Democracy in the cross-hairs…again

Voters in BC have had quite a year. Following the May 2009 provincial election, they were stunned to find out that an issue the BC Liberals had promised not to enact-the harmonizing of our provincial sales tax with the federal Goods and Services Tax-was suddenly a done deal. The announced about-face was made at a July news conference with the Premier and his Finance Minister. No doubt, both men hoped that the controversial move would soon lose political traction as people prepared for summer.

They could not have been more wrong. The new tax, the Harmonized Sales Tax (HST), quickly became a flash point. At its core, the outrage that was being expressed by those opposed to the HST had everything to do with deception. Voters across the province didn't believe that the about-face on the HST was anything more than an attempt by the Premier to avoid an honest debate on the merits of the HST.

That outrage continued to grow. By the spring of 2010, when the provincial government had to introduce legislation to implement the HST, anger towards the government`s handling of the tax shift had transformed into a referendum petition. That petition succeeded in gathering over 700,000 signatures, amounting to more than 10 percent of registered voters in all 85 ridings around the province. It was also the first time such an initiative had cleared the legislated minimums for a petition to be considered.

Democracy, it seemed, was gaining momentum. That came to an abrupt halt when the province's business community decided to launch a legal challenge of the referendum petition. The BC Chamber of Commerce was one of the lead groups in the challenge claiming that the demand to have the HST put to a province-wide referendum was unconstitutional.

The petition faced another hurdle when the acting head of Elections BC refused to forward the petition documents to the Legislative Committee for review. That move, like the court action, has only served to further frustrate and infuriate voters across the province.

To many in the labour movement, this heavy-handed "we know best" attitude is all too familiar. We have seen the same provincial government, which said one thing on HST then did the exact opposite, do much the same when it came to ripping up signed collective agreements. It took over five years and the Supreme Court of Canada to begin reversing that outrageous action. Unions have also seen this government repeatedly thwart free collective bargaining by either imposing "zero mandates" or legislating imposed agreements.

In the post-secondary sector, we have also seen this government change the ground rules on academic governance. At the five newly created universities, the governance structure of Senates can be easily shifted to exclude faculty input and move away from the longstanding system of collegial governance. Democracy, it seems, is increasingly seen as an issue of convenience with this government, not a matter of principle.

Hopefully the momentum created by the referendum petition will begin to change attitudes in Victoria. It's long overdue.

About FPSE

The Federation of Post-Secondary Educators of BC is the provincial voice for faculty and staff in BC teaching universities, colleges and institutes, and in private sector institutions. FPSE member locals, represented by Presidents' Council and the Executive, represent over 10,000 faculty and staff at 18 public and 12 private sector institutions.