Thursday, March 17, 2011

Minimum wage increase good policy and politics

Christy Clark’s quick action on the minimum wage is both good public policy and politically smart.
Clark made increasing the minimum wage one of her first acts. The wage - stuck at $8 since 2001 - will go to $8.75 May 1, $9.50 on Nov. 1 and $10.25 the following May.
That will more than make up for lost ground over the last decade.
Practically, the change makes sense. About 40,000 employees in the province are paid minimum wage. Some work for minimum wage briefly, or are part-time workers supplementing family income.
But some are living and even raising families on the wage. Leaving them without an increase for a decade, mired in worsening poverty, is simply wrong and exploitive.
Most of the business community have accepted the need for an increase for some time, even as Gordon Campbell refused to act.
The increase still rankled with some. The restaurant industry warned about job losses.
But B.C. went from having the highest minimum wage in Canada in 2001 to the lowest today. Even after first increase to $8.75 in May, B.C. will still have the lowest.
If restaurants in every other province can operate successfully with higher minimum wages, surely managers and owners in B.C. can.
Some businesses warn that raising the minimum wage has a ripple effect - that all low-income workers will be affected.
But again, businesses in other provinces deal with that. B.C. businesses were able to pay higher real wages in 2001, based on the minimum wage then. Why not now?
And businesses worried about the size of the increase can reflect on their failure over the last decade to support small, regular incremental increases.
There’s an underlying philosophical issue at play.
A free market is generally a good way to determine pay. Employees offer their services; employers bid for them. Those with skills and a track record command more; if they contribute to a company’s success they are rewarded out of fear they might leave. (In real life, it’s not quite so tidy.)
But we’ve agreed people without bargaining clout, who do a fair day’s work, shouldn’t be protected from the effects of market forces. Just because some can only command $10 a day doesn’t mean an employer should be able to pay that little.
Or most of us have. The Campbell government’s long refusal to increase the minimum wage began to leave the impression it didn’t really believe in the concept.
Clark’s quick and significant action signalled a different approach, emphasized when she said the increase was “long overdue.” By phasing in the increase, she gave companies time to plan. And she linked it all to the “family first” theme.
The move was also quite a contrast to Campbell’s first act in government, a reckless 25-per-cent income tax cut that hadn’t been mentioned in the 2001 campaign and plunged the province into a deep deficit.
Clark didn’t take the next logical steps. The minimum wage should be indexed to the cost of living or the average wage in the province — like MLAs’ salaries - so big catch-up jumps wouldn’t be needed.
And she could have announced action to help another group of dirt-poor British Columbians who have seen their real incomes eroded over the last decade - people living on income and disability assistance.
You can’t really have a family first agenda when children are being raised in dire poverty. But income assistance for a single parent with two children, deemed employable, is less than $300 a week (and less than a minimum wage job). Those children are in trouble.
Still, changes to rates or to give people on income assistance the chance to earn a few dollars without being penalized - a move that would cost the government nothing - might be just ahead.
Meanwhile, give Clark credit for “long overdue” and equitable action on the minimum wage.
Footnote: Clark also eliminated the $6 "training wage" employers were allowed to pay new hires.
But she announced a $9 minimum wage for servers in establishments with liquor licences. Their income generally includes tips which take them above the minimum wage level.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Harry Bloy and the problem with politicians

New cabinet minister Harry Bloy's performance after the swearing in Tuesday was described as "fatuous" by Vaughn Palmer.
And it was. Bloy was taking his turn answering reporters' questions about his appointment and his new job as social development minister.
But instead of answering, he just kept repeating meaningless talking points that seemed to come from some pre-event briefing by communications staff. He looked dim, evasive and insincere.
It's wrong to single out Bloy. Politicians routinely let themselves be turned into the equivalent of Chatty Cathy dolls. No matter what the question, it's as if someone pulled a string in the back of their neck and they repeat irrelevant prerecorded messages.
I have no reason to think Bloy couldn't have answered the relatively straightforward questions. His resume is vague, even by political standards, but he's been elected three times. He should be able to deal with questions effectively.
But he didn't.
Sean Holman has the event on video here. You can decide if talking points really work politically. Or, more importantly, serve the public interest.

Clark puts together a reasonable first cabinet

Christy Clark's first cabinet seems pretty astute. That's not surprising; Clark is good at this kind of stuff.
She made Kevin Falcon, the close runner-up in the leadership race, finance minister and deputy premier. Falcon was the business choice for premier. He's tight with federal Conservatives. (Clark is a federal Liberal.)
So by giving him good jobs, Clark reduces the chance of Liberal supporters defecting to a provincial Conservative party and strengthens the province's hand in negotiations with Ottawa if the HST is rejected in a referendum. (There is still that $1.6 billion in federal incentives to discuss if the tax is dumped.)
Other leadership contenders also got decent posts. George Abbott is education minister; Mike de Jong is health minister. It will be interesting to see whether they bring energy and ideas to the ministries. Both have been in cabinet for a decade; it's easy to become jaded about the prospects for real change. De Jong, particularly, doesn't have a track record of achievements in past ministerial posts.
Clark also wanted to show a fresh start - that this isn't the Gordon Campbell government version two.
Which, perhaps, explains Colin Hansen's dumping. Hansen was remarkably competent over the last decade, but the HST taint seemed to seal his fate, probably unfairly.
The other striking exclusion was Dr. Moira Stilwell. She's a doctor and radiologist and nuclear medicine expert. She ran a good outsider campaign for the leadership before withdrawing and supporting Abbott.
But she didn't get a cabinet job, while some lesser lights - at least on paper - did.
Clark did elevate other outsiders while dumping Campbell ministers. The biggest jump came for Mary McNeil, the Vancouver MLA who is now the children and families minister, replacing Mary Polak, who is moved to aboriginal affairs.
It's a good sign for the troubled ministry. Polak seemed trapped as a defender of the sad status quo and failed to deal effectively with the oversight of the Representative for Children and Youth.
Clark also replaced Lesley du Toit, Gordon Campbell's handpicked choice to manage the ministry. That change was overdue; the ministry has been mired in a never-ending "transformation" project that has had little apparent effect in improving frontline services.
Overall, Clark shrank the cabinet. It's down to 18 ministers, including the premier, from 24. That's a welcome change; some of the Gordon Campbell cabinet jobs - like a junior minister for building code renewal - were bizarre. It was, however, bad news for Kevin Krueger, Murray Coell, Stilwell and others who were squeezed out.
But the apparent shrinkage is misleading. Clark also appointed 10 MLAs as parliamentary secretaries to help with the workload (and ease hurt feelings). (Ministers get $51,000 on top of the base pay of $102,000; parliamentary secretaries get $15,000.)
Clark also attempted to sort out the confusion Campbell created with a poorly executed re-org of ministries involved in land-decisions.
Energy and mines are also once again under one minister - Rich Coleman, who keeps responsibility for housing as well.
And forests, lands and natural resource operations are all one ministry under Steve Thomson of the Okanagan.
The only new ministry is jobs, tourism and innovation, under Pat Bell of Prince George. Clark has promised action to improve the province's disappointing job situation; it remains to be seen if the ministry has the tools to make a difference.
Clark maintained that emphasis with a new cabinet committee on jobs and economic growth and another on open government and engagement, each with Liberal ministers and MLAs on board.
Their effectiveness - and the chance for cabinet ministers to make a difference - will depend on Clark. Campbell started out as an enthusiastic supporter of strong caucus committees, but a penchant for centralized control saw them dwindle in usefulness.
On balance, Clark and the transition team deserve credit for a well-constructed cabinet.
Footnote: The cabinet changes stripped Coleman of his longstanding responsibility for gambling and liquor sales. But, sadly, it failed to address the conflict in having one minister - now Solicitor General Shirley Bond - responsible for both promoting increased gambling and bigger average losses by British Columbians and dealing with the resulting crime and addictions.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Early looks at Clark's cabinet

The Times Colonist has an editorial online here.
One of the most interesting developments is the sacking of Lesley du Toit as deputy minister in the children and families ministry. The ministry floundered under her five-year tenure; Clark is signalling a new approach. The replacement - Stephen Brown - has been working in the health ministry and has an encouraging bio here.
The ministry also gets a new political leader in Mary McNeil. It's a needed fresh start.