Friday, December 10, 2010

Grim picture behind cheery jobs news release

You expect a bit of spin in government news releases, but the one on the latest employment numbers left me dizzy.
It read more like party advertising. And that's wrong when the government is apparently ignoring a real problem.
"More people working in B.C. than ever before," said the headline. Employment was at a record level in November, topping the previous mark set in July 2008, before the recession.
True, and good news. But not anywhere near to a complete picture. In November, StatsCan reported 2,326,000 people were working, 2,000 more than in 2008.
But in July 2008 1,874,000 of those working had full-time jobs; the rest were part-time.
Last month, there were 84,000 fewer full-time jobs than before the recession - the ones that matter to people trying to make a life. The gains were entirely in part-time work.
And while there were more jobs overall, there were also more people living in the province and more people looking for work.
In 2008, 108,000 British Columbians were trying, unsuccessfully, to find a job.
Today, 173,000 people are seeking work. The unemployment rate has climbed from 4.4 per cent to 6.9 per cent.
The factors involved reach far beyond this province.
But B.C. has lagged the rest of the country in returning to pre-recession stability.
Nationally, full-time employment is basically at July 2008 levels. In B.C., it's down 4.5 per cent.
The number of unemployed people looking for jobs has increased by 29 per cent nationally and by 60 per cent in this province.
One result has been a steep increase in the number of people relying on income assistance - from 39,405 in July 2008 to 56,000 in October of this year. (That's not including disability income assistance.)
Those people are dirt poor. A single-parent family of three gets $623 a month, plus up to $700 for rent. (If they're crashing with family, they don't get the $700.)
All this is grim for the people out of work or on welfare. But it's also bad for communities. People with decent jobs shop and go to restaurants and fix up their homes. Businesses benefit.
A press release celebrating record employment doesn't reflect economic reality, without at least a paragraph noting the challenges in finding full-time work. It could leave people convinced they are failures, rather than casualties of an economic.
There are other issues in all this. The economy might recover after a recession and people might find work. But many of the new jobs will be lower paying, less secure and without pension plans or other benefits.
StatsCan released a report earlier this year that tracked people who had been laid off. Between 2002 and 2006, almost half returned to work at lower wages, while one-quarter made wage gains in their new jobs.
That's not surprising. Across B.C., more than 10,000 forest-sector jobs have disappeared since 2000, many in the last few years. Some of those people - trades workers, for example - might have found comparable work. But a lot of people left $60,000 a year jobs with good benefits and found $40,000 a year work with no pension or benefit plan.
Governments might not be able to stop global market trends. (Though it is astonishing how incoherent and ineffective B.C.'s forest policy has been over the last 15 years.)
But they should acknowledge the shift and say what they plan to do to ensure the best outcome for citizens. (It's not enough to issue press releases about wood sales to China. That's welcome, but not a coherent plan to address the problems in the job market.)
If fewer people have pension plans, for example, where is the new plan Premier Gordon Campbell promised more than two years ago as art of his 10-point action plan to deal with the recession? If more people are relying on part-time work, where is the overdue increase in the minimum wage to help them?
People's lives are shifting. They deserve more than a cheery press release from the government.
Footnote: The leadership campaigns - for both parties - provide a chance to at least try to get answers from candidates about what they would do to address the major economic shifts that see many British Columbians worse off and some in desperate circumstances.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Is something happening here?

Former Liberal cabinet minister Bill Bennett has some interesting ideas about politics in B.C. that could bring some very large changes. You can read them exclusively at Sean Holman's here.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Children's ministry subverts oversight

The Hughes report recommended - and the resulting legislation requires - the Ministry of Children and Family Development to report incidents where children in its care or receiving services have died or been harmed to the Representative for Children and Youth.
The ministry hasn't been complying. The failure was revealed when the media learned of a 15-year-old girl with Down syndrome who had spent nine days alone with her mother's corpse. When found, she was emaciated, raw with diaper rash and weak. But Minister Mary Polak said the ministry did not report the case because it didn't believe the girl had been harmed by the experience.
That prompted a damning review by the representative that revealed other, similar cases and a systemic failure to comply with the law.
Polak said the ministry will talk with the representative about changes.
But this calls for accountability — either from the person or persons in government who failed to ensure the law was followed or the minister.
A report by Lindsay Kines is here; a Times Colonist editorial here; and the representative's report here.

Monday, December 06, 2010

First thoughts on Carole James resignation

The New Democrats are going to pay a big price for the messy coup that saw a minority of MLAs force Carole James out as leader.

There is lots of blame to level at everyone involved, including James and her advisers for failing to head off the sniping.

But the 13 dissident MLAs who publicly pushed for James’s ouster share responsibility for handing the Liberals a victory in the next election.

And, perhaps, for showing that the NDP simply isn’t viable as an effective opposition party.

Most of the anti-James faction did a lousy job of articulating their complaints, especially considering the seriousness of their actions. Jenny Kwan gave the clearest explanation last week. James didn’t consult MLAs enough and changed positions caucus had agreed on. Under he leadership, the party had failed to set out clear positions on key issues. And she was angry two unions had been tapped to pay party president Moe Sihota a salary.

Those might be important issues to work on. They aren’t a reason to launch a coup and risk destroying the party.

After a weekend spent trying to reach some sort of truce, James decided it was impossible and stepped down.

The coup came although James had won party support in a vote last month; the delegates included a representative from each riding association. And the party constitution called for a leadership review vote at next year’s party convention.

But the dissidents wanted her gone now.

The result is a divided caucus and party and a baffled public. The Liberals are in trouble. The NDP looked to be on track to win the next election, based on the polls.

Yet a minority of MLAs forced out the leader. That raises questions about maturity and judgment.

It also makes voting NDP risky. Who is to say the next leader - the premier, if the party forms government - would not be forced out by a group of disgruntled MLAs? Voters can’t make a confident choice when the party is that unstable.

For that matter, who would want to run for leader — or donate and time and money to a leadership campaign - when the whole exercise can be overturned by a dozen MLAs who decide they don’t like the way things are going?

The NDP’s self-destruction isn’t just a concern for party members.

Our system relies on a effective opposition to critique government actions and policies and raise questions and concerns.

But it’s also important that the opposition party be a credible government-in-waiting.

If the party in power knows that the voters are prepared, given a reason, to hand the government over to the opposition at the next election, it has to take care. The governing party has to moderate positions, listen to critics and respond to the public.

The NDP hasn’t convincingly made the case that it can be a credible alternative. In 49 years, it has won three elections: In 1972, when David Anderson and the Liberals split the vote with the Socreds; in 1991, when Gordon Wilson and the Liberals split the vote with the Socreds; and in 1996, when Wilson’s PDA and Jack Weisgerber’s Reform party took votes from the Liberals.

And in each of those cases, the New Democrats got a lower share of the popular vote than they did under James last year.

The NDP has, in 50 years, been unable to build a base large enough to win a two-party contest. (The reasons don’t really matter for the purposes of this discussion.)

The polls suggest it had a chance of ending that bleak history. That’s unlikely now, at least until 2017.

At a certain point, something has to change if the province is to have a functioning party system, with at least two capable of winning enough voter support to form government.

Has the NDP's time come? (Not in a good way)

From an editorial in Tuesday's Times Colonist on Carole James and the NDP:

"More critically, perhaps, the affair raises the possibility that the NDP is simply not able to perform the role of an effective opposition.
That role goes beyond critiquing issues and holding the government to account. The opposition party must have a credible chance of being elected to govern to fulfil its role. Without that, the party in power has no need to moderate its positions or listen to community concerns. The existence of a viable government-in-waiting on the other side of the legislature is critical in encouraging government responsiveness.
Yet over almost 50 years, the NDP has failed to build a broad base of support. Its three election victories all came when two centre-right parties split the vote."

The editorial is here.