Thursday, September 11, 2008

Liberals cheat voters by cancelling fall sitting

You can see why Gordon Campbell decided to cancel the fall sitting of the legislature. His government would spend six weeks getting batted around on bunch of contentious issues.
Cancel the session and everything changes. Instead of facing daily questions from the opposition and journalists, the premier can make one or two carefully planned appearances a week. Cut a ribbon here, speak to a friendly group there, make good news announcements in time for the evening news and dump the bad ones when you're on a private jet bound for another country.
It's an easier life. That's the problem with democracy, even a flawed version like our own. It's inconvenient to face all those questions and criticisms when you just want to wield power.
The Liberals cancelled the scheduled fall sitting this week. They had no legislation to present, so why bother, said house leader Mike de Jong.
That's not exactly true. The Liberals have three bills - on resource roads, improved insurance industry regulation and wills and estates - that they wanted to pass in the spring, but dropped because of lack of time. (They also could have delayed some of the half-dozen bills that were pushed through with no debate on the last day of the spring session.)
They were ready, and considered important then.
And there are other areas where they have acknowledged change is needed - like improving the police complaints process - and have had lots of time to draft the bills.
Even leaving aside the excuse, the Liberals know that the legislature isn't just a place to pass bills. When MLAs - government and opposition - gather in that red-carpeted chamber, it's their chance to speak on behalf of their constituents.
They can raise the issues and concerns that matter to people back home. They can ask cabinet ministers what's being done about issues, from seniors care to forestry to potholed roads.
By cancelling the session, Campbell is denying them and the public that right.
The decision carries some political risk. A recent poll found British Columbians believed Campbell is out of touch and uninterested in their concerns. Shutting down the legislature reinforces that impression.
And the timing, right after Stephen Harper and Jack Layton were pilloried for trying to avoid debating Green leader Elizabeth May, was a problem. It looks like Campbell is afraid of debating Carole James.
But the Liberals figure the risks of a session are greater. There is a lot of anger over the carbon tax, and it's being ramped up by Harper's attacks. Campbell still hasn't provided any justification for the massive hike in pay scales for senior government managers.
There are potential questions on a range of issues that could make the government look bad, from seniors care to forestry problems to the efforts to deny help to the disabled based on an arbitrary IQ level.
And there are smaller embarrassments, like Campbell's decision to fly to the Beijing Games on a private jet with a developer and party supporter.
Campbell says people have told him cabinet ministers and MLAs should be out in the ridings, talking with them.
But the legislature will have sat for only 47 days this year, among the fewest in a non-election year in more than two decades. If the fall session had lasted the full six weeks, MLAs would still have 180 working days free this year. That seems plenty of time to keep up with local concerns.
De Jong was right to say there's no point passing laws just to keep the legislature busy. But he can't really be saying that the government no longer cares about the bills it introduced in the spring and sees no need to update or improve any other legislation.
Still, that's that. MLAs lose their chance to speak for their constituents. The legislature will sit for about 19 days in the spring and then break for the election.
Not democratic, but it suits Campbell's political purposes.
Footnote: There's probably not a big political price for the decision to abandon the sitting. Most people aren't all that aware of where MLAs are or what they're doing. But the decision does reinforce the impression that Campbell doesn't really accept the idea of accountability and raises the perception of arrogance.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Harper carbon attacks bad news for Campbell

Among all the people who didn't want a federal election, Gordon Campbell has to be one of the unhappiest.
For the next five weeks, the Harper Conservatives are going to be attacking Stephane Dion and the Liberals.
And Campbell is going to be caught in the crossfire, unable to take cover or fire back as his supposed allies deliver wounding blows.
One of the Conservatives' big targets is going to be Dion's Green Shift, and especially the proposed carbon tax.
The "tax on everything" that would "screw everyone across the country," Harper has already called it.
And that's before things got rough.
And Dion's proposal is pretty much identical to the carbon tax that Campbell promised in the throne speech and brought in July 1. Use fuels that produce greenhouse gases, and you pay - 2.8 cents a litre on gasoline, for example, rising to 7.2 cents by 2012, and more after that.
The unpopular carbon tax has already given B.C. New Democrats a big boost, without Harper's help. They support a carbon tax in principle. But not the Campbell version, in what seems a rather contrived distinction.
The tax actually makes sense. If you accept that global warming is real, greenhouse gases are a factor and that market forces matter, then a tax on fossil fuels is an incentive to reduce consumption.
But the public isn't buying it, according to the polls. They think it won't work. And they consider it a tax grab, even though the provincial government has introduced offsetting tax cuts equal to the money it will take in from the carbon tax.
Campbell is now in a weirdly vulnerable position, with Stephen Harper and Carole James ganging up on him over a critical policy.
The provincial Liberals have worked hard at getting along with Ottawa - no matter who is in power -with reasonable results.
Partly, that's pragmatic. One of Campbell's real accomplishments is getting people who are passionate Conservatives and Liberals federally to work together in one provincial party. It's no mean feat; federal elections are hard fought and the scars are lasting. Campbell inspires people to check their baggage at the door.
That might be harder this time, especially with the carbon tax as a big issue and the federal stakes so high. Things could get nasty between the Harper and Dion troops in B.C.
It looked that way in the first days of the campaign this week as Harper came to the province. The federal Conservatives had tried to avoid criticizing the Campbell carbon tax directly since he announced it.
But no more. Harper's attacks might have been directed at Dion's tax, but they drew blood from Campbell too.
It was brutal and direct. Harper effectively challenged Campbell's honesty, rejecting the claim that revenue from the B.C carbon tax is balanced by offsetting tax cuts.
"Every politician in history who wants to impose a new tax claims that it's either revenue neutral or it's temporary. It's not true," Harper said. "Everybody knows - especially in British Columbia - that that kind of a carbon tax is not revenue neutral on the average working family."
Ouch. It's rhetoric straight from a Carole James' speech. But because the accusations are coming from Harper, the claims that Campbell is not to be trusted are getting a lot more attention.
The B.C. carbon tax was already a tough sell, especially given rising energy costs this summer.
Now the Conservatives - with bags of money and a good organization - are going to spend the next five weeks trashing the idea as an irresponsible tax grab.
Which will leave Campbell with just six months to try and undo that message before the provincial campaign starts.
And, of course, just six months to encourage federal Conservative members of his coalition to swallow a tax they have been attacking with vigour.
Footnote: The campaign also quickly got stupid. On Tuesday, a controversy over a cartoon on the Conservatives' website that showed a puffin pooping on Dion threatened to overshadow policy announcements and the NDP and Conservative efforts to bar Green leader Elizabeth May from the televised debates.