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Baldrey: BC NDP digs itself into political hole with museum scheme

Nearly $1 billion price tag, eight-year time span to build new Royal B.C. Museum raises questions about political priorities, planning.
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The current Royal BC Museum in downtown Victoria. Photo by Darren Stone/Times Colonist

Shovels will not even be in the ground for more than three years, yet the BC NDP government already finds itself in a very deep hole when it comes to replacing the Royal B.C. Museum.

The unveiling of the plans to build a new museum has to rank as one of the worst communication disasters of all time for a B.C. government and is certainly the biggest misstep by the NDP since taking power in 2017.

For more than four years, the NDP administration had enjoyed fairly smooth sailing on all kinds of fronts. Controversies were relatively few and even those that occurred were not of a major, lasting sort.

The pandemic provided cover of sorts, of course. It pushed other issues off the table and out of the public mind as society struggled to come to grips with the world being turned upside down.

However, while we are still officially in the midst of the pandemic, political issues and government decisions are being seen in a bright new light and right now that light is trained rather harshly at that $1 billion museum project.

Let me examine the numerous problems associated with the project that have quickly arisen.

First, there is the cost: almost $800 million for the museum (you can be sure the final bill will be much higher) and more than $200 million in related expenses.

One of the government’s main points of defence is that the building is potentially unsafe in a major earthquake and needs replacing.

That is a perfectly fine position but here’s the rub: there are many schools and health facilities with even worse seismic issues, yet they are further back in the queue than the museum is when it comes to being made safer.

Second, it will take eight years for a new museum to open. So for almost a decade, a region where tourism is second only to government when it comes to jobs and economic activity will be without its No. 1 tourist attraction.

Third, this whole scheme was literally sprung on the public with no consultation. Oh, there was the odd meeting here and there among various folks but no venue for meaningful public input.

In other words, there was no effort made to bring the public along on what was surely going to be a controversial exercise (I literally stopped in my tracks while walking to the official announcement of the project, when I read the news release that shockingly said it would cost almost $800 million and take eight years to build).

The project has all the signs of being sent through a bureaucratic process, but not though a political lens. The term “tone deaf” certainly applies here.

I have no idea how the NDP extricates itself from the biggest controversy It has experienced in almost five years in power.

Perhaps it delays the planned September closing date for the current museum. Maybe it asks experts who devised this plan to go back and try again, with a cheaper cost and shorter time line.

Or perhaps it hopes that over time this controversy will die down to the point where its hold on the region most affected by the project will not be threatened in the next election.

We shall see. In the meantime, the BC Liberals finally have an issue to exploit, and exploit it they will.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC.

Keith.Baldrey@globalnews.ca