B.C.’s changing of the guard? Time to downgrade historic sergeant-at-arms role, report says

B.C.’s changing of the guard? Time to downgrade historic sergeant-at-arms role, report says

It’s a tradition that may well date back to 14th century England.

But a mace-carrying sergeant-at-arms’ functional role as overseer of security at the seat of government could soon be relegated to the dustbin of history or, at least, to the dusty shelf of ceremony, in British Columbia.

A report by the Speaker of the legislature’s chief of staff — obtained Monday by the Star and other media outlets — calls for the position to be much reduced.

It’s a development that’s arisen in the lingering shadow of scandal and with the perceived opportunity to “broaden demographics” at the legislature building in Victoria.

The report by Alan Mullen recommended the position of sergeant-at-arms, which carries a salary of more than $ 200,000 and extensive duties ensuring the safety of the legislature and its members, become a ceremonial position only, with security of the building becoming the responsibility of a new director of security.

“British Columbia can be a leader in this area,” the conclusion of the report reads.

“The reforms recommended herein will not only go some distance to addressing the weaknesses of governance identified in various reviews, and mitigate against the kind of wrongdoing which has recently come to light, but will also put British Columbia at the forefront among Canadian provinces in opening up the Legislative Assembly security staff roles to candidates from non-traditional backgrounds and help broaden the demographics represented.”

If adopted, the changes in the report would separate B.C. from the 150-year-old tradition of parliamentary security posts across Canadian jurisdictions.

Sergeants-at-arms in the Canadian Parliament have almost always been military appointments.

Reached Monday, Mullen said now that the 55-page report, penned in January, has been released, he plans to comment publicly on it in the coming days.

In January 2019, Speaker Darryl Plecas issued a report alleging spending misconduct by former clerk Craig James and former sergeant-at-arms Gary Lenz. Both men denied any wrongdoing.

A subsequent report by the province’s auditor general found “gaps” in expense policies for the clerk, sergeant-at-arms and Speaker, which made room for travel expenses “without clear documentation to support the purpose of that travel.”

The report on reducing the role of the sergeant-at-arms came to light as the first ever sitting of the B.C. legislature with members both in the house and on video conference took place.

The sitting included debate on the province’s economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and long-debated reforms of the public car-insurance system.

NDP Premier John Horgan was hammered with questions from the official Opposition party, the B.C. Liberals, on why the government does not suspend sales and hotel tax, and extend the amount of time small businesses are allowed to keep their employees on “temporary layoff” — a state in which the employer does not have to pay severance.

The Opposition also questioned the government on why it’s conducting a six-week public consultation on the COVID-19 economic recovery, time it says could be better spent giving breaks to small businesses and employers.

The premier brushed off some of the questions, saying the government has been adding to a “basket of initiatives” to support British Columbians, including support for renters and those who have lost incomes, and that the parties have been working together on those initiatives since the pandemic began.

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“I appreciate it’s the job of the opposition to hold the government accountable,” he said, nodding to the fact that the Parliament was gathered for question period for the first time since a global pandemic was declared. “I’m OK with that.”

With only 24 politicians sitting in the chamber, it was a quieter question period than usual, mirroring the hybrid parliamentary sessions held at the federal level during the age of COVID-19 physical distancing.

One MLA, Doug Routley, acknowledged the unusual stillness before question period began, when he suggested members attending virtually, such as himself, use the “chat box” function of their video conferencing software to heckle one another.

Alex McKeen
Alex McKeen is a Vancouver-based reporter covering transportation and labour for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @alex_mckeen

TORONTO STAR

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