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Les Leyne: RBCM fiasco 'on me,' Horgan says

Horgan did his best to absorb all the responsibility for what happened
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Premier John Horgan, speaking to cameras at the legislature on Wednesday, announces that the Royal B.C. Museum project has been cancelled. ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST

Premier John Horgan officially certified the Royal B.C. Museum project on Wednesday as a fiasco of historic proportions, then did his best to absorb all the responsibility for it.

He did a lot better job of taking one for the team than he did explaining how years of work by all the ranking experts produced a soaring vision that crashed and burned before it even left the runway.

It was only five weeks ago he presided over the grandiose announcement of the $789-million project, which called for tearing down the RBCM and spending seven years building a new one on the same site. On Wednesday, he acknowledged the wall of public hostility to the idea and killed it.

“We’re stopping the project and we’re going back to the drawing board,” he said. That means all the other options are alive again, including dispersing exhibits across the province, building a new museum or drastically curtailing the scope.

“We thought we had it right. Clearly, we did not … I made the wrong call.”

He absolved the two ministers who have been responsible for the now-aborted museum visioning project over the past five years — Lisa Beare and Melanie Mark — of any responsibility for this botch.

That shows a lot more generosity than they deserve. Horgan said the failings are all on him.

It was a forthright display of responsibility, but he was less forthcoming on the background reasons why this blew up in his face so dramatically.

There were two big ones. The first was the outlandish price tag — the most expensive museum in Canadian history — arriving at a time when pressing needs are obvious in every public sphere. Horgan insisted again it is not an either/or proposition. It’s one per cent of the capital budget and it doesn’t come at the expense of meeting other needs.

But that argument hasn’t moved anyone since the original announcement and it’s not worth making now.

The other was how it was ­perfunctorily sprung on people with no warning.

Horgan said “it was no secret” and “revitalizing” the RBCM has been on the public agenda for years.

It’s true that museum modernization has been in the works for years. But at no point were taxpayers consulted on the idea of razing the landmark, and leaving Victoria without a main tourist attraction for seven years while a new one was built.

It looks like the NDP’s Indigenous reconciliation drive, which was the main theme of the May 14 announcement, overshadowed a lot of the practical issues. No one seems to have asked: “How is this going to fly?”

Now they have the answer. Not well.

Scrapping it is likely the best call. But it’s a marvel that the NDP worked itself into a position where the options are so miserable. Horgan’s choice was to trigger a one-off train wreck to avoid a dumpster fire that could have burned for years.

So now all the previously discarded options are up for discussion. Horgan said: “I’m stopping the project and going back to the public with a renewed understanding of the importance of it to the public and hoping to get a better outcome.”

The problem is that the previous museum botch looms even larger now. The abrupt shutdown of the Old Town and other popular exhibits this year (again with no consultation) for reasons that shifted from “decolonizing” to seismic and asbestos, forced them to slash admission prices.

It’s a $5 ticket now. That’s what you’d pay at some roadside hubcap collection.

(The Victoria Bug Zoo charges $16, which is an indication of where the once-revered RBCM ranks.)

So they’ve changed course and will leave it open at a price that’s barely worth charging, which signifies there’s not much to see.

Also, starting over will add a year or two to the time, at a cost of millions.

Any savings they claim by inventing a Plan B and committing to it could be consumed by the delay costs, with inflation now running in B.C. at eight per cent.

Horgan said: “If we are moving more artifacts back through repatriation or other mechanisms to communities that will mean that we can diminish the size and scope of the facility here in Victoria.”

Whatever they come up with, it’s conceivable that the Royal B.C. Museum as fondly remembered by all is gone for good.

lleyne@timescolonist.com