After all the hoopla the Liberals raised about the Nisga'a treaty, they've had a sudden change of heart. And the Grits' surrender on the Nisga'a bill reveals what a mess they got themselves into. Think back to last summer, when the New Democrats brought in their labour code amendments in Bill 26. The Liberals pulled every trick in the book to try and stop the legislation. They ambushed. They broke gentlepersons' agreements with government officials about timetables for debate. They filibustered - one Bill 26 session went all night, and others continued till the wee hours. Debate on the second reading for Bill 26 lasted no less than 76.5 hours - the longest since at least 1985. Liberal MLA Kevin Krueger succeeded in delaying the bill for 12 days, by moving to adjourn the house before debate was formally ended. And opposition MLA Colin Hansen spoke for a total of eight hours during the second reading debate.
Bearing in mind how strongly the Liberals opposed the Nisga'a treaty last summer, the NDP could only have expected the same sort of delaying tactics now. "What is proposed is a vision for British Columbia that will carve up our province into 50 or more 'gated communities', said opposition leader Gordon Campbell in a written statement last August 5. "We will have a province of quasi provinces, each with permanent special status under the Constitution, where rights and laws are based on race and culture. That is just plain wrong, in my view," said Campbell. So dead opposed to the deal were the Liberals that they even started court action to force a province-wide referendum which, were it to be held, would be tantamount to killing the treaty.
Consequently, when the house returned last week to decide whether the province will back the deal, the New Democrats were preparing for something close to all out war with the opposition. At the very least, the debates would be long and drawn out. If the Liberals were so set against the treaty, surely they'd be seen making endless speeches about it, live and province-wide on the parliamentary channel. It won't happen. While about 20 of the 33 Liberal MLA's are expected to speak on the second reading, they're not speaking very long. And there's been no "hoist" motion (which, if passed, can delay a bill for six months), no "reasoned amendment" (which can add almost 24 hours to the debating time) and no attempt to refer the subject to a committee (ditto).
Rather than the debate lasting, as it could, for more than 100 hours, the bill's second reading is due to pass very quickly, likely this week. Since the premier has promised there will be no final vote on the bill until the people of Parksville-Qualicum elect an MLA on December 14, that means the house will adjourn soon, and return some time in January. What happened? Opposition house leader Gary Farrell-Collins claims that fighting the bill would be pointless. "We can't stop the Nisga'a from moving ahead. We certainly can't stop the federal government from moving ahead," says Farrell-Collins. "We're dealing with three levels of government and we're the opposition for only one of them."
That's simply not true. If the BC legislature says "No", the Nisga'a treaty is dead. So what's really going on? Well, a big chunk of the BC Liberal party consists of federal Liberals, who back the treaty all the way. The provincial Grits could lose a lot of their urban support if they hold up the treaty. As one New Democrat put it last week: "There's not a lot of money to be made out of fighting the Nisga'a treaty." So why bother at all? This way, at least when the Liberals campaign in the interior next time, they can say "we fought it" - hoping the Vancouverites won't remember. It will be fascinating to see, when it comes time to vote, how many Liberal MLAs will actually show up in the house, and how many will be, er...unavailable.