Friday, May 13, 2005

Teachers union gives Campbell his best campaign shots

VICTORIA - Gordon Campbell should send some sort of gift over to the BC Teachers' Federation.
The teachers' union has handed Campbell two of his most effective campaign moments. In the radio debate, he picked on three-term BCTF president David Chudnovsky, now running for the NDP. Do voters really want to see Chudnovsky at the cabinet table, deciding on the next teachers' contract, Campbell asked?
And then - five days before the vote - the BCTF makes the news, talking about a meeting two days after the election, when they will discuss a strike vote.
Campbell was all over it. "It's a duplicitous plan meant to engineer a school strike only weeks before provincial exams, that would would throw our school system into chaos," he said. Inaccurate and hysterical, but still politically effective.
The whole issue is fake. No government - left, right or in between - would allow schools to be closed by a strike for more than 10 days. Parents go crazy, because their children aren't learning and there is no one to take care of them (not necessarily in that order). Employers complain about the economic disruption.
But even if all governments end labour disputes that close schools. the Liberal and NDP responses to the issue still help define them.
The Liberals have made education an essential service. Teachers can strike, but the Labour Relations Board will decide what level of service must be provided, and how many people have to show up at work.
It's not really a protection against disruption. The labour board may rule that the essential elements of education can be provided in three hours a day. Two school districts have moved to four-day school weeks to save money since the last election, so the employer can't argue that a full school week is needed.
Carole James claims she would allow teachers the right to strike, but everyone assumes that she's not serious. An NDP government isn't going to look the other way if schools across the province are closed for months.
The real problem is that the current approach means there is never enough pressure on the parties to encourage bargaining. If the NDP is in power, the teachers' union figures it will do well when a strike is ended with an imposed contract, or backroom deal. If the Liberals are in power, the employer waits out the strike, counting on a good break from the government. It's a consistent incentive for one side to reject compromise.
Neither the Liberals nor the New Democrats have offered a sensible solution. The Liberals have a useful report from Don Wright that proposes replacing the phony right to strike with mediation, followed by final offer selection. (Both sides submit their best offer, an independent arbitrator picks one in its entirety, and that's the new deal. Major league baseball uses it to resolve salary disputes.)
But the Liberals haven't taken a position on the recommendations, which were released in December. And James hasn't offered any solution for resolving disputes.
They both get low grades.
But the teachers' union managers, they get an 'F.' The BCTF wants the Liberals defeated, and teachers have a right to be angry with the government. They negotiated contracts in good faith, and signed agreements with the province. And the Liberals decided government is above the law, and the contracts can be ignored.
Yet the teachers' union - through ineptitude, apparently - provided Campbell and the Liberals with a last-minute boost, in a close race.
It's a toss-up between the parties on the real education issues. The Liberals have not provided enough money to maintain the same level of educational quality that students had four years ago. That's a major failing.
The NDP would provide more money. But it would let teachers bargain issues like class size and staffing requirements, which should be decided based as matters of educational effectiveness, not labour relations.
Those are the issues that we should be debating.
Footnote: The significance of the BCTF meeting was exaggerated; unions routinely consider their next steps in negotiations. But that doesn't let the union off the hook. The teachers' federation has chosen to enter the political fray. That means competence is required, and wounding your allies is a sign of ineptitude .

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Why you should yes for STV on Tuesday

VICTORIA - Elections are precious opportunities, despite all the flaws in our political process.
You get to help choose the party with the best policies, or leader, or the local candidate who will work most effectively for your community'.
This election is even more precious. You have a rare - maybe once in a lifetime - chance to improve our system by voting for a new, and better, way of electing MLAs and governments. If enough of us say yes to the single-transferable-vote system, it will be used for the 2009 election, bringing more representative, diverse legislatures and more responsive MLAs.
Under the new system there would be fewer, larger ridings, with two to seven MLAs each, depending on population. The total number of MLAs would be unchanged.
On election day you would no longer mark an 'X' beside one candidate, rejecting the rest. You would rank as many candidates as you liked, in order of preference.
When the votes are counted, the election results reflect the overall rankings. (Opponents make much of the complexity of counting the ballots. The method is admirably explained at But really all you need to know is that it has been used in countries like Australia for a century, and works.)
Today, most B.C. voters face one decision - do they want the Liberals, or the NDP, to form the next government. That drives their vote, and the local candidate is largely irrelevant. People who run as independents, or for an alternative party, have little chance. Nomination contests for the two main parties - often undemocratic and flawed - matter more than the election.
But under STV, voters have options, because they are helping elect more than one MLA. In a five-member riding, a Liberal supporter might rank three of the party's candidates as the 1, 2 and 3 choices. But if he admired an individual from another party, or felt its voice should be heard, that person might become his fourth choice. There is a chance for independent candidates, or ones who champion important local issues.
The result will be a more diverse, representative legislature, with fewer wasted or reluctant votes for the less offensive party.
That's not the only benefit.
It's significant that voters under the system voters would rank candidates from within the same party. That means a party label isn't enough. Liberal candidates, NDP candidates, they will all be competing with each other for your support. Their re-election won't depend on keeping the party happy, but on representing the community effectively. Candidates who put the party interests ahead of the interests of the people they represent will be punished by voters.
Overall, the system is expected to weaken political parties - a good thing, since they have gained too much power at the expense of individual MLAs or MPs.
Some critics suggest that voters should reject STV in the hope of some future opportunity for better change. But governments almost never allow for this kind of citizen-directed change (full credit to Gordon Campbell). There's no reason to think this chance will come again.
Which means the choice on election day is between staying with the current system, or moving to STV and STV.
It's hard to imagine anyone defending the current system, which has produced confrontation, polarization, cynicism and plummeting voter turnouts.
And bizarre results. In the last election almost 200,000 people voted Green. They have had no voice in the legislature. Some 345,000 people voted New Democrat - one in five voters - and they were represented by two MLAs, two per cent of the seats. In 1996, the Liberals received six per cent more votes than the NDP, but six fewer seats. The New Democrats governed for five years without a real mandate from the public.
No country in the world moving to democracy would chose a system that produced those kinds of results.
The STV system may isn't perfect. But it's far better than what we have.
Footnote: Campbell deserves credit for establishing the Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform, but he has treated their work shabbily by failing to provide enough money for effective campaigns for and against the change. It's an important decision, and people should have had easier access to information.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Radio debate shows fierce final week ahead

VICTORIA - Too bad for the Liberals that the radio debate Gordon Campbell, fear tactics and all, didn't show up for last week's televised debate.
Campbell, Carole James and Adriane Carr held forth for 90 minutes - minus news and weather updates and commercials - on CKNW Monday, with most of the time spent answering planted call-in questions from supporters. (Vancouver Sun columnist Sean Holman, always tuned in, said he recognized a caller who asked James about giving teachers the right to strike as an aide to Liberal Shirley Bond, now working on her Prince George campaign.)
Campbell did well, although it was mostly a negative pitch, raising fears about the possibility of an NDP victory rather than enthusiasm for another four years under the Liberals.
That's tricky ground. Attack politics can be deceptive, destructive and ugly .
But Campbell's radio performance generally stayed on the right side of the line. It is fair to note that the NDP's slate of 79 candidates includes 16 people who served as MLAs or cabinet ministers in previous, discredited NDP governments. It's fair to note that 25 are union officers, or are otherwise active in the labour movement. It's fair to observe that Adrian Dix, Glen Clark's closest political advisor and the man who admitted falsely dating a memo during the casino scandal is running for the NDP.
And it is fair to ask voters if they really want former BC Teachers' Federation president David Chudnovsky, an NDP candidate, at the table if an NDP government - having restored teachers' right to strike - faces a showdown with the union.
There is still something depressing about the tactic. This is a sitting government elected with huge popular support - almost 60 per cent of the popular vote - that has driven away one a quarter of the people who elected it. Now the Liberals are reduced to campaigning as the least offensive option, at a time when unemployment is remarkably low and the economy strong.
James didn't do badly. She kept the focus on health, education and trust, all weak points for the Liberals. And she can probably be flattered by the shift in focus. In this debate, the NDP was treated like a party that might actually be the government, not just a strong opposition. That brings much closer scrutiny.
The radio show was also a good outing for Carr. In the TV debate, she was often part of a tag-team attack on Campbell, inevitably as a junior partner. This time she criticized both of the main parties, but the sharpest daggers were aimed at the New Democrats. "You can vote for what we've got now, you can vote for what you threw out four years ago, or you can vote for something new," Carr summarized, a good pitch.
The radio debate, with its limited audience, doesn't have anywhere near the impact of the TV debate. But it still matters as one of only two times that the public gets to see the leaders in action together. Clips from the debate, and observations by people like me, keep it at least somewhat in the public eye.
And it offers a good preview of what's ahead for the final week of the campaign. The Liberals have gone on the attack, acknowledging the strength of the NDP campaign, and their own vulnerability.
Partly, it's a stance aimed at rallying the campaign workers, and discouraging protest votes. Set out to create a strong NDP opposition, and you just may elect a James government, Campbell will say at every stop for the next week.
But it's also an admission of failure. Despite a strong economy, and initial goodwill, the Campbell government is now saying it is in a real fight to be re-elected.
It promises to be a hard-fought final week, and an election night more interesting than anyone would have predicted in the heady months after the 2001 vote.
Footnote: The Liberals should still win a significant majority, barring last-week surprises. But Campbell emerges from this campaign in much weaker position. In 1996, and again this year, Campbell has failed to improve the party's position during a campaign. That will encourage leadership challengers to emerge long before the 2009 election.