Friday, June 11, 2010

Lekstrom turns up the heat on Liberal MLAs

Blair Lekstrom's resignation Friday capped a lousy week for the Liberals.
Lekstrom gave up his post as energy minister and left the party to sit as an independent because he can't support going ahead with the HST.
He's been wrestling with his obligations, Lekstrom said.
"I believe that my first priority as an elected official is to the people that elect me and then to the political party I represent," he concluded.
And the people were telling, him overwhelmingly and strenuously, that they didn't like the tax or the way the Liberals had introduced it. About 5,000 people have signed the anti-HST petitions in Peace River South; that's more than the 4,805 people who voted for Lekstrom in the last election.
Earlier in the week, Lekstrom had suggested putting the HST on hold for six months or a year to his cabinet colleagues and involving the public in a full discussion of tax options.
But Premier Gordon Campbell nixed the idea. He still maintains the problem is that people don't understand how positive the tax will be. (That seems to make people angrier, since it can be taken as an insult. And it raises the question - if the tax is such a no-brainer, why did the Liberals reject it for years - including through the election campaign?)
Cynics might grumble that Lekstrom left it awfully late. But it remains a principled move, one that will cost him about $50,000 a year.
The biggest impact will be on other Liberal MLAs. They too know their constituents are overwhelmingly opposed to the tax, the secretive introduction, or both.
Lekstrom's example leaves other Liberals to explain why they are willing to ignore the will of the people they represent.
And while one resignation won't shift the premier, two or three might. At the least, they would kick start the race to replace him.
The resignation came in the same week as an Angus Reid Public Opinion poll that should give Liberal MLAs serious concern.
The party's support has dropped to 26 per cent, with the NDP at 46 per cent. That's still above the amazing lows of the former NDP government in its last days, but not a whole lot.
It gets worse for the Liberals. The poll found three-quarters of respondents opposed the HST.
And it found that in Liberal ridings across the province, 45 per cent of those surveyed said they would definitely sign a recall petition against their MLA given a chance; another 17 per cent they would probably sign.
And they might get a chance.
The anti-HST petition looks to be successful. The government would then have several options in responding to it.
But some of the campaigners have said that unless the HST is axed, they will launch recall campaigns in November. Successful campaigns would mean the seats would be declared vacant and byelections held.
It's difficult to stage a successful recall campaign. Proponents would need signatures from 40 per cent of the people eligible to vote in the last election - not just of the number who actually cast ballots.
But there is a lot of anger and a well-organized cadre of volunteers in place.
Liberal MLAs in ridings where the HST opposition is fiercest and margins of victory were small should be looking over their shoulders.
Some will likely be wondering how much they should suffer for decisions they had no real part in making.
It's unlikely the public will be much cheerier in November. Campbell has been dismal in defending the tax and the way it was sprung on British Columbians without analysis or discussion.
And a planned advertising blitz - at taxpayer expense - is likely to make people angrier.
With the legislature shut down, likely until next spring, MLAs are going to be spending a lot of time in their ridings.
They better be able to defend both the tax - and the damaging way their leader has handled it.
Footnote: Lekstrom has acted independently in the past. He voted against the legislation gutting the contracts of public sector unions and opposed the Tsawwassen First Nations treaty. No other obvious potential defectors among the Liberal MLAs come to mind.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

If health authority boards ran the schools

If you like the way your regional health authority board is working, the government's review of the Vancouver school district will please you.
No matter where you live, the report matters. It's setting the stage for an overhaul of school boards that could make them much more like the health authorities. That is, unelected, less accountable to the public and focused on carrying out the government's direction.
Vancouver's trustees - like most boards across the province - have complained that provincial funding has been inadequate to cover necessary costs.
The government asked comptroller general Cheryl Wenezenki-Yolland - the government's top accountant, in effect - to review the district's operations after trustees said they needed $16 million more to cover education costs.
Her report is good reading. There are some legitimate criticisms of the Vancouver trustees, especially around a lack of long-term planning and the power of interest groups within the school district - mainly unions.
And some good suggestions, for school boards and government.
But the report is based on a faulty premise. It criticizes the board for being too focused on "advocacy" in pushing for programs and funding to improve education in Vancouver.
Trustees, Wenezenki-Yolland concludes, should instead be looking for ways to live within the available funding. There are chances to increase revenue and cut costs.
They should be much more like a corporate board of directors, she suggests, setting broad policy directions and letting management take charge. And much more focused on staying within budget.
Every board should be making the most effective use of available money.
But the report seems to forget that school trustees are elected. The voters decide who they think should serve. And they selected the Vancouver trustees, presumably, because they wanted people who would advocate for public education.
The report would appear to suggest those voters just got it wrong. That's possible, of course. Turnout is dismal for school board elections - generally less than one-third of registered voters. Motivated special interests can play a large role.
Still, that's democracy.
The report concludes trustees could balance the budget. They need, Wenezenki-Yolland says, to cut back to basics.
Junior kindergarten might be nice and improve the long-term outcomes for children, but the province doesn't fund it and it could be cut to save money, the report noted.
The district has been charging below-market rents for child care centres in school properties to create more spaces. The rents could be raised to bring in more money.
And the district could close schools to save money.
The trustees might be meeting community needs, but they are not critical to education, Wenezenki-Yolland says.
The problem is that the trustees were elected to meet community needs - to keep junior kindergarten, support day care and protect schools. They weren't appointed to follow the path the Education Ministry sets.
That's the basic issue. Should school boards be elected and accountable to voters, which means they will be advocates and push for more funding?
Or should they be appointed with an eye to what Wenezenki-Yolland calls a "competency matrix" to provide broad direction consistent with the government's policies.
It's an interesting debate in the abstract. Find nine diverse, knowledgeable, committed people and ask them to provide direction to a school district.
But the debate isn't in the abstract. That's the model the government has chosen for the five regional health authorities.
You would be hard-pressed to find many people in any corner of the province who thinks that has worked well. The boards are unaccountable; decisions are made behind closed doors; there are no champions for the needs of the community. It might suit the government's purposes; but for the public it has been a failure.
Elected school boards might be messy. But they beat the alternative.
And it's wise to be wary anytime government wants to take the right to elect your representatives away.
Footnote: The report suggested moving to a common accounting model to allow useful comparisons between school districts, a good step. It also suggested money could be saved by negotiating concessions with the Vancouver district's unions. The report didn't say why the unions would agree to hurt the interests of their members or what the district could offer in return for concessions.

Double standard on drunk driving?

A National Post editorial today takes a tough stand on drunk driving and particularly charges against a Liberal MP.

"Pablo Rodriguez must step down," says the headline.

"One thousand, two hundred and thirty-nine people dead. Seventy-three thousand, one hundred and twenty people injured. Between $2.2-billion and $12.6-billion in damages.

"These aren't the statistics from the latest natural disaster, terror attack or industrial accident. They are the toll drunk driving takes in a single year in Canada.

"It is obvious that drunk driving remains a deadly problem in this country, despite efforts by law enforcement, the justice system and public interest groups...

"Instead, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff has turned a blind eye when one of his own caucus stands accused of failing to comply with a police officer's request for a breathalyzer test, following a car accident in which alcohol may have been a factor...

"This incident happened in April. The police charged Mr. Rodriguez in May and he has a court date scheduled for June 15. All the while, with the full blessing of Mr. Ignatieff, he has continued to sit as chairman of the Liberal caucus...

"While Mr. Rodriguez maintains that he has done nothing wrong and intends to fight the charges, he should have done the honourable thing and resigned from caucus in the interim. More importantly, his leader should have asked for his resignation. Mr. Ignatieff's staggering indifference sends the message that drunk driving is not a serious issue -- or is only important when it involves politicians of other parties.

"This is not an acceptable stance for the leader of her Majesty's Loyal Opposition, or any politician, to take. Will Mr. Ignatieff now do the right thing and ask that Mr. Rodriguez step down? Out of respect for the thousands of victims of this social scourge, he really has little choice."

Pretty clear position.

So what did the National Post editorialists say when Gordon Campbell was caught driving drunk?

"Don't resign," the headline read.

"As everyone in Canada knows, B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell made a serious mistake when he got behind the wheel of his rental car in Maui while legally drunk. But he has owned up to his mistake, he has apologized and he has sworn off alcohol. It is now time for the Premier, and the province of British Columbia, to move on. If Mr. Campbell refuses to take on his critics forcefully, but instead indulges their political bloodlust with further displays of contrition, he will be making a second serious mistake, one that could end his political career...

"Let's be clear: Drunk driving is a serious problem that costs many lives, and Mr. Campbell is right to be ashamed of his behaviour. But the Premier did not hurt anybody. The offence with which he has been charged is a misdemeanour (in Hawaiian law), not a felony..."

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Want open and transparent? Try Washington

After the B.C. cabinet met with the Washington State counterparts, the New Democrats submitted FOI requests here and in Washington to find out what had been talked about.
Les Leyne reports on the unsurprising results here.