Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Bennett another victim of the B.C. political disease

Bill Bennett’s fall from grace — or at least cabinet — is partly just a story of bad judgment and bad behaviour.
Bennett is the MLA for East Kootenay and, until this week, was the junior minister for mines. He resigned from cabinet after a constituent went public with a dumb, abusive and offensive e-mail that he’d received from Bennett.
But this isn’t just about Bennett’s lousy manners. The whole exchange highlights a persistent sickness in B.C..
We don’t really talk about policies or how to respond to problems in this province.
We just choose up sides and flail away at each other, like bike gangs or British soccer hooligans. If you’re on a team, you’re expected to support every policy and from your leader and denounce every idea from the other side.
You can’t decide, for example, that the Liberals have a pretty good ideas on encouraging the oil and gas industry, while.the NDP has a better approach to support for children and families.
And you certainly can’t assume that people in both parties are just trying to follow the path they think will lead to a better life for people in the province. The other side have to be seen as the enemies, evil conspirators out to destroy the economy (the Liberals’ view of the NDP) or reward the rich while pushing most of us into poverty and despair (the New Democrats’ view of the Liberals).
Not everyone is so foolish, of course. And in fact, the political leaders have mostly been better behaved since the last election.
But our political life is still dominated by those who trapped in the friends and enemies mindset. Look at the e-mail exchange that led to Bennett’s downfall.
The issue, hunting regulations, isn’t really left-right.
Recreational hunters in Bennett’s riding thought rule changes planned by the Environment Ministry would give commercial guides a larger share of the animals to be killed at their expense.
Bennett is a hunter and was mostly on their side. He said he was in his hotel room, when he thought he should have been downstairs at a mining conference, preparing for a meeting on the issue with Environment Minister Barry Penner.
And in the file was a two-month-old e-mail from a constituent.
Maarten Hart, president of the Fernie Rod and Gun Club, argued commercial guides were getting too large a share. But in the best B.C. fashion, Hart tossed in a pointless insult. “I know that your government bows to the almighty dollar and faces east three times each day (not to Mecca, but to Wall Street),” Hart wrote, an approach hardly likely to win an ally.
Bennett topped him. “It is my understanding that you are an American, so I don't give a shit what your opinion is,” he wrote. Hart was “fool,” maybe an U.S. spy aiming to block coal mines and “a self-inflated, pompous, American know-it-all.”
Obviously, wretched behaviour.
But not so wildly out of character, for Bennett or B.C. People who disagree with our politicians find themselves often considered opponents or enemies, instead of just citizens with a different - and perhaps useful - perspective.
So for Glen Clark, back in his early days as premier, the environmentalists who criticized forest policy weren’t just people with a different policy idea — they were “enemies of B.C.”
Gordon Campbell carried on the tradition in his early days as premier, dismissing people who rallied outside a party convention to express concern about government policies as both stupid and representatives of special interests.
And Bennett had a hard time accepting the fact that people upset about health-care in his riding, for example, had sincere concerns, and might even be right.
Bennett, who had a lot of strengths as an MLA, including a determination to do what was best for his constituents, is the big loser in this case.
But all British Columbians are damaged by our inability to move beyond blind and destructive partisanship.
Footnote: Bennett was named to cabinet after the 2005 election, when he was the sole Liberal survivor in the province’s southeast. His departure comes as health care continues to be an issue and the region faces important debates about expanded coal mining, wildlife conservation issues and the giant Jumbo Glacier Resort ski development.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Liberals face tricky climate-change test

Now things get interesting on climate change. Not just politically, though that’s going to be fascinating.
No, it’s also about us. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report was decisive. Global warming is under way, we’re the cause and the results could be very nasty within 100 years.
Now we find out much we care about our great-grandkids, or even strangers who will be walking these streets as the next century starts.
It’s hard to predict what we’ll do. We’re not much focused on thinking long term. Governments look to the next election; businesses to the next quarter; a lot of us just want to get through the week.
We can decide it’s not worth the cost or inconvenience of changing what we do now, or perhaps rationalize that technology will advance fast enough to solve the problems we create. And there’s always the argument that unless China’s emissions are curbed, what’s the point? (Though China’s per-capita greenhouse gas emissions are about one-quarter of Canada’s.)
But we can’t ignore the facts. The panel report comes from a huge pool of international scientists. They believe it is a 90-per-cent certainty that humans are causing global warming. Temperatures will rise 1.1 to 6.4 degrees Celsius by the end of this century, they predict, and sea levels from 18 to 60 centimetres. Life on Earth will be more difficult for billions.
This is not one of those “someone should do something issues.” Everyone can make a difference — or not.
A family with two cars - one large and one medium-sized - driven a total 2,500 kms a month produces about 8,700 kilograms of CO2 a year.
Trade the big car in for a small one and walk and bike more so travel is cut by one-third, and the family only produces 5,000 kgs. Use a clothesline, not a dryer; turn off the computer when you’re not browsing; buy less new stuff. They all make a difference.
Between 25 and 30 per cent of Canadian greenhouse-gas emissions are the result of individuals’ direct actions. Individual efforts make a difference.
But no matter how much - or little - people are prepared to do personally, all the polls suggest they expect governments to take real action.
So, in a relative flash, Stephen Harper goes from a guy who doubts climate change and thinks the Kyoto accord is a socialist plot to a sort-of convert. St├ęphane Dion forgets his record of inaction and practically glows, he’s become so green.
Provincially, the New Democrats were the first off the mark after the scientific panel’s report.
Leader Carole James sees a wedge issue, as they call them, a chance to show a clear divide between the positions of the two parties. (The New Democrats had no position, so they had lots of flexibility.)
The result is some relatively tough proposals. The NDP wants a freeze on greenhouse gas emissions in B.C., with reduction targets set after a legislative committee looks at the issue.
The party wants more tax breaks for fuel-efficient vehicles, more money for public transit and a mix of incentives and regulations to reduce emissions from the oil and gas industry.
The New Democrats also want a portion of energy revenues to go into a heritage fund, to be used in part to support efforts to reduce greenhouse gases.
And the NDP wants a ban on coal-fired power plants in B.C.
The Liberals can likely agree on many of those measures. We’ll find out in the Throne Speech Tuesday.
But two will give them pause.
The Campbell government has so far set no target for greenhouse emissions and is likely to consider a cap on emission growth too tough to achieve.
And the government has supported plans for two new coal-power plants, a major source of greenhouse gases.
The New Democrats have dumped the climate-change issue into the Liberals’ laps.
Within the next week the government is going to have to come up with a credible plan of its own.
Footnote: B.C. does have a two-year-old climate-change plan, which you can check out at www.env.gov.bc.ca/air/climate/. But there are almost no measurable targets and an awful lot of talk about consulting and encouraging and enhancing, rather than doing. It’s the kind of plan that in the business world would be bounced back as too vague to be useful.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

If politicians get income review, why not people on welfare

The latest effort to come up with raises for B.C. politicians is a big step forward over the last debacle, but still falls short of an ideal process.
And it raises some good questions about why MLAs and cabinet ministers think its important that their pay be regularly reviewed, but somehow don't believe a disabled person who relies on government assistance deserves the same consideration. Of course anything would be better than the last sneaky attempt - backed by both parties - that would have given MLAs a 15-per-cent pay raise and total compensation increases worth up to 50 per cent. In case you've forgotten - and the politicians are sure hoping you have - that was in 2005, after the election. They planned the raises behind closed doors and then, using a special rule, rushed them through the legislature in one hour. Such debates usually require three days, so the public has a chance to go, what a minute, what's going on here.
In this case, the public went crazy anyway. NDP leader Carole James reneged on the secret deal and the raise issue went away. This time Premier Gordon Campbell is taking a more responsible approach. A three-person panel has 90 days to review compensation and pension plans and make recommendations.
No real argument there. MLAs earn a base pay of $76,100, with extra money for heading committees or being cabinet or caucus appointments. Cabinet ministers get $115,100; the premier $121,100. There's a living allowance when they're in Victoria and a contribution to an RRSP in lieu of a pension plan. The RRSP contribution is nine per cent of base pay, or about $6,850.
It's not huge money. The work can be hard, MLAs are away from home, they're sacrificing peak years for advancing their own careers and they can be turfed every four years. For many, they're giving up serious money by seeking election.
But it's also not shabby. The base pay is still twice the average wage in B.C. It's about 4.5 times the income of someone working for minimum wage. And it's more than four times the income the government considers necessary for a disabled person, unable to work, and trying to raise a young child.
The panel is a qualified group, chaired by a senior lawyer who specializes in helping employers with labour issues. The other two members are a former B.C. Supreme Court justice back in private practice and a University of British Columbia business professor.
Great expertise. But also a skewed perspective. All three earn more than the premier today; the two lawyers likely take in twice as much. All three would be paid more than 95 per cent of British Columbians.
Given human nature, their views on a reasonable wage will be affected by the fact that they consider their own compensation quite fair.
The panel plans to give the public a chance to make submissions.
But it would have been wiser to include members with a different perspective - someone earning an average wage, living in Trail or Prince George. After all, we elect those kinds of people as MLAs and expect them to make other important decisions.
The whole exercise raises some other pretty good questions.
The government's news release said that MLAs and cabinet ministers hadn't received any "significant increases" since a 1997 review. But their pay is indexed, in a modest way, and recent increases have averaged about 1.1 per cent a year.
Not much. But more than people on minimum wage or most welfare recipients have seen during the same period.
If it's important to examine the compensation for politicians, to keep it current and make sure it's reasonable, what about others, like people on welfare?
Certainly the government looks at those issues.  But it's managing a tangle of interests, some of them conflicting.
Why not give the panel another 60 days and ask for recommendations on those rates as well? If it 's important to get compensation right for 79 MLAs, surely it's just as important to take an independent look at the money being provided to some 70,000 disabled British Columbians dependent on income assistance.