VICTORIA — When Abbotsford South MLA Darryl Plecas defected from the B.C. Liberal party last year to become legislature Speaker, he told his local newspaper he’d work hard to overcome the damage done to his credibility.
“When I say, gee this is a good job for me, it’s because it’s a direct hit on impartiality, it’s a direct hit on being non-partisan,” he told the Abbotsford News’s Tyler Olsen in Sept. 13, 2017 story.
“I can make a contribution by helping members and making sure the way we do dialogue is productive.
“People will still respect the office and it’s my job to demonstrate I can be impartial, that I won’t be unfair to anyone.”
Fourteen months later, whatever work Plecas did to restore his credibility all but disappeared in an unprecedented week of drama at the legislature.
As more is slowly revealed about the legislature crisis, one thing is clear: Plecas is at the centre of it. He hired his friend/campaign official Alan Mullen to conduct a secret investigation into the building’s two highest-ranked staffers, suggested MLAs suspend the pair without disclosing his involvement or his investigation, tried to personally install Mullen into one of the vacated jobs, and then allowed Mullen to call the Victoria police and conduct a humiliating perp-walk of the two senior officials (clerk Craig James and sergeant-at-arms Gary Lenz) out of the legislature in the middle of the day in front of stunned MLAs, staffers and media.
What’s this all about? Only Plecas truly knows. And the MLA for Abbotsford South, who once pledged transparency and fairness to restore his credibility, isn’t talking.
Instead, Plecas has employed the five rules of dodgeball in dealing with public questions: dodge, dip, dive, duck and dodge. The press gallery took the rare step of blockading his office to get comment last week.
“I’m not sure you have the correct story,” Plecas told the crowd. “I’m sure you will find it interesting what I have to say this afternoon.” But when his scheduled 2 p.m. press conference rolled around, Plecas opened his office door, darted down the hallway and disappeared from sight, bailing on his own event.
In the real world, outside of the crazy bubble that is the legislature, a human resources process as dysfunctional and secretive as the one Plecas engineered would probably lead to questions about his own future employment. But this is politics. Normal logic does not apply.
Instead, the public is caught in a proxy war between the Liberal and NDP war machines, with Plecas at the centre.
The NDP seems intent on saving Plecas. But only because it benefits the party’s position in power. NDP house leader Mike Farnworth personally courted Plecas away from the Liberals last year, and can’t afford to lose him now. A near tie vote-count in the house and the looming Nanaimo byelection mean the NDP-Green coalition could lose control if Plecas implodes.
Farnworth and the premier’s office had their fingerprints all over the move to install Wally Oppal as a new special adviser in Plecas’s office late last week. But Oppal’s main role is to stop the public relations bleeding as the sharks circle in the water. That was evidenced by Oppal’s first media availability, in which he described Plecas as “a well-spoken, intelligent person with a great academic background,” who “didn’t do anything in a capricious way” and “it is somewhat unfair in my view to be cross-examining the Speaker.”
Anyone hoping Oppal was there to act in the public’s best interest and sort out this mess was quickly disabused of that notion. Clearly, he’s no Ted Hughes.
On the weekend, the NDP’s social media supporters en masse began pumping Plecas’ tires while insinuating that James and Lenz must have done something horrible, or else the police wouldn’t even be investigating them.
This is the same kind of garbage logic that people used to spread about the eight health researchers fired by the Liberal government in 2012 — they must have done something wrong to get fired and have the government say they are under police investigation. Turns out they were wrongly accused. But we didn’t figure that out until almost five years later, and after one of them, Roderick MacIssac, took his own life while under the public cloud of shame and suspicion. At the time, it was Liberal supporters insinuating they must have been dirty.
B.C.’s ombudsperson produced a lengthy report with recommendations to prevent that kind of injustice from happening again when someone is accused of wrongdoing. It set out clear steps to protect the fundamental right to a fair process and to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.
But Premier John Horgan rejected any comparisons to the health firings last week. He said the circumstances are different — an argument that suggests the ombudsperson’s recommendations were only meant to apply the next time eight health researchers were fired for identical allegations in the exact same circumstances inside the Ministry of Health. That’s not true. The changes were meant to apply for all civil servants in all situations.
Things are just as murky on the B.C. Liberal side of the proxy war.
The Liberals still harbour deep resentment for what they allege is the misleading way Plecas took the speakership in 2017 — telling them he wasn’t going to take the job, then no-showing Liberal caucus meetings, ducking calls from the leader and eventually sitting alone in the chamber until his appointment was confirmed. They clearly want to use his vulnerable state in this crisis as an opportunity to oust him.
Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson has suggested Plecas misled them by withholding his role in the mess and that his party “got taken for a ride” by the Speaker.
The Liberals have called for an immediate emergency meeting of the legislature’s management committee, and released a list of almost a dozen questions they want the NDP to answer about what legal advice Farnworth had been given before he met with the other party house leaders on the matter a week ago. The questions are legitimate. But their political ambitions are also clear — take revenge upon Plecas by destroying his reputation, while undermining Farnworth, Horgan and Attorney General David Eby if possible.
Keep the motivations of the NDP and Liberals in mind as you watch the legislature scandal.
Also keep in mind James and Lenz have not been charged with any crime. The allegations against them remain unknown, even to them, according to their lawyer. Nothing has been tested in court. The RCMP have confirmed they are investigating material Mullen said the speaker provided, and two special prosecutors were named to protect against any perception of political interference. But as history has shown us, that doesn’t mean the public has any clue what’s really going on.