Source: Michal Klajban, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The B.C. NDP government is going ahead with its plan to build a new and costly museum to replace the Royal B.C. Museum. Under normal circumstances a government promising to replace an aging museum would be met with praise. And with the ending of most COVID restrictions the provincial government would like us all to think things are back to normal. But these are not normal times. So, when John Horgan and the B.C. NDP declared their intention to spend at least $800 million to replace the Royal B.C. Museum, the backlash came as a bit of a surprise to them.

But it is not so surprising to anyone living in this province. With the ongoing housing crisis and opioid crisis it is difficult to square the idea that this is the best use of $800 million. This is the issue for most people. It is not that people do not want a nice new museum. It’s just that after years of these crises and disasters which we have yet to recover from, why is the NDP so quick to cut a cheque for this new museum?

Some of the backlash is, of course, just cynical sniping from the capitalist press. And both opposition parties took the opportunity to attack Horgan from the left. The latest leader of the B.C. Liberal Party, Kevin Falcon, called the new museum a “vanity project” and said it was ridiculous to build this new museum when “British Columbians are struggling with the highest housing and the highest fuel prices in North America at $2.34 per litre.” 

Sonia Furstenau, the Green Party leader, said much the same in attacking the NDP for constantly congratulating itself for “helping people” while doing little to rebuild Lytton or address affordability in the province. The problem for Horgan is that they actually have a point. The B.C. NDP has failed British Columbian workers again and again. But, one can hardly believe that the B.C. Liberals would do any better. After all, their own record when in government was one of cuts and austerity. So workers are left with a lack of alternatives and, in the NDP, a frustrating out-of-touch party of the establishment.

What is missing

As for the project itself, it is a bit of a mystery. While there are more than 100 pages in the business case presented by the government, including dozens of appendices, it’s what is not there that is the most interesting. Significant portions of the business case are blacked out. Funding estimates are redacted: “Total capital cost of $774.2 million with the provincial share being [redacted], and the philanthropy share being [redacted].” This means we do not even know how much this project will actually cost the province. Strangely enough, even the actual design of the building is redacted.

But again, coming from a government that is out of touch with ordinary working class British Colombians, it should not be so surprising. Why bother convincing anyone of the details when John Horgan clearly knows what’s best for B.C.? What’s really missing in all of this is any active involvement of the working class. These sorts of decisions should be up to us. We know what the province needs right now—housing, doctors, infrastructure investment to name a few. This isn’t about demanding more town-hall meetings and “community engagement”. Without real power to decide, these bodies are simply token gestures at best. The workers need to control the whole decision-making process because we are the only ones capable of making the best decisions.

This approach taken by the Horgan government will only further undermine support for the NDP and might even pave the way for a return to a right-wing government in the next election. A similar process took place under the last NDP government in the 1990s and early 2000s. A similarly expensive project to build new “fast” ferries was used as a cudgel by the B.C. Liberals to show that the NDP was out of touch. With the ferry project going over time and over budget, it was the sort of scandal that contributed to bringing the B.C. NDP to ruin once before, and could again.

There is a risk to doing nothing

For its part, the provincial government has tried to re-spin the new museum as being not just a good idea, but a vitally necessary one. Tourism Minister Melanie Mark said in relation to leaving the current museum as is, “There is a risk to doing nothing.” After all, the current museum building is seismically unsound and could collapse in an earthquake, and the asbestos in the 54-year-old building is potentially dangerous. It is of course a shame that the sections on seismic and asbestos risks in the government’s business case are also redacted, so we’ll just have to take the tourism minister’s word for it.

In any event, the B.C. NDP are the experts on “doing nothing”. The risk of doing nothing can be seen plainly with the opioid crisis, where a total of 9,400 lives have been lost in the last six years. That is the real danger of doing nothing. Not in the abstract, not in the future, but right now, people are dying because of a lack of action by the government. The risk is also seen in the housing crisis, where workers increasingly cannot afford rent and mortgages. This is happening right now—not outlined in some study or as some concern for the future, but right now at this very moment, more and more people are living in dire conditions or forced to live on the streets.

It’s galling that John Horgan could genuinely look at the current situation in the province and think that this new museum project is the best use of $800 million. To be fair, the Royal B.C. Museum probably should be upgraded or replaced. But whether a new museum is the priority or not at the moment is another question entirely—especially when there are urgent social and economic questions that need solving. If COVID has taught workers anything, it’s that sometimes the right thing to do is to put future plans on hold and deal with the crisis right in front of you. It’s just a shame that Horgan and co. have yet to learn this lesson.The B.C. NDP promised “to make your life more affordable.” They have failed to deliver on this promise and have failed to do anything about the housing and opioid crises, not to mention inflation and the rising cost of living. On top of that, they have attacked Indigenous rights and sided with oil and gas corporations against the Wet’suwet’en. Now, they are going ahead with an $800 million legacy project when this money could be spent on far more pressing social and economic problems faced by workers and youth in the province. We need to organize against these disastrous policies of the Horgan leadership. The labour movement and ranks of the NDP have to take the fight against these policies of the Horgan leadership into the party and call for a real socialist program that can tackle the issues of housing, the cost of living, and the opioid crisis head-on.