A hard year ahead for B.C. politics

The B.C. Liberal government and its rivals will define themselves in a harsh 2012.

The last time teachers had a contract imposed

The B.C. Liberal government enters 2012 with the weight of its “golden decade” heavy on its shoulders.

Having delivered a throne speech and a raft of legislation last fall, the government must pick up where it left off and build a February budget from the wreckage of the harmonized sales tax. This takes place as growth and revenue projections decline, and demand for government services continues to rise.

The NDP opposition finds itself in a front-runner role, and now faces pressure to detail its long-promised practical alternative. A revived B.C. Conservative Party must also move beyond protest to problem solving.

Here are some of the immediate problems that will face the legislature when it resumes on Valentine’s Day.

Education: It seems inevitable that the B.C. Teachers’ Federation will once again have a new contract imposed. In December, school support staff joined the parade of public sector unions that accepted the two-year “net zero” wage mandate.

Deficits that forced that mandate have ballooned again due to the HST mess, and the October throne speech hinted strongly that “net zero” will be extended in all but name in 2012.

Little noticed amid the usual labour noise, Education Minister George Abbott has launched a broad plan to “transform” education. Along with “personalized learning plans” and “flexibility and choice,” the plan promises “regular teacher performance evaluation sessions.” Buckle your seatbelts, parents.

Health care: Premier Christy Clark hosts the annual premiers’ conference in Victoria Jan. 16-17. The provinces divided sharply in December, as the three western ones backed Ottawa’s imposition of a new funding formula, while those from Manitoba east protested the news that six-per-cent annual increases will slow a bit in five years.

B.C.’s more immediate problem is a shift to per-capita funding that phases out targeted money for things like our dedicated hip and knee surgery program. Provinces are now supposed to create such innovations for their own sake, without further federal intrusion into provincial jurisdiction.

That change costs B.C. an estimated $256 million a year, starting in 2014. The B.C. Liberals have this year to find savings, or face the task in an election year. And NDP leader Adrian Dix is restricted by his vow to make only spending promises that add up.

Energy and environment: As with the minimum wage, the B.C. Liberals are forced to tinker with the carbon tax. Taxing schools and hospitals to fund natural gas and cement companies’ emission projects has to stop, as Environment Minister Terry Lake has admitted.

Clark and Finance Minister Kevin Falcon must be tempted to borrow an NDP suggestion that carbon tax revenues be redirected more broadly to transit and energy-saving refits. But this means spending the money instead of reducing income taxes, as legislation currently requires, and both parties must face the fact that this entails a tax increase.

A storm is about to begin up north as federal environmental hearings open on a proposed oil pipeline to Kitimat. Clark remains carefully non-committal, the NDP bitterly opposed.

But the parties actually agree on liquefied natural gas exports from the same port. The NDP signaled cautious support for the plan before Christmas, with greater scrutiny of drilling and water use.

We in the media do a poor job of reporting when parties agree. Debate will soon resume on B.C.’s new Family Law Act, aimed at avoiding courts and conflict, with bipartisan support. Fixing B.C.’s impaired driving legislation, to keep that out of our clogged courts, should also be expedited.

B.C.’s traditional blame game won’t make the problems of 2012 go away.

Tom Fletcher is legislative reporter and columnist for Black Press and BCLocalnews.com