When Paul Nettleton stood up in the Legislative Assembly on the morning of October 7, he knew he was taking a risk.
Nettleton, MLA for Prince George-Omineca, knew his private member’s statement to the House called “Tough Issues: A Compassionate Response might ruffle some feathers. The powers-that-be in the B.C. Liberal party might not appreciate his public comments that veered ever so slightly from the party line, no matter how carefully he chose his words.
But, noting that government spending cuts are only going to get deeper in the next two years, he says he wouldn’t take back a syllable of the cautionary speech he made to a Legislature filled with his own government colleagues.
“If there are risks associated with making those comments, then I gladly embrace them,” he said in an interview. “It’s something that has weighed heavily on my heart for many months.”
Nettleton in his speech cautioned MLAs “to strive for and to maintain a balance between the tough decisions we have to make and the resulting need for a compassionate response.”
He also urged them to “acknowledge and recognize whenever possible the hardships created for some by these changes the ones that might fall through the cracks, so to speak and then do what is within our power, within our larger vision, within our resources to mitigate and minimize these unforeseen yet unavoidable hardships.”
Some analysts have suggested the comments are a veiled critique of Liberal government policies. While the government insists it is keeping the goodwill of all British Columbians in mind in its decision-making, analysts suggest Nettleton was putting the lie to that claim.
Nettleton has been fingered as one of a number of Liberal backbenchers who might be disgruntled with their own government, after he was passed over for a cabinet post and for the position of Speaker of the House following the 2001 election.
But he says the comments shouldn’t be interpreted as critical of his government colleagues, many of whom are “fair-minded people,” so much as a caution for the future.
“What people don’t realize is the most significant cuts will occur over the next couple of years. They haven’t happened yet.
“How we work through those decisions, I think it’s important that we know how they will effect the less fortunate, those who are often disenfranchised and politically powerless.”
NDP leader Joy MacPhail, who was not in the House to hear the commentary, applauded Nettleton.
“That’s very courageous of him. I have found it amazing and troubling at how easily the Liberal government backbenchers have fallen into line with this extreme agenda that’s hurting the rural communities. So any break from that outrageous discipline is good news.”
Still, she said, Nettleton’s speech touched on only a small fraction of the concerns she is hearing from all areas of the province.
Nettleton denies any sympathies for the NDP party. Their policies were what prompted him to first run for provincial politics in 1996.
But he does say that he continues to believe in “working at the constituency level with people who have been affected by government cuts.” He doesn’t plan to shut up anytime soon either, whether it be in caucus, in committee or in the Legislative Assembly.
“I will personally be looking for opportunities to speak to these issues in the future any chance I get.”