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Mutiny in the Legislature

Unpacking the latest in a series of crazy days in Victoria.

I don’t even know where to begin, so let’s start at the end.

Usually, the end of the last day of a legislative session follows a familiar script. After the Premier’s Estimates and third reading of a few straggler bills, all MLAs gather in the house to await the Lieutenant-Governor, who gives Royal Assent, and sends the members back home.

Today, arguably the most bizarre in a series of bizarre days in BC politics, things went differently.

One by one, BC Liberal MLAs rose on a point of privilege to read a close variation of this statement:

I rise pursuant to Standing Order 26 on a matter of personal privilege.  I have become aware of behavior and conduct undertaken by the Speaker with respect to senior officers and employees of this Legislative Assembly that I believe to be improper and compromises the ability of those officers to independently perform their duties.

I have further become aware of activities undertaken by the Speaker, including the seizure of records, including electronic records, that I believe constitute improper conduct with respect to my rights as a Member of this Assembly, and impede my personal freedoms as a Member of this Assembly.

Insofar as the Speaker serves as the presiding officer of this Assembly, I wish to disassociate myself for all purposes, including any subsequent litigation from these actions, which I believe constitute a breach of the individual and collective privileges of this House and a contempt for this House.

Plecas mostly reacted calmly, save for one intervention when he said the statements were (essentially) improper and did not fit the rules. He tried to recognize Finance Minister Carole James to speak – though she did not rise.

When she finally did, Plecas again said the points of privilege were not allowed – and this started the loudest and most heated firestorm I have ever seen in the legislature, as at least half of the Opposition stormed out.

After a few moments, the statements continued again with no explanation.

Once completed, all but four BC Liberal MLAs left the house, leaving the Opposition benches virtually empty for Lt.-Gov. Janet Austin’s arrival.

How did we get here? It started the night before.

On Wednesday evening, after hearing reports that Plecas’ Chief of Staff Alan Mullen and a third, unidentified individual were observed removing and/or copying hard drives from computers (it’s not clear whose), representatives from all three parties met with Plecas.

BC Liberal House Leader Mary Polak was among them, taking notes to transcribe what was said. This becomes very important the next day.

The next morning, BC Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson attempted to meet with Premier John Horgan to discuss the matter, but was rebuffed. The Liberals apparently made a striking offer, even passing notes to the government front bench during an otherwise heated Question Period: remove Plecas as Speaker, and the Opposition would provide one of their MLAs to take his place, thus preserving the NDP/Green government’s thin majority.

It’s not clear how, exactly, that could have been legally or procedurally accomplished – most likely government would have had to change the law, which (usually) doesn’t happen in a single day.

Shortly afterward, Plecas spoke with media, emphasizing that measures to “safeguard data” were completely voluntary – and necessary.

“I just want to make sure data is secure – everybody was given an opportunity to respond. It was an invitation,” said Plecas.

“You don’t want to do this? Don’t do it.”

He wouldn’t say how many hard drives had been seized or copied (it’s still not clear which) but that he had found previous incidents where information was not kept secure.

Why seize them at all? Legislative Assembly IT confirmed that all computers are backed up every night, but that doesn’t include each respective personal drive.

Asked if rumours that he had called former Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin “stupid,” were true, Plecas bristled and angrily denied it – but agreed he wasn’t happy with her report:

“I had wished [her report] could have been a broader terms of reference. I had wished she’d had a greater opportunity to follow up on some of the issues we said were important. I wish she had considered the witnesses we had put forward for consideration. That didn’t happen.”

At his lunch hour media availability, Horgan poured ice cold water over the idea of replacing him, praising Plecas’ “curiosity” in unearthing undisputed misconduct, and that he would remain Speaker until he resigned.

Horgan closed the door, but the BC Liberals tried to ram it back open.

Some 90 minutes after Horgan finished speaking, Polak and Wilkinson shared Polak’s notes from the meeting.

They were, in a word, explosive.

Details from Polak's meeting notes

According to Polak, Plecas referred to the Legislature police service as “crooked,” McLachlin as “stupid,” her report “a friggin’ embarrassment,” and on still-suspended Sergeant-at-Arms Gary Lenz, “I know how to make sure he doesn’t get his job back.”

In the notes, Plecas is described as rejecting any need for his actions to be approved by the Legislative Assembly Management Committee, a cross-party group of MLAs tasked with operating the Legislature.

Polak said Plecas on more than one occasion pounded his desk, shouting “Lies! Lies! Lies!” – and was especially hostile to Green House Leader Sonia Furstenau.

Shortly thereafter, Furstenau said she was disappointed Polak shared the notes, but refused to comment, confirm, or deny their content, and said that if she had felt bullied (or anything else), it would have been for her to act on, share, or report. She and Green Leader Andrew Weaver expressed their full support for Plecas.

On having hard drives copied, Furstenau called this “rumours and innuendo.” But by this time, Plecas himself had confirmed it – though again, as a voluntary measure. (And several reporters, myself included, had seen a letter with the private firm contracted to do it.)

Not long after that, the BC Liberals started rising on points of privilege, as described above.

It’s hard to say where things go from here. No matter which side you believe, or what you think of any of the actions taken over the past few days, BC has a problem. The relationship between the Speaker, who must interact with and referee all MLAs in a fair and non-partisan manner, and the largest party in the house has devolved from mutual suspicion, to open hostility, to an open declaration of war.

In the meantime, there are a lot of people who work at the legislature taking extra precaution with their offices, and computers. For months, there have been persistent rumours around the legislature that someone was skulking around late at night, going into various offices and looking around.

Those rumours just got a lot louder.

Maclean Kay is Editor-in-Chief of The Orca