Wednesday, November 13, 2013

When should a Minister resign? Should Pat Pimm Resign?

The actions of Pat Pimm with respect to the Agricultural Land Commission in the Peace certainly seem to be ones that should call for him to resign.

The tradition is that a minister of the Crown that brings the Crown into disrepute has to resign.  The problem is the intersection of honour and reality of politics.   For someone to resign as a minister for reasons of honour alone when there is no smoking gun and nothing forcing them to do so has always been very rare because politics is a blood sport.

The people that make into cabinet are normally the most important players on the government side of the house.  These people are either the allies of the Premier or politically powerful enough to have to be in the cabinet.   The most ambitious politicians are those who know how to play the game the best and are the sort of people that will be in cabinet.   The reality of politics trumps honour in almost all cases.  A voluntary resignation from cabinet is taken as a huge personal political failure.

A minister of the Crown should resign for a number of reasons:

  • They do something stupid in public - Cabinet ministers are agents of the Crown and their behaviour in public can bring disrepute on the Crown.  A minister that charges a hooker to his government credit card or a minister that goes into a strip club during the cold war in a country where the KGB had many honey traps both should resign.  Normally the stupid act in public is bad enough that it has serious political consequences and the minister has to go for the good of the party in power.
  • They take a bribe - Social Credit cabinet minister Bob Sommers took a bribe in awarding a Forest Management Licence in early 1955.   He did not resign, he remained in Cabinet well into 1956 and even was re-elected in 1956.  He arrested in November 1957.  Once he was convicted in November 1958 he lost his seat in the legislature.   Few people are stupid enough to take a bribe. 
  • They are in a conflict of interest - Generally the rules are well enough established now that this is normally avoided.  In the past conflict of interest ideas were much looser.   Ministers expected to be able to reward supporters with jobs and contracts.   The early Harcourt government had some very clear conflict of interest rules and I think changed the political culture in BC.  As an example, in September 1992 Dan Miller was resigned as Minister of Forests for three months because of a perceived conflict of interest.  
  • They lie or intentionally deceive - How do you prove this?   I am certain there are numerous times ministers have lied but unless someone can prove it they are unlikely to resign.    One of the reasons the public is so cynical about politics is because too many politicians are economical with the truth, but when does that become a lie by a minister and bring the Crown into disrepute?
  • They are under investigation - Pat Pimm resigned his parliamentary secretary position and from the Liberal caucus on June 27 2011 because of an RCMP investigation of a domestic dispute.  When on July 13 2011 charges were not recommended he rejoined the Liberals and regained his parliamentary secretary role. 
  • .They interfere with an independent process under their ministry.  

In the case of Pat Pimm, he is the minister responsible for the Agricultural Land Reserve and the Agricultural Land Commission.  By specifically showing support for the application of Terry McLeod for use of some his land near Fort St John as a rodeo ground Pat Pimm as Minister of Agriculture has crossed the line.  There is no way that having the Minister of Agriculture intervening in process that can not be seen as prejudicing the outcome.   If the ALC had approved the non-farm use of the land after Pat Pimm has publicly voiced his support, the decision would have been seen as tainted and political.

Pimm argues that he was supporting the application as the MLA for the area and not as the Minister of Agriculture, but the problem in our parliamentary system is that once someone is a minister they do lose some of their ability to act as they could as MLA.   If the goal was just to get more voices speaking for the changed use of the land, I am sure Pat Pimm could have found no end of local people to write in support of what is a popular project locally.  But by choosing to intervene in the process as the MLA he clearly wanted his weight as MLA to change the mind of the ALC.   I can not see how his actions are not be seen as an attempt to use his status as MLA and cabinet member to influence the decision.   His actions were wrong.

It is also clear that his Ministerial Assistant was contacting the ALC with respect to this decision.  An MA is staff for the Minister and not for an MLA.  One of the roles of an MA is stop the minister from doing something stupid, not acting on bad decisions of the minister.  It is not appropriate for the MA of Minister of Agriculture to directly communicate with the ALC on any of their decisions.   Not only should Pat Pimm resign, so should his MA.

Pat Pimm's actions around this have been politically stupid.   Yes the ALC decision against use of the land for a rodeo ground is unpopular in Fort St John, but by getting involved Pat Pimm has done himself  and the government no favours.   His actions did not change the decision but it has placed him and the government on the political defensive.

Will he resign?  Maybe if the story continues.
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