VICTORIA — Shortly before the legislature convened Friday morning, B.C. Liberal MLA Darryl Plecas sat alone at the back of the chamber while elsewhere in the building, Liberals seethed and New Democrats purred.
A few minutes later, with the house called into session, the cause of all the celebration and lamentation became readily apparent as MLAs had it confirmed that only one of their number let his name stand for the vacant position of Speaker.
“Therefore, I wish to announce that Darryl Plecas is declared elected Speaker for the duration of this parliament,” announced clerk of the legislature Craig James.
This was followed by “applause” according to Hansard. But it was a one-sided display, as New Democrats and Greens on the government side popped the rhetorical equivalent of champagne corks while across the way, the B.C. Liberals were like mourners at a funeral and angry ones at that.
The news did seal a death of a kind, namely of the Liberals’ dwindling hopes that they could outmanoeuvre the NDP-Green alliance and force an early election.
The Liberals were already down a seat thanks to former Premier Christy Clark’s decision to resign rather than serve even one day in the house as Opposition leader.
The Plecas move dropped the Liberal count to 41, as the Speaker does not vote except to break ties. Those are increasingly less likely, given that the governing partnership can still count on the support of 41 New Democrats and three Greens.
The NDP’s once-precarious hold on power doesn’t look all that precarious any more, a point Premier John Horgan underscored in welcoming Plecas to the chair.
“You have our full support,” said the NDP leader. “I look forward to working with you in the days and years ahead.”
Note: “Years ahead.” The Plecas move increases Horgan’s chances of remaining premier for years, perhaps even until the next scheduled election in 2021.
On the other side of the chamber, Liberal House Leader Mike de Jong did join his NDP counterpart Mike Farnworth in the traditional show of escorting the supposedly reluctant candidate for Speaker to the front of the chamber.
He also joked to Plecas (whose Abbotsford constituency is adjacent to de Jong’s) that even the slightest display of reluctance on his part would be “disingenuous” in light of the circumstances.
De Jong thereby added a touch of good-natured grace to the proceedings. But there was nothing graceful about what followed from his colleague, Rich Coleman, interim leader of the party since the departure of Clark.
No congratulations or good wishes for Plecas from Coleman. Instead, he delivered a bare bones recital of the Speaker’s duty to uphold the integrity of the institution and “always to act honourably,” followed by a grudging “we hope you live up to those standards.”
Outside the house, Coleman explained himself. Seems Plecas had on several occasions promised the Liberals and-or Coleman that he would not serve as Speaker to an NDP-Green government.
“It’s a betrayal,” said Coleman. “I don’t have to respect him.”
After that accusation from the leader of the Opposition, Plecas indicated a willingness to explain himself to reporters. But he soon withdrew the offer, via a statement to the press gallery: “Upon reflection I will not be available for interviews today.”
Still, one could make an embarrassing case against his decision to serve as Speaker under an NDP government, based on things Plecas himself said in ruling out the possibility earlier in the summer.
“I was elected as a Liberal,” he told reporter Tyler Olsen of the Abbotsford News in June. “It would be very disrespectful of me, very dishonourable, for me to do what would in effect be crossing the floor.”
At about the same time, Plecas was boasting to Mike Smyth of the Province newspaper how he’d rebuffed repeated overtures from the New Democrats and-or Greens.
The notion was “ridiculous” he told Smyth. “In fact, I would go further to say that it would be an outright manipulation of the democratic process.”
One of the approaches that he turned back came from NDP house leader Farnworth himself. “Just to be sure that he didn’t misinterpret my intention, I followed up later with a phone call to assure him I would never accept an offer to be Speaker without the full blessing of the Liberal caucus.”
No such blessing was forthcoming this week needless to say. But what did change was the departure of Premier Christy Clark, her timing prompted in part by Plecas’s threat to quit the Liberal caucus if she stayed.
Plecas took some heat for the show of disloyalty, particularly after he confirmed the details with reporter Olsen of Abbotsford.
He also got a call from the tireless Farnworth, who resumed the courtship that came to fruition Friday.
Understandably, the Liberals felt betrayed. Understandably the New Democrats could not contain their glee. But in the long run, the office should not be treated as a partisan football. The Speaker should be above the fray, serving the interests of all members. Plecas hasn’t crossed the floor and joined the NDP. He hasn’t abandoned the Liberals to fend for themselves.
He’s off to a rough start in light of what he said earlier in the summer.
But if he applies himself to the best traditions of the office, he could still be an effective Speaker, never mind the messy partisan start.
CLICK HERE to report a typo.
Is there more to this story? We’d like to hear from you about this or any other stories you think we should know about. Email email@example.com