Monday, December 15, 2003

Ferry chaos far from over
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - The ferry workers behaved like thugs, management substituted bravado for brains and this government - and its predecessors - set the stage for the whole mess.
And the damage done goes far beyond the current disruption.
You can’t entirely blame the ferry workers’ union for ignoring both the law and the contract they signed. It’s learned behaviour. For more than 30 years governments have taught the union that illegal strikes get results, and bring no consequences.
And that’s the lesson again. The union has won, gaining binding arbitration and a promise that the company won’t seek any damages after this strike.
Governments occasionally talked tough over the years. But their actions showed the union that law-breaking is an effective, risk-free tactic. When workers staged an illegal wildcat strike in 1997, the government promised to go after damages. Instead, the union and the corporation each ended up chipping in $30,000 for grievance resolution training, and the government forgot about the loss to taxpayers and ferry users.
So it’s hardly a shock that the union is prepared to break its contract and the law. The tactic has worked, and been accepted by government. (And the current government has given up some moral authority by breaking contracts it doesn’t like.)
Ferries management shouold have known the risk, and avoided blundering into this dispute.
The system was shut down Monday over a relatively small issue. Restaurants and gift shops were not going to be operating, so management wanted to schedule lower-paid deckhands instead of workers getting a premium for doing those jobs. They would still be fully trained union members, and my reading of the Labour Relations Board essential services order indicates management was within its rights.
But the union didn’t like it. The upside of essential services designation, from a union perspective, is that service can be disrupted without too much harm to members, who largely stay on the job. So the union refused to work.
The company’s anger at that is understandable. The union doesn’t own the ships, or decide who will staff them. But the smart move would have been to let the ships sail and head to the LRB for a remedy. The focus should be on protecting the business and reaching a settlement, not on symbolic victories and defeats. (Based on my direct experience in one strike, one lockout and too many difficult negotiations, that focus is hard to maintain.)
Instead, the service was shut down and Labour Minister Graham Bruce imposed the back-to-work order and cooling off period. The decision looks hasty today, but given the escalating stupidity at ferry terminals on Tuesday, it’s hard to fault Mr. Bruce.
The problem is far from resolved. The union’s track record suggests that it won’t hesitate to strike illegally if it doesn’t like arbitrator Vince Ready’s recommendations.
And the company still faces major financial pressures as a result of the Liberals’ move to create a semi-independent ferry authority.
Leaving aside one-time charges, the ferry corporation made about $24 million last year. But it faces immediate financial problems. The government has only guaranteed the $74-million subsidy from gas taxes for five years. And the ferry company has to borrow some $2 billion over the next 15 years, without government guarantees. Lenders will want to see a realistic projection of profits that allow the loans to be repaid.
Looking ahead five years, the company faces a potential operating loss of more than $100 million. Revenue gains, from both rate increases and more business, may help.
But the company will have to cut costs. And since wages, at $250 million, make up more than half the operating expenses, that’s where the savings will have to come. The current truce is merely a respite from the problems ahead.
It’s been a grim week, and not just for travellers and ferry-dependent businesses.
B.C.’s reputation for destructive labour relations has hurt the economy for years. This strike reinforces that reputation, at a very bad time.
Liberal MLAs shun chance to do their jobs better
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - Why in the world would MLAs not want an extra tool for making sure government is working?
Liberal backbenchers on the finance committee sure didn't seem interested, as they sniped at efforts by the province's auditor general to give them just that.
Auditor General Wayne Strelioff was before the committee to answer questions about his budget request for the coming year. The auditor is an independent officer of the legislature - he works for MLAs, not the premier. They get to decide his budget.
Strelioff made his case, based on a report he'd given to the Speaker a couple of days earlier.
That was apparently a mistake. MLA Lorne Mayencourt was horrified, but not at the report's revelation that budget cuts had forced cancellation of a review of public-private partnership plans. No he was fuming because - the outrage - the report had gone to the legislature before it had been presented to the committee.
The auditor general is the truth-teller in government. Ministers want to look smart. Bureaucrats want to defend their performance. The opposition wants to make the government look bad.
But the auditor general looks at the numbers, and the facts, and lays out what he finds.
That's sometimes not in the government's interest. But it is in the public's interest.
It's not just checking the government's financial statements, although that's important. The auditor general has tackled issues like forest fire protection, issuing warnings - largely ignored - about big holes in the province's planning. He's examined the way government consulting contracts were awarded under the NDP, and found major irregularities. A recent report identified major problem with a program that pays $300 million a year to doctors. (Problems made worse because of arbitrary staff cuts by the Liberals.)
The auditor general is your friend.
And if the system was working, he would be the MLAs' friend too. Backbenchers are protective of their party. But they should also be protecting the people who voted for them.
Strelioff was explaining why his budget should be increased by $1 million, instead of being cut for the second straight year. "Now is the time for a stronger — not a weaker — independent public scrutiny of the performance of government," he said.
His arguments were sound. The government is doing a massive restructuring during a tough economic time. It's important that MLAs get information on whether it's working. It's moving to more performance-based management, which needs MLAs need to know whether the targets are really measurable, and being achieved. And any organization needs an independent watchdog to make sure things are being done right.
Last year's budget cut meant the auditor's office had to abandon a number of planned projects, including a review of the approach to public-private partnerships, an examination of how the government manages major environmental issues and education effectiveness. They all sound valuable.
It's not cheap. The auditor will get about $7.9 million in funding this year, and take in another $2 million for auditing fees. But that is about half the budget of the auditor general in much smaller Alberta.
Strelioff proposed a $500,000 increase operating funds, and another $500,000 allocated as a contingency fund in case MLAs on legislative committees wanted him to look at something. They have that power. If they chose to use it, the money would be there, pre-approved. If they didn't, it wouldn't get spent.
I'd like that. I was on the education committee, and wanted independent, fact-based information how the four-day week was working for students, I'd like the idea of the budget being there. If I ws on the public accounts committee, and wanted an independent look at the soundness of an Olympic megaproject, I'd like to know the money was there.
But these Liberal MLAs thought that was a terrible idea. The expense would show up in the budget, wouldn't it, worried MLA Brian Kerr.
It was a curious sight to see, our MLAs choosing to turn their backs on an opportunity to make government more effective.
Footnote: I could be wrong, of course. Read the transcript yourself at At the meeting: Brenda Locke, Kerr, Patty Sahota, Jeff Bray, Ida Chong, Arnie Hamilton, Mike Hunter, Wendy McMahon, Dave Hayer, Mayencourt.