Month: February 2019

I Think Pogo Just Rolled His Eyes

Sitting on my desk between two computer terminals is a delightful porcelain miniature of Pogo, the wonderful philosopher created by Walt Kelly. On his head, just above apologetic eyes, there’s a small bird’s nest with a tiny bluebird resident, presumably chirping merrily.

He’s been sitting on my desk, encouraging or chastising me, since the late 1950s when I was managing editor of the Penticton Herald. He was a gift from a charming reader who had talked her way past various front office secretaries “to speak personally to the editor or the person who writes the editorials.”

Having finally reached where I was sitting, she presented me with a splendid Walt Kelly “made in Ireland” Pogo. She hoped it would inspire me from time to time, and “above all else remind you that sometimes you write like a bird brain.”

Then, with the brightest of smiles, she was gone, and Pogo was left with his mournful eyes to offer me a choice – stuff him in a desk drawer or leave him as a staring desk reminder that readers should always be respected.

He’s been working overtime these past two or three weeks when I have devoted blogs to what I call the Speaker Plecas file which has touched off primeval upheavals in the Legislature. And each time I wrote, a Pogo glance reminded me we had walked this road before and survived a situation which saw a high-ranking public servant turfed from office with heavy-handed and occasionally, ill-timed interventions.

It was on February 15, 1956, that George Ernest Pascoe Jones was appointed Chairman of the BC Purchasing Commission and “in charge of all supplies needed in the public service.” Eight years later, on October 2, 1964, Jones was charged “with unlawful acceptance of benefits in his capacity as chairman.” The same day, an Order in Council was passed to relieve Jones of all duties related to the Commission. To the consternation of then Premier W.A.C. Bennett’s government, Jones refused to vacate his office. He had been appointed to hold office during good behaviour and was removable only by the Lieutenant Governor “on address of the Legislative Assembly.”

Little more than two months later on Jan. 15, 1965, the criminal charges were dropped, after a trial in Victoria County Court. The Attorney General appealed the acquittal but “on motion by the plaintiff (it was) stricken out as frivolous and vexatious.”

We wouldn’t allow that today, would we? Frivolous and vexatious behaviour; people suspended from their duties because someone suspected them of misbehaving, and then left to dangle for weeks with accusations backed by flashy rhetoric and only minimal defence permitted.

Last Thursday (Feb 21,2019) Speaker Plecas touched off his latest string of explosive misdemeanours and announced that he was now ready to step aside and let a Management Committee appointee make a full scale inquiry into what has become a sorry mess of real and/or imagined “vexatious” behaviour. The local newspaper quotes Speaker Plecas as saying “If this weren’t so serious it would be the stuff of comedy.”

Yes, indeed, but frankly from where the public sits most of the lead players already appear to be humming the “bring on the clowns” chorus or chanting “stir up strife, stir up trouble” with the ladies of Endor.

I have been reminded that those making charges today should be sure they do not finish up as the government accusers of G.E.P. Jones finished up when push came to shove. In the final Supreme Court of Canada appeal the court found in favour of Jones with a terse but telling note that the defendant in the case – Premier W.A.C. Bennett – “never publicly gave any explanation or any reason for retiring and removing the plaintiff from office at any time, either in the Legislative Assembly or outside the Legislative Assembly.”

Last Thursday Speaker Plecas said he thought the time had come for him to step back and “let someone other than me be making comment.” Some critics might suggest he should have stepped back when he caught the first whispers of deception and discontent, reported his concerns to the Attorney General and remained well clear of the rough and tumble of political debate.

But better late than never and far better that a final judgment should be arrived at in a quiet, thoughtful conference room rather than yammered out with spitting rhetoric in the political trenches. Time to get accusers and accused in this drama out of the Legislature to a place where wheat and chafe can be quickly separated.

Time to get the Speaker out of the trenches and onto his elevated throne where “the House” expects him to “preserve order and decorum and decide questions of order” while reminding members that “no debate shall be permitted on any decision. No decision shall be subject to an appeal to the House.”

It should be interesting to watch the final scenes play out. Will Speaker Plecas step away from his powerful title for the duration of the final act? Or will he “preserve decorum but stay out of the debate?” He may already have anticipated a problem in that regard.

On Thursday the Times Colonist quoted him as saying: “House leaders will decide if confidence in these two officers (James and Lenz) has been undermined to the point that regardless of the outcome of further processes, audits and investigations Mr.James and Mr.Lenz cannot realistically return to their positions as senior executives of the Legislative Assembly.”

I think my Irish Pogo, just rolled his eyes.

Sometimes What You Don’t Say Can Defame

Everything looked shipshape in the great debating chamber. Speaker Darryl Plecas, stern of face; arms – elbow to hands resting on broad chair arms; eyes flickering over rows of slowly filling chairs as members of the BC Legislature take their seats.

Slowly the chamber fills, conversations drop to murmurs and then silence, as Speaker Plecas calls for the prayer that marks each daily opening ceremony. It is 1:35 pm, Feb. 16, 2019, and all is as calm and bright as the Christmas carol that we stopped singing a few weeks back. And prayers have never been more needed.

There have been a few changes to the cast routinely on stage for these opening days of a new legislative session. A Deputy Clerk has replaced Craig James in the processional of the Speaker from his office to his throne of authority and Sergeant at Arms Gary Lenz has been replaced as the bearer of the golden mace.

Those two senior officials have been suspended – with pay – pending investigation of suspicions of careless control of public spending – or worse. Speaker Plecas has made public a list of his concerns; the RCMP is investigating; accountants are doing “deeper audits.”

James and Lenz were given a tight time frame to review the Plecas list. And, at this writing, they remain uncharged as the 41st Parliament gets underway with bucolic calm covering nasty clouds of suspicion critics cannot or dare not name.

Under the dome of Belleville Street, it is not unknown for exaggerated office gossip to be wrong and lead to injustice.

Back in 1964, a gentleman named George Ernest Pascoe Jones was Chairman of the Provincial Purchasing Commission. On Oct. 2, 1964, the government laid criminal charges alleging unlawful acceptance of benefits, and on the same day, an Order in Council was passed designed to relieve Jones from all his duties with the Commission “until further notice.”

Mr. Jones politely refused to vacate his office. A few months went by, and on Feb 25, 1965, the Provincial Secretary introduced a bill entitled An Act to Provide for the Retirement of George Ernest Pascoe Jones. It became law by assent a month later on March 26, 1965.

Three weeks before, on March 5th, Premier W.A.C. Bennett had delivered a “state of the province” speech to Social Credit Party faithful had avoided detailed reference to the long running Jones affair. All he had for his followers was: “I am not going to talk about the Jones boy. I could say a lot, but let me just assure you of this; the position that the government has taken is the right position.”

And George Ernest Pascoe Jones (Jeep from initials GEP to his friends) sued Premier Bennett for slander. He won after a series of trials and appeals, and appeals of appeals. Jeep’s lawyer throughout the ordeal was Tom Berger.

Readers interested in every twist and turn can find them at Supreme Court of Canada, Jones v Bennett (1969) S.C.R. 277.

There is a lesson to be learned and remembered in the reasoning of the Justices that sometimes what you imply but don’t say can be as libelous as what you enunciate. Assumptions made but not based on solid foundations can be dangerous and cruel.

I have no idea how long it will take for the charges, truths, denials, hints, innuendos to lurch their way through the current public spending scandal to the truth, but it can’t be soon enough. It took two years give or take a day or two for “the Jones boy” to clear the courts and win a modest settlement.

While we wait I’m wondering how government workers are finding the on the job office environment? It should be a great place to work, but it can’t be a happy one when you don’t know if the guy or gal on the next desk is a conscience-driven whistleblower or conspiracy clone.

Time for government – and I mean every proudly entitled Member of the Legislative Assembly plus all holding a supervisory position in public service – to get this ship righted before already shaky morale from scuppers to bridge, brings fresh disasters.

We Continue to Live in Interesting Times

Should be interesting next Tuesday when the BC Legislature opens a new session with a Throne Speech; the welcoming of a new NDP MLA elected in a Nanaimo byelection a week ago; and a Speaker held in awe by some as a whistleblower supreme but by others, a lot less than awe.

It is expected the ceremonial opening will unfold smoothly with any twinges of sympathy for two missing major players noted mentally but never mentioned, not even whispered. The absence of senior Clerk Craig James and Sergeant at Arms Gary Lenz will, for sure, be noted and maybe by some with sympathy as the two senior legislature officers continue to serve an arbitrary suspension from their duties – with pay.

They were relieved of their duties in January after in-house inquiries raised suspicions of wrong-doing in the mind of Speaker Darryl Plecas. Plecas later made public a list of what he felt were misdemeanours and reported the list had been handed to the RCMP and a police investigation was underway. He informed the Legislature and suspensions from duty quickly followed.

Liberal MLAs would later complain they had not been fully informed when they agreed to the suspensions. They expressed dismay at the timing which saw James and Lenz escorted from the Legislature while the House was in session – and without explanation as to why City of Victoria police officers were on hand to make sure they left their offices and the Legislature precinct quietly.

As of this writing, the two employees still have not been officially informed of why their evictions took place in the manner in which they occurred. However, they were given copies of the voluminous report made public by Speaker Plecas and instructed that they had a couple of weeks to respond. They did that on February 7 with a strong denial that they had done anything wrong.

Green Party leader Andrew Weaver has praised Plecas and his staff for their courage in digging out the scandals and making them public. He made no mention of the Canadian historic desire to always find people innocent of any charge before their trial and legal proof of guilt. In recent times the general populace seems to have edged back to more barbarous days. Over the past few days I have had old friends – sensible, kindly people – say of the Plecas report “well it must be true, or he wouldn’t have put all that stuff in.”

To hear people say “it must be true, otherwise they wouldn’t be accused” is astounding. To hear a political leader apparently voicing the same belief is frightening and must be challenged.

We may be wavering but we must never lose the belief that citizens remain innocent until proven guilty which should always be tightly knit with “the quality of mercy (that) is not strained./It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven/Upon the place beneath./It is twice bless’d:/It blesseth him that gives and him that takes./‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes/The throned monarch better than his crown … But mercy is above this sceptred sway,/It is enthroned in the heart of kings,/It is an attribute of God himself;/And earthly power doth then show likest God’s when mercy seasons justice./Though justice be thy plea, consider this,/That in the course of justice, none of us/Should see salvation: We do pray for mercy;/And that same prayer doth teach us all to render/The deeds of mercy.” (Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice)

We should be sure that the justice we – Speakers, MLAs, and ordinary folk – demand is graced with mercy and not contaminated with spite or revenge which, as the old saying goes, is a dish best served cold.

An appeal then to protesters or whistleblowers of all stripes. By all means, raise your voices and take action to expose what you feel is wrong – but make sure that in good conscience you do so with the mercy we all seek when we make mistakes.

As I said in my opening words it should be interesting next Tuesday when the Legislature opens. Normally Throne Speech Day is a day with ceremonial flags and bands, guns firing royal salutes and a government written speech of vague promises read by the Lieutenant Governor.

Colourful but not very exciting, Tuesday Feb.12,2019, could be the same old same old. But the current Legislature is a bit of a tinder box these days with Speaker Plecas in high dudgeon over expense claims and his two most senior officers, suspended Clerk James and Sergeant at Arms Lenz, in equally high dudgeon protesting false claims against them. James and Lenz remain “suspended” from their legislative duties so will presumably be forced to watch and monitor proceedings from afar.

Speaker Plecas will, again presumably, be in official presence ready to call “Order!” should such an unlikely call be required on Throne Speech Day. In BC you never know – and it would be interesting to watch a Speaker trying to cool down a rambunctious, flaming debate for which he had provided the spark.

The More Things Change The More They Stay The Same

It was a typical February day in Victoria. A storm system from the north brought what west coasters still cheerfully call “unsettled weather” which means gusty winds, heavy showers and temperatures around 40F with an all-around damp feeling.

In the final days of the month in 1900, Premier Charles Augustus Semlin was finding it difficult to hang on to power, and on February 27th, his shaky tenure ended when his “coalition” government lost a crucial “confidence” vote. Throughout a long wet and windy afternoon, Semlin tried desperately to stitch together another support group with which he could continue to govern, but without success. These were the days before party politics.

Semlin thought he had convinced Lieutenant Governor Thomas Robert McInnes to give him time to recruit a new team during a pre-midnight meeting, following a “secret” support gathering session earlier in the evening at the old Driard Hotel.

He was wrong. McInnes instead informed him he was fired and, in what might be called an “only in BC” moment, the 38-member Legislature challenged McInnes’ royal command and voted 22 to 15 to condemn his actions.

In response on February 28, McInnes asked MLA Joseph Martin if he could form a government. Martin, who had served in other provincial governments, on Vancouver City Council, and was a recent Member of Parliament in England, responded willingly.

McInnes informed the Governor General of Canada that MLA Martin “was best able to meet the necessity of the situation, create decisive issues, and establish final order and something like the usual conditions out of the chaos through which provincial parties had been rent.”

But the BC Legislative Assembly didn’t agree and another sparkling “only in BC” happening was chalked in the record book. When the Legislature was informed of McInnes’ arbitrary changes, the members voted 28-1 against the new government. 

Then came high drama. The Lieutenant Governor was already on his way to the Legislature to prorogue the current sitting and clear the way for the commencement of his Joe Martin era. As McInnes entered the chamber, all but two members marched out. By the time McInnes had walked to the dais from which he would address the Assembly, only the Speaker and the newly-minted Premier Martin remained to greet him.

McInnes delivered his speech and, historian S.W. Jackman tells us, then “left the chamber with boos and catcalls resounding in his ears; 28 February 1900, was a memorable day in Victoria for the whole customary constitutional establishment had collapsed. Respect for authority had gone, and discourtesy to the Lieutenant Governor had become the accepted code of conduct.”

There were “aftershock” repercussions. Martin’s tenure lasted only 106 days. He was replaced by James Dunsmuir in June 1900. Edward Gawler Prior took over in 1902. Then came the sea change in BC politics; the1903 election was the first run on party lines with five political parties – Conservative, Labour, Liberal, Socialist Labour and Socialist Party of BC – with 95 candidates in the race for 42 seats. The premiership would go to the leader of the party winning the most seats – providing he won his own.

In 1903, it was Dewdney’s Sir Richard McBride who had been an MLA since 1898 and brought with his royal recognition the all too rarely found “common touch and common sense” of understanding. He was called “the people’s premier.”

Other changes resulting from the Semlin-Martin scuffles and questionable decisions of L-G McInnes saw McInnes quietly removed from office and replaced by Sir Henri-Gustave Joly de Lotbiniere whose claim to fame today rests solely in the dignity and respect he brought to his position and the small street that still bears his name.

And politics remain much like the weather “unsettled” with blustery winds, some heavy rain showers, and intermittent but glorious sunshine.