Wednesday, February 05, 2003

Liberals heading for education disaster
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - The Liberals are blowing the education file, politically and practically.
All across the province, from Prince George to Kamloops to Terrace to the Lower Mainland, school districts are chopping millions from their budgets - on top of the millions they cut last year. Schools will be closing, classes will be getting larger, programs will be cut and costs will be shifted on to parents, whether they can afford them or not.
That's not what the Liberals promised. The New Era campaign pledged that the Liberals would maintain education funding and increase it as a stronger economy boosted government revenues. It said nothing about tax cuts that would knock $2 billion off government revenue.
It's a big political mistake to make voters feel like saps for believing you. (Just ask the NDP.)
And it's a big mistake to pick a fight with parents, who tend to care strongly about their children's future, know how to organize and vote.
But this isn't just a political issue.
No matter how they may dance around the reality, the Liberals are putting educational quality in B.C. at risk. And by doing that, they are threatening the province's future economic progress.
There's nothing wrong with closing schools. Declining enrolments make that a certainty. There's nothing wrong with larger class sizes, for the right students in the right subjects. And there's certainly nothing wrong with looking for ways to deliver better education for less money.
But what's happening in B.C. right now isn't about better education. The government didn't start by deciding how much money is required to provide the education that children need to have a chance in the world.
It started with an arbitrary spending freeze.
The NDP hadn't been crazy spendthrifts in education. The budget increased around 2.5 per cent in each of the last few years, enough to cover wage increases and other costs.
But the Liberals' three-year freeze changed the game, especially because they decided to give teachers a 2.5-per-cent a year raise without giving the school districts any money to cover the costs last year or this year.
School districts scraped by last year, closing more than 40 schools and making the least painful cuts - even going to a four-day week in one case.
But after more than $100 million in cuts last year to cover wage increases, MSP increases and other cost pressures, they face the same thing again this year - and again next year. The cuts are drawing blood.
And none of the changes are being made in the interests of children. They are being made to meet the arbitrary spending freeze and pay for the tax cuts.
Maybe parents are just another special interest group to the government, but they're a large one already being heard by Liberal MLAs.
The finance committee seeking comments on this year's budget - 10 Liberals and one New Democrat - came back convinced the cuts were too deep.
Premier Gordon Campbell has tried to downplay their report, saying it reflected what MLAs heard, not their views.
But he's mistaken. Here's a comment from the committee's report. "We think the shortage of funds is reaching a critical stage for rural schools and schools-based programs in urban areas." That's the Liberal MLAs' analysis, not a replay of public comments.
The Liberals should have learned from Ontario. A government review last fall found the education spending freeze there was a mistake. School boards have had to cut services to students each year and educational quality has fallen. The government has vowed to increase funding.
A good public school system gives kids a chance. Home may not be so great, maybe they never got taken to the library, but in school children should have the chance to achieve.
And it gives the province a chance, providing the people who can make their way in a world where knowledge and the ability to learn are increasingly valuable resources.
The Liberals aren't delivering for kids, or the province.

Plant betrayed public, judge and Roddick in smoking judge case
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - If I was Val Roddick or one of the other MLAs facing credible recall campaigns, I'd be steamed at Geoff Plant and some of his cabinet colleagues.
It's tough defending school closures, or threats to health care services, but at least those are part of the Liberal plan. Taking the heat for them is part of the job. Roddick was even surviving a recall effort focused on those issues. The campaign had stalled halfway to its goal and was running out of time.
But then the recall troops got a late boost.
Premier Gordon Campbell weaved drunkenly down the highway in Maui.
The government revealed that it was prepared to reserve parts of the commercial fishery for First Nations as part of treaty settlements. That's reasonable, especially because the province and Ottawa had already made the commitment at the table. But for the voters who thought the treaty referendum actually meant something, it looked like betrayal.
And then came the news about the $19,000 smoking room built for Justice Mary Southin.
Those three factors gave new life to the recall campaign, says Roddick. Volunteers were energized and angry voters rushed to sign the recall petition. Roddick is now waiting to find out whether she'll become the first Canadian politician to be fired by voters between elections.
There's not much more to say about the premier's drunk driving. As for the aboriginal fishery decision, it's defensible.
But Roddick should be asking what the heck is going on with Plant and the smoking judge.
When the news broke about two weeks ago Plant offered a simple defence. The 71-year-old judge either wanted to keep smoking or retire, he said, and it would cost much more to pay her pension than to improve ventilation in her office.
(Plant also said judicial independence was involved and warned the province could be dragged into costly legal battles if it had to argue that WCB rules applied to judges. But no one except Plant had talked about a legal battle; Southin said she would retire if she couldn't smoke.)
He stuck to those explanations while an angry public wondered about the government's priorities and double standards.
But surprising news leaked out this week. It turns out that the judge had offered to share the cost back in December. Plant's deputy wrote her a cheerful note saying taxpayers would be "pleased" to provide the $19,000 ventilation system.
Except they weren't.
Plant learned that the judge had offered to pay on Jan. 17, the day the story hit the headlines. But for two weeks it was his secret. Only when public anger kept mounting did he reveal the offer, and say he was accepting it. Southin will now pay $12,000.
All the while Roddick dangled, and the judge took unjustified abuse.
Why didn't Plant tell the public about the offer?
No reporters asked specifically if Southin had offered to pay, he said. And it wasn't his job to provide information to the public voluntarily.
It's a strange position for an open government, that there's no duty to provide important information to the public about a major controversy unless a specific question is asked.
Consider the context. Public money, public interest, the fate of a colleague - Roddick - and the reputation of the justice system, all on the line. And no disclosure.
If I were an MLA facing a recall, I'd be wondering why Plant left me hanging when all he had to do was say 'I just learned the judge offered to pay, and we're accepting the offer.' (And I'd feel mighty betrayed if Plant had kept the caucus in the dark along with all the other British Columbians.)
It's going to be a tough slog for the MLAs facing recall efforts. They don't need people within their own government making it even tougher.
And the public doesn't need politicians who aren't prepared to tell them the whole story.