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April 30, 2007

Stonewally

Last week Attorney General Wally Oppal (MLA for Vancouver-Fraserview) once again demonstrated that skills acquired on the Court of Appeal don't necessarily help in BC's Legislative bear-pit. The so-called star candidate made his first Legislative stumble in September 2005 when not knowing what he was talking about didn't stop him from offering comments about his role with respect to the Child, Youth and Family Advocacy Act. The government's mishandling of those matters ultimately led to new legislation and the appointment of Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond as Representative for Children and Youth. Fast-forward nineteen months and Oppal's performance has not improved.

The Campbell government has been on the defensive since the Easter Legislative break ended. KPMG has been asked to do an independent investigation into the activities of a lobbyist and a former deputy minister of finance, although the government won't release the terms of reference of the investigation. The Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Commissioner has been asked to do a review with respect to a potential violation of the Lobbyist Act by the Premier's special advisor and former deputy minister, Ken Dobell, and questions have been raised about apparent conflicts of interest which Dobell foresaw when he asked Vancouver's City Manager and the Premier's Deputy Minister to sign a letter acknowledging that possible perception. Dozens of questions have been asked about these matters, but the government simply stonewalls. On April 25th, Vancouver Sun columnist Vaughn Palmer wrote about the Campbell government's refusal to answer questions and concluded with a brief history lesson on the use of the term "stonewalling" that tied it to the Nixon administration and Watergate. The next day NDP MLA Harry Lalli heckled Oppal during question period, calling him "Stonewally".

Stonewally Oppal drew the short straw when duty arose to defend Campbell; he was apparently given the job of answering many of the questions that were directed at Campbell. When the Easter break ended, Finance Minister Carole Taylor did a brief stint at that duty, but she appears to have learned to pass that duty to her colleagues. Taylor is one of the government's most articulate members, but she has the good sense to get out of the line-of-fire; not so for Stonewally. He alternated with Campbell on April 24th, in refusing to answer questions about media manipulation. In response to a question from the NDP's David Chudnovsky, Stonewally said: "You know, we don't conduct "investigations" while trials are going on." It didn't take long before the NDP pointed to the inconsistency of that answer with the investigation KPMG has been asked to do for the Premier's Office.

On April 25th, in answer to a question from the NDP's Mike Farnworth, Stonewally overstepped when he said: "This is a classic case of taking an allegation and making a finding of fact. The basic premise of the question is so faulty…. There's no factual basis for that question at all - none." Observers were quick to ponder what Stonewally knew that enabled him to say that there is no factual basis to the questions; Campbell handled the rest of question period that day. On April 26th Stonewally was back at it; his difficulty explaining how a fact finding review into late registration as a lobbyist could cover questions raised about an apparent conflict of interest prompted a simple question from the NDP's Bruce Ralston:

B. Ralston: The Information and Privacy Commissioner has responsibility for the Lobbyists Registration Act. My question is: what is the specific legal authority for him to investigate a conflict of interest?

Hon. W. Oppal: If there is a violation of the act, we have the Offence Act. The Offence Act sets out the parameters pursuant to which an action can be launched. The member knows that.

Stonewally's answer had nothing to do with the question. The Offence Act provides the mechanism for dealing with violations of provincial laws; it does not read new meaning into those laws, hence it cannot add a provision for dealing with conflict of interest to the Lobbyist Registration Act when the Act isn't written to deal with such matters. In British Columbia, conflict of interest is defined for elected representatives, Members of the Legislative Assembly, under the Members' Conflict of Interest Act. The Act does not apply to public servants or political appointments. That is why the NDP's John Horgan introduced amendments that would extend provisions of the Act to government appointees, including Deputy Ministers, ministerial staff, and heads of public sector organizations. In the meantime, questions concerning conflicts of interest for political appointments are matters left to the discretion of the Premier. He cannot escape answering what standards he sets for his staff.

Oppal's April problems are not limited to how he earned his new nickname. On April 25th Oppal introduced amendments to the Human Rights Code that eliminate mandatory retirement. BC is one of the last provinces to still allow discrimination in employment against people age 65 and over. Practice in the Legislature is for the first reading of any Bill to consist of a brief statement that describes the purpose of the Bill. The Campbell government routinely abuses that practice by turning first reading into a political statement. When Oppal introduced Bill 31 he described the process that led to the Bill, but he neglected to mention that the Bill allows discrimination against older workers with respect to insurance, pension and WCB coverage. Workers who continue beyond age 65, under the Campbell government's legislation, will not have WCB coverage, will not continue to accrue pension benefits and may not have life insurance coverage. Such discrimination is not unique to BC, but allowing it clouds the boasts about BC being a province where older people can fulfill roles that are respected and valued.

Seconds after introducing Bill 31, Oppal rose and introduced Bill 33 with the words: "Regrettably, this bill isn't as exciting as the last one. It's Bill 33, Attorney General Statutes Amendment Act, 2007. It's guaranteed to cure insomnia." Later in the day, Oppal's Ministry issued a news release headlined: "B.C. Strengthens Child Support Enforcement." It looks like Oppal found improvements for the enforcement of child support to be sleep inducing, or perhaps as was the case in his legislative début, he might not be thoroughly briefed on his legislation.

 
 

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