Wednesday, January 05, 2011

What do merit pay, a carbon tax and Tommy Chong have in common?

Out to British Columbia again, where the candidates for the leadership of the BC Liberal Party have been busy lately talking policy ideas.

Kevin Falcon took a controversial position this week when he argued for merit pay for teachers and cash incentives for schools and teachers that improve test scores.

If he wins the leadership contest next month, Falcon said he would create a master teacher incentive program that would recognize exceptional and innovative educators and a model school incentive program that would reward schools for improvements in student achievement.

…his plan wouldn't rely solely on test scores. Rather, he said his government would work with teachers, administrators, parents and community leaders to develop criteria for identifying innovative educators.

Falcon’s proposal sparked a firestorm of criticism. The BC Teachers Federation, predictably, called it “a cockamamie notion” and his leadership opponent, former education minister George Abbott, said it would amount to cherry-picking one element of failed U.S. experiments in education.

Mr. Abbott said he was opposed to throwing “one experimental or trick shot piece out there that is drawn from the American experience and may not be applicable to our experience,” into education policy in this province.

Still no word, by the way, on Falcon's flip-flop on lowering the voting age from 18 to 16.

Abbott made his own major policy push yesterday, and it wasn’t without its own controversial policy positions. For example, remember the carbon tax? While it helped fell Stephane Dion, BC’s own carbon tax, while controversial at its inception, remains quietly in place in BC. The BC Liberals won the last election despite a concerted effort by the BC NDP to defeat them on the carbon tax. Still, Abbott wants to revive the issue with a referendum:

The carbon tax referendum would be held June 24, which is also the date Abbott proposes for bringing forward the provincewide vote (currently set for Sept. 24) on whether to extinguish the harmonized sales tax.

Abbott said many British Columbians are rightly proud of the trail blazing carbon tax, which is scheduled to climb to seven cents a litre effective July 1, 2012. But he questioned whether the province should continue with such a tax when, as he put it, "the rest of North American is not dancing with us on this issue."

So, rather that being an environmental leader and continuing with a carbon tax, the system increasingly favoured not just by environmentalists but even by the energy industry, Abbott wants to re-open the can of worms? It’s an absolutely horrible idea. I can only surmise he seems some political advantage if he can rile up people on the issue, but it’s both bad policy and bad politics in my view. It is (was) a dead issue. I agree with Falcon on this one:

But Falcon rejected Abbott's call for a referendum, saying, "we had a referendum on the carbon tax and it was called the general election."

While it didn’t get the attention of merit pay for teachers or a carbon tax referendum, I was more disturbed by Abbott’s senate musings:

He also said the province should follow the route of Alberta and begin electing senate nominees.

When one of B.C.'s six seats in the Canadian Senate becomes vacant, a provincewide election would be held. The winner's name would then be forwarded to the prime minister for appointment to fill the vacancy.

Sounds nice in theory, but in reality it’s bad for the Senate and bad for British Columbia. I’ve blogged about this at length in the past, but in short, BC is very ill-served by the current composition of the Senate.

While the Commons is representation by population (in theory), the Senate is meant to balance that with representation by region. The problem is, the current regional make-up of the Senate is outdated, and is based on a 19th century view of confederation-era Canada. The Maratimes are vastly over represented. Dido Upper and Lower Canada. The West, meanwhile, is lumped together as one regional group.

This inequity, while grating, is less pressing while the Senate is composed of unelected sober second thoughters that, recognizing their constitutional illegitimacy, are loathe (well, usually loathe) to circumvent the will of the elected Commons.

However, if you elect senators as Harper and Abbott favour, then those elected senators will be able to claim a democratic mandate and will not hesitate to exercise their not insubstantial constitutional powers.

Creating elected senators without addressing the regional composition of the Senate and addressing the balance of powers between the house of parliament is a bad idea, and it’s bad for BC. I’ll say to Abbott what I’ve long said (well, blogged) to Harper: you shouldn’t do senate reform half-assed. It has to be all or nothing.

Meanwhile, Christy Clark yesterday launched a series of open government initiatives aimed at increasing public confidence and public participation in the democratic process. It included a promise to, as Premier, hold a dozen town halls each year with BC residents.

“The reality is that voters feel a disconnect with their government,” said the former deputy premier and education minister.

“These proposals are designed to reconnect people with government.”

Other proposals put forward by Ms.Clark include working with all MLAs to see more private members’ bills debated and passed as well as a caucus accountability committee with the party leader as member, and cabinet accountability sessions in the regions of B.C. at regional policy conferences or other special events.
More on the specific proposals is available here. Some are more ambitious than others, but I like the monthly townhalls and more streaming video of legislative and committee meetings.

As for the BC NDP

While I don’t agree with all of their ideas, I have been impressed with the level of policy-focused debate we’ve seen in the BC Liberal leadership race. Meanwhile, over on the BC NDP side, Dana Larsen remains the only declared candidate. He has, however, secured a key endorsement:

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