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Bennett, Macdonald tangle over Bill 24

Carolyn Grant

Debate on Bill 24, which alters the Agricultural Land Reserve into two separate zones — Zone 1 being the Okanagan, Vancouver Island and the South Coast; and Zone 2, the Interior, Kootenays and the North — closes Friday at 5:15 p.m.

In the hours preceding closure, opponents of the Bill are arguing that its passage is an example of back-room politics at its worst.

Columbia River Revelstoke MLA Norm Macdonald says it is motivated by vote buying, and points to a recently obtained email stream including Pat Pimm, MLA for Peace River North and former Minister of Agriculture, and Bill Bennett, MLA for Kootenay East and the chief architect of Bill 24. Macdonald says the emails lay out their displeasure at the way the Agricultural Land Commission (ALC) is run.

"Bill 24 is entirely about buying votes, and this email exchange proves it," said Macdonald. "In the email, complaints are made that the ALC is not making the right decisions; is not taking the 'opportunity to muster up some support for our team'."

However, Bennett says the emails show simply that he has been advocating for his constituents.

"To characterize MLA advocacy as 'vote buying' is typical of the NDP, especially MLA Macdonald who doesn't even reside in his own riding," Bennett said. "Walking, talking hypocrisy."

Macdonald laughed that off.

"After nine years of serving in the Legislature with Mr. Bennett, I've gotten pretty used to his fabrications. Of course I live in my riding."

Back to the emails, Macdonald says they illustrate how  the plan to change the ALC was in place from the beginning.

"The email stream also laments the independence of the ALC and its chair Richard Bullock, and demands that the then Minister of Agriculture honour a caucus agreement, sanctioned by the Premier, to allow changes to the ALR specifically in Pimm and Bennett's areas," Macdonald said. "Former Minister McRae was clearly moving too slowly to satisfy them.

“Despite the fact that Premier Clark promised prior to the election to ‘preserve agricultural land and encourage farming’ and ‘to maintain the excellent relationship we have built with the ALC’, following the 2013 election she chose Pimm as Minister of Agriculture and Bennett as Minister of Core Review to spearhead significant changes to the ALR. Bill 24 is the disastrous result.”

The emails were written on July 30 and 31, 2012.

The July 30 email from Bill Bennett to then Agriculture Minister Don McRae reads:

“…you may recall a discussion we had in Caucus when proposed changes to your legislation were discussed….Premier Clark was present and I very deliberately looked her in the eye and made direct reference to the fact that she was present for this discussion. Your apparent lack of recollection about this commitment during your trip here was surprising and concerning.”

And then on July 31, from Pimm to Bennett:

“…every time I try to contact Mr Bulluch (sic) I am told that he is an arms length body and for me to get the hell out of his hair.  Who the hell is running our Province anyways.  Here is an opportunity to actually muster up some support for our team but instead we will ignore it and go out and find some way to give the Indians more money which doesn’t get me one vote!  I am getting very tired of this kind of nonsense.”

“In a few short hours, the BC Liberal government will force through legislation that will significantly weaken the Agriculture Land Commission and will allow any manner of development on agricultural lands,” Macdonald said. “It does absolutely nothing to promote agriculture in this province, it does not support farmers, and lessens our ability to feed ourselves into the future.”

“The effects of this legislation will be felt by British Columbians for generations to come, and all to satisfy the political needs of two BC Liberal caucus members.”

However, Bennett says that he makes no apologies for representing the wishes of his constituents, who have desired changes to the ALR and the Commission that runs it for years.

“Aside from the very unfortunate comment by MLA Pimm about First Nations, which I strongly repudiate, the ALC issues discussed are nothing new,” Bennett said.

“Who is surprised that I am a strong representative for my rural constituents who want change? This isn’t vote buying. It is the democratic process and an MLA doing what he is hired to do.

“After Bill 24 is passed, the ALC will be just as independent as it was before passage of the bill. That is demonstrably true from a reading of the legislation.

“The purpose of the bill is to allow farmers and ranchers the flexibility to use non arable land in ways that help them stay on the farm. For example, putting a food processing facility on a farm, or parking a truck used in another business, or allowing a child to build a home on the farm to help Mom and Dad stay on the farm.

“For 13 years my rural constituents have asked for changes. I am not surprised the NDP don’t want government to get any credit for those much needed changes.”

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