Martyn Brown: Anticipating B.C.’s ultimate knock-knock joke

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      Knock, knock.

      Who’s there?

      Who’s there?

      Asked you first.

      But I’m not here, if "here" means "there".

      And I’m not "there", because I’m "here".

      You’re ruining my joke.

      Yet I’m already laughing.

      Stop it. I need a name.

      You want me to say "Linda".

      Linda, who?

      The Linda I am, who would never vote for you, John.

      Works for me, Ms. Reid or Ms. Clark, or whoever you are, as the perfect punchline.

      And that, dear readers, may well be how it goes, as our newly elected members of the B.C. legislature convene on or around June 22 to conduct their first order of business, with no apparent speaker in the house.

      As British Columbia’s Constitution Act specifies, "On its first meeting and before proceeding to business, the Legislative Assembly must elect one of its members to be Speaker…the election of a Speaker…is effective until the general voting day for the next general election, or until the Speaker dies, resigns the office…or ceases to be a member of the Legislative Assembly."

      It’s quite a pickle we’ve gotten ourselves into, British Columbia: electing a house with potentially no speaker home, including the most sensible choice, former speaker and B.C. Liberal M.L.A. Linda Reid.

      It seems that none of the 43 Liberal members are willing to answer the NDP-Green alliance’s knock on their door to serve as speaker.

      The last thing they want to do is to facilitate the transfer of power that the 44 New Democrats and Greens hope to effect through their "confidence and supply agreement".

      If the Liberals hold fast to that position, it would oblige the NDP to offer up one of its members to sit as speaker. That would create a 43-43 tie in the legislature, not including the speaker’s vote.

      The NDP speaker (Burnaby-Edmonds MLA Raj Chouhan?) would thus be forced to regularly break that legislative tie. Perhaps several times a day.

      Instead of remaining deliberately removed from the partisan fray, as speakers are usually obliged to do, the speaker would routinely enter the fray and vote to support the government, abandoning any pretense of neutrality.

      In circumstances where the speaker is now obliged by convention to vacate the chamber, such as in legislative debates of the committee of the whole, the speaker would have to remain in the house as the essential tie-breaking vote.

      Interesting aside. Members are not supposed to vote from another member’s chair.

      Where would the speaker sit when he or she is effectively participating as a private member? Would an extra desk be needed for the speaker-who-is-not-the-speaker for those votes and proceedings, when someone else is in the speaker’s chair?

      Such are the intricacies and nuances of the unprecedented situation at hand that endlessly fascinate the #bcpoli crowd.

      For a terrific explanation of the conundrum presented by this imminent speaker’s dilemma, listen to this interview with Vaughn Palmer. His recent column on the subject is also very good.

      For an exceptionally well-written and lucid explication of how that parliamentary deadlock might be resolved, read this analysis by blogger Stephen Tweedale.

      He rightly argues that a rigid adherence to parliamentary convention which typically guides the speaker’s role in furtherance of fair play, orderly legislative debate, and responsible government must not be allowed to frustrate those same ends.

      One way or another, common sense must prevail, to prevent the tail from wagging the dog.

      Former deputy speaker Raj Chouhan (right, with NDP colleagues Harry Bains and Bruce Ralston) might have to repeatedly cast tie-breaking votes if he becomes the next speaker in the B.C. legislature.
      Charlie Smith

      Clark could depoliticize situation

      In the event that the NDP-Green alliance is compelled to nominate a speaker from its own ranks, because the Liberals refuse to let one of their own members do the job, obviously the speaker will not be nearly as neutral as parliamentary convention usually dictates.

      The Liberals are now revelling in the disquiet that will result from backing the NDP and its unavoidably partisan speaker into that most unneutral corner.

      They are already rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of an openly partisan and actively voting NDP speaker—an outcome that they seem intent on creating, in a politically misguided self-serving, partisan ploy to destabilize the newly elected legislature.

      "Hey, you’re the one knocking on our door of power", the B.C. Liberal leader-who-is-not-home is now taunting premier-in-waiting John Horgan.

      "You can knock, but I won’t let you in," Christy Clark is threatening her nemesis. "Why would I answer your call for my cooperation in making your stupid joke at my expense?"

      True enough. The premier in power has no obligation to play along with the NDP-Green alliance’s power play.

      Her party could resist the united opposition’s demand to do the right thing by letting one of its own members stand to serve as speaker.

      The B.C. Liberal caucus could choose to politicize the office of the speaker in a way that any responsible leader in Clark’s position should do their utmost to avoid.

      It could choose to play silly bugger and to create more uncertainty and more instability.

      In so doing, it could choose to make life much tougher for the lieutenant-governor in facilitating and sustaining the transfer of power to Horgan’s administration, which would owe its legislative majority to the speaker’s regular interventions on its behalf.

      No doubt, that is what most voters might expect from Clark. Damn the torpedoes and full steam ahead, as long as there are "commies" to kill and a nuclear option at the ready.

      Already she has essentially thumbed her nose at the people by ignoring their wishes for her to change her overly partisan ways.

      "British Columbians sent a very strong message to all sides of the legislature," Clark said. "They want us to work together collaboratively and across partisan lines."

      Yes, they did. And so they do.

      Had Clark respected the people’s message and honoured their wish, even after the election, her party might not have lost the confidence of the three Green MLAs. They were not persuaded by the Clark government’s inadequate and half-hearted overtures to bridge the partisan divide.

      Had Clark truly got that message, she would have recognized that a majority of the people’s elected representatives lack confidence in her government.

      She would have already acted to facilitate those 44 members’ unanimous support for a new NDP government, ideally, without undue partisan resistance from her 43-member minority party.

      Had the premier really taken the people’s direction to heart, she would have acted to ease the transfer of power that the NDP-Green majority is committed to affecting, instead of doing everything in her power to make it as difficult as possible.

      She would have acknowledged that her B.C. Liberal party received 330,821 fewer votes than the combined vote won by the NDP and Green party, which together accounted for 57 percent of the vote, as compared to her party’s 40 percent.

      Had Clark really got the voters’ message, she would have conceded that the 1,566 more votes and two more seats that her party won over the NDP should not trump that party’s one-seat majority alliance with the Green party. Which frankly, should have already been asked to form a government.

      It is Clark who has chosen to put that alliance to the test with a confidence vote in the legislature.

      She is the one who has deliberately fanned the flames of speculation about the prospect of an NDP speaker whose first act would be to depart from parliamentary convention and vote with the opposition to bring down the government.

      Bring it on, Clark & Co. seem to be saying.

      Indeed, all 43 B.C. Liberals now seem intent on playing more partisan games to frustrate the 44 members’ majority will. They are apparently hoping to create chaos and ongoing uncertainty that will soon force another election that is widely unwanted by British Columbians.

      The words "working collaboratively" and "across partisan lines" are simply not in the Liberals’ playbook.

      Is there no one among them who is willing to stand up and say, enough is enough, I’ll put my name forward for speaker: to help preserve the independence of that office, as far as possible, and to help avoid a crisis of confidence that is so obviously not in the public interest?

      Reid, of all people should feel the special weight of that moral obligation to rise above her perceived personal political interests.

      Then again, none of the Liberals are really fit for the speaker’s job, if they are so keen to be complicit in needlessly debasing the independence of that office. They know full well that their refusal to help diffuse the situation will only oblige a New Democrat to do that job in an inescapably partisan way, as an active and routine legislative tie-breaker.

      Christy Clark (seen with B.C. Liberal caucus member Mary Polak) could face a backlash from the public if she forces another quick election.

      There's a solution at hand

      My hunch is, the closer we get to that day of reckoning, the more public pressure will grow on Clark’s Liberals to be reasonable and responsible.

      Indeed, it might be wishful thinking, but I would not be surprised if Premier Clark inevitably bows to that pressure, in a great show of magnanimity. Which, in the final analysis, she will correctly deem to be in her party’s best political interests.


      Because I can’t imagine that Clark or her party would want to have to defend their reckless obstinacy in frustrating the people’s will, whenever the next election might occur. Least of all anytime soon.

      I can’t imagine that she would really want to turn the speaker into an overt partisan—an unnecessary consequence for which she would truly bear the most responsibility, by dint of her penchant for partisan gamesmanship.

      Rather, I expect that she may well want to look like a constructive and responsible opposition leader, by making the ultimate "sacrifice" of "allowing" one of her own caucus members to stand as speaker.

      If Clark really has the long game in mind, a more politically prudent move might be to flip the speaker conundrum on its head by further elevating and assuring the independence of the speaker.

      She might take her cue from what is happening today in Australia. There, the Liberal/National coalition government now also holds a one-seat majority, in the 150-seat House of Representatives.

      As the Guardian recently reported, the coalition’s speaker, Tony Smith, "has signaled he will not use his casting vote to hand the Turnbull government a majority on legislation if the government fails to command a working majority on the floor. …he said on legislative debates, or on no-confidence motions, you don’t, from the Speaker’s chair, use your casting vote to manufacture a majority that doesn’t exist on the floor of the chamber.

      " 'If it’s a question about whether a bill should be amended or not, you generally leave it in its current form,’ [speaker Smith said.] Smith says the idea of a no-confidence motion proceeding in the current parliament is ‘highly hypothetical’ but he says the precedents and practice is clear. ‘If in the final vote there is not a majority, you don’t vote to give it one.’ "

      Wow, right?

      That would obviously not work for the NDP, in the current context.

      Not if it had to devote one of it members to the speaker’s chair. For that would virtually assure an ongoing 43-43 tie in the legislature, which would prevent the government from passing almost anything that the Liberals resisted.

      But what if Clark offered to put up Reid as the speaker, on set terms that forever changed the speaker’s role?

      What if Reid or some other Clark nominee only agreed to serve in that capacity on the explicit undertaking by all parties that B.C. would act to embrace the Westminster model that Australia’s Smith seems keen to embrace?

      The obvious choice for house speaker would be the previous one, Linda Reid, who was reelected as a B.C. Liberal in Richmond.
      Linda Reid

      Australian model offers lessons

      Consider these tidbits from Australia’s decidedly independent new speaker in this podcast interview:

      [In the U.K., speakers] "are entirely independent. So, what that means is, there’s a compact, really. And that is, when you become speaker, you leave your political party.

      "Then at the subsequent election, or every election, you’re there as speaker in your constituency. You’re not opposed, so the parties agree to that. You stay speaker through a change of government and you also agree that that will be the last job you have. You won’t go back. And they’ve had that for a long period of time.…It relies on everybody abiding by it."

      In the Westminster system, the speaker does not vote to break ties on bills, or even on confidence motions. He or she only votes to break ties in the interests of allowing debates to proceed.

      It would be an easy enough model to apply in British Columbia, especially under a mixed-member proportional representation electoral system.

      Under that model, one of the "top-up" seats that are reserved for ensuring greater proportionality in translating each party's popular vote into elected representatives could be allocated to the speaker.

      Those "party list" seats are not geographically distributed. So the speaker's seat would not have to be dedicated to any constituency, as such. He or she might just be a common designate from each party's slate of candidates. To ensure that no individual becomes permanently entitled to holding thatoffice, a new neutral candidate/speaker might be agreed to perhaps every two or three elections. 

      Point is, it is a model that the Mother parliament already employs under its electoral system. If there was a will to make it work, we could readily find a way to embrace it in B.C.

      Suppose Clark and the B.C. Liberals embraced that model and insisted on all parties supporting changing the provincial Constitution Act to adopt it, as a prerequisite for giving up one of their members to serve as speaker.

      Sure, that would serve to preserve and slightly strengthen the NDP’s government’s razor-thin legislative majority. Without the speaker available to vote in that scenario, it would effectively give the NDP-Green alliance a two-seat majority.

      That result might seem as preposterous as it is counterintuitive for Clark to consider.

      But in the long run, it could be a boon to the Liberals, and also a real service to our democracy.

      First, it would resolve the uncomfortable prospect of any speaker having to vote non-confidence in the government, in the event of a tie, as it would also reduce the potential for tied votes.

      Second, it would put a Liberal speaker in the chair for many years yet to come. If someone like Reid accepted the post, a mutual agreement by the parties to not run candidates against her in the next election would ensure she wasn’t unduly punished by angry Liberals who might think she was a "traitor". The risks of serving would be all but eradicated.

      Third, it would strengthen the speaker’s optical independence, and would probably increase the likelihood that rulings on opposition-sponsored motions would succeed as they never would today, given the speaker’s ongoing, unspoken allegiance to the government.

      That could be huge on matters that could seriously hurt the government, politically. The speaker would have new leeway to side with Liberal or Green opposition requests for emergency debates that are now routinely quashed by the speaker, and in determining whether opposition motions are in order.

      It could really shake things up on motions of privilege. A speaker’s ruling that a minister deliberately misled the legislature or was guilty of any other alleged parliamentary offences could have dire consequences for the government. Today, the outcome of those decisions is virtually pre-ordained.

      In the short run, that added degree of true neutrality might serve the Liberals’ interests, as it would also help strengthen the speaker’s licence for objectivity.

      Fourth, in practical terms it would not actually change that much to disadvantage the Liberals.

      As I previously explained in the Straight, even in the event that the NDP government loses a confidence vote, it would not necessarily precipitate an election. That fact still seems lost on many pundits.

      The government would be free to simply ignore the odd lost confidence vote, as other governments have done in similar situations. Particularly if it was an "accidental" loss that might be rapidly corrected by a subsequent vote of confidence, to demonstrate the true will of the legislature.

      Unless or until it became clear that the Green MLAs wanted to abandon their confidence and supply agreement and bring down the Horgan government, the government would not fall unless Horgan saw fit to ask the lieutenant-governor for a dissolution.

      Under the Liberal speaker scenario I propose, if those three Green members ever decided to side with the 42 voting Liberals, they would still form a clear 45-seat majority that would easily topple the 41-seat NDP government.

      Fifth, and perhaps most importantly, taking this bold path to shore up the speaker’s independence and to resolve the current impasse would be roundly applauded by most voters.

      It would do much to assist Clark’s desperate road to rehabilitation, positioning her as someone who actually internalized the message she mouthed that the voters gave her.

      It would create stability that most voters want. It would reduce the chances of an immediate election that most voters do not want.

      It would look to be, and actually be, a gracious and appropriate act of leadership that would warrant voters’ respect.

      It would defy most voters’ expectations of the uber-partisan Clark in a welcome way, one which newly positions both Clark and her party as a constructive force for more responsible government and for broadly supportable parliamentary reform.

      When hell freezes over, you say? Certainly you would not be alone in that opinion.

      I am not so sure. Never underestimate Clark’s willingness to survive. If nothing else, she is politically resilient and canny.

      I say, she will be even less likely to survive if she is so reckless and stupid as to cause a crisis that might result in another snap election. It would probably see the NDP elected with a solid majority—not something I would especially fear, if I were John Horgan.

      If Clark is to survive, her best bet is to demonstrate her undeniable prowess as an effective force in opposition. Her smartest play is to give the NDP-Green alliance enough rope to hang itself, as the weight of its wonderfully transformative, but politically challenging agenda sinks in.

      The B.C. Liberals do have most of the mainstream media in their corner, after all. They can count on those outlets to make short work of Horgan’s honeymoon.

      For Clark, patience is a virtue, whether or not she has already determined as much.

      Might a new knock-knock joke be in the making?

      Knock, knock.

      I am Linda.

      Linda who?

      Linda who’s happy to be your speaker, and to open the door to change my party can count on.

      Ha, ha, ha, ha! Gotcha!

      Martyn Brown was former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell’s long-serving chief of staff, the top strategic adviser to three provincial party leaders, and a former deputy minister of tourism, trade, and investment. He also served as the B.C. Liberals' public campaign director in 2001, 2005, and 2009, in addition to his other extensive campaign experience, and he was the principal author of four election platforms. Contact Brown at