VICTORIA – The B.C. legislature adjourned for the summer Thursday with opposition MLAs battling to the end against legislation to divide the Agricultural Land Reserve into two zones.
The government used its majority to cut off debate and pass the bill, after days of opposition demands to withdraw it and complete promised consultation with farmers around the province.
"You're all a bunch of corrupt liars," shouted NDP agriculture critic Nicholas Simons, before he stormed out of the chamber as time ran out. Simons returned to withdraw his comments so he could vote against the legislation.
Independent MLAs Andrew Weaver and Vikki Huntington joined NDP critics in denouncing the move to ease restrictions on secondary farmland uses in the North, Kootenay and Cariboo zones. Another target of criticism was the move to formalize the six local Agricultural Land Commission panels to make decisions on exclusions and permitted uses.
Columbia River-Revelstoke MLA Norm Macdonald accused the government of adding social and economic considerations to farmland as a pretext to undermine the commission's independence.
"We are talking about important agricultural areas that will now be open to exclusions, that decision being made by a bunch of B.C. Liberal political hacks on criteria that are totally nebulous – to the extent that there's even a provision to add whatever else the cabinet wants to add," Macdonald said. "It could be economic. It could be social. It could be anything."
Agriculture Minister Norm Letnick pointed to amendments made in response to criticism that emphasize that the ALC is independent and its top priority remains to preserve productive farmland.
Letnick used the example of a Peace River region farmer who was prevented from parking gas industry trucks on his land during winter to earn extra money.
"We as a government believe that there's an opportunity in some parts of the province where there is less pressure on agricultural land to give farmers some freedom in making sure they can be successful on that land," Letnick said.
NDP leader John Horgan said a leaked 2012 email exchange between Kootenay East MLA Bill Bennett and Peace River North MLA Pat Pimm suggests a "vendetta" against the ALC and a desire to weaken it for political gain.
Pimm, who was replaced as agriculture minister as he undergoes cancer surgery, issued an apology this week for his comments in the email.
Premier Christy Clark said the changes do not affect the Okanagan, Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island zones, which generate 85% of B.C.'s farm income.
"We are making it economic in areas with a shorter growing season, with less productive farmland, to be able to continue to make land valuable enough that they will pass it down to another family," Clark said.