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B.C. Liberals quash motion seen as a threat to Clark's quest for peace with teachers

B.C. Premier and Liberal Party Leader Christy Clark.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Proposal to allow public-sector teachers to opt out of union membership fails to pass

Premier Christy Clark's bid for a decade of labour peace with B.C. teachers escaped a major setback at her party's policy convention. A motion – part of a trio of resolutions to curb the powers of public-sector unions – proposed to allow public-sector teachers to opt out of membership in their union, the B.C. Teachers' Federation.

Ms. Clark's bid for a long-term labour contract with the BCTF in the next round of talks was already facing skepticism. The party proposal, to remove the requirement for public-school teachers to join the union, was destined to provoke a backlash from the union.

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"Perhaps the delegates didn't get Christy Clark or (Education Minister) Don McRae's press release on trying to smooth out relations," read a tweet from the BCTF while the convention debate carried on in Whistler.

But a number of delegates were quick to speak against the motion, which was characterized as "mean-spirited" and damaging.

The motion was defeated but two others, which aim to limit the ability of public-sector unions to aid the rival New Democratic Party, did succeed. One motion requires new financial disclosures from public-sector unions, and the other would prohibit public sector unions from using their money "for any political purposes."

The union movement is not as tightly intertwined with B.C. NDP as it once was, but can still be counted on to muster against the B.C. Liberals in the next election.

The party policies are not binding on government, and Pat Bell, Minister of Labour, said it is unlikely any policy changes would be made at a government level before the next election.  "There is lots of room in our policy platform to talk about what we want to do if we are successful in another election," he said in an interview. "I don't think that, given that we are six months before the election, it's not something you would deal with."

However he acknowledged the "mood" at the convention against the ability of public-sector unions to campaign against the party.

Maurine Karagianis, a B.C NDP MLA attending the convention as an observer, said it's a terrible idea to "pick a fight" with any sector, but especially teachers given the consensus on the value of education.

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She also said the resolutions were at odds with the bid by Premier Christy Clark to try and strike a 10-year labour deal with teachers.

The other union resolutions, she said, were odd given the absence of measures against corporations.

"We have heard the premier frequently say families are first. I would hope that includes union families as well." – Justine Hunter and Ian Bailey

'Presumptuous' for him to guess how many bills could be passed, de Jong says

Without the fall session of the B.C legislature, the provincial Liberal government faces the prospect of only being able to get a "modest amount" of legislation through in a spring session before the provincial election, the government house leader says.

The concession from Mike de Jong came hours ahead of a keynote speech by Premier Christy Clark at the provincial party's biennal convention.

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Because the opposition has a role in debating legislation, Mr. de Jong, said it would be "presumptuous" to forecast how many bills could be passed.

"There is the option to table legislation. The timing around passage is a function of the government's agenda and the opposition's response to that."

Also Saturday, during a cabinet-accountability session, Seniors Minister Ralph Sultan conceded it will be tough to enact a promised seniors advocate in the limited legislative window.

"It will involve some prioritization," Mr. de Jong said of the agenda, noting the top priority must be dealing with the budget and dealing with the April 1 transition back to the provincial sales tax after the harmonized sales-tax era.

Mr. de Jong said he doubts the government would reverse course and hold a fall session.

"I am not anticipating a fall session."

Opposition House Leader John Horgan, attending the convention as an observer, said that if the Liberals had the "bold agenda" Ms. Clark has been hinting at, the Liberals would have to now be launching it with bills in the legislature.

"They know that. This is a strategy to talk a big game when they know they will never have to deliver," he said. – Ian Bailey

B.C. Liberals revive 'ax the tax' debate on carbon

The imposition of the carbon tax was a central part of the 2009 B.C. election campaign, where the NDP ran on an "ax the tax" platform, and lost. But B.C. Liberal convention delegates revived the debate on Saturday, calling for an end to the tax.

The proposal was snuffed out in a vote on the convention floor, but the debate exposed the division that remains in the B.C. Liberal party about the controversial tax that underpinned former premier Gordon Campbell's green agenda.

The intent of the tax – to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by hiking taxes on fossil fuels – was laudable but the policy has been a failure, critics of the tax argued. "Unless surrounding, competing jurisdictions also have a comparable tax, B.C. is at an economic disadvantage," the resolution from the riding of Westside-Kelowna states.

The B.C. Liberal government is not keen to raise the tax rate right now, on the eve of the next election, but had signalled it would not abandon it.

"British Columbians, one could argue, have rendered a direct opinion on it," noted Finance Minister Mike de Jong, in an interview shortly before the debate. He said however the government could still make more adjustments the tax to help, for example, the agricultural industry. "That is part of the budget process," he said.

Mr. de Jong said the tax is a critical part of the government's revenues: "It's not an exaggeration to say to those who would argue for its elimination, you are creating a hole in the fiscal plan in excess of $1-billion." Earlier in the day, he reminded delegates that the province has already sustained a $1-billion loss in revenues because of collapsing natural gas prices. Mr. de Jong is required by legislation to balance the provincial budget in February.

When the province introduced a carbon tax on July 1, 2008, the rate was $10 a tonne. It has risen steadily, reaching $30 a tonne, which works out to a tax of almost seven cents a litre on gas for cars as of July 1 of this year. – Justine Hunter

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