More transparency is coming to the British Columbia government, but don’t hold your breath for a public inquiry into the money laundering epidemic.
In the wake of the Plecas Report about corruption at the B.C. Legislature, the last page of Lt. Gov. Janet Austin’s 14-page address finally offers hope to those waiting for the NDP to fulfil 2017 election promises to reform the freedom of information laws.
The throne speech, to open the fourth session of B.C.’s 45th parliament, says Premier John Horgan’s NDP government “values transparency and takes very seriously its responsibility to maintain the integrity of our public institutions.”
On Feb. 6, government house leader and solicitor general Mike Farnworth pledged to expand the FOI laws to the Legislature, implement merit-based hiring for senior officials and extend whistleblower protection to Legislature employees. Farnworth was reacting to a joint call for reform by the Information and Privacy Commissioner, Merit Commissioner and Ombudsperson.
“The strength of this Legislature does not come from stone, slate, marble or granite,” said the speech, delivered on a snowy Feb. 12 in Victoria. “It comes from a foundation of public trust. That trust was recently shaken.”
How far the reforms go and when they will be tabled and passed into law was not mentioned. Throne speeches tend to be vague. The NDP promised various reforms in 2017, including a duty to document law and fines for the deliberate deletion and destruction of public records.
However, don’t expect a public inquiry into money laundering and corruption yet.
The speech referred to two independent reviews underway into the role of money laundering in B.C. real estate and pledged ongoing work with federal partners. “British Columbians are rightly outraged by the possibility that our province’s unacceptably high housing prices are fuelled by the profits of crime, both at home and abroad.
“Your government will identify the structural causes of money laundering to hold accountable those who are responsible.”
In a news conference outside the chamber, Premier John Horgan said an inquiry would lead to “years and years of hearings and mountains and mountains of legal bills.”
Some of the loudest voices lobbying for a public inquiry are from within the NDP: the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union, which represents workers at several casinos, and Port Coquitlam Mayor Brad West. Horgan was asked whether he was reluctant to call a public inquiry because of the possibility that his chief of staff, Geoff Meggs, and members of the former Vision Vancouver city council would have to testify or because of his own past as a consultant who worked on a campaign to lift a moratorium on slot machines in Vancouver.
“I tend to go for incompetence before I jump right to conspiracy,” Horgan said. “I usually find that conspiracy takes a lot of organizational skills and quite often that’s not apparent in these situations.”
Horgan said the former BC Liberal government was in power when the money laundering problem mushroomed, he does not support gambling and “what I did as a consultant 15 years ago has no bearing on the situation today.”
He did say that if reports coming this spring by former RCMP deputy commissioner Peter German and former deputy attorney-general Maureen Maloney conclude that more work needs to be done, Horgan said, “a public inquiry will help us with that, I have zero problem with going in that direction nor does the attorney general.”
“When it comes to money laundering, this is a real and present danger to our economy and our people,” Horgan said.
Meanwhile, a number of consumer protection measures are on the way.
The NDP is taking a page out of the old Harper Conservative federal government’s playbook, pledging to tackle the high cost of mobile phone fees and data.
“Consumers deserve to know the true costs of the services they buy. This year your government will take action to improve billing transparency, beginning with a consultation and legislative review.”
Also on the way, a bill for new rules about live ticket sales, including a ban on mass ticket-buying software, or bots, and more transparency for all companies selling tickets to live events.
The NDP says it also will cap fees for cashing government cheques and adding oversight for instalment loans and improving consumer education.
And, Uber and Lyft could finally be coming to streets near you.
“This year, riding haling will enter the market, giving passengers options and flexibility, while making sure people are safe.”
The speech reiterated a commitment to keeping ICBC afloat and continuing to offer “universally available, high-quality public auto insurance coverage at the lowest possible cost.”
The government is also nearing the end of the first phase of its review of BC Hydro.
Also in the throne speech:
- A poverty reduction strategy to help half-a-million British Columbians living under the poverty line;
- More relief to students paying back loans;
- Speeding up approvals for rental housing development;
- Improvements to the Royal B.C. Museum.
The Feb. 12 throne speech was the third since Horgan and the NDP formed government in July 2017, under an alliance with Andrew Weaver’s Green party. Previous Lt. Gov. Judith Guichon read the legislative blueprints on Sept. 8, 2017 and Feb. 13, 2018.
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