Changes needed to restore confidence

Public confidence in the political process at a low.

Dear editor,

The phoney campaign has finally given way to the real thing. The writ is dropped, the legislature is dissolved and politicians are out on the hustings.

And as voters know well that means big, glitzy promises. But imagine promises that wouldn’t need sod-turnings or ribbon cuttings? Meaningful promises that every party can sign-on to, because they’re about good government, not party ideology.

They may be more esoteric than the gobs of goodies that voters are accustomed to, but they are crucial if British Columbians are to be truly re-engaged into the political life of B.C.

In the 2009 election, nearly one out of two voters stayed at home. The turnout in the HST referendum wasn’t much better. In local elections, it was even worse.

Platitudes won’t restore the confidence of British Columbians. This time meaningful reforms need to be proposed that will address the public’s growing distrust of the province’s political class.

The risks in failing to do so are great.

In 1993, Paul Martin, Canada’s Minister of Finance reported: “The underground economy isn’t all smugglers. It’s hundreds of thousands of otherwise honest people who have withdrawn their consent to be governed, who have lost faith in government.”

Mr. Martin could have just as easily been talking about B.C. in 2013. From the sale of B.C. Rail to the HST debacle to the Quick Wins scandal that “consent to be governed” is badly frayed in B.C.

It’s why B.C.’s 40th general election must be a transformational election. It’s time to get it right, not just to win back the public’s confidence, but to keep it as well.

And doing so starts with the parties themselves. Political parties must be as open as the public expects government to be. From something as simple as posting the names of riding presidents to their websites to open nomination meetings, political parties must look at how they conduct their own affairs.

West Vancouver-Capilano will not elect an NDP MLA on May 14th. The prize was the Liberal party nomination handed to the incumbent months ago. But incumbency shouldn’t come with a blank cheque. MLAs must stand in open nomination contests. Party members and voters deserve no less.

Getting it right means whistle-blower protection for public sector employees, including healthcare workers and teachers. As B.C.’s auditor general John Doyle noted: “Whistle-blowers need an element of protection…and at the moment there’s very, very limited [protection] that’s afforded.”

It’s also time to end to the game of cat-and-mouse with B.C.’s access to information law.

The Quick Wins scandal wasn’t only repulsive for what it represented, but also for how it was conceived. It spoke to the worst in public service.

As Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham noted: “(The Quick Wins) documents raise important questions about whether personal email accounts were being used in an attempt to evade access to information law, and whether personal information was inappropriately shared.”

Denham rightly called on the government to create a “duty to document” to reverse what is now euphemistically called “oral government.”

Getting it right means ensuring that government watchdogs like Doyle and Denham have the resources to do the job. John Doyle oversaw expenses of $43.9 billion in 2011 on an annual budget of $15.75 million; while his Alberta counterpart had a budget $10 million higher to oversee comparable expenses.

And after the debacle over his reappointment, it’s time that legislative officers be appointed by at least two-thirds of MLAs in a free vote, and not a sub-committee of five meeting in secret.

Getting it right includes what happens on the floor of the legislature.

B.C.’s legislature will be far more effective through the introduction of permanent standing committees. It will reduce partisanship, help ensure fairness and improve the zoo like atmosphere.

While a taxpayer bill of rights is a loaded term, respect is a reasonable expectation. MLAs must lead from the front on pay, benefits and transition allowances.

But even the best of intentions will mean little until government gets the fundamental law right: B.C.’s Election Act.

If citizens don’t have faith in the very legislation that underpins B.C.’s democracy, how can they ever have faith in anything that emanates from it?

Not one of these ideas requires asphalt or is ready made for a photo-op, but they’ll help restore the confidence that British Columbians must have in our political system.

And because of that they are the most important promises that parties can make during the campaign.

Dermod Travis

Executive Director, IntegrityBC.

 

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