Friday, April 20, 2012

Byelections not great for Conservatives, or Liberals

Four thoughts on the byelection results.
First, New Democrats should obviously be pleased. Tidy campaigns, two wins, no apparent effect from the attack ads. In Chilliwack-Hope, turnout was down by 2,900, but the New Democrats gained 130 votes over their 2009 result, while the Liberals lost 5,490. The Conservatives' total increased by 2,350 votes.
Second, the results show the Liberals can still claim to be the choice of those prepared to vote strategically to block the NDP. That's important for Christy Clark. If the Conservatives had placed second in either riding, John Cummins would have at least a theoretical claim to the support of strategic anti-NDP voters.
Third, the results confirm the Liberals' problems are much deeper than a split in the non-NDP vote. Look at those numbers in the first paragraph above. Liberals support dropped by 5,490 votes; Conservative support only increased by 2,350 votes. Some people who voted Liberal in 2009 voted NDP; many more just stayed home. One of the fallacies in the argument that making the Conservatives go away would solve the Liberals' problems is that Conservative support would all migrate to the Liberals. Many Conservative voters would not vote at all, based on these results.
Fourth, Cummins did well enough in both ridings to keep Conservatives enthused, despite the third-place showing. The party attracted 15 per cent of the vote in Port Moody-Coquitlam; weak, but not bad considering there wasn't even a candidate in the 2009 election, and 25 per cent in Chilliwack-Hope.
That's bad news for the Liberals too. There's much talk of uniting-the-right to save the Liberals - or whatever a new party might end up being named. But that faces big hurdles. The Conservatives are surging because many voters can't stand the NDP or the Liberals. They won't be easily wooed. And other Conservatives are hardcore social conservatives who believe they have finally found a party that speaks for them. They too will be difficult to convert to Liberals.
And Cummins is not a man given to political compromise.
All of which creates a problem for Clark and the Liberals. A bid to relaunch the party - or a new party - looks desperate and might not work. Arguing that people have to vote for the Liberals even if they think they're doing a lousy job would alienate some voters and is hardly inspiring.
Attack ads to scare voters into voting Liberal are an option, but it's hard to see how they would be enough.
Hard days ahead for the Liberal party.

And another thing....
Clark continued to make the argument Friday that the Liberals are the only alternative to the New Democrats, and that she is the ordained leader of the anti-NDP forces.
That was reinforced by calls Clark chief of staff Ken Boessenkool made to Conservative organizers, according to some fascinating reports from Rob Shaw of the Times Colonist. Boessenkool is apparently pitching a merger - but Clark's leadership of the merged party is not open to debate.
But a look at the combined Liberal-Conservative vote in the byelections shows the problem with that position. The fact is that 41 per cent of anti-NDP voters rejected Clark and the Liberals. If there is to be a new coalition party, it's hard to see how it can be led by a person who has - at best - the support of 59 per cent of its base.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

PIne beetle jobs disaster and government inaction (and secrecy)

Independent MLA Bob Simpson yesterday raised questions about a government document forecasting half the forest jobs in the Interior would disappear in the next few years. The rush to harvest the pine beetle wood will be over. The damaged forests will be decades away from harvest size. No wood, no mills, no jobs. The document proposes a few short-term measures, like logging in protected areas. (The government was quickly removed from the government website once Simpson asked about it in the legislature.)
The economic crisis reflects a massive government failure to respond to an inevitable and obvious crisis. In a 2004 column, I wrote about the job losses when the pine beetle wood was harvested.
The crisis would challenge any government. There are no easy routes to economic diversification to replace a core industry, or retraining for its workers.
But the federal government's response has been anemic, given the scale of the disaster. The province's Pine Beetle Action Plan has been hopelessly inadequate, especially in terms of economic development. The provincial government has failed to warn workers that their jobs will end, and missed opportunities to take bold action.
All despite the fact that this disaster has been unfolding in slow motion, in plan sight.

Update: Simpson has the document, now declared secret by the government, at his website here.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The strange world of Honduran teachers

There's no end of baffling stories in Honduran newspapers. Today, I read about a three-toed sloth - endangered here - rescued from a San Pedro Sula home where it was being kept, badly, as a pet. It's doing OK. The story was unclear why the people thought a sloth would be a good substitute for a dog.
But the reports on the education system - especially teachers and their unions - are the most baffling.
First, the news was that teachers were striking because they hadn't been paid. Cheques were weeks or months late. Some stories said the government didn't have the money on hand. Others said the payroll systems were simply a mess. Either way, it's bizarre that the state can't get its act together to pay employees.
Then the education minister - a federal post - was whacked. In part, El Tiempo noted, it was because he couldn't get a grip on the job. After two years, he still hadn't been able to establish how many teachers were actually employed.
That suggests one reason people weren't being paid. But the converse was apparently true; a 2011 audit found 3,448 'ghost' teachers were getting paycheques, but couldn't be found in any school.
Then both papers reported widespread corruption in hiring and promotion policies. Education officials were demanding, and getting, $3,000 to $4,000 for teaching places. The right cash payment - or political connections - could jump a candidate ahead of more competent, better qualified applicants, or buy a bump in salary level or better school. Some 18,000 unemployed teachers are looking for work. If you can get a job, the pay is good. Bribery would be appealing, and worth millions to the recipients.
That story is still unfolding.
And of course, it's all against a backdrop of overcrowded, poorly equipped classrooms, some with 90-plus kids from several grades.
I usually try to bring these posts back to B.C. This one is a little harder.
But there is one thing in common. Despite the problems like not being paid regularly, people are lining up to be teachers in Honduras and paying kickbacks to get jobs.
In B.C., about 1,800 people a year graduate with teaching degrees. Another 800 show up from other provinces hoping for work. But there are only about 1,000 vacancies a year. Despite the long odds, people are trying for teaching jobs and spending years on sub lists. (And if bribery were possible, I expect jobs would go for a tidy sum)
Which is bad news for the BCTF. It's hard to argue wages are uncompetitive when there are almost three applicants for every job, with the number increasing every year. Many, of course, just love the idea of teaching. Many like the pay - $40,000 to start, $80,000 at the top end - and the long holidays.
But unless the union wants to argue the profession is attracting second-rate candidates, it's hard to see a case for big wage increases when prospective employees are delighted with the current conditions.