Wednesday, March 20, 2002

B.C. politics look better from 6,000 kms away
By Paul Willcocks
ATHENS - Where are you from, asks the waiter, as we settle into the open air restaurant beside a small square in Athen's old Turkish Quarter.
Canada, British Columbia, we offer, not sure how much detail to provide.
Ah, says the waiter. Fast ferries. You had a very bad government you had to throw out.
So much for escaping B.C. politics.
To be fair the waiter had worked in Vancouver, about 25 years ago. And he had received a news update from another diner a few days earlier.
But the encounter was a reminder that when your work involves thinking about B.C. politics every day, it's hard to turn things off.
The next day we climbed up winding lanes to the Acropolis, where work crews and mobile cranes struggled to preserve the Parthenon from the ravages of time and pollution, it being too late to save it from the damage caused by the explosion of a Turkish munitions store some 400 years ago or the raids of Lord Elgin in the 19th Century. (Which raises the question of whether it isn't time for a boycott of British products until their government agrees to a responsible plan to return the Elgin Marbles - the finest part of the Parthenon existing - from the British Musem to an appropriate home in Athens?)
What I wondered, slightly pathetically, was whether the Campbell Liberals would have privatized the Acropolis, handing management over to whomever can come up with the best business plan. After all, that's apparently the approach to be taken to heritage sites in B.C.
It would be cheaper, but I'm not sure having an amiminatronic Aprhodite greeting visitors in Disney fashion would really add to the experience.
These troublesome thoughts of B.C. politics won't go away. How do private ferry operators in Greece cover greater distances at a much lower cost than BC Ferries? (Though it's only fair to note that this week the former chairman of one company appeared in court in connection with a sinking 18 months ago that killed 80 people.) Why is local wine available in plastic bottles for less than $2 a litre. How can a stay in a hotel room with a kitchen, two bedrooms and a view over a stunning beach cost less than $40?
There are some obvious answers. Greeks have the second lowest per capita income in the European Union. Education is free - including university - but the system is starved for funds and most parents scrap together money for private tutoring to help children win scarce university places. Hospitals are so short of money that families are expected to bring in the meals. And 2,000 Greeks die each year on the roads, about 15 times the Canadian rate, as highway construction and maintenance lags growing pressure.
Are poor schools, health care and sinking ferries the price paid for cheap wine, low taxes, and low costs?
It's not a question can a brief visit can answer.
But in Sparta the man who runs a small restaurant on the main street offers his view. He spent 21 years in Toronto before coming home a decade ago.
He's not sure about that decision now. Health care is so much better in Canada, he says, and things so much more efficient.
Maybe I should have stayed, he says a little sadly.
On a small island the man who runs the waterfront grocery store has a similar story. He went to Montreal as a teenager and worked hard for 20 years before coming home.
It was a mistake, he says. He's working harder now, for less, and sees a tough time ahead.
Canada offered more, he says, looking out at the beach.
Greece has sun, low costs, a thriving culture.
But for the people who live there, Canada seems a very fine place indeed.

Paul Willcocks can be reached at