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Rob Shaw: Eby leans into the blame game over drug decriminalization reversal

B.C. premier unwilling to show any contrition for flip-flop on drug decriminalization
BC Premier David Eby THUMB

When John Horgan reversed course on the Royal BC Museum in 2022, he understood that a successful political pivot has to begin with one thing: An admission you made a mistake.

“It's my responsibility to say to you today that I made the wrong call,” he said.

“We have to make sure that we're in tune with the public and sentiments of the people of British Columbia. And for that I take full responsibility.”

Horgan’s climbdown on the billion-dollar museum replacement, in the face of public backlash, was full of contrition.

“What we miscalculated, and while I take responsibility for, is that the public did not come on that journey with us,” he said, adding that “I missed this” on the decision.

“That's what people expect from their government — sober second thought. It’s been 40 days. That's long enough for rains and an ark and it's long enough for this project to be clear to me [it] was becoming a political item rather than an item of pride for all British Columbians.”

The public was mollified, and the Horgan government quickly put the RBCM fiasco behind it.

New Democrats were hoping for a repeat performance under Premier David Eby on Friday, as he reversed course on decriminalization, moving to ban drug possession and use in all public places.

Except it didn’t land. Because there was virtually no admission from the premier, or his government, that it did anything wrong.

“It's clear to me that police need the authorities to be able to address this issue, as well as other extraordinary circumstances where someone's safety may be at risk,” said Eby.

“That should have been in place. It should have been there, and we, I think, leaned too heavily on the idea that public intoxication could have been used as a tool.”

That was about as close as the NDP got to anything resembling an apology for 14 months of street disorder and crime based on decisions it made, on a decrim program it created, that compromised the ability of police officers to respond to disorder calls and endangered the safety of health-care staff in hospitals.

Who is responsible for the government's incorrect legal assumption that police could have enforced public drug use under public intoxication laws? That traces back to Eby, who not only gave that legal advice as the previous attorney general but also doubled down on it after becoming premier.

It was a prime opportunity for a leadership moment expressing regret and responsibility. The British Columbia public received neither.

Instead, Eby said he was “obviously frustrated” at the courts for stalling his half-measure legislation on public drug use, and at other political parties for initially supporting decrim and then withdrawing their support as the public outrage grew.

He also blamed the “technical challenges” of decriminalization.

“Where you're simultaneously saying this is decriminalized, there's not an offence, but police aren’t able to seize drugs or arrest, there were technical challenges to that,” he said.

The public has been wrestling with that very disconnect since the moment decriminalization launched. But whenever the issue was raised, New Democrats accused the questioner — first mayors, then businesses, then nurses — of stigmatizing drug users and not supporting harm reduction. It turns out they were right all along. Not that New Democrats have the jam to admit it.

Imagine, for a second, if Horgan tried to cancel the museum project with the kind of public performance Eby gave on decrim.

Replace “I made the wrong call” with Horgan being “frustrated” at everyone else. Replace “I take responsibility” and “I missed this” with a dissertation on legislative tools. Would that have worked? Not for a second.

Horgan proved again and again that the public is willing to forgive mistakes, as long as you take responsibility, acknowledge the error and lay out a new plan. It made people feel heard.

“It is my responsibility, I’m the head of the government,” Horgan said, when he announced the museum change. “That’s on me for not being clear.”

It’s getting harder and harder to imagine Eby or any other New Democrat ever saying something like that again.

And that arrogance is a very bad sign for the BC NDP.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 16 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, host of the weekly podcast Political Capital, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

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