Wednesday, May 06, 2009

STV offers the chance for a better political future

I spent almost 10 years in the press gallery, watching B.C. politics from a front-row seat.
That's largely why I'm so convinced that you should vote yes in the STV referendum on Tuesday.
The current system doesn't work. Results are routinely unfair. In 1996, the Liberals got more votes than the NDP, but the New Democrats formed a majority government. In 2001, the Liberals got 58 per cent of the vote and 98 per cent of the seats. In 2005, 162,000 British Columbians - nine per cent of voters - backed the Greens, but were not represented in the legislature.
And that's not the only issue.
The current system encourages MLAs to keep their faces fixed on the leader and, as a result, to turn their backsides to their communities.
The challenge in most ridings is to get the nomination, not to win people over in the election campaign.
Voters are considering the party they want in power - or want to block. That drives their decisions on election day.
Candidates and MLAs need to keep in the party leaders' good books, to get a cabinet job or gain influence or even to keep the nomination. That effort is rewarded more than paying attention to constituents.
That leads to one the most common complaints about politicians - that instead of representing the riding in Victoria, they soon start representing the party in the riding.
STV won't fix all the system's ills. But it will be a significant step forward.
Here's how the system works. There would be fewer, larger ridings, with two to seven MLAs each, depending on population. The total number of MLAs wouldn't change.
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 were counted, the election results would reflect the overall rankings. The method is explained well at It's used around the world - Australia has used STV in national elections for 60 years - and considered fair and representative.
So the capital region, for example, would be a seven-MLA riding. They would come from more than one party - perhaps three New Democrats, three Liberals and a Green, based on the 2005 results.
Liberal supporters would not just mark an "X" beside the party's candidate, but rank them against the others - including their fellow Liberals. The ranking would help determine who is elected.
It would no longer be enough to carry the banner of a party. Voters would be judging how well each candidate would represent their interests.
So an incumbent who had been willing to stand up for a community - even if it made the party uncomfortable - would be rewarded with votes.
A Liberal who New Democrat or Green supporters considered effective would also be rewarded with a higher ranking. That is a considerable incentive for working with all members of the community and the legislature, rather than throwing up partisan walls.
While ridings would be larger, there would also be an incentive for parties to ensure that all constituents were well-served. If the NDP decided to run four candidates from Kamloops in the Columbia-Kootenay riding, while the Liberals nominated at least one candiate from Williams Lake, the New Democrats would pay a price.
Similarly, parties would be wise to have candidates with varied backgrounds and positions to appeal to diverse voters.
Minority governments are more likely, though far from certain. But that would mean parties must learn to work together - a process that would be aided by the increased focus on constituents.
It would also mean more centrist government, rather than the peculiar right-left lurches that have been the hallmark of B.C. politics.
This is a chance to take a leap forward and shed a system that simply doesn't deliver representative, effective government for one that offers the promise of at least some positive change. We shouldn't let it slip away.
Footnote: The measure will require 60 per cent approval and majority support in 60 per cent of the ridings. In 2005, 58 per cent of British Columbians voted yes, with majority support in 77 of 79 ridings. The STV system was chosen by a citizens' assembly of British Columbians.
For more, just search on STV on this blog. Lord knows I've written enough.

Monday, May 04, 2009

The FOI problem defined

BC Ministry responsible for FOI claims they have no record of how many employees work in FOI

Vancouver – - The ministry responsible for the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act across the BC government claims it has no documents stating how many people in the government work on FOI requests.
In March 2008, the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association filed an FOI request with the Ministry of Labour and Citizens’ Services asking for “the number of staff employed in managing and responding to FOI requests in the information and privacy offices of each ministry, for each year from the year 2000 to the present day.”
The Ministry responded to the FOI request by supplying 10 pages of near-unintelligible emails sent between ministries on a single day in November 2007, containing staff figures for two ministries. There are 19 ministries in the BC government.
The response included a statement that these were the only records responsive to the request.
The Ministry’s Service Plan for 2008-09 describes its role as follows:
“Citizens’ Services provides corporate leadership and strategic direction for information management and information technology across government. It is responsible for the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, the Personal Information Protection Act, the Document Disposal Act, and the Electronic Transactions Act and all policy, standards and directives that flow from them.”
“It is inconceivable to us that the lead department responsible for FOI across the government has no idea how many people actually handle FOI requests,” said FIPA Executive Director Darrell Evans. “You would naturally suspect they were hiding something – but maybe they really don’t know what is going on with FOI, despite what their own Service Plan says.
This does not bode well for the government’s plan, just announced, to centralize the processing of all FOI requests in a single agency within the Ministry of Labour and Citizens’ Services (MLCS).
The centralization of FOI was part of government’s response to a critical report from Information and Privacy Commissioner David Loukidelis. MLCS was identified as having the second worst performance in the entire BC government. (Only the Premier’s office was slower to respons to access requests.)
The Commissioner’s full report is available here.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

James comes out ahead in the leaders' debate

The wise Norman Ruff says it takes several days to declare a winner in a leaders' debate.
For starters, not that many people are actually watching. Especially at 5 p.m. on a spring Sunday, sunny here in Victoria.
About 37 per cent of the people in the Lower Mainland who were watching TV watched the debate in 2005. That was in primetime, on a Tuesday.
At most, one in six British Columbians watched even part of this year's debate.
Yet over a few days, based on media coverage and what people are saying at work or the playground, a sense will emerge of how did well, and who stumbled.
A few minutes after the debate, I'm thinking the Liberals should be nervous about how that consensus will shake out.
Gordon Campbell sounded a little defensive and, I have to say, looked a little crazy.
That's only partly his fault. The set, out of a high school TV station, had a black backdrop that left his head and white shirt floating like a low-budget special effect.
The format was tough for the party in power. The debate was structured around videos of questions from people around the province. They were pointed.
And Carole James was focused in her response and skillful in posing questions that Campbell had a hard time answering.
Green Leader Jane Sterk didn't really seem that relevant - sort of a polite heckler, offering occasional insights that would appeal to most rational voters, except for the reality that no Green candidate had a chance of being elected.
Campbell's pitch seemed to be that we face scary times ahead and he's the best person to have in charge. "I know British Columbians are worried," he said. "But we can get through this."
James doesn't have enough experience - especially business experience - to lead the province through a tough patch, Campbell suggested.
It's a little iffy as an argument, not least because Campbell has been a politician for the last 25 years. His business experience is dated.
James' pitch had two elements. The Liberals had a chance and had not delivered, she said, failing to invest in communities in the good time.
And she had a better sense of the problems faced by most British Columbians, James claimed. Her answers referred to people or groups she had met with and their struggles.
It was well done and fit nicely with poll results that indicated James is seen as more in touch with the priorities of average British Columbians.
The Liberals should have been in good shape heading toward the May 12 election. They have avoided big mistakes.
But it hasn't turned out that way. The latest poll suggests a close race.
And Campbell didn't win over undecided voters during the debate. He was stiff, defensive - a politician.
James was a politician, too, of course. But she appeared to understand the problems of ordinary people, whoever they are.
None of this matters for the committed Liberal or NDP voters.
But for a lot of people - those who are undecided, or the million-plus British Columbians who aren't likely to vote - the debate becomes part of the decision-making process.
That's not good for Campbell. James batted him around on several issues, from corruption to seniors care.
The leaders each got a chance to close out the debate.
Campbell talked about the economy and leadership. Jobs are at stake, he said. He looked worried.
James offered a plan for addressing five public policy issues, from taxes to education. She seemed positive.
Mostly, it seemed sad that this was the only debate of this long campaign.
Just 60 minutes, in a four-week campaign, to hear from the party leaders.
It's a strange way to choose a government and set the course for the province for the next four years.
Footnote: The most interesting point in the debate might have been about crime. Campbell and James talked about more police. Sterk talked about legalization of some drugs to talk the profits away from criminal gangs. She sounded sensible; they sounded delusional.

Beer and elections: Creating sorrows to drown

The campaign hoohaw about the price of beer should make you despair.
Private liquor stores are miffed at the NDP plan to roll back price breaks the Liberals have handed them in the last few years.
The bigger discounts cost taxpayers and enriched the well-connected private companies, who convinced the Liberals their profits weren't high enough. (You might try that - ask the store if it will cut prices for you because times a little tough.)
You can debate the largesse as a policy measure, but it's small potatoes in terms of election issues, unless you own a private liquor store.
Here's a primer. When the Liberals decided to allow private liquor stores in 2002, they said the operators could buy their stock at 10 per cent below the retail price in the province's liquor stores.
If a six-pack of beer sold for $10 in the government store, the private operator could buy it for $9 and mark it up to cover operating costs and leave a profit.
But the Liberals messed up the whole privatization effort. They told private operators the public stores would be closing.
Then - a little late, really - the government looked at the numbers. Closing the public stores would mean a big drop in government revenues, and thus higher taxes. There was no public advantage, just a big cost.
So the government reneged. That wasn't fair to the private operators, changing the rules after they had invested.
So to sweeten the deal, the government gave them a bigger discount - 12 per cent. For a store doing $2 million in sales, that meant an extra $40,000 a year in profits.
Not enough, said the stores. They kept lobbying and the next year got the discount raised to 13 per cent.
And, naturally enough, they kept lobbying - insider Patrick Kinsella was involved with one of the largest companies - and in 2007 John Les quietly gave the private stores another windfall. The discount jumped to 16 per cent.
There was no public benefit. Quite the opposite - every time the government increased the price break for private stores, it reduced its own revenues. And that means taxes had to go up.
And there was no economic case for the change. Stores weren't closing. In fact, in the year before the last gift, the number of private stores increased by 10 per cent and the leading company said it planned more expansion.
The government just offered a series of gifts to the private companies, at your expense. The discounts will mean more than $50 million a year transferred from government to a select group of private businesses.
The NDP, looking for revenue to support spending increases, said in its platform it would rescind the changes and take the discounts back to their original, 10-per-cent level. That would produce $155 million over three years, the party says.
Horrors, says the industry. The change would mean the companies would pay an extra 80 cents wholesale for a six pack of beer, which they would pass on to their customers. People seeking convenience would pay; the frugal would likely go to a government store.
The industry's bigger concern is the NDP plank to raise the minimum wage from $8 to $10. Most jobs in the private liquor business are minimum wage; the industry believes having to pay staff $10 an hour would add 15 to 20 per cent to its operating costs.
Wiping out the whole discount is probably unfair. The initial increase, in 2003, was reasonable compensation for the way the Liberals changed the rules of the game after some private companies had entered the industry.
But the following two price breaks were simply gifts from the government to a group of well-connected private companies (and political donors). At taxpayers' expense.
Footnote: Private liquor store expansion has increased the number of alcohol outlets from 786 in 2002 to 1,294 in 2008. A report last year from the province's chief health officer noted that the expansion of private outlets had identified as a factor in increasing addiction and problem and youth drinking.