Monday, December 2, 2013

My MLA gets back to me and I realize that citizenship is finally dead.

This is long and involved.  Settle in.

Jordan Sturdy, my MLA and the legislative secretary to the Minister of Transportation, and I finally got a chance to talk today.  After trading some emails and phone messages, he spent about 30 minutes on the phone with me discussing the BC Ferries service reductions, public policy and his worldview about what governing is all about.  I appreciated the time to talk with him.  Not every elected official will give 30 minutes of spirited conversation with someone he shares so little common ground with.  Not since John Reynolds has that happened.  So thanks to Mr. Sturdy for that.  It was a good talk.

It was an illuminating conversation because it gave me some real insight into what the BC Liberals are thinking as a government.  And it made it clear to me why we probably have no chance of a public conversation on the future state of the ferry system for a long time.

But first let me start with the good news.  I was really interested to hear from him about why BC Ferries was being ordered to find $270,000 a year in savings on our route through service reductions.  He confirmed that this was really about operations, and especially avoiding paying overtime salaries.  When I brought up the ideas that were shared at the public meeting on Bowen about berthing the ferry here and achieving the same savings, he seemed inspired by that level of thinking and he didn't dismiss that idea out of hand.  I don't know what that means, but at least it was confirmation from the secretary to the Transportation Minister that there may be other ways to achieve those savings than through service reductions.  So those of you working on that angle, keep it up.  If we can show that there are savings to be made there, it might save the sailings.  Mr. Sturdy also indicated support for maybe looking at different evening reductions like Monday nights for example which actually has a lower utilization rate that the Saturday night sailing.

But that's where the good news stopped.  The rest of our conversation was interesting because it showed me a deep look at the view that the Liberals have to governing.  It wasn't hopeful.

Mr. Sturdy made the point that the ferry corporation reductions were being made in the context of a government that was trying to lower it's debt to GDP ratio in order to preserve its credit rating.  To do that it was taking a very coporatist approach to governing, looking at the BC Government as a company and trying to manage the finances first of all.  This meant giving everything possible a simple number, including ferry usage.  This simple and reductionist approach to governing a province makes it easy to show that the government is doing something with the numbers.  It avoids accounting for the true costs of decisions and it has absolutely no socio-economic integrity.  But many votes, especially conservative voters and the Liberal base love to see the numbers moving.  Taxes down, expenditures down. Nice and tidy.

Problem is that this approach to governance results in methods like the one being used to reduce the sailings: just counting utilization numbers and deciding based on "heat charts."  Mr. Sturdy said that any conversation about the fundamental nature of the ferry system - is a service? is it part of the highway system? - would be too expensive and onerous to undertake.  In other words we will never have that conversation.  Socio-economic analysis of ferry service reductions?  Forget it.  The numbers on the charts are the ones being used to make decisions.

We talked about this for a while and I made the point that in 2012 thousands of people in coastal communities said they wanted this conversation and that we need to fundamentally rethink the BC Ferries system.  The response to last year's "engagement" was that the Provincial government, BC Ferries and Kirk and Co., the Liberal-friendly firm that is running the process, ignored the public and went ahead with a discussion on service reductions.  Mr. Sturdy pointed out that the ferry system and the road system are two different beasts and if you really want to compare the numbers, the per capita cost of ferries is a magnitude higher than the road system.

To me this is simply a given of BC geography.  We are a coastal province with a huge archipelago of islands and tough terrain to build bridges in.  He indicated that transportation infrastructure is considered an "investment" by this government.  He pointed out how much money the Whistler region provides to the provincial economy and used that as an example of a good investment strategy.  You put money into the highway and Whistler produces more.  The problem with Bowen Island, and other islands too apparently, is that we don't produce enough GDP.  If we can't make the argument that island and coastal communities aren't productive, then we shouldn't be surprised when provincial government "investment" is scaled back.  We are not a good return on investment.

This is where our fundamental disagreement lies.  Mr. Sturdy and the government seem to believe that we are customers of the provincial government, or worse still, employees.  It's as if communities are the various business units of the province all set up to produce something.  My take on things is that we are citizens and we live in communities.  That, in fact, we are the OWNERS of the province.  We actually own the place, and what we do is pay taxes into a common pot so our common needs can be looked after - health, education, transportation, clean water, a social safety net, etc.

Mr. Sturdy and I disagree.  He said that the whole province is going to more and more user pay systems and the government is even taking a look at the road tolling policies.  Mr. Sturdy, for better or worse seems to believe that a corporatist mentality is needed to run the province in order to maintain a favourable bond rating.  I, on the other hand, believe that a government's fundamental responsibility is to look after its citizens' shared needs.  If the BC Liberals continue to have their way with the province, we will essentially be customers in our own homes.  Every time we leave to participate in the world, we will have to pay.

We concluded our conversation by sharing our thoughts on what the best possible result of all of this will be.  He said, in essence, that the best result is an efficient ferry system geared for how much a community contributes to the GDP.  I said that the best result would be for BC Ferries and the province to work closer with communities to not only reestablish trust but to create relationships where coastal communities, BC Ferries and the Province could be constantly looking at how to improve services, meet needs and work together to ensure that we have communities that are thriving, and a province we can be proud of.  I'm just not sure I can get behind an outcome that has us marching in the streets celebrating a triple A rating from Standard & Poors.

I thank Jordan Sturdy for the conversation. We ended on amicable terms and I offered to meet with him and chat more about public consultation, which we may yet do over a beer sometime.  But we are as far apart as you could get on the idea of what government is for.

So friends, I don't hold out any hope that this process will change things.  I doubt we'll have an impact by arguing "family values" or "hardships to commuters." We might have a chance by arguing that service reductions will impact our property values, but the Province might come back and say "prove it."  And without a socio-economic analysis, it will be hard to prove it.  They have numbers - stupid, simple, heat mapped numbers - and therefore they have the appeal to simple minded decisions, and the lowest common denominator in public policy making: "more dollars in your pocket!"

We might be able to save a couple of sailings, but the fundamental trend will continue.  Ferries and roads will move more to being private, users will pay individually for common needs and government will continue to make decisions on the basis of simple numbers with no socio-economic analysis.  And you know what?  The reactionary masses will love it until it affects them, just as it has done here on Bowen Island.  And then they will complain until they realize that appeal to reason isn't going to work.  No one peeped for years while our social services system was being dismantled, but now that it comes home to affect Bowen islanders, we're alarmed.  But if you voted Liberal, this is what you voted for, and the bond rating agencies love this, so it will continue.  This is the result of the appeal to "more money in your pocket book, less public expenditures."  It is the triumph of private financing of governments over public policy and fiscal responsibility.

I reckon Jordan Sturdy will have a hard time getting votes from Bowen Islanders again, but he's one of only three government MLAs with ferries in his riding, and anyway, Whistler contributes more to the economy than we do.  So as long as BC taxpayers continue to take a simplistic approach to fiscal decision making, we will continue to have governments that pursue these kinds of policies.  I don't know what the answer is actually,.  It seems that under the world view of our provincial government acting on behalf of a lot of voters and Province blog commenters and call in show angry people, there is nothing but good in reducing the ferry service level to Bowen.  If you want to beat them, you simply have to line up a better business case.

And that is what citizenship has come to.

UPDATE: If you want a glimpse of the kind of agenda that the government is trying to meet, have a look at this recent credit rating report from Standard and Poors.  This is the kind of document that the BC Government plans its program expenditures around.  It would be interesting to ask the premier at which point the needs of citizens are trumped by the credit rating (the needs of the investment market).  We currently have a AAA rating.  Would the premier tolerate a drop to AA or A if it meant citizens and community needs could be met better?  This will give you insight into who sets priorities for BC government programming.