Friday, December 19, 2014

Letter from Managua: A canal dividing a country

The proposal to build a trans-oceanic canal across Nicaragua seems mostly like the scenario for a slightly implausible summer blockbuster movie.
The movie would have it all. Powerful business forces, environmental risks, social upheaval and conflict and even global intrigue - Chinese interests are behind the project. And lots and lots of mystery. I can see Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie racing from Caribbean villages in Nicaragua to skyscrapers in Hong Kong in a race to uncover the truth.
The canal would be about 280 kms long, more than twice as long as the Panama canal. A short 24-km section would let ships travel through locks from the Pacific to Lake Nicaragua (or Cocibolca, its indigineous name). Giant container ships would travel about 70 kms across the lake, the largest in Central America, and then through a canal across some 180 kms to the Caribbean. 
Der Spiegel
Details are sketchy, but the goal is to allow ships capable of carrying 18,000 containers, about 50 per cent lager than the ones the new locks being built in Panama can handle. (For a fascinating look at how shipping containers transformed the world, I hihgly recommend Marc Levinson’s The Box.)
All that comes with an entirely unsupported price tag of $50 billion, about three times the combined cost of B.C.’s Site C dam and Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline project. And while Site C represents about 3.7 per cent of British Columbia’s GDP, the new canal would represents about 250 per cent of Nicaragua’s GDP. 
Sounds like a crazy project for a poor country. (Nicaragua was ranked 132 in the 2014 UN Human Development Index report, ahead of only Haiti in the Americas.) 
The canal project is being backed by Wang Jing, China’s 12th richest man with a fortune of some $6.4 billion, according to Forbes magazine. President Daniel Ortega, one-time revolutionary, supports the project and his son Laureano is the link with the government. The largest business group backs the megaproject.
But there is fierce opposition, based in part on the secrecy and lack of real planning. Last week about 3,500 Nicaraguans marched in the streets of Managua. They arrived despite efforts by government transportation officials and the police to keep groups from travelling to the capital. The military has moved into the countryside where canal opposition has been strongest.
There are four big concerns about the project.
First, a lot of people – perhaps 30,000 - are going to get pushed off their land to make way for the canal. That´s no big deal in China, where some 1.5 million people were relocated to make way for the Three Gorges Dam. But it will be in Nicaragua, where land can mean survival.
Second, there have been no real studies of the environmental impact. The project would mean dredging rivers and blasting a 70-km channel across Lake Nicaragua, a beautiful, largely unspoiled treasure. Thousands of hectares would be cleared, new lakes built to hold water to operate the giant locks and both coasts would be affected. The country would literally be cut in half, with plans for one bridge at this point.
Third, there have been no social or economic impact studies, or publicly released information on the business case for the canal. 
Shipping experts are skeptical. The canal would knock about 1,300 kms off the sea route from China to the East Coast of the U.S., but the canal would take longer to transit then Panama. 
The government is claiming the canal will create 50,000 construction jobs and 200,000 permanent jobs, but it hasn’t set out the value of the concessions granted to Wang´s company, which include the right to operate two ports, an airport, tax-free industrial zones, a railway and pipeline and other potentially profitable businesses. One fear is that the canal will never be built while Wang will cash in on the other opportunities.
And fourth, there is wide speculation that the canal is less a commercial venture and more an effort to extend Chinese government influence in the region. Wang hasn’t revealed where the $50 billion will come from, and investments from Chinese state-controlled companies are considered likely. For analysts who doubt the plans commercial rationale, the geopolitical strategy makes sense.
Work is scheduled to start on Monday, with the first projects a new dock on the Pacific coast and roads to receive the heavy equipment and supplies needed for the project. 
The idea for a canal has been around for a long time. In the to-be-read section of my Kobo is the 1852 book ¨Nicaragua: Its People, Scenery, Monuments, and the Proposed Interoceanic Canal.¨ U.S. tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt was awarded a canal concession in 1849. He never built it, but made money off a train and stagecoach route.
It´s always been controversial. And it still is.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Letter from Managua: Missing the strange

I can see why people wind up travelling to more and more exotic places. After a month in Managua, I recognize a faint disappointment at the lack of full-on culture shock.

The first month in Copan Ruinas, less than three years ago, was a thrill ride of new sensations. The grungy home stay, the cobbled streets, the half-starved dogs and sheer newness of life in the world’s most dangerous country. We would walk along, under the scorching sun, and say ‘Geez, we’re living in Honduras’ in a slightly bewildered way.
The arrival in Nicaragua was wildly uneventful by comparison. Sure, there’s a buzz landing at night in any big Central America city, and it was strange to have the airport staff all in surgical masks and a thermal camera employed to see if we had fevers. (Ebola was their worry, with good reason. If it ever got a foothold in Central America, things would get desperate fast.)
But we quickly found a place to live, having learned the only way was to walk the streets looking for signs and asking anyone you saw about places for rent. Within the first hour or so, a helpful guy guided us to our eventual home. We found the stores, stocked the casa and started work with our Cuso International partner organizations.
Part of the difference is that Copan is a town of about 8,000 and Managua is a city of some 2.5 million. We were plunged into a whole new world in Copan, where a 20-minute walk took you into some dead-poor villages. In Managua, we’re in the Barrio Bolonia, a pretty nice neighbourhood. There’s a PriceSmart a couple of blocks away, a Costco clone.
And part of the difference is that Honduras is a wilder place. Nicaragua actually ranks lower on the UN Human Development Index, ranked 132 out of 187 countries, with Honduras in 129th. GDP per capita is about $4,300, compared with Canada’s $42,000. 
But the taxi drivers in Managua don’t pay weekly extortion fees to the street gangs. The murder rate is around 15 per 100,000, compared with the ridiculous rate of around 85 per 100,000 in Honduras. That meant about 18 murders a day, most never investigated.
Still, Managua is hardly Victoria. I walk a little over three blocks to work, and say hello to half-a-dozen security guards. Horse carts trot through the barrio and there are no street signs, or even names. The cathedral on the main square is a beautiful ruin, shattered in the 1972 earthquake and never rebuilt. A mysterious Chinese billionaire plans to start work next month on a canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific, with the Ortega’s government support and without much of anything in the way of consultation or economic or environmental studies. We’ve been to one giant, crazy market; an even bigger one is considered highly risky to even venture into with any possessions of value. 
It’s nice to wander, as we did Saturday, down a main boulevard where the government is setting up some 20 giant displays dedicated to the Virgin Mary, without constantly looking over my shoulder. I’m keenly looking forward to Dec. 7, when at 6 p.m. we all pour into the streets, set off fireworks and sing and chant to give thanks for her birth. 
Things are still plenty different here. But we’re different too. While I like being better at settling in, I miss the shock of discovery that was so vivid when we landed in Honduras. Or I think I do. 

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Letter from Managua: Streets with no names

I got used to the lack of addresses in Copan Ruinas, Honduras. We told people we lived in the Casa de Jorge Ramos on Calle Independencia. They usually knew where I meant.
But Managua has upped the game, shunning not only addresses but street names. Beyond a handful of main highways, streets have no names. Finding your way around a city of 2.4 million people without any street names or addresses is like some kind of strange experiment in ingenuity.
Alexis Arguello statue
- just walk west
Cuso International’s business cards and letterhead do not have an address for the Managua office, or even a street name. There isn’t one.
Instead, the business card says ‘From the Optica Nicaraguense, go up one block and then one-and-a-half blocks south.’ It’s in Barrio Bolonia, the card says, which narrows the search. And ‘up’ means east, because that’s where the sun comes up.
That’s what substitutes for addresses. Every business, or home, is located in relation to some supposedly well-known waypoint. 
I’m working with APEN, the AssociaciĆ³n de Productores y Exportadores de Nicaragua. Its address is ‘From the Iglesia San Francisco, 20 varas up.’ (A vara is a largely obsolete Spanish measurement just shy of a yard.)
It can get worse. Some of the addresses refer to reference points that no longer exist. (‘From where the big tree used to be.’)
And standing at a corner in a strange city, without a compass, the whole idea of deciding which way is north is difficult.
Managuans don’t seem to find this strange. But aside from the confusion of people like me, there has to be a significant economic cost. How many deliveries have gone wrong because a driver never could figure out where a store or home was? How many new businesses have failed because customers decided not to take a chance on going three blocks east from the Canal 2 building, one-half block north and then 40 varas west? How weirdly has development been skewed by a desire to locate near a prominent waypoint?
But Cuso volunteers soon learn a basic lesson. Strange is the new normal.
We found a place to live for the next four months, a bedroom with private  bathroom in a nice house in a good neighbourhood, with shared living space and kitchen. It should serve nicely.
If you want to visit, come on down. Look for us 40 varas east of the chess academy in Barrio Bolonia.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Come to the Bard and Banker Thursday for my book launch

It’s been a long time between posts.
Lots of good reasons. We’ve had two weddings in October, two daughters marrying two great guys. They’ve been fun and inspiring, and a chance to re-connect with people who matter. 
I’ve been doing interesting work for The Tyee, BC Business and Douglas Magazine. 
We - Jody Paterson and I - have been looking ahead to new Cuso International placements in Nicaragua. 
And there has been ‘the book.’ The real title is Dead Ends: BC Crime Stories, but for a long time, as I laboured away, it was just ‘the book.’
It’s my first, published by the team at the University of Regina Press. I researched and wrote about 40 B.C. crimes from the 1860s to today. I knew the stories would be great, and the characters fascinating. But I didn’t anticipate that the crimes would reveal so much about us and our history. 
The book was released Sept. 29, and I’ve been trying to figure out, as a first-time author, how to get people to read it. (Munro’s Books listed it among more than 1,200 new releases in September, which sets out the challenge rather starkly.)
On Thursday, at the Bard and Banker pub in Victoria, there’s an official launch party. It will be low key. We have the comfy Sam McGee room. I’ll talk a little bit about writing the book. Copies will be on sale for $20, with $8 going to Cuso International and Casita Copan, an amazing project to support homeless kids and struggling families in Copan Ruinas, Honduras, where we spent more than two years. But it doesn’t matter if anyone buys books. There’s a piano, if you want to play.
Mostly, I hope people will show up and talk to each other. I have almost 400 Facebook friends. Jody has 1,805. I don’t know who they are. But it would be interesting if we all got together for a few hours, especially as we head to Managua in less than two weeks.
We have the room from 6:30 pm to 9. Come on down.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Public might blame both sides, but holds government responsible for inaction on strike

Both sides are losing in the teachers’ dispute. The spin and counter-spin, PR gestures and ad campaigns aren’t moving the parties any closer to a deal.
More and more people - as an informal sampling by The Tyee suggested - are sick of both the BCTF and the government.
Which means the government is going to have to step in and end the strike.
The chances of a negotiated settlement were always tiny. The posturing by both sides and unwillingness or inability even to bargain the key issues has reduced them to about zero.
Each side blames the other. 
But - and it is an enormous but - only one side has an actual responsibility to see that kids get an education, and the ability to make that happen.
All the Twitter ads and press conferences blaming the BCTF don’t change that. Governments are supposed to make sure citizens get the services they need (and are paying for).
The BCTF’s foolish two-week June strike was a nuisance (and self-destructive). The loss of the first week of classes was tolerated by many people.
But the government’s apparent willingness to stand by indefinitely while some 580,000 students are deprived of an education is going to generate more and more public anger. Especially as there is no sign the hard line is going to produce a resolution. 
Each day the government fails to act now adds to the impression that it doesn’t really consider education a priority, let alone an essential service, as Premier Christy Clark once argued.
There are several options. A legislated end to the strike combined with an imposed settlement or a report from an industrial inquiry commissioner, for example, or an appeal to the Labour Relations Board for a ruling that education is an essential service.
Leaving students and parents adrift during a PR war with teachers - will increasingly be impossible.
And the government’s willingness to do nothing despite the damage to students  will increasingly carry a political cost.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Clark's press conference bad news for province's court prospects

The tit-for-tat press conferences by Premier Christy Clark and BCTF head Jim Iker did nothing to advance negotiations, and left most people appalled by both sides.
But Clark’s comments seem especially damaging to the government’s long-term interests.
Assume the union holds out and the government legislates teachers back to work and imposes a new contract. 
Teachers would then challenge the agreement in court, pointing to the failure to negotiate class size and composition issues, as the B.C. Supreme Court has said it must. 
The court didn’t say the provisions, stripped in 2002, must be restored to the contract. But it said there must be good-faith bargaining. (And compensation for the damage done.)
A transcript of Clark’s press conference will be very helpful for the union cause.
Clark said the government would not begin bargaining on class composition until the BCTF reduces its wage and benefit proposals and an agreement was in place on those issues. She didn’t even acknowledge class-size limits as a topic for negotiation.
Clark’s comments indicated the government has made no serious effort to bargain the contentious issues, or address the B.C. Supreme Court ruling that class size and composition issues had been illegally stripped from the contract.
Her public insistence on preconditions before any real negotiation on the issues  makes a strong case that the government has not yet accepted the court ruling - or learned how to avoid another court loss.
It will weaken the government's ability to defend an imposed contract from a new legal challenge.
Footnote: 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, or at least a good-faith attempt.
The Supreme Court agreed. And it found the law violated the teachers’ rights. They had, presumably, traded off other items in past negotiations to get the clauses in the contracts. Government can not just pass laws to violate agreements without consequences. (The Liberals have accepted this principle in other areas. When it retroactively banned uranium mining, the government agreed to pay more than $30-million to Boss Uranium, recognizing there is a cost to ripping up legal agreements.) 

Monday, September 01, 2014

Teachers' dispute down to public pressure and first to fold

You can tune out all the rhetoric from both sides in the teachers’ dispute at this point. 
It has come down to a simple question - who will fold first.
The government hopes the BCTF will accept a negotiated deal, to avoid - or reduce - the risk of legal challenges. Given its losing record in the courts, that’s understandable.
The union would rather be legislated back if an acceptable deal can’t be reached, for the same reason. (The union leadership, after taking members out in a costly, ineffective strike strategy, also doesn’t really want to try and explain why the result was a mediocre negotiated settlement.)
So they are hunkered down, blaming each other and trying to rally support for their cause.
The government’s brave rhetoric about letting the strike/lockout continue is empty. Parents and the public won’t tolerate a government that fails to use its power to re-open schools. Especially given Premier Christy Clark’s past claims that education is an essential service.
But the Liberals hope the BCTF will cave before it has to legislate an end to the strike. Teachers lose, on average, about $1,700 a week in gross pay as the strike continues. They are already out $3,500-plus, with the losses mounting by the day. And they know that any settlement is not going to recover those losses.
Teacher support for the strike is fading, according to columnist Bill Tieleman. His piece in The Tyee argued that the union should continue the strike. One reason, he said, was that if the BCTF called a pause in the strike members would refuse to go back to the picket lines.
So parents and students wait, the parties wage a PR war and the schools stay closed.
What is most irritating is that the union and government have had five or six years to act on sound proposals to improve this hopelessly flawed bargaining process, but have done nothing.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

RCMP's political response to budget cuts, or give us the money or we shoot the police dog

The only real surprise in RCMP budget cuts in British Columbia was that they didn’t threaten to chop the musical ride. 

The provincial government has reduced its contribution to the RCMP for policing in the province by $4.2 million.
RCMP management has decided to make all the cuts in the budgets of the special enforcement unit, including the squad investigating biker gangs, and the major crimes section, responsible for the missing women file, among other things.
Nowhere else left to cut, says Deputy Commissioner Craig Callens, the top RCMP manager in B.C.
Come on. The $4.2-million cut is less than one per cent of the RCMP budget for the province. The notion that the only areas to cut are two high-profile investigative units is laughable. 
A family with a $60,000 income facing the equivalent cut would have $540 less to spend. I’m betting they could find relatively painless ways to handle the shortfall.
Not the RCMP managers.
It’s a standard ploy to resist budget cuts, in any organization. Find the most visible, valued service and say it will be hurt. Claim cuts in admin, or travel, or overtime, are impossible.
And it’s a reminder that B.C. still has no real ability to set priorities or policies for the RCMP, even though its officers police about 70 per cent of the province.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The weird tale of the deadbeat cop, and the true crime

BC's government claws back $17 million in child support payments from mothers and children living in poverty. 

Everything about the case of the disgraced RCMP officer who tried to scam a paternity test is weird.
But weirdest and most destructive is the provincial government income assistance policy that led to the crime. The same policy that ensures thousands of children will be raised in government-mandated poverty.
Cst. Greg Doncaster was a rising star in the RCMP, the Times Colonist reported, stationed in the detachment policing the capital's western suburbs.
In 2009, he had an affair. The woman became pregnant. Doncaster told her he wouldn't leave his wife. His marriage was too important.
So the woman agreed to raise the child -- a girl, as it turned out -- on her own. Doncaster offered no support, financial or as a father.
Crappy behaviour on his part, but not criminal.
Then the woman lost her job in 2011. As a single mom of a one-year-old, she applied for income assistance.
She was still committed to the raising of her daughter on her own.
But the Social Development Ministry demanded to know who the girl's father was and why he wasn't paying child support.
Not because the government has any interest in the child's well-being or rights. The government wanted to track down the father, make him pay child support and deduct the payments, dollar for dollar, from the women's income assistance cheque.
The woman gave in and handed over Doncaster's name. You can be cut off benefits if you don't.
The ministry tracked him down and he denied being the father, fearing the revelation would wreck his marriage.
Getting their man
So officials demanded a paternity test. Doncaster stalled and then hatched a plan to send fellow RCMP Cst. Dereck Carter in his place. (Carter pleaded guilty and received a conditional sentence and 12 months probation. If he doesn't mess up, he will have no criminal record. He is suspended without pay and facing an RCMP disciplinary hearing.)
The test results, of course, came back negative. Ministry workers delivered the news to the mother in what must have been an uncomfortable meeting.
Doncaster wasn't the father, they said. Tell us who else it might have been.
Only him, the mother said. So the ministry workers pulled the paternity test file and showed her the photo taken as part of the procedure.
That isn't Doncaster, the mother said.
And the whole thing came unwound. Doncaster was charged with obstructing justice. He quit the RCMP and voluntarily started paying child support, including retroactive support. He avoided jail, but was handed a six-month conditional sentence.
Impoverishment by the numbers
Very bad behaviour, to be sure.
But the government's income assistance policies, including clawing back every cent of child support paid to people on income and disability assistance, does much more damage.
If Doncaster had been paying child support, the family would be no better off. The government would take all the money.
The mother and her daughter would still receive a maximum of $570 a month for rent. It is almost impossible to find decent, safe housing, especially with children, on that budget. MLAs believe they need up to $1,580 a month from taxpayers for a second residence in the capital, almost three times more than they are prepared to allow a parent and child on assistance.
The woman would get about $535 a month to cover all their other living expenses, a rate unchanged since 2007. A family bonus payment would add another $111 a month.
All in, the mom would be raising a child on $14,600 a year. That's $281 a week for rent, clothes, food, transportation, everything.
The poverty line for a single parent and child is $29,000. The government has decided this little family, and thousands of others, should live on less than half that amount.
Some 35,000 children are in families dependent on income or disability assistance. The government has decided they should live in poverty.
And it has made that decision knowing that childhood poverty does lasting damage. It increases the likelihood of illness, educational underachievement and social and employment problems. The children will suffer and society will pay for the decision to deny them a reasonable start in life.
Sending a message
The official government talking points are that it's important to claw back child support so people exhaust every possible option before they collect welfare. The unofficial rationale is that life on assistance should be really unpleasant so people try harder to get a job.
But 80 per cent of the people on assistance have disabilities or other issues -- multiple barriers to employment, in ministry speak -- that make finding work difficult or impossible.
So four out of five people on assistance face a long, maybe permanent, stay.
Which means those 35,000 children don't face a tough few months in crap apartments, underfed and deprived, the poor kids at school, before their parents get jobs and everything turns out fine.
They grow up in poverty.
If Doncaster had acknowledged his daughter and paid up, the money would have been part of the $17 million in child support payments a year the government claws back, money that was supposed to help children.
Premier Christy Clark says the government can't afford to give up the $17 million. She rejected even modest provisions, like allowing recipients to keep the first $200 a month to benefit their children. The message is that this province just is not that interested in equality for kids.
The most recent child poverty report from First Call found British Columbia, once again, had the highest rate of child poverty in Canada (tied with Manitoba).
Simply increasing income and disability assistance supports for families would reduce the child poverty rate from over 11 per cent to under seven per cent. B.C. would rank fifth or sixth among provinces, instead of tenth.
Instead, the government -- on our behalf -- has decided 35,000 children should grow up deep in poverty, because it would be just too expensive to give them a decent start in life

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Newspapers: Sponsored content, advertorials and the shifting balance of power

Norm Farrell has a useful post about sponsored content, the new name for advertorials. And The Gazetteer wondered what I thought, as a former newspaper manager.
Farrell says sponsored content is bad. 

“How should readers react when business pages are presented by an industry lobby like the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers? I don't care to pay a newspaper that presents promotional pieces of advertisers as news nor do I wish to pay a newspaper that hesitates to publish stories that affect reputations of its sponsors,” he asks.
“If the Vancouver Sun's business pages are presented by the fossil fuel industry, readers are not likely to read that shale gas is "The dotcom bubble of our times." Nor are they likely to read that British Columbia has earned almost nothing from natural gas royalties in recent years.”

The piece raises two separate questions. Are readers being misled by ads masquerading as news, and are newspapers failing to cover stories for fear of irritating big advertisers?
No one pushed Bogie around
Advertorials were always a source of conflict between ad salespeople and the newsroom. Advertorials offered businesses a chance to buy ads that looked sort-of-like a news story, supposedly gaining credibility for the message. They paid a premium for the privilege.
Ad departments wanted the result to look just like a news story. The newsroom wanted the opposite - a different type face, borders and a big label that said ADVERTISEMENT. And the editorial staff didn’t want to produce the material, believing that that could create the perception of conflict in covering related stories. (And because they thought it beneath them.)
Usually, the editorial side won the day. Readers could recognize the ads for what they were.
As long as that’s true, I don’t have a problem with sponsored content or advertorials. In at least two cases, that apparently hasn’t been true of the Postmedia advertorials. They have run on newspaper websites as if they were real content, generated by editorial staff based on their best judgment about what information readers needed or wanted.
There are broader problems. Organizations and individuals are getting slicker and more convincing in developing and distributing sponsored content, in all media. More and more content that looks like or pretends to be journalism is really advertising. (Or clickbait aimed solely at getting people to look at ads.) 
That content comes from people who can pay for it. People who can’t pay have a limited role in the public discourse.
Editors and reporters used to decide what would go in the paper each day. The process was haphazard and shaped by personal prejudices and limited resources, but it was mostly aimed at delivering something useful for readers.Now, people with money can buy sponsored content. They can train their spokespeople and manage the message. There are seven print journalists left in the legislative press gallery. The government has 278 employees in the communications and public engagement department. The spinners have a vast advantage in numbers and resources.
And newspapers, and news media generally, are in a different position in dealing with advertisers than they were in the past.
Newsrooms won the arguments about clearly labelling advertorials in part because the businesses were profitable and seen as essential by many advertisers. 
Today, newspapers are struggling to survive. The advertisers have the edge in negotiations, as companies are looking for any way to generate revenue. The risk is that advertisers will hold too much sway.
A few advertisers have always sought to influence content. My position, while managing newspapers, was that it was in the long-term best interests of advertisers to accept that they had no special sway. Readers bought newspapers because they believed the information was selected based on their needs. If that was no longer true, readership and credibility would fall and ads would be less effective.
It was easy to say no to an unreasonable request - nicely - because the newspaper could cope with some lost revenue and be reasonably confident that any boycott would be short-lived. 
That has changed. Struggling businesses are more easily pressured. That’s not a slam on the people who work there, simply an acknowledgement of reality. When shareholders and analysts are awaiting quarterly results, or hedge funds are looking to get their money back, it’s harder to make decisions, in grey areas, that risk revenue.
Newspapers were sometimes accused of arrogance in the past. But arrogance brought with it a certain independence. 
It’s interesting that we are having this discussion. Newspapers, for all their stunning faults, have at least established a code of ethics around their relationship with readers. If they hadn’t, there would be no possible breach to consider.

Friday, August 01, 2014

Government's $40-a-day payment to parents bad news for teachers' union

The government’s promise of $40-a-day payments to parents if schools are closed in September is an astute tactical move.
The plan, announced by Finance Minister Mike de Jong Wednesday, is a triple threat to the teachers’ union efforts to make gains in a new contract.
First, the payment - $400 a week for a family with two children in school and under 13 - will mute, at least a little, parent protests if schools are closed in the fall.
Second, the money government saves when schools are closed - about $60 million a week - will be taken off the table. The BC Teachers’ Federation won’t be able to argue it is available to help reach a settlement.
And third, the promise reinforces the government’s claim that it won’t legislate teachers back to work quickly, a point de Jong made again Wednesday.
That might be the most important part. 
The average teacher has lost about $3,500 in gross pay because of the stupid two-week strike in June. (Stupid because it hurt teachers and put no real pressure on government.)
That stung. But a long strike, even five or six weeks, could cost another $20,000, with a risk of no gains at the end.
Of course, the government could be bluffing, parents might be angered by a September strike and the Liberals could be forced to legislate teachers back to work. I still think that’s the most likely scenario.
But for many individual teachers, even the likelihood of a long strike would be dismaying.
Unlike many unions, the BCTF had only a tiny, immediately exhausted strike fund.  (That too raises questions about why a union that takes in at least $30 million a year in dues had no strike fund for a dispute everyone anticipated.)
The BCTF needs to increase public pressure on the government to make gains, but it hasn’t really succeeded. The public discussion is all about wage and benefits, not class size and composition issues. Teachers’ pickets to block school maintenance but irk administrators, but seem irrelevant - or destructive - to the public. 
The union can push for mediation for a few more weeks. It’s a reasonable position.
But its next move then should be to announce it was ending strike activities to give government time to consider a new bargaining approach and to wait for court appeals in the class size and composition decision.
Schools would open, unless the government was foolish enough to continue its partial lockout or go to a full one. And the union could work under the terms of the current contract regroup and plan a better approach to negotiations.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Honduras, and the U.S. border crisis no one is talking about

The Honduran kids are starting to pile up in detention centres along the U.S. border. Since Oct. 1, about 52,000 “unaccompanied minors” have been caught by by U.S border patrols in the southwest. Hondurans, Guatemalans and Salvadorians mostly.
That’s extraordinary. About 200 kids caught every day, after a dangerous, frightening journey of at least 2,400 kilometres. Likely 60,000 kids this year.
When 599 Chinese migrants showed up in rusty boats on B.C. shores in 1999, Canadians were plunged into panic. 

The same number of young migrants get arrested on the U.S. border every three days. Others make it across without being caught, or turn back on the journey.
They’re political fodder in the U.S., their stories reconstructed to fit the narrative desired by each side. 
Really, they’re kids. Some set out on incredible journeys on their own. Others were helped by families who took on huge debts - $4,000 to $6,000 - to hire a coyote. When their children are caught at the border, and returned, the debt remains.
The road to the U.S. is littered with bodies. The journey often involves riding a freight train called El Bestia. Gangs prey on migrants.
Imagine the desperation of parents who send their children on such a journey.
Canadians should understand the impulse to seek a better life. About 96 per cent of us come from somewhere else.
Those days are gone. Even as trade agreements removed barriers so capital and goods could move freely between countries, workers weren’t allowed the same freedom. They were trapped.
It makes sense for a Honduran kid to gamble on the journey to the U.S. They have seen the benefits - almost 20 per cent of GDP is money sent home by foreign workers, mostly in the U.S., mostly illegal. Everyone knows friends or family members who have made the trip. (And everyone knows people who have started the journey and never been heard from again.)
The U.S. is trying to turn back the tide. It’s fighting rumours an amnesty applies to minor migrants. This week, Homeland Security director Jeh Johnson warned parents of the risks children face travelling to the U.S.
But the day after Johnson’s warning was released, the U.S. State Department updated its travel advisory for Honduras. 
“Critically high” levels of crime and violence. Highest murder rate in the world. Corrupt police. Crimes often not even investigated and criminals operating “with a high degree of impunity throughout Honduras.” Narcotraffickers  and gangs, “known to commit crimes such as murder, kidnapping, extortion, carjacking, armed robbery, rape, and other aggravated assaults.”
Overblown, I’d say.
But if that’s the official U.S. governments position, it can not be surprised that Honduran teens are heading to America.
Escaping violence is a motivation. The gangs in the cities - imports from the U.S. - kill casually.
But mostly, the young migrants are looking for a chance.
I was amazed by the hopefulness of Hondurans in our time there. There are few jobs, schools are bad and opportunities are desperately scarce. But people open small stores, or take courses to prepare for a job that probably doesn’t exist. Kids stay in school, sign up for trade courses. It is at once inspiring and heartbreaking.
Embarking on a journey to the U.S. is a demonstration of that hopefulness.
Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez tried to shift responsibility to the U.S. The children are war refugees, he said, driven out of their country by violence fuelled by the drug trade.
Americans (and Canadians) consume cocaine. Without them, the drug would not be transported through Honduras and other countries too poor to control the business.
True enough. The 43-year-long “war on drugs” is a costly, destructive failure that has enriched and empowered a few - gangs and cocaine cartels included - and accomplished, literally, nothing while resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths. Drugs are cheaper and more available than ever.
But Honduras would be a bad place to be young even if not a single of cocaine moved through the country. Gangs and poverty and a broken society are the real problems.
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” it says on the Statue of Liberty. Canada embraced the same sentiments, without the poetry.
Except today, we don’t want those masses to show up. 
The fears about foreign workers and wages are understandable. For me, the problem is with the word “temporary.” We should welcome new citizens, not people brought here to be cheap labour and then sent home.
The kids flooding the U.S. border are risking everything for a chance at a new life. 
And we’re locking them up and sending them back were they came from.

Update: This great graphic shows where the kids are coming from.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Time for BCTF, government to prepare for fall legislated settlement (and save summer school)

I’m sure Vince Ready is busy. But I expect he also decided against getting involved in the teachers’ strike/lockout because there is no real chance of a mediated settlement now.
In a past life I was involved in labour negotiations. In one difficult set of talks, a mediator was appointed to help us reach a deal. He arrived, met with management and union, and booked out less than an hour later. The parties were too far apart, he said, and mediation would be a waste of time. Good luck.
That’s true in this dispute. There are too many issues on the table, the parties are too far apart and there’s no sign that either side really wants a deal. The BCTF’s goofy strike tactic, at a time when the government feels under no pressure from parents or public, served only to cost teachers an average $3,500 in lost pay and, by increasing their expectations, make a deal less likely. 
If the parties were really keen on a negotiated settlement, they wouldn’t have spent the last week exchanging insults through the media.
There are useful things that could be done now. The parties could agree on an independent costing of current proposals, for example. That might help identify potential areas of compromise. 
But I’d expect the dispute to continue into September. Barring creative solutions - which are possible but unlikely - a legislated settlement would be imposed just before school resumes, or after a couple of weeks of strike.
That means both sides should be focusing on winning public support for their positions on key issues. If government believes the public broadly supports the teachers, the back-to-work legislation will provide at least some gains. If not, the union will fare less well.
For the union, that means dropping proposals unlikely to win public support, like improvements to an already generous benefits plan. It means recognizing that a salary deal is going to look very much like other public sector settlements. And it means focusing on class size and composition issues.
For the government, that means quitting bargaining in public, stopping the expense of taxpayers’ money on ad campaigns fighting the union and come up with a serious response to the court rulings on class size and composition.
Practically, that means the BCTF should immediately announce that summer school classes will go ahead. There is no benefit to striking over the summer - it won’t put pressure on management to settle. And shutting down summer school will cost the union parents’ support and deprive some members of income they were counting on. (The government has already lifted the lockout for summer school.)

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Clark's pension costs taxpayers $76k a year, but disability rate increase not 'affordable'

Premier Christy Clark scores top marks for hypocrisy in explaining why British Columbians on disability benefits, and their children, should live in poverty.
Clark said this week that she knows the benefits, frozen since 2007, are too low. But British Columbia is just too poor to provide any increase. That will have to wait for some unknown future when it is “affordable,” she said.
But Clark believes it’s perfectly affordable to have taxpayers contribute $76,000 a year to fund her pension.
A single parent with one child on disability benefits in British Columbia - someone like Clark - receives $1,272 a month. That’s up to $570 for rent and $672 for everything else. They are expected to raise a child on $15,000 a year. 
Increasing disability assistance rates after seven frozen years is impossible, Clark says. Not “affordable.”
But MLAs believe that they need up to $1,580 a month for a temporary second home in Victoria to use when the legislature is sitting. That’s affordable.
They believe a pension plan that requires four dollars from taxpayers for every dollar paid by MLAs is affordable. The taxpayer contribution to fund the plan works out to an average $48,000 a year for each of the 85 MLAs.
The claim that British Columbia can’t afford to raise income assistance and disability assistance rates is simply false. 
The reality is that government has chosen to leave some 33,000 children and their families in poverty. People on assistance benefits are forced into substandard, sometimes dangerous housing, and denied the ability to afford the basics of life. 
It’s destructive for everyone. A single person is supposed to find housing that costs less than $375 and live on $122 a week. That is a grim existence for anyone, even people who are on income assistance for short periods. 
For people with few job options - those on disability assistance and with “persistent multiple barriers to employment” - it’s especially dire. They represent about two-thirds of recipients.
And government-mandated poverty is especially devastating for children. It does lasting damage to their health, educational achievements and social adjustment, and damages their prospects in life. Raising the rates now will save money for taxpayers in future, improve their lives and build a stronger province.
Clark needs to be honest. The rates haven’t been increased since 2007 because government has decided the needs of those people aren’t as important as its other priorities.
Including pay raises, pensions and benefits for MLAs.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Expect a teachers' strike in September

The chances of reaching a new teachers’ contract this month range from slim to none. 
There can always be breakthroughs when both parties sit down and bargain seriously, especially with the help of a mediator.
But that usually requires some preconditions. 
The number of outstanding issues needs to be reduced, and the distance between employer and union positions narrowed. The negotiators need to have prepared their principals - politicians and union members, in this case - for inevitable compromises.
And both sides need to feel under pressure to reach an agreement.
None of those are in place. There are still too many issues on the table for effective final bargaining - benefit improvements, prep time, salary grid changes, class size and composition. 
And the parties are too far apart. On pay, for example, the union wants a $5,000 signing bonus and raises that would increase pay by 8.2 per cent by 2017. The employer proposes $1,200 and raises that would see pay rise 4.6 per cent by the same date. The union’s proposed signing bonus would cost $150 million; the government’s proposal would cost $36 million. The union wage proposal would cost the government about $75 million more a year by 2017 than the government proposal.
The government hasn’t come up with any legitimate response to court decisions that demand bargaining on class size and composition based on the clauses eliminated when it ripped up contracts.
The B.C. Teachers Federation has raised members’ expectations, making it hard to sell any eventual compromise deal. If negotiators go public with a long list of proposals after a strike has been launched, those become the benchmarks for union members. 
And the union’s ill-timed strike is costing a typical member $350 a day in gross pay (without increasing pressure on the government). Some have characterized the $5,000 signing bonus as necessary replacement for the money they lost by striking. Their position is increasingly entrenched.
All those factors make a settlement unlikely.
So does the apparent belief of at least some participants on both sides that this process is a battle of right and wrong. Negotiations are about reaching a deal based on what is possible, not a holy crusade.
More talks in the next two weeks are unlikely to result in a settlement. But they might resolve at least a few items, or bring a little more clarity about what a final deal would look like.
But at this point, the union and government need to begin considering how they will deal with the impact of a strike in September. 
Ultimately, parents won’t stand for schools to be closed. If a deal can’t be reached at the negotiating table, one will be imposed.
Public opinion is critical in that process. If the government believes the public sides with the teachers, the imposed settlement will reflect that. If government thinks they have support, the deal will give less to teachers. 
It’s a lousy way to reach agreement on pay and working conditions for some 33,000 employees. But until the process is improved, it’s what we’ve got.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Teachers' June strike a tactical error

I don’t understand the teachers’ union decision to strike with two weeks left in the school year.
Parents resent school closures at any time; they impose serious hardships on working families. My entirely unscientific sampling in the Comox Valley suggests parents blame both government and union for the strike/lockout.
But shutting down schools now has little real impact. End-of-year events are lost, but starting summer holidays two weeks early doesn’t pose much of a threat to learning.
Government can wait out the strike without much pressure from parents. Based on the first reports on weekend bargaining, that appears to be what has happened.
And starting today, a typical teacher will be losing about $350 a day in gross pay. Union strike pay is $50 a day, but the fund is virtually empty.
By the end of the week, an average teacher will be out $1,750, the equivalent of a 2.4-per-cent raise. 
Strikes and lockouts are part of bargaining. But they’re destructive, and usually launched as a last resort. 
It’s hard to see the B.C. Teachers’ Federation at such a point. There is no obvious deadline for a new contract to be reached. The union is probably nervous - rightly - that the government would use the length of negotiations as a reason to impose a contract. But a strike now doesn’t change that and might strengthen the government’s position.
If a deal isn’t reached in the next two weeks, the strike could make reaching a settlement more difficult. Teachers would be out $3,000 or $4,000, and some would expect the union to get that money back in a new contract.
And the union has limited its options for job action in September.
I’ll look at the issues once the information is clearer. But the BCTF's tactical decision to strike now is baffling.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Five observations on the Ontario election

1) A record of corruption and incompetence doesn’t disqualify a party from forming government. The Ontario Liberals cost taxpayers almost $1 billion when they cancelled two power plants in 2011 to improve their election chances, and were either dishonest or incompetent in covering up the real costs. It wasn’t enough to get them kicked out of office. In fact, their share of the popular vote rose from 38 per cent in 2011 to 39 per cent this week. 
Opposition parties can't count on voters to punish parties for past wrongdoing.
2) Changing leaders, as the Liberals did, appears to be like a shaking an Etch-a-Sketch over your head. Everything is erased and you get a fresh start.
3) A large number of voters are more-or-less happy with the status quo or don’t believe the promises of those proposing change. The Ontario Conservatives said they would cut 100,000 public sector jobs and cut spending sharply. It didn’t sell. (The Conservative campaign also stumbled when its plan to create one million jobs was revealed to be based on bogus numbers, and leader Tim Hudak refused to acknowledge the giant error.)
4) Our winner-take-all election system doesn’t reflect voter preferences. The Liberals took 39 per cent of the votes and 55 per cent of the seats; the Conservatives 31 per cent of the votes and 25 per cent of seats; the NDP 24 per cent of the votes and 20 per cent of the seats. (The Greens captured five per cent of the votes, but didn’t elect any candidates.) 
5) Third parties face a tough road. Despite the Liberal record, the NDP failed to attract voters, up just one percentage point from 2011. There was little to choose between Liberals and New Democrats in terms of policy, and the electoral system encouraged those opposed to the Conservatives to vote Liberal.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Private schools, the strike/lockout and inequality

Not all parents are worried about school closures in the current teachers’ dispute.
Christy Clark and thousands of others have opted out of the public school system and pay large fees for children to go to private schools. They are not affected by the strike/lockout.
But they’re still a factor. About 76,000 children are enrolled in private schools, about 12 per cent of all students. Their parents tend to be affluent, educated, and highly concerned about their children’s education. 
If their sons and daughters were being kept from school, they would be cranky. And they have much greater ability to make life unpleasant for government. They have the money, time, energy and commitment to raise a mighty fuss about closed schools or even missed days.
Private schools place them above the fray, and offer another reason to shell out the fees - $6,000 to $20,000 per year, typically.
More and more parents have been choosing private schools, despite the cost. In the last four years, public school enrolment has dropped about four per cent, while private schools have attracted about 10 per cent more students.
A decade ago, 9.6 per cent of students were in private schools. Now it’s 12 per cent.
The Liberals pride themselves on a business-like approach to governing and good management. But a business that was losing more and more market share to competitors would decide something was wrong and fix it. 
The government, and the people in charge of the education ministry, haven’t done that.
Nor has their been any serious discussion about the impact of an expanding private school system.
We like to think that we’re an egalitarian society and people with intelligence, talent and drive have a relatively equal chance at success. 
Quality public education is one of the most important elements in creating that kind of society.
A two-tier education system undermines equality of opportunity. The income of parents, not talent and effort, becomes a critical factor in the kind of life children can achieve. 
That’s wasteful for society; the talent of a significant portion of the population isn’t fully utilized. 
And it entrenches and increases inequality. 
There’s a persistent fallacy that inequality just happens, or is the result of economic forces beyond our control. 
But inequality in Canada reflects policy choices that governments have made. Cutting unemployment benefits or freezing disability payments makes some people at the bottom of the income ladder poorer. Reducing income taxes makes people at the top end richer.
The choices that have led to an increase in private school enrolments will increase inequality in the future.
That’s not to say government should ban private schools. Parents have a right to choose.
But the government now subsidizes private education with per-pupil grants at 50 per cent of the grants to public school districts. The subsidy could be 40 per cent. It could be eliminated entirely. It could be increased. Those are policy choices, and some would slow the move to private schools and reduce future inequality.
Or the government could look harder at why parents are judging the public system inadequate and address those issues. It could do research parents are choosing private schools and address those concerns.
None of this has a direct relation to the current labour dispute. The teachers’ union is seeking to improve working conditions and income for members; the government is trying to save money. Both sides talk about the students, but their own interests come first. That’s the nature of union-management negotiations. (It might that the best thing for students would be a 10-per-cent pay reduction in teachers’ pay, with the money used to hire an additional 4,000 teachers. No one could reasonably expect the union to agree to such a change.)
Nor is it a partisan issue. Private school enrolment, as a percentage of all students, increased at virtually the same rate during the last NDP governments.
It should be a concern. We claim to believe it’s important that all children have a fair chance at making the most of their lives. 
The increasing emergence of a two-tier education system shows we don’t actually care about that principle. Or, for that matter, that we recognize the unfairness and corrosiveness of increasing inequality.
Footnote: Not all parents who send their children to private schools are rich, not all private schools are ritzy. The current per-pupil grant to public school districts is about $6,900; private schools get $3,450.