Opinion: John Horgan took all the blame on himself for the museum debacle, without saying what took him so long

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VICTORIA — Premier John Horgan did the right thing Wednesday, calling a halt to the plan to close the Royal BC Museum and spend eight years and $800 million rebuilding it on the same site.

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With one bold stroke, Horgan eliminated the biggest immediate drag on the NDP government’s political fortunes and the best current issue for the Opposition BC Liberals.

The premier also avoided that familiar pitfall of weak managers and leaders, the excuse that says “mistakes were made but not by me.”

Horgan took full blame for the museum debacle and did so in detail.

“I made the wrong call.,” he said.

“I am the head of government. I take full responsibility.

“I want to assure British Columbians that any failings on this initiative fall to me and to me alone.”

The mistake was mine alone? That’s the gold standard in blame-taking.

The premier says his main mistake was approving the expensive museum makeover “at a time when British Columbians were talking and thinking about other concerns — primary care for their families, education, the cost of living, a range of other issues as we came out of the global pandemic.”

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His mea culpa rang hollow only when he claimed that the plan he announced on May 13 was “no secret. We talked about it in two throne speeches, it was contained in mandate letters for ministers.”

Passing mentions in throne speeches and mandate letters are not attention-grabbers. Not when they lack details like the $800-million price tag and a plan to close a beloved public institution like the museum for eight years.

Otherwise, Horgan provided a classic demonstration of the art of the second look — turning a major backdown into a positive virtue of “the buck-stops-here” variety.

The timing did raise a question about why it took the premier almost six weeks to reverse direction, particularly as he said he’d “been thinking about this from six days after the announcement.”

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The reference was to the May 19 news conference where he acknowledged that the initial announcement had “landed with a thud.”

It was obvious from the day of the announcement — on Friday the 13th yet — that the proposal was wrong-headed, both in terms of the price tag and the lengthy closure.

The premier was asked if anyone — staffer, senior public servant, MLA, minister — had told him to his face in those early days that he needed to slam on the brakes.

“Not one,” Horgan said.

If true, it says something about the nature of his government. Is he surrounded by yes men and yes women? Did no one see it? Or were they just afraid to speak up?

The most valuable person on a leader’s staff is the one who, granted permission to speak freely, tells the boss what he or she needs to hear.

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While calling a halt to replacement of the main museum, the premier said it is still full speed ahead on a new research and archives building.

“We’re well underway,” the premier claimed, though the government has yet to announce a successful bidder on the project or a date for a groundbreaking.

The project is already a year behind schedule and cost at $224 million, 27 per cent more than the costing in last year’s provincial budget.

Replacement of the main museum was costed at $789.5 million in the heavily drafted business plan released last month.

But back in the days when Horgan was doubling down on the project, he insisted that any delay would of course push up the cost of completion.

He now hopes that with the project on hold for a rethink, “less costly options” will come forward.

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Not clear why that would be the case when the government insists that the business plan was the product of five years of meticulous analysis and consultation.

Meanwhile the museum will remain open “indefinitely,” says Horgan.

“British Columbians have made it clear they want the Royal BC Museum to remain open while we rethink our long-term plans to protect its priceless artifacts,” said Horgan.

The admission fee is a mere $5, reflecting the fact that many of the most popular historical exhibits, such as Old Town, have already been removed by the government-authorized wrecking crews.

Authorization for the removals dates back to last fall, when cabinet minister Melanie Mark first announced the NDP government’s intention of “decolonizing” the museum.

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Horgan was asked Wednesday about the wisdom of removing some of the exhibits before the government had finalized a design or construction schedule for the replacement.

He speculated that maybe some of the “priceless artifacts” now in storage could be put on display in the exhibition halls vacated by Old Town and the other colonial legacies.

Overall, the plan for the museum has been sent back to the board and CEO for a rethink and “a broad engagement” with the public on all options for the future of the museum.

‘Everything is on the table,’ said Horgan, though he still favors replacement over renovation.

“I’m confident that the engagement will be exhaustive and it is open ended. It is at the call of the museum board and the CEO as to where they go, what they talk about and how long it takes.”

Don’t rush, needless to say.

I expect the New Democrats would be satisfied if they never hear another word about this debacle before the next election.

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