Friday, September 02, 2005

Christy Clark takes a risk with run for mayor's job

VICTORIA - That was a short retirement for Christy Clark, who is on the brink of stepping back into politics with a risky bid to become Vancouver's mayor.
Clark quit as children and families minister last year, and didn't run in the May election. She said it was important to spend more time with her son, then three.
That's understandable. And demanding as the mayor's job is, being a cabinet minister is more disruptive to family life. Ministers have to be in Victoria for much of the year, and travel around the province. The mayor gets to sleep in her own bed.
It's a little harder to see how being mayor is less disruptive to family life than being an MLA, the job Clark gave up four months ago. The legislature sits for a few months a year, and even then backbenchers generally only have to spend three nights a week over here.
Still, things change.
Clark is a career politician; she's never had a job outside politics and is happy to be seen as a future premier, or MP from B.C. (Her husband, Mark Marrisen, is a key federal Liberal wheel in the province.)
So it's fair to look at her interest in the mayor's job in that context.
It's been a stepping stone for others. Mike Harcourt and Gordon Campbell both went from the top elected job in Vancouver to the premier's office.
And, if all goes well, the timing works nicely for any future plans. Clark's first term - if she wins - would end in 2008. If Campbell isn't going to run in the next provincial election, scheduled for 2009, she would be positioned to jump into a leadership race.
If he decides to stay on - and isn't pushed out - Clark has the option of a second term as mayor, presiding over the Olympics, before considering a bid to become Liberal leader.
But there are a few problems with those tidy scenarios.
First Clark has to win the nomination for the Non Partisan Association. (Non-partisan in the sense that it brings together federal Liberals and Conservatives in a rightish coalition.) She'll be up against veteran councillor Sam Sullivan, who has his own strong base.
Clark can probably take the nomination. The contest is about selling memberships in the party, and she can tap an excelent organization.
Then she has to beat Jim Green, the left's candidate, a veteran councillor who will be backed popular ex-mayor Larry Campbell. Green has already characterized her as a parachute candidate - she lives outside the city in neighbouring Burnaby - and said she would be Gordon Campbell's ally in City Hall.
Even an election victory doesn't end the problems. The mayor's job is only a career launching pad if you are popular and successful. The job often calls for skills at building consensus, and dealing with a lot of small problems.
Clark is a great politician and organizer, personally appealing and clever. She was an excellent opposition MLA.
But her track record as education minister, and in children and families, was less impressive. She alienated teachers, trustees and parents as education minister, a warning of trouble ahead in the often fractious world of civic politics.
And despite a lot of activity and announcements, it's hard to point to any significant achievements in either education or children and families. (Though Clark can take credit for at least restoring stability to the children's ministry when she took over after Gordon Hogg.)
It's also hard - despite her nine years in the legislature - to say exactly what Clark stands for, and what big issues and ideas drive her participation in political life.
The mayor's job could be a chance for her to answer all those kinds of doubts, and show her ability to take on whatever comes next.
And it can be, as we've seen, a launch pad for future political opportunities.
But we've also seen lots of films of things blowing up on launch pads.
Footnote: All this talk about the next premier could create problems for Gordon Campbell. Once people begin talking about your replacement, the contenders start thinking about what they need to be ready for the race. It's a process that can promote damaging divisions within a party.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Katrina a preview of our lives after the ‘Big One’

VICTORIA - Take a long look at those pictures from New Orleans of weeping, lost people trying to figure out what’s left for them.
It could just as easily be Victoria, or Vancouver.
I’ve been watching the news, and like many people wondering why the richest nation on Earth has been doing such a poor job of responding to a foreseeable natural disaster.
Everyone knew that Katrina was coming, and that it was a fierce storm. They had days to prepare.
More importantly, everyone has known for decades that at some point a really big hurricane was going to sweep in off the gulf.
But knowing isn’t enough to make people act, to take the long-term steps needed to be ready for the feared big one, or to have the short-term relief plans in place.
I sat outside a pleasant bar in Algiers a few years ago, across the river from New Orleans. It was right beside the Mississippi, but there were no views of the water, or the ships and barges shuffling past. The river was being held back by a 10-metre berm that ran as far you could see. It’s surface was far above our heads as we sat and drank the local beer.
It was slightly unnerving, even on a sunny day. A hole in the levee and all the water in the river would spill into the country - and keep flowing until everything for a huge distance was under metres.
That’s what happened.
The levee system’s failure is no big surprise. The dikes were supposed to be able to withstand a Category 3 hurricane - though experts questioned even that prediction.
But it was a certainty that some day, a more powerful storm would hit.
And Katrina did.
Just as one of these decades a big earthquake - or a small earthquake, dangerously close - will strike along B.C.’s coast.
Most of the people in New Orleans literally couldn’t imagine the destruction of their city by a storm. Neither could the government officials responsible for preparation.
Just s we can’t imagine seeing large parts of Victoria or Vancouver devastated by an earthquake.
But the worst case scenarios for B.C. are as frightening as anything coming from New Orleans. Imagine, says the experts, a situation in which transportation was impossible and power and water services non-existent for hundreds of thousands of people.
Figure thousands homeless - perhaps in a cold, rainy January - and food supplies running out. And accept the reality that the scale of the disaster would swamp our ability to respond quickly and effectively. We don’t have the ability to set up tent cities in every park, or feed the people who may have to live there for months.
In short, imagine something much like New Orleans, without the water but with the rest of the dislocation, suffering and fear.
It is difficult for any government - and for most individuals - to balance today’s pressing needs against the importance of preparing for a disaster that may be a century away.
The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, which maintains the system tat protected New Orleans, has been asking for more money to fix problems. Its 2004 funding request to improve levees around Lake Pontchartrain was cut by 80 per cent. The government had other priorities.
Here in B.C., the government faces similar pressures. Improving schools’ ability to withstand earthquakes would cost about $1.5 billion. The government is committed to spending an extra $80 a year for the next three years on the problem, and hopes to complete the upgrades by 2020.
Too slow, critics say. But it’s tough to justify tax increases, or cuts to the health budget, to pay for faster progress on earthquake protection.
And it’s tough to gripe about government delays when most of us have done little personally to prepare.
Katrina’s an awful reminder that even remote threats deserve attention when their consequences are so terrible.
Footnote: Another lesson in the perils of procrastination. Paul Martin delayed calling George Bush to talk about the softwood dispute for weeks. The call was finally scheduled for Thursday, and Bush had understandably no interest in anything beyond Canada’s willingness to help in the Katrina aftermath.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

School strike escape plan sitting unused on the shelf

VICTORIA - Expect trouble in schools this fall, unless the teachers' union and government are willing to try an already mapped out escape route.
The BC Teachers' Federation loathes the Liberal government, wants pay raises and is adamant about negotiating issues like class size.
The Liberal government loathes the BCTF, expects teachers to take a two-year wage freeze and says elected officials must decide issues like class size.
Teachers will take a strike vote Sept. 20-22, which will be overwhelmingly positive. The Labour Relations Board will then set essential service levels - perhaps a three-day school week - and eventually teachers will start job action. Parents will freak, and the government will pass legislation ordering teachers back to work and imposing a contract.
Surely it's time to try a better way, especially as the parties have a realistic alternative.
Last December Don Wright, a former deputy minister, prepared a report on teachers' bargaining for the government. Wright concluded that the current system doesn't work because it's built on a lie. Everyone, including the Liberals, pretend teachers have a right to strike. Really, no government will allow more than a brief school disruption before imposing a contract.
So there's little incentive to bargain. If the union thinks an NDP government might be sympathetic, it waits for an imposed deal; employers do the same when the Liberals are in power.
Wright proposed giving the two parties a set time to negotiate. If they were unsuccessful, a commissioner would be appointed to report publicly on each side's position. That should encourage reason; neither side would want to look like the problem. (Ideally, Wright said, the parties would agree on a commissioner; if not they could each submit names to an independent third party, who would pick one.)
The commissioner would then try to help the parties reach a deal. If that didn't work, the employer and union would both submit final positions on all the outstanding issues. The commissioner would pick one set in its entirety to form the basis of the new contract.
It's called final offer selection, and it's seen as a way to promote compromise. Take too extreme a position, and you lose everything. (Normal arbitration can encourage parties to stay far apart, hoping the arbitrator will split the difference in settling the dispute.)
Both sides can find fault with the idea.
Teachers are unhappy that Wright's proposal wouldn't let them bargain class size, support levels and other issues the Liberals stripped from their contracts through legislation.
Those issues do affect working conditions, which are normally negotiable, and teachers say they gave up past wage increases in return for smaller class sizes. But ultimately the issues are also about the best way of providing education, and that's a matter for elected officials.
Wright proposed a separate process that would bring teachers, school districts and the province together "to seek agreement on cost effective approaches to improving working and learning conditions." It's a compromise worth trying.
The government fears the commissioner would impose a deal that that would be too costly, or break the wage pattern that calls for no increase in the first two years of the teacher's contract.
That's a risk. Wright recommended that the commissioner have only two terms of reference in imposing a deal - the need for competitive pay and job conditions to ensure that good teachers want to work here, and the state of the economy and the government's finances. That leaves a lot of room.
Teachers also simply don't trust the government. The Liberals have ignored agreements they don't like. Why go to dispute resolution if only decisions that go against you will be recognized by the government?
But practically, the BCTF has nothing to lose. The realistic choices are a legislated agreement, on the government's terms, or a chance at the new approach. There's no downside.
It seems a perfect chance to try for a better way of resolving school labour disputes, one that really does put children first.
Footnote: The government hasn't ruled out trying the Wright way. A first step could be to appoint a commissioner early this fall to begin the process, preparing the public report on the parties' positions. That would encourage a move towards realistic, practical proposals from both sides.