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Rob Shaw: Have the BC NDP become what they once despised in the legislature?

The Liberals thought they were going to win forever. Now, it’s the NDP’s turn to drink that particular brand of bathwater, writes columnist Rob Shaw
“We're seeing a kind of born-to-rule mentality of this NDP government," says Sonia Furstenau, leader of the Green Party of B.C.

Before she got into provincial politics, Sonia Furstenau used to drive down to the legislature from Shawnigan Lake, sit in the public gallery and watch the then BC Liberal government using its majority to ram its bills into law and shut down the Opposition BCNDP from asking questions.

So, on Wednesday, when the now NDP government began doing that very same thing, Furstenau didn’t hold back in her assessment.

“The NDP have become the thing that they despised when they were in opposition,” said the leader of B.C.'s Green Party.

It's a cutting criticism. Partly because it’s true.

Back then, Opposition New Democrat critics like David Eby and John Horgan used to decry how undemocratic it was for a majority government to invoke closure on legislation and pass entire sections of bills into law without any questions about what they might do.

Line-by-line committee stage debate of legislation is important, because it’s what courts later use to interpret the intent of legislators when applying the law. Without it, there’s nothing but the dry words of the bill itself.

The Liberals got away with this arrogant legislative hardball because they had more seats than anyone else. They kept beating the NDP in elections, and after every victory their disdain for the legislative process, and their contempt for the role of the NDP opposition, grew just a little bit more too.

The Liberals thought they were going to win forever. Now, it’s the NDP’s turn to drink that particular brand of bathwater. The party is riding high in the polls, with a war chest full of cash, one year to the next election, facing an Opposition BC United party that is — to put it charitably — struggling.

Again, cue Furstenau with the apt description: “We're seeing a kind of born-to-rule mentality of this NDP government.”

The three opposition parties, and one independent MLA, howled in outrage Wednesday when NDP house leader Ravi Kahlon announced he was invoking “time allocation” on debate — a fancy way of saying he was shutting it down.

Among those who supported the move were longtime MLAs like Mike Farnworth, Selina Robinson, Nic Simons, Bruce Ralston and Rob Fleming — people who used to fume on the floor of the house when that very thing happened to them in opposition. But now somehow, when they do it, it’s okay.

Kahlon rubbed salt in the wound by claiming he consulted with the three opposition parties and one independent MLA and “we are unable to reach a consensus” on how to use the remaining time in the legislature, hence the shutdown. One by one they stood up and said Kahlon had done no such thing.

“There was no effort to get to consensus,” fumed Green MLA Adam Olsen, who had Kahlon on the ropes for days with his sharp criticism of housing bills.

“This is an appalling misuse of this house.”

Independent MLA Adam Walker asked Kahlon to withdraw his statement. “That conversation never did take place,” he said.

Kahlon refused.

“It is absolutely incorrect, it is not factually accurate, that there was an attempt to achieve consensus,” said BC United house leader Todd Stone.

Stone and Olsen accused Kahlon of misleading the house.

Kahlon sat silently.

The time allocation motion passed, and within minutes MLAs were cut off from asking any more questions about Bill 44, the legislation to make four and six-plex multi-housing developments legal on single-family lots in urban areas across the province.

It’s a sweeping and extraordinary bill, one sure to be challenged in court in the future. When that day comes, a judge will consult Hansard for the record and find 22 clauses in the bill passed without a single question at all.

The rest of the debate on the remaining housing legislation gets cut off Thursday just before 5 p.m. before the house adjourns for Christmas break.

Eby acknowledged some of the criticism to reporters, admitting it had been a “challenge” to introduce his massive legislative agenda on housing while also accommodating “the important work” of the opposition.

“We've extended the hours that we sit and debate these bills, to sit for almost 12-hour days of debate and discussion on these important initiatives,” said Eby.

“But I’ll also say, British Columbians can’t wait. These are initiatives related to housing, the crisis that we face right now in housing, and we feel a sense of urgency around these reforms as well.”

If the government truly felt urgency over its four major housing bills, it could have introduced them at the start of the session and allowed for many days — if not weeks — of debate on what amounts to a generational shift in housing policy.

Instead, the NDP waited until the half-way point to drop them on the house, then didn’t call most of them for debate until the last minute when time was running out.

“It means that it’s impossible for us to do the job that we’re here to do well,” said Furstenau.

That was, perhaps, government’s point.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 15 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, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.