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An MLA and a gentleman

As the legislature disperses, and an election sometime in the next 14 months, there’s a chance we’ve seen the last of BC’s oldest-ever MLA. That’s a shame.
MLA Ralph Sultan in Victoria May 17, 2018. Photography by John Lehmann
MLA Ralph Sultan in Victoria May 17, 2018. Photography by John Lehmann (Courtesy BC Liberal Caucus)

As the summer legislative session wraps up – and amid speculation over “opportunities” for an early election – there’s a chance it’s the last time we see arguably its most extraordinary member.

A fixture in BC politics since 2001, West Vancouver-Capilano MLA Ralph Sultan has announced he’s not running for re-election. This is a shame, although not because BC’s oldest-ever MLA hasn’t earned his retirement. (After all, he was born six years before Canada entered the Second World War.)

It’s a shame because I suspect if you were to ask members on all three sides to pick a favourite MLA, a plurality might name Ralph Sultan.

Why? Sultan is genuinely unique. Not only because of his literally irreplaceable experience – Harvard MBA and Ph.D, Chief Economist of the Royal Bank – but also that nobody else would start a lengthy speech with “I would like to begin with a couple of bouquets.”

That’s really him, too. I first met Sultan some ten years ago, writing a column on the HST for the Times-Colonist. I later went on to work with Sultan (and others), enough to know that when he speaks in the legislature, those are his words you’re hearing – bouquets and all – not those of a colleague or staffer.

This week, Sultan was among the opposition MLAs asking Attorney General David Eby questions about ICBC, as part of Eby’s ministry budget estimates.

Plenty of MLAs on all sides come prepared with intelligent questions and answers. Very few come prepared with an armful of homemade graphs and charts – six of them, in fact. As Sultan explained:

I'm not allowed to use props in this wonderful Legislature here in West Vancouver. It was just so I could hold them up to the television camera, but I don't even think that's allowed. I will describe the six charts to you, and they will form the basis of my questions.

You're at a bit of a disadvantage because you don't have the charts. I'm offering a copy of them to anybody, including the AG. All they have to do is call my office, and they will be emailed to them, along with a copy of my wonderful remarks.

It’s not simply that Sultan knows his stuff, or is just a gentleman. His questions are often quite penetrating – though, crucially, never angry.

He’s also fiercely independent, unshrinking in his willingness to criticize the government of the day (even if he’s part of it) and even to say no to the Premier.

He’s also the rare politician who will concede a point, often with self-deprecating humour. Almost every MLA working remotely has been bedeviled at least once by the mute button on Zoom; only Sultan refused Speaker Darryl Plecas’ kind white lie of a “technical glitch,” saying “there’s no glitch, I’ve stupidly muted it.”

Or, after a blistering response to one of his questions, starting with, “Okay, well I feel very chastened.”

On that day, Sultan and Eby sparred for almost half an hour, with Sultan calmly, and in good humour, working to undermine the NDP’s narrative on when and how ICBC became such a problem, with Eby responding. It was like watching a top-level tennis match, except much slower, done remotely, with the players in different area codes.

As Eby remarked, “You know, I'll just say, given the member's attention to detail, I do wish to some extent that he had been the Finance Minister under the previous administration.”

Eby isn’t alone in showing Sultan respect from across the aisle. On July 21, in committee stage of a bill, Energy Minister Bruce Ralston noted Sultan was exceeding his allotted time to speak – but asked for an extension, out of respect for Sultan’s extraordinary experience. In 2018, Bowinn Ma extended very heartfelt birthday wishes, bringing Sultan to the verge of tears. While the legislature isn’t always the swirling partisan cauldron you see in Question Period, both episodes were noteworthy.

After 10 years, I can’t find that HST column online anymore, but two lines in my still-saved Word doc stand out:

Ralph Sultan, the first provincial politician I’ve met with a Harvard MBA, was good enough to call me and explain the benefits of the HST, slowly, using long words only when absolutely necessary. 

Policy aside, Sultan has been one of his own government’s harshest critics of the timing and delivery.

Singularly independent, respected and respectful, gentlemanly, and well-informed, there will be no replacing Ralph Sultan. Ten years later, he’s still the only provincial politician I’ve met with a Harvard MBA.

Maclean Kay is Editor-in-Chief of The Orca