more opportunities for MLAs to craft legislation together in common areas of agreement, and study complex issues together in legislative committees. The public needs to see people from different party lines standing together getting things done.

6. Break up the legislature

If you wanted to design the most toxic system possible, you’d probably start by plucking all of B.C.’s 87 MLAs out of their home communities, away from their support networks and families, and make them travel hours away to a central city. Then, you’d cluster them in tight quarters with other politicians who only believe the same things as them, and you’d also surround them with young, impressionable, hyper-partisan staffers who are trying desperately to please invisible masters to advance up a ladder of titles and salary bands in a world where the ends justify the morally ambiguous means.

Welcome to Victoria. It’s like a messed up political summer camp that never ends. All sorts of shady stuff happens here. Let's be honest, Christy Clark was right about the legislature: This place does kind of have a sick culture.

So, what can we do?

How about: Four B.C. legislatures. One in the north, one in the interior, one in the Lower Mainland and the old one in Victoria.

They don’t all have to be opulent new monstrosities – we can use conference centres, community centres, arenas and hotels. Rotate through them on a regular basis. The point is, get our MLAs and their staff out into the real world and back closer to the communities they represent. Let locals from other parts of the province see the process up close, and give their own feedback.

Cloistering everyone in Victoria all the time is a mistake.

7. Demand more from the media

More honesty and less personal attacks should make for better media coverage that, in turn, should help dial down the temperature.

But to be sure, let's demand more out of what our reporters and columnists produce on the B.C. politics beat as well (me included).

Much of the political coverage right now focuses on the performative aspect of politics. There are 30 minutes each day in which the premier and ministers are asked questions. How well they answer becomes part of the story.

But this data is false.

Just because an MLA falters or stumbles over their words when standing in front of 86 other politicians and a packed public gallery while being broadcast live on TV does not mean they are incompetent. It could, just equally, be a sign they are a normal person, struggling in a high-pressure environment. They may know what to say, but just can’t say it.

However, the public (and media) lack any other data from which to gauge success.

We don’t have access to how decisions are made. The answers to questions aren’t honestly answered. The bureaucrats rarely talk. The government restricts the media to only two questions each at press conferences – not enough to get into any substance. In the hallways, interviews are conducted chaotically. The media glimpses the political process from the outside. It operates off of clues, speculation and leaks. Parties want this. But it’s not working.

Political reporting in B.C. is just as broken as the political system itself. But the solutions are the same. More honesty. More access. More background. More questions. More cooperation, and less dehumanization. It’s an unsexy but vital part of reforming the system. We all have a role to play in this. Especially me.

This is not an exhaustive list. But it’s a start. None of it is simple. But none of it is impossible either.

Slowly but surely we can chip away at the problems that have become baked into our political system.

As premier Eby said, we need more people with the background and experience of Melanie Mark in our political system. Her leaving has forced us to confront these difficult questions. We owe it to the health our democracy to at least try something new.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 14 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

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