Still a need to consult on Bill 24

A quick review: There’s a narrow window now for the BC government to seek consultation on Bill 24, the bill to kill the ALR. That’s because the BC legislature is discussing a motion to enable wide consultation. The bill would be referred to a committee that tours B.C., listening to witnesses.

This means there’s a narrow window to influence the outcome by writing to the premier (and others), getting a letter in newspapers, and building support with social media. The article that addresses ways to go about it is “Last try for Bill 24 consultation.”

In case you wonder whether consultation on Bill 24 is really needed, this article analyzes the minister of agriculture’s attempt to show why he should not consult (even though he has said he should). After you read the analysis, you will probably be more sure that consultation on Bill 24 is needed now, which is still approaching the official “2nd reading.”

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Vancouver Sun columnist Vaughn Palmer discussed Bill 24 consultation with agriculture minister Norm Letnick on Shaw Cable’s Voice of BC on May 15, 2014. Fellow minister Steve Thomson sat beside Letnick as another guest, seemingly keeping a wary eye on him.

Note about green and orange in this account: I will colour-code. Green is for direct quotations from the Voice of BC program. Orange is intended to be for my critiquing, although there is sometimes a fine line between description and critiquing.

John Horgan on Voice of BC

Palmer began the ALR segment with a John Horgan clip (11:12 on): “The intent of the legislation is to ensure that you can get land out of the reserve more readily.

Comment: Later (13:41 on) Letnick would state “What the intention is, which is to safeguard agricultural lands for future generations.” I’m placing that here to facilitate comparison of the Horgan and Letnick views of the intent.

On March 14, prior to the Voice of BC program, an MLA would read out my 3,550-word letter to the MLAs in the legislature. At that time, Letnick heard my analysis (pages 5–7 of the letter) of every section of the bill that involves significant change. I’m not partisan, and I would have loved to find evidence to support Letnick’s talking point about intent. Sadly, the evidence in section after section supports what Horgan said. The bill does not safeguard agricultural lands for any generation, present or future. What it does is remove and weaken existing safeguards.

That said, let’s go back to the beginning of the John Horgan clip (11:12 on in the archived video of the March 15 Voice of B.C.:

The intent of the legislation is to ensure that you can get land out of the reserve more readily.

If there was a genuine desire to have the consultation and the review of a forty-year-old institution, then you would do that in a comprehensive way.

You wouldn’t drop down legislation that you know is going to be divisive in the legislature without talking to key stakeholders and, more importantly, having an understanding of just what the consequences are going to be.

In the past few years, British Columbia has been treated to some genuine consulting. The government established a model of best practice with the Water Act, which is now officially the Water Sustainability Act, although people still tend to use the simpler name. The Water Act and the Agricultural Land Commission Act have a key commonality, since the ALC Act is seen as being ultimately about food security. The editor of National Geographic recently expressed the shared aspect simply and powerfully in the first words of the Editor’s Note  of the May 2014 issue (page 4), which begins an eight-part series about food. The editor wrote:

Food, like water and air, is life.

The Water Act consultation was so good that every MLA of every political stripe voted for it. Certainly the ruling party would have taken its proven best practice with water security and applied it to food security (the ALR) if it wanted to work again toward the ideal, which can also be thought of as safeguarding agricultural land. Horgan’s statement makes sense.

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In the Voice of BC program Vaughn Palmer (11:47 on) used the Horgan clip as a springboard by asking Norm Letnick this question:

What do you have to say to the leader of the opposition who thinks you should be doing more consultation on it and holding back on it?”

Vaughn Palmer and Norm Letnick on Voice of BC

Letnick broke into a grin when Palmer said “doing more consultation” (captured in the screen shot above, 11:49).

Letnick’s response was not accurate, but it was revealing ­(11:53–12:39). It would take too many words to critique it all, so I will focus on the first 46 seconds, which set the tone. I’ll begin with the whole transcript of that part and then repeat it in smaller bits with accompanying analysis. Letnick said this:

Well, the report that came out in 2010 by the chair of the land commission, Mr. Richard Bullock, was part of that consultation process. He went around the province, talked to many many people, talked to the MLAs as well [gesture to Steve Thomson next to him, who nodded in agreement] a few times, put together his report on what should happen to the commission.

At the same time [his emphasis on same] the auditor general, roughly at the same time the auditor general put together their report, again in a public way, and as you know the public accounts committee goes through the auditor general’s report.

We had successive ministers, Don McRae, myself, Steve [glance at Steve Thomson, who nodded] I believe, as well, Pat Pimm, all worked throughout the province, talking to people, listening on agriculture as we toured around. A lot of that had to do with the ALR and the ALC. So that continues.

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That was the whole 46 seconds that began Letnick’s response to Horgan’s view that more consultation on Bill 24 is needed before the bill is pushed through into law.

Vaughn Palmer, Steve Thomson and Norm Letnick on Voice of BC

Let’s now take the 46 seconds roughly a third at a time, starting with this:

Well, the report that came out in 2010 by the chair of the land commission, Mr. Richard Bullock, was part of that consultation process. He went around the province, talked to many many people, talked to the MLAs as well [gesture to Steve Thomson next to him, who nodded in agreement] a few times, put together his report on what should happen to the commission.

Richard Bullock, chair of the Agricultural Land Commission of British ColumbiaThe reference is to Bullock’s “Moving Forward: A Strategic Vision of the Agricultural Land Commission for Future Generations.” It is a 117-page strategic vision, a strategic plan with vision.

ALC chair Richard Bullock did indeed talk to many people—”over 300 individuals from over 60 stakeholder groups” (Moving Forward page 5). Clearly he listened and learned and identified ways to consult further.

Stakeholders who took part say Steve Thomson also participated, evidently working well with Bullock. Of course, Thomson was more than an MLA. He was the minister of agriculture. As such, he requested the ALR review and laid out the terms of reference that Bullock then followed (Appendix A, Letter from Minister, Moving Forward page 95).

The Thomson–Bullock collaboration may be another model of best practice, and Letnick appeared to be following it recently when he and Bullock and other ministry/ALC staff met with the B.C. Agriculture Council. However, the “core review minister” soon managed to stomp out Letnick’s brief bid to act on his own principles and apply best-practice approaches to Bill 24.

Where Bill 24 proposes changes, they would facilitate the strategic plan if they were actually drawing on Bullock’s consultation, as Letnick implied on Voice of BC. In reality, Bill 24 does the opposite. It reverses the strategic shifts that Bullock stated and implemented—with significant progress despite sparse funding.

For example, Bullock analyzed the tried-and-failed regional-panel system and then designed a hybrid model. It kept useful parts like having commissioners from every region but added a range of performance improvement features, including the intended system of farm advisors from every region, effective in the 1970s and 80s but then discontinued because of low funding. (Moving Forward pages 15–28)

Back in 2010, the report described this existing problem, which is also the predictable regression that Bill 24 seems designed for:

Furthermore, the existing governance structure has given rise to 6 regional commissions with little evidence that the panels maintain any provincial focus on the agricultural land preservation program. Moreover, there is very limited or no training and education provided to new commissioner upon appointment. New appointees are required to start performing their duties without any meaningful awareness of the job, their roles as a member of an administrative tribunal or on the decision-making process. This is unfair to commissioners and a potential legal liability for the ALC as an organization.

It gets worse when you read the details in Moving Forward. It gets worse again when you read my letter to the MLAs with Bill 24 also open. Referring to Sections 3 and 5 of the bill, read my letter to the MLAs commentary about them on pages 5 and 6. Also look at pages 19 and 20 of Moving Forward. If you manage to do all of that, you are (a) amazing and (b) informed.

With that information, you know how insane it is for the bill to condemn British Columbia to more of the tried-and-failed experiment with regional panels. Now realize that the situation would be far worse this time because of the Bill 24 sections that impose a huge bureaucratic burden on the Agricultural Land Commission and take away independence so that the Ministry of Agriculture has more control. (It’s all described in the letter to the MLAs, and it’s hard not to end up seeing Bill 24 as a grenade being used to sabotage the Agricultural Land Commission.)

This example is just one of the ways Bill 24 charges destructively into the past like an addled rhino, regressing into old shortcomings and worse. Despite being known as a loose cannon, the “core review minister” with his Bill 24 has been allowed to implode the success of Richard Bullock and his ALC team. So far, ministers and MLAs have regressed on cue, mouthing talking points about Bill 24, not doing what they’re elected and paid to do.

Let’s get back to the next bit of agriculture minister Norm Letnick answer to Vaughn Palmer’s question about consultation on the Voice of BC ­on May 15 (11:53–12:39):

At the same time [Letnick’s emphasis on same] the auditor general, roughly at the same time, the auditor general put together their report, again in a public way, and as you know the public accounts committee goes through the auditor general’s report.

One would think from Letnick’s statement that the Audit of the Agricultural Land Commission and Richard Bullock’s Moving Forward just happened to occur in the same time period. In reality, Richard Bullock’s responses to audit recommendations are a major aspect of each of the two documents. While meeting Minister Thomson’s terms of reference, Bullock was dutifully acting on the auditor general’s recommendations.

It could be said that Bullock incorporated consulting advice from the auditor general when heeding the recommendations in the ALC’s strategic plan. At its best, Bill 24 ignores the consultation with the auditor general that Bullock had acted on. For instance, the auditor general’s first recommendation was, in effect, to go back to the process of ALR boundary reviews, which had faded out because of underfunding. The ALC resumed ALR boundary reviews, but Bill 24 has now undermined them. It is devious for Letnick to include the auditor general’s report as Bill 24 consultation when Bill 24 has actually hindered the auditor general’s impact.

Let’s get back the Voice of BC transcript. Here’s the final part of the Norm Letnick response about consultation (11:53–12:39 in the video):

We had successive ministers, Don McRae, myself, Steve [glance at Steve Thomson, who nodded] I believe, as well, Pat Pimm, all worked throughout the province, talking to people, listening on agriculture as we toured around. A lot of that had to do with the ALR and the ALC. So that continues.

Letnick implied that the in-province travel of former agriculture ministers was consultation, which fits with his view that reading his email is wide consultation. More tellingly, the first two successive ministers in the period he was covering were actually Steve Thomson and Ben Stewart, not Don McRae and himself.

Letnick either had no idea about Thomson’s key 2010 role in starting the modernizing of the ALR or about Stewart’s period as agriculture minister or had been asked to keep it quiet. Letnick’s supposed lack of knowledge is so basic that his response gives no reason to think he got consulting value from former ministers on ALR and ALC matters. Letnick himself was a former minister of agriculture for a few months until Christy Clark relieved him of the role. Since his memory has been letting him down, I should point out that he actually did the good thing of getting better funding (less-bad funding) for the ALC, even though he either didn’t read the ALC Strategic Vision or is too junior in cabinet to be able to act on it.

If you choose to watch the rest of the Bill 24 segment of the Voice of BC program, notice one other revealing aspect of Letnick’s comments. He never mentions the largest group of stakeholders, namely the people who eat, which means all British Columbians. We care about the future of our agricultural land for a range of reasons, but the most basic one is that we want to continue to be able to eat, regardless of what happens beyond British Columbia. We deserve to be consulted.

Time to look back again. Early on, Vaughn Palmer asked Norm Letnick a question:

What do you have to say to the leader of the opposition who thinks you should be doing more consultation on [Bill 24] and holding back on it?”

The factual answer would have been “Nothing. They won’t let me consult.”

Even earlier, in the John Horgan clip, there were some key words that are worth noticing now. Horgan ended his explanation by indicating it was especially bad for the bill to go through with this particular effect of the failure to consult: “[not] having an understanding of just what the consequences are going to be.”

Bill 24 is being rammed down our throats by people who seem afraid of knowing its consequences, even though they keep saying (Voice of BC 13:41) that the bill will “safeguard agricultural lands for the future.” Since there’s no reason to think the bill will have that consequence, one thing should be clear to them by now: they need to get control of their fears and show respect for their duty. They should vote to postpone the bill until the minister and ALC chair have done real consultation with a range of stakeholders throughout British Columbia.

It is the future of food in British Columbia that is at stake, and that is more important than partisan politics. As the editor of National Geographic put it:

Food, like water and air, is life.

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If you wish to urge the powers-that-be to consult on Bill 24, go to this article.

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