When Premier John Horgan was sworn in as B.C.’s 36th premier in 2017, he could have chosen to keep the Ministry of Red Tape Reduction around, at least for old time’s sake.
He would even have been forgiven if he had given it a more fitting name – at least in light of the aftermath to many of the former ministry’s decisions – the Ministry of Duct Tape Application.
Once again – this time with the Covid-19 pandemic – British Columbians are left to peel off another strip of the wonder tape hoping to hold things together while trying to watch Red Green instructional videos.
Rallying party militants, finessing campaign applause lines, chasing awards from groups like the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, the two former premiers – Gordon Campbell and Christy Clark – lost sight of a simple rule: for every government decision, there are consequences.
B.C. hasn’t been immune to some of those consequences either, as the two machete-toting ex-premiers went about slashing government oversight.
Back in the day, former B.C. energy and mines minister Bill Bennett had an incredible knack for finding a baseline to contrast a new policy or event against that somehow always made the government shine.
Bennett pulled out all the tricks from his spin bag with the Mount Polley mine disaster.
As David P. Ball reported in The Tyee: Bennett insisted that provincial mine inspections are “as frequent today as they were five years ago (2009).”
“However, scan back a bit further to 2001 when the B.C. Liberals took office and questions emerge about why Bennett chose 2009 as his starting point.
In 2001 there were nearly double the number of mine inspections: 2,021. The year after, the number dropped to 1,496 – nearly 30 per cent more than 2012 – before reaching a 2004 decade low of 399 visits.”
Even with a weak regulatory system in place, the decisions of regulators can still play second fiddle to the whims of politicians.
Here’s how Ezra Black of the Crowsnest Pass Herald reported former B.C. Auditor General’s Carol Bellringer audit of compliance and enforcement of the mining sector: “…the Ministry of Environment denied a permit for the expansion of Teck Resources’s Line Creek mine in the Elk Valley but it was later approved anyway by Cabinet. It was the first time Cabinet used its authority to approve such an expansion, said Bellringer.
Despite the health and environmental risks that the mine expansion poses, Bellringer’s report concludes: “The ministry has not disclosed these risks to legislators and the public.”
Three years after Bellringer’s report, “the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is (still) demanding the provincial government hand over data explaining why Teck Resources coal mines in southern B.C. are being allowed to exceed guidelines for a toxic heavy metal.”
In special prosecutor David Butcher’s anything but “clear statement” on possible prohibited donations to B.C. political parties by lobbyists, he noted: “police had difficulty gathering evidence of criminality because there were structural flaws in regulatory accounting systems.”
The Horgan government doesn’t get off scot free on this one either. While there have been ‘show trial style’ fines levied at Site C by WorkSafeBC, there have also been far too many instances where inspectors have turned the other cheek. Stern warnings were the order of the day.
Too much advice on regulatory affairs in B.C. has come from ideologues and industry insiders, instead of those whose expertise is actually in the field to be regulated.
Industry executives have move effortlessly between posts in government and their former executive office, cooling-off periods be damned.
In a recent interview with Justine Hunter of the Globe and Mail, B.C. Seniors Advocate Isobel Mackenzie put it well, as she described her sentiments with these approaches to government oversight particularly as they apply to for-profit long term care facilities in the province.
“One of the frustrations I’ve had is that the health authorities and the ministry keep talking about ‘our partners.’ We’re not partners. We’re regulators. We are using public dollars to contract with somebody to deliver a public service. They are not equal partners at the table, their interests are not equal to our interests. Our interests are the public interest, and that needs to take precedence.”
It’s not just terminology, though. The government dropped the ball in far too many areas of long term care. Now we have a chance to put it right.
That’s a story for another day.
Dermod Travis is the executive director of IntegrityBC. www.integritybc.ca