Friday, January 20, 2006

The $1-billion union carrot creating some worries

VICTORIA - The race is on for public sector unions hoping for a share of the $1 billion the government has set aside as an early signing bonus.
Or at least the government would like it to be.
Everyone is still being mostly positive, but the early indications is that the $1-billion bonus could prove to be a problem.
Finance Minister Carole Taylor, responsible for public sector bargaining, is trying for a new, more co-operative approach. The benefits would be both political and practical.
But the very early indications are that the way ahead is going to be bumpy.
Taylor is hoping to convince the unions that bargaining needs to be more flexible. Money shouldn't be the only issue, she says. Perhaps union members would also be interested in training, or time off or improvements in workplace conditions.
And she's abandoned official province-wide wage mandates. If some employee groups are being paid below market value - trades workers in hospitals come to mind - they could expect a larger increase than other members of their union.
It's not an easy sell. Unions like the idea of common increases, in part because they don't want to get yelled at by the members who do less well.
And it's especially tough when there is significant pent-up wage demand across the board after pay was frozen, or even cut.
Taylor has attempted to ease the way to a new style of bargaining by coming up with a reasonable amount of money. The government has allocated $4.7 billion over four years for contract settlements. That's about 2.6 per cent a year, enough to cover inflation and provide employees with a small catch-up increase.
In a bid to get faster settlements, there's another $1 billion for unions that sign before their current contracts expire - March 31 for almost all unions. That's about $3,400 for each of the 260,000 employees involved.
Taylor says the money will vanish at midnight on March 31, when the fiscal year ends. Accounting rules mean the money, from this year's surplus. has to be spent by then or it goes to debt reduction, she says.
So far unions aren’t buying the deadline. They're worried that the offer is an attempt to encourage them to rush to inferior deals, or pit one union against another.
And they warn that negotiations will be more difficult if the $1 billion is taken off the table March 31 even if an agreement is near.
It's too early to say how this will play out. The BCGEU had its first bargaining session last week, and issued a sharp criticism of the government's position on job security and contracting out. But the two sides are scheduled to meet three days a week until March 31, a sign of serious intent. (The BC Nurses Union doesn't expect to be ready to start talks until March.)
The government has added staff to support bargaining, and hired Lee Doney as a special advisor. Doney is a recently retired deputy minister, whose long career included a stint working close with unions as the head of Forest Renewal BC.
This is a big issue for the government.
Politically, the Liberals have recognized that the public has run out of patience with union-bashing and imposed contracts. The teachers ' strike was a turning point, especially the public support for the union even after the strike was declared illegal.
And practically the government has recognized that bad employee-management relations are costly. Organizations that are seen as inferior places to work either fail to attract the best candidates or pay a premium to compete with better work environments.
So far everyone involved sounds at least a little hopeful, but the practical challenge of doing deals by March 31 is enormous.
Taylor should be looking for a way to keep the $1 billion available if there is real bargaining progress as the deadline nears.
Footnote: The BC Teachers' Federation doesn't expire until June 30, and Vince Ready is still preparing a report recommending a new bargaining structure. The union will get access to an equivalent pool of money - about $130 million - to encourage a quick settlement. The money will come from the contingency fund in next year's budget.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Sad voters show need for proportional representation

VICTORIA - The email arrived from a friend with a question about voting in this election. She wanted to make sure one particular candidate was defeated in her riding.
Given that, she said, she was prepared to put aside her own first choice in favour of pragmatism. Which party has the best chance of toppling the bad guy, she asked, because that candidate would get her vote.
It’s a grim reality this election. Too many people are not happy with the choices they have been offered and are casting votes out of fear, not hope.
They are fearful that a Harper government would reduce individual rights, or launch some destructive law-and-order crusade that would make things worse in communities. They are worried that the Liberals would take electoral success as a sign that corruption and cronyism are acceptable practices. These voters see the NDP mostly as a spoiler in a few dozen ridings.
Ipsos Reid went beyond the usual questions in a late campaign poll and asked how people felt about the parties. The poll found 60 per cent of British Columbians agreed with the statement that Stephen Harper “is just too extreme to be Canada’s prime minister.” And 59 per cent agreed that “the federal Liberal party is fundamentally corrupt and doesn’t deserve to be re-elected.” The New Democrats didn't escape unscathed - 42 per cent agreed that voting NDP is just a wasted vote.”
The choice, for a significant number of Canadians, is which is the least offensive - corruption, extremism or irrelevance.
I’m sure there are voters out there looking forward to the election because they will have the chance to vote for a party offering a vision that really excites them.
I just haven’t met many of them.
There are practical problems with the kind of strategic voting that’s aimed at defeating a candidate or party. There are too few reliable riding-level polls to provide useful information about which candidate is in second place. Even with that information, it’s impossible to anticipate how other voters will react to the changing circumstances.
One obvious solution is a shift to some form of proportional representation, so that voters can be confident that their ballot will count for something more than $1.75 in government funding for the party of their choice. Supporters would be able to vote Green without wondering if they have wasted the opportunity to help chose a government. Proportional representation would ensure that Parliament more closely reflected the popular vote.
The New Democrats and the Greens support a change to proportional representation. Conservatives say - somewhat unenthusiastically - that they are willing to look at the option. Liberals say no to change.
If there is a minority government, NDP leader Jack Layton is likely to make some action on electoral change one of his conditions for offering support. (It's an issue the New Democrats could have exploited more effectively in the campaign, given public dissatisfaction with the way politics are working now.)
But right now, we have the first-past-the-post system. Many voters are struggling with the idea of strategic voting. Some are wondering how to block a party from forming government, or defeat a candidate they find objectionable.
Others are going farther. The same Ipsos poll found nine per cent of British Columbians would change their vote if they thought a Conservative majority government was in the offing.
Again, those are risky and uncertain calculations. If enough people who fear a Conservative majority government shift their votes, the unintended result could be a Liberal minority.
The real answer is reform, from the way parties nominate candidates to the way voters elect them. Voting is supposed to make you feel good - like you're choosing a future for Canada that makes you proud, and hopeful.
Too many Canadians are going to instead feel sad as they vote on Monday, and too many aren't going to vote at all.
Footnote: Voter turnout in the 2004 election was a record-low 60 per cent of registered voters. Given that many people who meet the criteria aren't registered, that means participation was around 50 per cent. The last winter election, in 1980, saw 69-per-cent turnout. That was the lowest participation level in 27 years.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Forget the Conservative surge: in B.C., the parties are right where they were in 2004 vote

B.C. remains the stubborn exception to the Conservatives' big gain this election, a fact that doesn't seem to have been much reported. It's a reality that has big implications for people looking at voting strategically.
Here's a brief news story I did on the issue.

VICTORIA -- Liberal support may have crumbled across the country, but a new poll says the party is holding its ground in B.C. as the campaign enters its last days.

After 18 months of minority government and seven weeks of campaigning, the Liberals, Conservatives and New Democrats have almost exactly the same level of support in B.C. they had in the 2004 election, according to the Ipsos Reid poll.

The poll found the Conservatives have the support of 37 per cent of decided voters in B.C., compared with their 36-per-cent share of the popular vote in the last election.

Liberal support is unchanged at 28 per cent, and the NDP has inched up a statistically insignificant two points to 29 per cent. The Greens are unchanged at six per cent.

The findings buck a national trend which has seen big gains for the Conservatives and losses for the Liberals.

Nationally, the poll found the Conservatives' 30-per-cent share of the popular vote jump to 38 per cent in the poll, taken on the weekend.

The Liberals' have seen their support plunge from 37 per cent to 26 per cent, while the NDP has gone from 16 per cent to 19 per cent.

The results suggest another tight race in B.C., with close battles expected in up to 20 ridings.

The B.C. results are surprising, said Kyle Braid of Ipsos Reid's Vancouver office. "We definitely seem to be bucking the trend, and it's got me scratching my head," he said.

Braid said Liberal support may be holding because Ottawa has come through for the province in a number of areas, including funding for transportation projects.

British Columbians' social values on issues like same-sex marriage and drug use may put them at odds with Harper's party, he said. "You can do a host of issues where British Columbians are not entirely in line with the Conservatives," he said.

And the allegations of Liberal party corruption may have less of an effect here, Braid said.

"The third theory is that in B.C. we've gotten used to scandals," he said. "That's possibly the best explanation."

University of Victoria professor Norman Ruff said B.C. is still going to be the scene of a number of critical races in Monday's election.

All three party leaders are expected to return to the province over the next few days to shore up support.

The Conservatives captured 22 of B.C.'s 36 seats in 2004. The Liberals captured eight seats and the NDP five. Chuck Cadman was elected as an independent.

The Ipsos Reid poll was conducted from Jan. 13 to Jan. 15. A total of 8,256 Canadians were surveyed, with national results considered accurate within 1.1 per cent 19 times out of 20.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Watching on election night: early indicators, and seats that matter

VICTORIA - Here's a handy guide to watching the election results roll across your TV screen Monday night, including a look at the most interesting B.C. seats.
It looks like a strong Conservative minority government - maybe 135 to 140 seats, a few more than the Liberals won in 2004.  The Liberals should win about 88, a big drop from the 135 in 2004 The NDP should gain ground, ending up with about 30 seats, and the Bloc Quebecois should stay at about 55 seats.
But who knows. This is a volatile election. People disgusted by Liberal scandals have been telling pollsters they plan to vote Conservative. But now that Paul Martin is clearly going to be punished nationally, some may support their local Liberal candidate, or opt for the NDP. The most recent Ipsos poll found nine per cent of those surveyed in B.C. say they would change their vote if a Conservative majority government seemed likely, with the Liberals most likely to gain from such a shift.
When you turn on your TV at 7 p.m., the results from Atlantic Canada should be known. The Conservatives won seven seats last time. If they're on the road to 11 seats this time, then a Harper majority government will be looking likely. Voters in the Eastern provinces have complained that Harper sees them as the slightly slow cousins in the Canadian family; if he has won them over the Conservatives will be on a roll.
The vote-counting starts in Ontario and Quebec 30 minutes before the polls close in B.C., so there won't be many results when you start watching. But if the Conservatives are leading in one or two seats in Quebec, or 45 in Ontario - they won 24 last time - then again you should start thinking majority.
But it's most likely that the outcome will still be in question as the B.C. results start coming in. The latest Ipsos poll shows almost no change in B.C. voter preference since the 2004 election, meaning about 20 close races.
Here's six seats worth extra attention.
- Skeena: The Conservatives own the Heartland's 10 seats, with two exceptions. In the Southern Interior riding Harper dumped the party's candidate over smuggling charges. The NDP will win that seat. And in Skeena incumbent New Democrat Nathan Cullen hopes to beat back a challenge from former Reform MP Mike Scott. Cullen should win; if Scott prevails, it will be a very good night for the Conservatives.
- Esquimalt: Keith Martin jumped from the Conservatives to the Liberals in 2004, and has always had a reputation as an independent MLA. But he's up against credible NDP and Conservative candidates, and has been sabotaged by the lame national Liberal campaign. (The riding has a large Canadian Forces base; Martin said his party's attack ad about soldiers in city streets was idiocy.) The riding should be a key indicator of the tide in B.C.
- Victoria: NDP candidate Denise Savoie has the highest political profile, but Robin Baird should benefit from the Conservatives' strong national campaign. David Anderson held the riding for the Liberals for 13 years, but candidate David Mulroney is much less well-known and can't argue that electing a Liberal could give the city a seat at the cabinet table. The early results could signal whether the Conservatibes or NDP will prevail in the tight two-way races.
- Fleetwood-Port Kells: Nina Grewal is trying to hold the seat for the Conservatives, hampered by the weird courtship between husband Gurmant and Ujjal Dosanjh. The Liberals have underachieving provincial Liberal Brenda Locke, rejected by voters last May, and the NDP is running the often unsuccessful candidate Barry Bell. Whoever wins, the result will signal the party's strength.
- Surrey North: Independent Chuck Cadman's riding. Based on history, it should go Conservative. But Cadman's widow Dona has endorsed former provincial cabinet minister Penny Priddy, running for the NDP. (The Conservative, David Matta, says he voted for Cadman in 2004.)
- Vancouver Centre: Svend Robinson versus Hedy Fry. Theft versus fantasies about burning crosses. I'm not sure what the results will signify, but like a car wreck it is impossible not to look.
There are others, on the Island and in Vancouver.
But focus on these six ridings, and the early returns from the East, and you'll have a sense of how this election will turn out.
Footnote: Close races, as always, could be decided by voters who stay home. The Ipsos poll found 56 per cent of those surveyed thought Harper was too extreme to be prime minister, and 64 per cent believe the Liberal Party is fundamentally corrupt. The sentiments suggest a low turnout.