THE BLOG

Troubling Rumblings Around B.C.'s Agricultural Land Commission

11/22/2013 03:33 EST | Updated 01/25/2014 04:01 EST

Bill Bennett, minister responsible for the B.C. government's core review, is trying his darndest lately to reassure British Columbians that the government "has no plans to dismantle" the Agricultural Land Commission and that much of the speculation was simply the result of government "brainstorming."

That's nice. Doesn't mean much in government-speak, but it sounds comforting. It's what comes next that should be of concern. In an interview with the Globe and Mail on Tuesday, Bennett confirmed that the Commission would, however, be subject to the government's core review.

So just because the government doesn't want to dismantle it, doesn't mean that the government -- in Bennett's words -- "think(s) the commission is perfect or that every piece of land that was put in there, should be there."

What exactly do those ominous words mean for the ALC? The BC Liberal party's campaign statements won't provide much guidance.

In the midst of last May's election campaign, Metro Vancouver asked each party what they would do to protect agricultural land in the Metro Vancouver region and what they would do to ensure that the ALC had adequate resources to develop the necessary policy and provide the required enforcement function to preserve B.C.'s farmland?

The BC Liberals didn't respond by promising to dismantle the ALC or that part of its mandate would be handed over to the Oil and Gas Commission. Nor did they say that the ALC would be subject to a core review.

Instead they boasted of the party's commitment to the Commission, noting that the BC Liberal government had added "39,000 net-new hectares to the Agricultural Land Reserve," that they had reaffirmed their commitment "with $1.6 million in additional one-time funding to strengthen compliance and enforcement," and that the Commission's $3 million operating budget will allow it to "work more closely with farmers, ranchers and agricultural organizations to preserve agricultural land and encourage farming."

Clearly, B.C. Agricultural Minister Pat Pimm didn't get that memo.

Only days after his re-election, Mr. Pimm was meddling in a file before the ALC over an application by one of his constituents to remove prime agricultural land from the reserve.

The Commission knew his conduct was inappropriate and told him so. In fact, it was of such a concern that they issued a policy statement in early July regarding the role of elected officials in applications before the ALC.

Their statement noted that: "Elected officials at the provincial and local level have been given specific channels within the Act to influence decisions on applications to the ALC. Outside of those channels, they should not attempt to influence the ALC with regard to the outcome of a particular application..."

Again Mr. Pimm didn't seem to get the memo.

Three weeks after the statement was released he instructed his ministerial office to make further inquiries of the Commission, effectively violating one of the most sacred principles of a democracy: judicial independence.

In a 2011 paper submitted to the World Conference on Constitutional Justice on behalf of the Supreme Court of Canada, then Justice Ian Binnie wrote: "...the strongest barrier to improper influences is a legal and political culture in which the public simply will not tolerate actual or perceived transgressions. In some cases government Ministers have been obliged to resign because of actions or statements that gave the slightest "appearance" of a failure to respect the principle of judicial independence."

And that's why Pat Pimm must resign as Minister of Agriculture.

Incredibly though -- despite the jurisprudence, despite the precedents -- Mr. Pimm still doesn't believe he did anything wrong, claiming: "I didn't think I was going too far and I still don't think I was going too far I think I was acting as an MLA"

So now he's off forum shopping, hoping that B.C.'s conflict of interest commissioner will tell him something different from that which the ALC rebuked him for in their August decision and what the Supreme Court of Canada has already expressed.

Equally worrisome in this whole affair: have we reached the point where every tribunal, every agency has to write policy statements for every conceivable scenario so that ministers know what they can and can not do?

If it needs to be spelled out in such minutiae, maybe the MLA isn't ready for cabinet.