Credibility crunch undermines post-secondary goals

Good government and collective bargaining have one thing in common: their ultimate success depends on good faith.  Diminish that good faith in any way and you set in motion a process that ultimately de-rails attempts to reach any sensible outcome.

In both instances good faith requires credibility.  Without it, governments couldn’t build the necessary consensus within the constituent groups needed to make public policy function.  And in collective bargaining, without credibility neither side would have the capacity to reach a deal.

It is against that backdrop that the provincial government now finds itself struggling to right its political ship.  British Columbia voters are reeling from the revelations that have come out since a mid-July announcement by the BC Liberals that the province’s fiscal conditions were far worse than we were told during the 28 days of the provincial election.   The biggest flash point so far has been the government’s unilateral decision to impose a dramatic tax shift by agreeing to harmonize BC’s Provincial Sales Tax (PST) with the federal government’s Goods and Services Tax (GST).

However, the full impact of these fiscal revelations was made apparent on September 1st when Finance Minister Colin Hansen tabled a revised provincial budget.  Despite assurances that his government would protect public services, the details included in the budget show that public services across a broad range of sectors are all facing some form of restraint.  Health authorities, for example, are being forced to cut over $360 million in services, a move that is expected to eliminate close to 9,000 elected surgeries.  In post-secondary education, the budget flat-lines funding while projecting increases in enrolment, an outcome that will certainly drive per-student funding down even further.

All of these fiscal measures are wrong-headed.  At a time when citizens legitimately look to governments to, at the very least, counter-balance the economic down draft that has gripped much of the North American economy, the BC government has opted to make matters worse by adding to the down draft through cuts to public programs.  The ranks of BC’s unemployed has almost doubled—increasing from 119,000 in July 2008 to over 200,000 in July 2009—and yet the budget tabled on September 1st will only guarantee that number goes up, not down.

As bad as these developments are for our province, the real crisis in Victoria centers on credibility.  Increasingly, critics, the provincial media, community organizations, the Official Opposition and even some business organizations are questioning the government’s credibility on fiscal matters.  Why, they ask, were the Premier and his Finance Minister so in the dark on BC’s deteriorating fiscal conditions?  How could a Premier and a Finance Minister present their February budget estimate of deficit that was so wildly off the mark?  Was it political convenience—neither wanted to have it emerge as a vote-determining issue in the May provincial election—or incompetence?  

The unfortunate fact in all this controversy is that when a government undermines its own credibility a lot more than political misfortune hangs in the balance.  Citizens lose faith in all elected officials, a move that further erodes the ability of governments of any political stripe to operate effectively and ultimately deliver the services that citizens want and deserve.

The coming weeks will be important for all British Columbians.  With the Legislature in session, there is an opportunity to hold government accountable for what it does and what it doesn’t.  FPSE, through its Committees and lobby work, will certainly be a part of that accountability effort.  We can make a difference, but we need to speak out to do it.

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.