When Christy Clark took over as premier of British Columbia two years ago, she had a window of opportunity to change taxpayers' perceptions of her government.
To improve her chances in the 2013 election, Clark needed to throw out unpopular and unworkable ideas brought in by her predecessor Gordon Campbell. In a symbolic way, she needed to string a huge banner over the B.C. Legislature that said, "Under New Management."
In the first 90 days of her term, she should have done three things to clearly differentiate her leadership from Campbell's: kill the Pacific Carbon Trust, completely open up MLA expenses and push for public-private pay equity.
The Pacific Carbon Trust has been nothing more than a corporate welfare scheme for years. More than 99.7 per cent of its annual budget comes from taxpayers, who turned over $14 million to some of B.C.'s biggest companies last year, all so we could display three words on government websites: "Carbon Neutral Government."
A huge chunk of that money came from schools, hospitals and universities: the Surrey School District paid more than $525,000 last year. The Vancouver Coastal Health Authority paid $1.32 million. Simon Fraser University paid $466,500.
Clark should have killed the Trust two years ago, but instead it was allowed to continue on, overcharging taxpayers for carbon credits and sending that money to big business. A recently announced review by Environment Minister Terry Lake doesn't go near far enough, but don't worry: B.C. Auditor General John Doyle has a report on the Trust ready to be released any day now. You can bet it won't be pretty.
During her leadership campaign, Clark touted her commitment to open government. Yet, MLAs on both sides of the aisle have refused to fully release details of their personal, travel and office expenses to the taxpayers paying the bill.
Worse yet, after a scathing audit by Doyle on legislature spending, MLAs — both Liberal and NDP — flip-flopped on Speaker Bill Barisoff's explicit promise to release expense receipts. While Albertans get to look at every receipt charged to taxpayers by MLAs and senior bureaucrats, British Columbians get lump sum expense reports, scattered across different websites and lacking any kind of context.
The B.C. government's success with the zero wage mandate, where they managed to hold the line for two years with their unions, should have been a first step in controlling labour costs. Taxpayers currently shell out $24 billion a year on provincial government staffers.
A recent Fraser Institute study shows that the average B.C. government worker is paid 13.6 per cent more than their private sector counterpart. This reinforces the experience of cities like Penticton, which discovered it was paying its lifeguards $23 per hour, while the private pools paid $14.50.
A Compensation Equity Act, applicable to provincial, Crown, regional and municipal employees, would use a market-based model to reform pay packages for government workers and move new hires from ultra-expensive defined-benefit pension plans to more sustainable defined-contribution pension plans.
Instead, the Clark government gave away the zero mandate gains by negotiating increases higher than the rate of inflation with unionized workers, and offering platitudes but no specifics on how those raises would be funded - suggesting a reduction in sick days, for example, but offering no plan on how that would happen.
Killing the Pacific Carbon Trust, fully revealing MLA expenses and legislating a Compensation Equity Act would have saved B.C. taxpayers money and illustrated that the BC Liberals could learn from their mistakes. Instead, we got the same old, same old.
Should the polls hold, these lost opportunities will provide plenty of woulda-coulda-shoulda moments for the BC Liberal Party to chew on for the next four years.
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