Desperation breeds worthy reforms

VICTORIA – The crisis over the harmonized sales tax and subsequent leadership contest have shaken up the B.C. Liberal party and produced some serious suggestions for reform.

  • Jan. 17, 2011 5:00 a.m.

VICTORIA – The crisis over the harmonized sales tax and subsequent leadership contest have shaken up the B.C. Liberal party and produced some serious suggestions for reform.

For the post-Gordon Campbell B.C. Liberals, accountability is an unavoidable theme. Shuswap MLA George Abbott led the way last week with a package of initiatives, including restructuring the way the legislature works.

Abbott proposes moving the annual throne speech, where the government sets out its priorities for the year, from the spring to the fall. Hardly an exciting reform, but it leads to a couple of important changes.

First, it implies that there will actually be a fall legislative session, something Campbell first instituted and then proceeded to truncate or cancel most years to avoid opposition questions.

Abbott also wants to move the scheduled election date to the fall, as early as 2013 if the opposition will agree. Both parties have noted that May elections disrupt the spring budget process, resulting in delays and uncertainty for voters at the most critical time.

Long-time observers will recall the circus that resulted from the ruling party controlling not only election timing but also the legislature schedule. Governments could (and did) table reams of complicated legislation at the end of the spring session to ambush the opposition, which would react with delay tactics that dragged into the night and into the summer. It was a travesty.

Campbell deserves credit for imposing a sane schedule on the legislature, although it was easy when his government held all but two seats. He then squandered that progress by retreating from the legislature when faced with his first substantial opposition. Whoever wins the leadership should restore that commitment.

Christy Clark has taken up the cause raised by independent MLAs, to restore the proper function of legislative committees. To the average person trying to pay the mortgage, this is also about as exciting as watching a mailbox rust, but it too is important.

Campbell tried this once in 2005. Stung by the loss of north coastal seats, he created a committee to hold hearings on fish farming and gave the NDP a majority. But the tradition of partisan warfare dies hard, and the opposition members ended up demanding a ban on open-pen fish farms in five years, whether closed containment is feasible or not.

Still, hearings were held in affected communities and a genuine debate ensued. Clark is proposing these touring committees become the norm, and whoever wins should follow through with that as well.

Kevin Falcon caused a stir last week with his suggestion for merit pay for teachers. Falcon cites Australia’s program, with bonus payments offered outside union contracts.

Here in B.C., teachers load up on post-graduate degrees because they guarantee wage increases. Whether these master’s and PhD qualifications actually improve classroom performance is difficult to say, since the union fights any effort to assess teacher performance.

Again, whoever replaces Campbell should proceed with this idea. It’s similar to what the Obama administration in the U.S. has embraced, despite political backlash from its unionized teachers.

This week the B.C. NDP contest starts to take shape, after the entry of three fringe candidates who haven’t done much to address the policy vacuum at the heart of the anti-Carole James revolt.

Just as the B.C. Liberals got arrogant after nearly a decade in power, the NDP grew dangerously dependent on the anti-Campbell theme that brought them back to life.

If the political upheaval of 2010 results in new leaders for both parties actually committing to serious debate about ideas, it will be worth it.

Tom Fletcher is legislative reporter and columnist for Black Press and