Al Etmanksi: Proportional representation will empower cabinet ministers to stand up to the premier's office

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      By Al Etmanski 

      I’m in favour of proportional representation because it will give cabinet ministers responsible for the social ministries more power. This reason may come as a surprise to you. But no more a surprise than my discovery at how little power those cabinet ministers actually have. And how much power is concentrated in the premier’s office. Particularly by the unelected officials who work there.

      Proportional representation will allow cabinet ministers to use their considerable skills to build a coalition of interest among MLAs from their own caucus as well as from other parties. And counteract the tendency of the premier’s office to look at what’s good for the party instead of what’s good for the province.

      I’ve spent the last four decades going back and forth to Victoria as an advocate for people with disabilities and their families. I’ve seen governments come and go. I’ve met politicians on all sides of the legislature. For the most part I’ve been impressed by the cabinet ministers I’ve dealt with.

      They come into politics with high ideals. And a desire to make things better for those pushed aside, ignored, or vulnerable. They work hard to learn the political ropes. To fulfill their ministerial responsibilities. And to understand the root causes of the challenges they have been mandated to address. They want to do more than deal with the symptoms. Time after time I’ve seen their well thought out and practical solutions nixed by staff in the premier’s office.

      It’s hard enough being a cabinet minister responsible for a social portfolio. Your statutory responsibilities are extensive—for example child protection and income assistance. This naturally demands most of your attention and sucks up most of your budget. Your flexible spending power to adopt new solutions is in the tens of thousands—this from budgets that exceed a billion dollars. And you are treated by the premier's office as if your ministry is only good for draining the public purse. Even though you’ve come to understand that a healthy economy depends on a strong foundation of care.

      The control by the premier’s office is ruthless. I’ve watched that office assign a ministerial assistant to a cabinet minister because they were becoming too sympathetic to the people they were serving. I’ve received an apology from another cabinet minister after they left office, for their inadequacy in stick-handling around that office.

      Still another showed me the letter of resignation they carried in their pocket should the premier’s office interfere with their mandate one more time. Finally, I watched two cabinet ministers plead their case to senior staff in the premier’s office as if they were schoolchildren. And seen the frustration and anger in their eyes when they were told the issue wouldn’t be pursued because it wouldn’t get the party any votes.

      I’ve witnessed the power of proportional representation in New Zealand. Every meeting I’ve had with a cabinet minister in that country involved members of the opposition. There was a spirit of cooperation, a willingness to get along. A sense that they had the power to make things happen.

      Proportional representation will do the same in British Columbia. It will enable us to get to the roots of poverty, homelessness, addiction, social isolation, and other persistent social challenges. It will allow politicians to transcend their partisan scripts and work together. It will diminish the centralizing power of the premiers office. And it will help cabinet ministers act like the capable and caring politicians they are.