By JUSTINE HUNTER
Saturday, December 1, 2018
VICTORIA -- B .C. Liberal Opposition members were on the verge of mutiny last week as they challenged the Speaker of the House over the public and very unusual removal of the legislature's top two officers. Speaker Darryl Plecas is "out of control" and intent on hiding what has taken place, they said.
The words could be seen as routine political theatre. The target wasn't.
The authority of the Speaker of the House makes him almost unassailable. The Speaker is presumed to be an impartial referee of the legislature through hundreds of years of parliamentary practice - so above partisan politics that the financial affairs of how the legislature operates have, until recently, been considered a matter of privilege and not available for public viewing.
When NDP leader Dave Barrett in 1983 challenged that authority during a debate, the Speaker had him physically removed by security - dragged out of the chamber and dumped onto the floor outside. Mr. Barrett, former premier of the province, had no recourse.
Technically, the Speaker is the voice of the elected members of the legislature - a servant of the legislature. But in practice, the Speaker, once installed in the carved-oak throne in the House, wields great influence. MLAs must defer to the Speaker inside the House; outside, the Speaker's judgment is rarely questioned.
But Mr. Plecas is being challenged in part because he has taken on the legislature's most unassailable officials outside of his office. The clerk of the House and the sergeant-at-arms are not government appointees or public servants; they serve at the pleasure of the legislature. For all his power, Mr. Plecas could not act against them - he had to persuade the 87 members of the Legislative Assembly to act.
On Nov. 20, without being told of the nature of the allegations against Clerk of the House Craig James and Sergeant-at-Arms Gary Lenz, the legislature voted to suspend the two officers pending the outcome of a criminal investigation.
But the Liberals now have questions about how Mr. Plecas came to carry out a secret, lengthy investigation into the conduct of the legislature's two most powerful administrators, and allegations that the Speaker hired a friend as a political aide to help him with his inquiries. They are also questioning the fact that he then hired another special adviser once it was revealed that he had attempted to install that aide into Mr. Lenz's position. The second special adviser, Wally Oppal, said the terms of his assignment are to provide legal advice, but he doesn't have a contract. "We never discussed that. I'll figure out at the end of the day what I think I am worth."
Liberal MLA Mike de Jong, the longest-serving member of the committee that oversees the administration of the legislature, said Mr. Plecas should answer questions about his conduct.
"The decision by officers of the legislature or the Speaker himself to add staff and spend money that has not previously been authorized, must be discussed and authorized in public," he said.
Citing the need to protect the integrity of the RCMP investigation, the Speaker has not disclosed the nature of his complaint about the two officers of the legislature, except that it relates to their administrative duties.
On Dec. 6, the Liberals will turn to the only entity that can check the Speaker's authority: The Legislative Management Assembly Committee (LAMC). This is where the top administrators of the B.C. Legislature preside over a $77-million budget that includes MLAs' pay and perks, along with the compensation paid to the Officers of the Legislature.
Until 2012, LAMC didn't even meet in public. An unflattering report from the Auditor-General prompted changes that allow some light on the operation.
While meetings are now open, Mr. de Jong says far too much continues to be hidden through "in camera" debates.
Steven Chaplin is a parliamentary law expert - he served for 15 years as Counsel in the Office of the Law Clerk and Parliamentary Counsel of the House of Commons in Ottawa. He noted that the key players in this drama serve in unique positions, so the usual conventions don't apply.
"This is not a normal employment case," Mr. Chaplin noted.
The officers of the House are not public servants; their employer is the collective will of the 87 members of the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia. It was a motion, approved unanimously on Nov. 20, that put Mr. Lenz and Mr.
James on administrative leave, and Mr. Chaplin said there was no choice but to take that action in a public way. Whatever comes next - discipline or exoneration - will also have to be meted out collectively by the MLAs.
But Mr. Chaplin warns that the MLAs on all sides of the House must take exceptional care in this case. Decisions of the legislature, such as the one to suspend the two officers, are not reviewable by the courts, he said. "So they are each responsible and the legislature will be held accountable," he said. "That's why they have to figure out how to deal with this internally." When LAMC next meets, it will be for the second time this year.
The committee manages the affairs of the legislature and is chaired by Mr. Plecas. It includes MLAs from each of the three parties currently sitting in the legislature.
The previous session, which was chaired on Oct. 30 by Mr. Plecas, who had by then taken his complaints to police, gave no hint of his concerns as he heard reports from Mr. James. (The security issues, which would have been presented by Mr. Lenz, were heard in camera.)
If there was an undercurrent of tension due to the Speaker's suspicions, it does not show in the record of the 90-minute meeting.
In the event that there is a showdown at the LAMC meeting in the coming week, the NDP and Greens would most likely stand with Mr. Plecas.
Premier John Horgan, speaking to reporters at the end of the fall session on Tuesday, dismissed the concerns of the Liberals as nothing more than political tactics. "Partisan activity is often conducted just down the hall in our legislative assembly, so I wasn't shocked by partisan activity ... but that's exactly what it was."
The Premier maintained that the institution of government remains business as usual.
"Our institutions are strong," he said. "The individuals can be removed - myself, the Leader of the Opposition, the Clerk, the Sergeant - and life carries on here - bills are introduced, bills are debated, bills are passed."
Speaker of the B.C. Legislative Assembly Darryl Plecas looks on as Finance Minister Carole James delivers the budget in Victoria, in September, 2017.
CHAD HIPOLITO/THE GLOBE AND MAIL.