The multi-tent government of B.C.

Big-tent parties are standard in politics but in government, they rule from a small room.


Getting as many voters into your tent ensures a win in the first-past-the-post system. Once elected, a relatively small group will determine the direction of government. A smart leader will pick cabinet members with diverse opinions. An arrogant leader will dictate the agenda.

Site C dam was one of those ideas that should have been halted early once it became obvious it wasn’t needed. Former Premier Christy Clark blindly proceeded with it.

For all who could see, it was doomed.  Even to me, it was obvious. Three years ago, I wrote:

“An independent review of the project found that BC Hydro could supply the province with electricity, without the new dam, with modest growth in LNG production, until 2028.”

Clark forged ahead with Site C dam in the face of calamity, even as markets for LNG collapsed.

Premier Horgan was left with a no-win situation. If he cancelled Site C, he would make the thousands of unionized workers unhappy. If he approved it, it would make environmentalists unhappy. Horgan chose the pragmatic solution. David Eby, B.C.’s Attorney General, explains.

“The strategies of the previous government to avoid oversight and push the project ‘past the point of no return’ with the hope, achieved, of visiting financial ruin on the books of any government that would seek to cancel it, are unforgivable.”

The cost of competing dam, Eby says, was the same as cancelling it; except in the first case you end up with an asset, essentially a mortgage paid over 70 years. Cancelling it would result in a debt, leaving the government with less money to spend on health, schools.

Horgan’s decision was sure to disappoint. You would think his fragile government would be doomed. However, Green leader Andrew Weaver is not keen to take down the government any time soon for two reasons. No one wants another election.

And both the NDP and Greens are eager to see proportional representation (PR) come to B.C. Since minority governments are typical in PR, it’s in the best interests of both the NDP and Green Party to see this government last as a demonstration that minority governments work.

Multi-tent governments can hold opposing views. While the overarching progressive banner would fly over government, different flags can fly over each tent. Pragmatists can huddle in one tent and environmentalists in another, grumbling at the other but placated in the comfort that they share the same basic values of fair wages, poverty reduction, human rights, and equality.

Multi-tent governments are a novelty in Canada. If a faction in one tent feels betrayed, they can vote to be part of the other tent in the next election –essentially an opposition built into government. With a divergence of ideas, the best plan is more likely to prevail.

Had a multi-tent government been in place when the BC Liberals were in power, Site C would probably not have proceeded. Instead, a premier with a big ego and tunnel-vision pushed the plan beyond the point of no return.


B.C. Government offers help to opposition in drafting bills

There’s more than practicality and clever politics behind the government’s offer to help the opposition to draft winning bills.

B.C. Attorney General David Eby (right). Photo: CBC

As a practical matter, it’s inevitable that opposition parties will get together and propose legislation that the government disagrees with. Since the Green and BC Liberal members outnumber the NDP, the proposed legislation would pass.

If they’re going to pass, the bills should be well-written. Attorney-General David Eby says:

“It’s an art to draft effective legislation, and we want to make sure the other parties have access to the professionals, if they are putting forward amendments that might actually pass (Globe and Mail, Oct. 18, 2017).”

The offer is politically clever because even well-drafted bills may never make it because the government has the power to call the bill to be debated or not. It could simply expire at the end of the current sitting. In fact, that’s what happens to most private-members bills –the government ignores them and they go away.

If the bill passes, it’s because the government wants, or will allow, it to pass. BC Green Leader Andrew Weaver’s private-member bill is a good example. It would allow ride-hailing companies such as Lyft and Uber into the provincial market. The BC Liberals are in favour of Weaver’s private-member bill. The NDP want to “study” it further because some supporters are not in favour of the gig economy.

If Weaver’s bill is allowed to pass, the NDP can have it both ways: constituents who like Lyft and Uber will be pleased, and to those who are opposed the NDP can say “the opposition made us do it.”

Andrew Wilkinson, the BC Liberal critic for the Attorney-General, is suspicious:

“It’s a trap,” he said. “It’s designed to make the Greens feel they are involved in the legislative process. BC Liberals recognize this as a false promise.”

Beyond practicality and clever politics, there is electoral reform to consider. The NDP and Greens are committed to electoral reform through proportional representation (PR).

The advantage to Greens is obvious.  They won only three per cent of the seats with 17 per cent of the popular vote. They could have won 15 seats based on PR (the actual number dependent on the model of PR.)

The existing system of voting hasn’t worked that well for the BC NDP, either. Since its founding in 1933, the NDP has only formed government for 13 out of 84 years. Their chances are greater under PR. In the last election, 57 per cent of British Columbians voted Green or NDP. Proportional representation often results in minority governments and that would put the NDP in power.

The BC Liberals oppose PR because division of the progressive vote puts them in power.

Electoral reform is more likely to pass in the next referendum with support of the NDP government in educating the public –support that the BC Liberals didn’t provide in the first two referenda.

The offer of help to opposition parties demonstrates that minority governments can work. Sonia Furstenau, Green’s spokeswoman for electoral reform, is enthused:

“This is great. This is a step toward having a legislature where all 87 members have the capacity to contribute to policy making. This is what democracy should look like.”

Cry for Venezuela

The dream of a socialist Venezuela has turned into a nightmare.

It’s depressing to see the disintegration of President Hugo Chávez’s attempt at political reform. Chávez, elected in 1999, was part of the “pink tide” that swept Latin America in the 2000s. He was one of the three musketeers of leftist governments in South America which included Lula da Silva of Brazil and Evo Morales of Bolivia.

The three denounced the Washington consensus of the 1990s which saw neo-liberal policies implemented: privatization of public companies, cuts to public spending on education and health care, foreign investment, and free market strategies.

The Neo-liberal experiment in the Latin Americas collapsed by the end of the 1990’s, leaving unemployment, corruption, inflation and increased inequality. Strained relations with the U.S. left an opportunity for China to partner with leftist governments.

The seeds of Venezuela’s collapse were sown from the start of Chávez’s presidency. Part of it had to do with the ego of the populist president. He believed that he was the people’s true champion and to ensure that he remained in power, he abolished the legislature’s upper house. Despite his public rhetoric of democracy, Chávez was consolidating power in himself.

Chávez’s policies were popular as many were lifted out of poverty with food subsidies, education, and welfare; all funded by the state-run oil company. But things went downhill after the workers of the oil company went on strike in 2002. Chávez fired 18,000 of them and replaced them with 100,000 of his supporters. Since the new workers had few of the technical and managerial skills necessary to run the plant, production fell even as global oil prices boomed.

To make up for falling oil revenues, Chávez borrowed money to fund popular programs leaving Venezuela the most indebted country in the world.

Chávez’s successor, President Nicolas Maduro, worsened the crisis. Unable to pay for subsidies and welfare programs, he printed money. This drove up inflation making basic goods unaffordable. He instituted price controls and fixed the currency exchange rate, so that imports became prohibitively expensive. Businesses shut down. Maduro printed more money, and inflation grew again. Food became scarce. Unrest deepened, and Maduro’s survival grew more contingent on handouts he could not afford.

In a country with the world’s largest proven oil reserves, food has grown so scarce that three of four citizens reported a weight loss averaging 19 pounds in a year.

The collapse of Venezuela’s economy surpasses the Great Depression of the dirty thirties says Ricardo Hausmann, former minister of planning of Venezuela:

“Put another way, Venezuela’s economic catastrophe dwarfs any in the history of the U.S., Western Europe or the rest of Latin America.”

Where words fail to describe the calamity, numbers help. Instead of thinking of lost of wages in currency, think of them as measured in the cheapest source of calories. Minimum wage, so measured, declined to just 7,005 calories per day. This is insufficient to feed a family of five, assuming that all the income is spent to buy the cheapest calories. One-half of Venezuela works at minimum wages.

City streets are marked by black markets and violence. The last reported murder rate, in 2014, was equivalent to the civilian casualty rate in 2004 Iraq.

Venezuela’s heartbreaking fall leaves dreamers of a better world in mourning.

Good riddance to B.C. LNG

There were lots of things wrong with former Premier Christy Clark’s plan to produce liquefied natural gas but let me start with the good.

image: the Tyee

At least it was a plan that labour and business could agree to. It was a provincial strategy that had workers and industry pulling together in the same direction.

It was an ambitious plan but unrealistic from the start. Markets for were weak and no one wanted to develop the plants. Now one of the last players, Petronas, has pulled the plug.

I can only speculate why they bailed out only one week after the BC Liberals were defeated. Was there some deal with the Clark government to provide concessions such that the LNG plant would be built regardless of whether it was viable? It’s not inconceivable considering how much political capital Clark had invested in the project.

Or was it because of Canada’s so-called anti-business climate, including high taxes, environmental reviews, and Indigenous land claims? Instead of recriminations, let’s celebrate the passage of Petronas says economist Jim Stanford.

Stanford has a unique perspective of LNG projects in B.C. and Australia. He’s a professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and lives in Sydney, Australia.

“In fact,” says Stanford, “far from blaming government red tape for the collapse of this misguided project, we should be collectively grateful. Those rules likely saved us from wasting tens of billions of dollars on the biggest white elephant in Canadian history.”

Stanford’s analysis shoots down an impression I had. I wrote that Australia was a LNG success story and that Australia’s early entry into the market was why B.C.’s plants were doomed. I now realize that Australia’s experience was not as rosy as I thought.

When Asian gas prices started to surge in 2009, Australia decided to chase after those markets. Unlike Canada, Australian developers faced few environmental hurdles and Australia’s Indigenous people had little negotiating power.

What followed was a spectacular construction boom in which $200 billion Australian was spent on LNG plants.

The boom had a dramatic effect on Australia’s economy. Their dollar, now at par with Canada, spiked up to $1.30, resulting in what economists call the “Dutch disease.” When Australia’s currency rose dramatically, the price other countries paid for Australia’s products rose. As well, imports were cheaper. Exports fell, imports rose and Australian factories could no longer compete. Australia became deindustrialized including the shutdown of their auto industry.

With the drop in gas prices, Australia’s LNG online plants are marginal. Boom towns that sprung up during the construction years are becoming ghost towns. Housing prices have collapsed.

Gas plants are selling into markets at discounted prices. Unlike Canada, Australian plants don’t have to supply the country first and so, ironically, there is a shortage of gas in Australia and a glut of gas on world markets. Domestic prices have doubled because of diversion to export markets.

B.C. has no economic strategy. Only one per cent of our GDP comes from mining, oil and gas and most from finance and real estate.

Our new NDP government faces a challenge. In our polarized political climate, unifying strategies are rare. Just ask former Premier Clark.

How I learned to like the monarchy

As a ten-year-old, I was eager to see Princess Elizabeth when she visited Edmonton in 1951; a year before she became Queen. My parents and I lined the street along with hundreds of other Edmontonians to catch a glimpse of her, only a few blocks from where I lived.

  photo: Yousuf Karsh (1951)

I didn’t know anything about the monarchy. I probably would have been as enthused if she was a Disney princess. My parents probably understood the celebratory mood better. The pretty young princess and heir-apparent to the throne embodied both celebrity and power.

Older, I admired countries that had shed monarchies like the Republic of France with their evocative motto “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” I wanted Canada to be more like The Republic of the United States, our exuberant neighbour to the south.

Despite reservations about the monarchy, I liked the fact that Canada is part of a club: the Commonwealth of Nations of which Elizabeth is head. The motto of “free and equal” suited my sensibilities. In my twenties, I fancied myself as a citizen of the world. Since the Commonwealth spans the globe with 52 member states and one-third of the world’s population, it was a club worth exploring.

So in 1964, I quit work and spent a year traveling around the globe by ship visiting some countries in my Commonwealth: New Zealand, Australia, Singapore, India, and the United Kingdom. Looking back, I marvel at how easy it was to visit and find work in those countries.

I’m less thrilled with the Commonwealth now but more comfortable with the monarchy. The queen represents stability at a time when countries are rocked by politics.

When a crisis arises, such as in B.C. when former Premier Clark clung to power, the Queen’s representative in B.C. plays a critical role. After the BC Liberals were defeated in a confidence vote, Clark wanted to call another election -something no one else wanted. Lieutenant Governor Judith Guichon sensibly refused the request and invited John Horgan to form an NDP minority government. Guichon’s decision was not arbitrary: it was the result of deliberation and consultation with others of the Queen’s representatives in Canada and in the Commonwealth club.

Now I’m less envious of the United States where government is mired in politics, a maniacal president runs amuck, and constitutional crisis looms. I’d be happy to lend them our Governor General to settle things.

The Queen is remotely located but locally represented by Lieutenant and Governors Generals. They represent a kind of glue that holds the Canada and the Commonwealth together in turbulent times. When their duties are not required, they sit on a stately ceremonial shelf; descending only to lend gravitas to public events, awards, and ceremonies.

The selection of the Queen’s representatives generates pride in Canadians. Julie Payette is just such a person. As an astronaut, she saw the entire Commonwealth in 90 minutes –something that took me a year to do and I only saw a faction of it. As a scientist she is an ideal role model for kids who look for inspiration from a remarkable Canadian.

Now I think that a constitutional monarchy makes eminent sense.

The definition of nation needs updating

I didn’t give much thought about whether Canada was a nation or not until I read Andrew Coyne’s article in Canada’s History magazine (June/July 2017). He argues that we are not.

George-Étienne Cartier. Image: Encyclopedia Britannica

The fathers of confederation believed they were creating a nation. George-Étienne Cartier, a key player in bringing Quebec into confederation, referred to Canada as “political nationality. . . with which neither the national origin nor the religion of any individual would interfere . . . In our federation we should have Catholic and Protestant, English, French, Irish and Scotch and each by his efforts and his success would increase the prosperity and glory of the Confederacy.”

That goal of a bilingual nation began to unravel early. Quebec gave equal powers to French and English in parliament but Ontario didn’t. Then Ontario premier Oliver Mowat said that each province was sovereign in its own sphere and Canada was a “compact.” When the first of the Western province, Manitoba, join confederation in 1870, Cartier’s dream of a bilingual nation was alive. Just 20 years later, Manitoba declared English to be the only official language.

The addition of more Western provinces only fuelled Western alienation, not nation-building.

Quebec had no trouble identifying itself as a nation and viewed the rest of Canada as “les autres.” Prime Minister Harper passed a resolution that “the Québécois form a nation within a united Canada.”

If Canada is “duex nations,” as former Prime Minister Lester Pearson imagined, then who are the members of the other nation? Am I a member of the Rest of Canada nation -a kind of leftover?  The concept of an “English Nation” seems a bit silly.

And what about Canada’s 600 hundred First Nations? Where do they fit in this scheme? When First Nations seek nation-to-nation negotiations, with whom do they imagine they will be negotiating – some hybrid state of French and English Nations?

If Canada isn’t a nation, then surely it became a country 150 years ago. Nope, says, historian Ed Whitcomb. If a country is a land where its sovereignty and independence is recognized by other countries, then Canada didn’t become a country until it obtained independence from Britain until 1931.

Well then, Canada was founded 150 years ago, right? No, before it was a, ah, not-nation-county, Canada was a province. Quebec and Ontario combined in 1791 to form the United Province of Canada.

Prime Minister Trudeau doesn’t think we are a nation either. “Canada is the world’s first post-national state.” Canadians are global citizens.

Coyne, Whitcomb, and Trudeau make some good points but I still think Canada is a nation. It’s the definition of “nation” that is too restricting. Canada is a mosaic: a nation of nations. We are defined as a caring nation; exemplified by our universal health care system. We have elevated compromise to a virtue through our diversity of cultures, religions, and languages. We are a nation defined by our expansive North and by winter. “Mon pays, ce n’est pas un pays, c’est l’hiver.” Canada is a thought-experiment; a bold idea which captures the world’s imagination.






Double-dipping and wait times

Doctors are to blame for double-dipping but not for the long wait times in B.C.

image: Global news

Rosalia Guthrie of Salmon Arm found out the hard way about double-dipping. After waiting for 16 months, her surgeon’s secretary gave her the number of another clinic. To her surprise, she discovered that the other clinic was run by the same surgeon –and that she would have to pay.

Guthrie paid $500 to get in the door of the private clinic and another $3,850 for a written report. She didn’t have to pay for the actual surgery. That was covered by health care and only one-tenth of what she paid. The surgeon was paid $410.67 for the surgery done in a public hospital at UBC.

The surgeon did a number of things wrong. Double-dipping is illegal. That’s where doctors bill both the patient and the province for different aspects of the same treatment. And doctors are forbidden from charging patients for reports while advising patients on publicly-insured treatment. Also, the B.C. College of Physicians and Surgeons dictates that before referring patients to clinics, doctors must disclose if they have a financial interest. The surgeon did have a share in the clinic where Guthrie was treated and that wasn’t disclosed.

Doctors are not to blame for long wait times. That blame for that lies squarely at the feet of the government of British Columbia. The BC Liberals have failed to provide access to operating rooms for surgeons says Judy Darcy, the NDP spokesperson for health:

There are operating rooms that sit idle, MRIs that sit idle for many hours of the day. We need to invest in innovation to use our capacity to the maximum.”

If hospitals can’t provide operating room times for doctors, the province should build public clinics I argued earlier. There is no shortage of doctors; there is a shortage of operating rooms for them to work. In a survey done by the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons, 208 fully trained specialists -16 per cent of those surveyed- were under-employed because “. . .there aren’t enough ORs.”

Some doctors contend that, while they may be doing something illegal, they are relieving patient suffering. Patients may lose their jobs while waiting or they may become addicted to pain-killing opioids.

Private clinics are expensive. Doctors can’t run them without charging patients. Dr. Ross Outerbridge, The founder of the Kamloops Surgical Centre, explains: “We factored in all the cost and a reasonable profit margin and that is what we charge the private patients.” But the whole realm of private clinics is unregulated. “I know that at other clinics, they overcharge,” says Dr. Outerbridge. ” I don’t personally agree with that – but it is very difficult, because nothing is being done about it.”

The BC Liberals have balanced the provincial budget by underfunding health care. British Columbia has the largest number of private clinics in Canada. While we are paying fewer taxes, we are likely paying more for health care when the cost of private clinics is factored in.

Yes, taxes would be higher but public clinics would be better than the illegal, unregulated, Wild West of bootleg medicine sold on the side of public medical practice.