CONTRIBUTION · 3rd September 2010
Peter Ewart & Dawn Hemingway
In British Columbia, under the "Legislative Assembly Privilege Act", the provincial government, acting through the Legislature, can punish or even jail any citizen or citizens that it deems to be "giving false evidence, prevaricating or otherwise misbehaving in giving or refusing to give evidence or produce papers before the Assembly or a committee of it." So it is clear that the government and MLAs have a lot of power to require ordinary citizens to tell the truth.
Yet, on the other hand, it is a strange fact of modern life that these very same Ministers and MLAs of the provincial government may themselves routinely mislead, deceive or lie to the citizens of the province and, instead of being led out of the Legislature in handcuffs, receive no punishment whatsoever.
Take the increasingly sordid tale of the Harmonized Sales Tax (HST) in the province. For over a year now, both Finance Minister Colin Hansen and Premier Gordon Campbell have claimed again and again that bringing in the HST in BC was not "on their radar" before or during the provincial election in May of 2009, and only became an issue afterwards.
For example, in response to a questionnaire from the BC Restaurant and Foodservice Association, the Liberal Party's official response was "...a harmonized GST is not something that is contemplated in the B.C. Liberal Platform."
Furthermore, in the BC Legislature on November 23, 2009, Hansen was asked, by NDP MLA Bruce Ralston, whether there had been any kind of discussion in his Ministry on bringing in the HST: "By discussion," Ralston asked Hansen, "I mean personal contact, face-to-face, or any exchange of memos at the deputy minister level or through the e-mail network or anything. There's simply no discussion at any level between the minister of finance, his officials and the premier and his office and his officials about the HST between January, when it was first raised publicly in Ontario, and the end of May. Is that the Minister's position?"
Hanson answered, "That is correct."
Of course, this week, government documents obtained by various news outlets through Freedom of Information legislation show that Hansen's and Campbell's statements have been proven to be false.
Although large sections have been blanked out, their contents a mystery, these documents still show that the B.C. government was deeply involved in discussions with the Federal government long before the provincial election.
When confronted with this evidence several days ago, Hansen claimed that, at the time he answered Ralston, he was not aware that his own Ministry was engaged in such discussions with the federal government, adding that "I was surprised to go through and read the extent of a lot of the back and forth with Ottawa that was obviously there." He has also subsequently said that "None of these inquiries were undertaken at the request of anybody at the political level."
Yet emails uncovered in the documents reveal his own officials openly acknowledging that Hansen has been provided with a briefing note on the topic of adopting the HST, as well as other related issues long before the election, and that these were "requested". For his part, Hansen now alleges that he cannot recall reading the briefing note, claiming that "it doesn't look familiar to me".
And then there is the question of the "economic benefit" of the HST. Over the last year, Hansen, Campbell and other Liberal MLAs, have repeatedly claimed that the HST is the "single biggest thing the government can do to boost the economy" (CBC News, Sept. 1) and have dismissed any negative effects.
Yet the uncovered documents from Hansen's own top officials reveal something very different. For example, one such document says that "While the long-term economic gain [of the HST] is relatively clear, harmonization will cause a short-term loss in GDP and unemployment .... The study [from the C.D. Howe Institute] suggests that it may take five or more years before the impact on GDP is positive and even longer for real wages and job numbers to recover."
Of course, the HST controversy is not the only one in which the BC government has been accused of withholding information and being untruthful. The ongoing BC Rail scandal is a case in point and there are numerous other examples.
Many, if not most, people in this province feel that this government is not being honest with them. Instead of honesty and transparency, what we are getting is sophistry, which is defined in the dictionary as "the use of intentionally deceptive or specious arguments or reasoning." The problem is that this government, from the highest minister to the lowest backbench MLA, is riddled with sophistry, and it is using this sophistry to cover up major misdeeds and worse. Day by day, it is demonstrating that it is not fit to govern.
What can citizens do, when their own government is in contempt of them, "giving false evidence, prevaricating or otherwise misbehaving"? Not a lot under present arrangements. Theoretically speaking, the government can continue governing for the rest of its term despite serious betrayal and breach of public trust.
This is a serious flaw in the democratic process. However, in British Columbia, unlike many other jurisdictions, we do have the mechanism of "recall", which was voted in by over 80% of the citizens of the province. But these same MLAs in the Legislature have made it as difficult as possible for ordinary people to utilize it. That being said, recall is a mechanism that can and should be taken up. If 700,000 signatures can be gathered across the province, as was done with the wildly successful FightHST Initiative, MLAs can be recalled.
But we need more such mechanisms. We are entering a new, highly volatile period of human history, in which it is becoming increasingly clear that the people need more control over government. Among other things, we need to strive for political structures where "contempt of the people" and "giving false evidence" by elected officials is viewed as one of the gravest offences of all in our society, and where they are required, by law, to regularly account for their behavior to their constituents and not hide behind sophistry, falsehood and deception.
Peter Ewart is a columnist and writer based in Prince George, British Columbia. He can be reached at: . Dawn Hemingway is an educator and writer also based in Prince George.