Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, B.C. Liberal health critic Norm Letnick became concerned that his Okanagan constituents didn’t have an avenue to speak directly with public health officials about the novel coronavirus.
He proposed co-hosting a virtual town hall with Interior Health, but as Letnick remembers it, the thought of letting a representative of the Loyal Opposition question representatives of the government health authority in a public forum wasn’t exactly welcomed with open arms.
So he went straight to the top, and presented the idea to Health Minister Adrian Dix. Bucking partisan politics, Dix supported it and gave Letnick the greenlight to co-host a town hall with Interior Health officials.
“This is an emergency,” Letnick explained. “We’re all politicians, but we also know that our role is to lead the province, collectively and individually.”
Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, but the move is typical of what former health minister Terry Lake calls a “very unusual” level of cooperation between Dix and his two official critics under this minority government.
Since that first virtual town hall, Green Party health critic Sonia Furstenau has also held a COVID-19 town hall for Vancouver Island, and Letnick has even co-hosted a session with Dix and Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.
Dix says he talks with the two critics every day to keep them apprised of developments in the pandemic and the province’s response.
This collaboration began long before anyone had even heard of the novel coronavirus.
Last year, when the government unveiled a proposal for sweeping reforms to the system for regulating health professionals, Dix, Furstenau and Letnick took the stage together to present a plan that all three helped develop.
‘Good faith and no surprises’
Lake, who was Dix’s predecessor under the last Liberal government, described this cooperative approach as very welcome.
“I just think generally that people are tired of the very polarized debate that we have been having in North American politics, particularly over the last number of years, and it’s a refreshing thing,” he said.
Dix agrees the arrangement is a bit out of the ordinary, but he says the fact that someone is in opposition doesn’t mean they have any less to offer British Columbians.
“There are lots of issues to disagree on, lots of partisan issues, but there are lots of issues as well that we can work together for a better result. I’ve long believed that, but I’ve been seen as naive on the question,” he told CBC this week.
On the proposed reforms for regulation of health professionals, which were prompted by problems at the College of Dental Surgeons, Dix says the issue was controversial enough that it would have been very difficult to develop a plan that could be put into practice without hashing things out with his critics and getting their approval first.
For Furstenau, who is serving her first term as an MLA, the collaborative approach has been a “very satisfying” way to put public service ahead of partisanship.
She believes it’s a natural result of two things: the Green Party’s confidence and supply agreement with the NDP that promises “good faith and no surprises” to sustain a minority government; and the fact that three parties have seats in the legislature.
“The kind of hyper-partisanship that we see is often generated when there are only two parties and the parties begin to to define themselves as the opposite of each other,” she said.
Furstenau points out that health isn’t the only area where she’s cooperated with the NDP; she also worked with Environment Minister George Heyman in crafting the Professional Governance Act, which addresses management of natural resources.
Letnick and Furstenau see few drawbacks to working in collaboration with their political rivals, especially on issues as serious as a pandemic.
But Dix, who spent 12 years in opposition, including time as health critic and leader of the NDP, acknowledges there are potential implications when opposition critics decide to get onside with the government.
“I give Norm Letnick and Sonia Furstenau a lot of credit,” he said. “Because when you’re a critic, sometimes people are judged on whether they’re causing the minister problems or not.”
‘They’re going to criticize me’
Letnick argues there’s always been much more cooperation between the parties than what the public sees during testy exchanges and “gotcha” moments in question period.
Government and opposition MLAs have long worked together on various committees, and he says he often sought opposition critics’ input when he served as agriculture minister under the Liberals.
Former health minister Lake, on the other hand, believes B.C. governments of all stripes have a bad track record when it comes to turning the work of multi-party committees into meaningful policy.
“I certainly listened to our critics, and they kept us on our toes and it did influence what we did — there’s no question about that. But I think we could have been better served by listening to the work of committees and incorporating that into our ministry plans,” he said.
It’s inevitable that some of the bonhomie on display right now will evaporate once the COVID-19 crisis has passed. As Letnick diplomatically put it, “the official opposition will continue to offer constructive suggestions to government about an alternative perspective.”
Dix is bracing himself for that shift.
“That’s when the real test comes, because Norm and Sonia, they’re going to criticize me,” he said. “You have to accept that the criticism and the working together is part of a working democracy.”