Friday, September 30, 2005

Time, sadly, to legislate end to teachers' job action

VICTORIA - There's no real alternative to a legislated end to teachers' job action, and no real reason to wait any longer.
Labour Minister Mike de Jong released the fact-finding report from deputy labour minister Rick Connolloy Friday, which concludes that "there is no prospect for a voluntary resolution at the bargaining table."
He's right, given the circumstances. The BC School Employers' Association has no mandate to bargain the issues that concern teachers, and no reason to make any concessions. If they wait, their proposals will be the basis of a legislated settlement.
De Jong said cabinet is considering the next step. But waiting for rotating strikes to start Oct. 11 before reacting with legislation would simply create needless disruption.
It is a disheartening situation, and one that reflects badly on all involved.
The main items in dispute are compensation, and issues like class size and teacher aides for special needs students.
Compensation was always going to be a point of conflict. The government says teachers have to take a two-year wage freeze, like other public sector employees, before getting any increases. Teachers want to keep up with inflation, and wage settlements in Ontario and Alberta.
Donnolly reports that the BC Teachers' Federation proposals would mean cost increases of seven per cent to 10 per cent a year for three years. (The employer and the union have come up with different costings.)
It's hard to see how the impasse over compensation could have been avoided.
But that' s not so true of the deadlock over the other issues.
Teachers had maximum class size guarantees and provisions for teacher aides and librarians in their contracts until 2002. (And they believed they had given up wage increases in return for those provisions.)
The Liberals used legislation to strip them from the contract, without consultation or compensation.
The motive is understandable. Issues like class size affect educational quality, and must be balanced with other priorities. Those decisions should be made by elected - and accountable- trustees, and MLAs.
But the issues also affect working conditions, and teachers should be able to get a serious hearing for their concerns. (Teachers are also rightly angry that their voices as frontline professionals aren't being heard.)
Donnolly is sympathetic. "Effective public policy requires involvement of all those affected," he reports. "It is my opinion that government should develop an approach to engage with teachers and education stakeholders including parents, trustees, superintendents and principals in an effective and meaningful dialogue regarding this critical issue that is entirely separate from the collective bargaining process. "
Commissioner Don Wright made a similar recommendation in a report to government 10 months ago. last year.
But three years after creating the problem, the government hasn't acted to provide a way for teachers to be heard.
Government action might not have changed anything. The BCTF is insisting on government-union talks on the issues, linked to contract negotiations. The Liberals want more stakeholders involved and a separate process.
De Jong expressed surprise at Donnolly's report. "I don't know how you can meet for 35 times and not agree on anything," he said.
It's simple. There is no reason for the parties to bargain. People negotiate and compromise because they think they have a chance to reach an agreement that gets them something, and because they fear the consequences of failing.
The employer has nothing to fear from failed talks, and no reason - or mandate - to bend. The teachers don't believe they can get anything. Negotiations will fail.
The result is bad for students - employees who feel abused do not do their best work - and violates teachers' right to bargain the terms of their employment.
Wright reported the problem to the government last year, and proposed a solution. Not perfect, perhaps, and not what teachers wanted, but a start.
The government's inaction, and an intractable union, set the stage for this damaging deadlock.
Footnote: What now? The government's best option is to impose a two-year deal, which takes the union to next June. At the same time it could legislate a timetable to ensure that a new, workable process - perhaps based on the Wright recommendations - is in place in time for new negotiations next year.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Hopeful outlook for treaties, and progress without them

VICTORIA - Maybe it's time to think about the treaty process in B.C. as a 40-year project.
The BC Treaty Commission weighed in with its annual report this week, citing some good reasons for optimism about progress, along with a few warnings. There is a chance three final agreements will be signed over the next year, the commissioners said.
But I've been heading to these annual updates for years now, generally - though not always - hearing some fairly hopeful words from the treaty commissioners.
Just as the politicians have usually been optimistic. Last fall then attorney general Geoff Plant was predicting four final treaty agreements were likely in coming months. None were signed. His NDP predecessor, Dale Lovick, was even more wildly optimistic back in 1999, predicting 10 final agreements in the next five years. And none were signed.
The outlook does look brighter now. Partly, that's the benefit of 12 years of slogging away at the treaty process, and in the courts. While the efforts were slow, and costly, they may have been needed to get everyone to the point that they could focus effectively on treaty making.
But it also reflects major changes in the province's position over the last several months, and a new unity on the First Nations side.
The Liberals' "New Relationship" project has gone a long way toward setting the stage for more productive talks. The Liberals were combative in opposition, when they went to court to try and overturn the Nisga'a treaty and promised the foolish treaty referendum. In government they have fought aggressive legal battles that angered First Nations by denying their right to aboriginal title.
All that has changed. The New Relationship document promises a broad recognition of aboriginal title, shared land-use and resource management and a share of resource revenues.
And this week Premier Gordon Campbell promised native treaty negotiators that things would be different. "For too long, and I acknowledge this, we did follow a path of denial," he said. The government will review its positions in dozens of continuing court cases, to ensure aboriginal title is respected.
These are big changes. But it's hard to be confident they will quickly lead to treaties being signed. The issues remaining, even in the negotiations that are farthest along, are the tough ones - fisheries, taxation, self-government. (The commission's earlier suggestion that an effort be made to tackle them on a provincial or regional basis still makes sense.)
Some First Nations are waiting to see what all the legal and political changes mean before they take the next steps.
And no one wants to be the first to sign, in case someone gets a better deal later.
The treaty process remains slow.
But what was striking this year is the growing recognition while treaties are important, they are not necessary to achieve improved relations, more opportunities for aboriginal communities and needed certainty about land use.
Given goodwill and shared goals, many of those goals can be accomplished through interim agreements that will solve immediate problems and help build the basis for treaties.
That hasn't really happened on a significant scale. Interim agreements have been strictly limited in their scope, and as the commission noted, often prompted by court decisions not a desire for co-operative solutions.
It's also become clear that treaties will not end the need for ongoing consultation and accommodation. First Nations and their neighbours and the province will still have to deal with common issues around land use and planning. We are in this together.
It might be helpful to broaden our focus to include not just the need for treaties, but the need to build a base of understanding and shared recognition of ground rules for decision-making.
Meanwhile, welcome the optimism, despite all the questions and doubts.
There are strong moral and economic reasons for reaching both treaties and effective interim agreements that strengthen aboriginal communities and reduce the economic damage done by land ownership uncertainty.
Footnote: The notion that treaty-making could take decades should prompt another look at the costs. The treaty commission allocated $29 million in loans and $7 million in grants last year to First Nations to support treaty efforts, bringing the 12-year total to $325 million.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Second vote on STV gives public needed choice

VICTORIA - Give Gordon Campbell top marks for his handling of the prickly problem posed by the referendum on electoral reform.
Most politicians would never have gone near the idea of asking a Citizens' Assembly to find a better way of electing governments. Campbell championed the process.
And once the referendum on the single-transferable system failed - barely - the big experiment would have been over.
But Campbell is giving voters another chance to consider electoral reform, this time with a clearer proposal and adequately funded yes and no campaigns. Another referendum will be held in the fall of 2008, at the same time as the municipal elections.
It's a fair solution to to a tricky political problem.
The Liberals decided that electoral reform could only go ahead if it received 60-per-cent support in last May's referendum. It missed by a whisker, with almost 58 per cent of those voting backing a change to the new system.
That's huge support - the Liberals were elected with only 46 per cent of the vote - and Campbell was right to look for a way to produce a definitive decision on whether B.C. should change.
Some supporters wanted Campbell to bend the rules and implement STV, on the basis that it came close enough. But the referendum requirements were clear, and justified.
His solution, unveiled in the Throne Speech, makes sense.
British Columbians will vote again on 2008, in a referendum to be held at the same time as the municipal elections. (That could be a huge factor in municipal races if it brings to the polls people who don't ordinarily vote.)
If it passes, the new rules will be in effect for the May 2009 provincial election.
This time, voters will have more information. The Electoral Boundaries Commission was already slated to review the ridings to adjust them for population changes. Now they will prepare report on what the ridings would look like under STV.
Under the STV system, there would be fewer, larger ridings, with two to seven MLAs each. Most of the Okanagan could be one riding, for example, with four MLAs.
On election day, you would no longer just mark an X beside one candidate, rejecting the rest. You would rank as many candidates as you liked.
When the votes were counted, the results would reflect the rankings. A voter might rank an NDP candidate first, and Liberals second and third, and a Green fourth. All the votes would matter.
The result should be a more representative and diverse legislature, with MLAs who are more responsive to their communities.
The size of the new ridings concerned some people during the referendum campaign. Having that information set out will allow for more informed voting.
The yes side is heartened by the opportunity. Most believe they simply didn't have the time, or money, to inform people about the benefits of STV before the referendum. "Anytime we get a chance to explain the system to someone, they become a supporter," one campaigner noted.
Now they will be put to the test, with three years to inform people, and the promise of government funding for yes and no sides.
One interesting factor will be how the referendum is affected by the efforts to make the B.C. legislature more civil and effective. The need for change was reinforced for many people by the unrepresentative election result in 2001, and the Liberals' unwillingness to recognize the existence of an Official Opposition.
The situation is now much changed. But it should be easy for pro-STV campaigners to remind voters of the many other benefits.
Skeptics can advance a brace of theories about why Campbell is so keen on electoral reform. But many Liberals are also nervous about the idea.
The simple explanation is that Campbell is committed to the idea of letting the people decide whether there is a better way to elect governments, and is doing his best to give them that chance.
Footnote: Ontario has just followed B.C.'s example, launching its own Citizens' Assembly on electoral reform. It has gone one wise step further, charging another assembly with developing new controls on political donations and spending. That was a missed opportunity in B.C.