Sunday, October 12, 2014

Christy Clark's No Pro at Playing High Stakes Poker with LNG Giants

Premier Christy Clark and LNG billions at stake - what's to worry?  BC government photo 
Liquified Natural Gas multinationals gamble that marks from BC are ready to lose their money at the table - at taxpayer expense.

Bill Tieleman’s 24 Hours Vancouver / The Tyee column

Tuesday October 7, 2014

By Bill Tieleman

In poker, good players win and poor players lose."
- Lou Krieger, poker player and author
Imagine being a lousy poker player facing some of the world’s sharpest aces and you see the odds that the B.C. Liberals will lose big money to get giant liquefied natural gas companies to invest here.
The only consolation for the government is that taxpayers will pay for the LNG players’ winnings.
This week the B.C. Legislature resumes sitting to table legislation setting the taxes on LNG exports and the environmental standards that will have to be met by the companies considering building extremely expensive plants to process exports to Asia.
And the B.C. Liberals are already losing at your expense, as expert LNG card players see a mark at the table with more money than skill.
Premier Christy Clark is desperate for a deal, having bet everything in last year's provincial election on her ability to create an LNG nirvana in B.C., with a $100 billion windfall and 100,000 new jobs promised to voters.  
Card sharks like the CEO of Malaysia's Petronas -- Shamsul Abbas -- played the province like a sucker last month, threatening publicly he was "ready to call off" its planned $11 billion Prince Rupert LNG plant because of the "lack of appropriate incentives."
"The project remains uncertain and I doubt we will be able to make a positive (final investment decision) by year-end," said the master player.
And Monday he was back at it, warning that unless B.C. lowered taxes, Petronas would delay the "marginal" LNG plant by 10 to 15 years!
"In our last portfolio review exercise, the current project economics appeared marginal," Shamsul said. "Missing this date will have the impact of having to defer our investments until the next LNG marketing window, anticipated in 10-15 years."
Stuck at the table
Can you feel the money leaving your wallet now?
That's because the B.C. Liberals quickly backtracked from earlier statements that there would be a seven per cent tax on LNG net income after capital costs are recovered to now saying it would only be "up to" seven per cent.
Finance Minister Mike de Jong says there "won't be any surprises" in the tax -- and that's likely true, since the only surprise would be if it remained at seven per cent.
Clark says she is "very confident that we are going to conclude that negotiation successfully."
So am I -- very confident that we are going to give up billions of dollars because Clark simply cannot afford to walk away from the table, especially after Apache announced it was giving up on B.C. and ending its equal partnership with Chevron for a $15 billion Kitimat LNG plant, leaving the project in doubt.
And LNG Minister Rich Coleman says B.C. hit "a sweet spot" with its taxation plans.
"We got back from the industry that the numbers we hit made sense," Coleman said last week.
Oh, I bet they made sense, since every tax point is worth billions to either B.C. or the LNG companies.
Who's laughing?
After Petronas first upped its ante by threatening to leave B.C., Coleman tried to keep a poker face.
"We'll probably laugh about this when it's all over," he said in response. 
Actually, the last laugh will go to Petronas and the other LNG companies when they get exactly what they want from the B.C. Liberals -- and then chuckle all the way to the bank.

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Monday, September 29, 2014

BC Teachers' Federation Make Gains, Some Mistakes - So Should Teachers Be Satisfied With The Deal?

And that's what happened - eventually - in BCTF strike
Teachers might just find they got what they need.

Bill Tieleman’s 24 Hours Vancouver / The Tyee column
Tuesday September 23, 2014
By Bill Tieleman
"You can't always get what you want / But if you try sometime / you just might find / You get what you need" 
- The Rolling Stones
British Columbia's teachers likely went back to school Monday with one of two Rolling Stones' hits in their heads – 86 per cent with "You Can't Always Get What You Want" and the other 14 per cent humming "[I Can't Get No] Satisfaction".
That was the "yes" versus "no" voting breakdown for the deal that ended the BC Teachers' Federation strike, inviting much criticism and spirited defence.
The agreement is complex, with different funds with hundreds of millions of dollars for improvements, a modest wage increase, protection of a BCTF court case continuing and much more.
But is it a good deal for teachers? And are there big improvements for students -- who the BCTF says they struck for?
It is definitely a welcome deal for teachers compared to what has happened in past bitter disputes with government -- legislatively imposed contracts.
A negotiated, membership ratified contract always beats your employer dictating the terms, period.
Would binding arbitration have offered more? That's a crapshoot with uncertain results that could have gone either way.
Could a continued strike have forced more money from government for teachers and students alike?
Maybe but this was a high-risk, low reward situation, where the consequences of being wrong are horrendous but the win in being right is minor.
Considering the context
Those who criticize the BCTF leadership -- former New Democrat MLA David Schreck and ex-Greater Victoria Teachers' Association president Tara Ehrcke -- make strong arguments on perceived inadequacies in the deal.
But neither give much credence to the threat of an imposed contract at the hands of a government that has twice been found guilty by the B.C. Supreme Court of ripping up contracts, as well as bargaining in bad faith and attempting to provoke a full-scale strike in the last round of negotiations for purely political advantage.
And a government led by BC Liberal Premier Christy Clark, the original education minister in 2002's contract stripping and a strong supporter of private schools, was eager to crush teachers.
Don't forget the government also fired the BC Public School Employers' Association's board of directors, getting rid of elected school trustees involvement and replacing them with a single hand-picked administrator; demanded a 10-year contract; imposed a 10 per cent pay cut for taking job action and was ready to lock out teachers.
This is not a government that plays well with others.
But political hardliners who called for a general strike by other workers to back teachers were dreaming in Technicolor.
Short of the BC Liberals imposing martial law on teachers, other union members were not prepared to give up their pay and risk their livelihoods by walking out to support teachers who were being offered similar terms that others in the public sector had already accepted.
Deconstructing the deal
On the plus side, the $105 million grievance settlement fund is effectively a "signing bonus" worth over $2,500 per teacher -- more than the $1,200 signing bonus the government offered in June though less than the $5,000 the BCTF demanded.
The Education Fund, building from $75 million a year up to $85 million, will mean hundreds of new teachers are hired -- a win for students.
Negotiating withdrawal of the government's intended E80 clause -- which would have let the BC Liberals cancel the contract if they lost in court -- was huge.
Improvements for Teacher Teaching On Call compensation are also important for younger teachers starting their careers, as is more preparation time for elementary teachers.
And should the B.C. Court of Appeal uphold the BCTF victory in B.C. Supreme Court -- or if the Supreme Court of Canada do so if it goes to that level -- then the issue of past contract stripping on class size and composition will be resolved at last, to the benefit of both students and teachers.
Second guessing strategies
But did the BCTF make mistakes? Certainly.
Going into a major dispute against a powerful adversary with no strike fund for members is simply astonishing.
This left BCTF members financially vulnerable and subject to far more pressure to settle.
And complaints by some that other unions who offered interest free loans should have given their members' own money as grants to the BCTF are hard to swallow.
The loans were a generous move but why didn't the BCTF secure them quietly before the dispute began and/or mortgage their headquarters?
And why did they need them? If nothing else, a significant strike fund needs to be built by the end of this contract.
Timing was also problematic. Going out in June near the end of the school year limited the amount of time to build pressure on the government and frustrated many parents and students.
Staying out for the summer only deprived students needing to take summer school and international students who provide significant funds to school boards – without forcing government to seriously bargain.
Had the BCTF moved to lower its wage and other demands for members it would have effectively put that issue to bed, denying Clark and Education Minister Peter Fassbender the opportunity to publicly bash teachers as in it for themselves.
And it would have focused on the fight for better class composition for special needs students and smaller classes for all exclusively, while a strike deadline sometime in September would have allowed public support to build as a possible walkout loomed.
And expectations created that the BCTF could break the public sector wage settlement pattern reached for over 150,000 other workers – and with a hostile government – were unrealistic, leading to a member letdown on the deal when more money was never in the cards.
The bottom line
But it is easier to second-guess from outside than make decisions in the pressure-cooker inside. The BCTF leadership found a path to collectively bargain an agreement accepted by the overwhelming majority of teachers in extremely difficult circumstances facing an obnoxious government -- and that is a rare achievement that evaded many previous executives.
The reality is that teachers and students didn't get what they wanted but they did get some money, more teachers, no imposed contract, their day in court and the ability to fight another day.
And sometimes you do indeed get what you need.  

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Monday, September 22, 2014

With Two BC Liberal Insiders Charged, Will 'Quick Wins' / Ethnic Outreach Scandal Take off?

Brian Bonney
Ethnic outreach scandal sprouts wings as  Brian Bonney and Mark Robertson accused, but investigation is far from over

Bill Tieleman’s 24 Hours Vancouver / The Tyee column
Tuesday September 16, 2014
By Bill Tieleman
"A lie has no leg, but a scandal has wings."
- Thomas Fuller, English historian, 1608-1661
Two prominent BC Liberal insiders were charged with three Election Act violations last week for their alleged actions in the "ethnic outreach" scandal of 2013, and could face up to a $10,000 fine and/or a year in jail.
But the serious consequences threaten more than the accused: Brian Bonney, a former B.C. government communications director and party political operative, and Mark Robertson, a BC Liberal party field director.
The government and party themselves could be at risk. As B.C.'s Criminal Justice Branch stated on Sept. 8: "The investigation is continuing. The special prosecutor [lawyer David Butcher] does not expect to receive the final results of the continued investigation until early 2015."
The allegations are unproven and Bonney and Robertson make their first court appearance on Oct. 14.
'Quick wins' revisited
The Feb. 2013 ethnic outreach scandal, also called "quick wins," was named after New Democrats leaked a "multicultural strategy" document outlining a BC Liberal government plan to get some fast victories with ethnic voters.
It cast a wide net over Premier Christy Clark's inner circle of political advisors on the government payroll, costing deputy chief of staff and longtime friend Kim Haakstad her position, along with the jobs of Bonney and Mike Lee -- an executive assistant to then-multiculturalism ministers John Yap and Harry Bloy.
Yap also resigned his post at the time, and is now parliamentary secretary to Justice Minister Suzanne Anton.
The BC Liberals paid back the province $70,000 after a report by Clark's deputy minister John Dyble found that Brian Bonney "did not create a clear distinction between his volunteer role with the BC Liberal Party and his role in government. Based on the evidence, it would appear to a reasonable person that he may have spent up to half of his time on partisan activities."
Clark said at the time: "This document isn't easy reading for any of us in government."
But reviewing it again with charges laid and the investigation continuing will make for an even more troubled read.
Prominent others found in Dyble's report include Pamela Martin, the former TV news anchor who worked in the premier's office and is now a BC Liberal Party staffer, and ex-BC Liberal MLA Lorne Mayencourt, the government caucus outreach director. Both attended a meeting to discuss the so-called ethnic outreach strategy on Dec. 11, 2011.
'Blurring of the lines'
Bonney and Robertson face one count of "making a political contribution" and another of making "an unauthorized election expense" for "directing Sepideh Sarrafpour to work on the campaign of Dennis Marsden," the losing Port Moody-Coquitlam Liberal candidate in a 2012 byelection, without reporting the expense to Marsden's financial agent.
Sarrafpour was hired on contract by the government caucus to undertake outreach in ethnic communities. 
But as Dyble's report made clear, her legitimate government duties crossed well over into partisan activities for the BC Liberal Party. Dyble states there was "a blurring of the lines between caucus and government business."
An uncomfortable Sarrafpour objected and ultimately became a whistleblower in the scandal. Dyble's report, however, made no mention of the 2012 byelection or any staff roles in it. 
A numbered company, 0750837 BC Limited, doing business as Mainland Communication, was also charged with the same offences.
Former New Democrat leader Adrian Dix alleged in the B.C. Legislature last year, where MLA comment is protected, that Sarrafpour may have been offered a bribe, based on an email that was part of 10,000 pages of information released by the government after the May 2013 election.
"Have [then-MLA] Harry Bloy meet with her and explain how doing anything would damage the Premier and the party. Have him say how he will try to find her work and get her back involved... If need be, offer x dollars per month to do non-public work up to election [developing her database of potential supporters]," an email allegedly signed by Brian Bonney read.
Asked Dix: "Why would the government offer a financial inducement to silence a staff person who could damage the premier and the Liberal Party?"
Clark and Multiculturalism Minister Teresa Wat both strenuously rejected the allegations and no charges have been laid.
Will the scandal end here?
Could other government or party staff face charges when the special prosecutor's investigation is completed, or will it end with Bonney and Robertson?
Could trials featuring political insiders as both the accused and witnesses actually take place before the 2017 provincial election? Only time will tell.

This story is another long and winding road -- and like the B.C. Legislature Raid case that ensnared premier Gordon Campbell for seven years before surprise guilty pleas from accused ministerial aides ended the trial -- Clark must pray this scandal doesn't have wings.

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Thursday, September 11, 2014

Why Binding Arbitration Would - and Should - End the BC Teachers’ Strike

BCTF President Jim Iker lets Jack Glover make his point at BC Federation of Labour rally last Friday! - Geoff Peters photo

And why the BC Liberal government is scared school-less of arbitration – hint: it’s not wages and benefits

Bill Tieleman’s 24 Hours Vancouver / The Tyee column

Tuesday September 9, 2014

By Bill Tieleman

"When will mankind be convinced and agree to settle their difficulties by arbitration?"
- Benjamin Franklin, writer, politician, inventor, 1706-1790
Don't believe the reasons Education Minister Peter Fassbender and Premier Christy Clark give for their rapid rejection of binding arbitration to settle the teachers' dispute. This is the game changer.
Dismiss their contention that the BC Teachers' Federation's demands for wages and benefits is the reason they can't go to binding arbitration. It isn't.
The BC Liberals do not fear arbitration could give teachers more than other public sector workers. They know it won't.
Any arbitrator will award teachers the same wage increases as other government workers -- 5.5 per cent over five years, plus some compensation for not receiving any wage increases for years when other employees received modest raises.
The government is scared school-less that the B.C. Supreme Court decision restoring class size and composition clauses -- illegally stripped from the BCTF contract by Clark and former premier Gordon Campbell back in 2002 -- will be upheld by the B.C. Court of Appeal and/or the Supreme Court of Canada.
The true reason the government rejected binding arbitration? It doesn't want to spend money on putting more resources into classrooms for students with special needs and reducing class size.

It's a harsh reality, but the evidence is clear. And if parents and others want kids back in school before November, they must loudly demand the government accept binding arbitration while letting justice take its course.
Wages aren't the problem
First, while wages and benefits are a major cost item, they are also budgeted. The government anticipated there would be a salary increase for teachers, and allocated that amount in this fiscal year and the following ones.
Second, hiring hundreds more teachers and putting more resources into classrooms is indeed expensive.
Third, despite this government going recklessly into deep debt -- from $33.8 billion in 2001, to $45 billion when Clark became premier in 2011, to $61 billion now -- it doesn't want to invest in education, only buildings, bridges and liquefied natural gas.
Those investments are worthy and help pay for public services, but in the long term we also need better-educated workers participating in all sectors of the economy to prosper.
Judging from some media and other commentary, the teachers' union has failed to convey the message that wages and benefits are not the problem by not removing some of those bargaining package items much earlier.
But that doesn't matter now, because an arbitrator can decide them.
In addition, claims by the B.C. government that it has been stung by arbitrated wage settlements in the past, primarily with doctors, are a red herring.
In that arbitration, doctors argued their compensation had fallen dramatically behind their counterparts in Alberta.
But in the teachers' dispute, where all other public sector provincial government workers have taken the same wage increase, an arbitrator will undoubtedly follow that pattern.
Arbitration has worked before
Teacher arbitration wouldn't break new ground in B.C., either. In 1993, the New Democrat government brought in legislation to end a local teachers' strike in the Vancouver School District through binding arbitration.
Then NDP Premier Mike Harcourt outlined the arguments succinctly in the B.C. Legislature:
"However, as well as the responsibility to facilitate the parties in free collective bargaining, the provincial government has another important responsibility: to assess when collective bargaining is in difficulty and the public interest is at risk.
"In recent days the government, through the Minister of Labour, has made significant efforts to assist the parties to the dispute in Vancouver in resolving their difficulties. A mediator was appointed by government.
"That mediator was then designated as a special mediator. There was a full and public release of the recommendations of the special mediator and, finally, an invitation to both the school board and teachers to agree to voluntary binding arbitration.
"The Minister of Labour, to his credit, has fulfilled his responsibilities by exhausting all of the possibilities that could lead the parties to an agreement.
"It became evident on Friday that bargaining in the Vancouver district was paralyzed and that our children were paying the price. Only through the actions of this government could I ensure that the children in Vancouver would be back in school tomorrow.
"This bill takes clear action to end the dispute in Vancouver and get those students back to school. It also ensures the expeditious resolution of the other outstanding disputes."
Today's BC Liberal government still has two viable choices: negotiate a deal on class size and compensation as well as all other issues, or let binding arbitration and the courts decide.
But so far it has proven unwilling to go either way, preferring a lengthy strike that might end with a legislatively imposed contract rejected by teachers.
That would likely mean an illegal strike, more court confrontation, additional classroom disruption and abysmal morale for teachers and students.

Surely neutral third party arbitration and the justice system are a better alternative?

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Sunday, September 07, 2014

BC Teachers' Strike Reality Check Needed as Mediator Vince Ready Walks Out

Teachers and supporters gathered at BC Federation of Labour rally for BC Teachers' Federation Friday September 5 - Shirley Ross photo
Valuable life lessons to be learned by students in ongoing dispute.

Bill Tieleman’s 24 Hours Vancouver / The Tyee column

Tuesday September 2, 2014

By Bill Tieleman

"School's out for summer/ School's out forever / School's been blown to pieces"
- Alice Cooper, "School's Out"
There will be no public school classes today in British Columbia, nor quite likely for weeks, after veteran mediator Vince Ready walked out of negotiations, saying teachers and the provincial government were too far apart.
So it's time for a reality check.
First, the sky will not fall. Everybody take a valium.
Students will not be scarred for life in learning that the peaceful resolution of strong differences among adults is inconvenient and expensive in a democracy. In fact, it's a valuable life lesson.
Alternative ways of dispute resolution are now on display by Russian tanks and troops in eastern Ukraine, where the rule of force trumps the rule of law and respect for international borders.
Second, teachers are not "strike happy."
They are going without wages and strike pay, suffering financially because most believe it's the right thing to do, whether you agree or not.
Teachers also know they will never make up $5,000 and counting in lost wages.
The BC Teachers' Federation is not holding kids "hostage."
 True hostages are the 300 schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram terrorists in Nigeria -- respect the word.
Students and parents are also not "caught in the middle" of this dispute; they are part of this dispute because parents are taxpayers and voters and their children will become both.
As such, parents have an important role in telling the government how they feel about its position, loudly. Students and non-parents have that responsibility too.
Class size and composition -- the number of special needs kids in classrooms and what resources they get to help learn -- are critical to the whole province. It's our future at stake, and a generation of students already had fewer resources than they were supposed to.
This government's record
Premier Christy Clark is well aware that governments rise and fall on voters' judgment about how they deal with critical issues like education, health care and the economy.
Political leaders who ignore or reject public opinion don't survive long. Just ask former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell, ex-Alberta premier Alison Redford or ex-Quebec premier Pauline Marois.
The BC Liberal government -- to its credit, so far -- has rejected imposing a legislated contract.
To do so goes against labour principles and international agreements, which state that free collective bargaining means reaching a negotiated contract, even through the use of a legal strike or lockout to put pressure on both sides.
But sadly, this government has been repeatedly cited for violating basic union rights and has lost in Canadian courts against teachers, hospital workers and other unions.
The B.C. Supreme Court has twice ruled that the government broke the law by stripping provisions for reduced class size and composition from the teachers' contract in the past and of attempting to provoke a full-scale strike for political advantage.
It has every right to appeal those decisions, but unless and until that verdict is reversed, it remains exceedingly guilty.
Clark should be worried about not learning her lesson.
Kids will be all right
The BC Liberals also fired the BC Public School Employers' Association board of directors, removing elected school trustees' involvement, and replaced it with only one government appointed administrator.
That came after BCPSEA and the teachers' union had agreed on new approaches to bargaining and seemed to be making progress. Now we have a full-scale, indefinite strike.
Education Minister Peter Fassbender broke a media blackout agreed to by both sides, and despite his vigorous rejection of that obvious conclusion it jeopardized talks at a critical moment.
The government has proposed contract clauses that would say, according to the union, "that if either party didn't like the outcome of the court decision, notice could be served to unilaterally terminate the collective agreement" and also allow government to override a future court decision.

Who would give up their right to go to court against a government with a record of illegally breaking its word and ripping up contracts?
But ultimately the strike will end, teachers and students will go back to classrooms and the kids will be all right.