Friday, April 15, 2011

Teachers court win a big challenge for Clark

The teachers' union big win in court this week has created big headaches for Christy Clark.
Practically, the ruling that the Liberals acted illegally in stripping class size and composition limits from teachers' contracts in 2002 could end up adding to the education.
It will certainly make contract talks with the B.C. Teachers Federation, already underway, much more difficult.
Politically, the ruling raises questions about Clark's judgment. She was education minister at the time and a key architect and defender of the discredited legislation.
And it reminds people that, while Clark has been working to distance herself from the Campbell years, she was a cabinet minister and deputy premier for the Liberals' first three years in government, when some of the most controversial decisions were made.
The issue isn't complex. The teachers' union had successfully bargained to have class size and composition limits in contracts. (Composition refers to the number of special needs students in a class.)
In 2001, the newly elected Liberals thought the limits were too restrictive, costly and properly a matter of education policy.
So they passed laws in 2002 to strip them from the contract and bar the union from negotiating the issues in future.
The Liberals had a point. Class sizes are matter of education policy, which should be the responsibility of school trustees and MLAs.
But a sensible government would recognize they are also an issue of working conditions. Unions negotiate working conditions. There needs to be some balancing of interests.
Clark didn't see it that way. The government used legislation to strip the contracts. (In spite of Gordon Campbell's pre-election promise to honour all signed agreements.)
It did the same thing with health workers, leading to the firing of some thousands of employees to be replaced with people working for much lower wages.)
The health unions won their lawsuit in 2007. That cost taxpayers $85 million in settlement costs.
Now the teachers' union has won a similar victory. The court found there was no justification for stripping the contract and removing teachers' right to bargain working conditions - especially when they had agreed to other concessions in negotiations in return for the class size and composition limits.
The court didn't rule teachers had an absolute right to negotiate class size limits.
But it found the government hadn't made any real case that the issues couldn't have been addressed through bargaining and had made no effort to find other, less draconian solutions.
Before Clark and company stripped the contracts, there months of consultation with the B.C. School Employers' Association, which bargained for school districts.
But none, literally, with the B.C. Teachers Federation on ways of dealing with the underlying issues.
OK, the BCTF was a difficult union. (And still is - the union is seeking outlandish wage increases in the current round of negotiations.)
But the government's failure to make any effort before using legislation to strip contracts was thuggish and incompetent.
And costly. If the government had made any sort of real effort to seek solutions to real problems, the outcome of the court case might have been different.
The law on bargaining rights was unclear at the time. The health unions' 2007 Supreme Court of Canada victory changed that.
But practically and ethically, seeking a solution without attacking the bargaining rights of teachers - and creating years of costly conflict - would have been much smarter.
Instead, the government blundered ahead. In court, it couldn't provide any evidence class size limits were a real problem. It couldn't offer any evidence that a negotiated resolution wasn't available. And it conceded it didn't even try to solve the problem without a harsh law.
Those were costly mistakes. The court gave the government 12 months to address the rights' violation, but the teachers' union is not going to sign a new agreement that doesn't reflect the judgment.
Clark faces an early test. And not an easy one.
Footnote: It's also surprising that the government didn't try to negotiate a settlement with the teachers once the health unions won in 2007.
The clear legal victory gives the BCTF considerable bargaining clout in the current talks, which the union will certainly use.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Debate draw is a good outcome for Harper

It always seems a bit goofy to be scoring a political debate like a boxing match or a dog show.
But that's largely what these one-off encounters are about. The four party leaders spent Tuesday evening trying to persuade voters to give them the prize for best in show.
And like a dog show, the ribbon doesn't go to the smartest or friendliest, but to the one who looks like the best example of his breed.
On that basis, Stephen Harper and the Conservatives should be pleased. Harper's message was simple - economic growth is the priority, his government is competent and people should pay no attention to all that talk of contempt for Parliament and wasteful spending.
That's all "bickering," not something Canadians should be worried about.
He had an advantage. Front-runners always do. The other leaders - especially Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff - had to look significantly better than people expected; Harper just had to avoid looking worse.
Mostly, he did that.
But not always. It should irritate some voters that Harper seemed so dismissive of the finding that his government had wrongfully concealed information from MPs and been found in contempt of Parliament.
That is not just squabbling, or political games. The Speaker supported the finding and any fair reading of the record shows that the Harper government's secrecy made it impossible for MPs to do their job of scrutinizing the costs and benefits of legislation,
And Harper's claims that he did not contemplate some form of coalition government in 2004 were contradicted by NDP leader Jack Layton and Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe, who co-signed a letter to then Gov.-Gen Adrienne Clarkson that certainly seemed to suggest that was his plan.
Ignatieff spent much of the debate stressing three themes. Harper is an undemocratic control freak who won't work with others; the Conservatives will waste money on more prisons, fighter jets and corporate tax cuts at the expense of the interests of ordinary Canadians; and the only alternative is a Liberal government. "You didn't tell Parliament the truth," he said. "You abused democracy."
Ignatieff was OK. But there was no magic moment of connection that would make an uncommitted voter suddenly sit up and decide that Ignatieff really gets it and would be a great leader.
Layton performed at a similar level. He had one of the better lines - "I don't know why we need so many prisons when the crooks seem so happy in the Senate."
But while he was successful in challenging the Conservative's record and raised fears about their actions if they won a majority, Layton had a harder time differentiating the New Democrats from the Liberals.
As always, Duceppe had an advantage. His job was just to push the other leaders into positions that would play badly in Quebec, demanding, for example, that the province's language laws be extended to cover federally regulated workplaces.
He too had a good line. The debate was based on six questions from Canadians. When Harper responded to the first, Duceppe congratulated him for answering a question from a citizen for the first time in the campaign.
There wasn't a lot of policy discussion, beyond the themes the parties have already laid out.
That was particularly striking when the leaders dealt with the last question, about health care.
None of them had any new ideas or approaches. The issue quickly became how to pay for health care. Harper said tax cuts meant a stronger economy and more money for services; Layton and Ignatieff said any government would have to choose between health care and jails, jets and corporate tax giveaways, to use the talking point.
Three weeks to go until election day. Perhaps some of the debate themes will stick - the Conservatives should be vulnerable on their undemocratic tendencies, for example. Or perhaps new issues, like the suspect $50 million in G8 spending will emerge.
If not, we are likely on the way to another minority government. Nothing the leaders did Tuesday was enough to change that.
Footnote: B.C. got short shrift. There was a video question about crime and light sentences from a man in Gibsons, which never struck me as a particularly dangerous place.
And Layton accused Harper and Ignatieff of imposing the HST on the province. Beyond that, there was nary a mention that I noted in the two-hour debate.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The case for a heritage fund

The Globe had an interesting piece on the collapse in B.C. gas exploration auctions. Oil and gas companies had been paying big prices for gas leases - $70 million a month, on average, last year. But the last three auctions have produce an average $6 million.
The action has moved on. The best properties had been claimed and natural gas prices are low.
Which has Energy Minister Rich Coleman thinking about selling the gas more cheaply by cutting royalty rates.
And me wondering again if a heritage fund for non-renewable resource sales would be more responsible and encourage better government decisions.