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Ledge in the time of COVID

Observations from the first day back in the BC legislature.

The first sign things are different is literally a sign.

At every entrance to the Legislature, now-familiar signage reminding you to maintain physical distance is posted side-by-side (well within six feet) with the injunction against protesters blocking entrance. The court order seems like a relic from another era, a display piece from the library’s impressive collection of curiosities.

Inside, the halls are eerily empty and quiet. Perhaps not unusual for June 22, but first day of session usually sees the building buzzing with activity. Instead, it was like coming in on a weekend.

“It reminded me of the Liverpool – Everton (English) football match in an empty stadium,” said NDP house leader Mike Farnworth, noting there were very few technical glitches.

“The practice sessions helped.”

The legislative chamber itself is also empty – well, almost.

With social distancing guidelines, a maximum of approximately 23 MLAs can be physically present, with a minimum two desks between each member. The rest can attend (or “attend,” if you like) via Zoom, shown on four large screens inside the chamber.

It worked about as well as you could reasonably hope, although the very first order of business – the daily prayer – saw the first glitch, with a few awkward moments of silence.

There are other, small changes. The constant flow of water glass refillers are absent, with plastic bottles instead stashed under each desk. Nor is there anyone to pass notes – members have to get up and do it themselves. (And did.)

There are plexiglass partitions between the Clerk and Deputy Clerk, who work closely together and must share a desk. The acting sergeant-at-arms sits separately, but is more fully enclosed in plexiglass, almost looking on display. In a nice little touch, the cables holding the big-screen TVs are coated to closely match the plaster behind them. (I'd have taken a photo to show you, but we're still not allowed.)

But the business of the legislature isn’t just bills, debates, and QP. For reporters, social distancing means the end (for now) of hallway scrums. From now on, when reporters want to talk to a minister and/or MLA, they must request them via email to staff, who then arrange a “telescrum” over a phone line.

Zoom questions will get the most attention, but these telescrums are the biggest departure. The BC Legislature is unusual in Canada in that it affords media almost comprehensive access to MLAs. In places like Ottawa, Toronto, and Edmonton, it’s easier to avoid reporters, in part due to custom, but also because the layout of those other buildings give MLAs ways to enter or exit the chamber that media can’t access. BC politicians aren’t that lucky.

Both the government and opposition parties say they’ll put ministers and MLAs up in virtual scrums, more or less on request. A breaking scandal will be the real test – both for reporters to restrain themselves from running to the hallways, but also for staff and the MLA/ministers in question to avoid the temptation to turtle.

For a first day under a new system and restrictions, it worked reasonably well – enough so that Farnworth was asked if this might become the new, permanent normal.

“It’s definitely the intent of all of us to come back to the Legislature, and make it the primary place [to do the business of governing the province],” said Farnworth, while agreeing the new system could serve as a good template in the event of another pandemic, or natural disaster.

If anyone watches one moment from the average day in the Legislature, it’s Question Period. This, at least, felt almost normal. With the exception of two Green Party questions about care home workers handled by Health Minister Adrian Dix, the Premier fielded each one, all about the same issue: a plea from BC’s business community to extend temporary COVID layoff limits, which are set to expire in July. Without it, they’ll have to fire (by law) anyone who was laid off and hasn’t yet been able to come back to work.

Why do I bring this up? It’s an important issue, but also because it seemed to have been a pivot point – the end of all-for-one cooperation to contain the pandemic, and the beginning of real debate about how to rebuild.

In other words: yes, politics are back.

Maclean Kay is Editor-in-Chief of The Orca