Liberals betray past by rushing labour bills through
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - The Liberals want to cut the amount of money going to injured workers by $100 million per cent - and they don't want to talk about the effect of the cuts.
It's almost as if they don't quite get this democracy thing, the notion that debate in the legislature is a way to ensure that new laws have their desired effect without causing any undue hardship. The Liberals are abusing the legislature - their own backbenchers more than anyone - by ramming through major bills without any meaningful debate.
The government introduced three major labour bills - changing the Labour Code, the Employment Standards Act and the way the Workers' Compensation Board works - with only days left in the session. That means each will receive only the most cursory reviews.
And that is a loss.
Our system usually requires ministers, supported by staff, to show up and answer detailed questions on the bills they introduce. The MLAs plod through them section by section, raising concerns or questions about why the changes are being made, how they'll work and what the consequences will be.
It's the chance to make sure that the purpose is on the record and that the public's questions are answered. And it's a chance to make sure that the government has not overlooked an unintended effect of a new law, or misjudged the effect on people.
The Liberals used to think that was important. When the New Democrats choked off debate on the Nisga'a treaty the Liberals were outraged. Premier Gordon Campbell called it "an absolutely disgraceful attack on the integrity of the legislature."
He was right. And now his government is doing exactly the same thing.
The labour bills are important. Changes to the Employment Standards Act and Workers' Compensation are significant and affect almost everyone in the province.
Take just one example. The WCB now increases wage loss benefits for someone disabled on the job with the rate of inflation. Under the new rules - which will only apply to new claims - benefits will increase at one per cent less than the inflation rate.
No big deal in the short term. But for a worker disabled at 25, the change could mean a loss of $600,000 by the time he reaches 65. Now his real income is maintained. Under the new rules, he would lose more than one-third of his purchasing power to inflation.
It's not necessarily a bad change. Few private disability plans are fully indexed; it costs too much and it's assumed peoples' needs decline over time. But debate would allow MLAs to question the minister about how many people will be affected and how much the average loss will be.
The WCB changes also end the practise of continuing pensions after age 65. Now the WCB will in effect contribute five per cent of benefits to an RRSP, and that money will fund the disabled workers' retirement. That's a major change; its effects should be explored in the legislature.
The ESA changes are just as significant, ending such provisions as overtime after eight hours of work and allowing employers to call in staff for two-hour shifts, while slashing enforcement.
The changes are supportable, bringing flexibility for companies and employees. But they are complex and far-reaching and the public interest would be served by a proper legislative review.
The Liberals say the rush is the price to be paid for having fixed dates for the legislative sittings. Some bills will be introduced late and rushed through at the end of each session.
But a government that respected the role of MLAs would not have waited until the last minute to drop three major bills.
The Liberals were clear about the importance of proper legislative review when they were in opposition. It's too bad they've forgotten now.
Paul Willcocks can be reached at email@example.com
A glimmer of treaty hope (no, it's not the referendum)
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - If you're among the 30 per cent who voted in the treaty referendum, you'll remember Question 4, the one where the government wants you to say yes, parks should be maintained for the benefit of all British Columbians.
Here's a surprise. Even while Elections BC staff were starting to count through 700,000 ballots, the Liberals were getting ready to hive off a piece of park to help clear the way for a treaty deal.
It's the right thing to do. But it also underlines one of the many problems with this referendum. You're being asked to support principles which the government can ignore.
So while it wants a mandate to make parks off limits in treaty talks, the Liberal government feels free to hand over 11 hectares of Hesquiat Peninsula Provincial Park, on the west coast of Vancouver Island. The Hesquiaht First Nation will get the small piece of foreshore for a shellfish farm, a key economic opportunity for the tiny band. No roads will be built; the impact on the park will be minimal. A treaty one step closer, the band better off, no one hurt - and the Liberal treaty principle broken.
Good on them, of course. How can it be wrong to give people the chance to earn a living, on land they once owned, with no real damage to our interests?
But if the referendum is real, what are they doing defying the principle? And if it's not real, what's the point?
The referendum aside, there is at last some encouraging news on the treaty front.
Since last year a task force with representatives from First Nations and federal and provincial governments has been trying to find ways of making the process work better, building on recommendations from the the B.C. Treaty Commission.
It's an overdue step. After some $500 million and nine years, no treaties have been signed. First Nations have borrowed about $150 million.
The working group's plan has been reviewed by Attorney General Geoff Plant, federal ministers Robert Nault and Stephen Owen and Kathryn Teneese and Bill Wilson of the First Nations Summit.
And since April three different teams - each with representatives from First Nations, federal and provincial governments and the treaty commission - have been working on practical plans to push things forward. Their reports are expected next week.
One of the key proposals is to move some of the bigger issues to provincial and regional negotiations.
Right now there are about 40 different negotiating tables. Rather than trying to reach agreement on certainty or First Nations' government at each, the parties would try for a province-wide solution.
It won't be easy. Individual First Nations have been reluctant to give up bargaining authority to a central group and the issues are difficult.
But the alternative is gridlock. The task force noted the waste in having 40 First Nations paying for accountants' studies on complex taxation issues, when the principles could be addressed on a provincial level.
And right now, at each table, all three parties are aware that they may be setting a precedent on key issues. The fear of reaching a deal that could alter the course of all future negotiations - and be widely criticized - is blocking agreement.
The task force has other ideas that will be tougher to put into effect. They argue that more effort should go into building treaties incrementally, seeking small agreements en route to a settlement.
The principle makes sense. But turning the idea into reality at the bargaining table will be difficult.
The report won't magically fix talks. In fact one useful recommendation is that all the parties look hard at whether agreement is possible, given their goals and mandates.
But the task force has taken a realistic look at fixing the process. Its proposals should be put to the test.
Paul Willcocks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org