Martyn Brown: John Horgan's new NDP government—this feels like...progress

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      I was ruminating on the week that was in B.C. politics—the good, the bad, and the ugly.

      Mostly it was a week of undoing bad decisions that never should have been made in the first place. Sometimes making progress is as simple as reversing backward thinking and direction.

      • Restoring the B.C. Human Rights Commission.
      • Eliminating tuition fees on adult basic education (ABE) and English-language-learning programs (ELL).
      • Taking decisive new steps to combat the Kinder Morgan pipeline project and its unconscionable threats to our environment, our atmosphere, our coastal economy, and Aboriginal people.
      • Reviewing the B.C. Liberals’ “professional reliance” system, which replaced public service professionals with industry-hired private contractors in assessing the environmental risks of logging, mining and other activities.

      It’s all good.

      It’s all aimed at preventing or remedying a slew of bad decisions that were largely taken to cut corners, cut budgets, and/or curry favour with B.C. Liberal party backers.

      It feels like … progress.

      Which is why it was so frustrating to see those announcements largely overshadowed by the kerfuffle surrounding Gordon Wilson’s badly mishandled termination as B.C.’s LNG ambassador.

      Talk about ugly.

      The imprudent slight on Wilson by the minister responsible, Bruce Ralston, which was unwisely reiterated by premier John Horgan, was personal and petty. Threatened with legal action, both men were rightly obliged to apologize.

      What should have been a perfunctory and welcome measure in moving beyond the Clark government’s costly patronage appointment instead generated several days of negative media stories that embarrassed the NDP and culminated in a humiliating apology.

      New governments often tend to learn the hard way that gleefully rubbing salt into the wounds of the vanquished and deposed is rarely a wise strategy.

      In any case, what really hurts their newly impotent political foes is meting out rough justice with dignity, class, and sugary indifference, not the opposite.

      Such conduct typically elicits public kudos, as it also rots the socks of those who are left with no legitimate avenue for complaint. They are condemned to quietly seethe at their own fair treatment, as it is applauded even by some of their assumed allies.

      If nothing else, this fiasco should remind the Horgan government that there is no percentage in twisting knives and engendering sympathy for those who are already so widely ridiculed, scorned, or crushed by their own example.

      It should be enough for the governing MLAs to know that their newly neutered enemies in opposition are now all feeling the hollow reality of being suddenly “irrelevant”—as Christy Clark so crassly put it, when the tables were reversed.

      There is a fine line between forcing the Liberals to own the errors of their ways—which is politically crucial for the NDP—and taking partisan potshots that risk defining the government as spiteful and uncouth.

      Indeed, ever since the election, Horgan has walked that line very well.

      From his response to the Clark government’s desperate deathbed threats and machinations, through its demeaning fall from power, to his new administration’s swearing-in ceremony and senior staffing appointments, Horgan has set a fine example that does his office proud.

      His tone, then and since, has been spot-on. It stands in stark contrast to the hysterical brickbats from the handful of Liberals who have dared to say anything in their new role in purgatory.

      Horgan was gracious in responding to Christy Clark’s resignation. He has refused to be baited by Rich Coleman’s barbs on the cancellation of the proposed Pacific Northwest LNG project. He has declined to dignify the ludicrous assaults from the likes of Andrew Wilkinson and Jas Johal. And he has wisely avoided getting down in the muck with the Liberals’ most vocal allies.

      Interim B.C. Liberal leader Rich Coleman's taunts have had little effect on the new premier.

      For the most part, B.C.’s new premier has let his government’s actions speak louder than words: showing real leadership on the softwood file; helping rural communities cope with B.C.’s ravaging wildfires; providing a long overdue increase in income assistance rates; launching a promised economic review of the Site C project; and more, as this video suggests.

      All in all, it has been a stellar launch that has mostly showcased the new cabinet’s strength of talent and maturity, its readiness to govern, and Premier Horgan’s leadership skills, at home and abroad.

      It is an impressive start that has honoured the NDP’s campaign pledges and its formal commitments to the B.C. Greens in respect of Site C, Kinder Morgan, funding for ABE and ELL, and revitalizing the environmental assessment process.

      Such is the hopeful promise of the GreeNDP alliance, for which we owe a huge debt of thanks to its three Green silent partners.

      All 44 of those NDP and Green MLAs should take some time before the legislature reconvenes to reflect on what they have already accomplished, and yet stand to achieve, for the benefit of so many British Columbians.

      Through the power they now hold and the changes they are committed to making, they have given our province a new lease on life.

      Some of the changes already announced, like the decision to eliminate the Liberals punitive tuition fees on Adult Basic Education and English Language Learning, are literally life-defining decisions for the thousands of British Columbians they stand to benefit.

      Think that’s hyperbole?

      Read even a few of the personal testimonies on this Vancouver school board webpage highlighting the value of adult education programs and you might change your mind.

      Or read this piece from former VSB chair Patti Bacchus on the harm done to students by the Clark government’s decision in 2015 to eliminate funding to school districts for tuition-free upgrading courses for adults who already hold a high school diploma.

      Since the Liberals introduced that change, which imposed tuition fees of up to $1,600 per semester of full-time studies for ABE and ELL, enrollment in those programs has plummeted by almost 35 percent.

      It fell from 10,244 full-time-equivalent spaces in 2013-14 to 6,692 spaces in 2016-17.

      Think of what that really meant.

      It meant that thousands of British Columbians could no longer upgrade their skills or obtain the proficiency in English they needed to realize their dreams and employment aspirations.

      They simply could not afford to pay the exorbitant tuition required to enhance their education.

      In many cases, that change meant that they were denied the most critical tool needed to lift themselves and their families out of poverty, or low-paid, dead-end jobs.

      Their dreams were instantly shattered, by the stroke a minister’s pen.

      And all to save the government maybe $10 million a year—a drop in the bucket on a $49-billion budget.

      Meanwhile, the Liberals wasted $15 million last fiscal year on their pre-election partisan advertising campaign. If that’s not scandalous, I don’t know what is.

      As someone who participated in Treasury Board and other cabinet meetings for a decade, I well know how little regard is often given to the material impacts on people’s lives that flow from so many shortsighted budgetary decisions.

      Budget decisions too easily get divorced from their substantive effects on the individuals, families, groups, and social imperatives they tend to compromise.

      I can only imagine how that callous policy change on ABE and ELL went down.

      The minister and senior bureaucrats filing ominously into the cabinet room, ready to face the star chamber of other ministers and officials who sit on or advise Treasury Board.

      The forum is oppositional and sometimes confrontational. It readily neglects the real bottom-line impacts on the people most directly affected by those Treasury Board members' overwhelming concern for “fiscal discipline”, “restraint”, and “prudence”.

      Ministers’ budget “asks” get the royal thumbs up or thumbs down, as real lives hang in the balance of those split-second decisions that decide the fate and shape of government programs.

      Funding for priorities like ABE and ELL can get axed before a dent can be made on the ministers’ quietly waiting danishes, catered meals, and assorted desserts.

      These are the bad decisions that beg for good and better governance, focused first and foremost on the material impacts that elected decision-makers are empowered to influence. Not only as they effect the province’s balance sheet; but also as they effect the real lives and welfare of real people. And equally, the health of our environment and the goal of a sustainable economy.

      I know why the decision was made in 2002 to eliminate the human rights commission. You can read the rationale here.

      I was there. And it was wrong, much as it may have saved a few shekels, might have reduced some complaint and investigation waiting times and backlogs, and certainly made many B.C. Liberal donors very happy.

      It was supposedly intended to “streamline” and “expedite” the complaints process under a solitary tribunal that, among other things, essentially cut the important function of public interest human rights advocacy out of the picture altogether.  

      Restoring the Human Rights Commission and its mandate to research, advocate, investigate, and report on needed improvements to enhance all forms of human rights is a good thing.

      It is something that will only happen because there are now elected people in government who are committed to those objectives.

      That, too, stands to be a life-altering decision for untold thousands of British Columbians, who can only benefit from the government’s active support to help them combat discrimination, as it also promotes greater societal equality, social justice, tolerance, and understanding.

      You want to know why change is necessary? Read this cogent critique that Shelagh Day penned way back in 2002, as one of Canada’s foremost experts on human rights.

      Her analysis didn’t matter a damn to the government that killed the commission. But it’s still relevant and it should inform the new government’s effort to make the value of human rights the public priority it should be in any truly progressive liberal democracy.

      Undertaking that enterprise was only one of the four important decisions noted above in the course of a single week.

      When David Eby and George Heyman ran for the NDP in 2013, they gave the party a greener hue.
      Byron Dauncey

      The announcement by Environment and Climate Change Strategy Minister George Heyman and Attorney General David Eby, on actions to defend B.C.’s interests in the face of the Kinder Morgan project, was also monumental.

      It left no doubt that the Horgan administration is not willing to roll over and play dead for a Big Oil project that many predicted it would passively resist at best.

      Hiring Thomas Berger, QC, OC, OBC as the government’s external counsel to support the province’s new legal efforts to help others challenge federal approval of the pipeline expansion and increased oil tanker traffic off B.C.'s coast in court was a stroke of brilliance.

      The insights, knowledge, and expertise that Berger will uniquely bring to the government in effectively protecting Aboriginal interests, rights, and title cannot be overstated. They may prove pivotal in winning the fight to stop that project, which also so threatens B.C.’s coastline, ecosystems, and climate action imperatives.

      Ditto for the government’s new hard line on evaluating future permits and work plans.

      Heyman and Eby’s new measures will ensure that Indigenous people’s constitutional rights are duly respected, in keeping with the broader goal of reconciliation, while also significantly strengthening environmental protection.

      For the marine life, coastal communities, industries, and workers whose lives or livelihoods all stand to be negatively impacted by a seven-fold increase in tanker traffic, the GreeNDP alliance’s efforts on Kinder Morgan are massively important.

      The point is, all of these changes—including the government’s review of the so-called “professional reliance system”—are all good decisions that have only one purpose in mind: doing public good.

      The latter, for instance, is something that B.C.’s Ombudsperson also raised concerns about in a 2014 report. The review of that contracting-out practice, which some say is akin to putting the foxes in charge of the henhouse, is long overdue.

      It should result in strengthened environmental protections, greater accountability and transparency in the use of taxpayers’ money, and many more functions being retransferred to professional public servants, who are more appropriate to perform those tasks.

      This is the power of public service, for those in positions of power.

      It is the capacity to initiate, secure, and properly administer needed and valuable change that can only be achieved by those who choose to run for public office and devote their lives to public service.

      This is what many of us hoped the NDP or Greens would do in government, directly or indirectly. Namely, act with confidence and resolve to reverse the mistakes made by others and to answer what was bad with what is demonstrably good.

      There will be no shortage of Liberal partisans, corporate interests, or other GreeNDP detractors who will want to make doing that as ugly as possible.

      Yet six weeks in, the new government I voted for is, if anything, exceeding my expectations—which were pretty darn high to begin with.

      That bolsters my confidence in the elected decision-makers now sitting on the various cabinet committees, who now hold the power we gave them to advance the progress our province so richly deserves.

      So far, so good. Take a bow, you agents of change.

      And know that your efforts are valued and widely supported by so many who voted for the policies you are now actually delivering.

      In my books, you get an “A” for the first impressions you have earned with your good deeds.

      Martyn Brown was former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell’s long-serving chief of staff, the top strategic adviser to three provincial party leaders, and a former deputy minister of tourism, trade, and investment. He also served as the B.C. Liberals' public campaign director in 2001, 2005, and 2009, in addition to his other extensive campaign experience, and he was the principal author of four election platforms. Contact Brown at