Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Why you should care about the NDP leadership vote
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - OK, it's time to start paying a little attention to the NDP leadership race.
The battered party picks a new leader Sunday morning, after a contest that hasn't exactly dominated media headlines.
That's not a bad thing. After all, the last NDP leadership race earned headlines mainly for controversy over mass sign-ups of new members and allegations of dubious practices. (Who can forget Moe Sihota's claim that he had boxes of signed membership forms in his basement, but hadn't decided whether he'd actually send them to the party?)
But it's worth tuning in now, in part because the convention should be entertaining - at least there's a real race - and in part because the NDP may be sick now, but it will likely be a political force again.
The generally acknowledged front-runner is Carole James, who has the support of Jenny Kwan, Svend Robinson and the province's biggest public sector unions. She live in Prince George now, where she has been working with a First Nation. But she did live in Victoria, worked for the government and was the long-time chair of the Victoria school board and the BC School Trustees Association. James came within a few dozen votes of winning a Victoria seat in the 2001 election.
She's got a good reputation down here, and has built a broad base of support. Her campaign has been a bit mushy, long on generalities and weak on specifics. But broadly, she's a centrist candidate in the NDP world.
Chasing her is Leonard Krog, a one-term MLA from Nanaimo who was part of the Harcourt government. Krog's a lawyer, and he's won backing from a number of party leading lights, including a former premier Dave Barrett, and ex-ministers Dale Lovick, Tim Stevenson and John Cashore.
Krog has pitched his skills and experience, and green credentials. Like James, he's towards the centre of the field in terms of traditional NDP values, although most observers would likely position him slightly farther left. (What does that mean? He's more likely to defend past NDP policies, and more likely to slide fiscal restraint backwards as a factor in decisions.)
Figure that those two will emerge as the first ballot leaders.
But close behind should be the most intriguing candidate, party newcomer Nils Jensen.
Jensen faced an uphill run. He joined the party days before entering the race, although he can note that as a Crown prosecutor he needed to keep his distance from politics. But he donated money to Liberal Sheila Orr's campaign, a move that raised NDP eyebrows.
Jensen has run the strongest, most interesting campaign. He has positioned himself as the candidate to help the NDP start fresh by moving towards the centre and building a coalition of those dissatisfied with the Liberals. (When candidates were asked about free university tuition at a leadership forum, only Jensen said that it was a bad idea because the province can't afford it.)
He's lined up some impressive support, with Corky Evans agreeing to head up a panel on resource communities and former premier Dan Miller backing his bid.
And Jensen, as the chair of Greater Victoria's water district board, has been irritatingly green, a move that should allow many environmentalists to return to the NDP.
There's three other candidates, including former MLA Steve Orcherton who is the staunchest defender of the party's old path. But their significance likely rests more on where their support will go on the second ballot.
The race is too close to call. And whoever wins faces the prospect of at least five years in opposition.
But the NDP has managed to find several candidates who could move the party on the road back to credibility with voters.
The fastest progress - and maybe the riskiest, given the number of unknowns - would likely be under Jensen.
Footnote: One striking element of the race is the lack of candidates from the Interior and North, where at the NDP currently has the strongest support. Krog's from Nanaimo; James has been in Prince George for more than a year. But the candidates really represent urban B.C. Jensen's link with Evans is a useful one for developing rural support.

Don't blame trustees for school fund shortage
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - School trustees should be mighty steamed at Education Minister Christy Clark.
Clark has just made the baffling claim that the reason parents aren't happier with their school system is that - wait for it - that school trustees have been socking money away in the bank, instead of spending it on kids.
Now even without looking at the facts, that seems a little odd. It's hard to see why all across the province, people ran for trustee - a job that pays poorly, takes a huge amount of time and involves a great deal of pressure - for the purpose of hoarding cash.
Look at the facts, and you see Clark's claim is empty.
The criticism comes because audits show the school districts finished up last year with a surplus of $145 million last year. Too much, Clark says. The districts are hoarding money instead of spending it on children.
"We allocated an extra $92 million in the last two years to school districts and still parents are telling me they don't see that in improved services in classrooms," she says. "Now we know why. There's $145 million that's been socked away."
She should know better.
First, more than one-third of the surplus was created because the education ministry came up with a last-minute $50 million for school districts weeks before the fiscal year ended. That was welcome. But it would be irresponsible - and ineffective - for school districts to rush out and spend the money before the year-end. In fact, they generally set aside the money to reduce the cuts needed this year.
That leaves about $95 million. Not small change, but only a little over two per cent of district spending. Districts are supposed to be balancing their budgets; that seems pretty close.
But in fact, trustees say, almost all the money was actually committed at year-end. I live in Saanich, where Clark's tally would claim the school district had a $2.9 million surplus at year-end, money that should have been spent.
But about $1.2 million was money allocated too late in the year to be spent effectively. Another $1.2 million had been saved by schools, through cost-cutting measures, and set aside for needed equipment like photocopiers or shop tools. Still more money had been reserved for purchases that had already been made, even though the invoice haven't been received.
It all sounds sensible. And the money has hardly vanished. In fact it's already been spent on education.
So why are parents complaining to the minister?
The best guess is because the Liberals have decided to squeeze education funding. The announcements make much of funding increases for schools. But the extra money the government has found is barely one per cent a year. The education ministry budget was $4.8 billion in the Liberals' first year in office. It's $4.8 billion today.
That isn't enough money to keep on providing the same services. (Remember, the province gave teachers a 7.5-per-cent pay increase, but only provided the money to cover one-third of it.)
So trustees did what they could to reduce costs, and some of those changes hurt the quality of education. Districts did not move to a four-day school week so children would learn better; they did it because they couldn't afford to offer a five-day program.
The government has decided that education costs have been increasing too quickly, B.C. is bucking a trend. Ontario's former Conservative government reviewed its three-year education funding freeze before the recent election, and found that it was a damaging mistake.
And Alberta's Ralph Klein has promised to act on a government report that called for an immediate $137-million funding increase to reduce class sizes, and a $500-million annual spending increase over the next five years.
The government would do better to defend its decisions, instead of trying to dump the blame off on school trustees.
Footnote: More headaches ahead. The teachers' contract expires next June. They want a raise; the government has rejected any public sector pay increases. And a just released report recommends a total overhaul of the hopeless bargaining process. The government is going to want to put talks off until after the new process is in place - and the next election.