Thursday, July 21, 2011

There's No Excuse, Mr.Alward.

The announcement by the Alward Conservatives that they will be taking away a promised raise for the lowest paid workers in the province should be a sign to New Brunswickers that this will not be a government constrained by basic concepts of honesty, fair play or compassion.

With any new government, people rightly want to give them the benefit of the doubt. The first few times that campaign promises were broken, people frequently chose to believe that commitments would be delayed while government learned the ropes or evaluated its options. Even when the Alward Conservatives delayed a promised boost in health benefits for people working but stuck in poverty, and vision care for their children, folks like me who worked passionately for the poverty reduction plan were somewhat muted in our concern.

After all, David Alward sat right in the room, along side dozens of citizens, including people living in poverty who told all of us politicians how much they were counting on us to justify their faith in the process and keep our word. He looked those people in the eye, the moms and dads who put aside their fear and skepticism to sit next to political and business leaders and tell us what it was like to struggle to escape poverty, he told them that he would keep his word. He heard what I heard, that people living in poverty who came had told so many people that they weren't crazy to believe things could change, and he saw the tears that were shed by people who were desperate to believe that their stories had really led to change, to a little bit of a better deal for the families who live in poverty.

And he signed the covenant on poverty, and he told the media and the people who had worked on the plan that this was a plan beyond politics, and he would deliver.

Today, I'd ask all those who have downplayed the other broken promises, who have tried to describe them as politics as usual or the result of a tough job, what excuse can there be for Mr. Alward breaking this promise to some of the most vulnerable people who counted upon the most powerful politician in the province to have their back?

Can you really buy the excuse that canceling the minimum wage hike is to provide for consultation? Really?

If you buy that, you have to ignore a lot of facts. Like the fact that the minimum wage hike resulted from a poverty reduction plan that heard from 2000 New Brunswickers in over a dozen public meetings, and was negotiated among 60 citizens and both political parties in a two day final forum?

In fact, in voting for the act to implement the plan, Mr. Alward himself said in the Legislature "...unlike the secret deal to sell NB Power, the government actually listened to New Brunswickers in developing this plan. That is why the Opposition fully supports this bill...."

So, it isn't just that I say there was consultation. He said it, too.

Can you believe that there's a need for more study? I can tell you that Mr. Alward sat at that final roundtable, and there was a full debate over the pros and cons of raising the minimum wage to a level more like other provinces. The option of a two-tiered wage was debated. And the consensus, including the advice from business leaders, was that the level set was the right balance.

Having heard all this, Mr. Alward could have, of course, told people there and in the media that he didn't agree. He could have said he wanted to hear from others, and reserved the right to make a decision.

But he didn't do that. He signed the document. He got his picture next to Premier Graham's as supporting the deal. He sat and accepted the times I praised his party for having put these issues beyond debate.

He didn't once express even a doubt or desire to reflect then.

Can we believe that this is a tough choice brought on by deficits? Really? After all, attacking the government's decision to run deficits to keep services and jobs flowing during a recession was a centerpiece of Mr. Alward's campaign. In March 2010 his party web site placed a huge debt clock front and center, and Mr. Alward spoke of the need to "rein in runaway Liberal spending".

Five months AFTER condemning that spending and sounding the deficit alarm, he signed the deal and even called upon government to move MORE quickly on implementing the plan.

So, how can we believe he signed the deal without there were deficits, when he signed it five months after pledging to balance the books?

How can we believe that he did anything other than lie to the most vulnerable people in the province.

Liberals and progressives, and anyone who sees the fiscal sense in getting people off welfare and into the workforce, should be prepared to have a real debate. It isn't good enough just to point fingers and say "ha, ha, the Tories screwed up". We need to explain why the policy was important then, and why it matters now.

What we learned from people living in poverty was that the rotten deal we give our lowest wage workers keeps people trapped in welfare. After all, you can't get social assistance until you give up all your assets, sever your living arrangements and exhaust EI. Then you get a small amount on which to live.

Yet if you get a job, you often lose your help for health benefits, child care and housing, and you're worse off than you were on social assistance. Not because welfare is to generous (it was, when we started, the lowest in Canada). You're worse off because (when we started) we had the most miserly minimum wage in Canada.

That raise may seem small to a guy earning the Premier's salary, but to a single mom trying to raise kids on nine bucks an hour, another forty bucks a week matters a lot.

We pay more costs keeping people on welfare than the small increase will cost business. And having people outside the workforce hurts our ability to attract businesses here, and means more kids grow up in homes that don't model the value of work. The tax burden of poverty alone is a big cost to business than the minimum wage hike, which is why business leaders supported it.

If we want people to leave welfare for work, then entry level work can't be inhumane. And at a time when many blue collar jobs are shipped overseas, we shouldn't be denying service workers a chance to earn their way, with tips and hard work, into the middle class.

Minimum wage opponents never do find a North American correlation between minimum wage levels and employment (it doesn't exist -- some high minimum wage US states have low unemployment, and some states with no minimum wage still have high unemployment). They never do explain how we move people off welfare with the lowest minimum wage in the country.

They do offer some fake objections. They argue that it isn't alone a cure for poverty -- except no one is suggesting that it is, because it is part of an extensive plan. But surely this is a odd argument, that because something is only part of a solution we shouldn't do it. That's like arguing that a hockey team down 4-1 shouldn't score a goal, because one goal won't tie the game.

We need to make the argument, forcefully, that getting people into the workforce requires work that allows a certain level of dignity, and making that first step too fraught with poverty will cost us more in the long run with higher welfare costs and families trapped in a vicious cycle. And we need to demand that Premier Alward give us his plan, since he has rejected the advice of 2000 New Brunswickers, for lowering the number of people in poverty.

And we need to stop making excuses for this betrayal. Premier Alward has begun his deficit reduction by attacking school kids and the poor. If this is not meanness of spirit (and I still hope it isn't), then it is simply an act of weakness-- faced with tough choices, this premier defaults to attacking those least able to fight back.

If we Liberals can't rally enough to fight back on their behalf, then we can never call ourselves a party renewed. I still believe that the Liberal Party will have the courage to fight this fight.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

A Lost Moment For Leadership

Legislative committee meetings in late June aren't often big news stories, so if we do nothing else, let's recognize that poor Glenn Tait and Sherry Wilson have at least managed to buck the odds When they came out and critiqued the cost and principle of duality in our education system, they made news as government backbenchers in the usually-muzzled Alward government. That isn't easy.

Perhaps in recognition of how rare this dubious achievement was, the Alward Message Control Center somehow managed to ensure that the story survived the long weekend and continued on into the next one; first by inexplicably having the Premier publicly complain that his MLA's weren't returning his calls, then by issuing one of the stranger "apologies" imaginable.

In language befitting one of those odd statements hostages are forced to read, Tait and Wilson apologized for "asking questions", and referenced the fact that their party, the PC's, actually believe in duality. The Premier at no point appeared to explain why the party believes this, and poor Tait and Wilson disappeared, presumably to a re-education camp where they will be treated to daily self-criticism sessions.

What was odd about the statement, by the way, is that a real apology usually is offered in the words of the person apologizing, and explains what they feel they were wrong to do and what they have learned. This statement had a strange Orwellian feel to it, as if two MLAs signed it but have no real sense of what they did wrong, if anything.

People have correctly taken umbrage at the fact MLA's are apologizing for asking questions, because sincerely asking questions is exactly part of an MLA's job. Michel Carrier, who passionately and logically defended the policy of duality in education, even welcomed afterwards the opportunity to explain why duality is the right policy, and called for more teachable moments.

The pity here is that the Premier of New Brunswick didn't rise to the occasion and do the same, leaving the historic responsibility of our premiers to explain and lead to faceless backroom spin doctors.

I don't believe in criticizing without offering up what I would do differently, so let me offer some specific suggestions.

First, please understand that I'm not defending Sherry Wilson and Glenn Tait. As some of you may recall, I once had to stand up to a prominent member of my own party, Justin Trudeau, when he questioned the need for duality while visiting here. I did that by appearing in unscripted interviews and explaining why duality was the right policy. When I was asked if he should apologize, I said this....

"No, I don't think any politician should apologize for expressing what he believes. But I would like him to change what he believes, because I think he spoke without understanding the New Brunswick reality and if he reflects, he will change his view."

I think a forced apology is meaningless in this case, and I think that's why no one seems really satisfied here.

First of all, even the line "asking questions" is really a lie. The reason Tate and Wilson are in trouble is because they don't ask questions. If you read the transcript, certain things become clear.

They aren't bad people, but they haven't taken any time to learn what should be basic civics for MLAs. They don't really know what the difference is between duality and bilingualism, so they kind of lurch about between examples of what they like and don't like hoping something coherent comes out.
The things that get them in hot water aren't questions --they are statements of opinion. Tate never does ask a question, he rhetorically asks if having separate schools is bilingualism or segregation, and then answers himself "to me, that is not bilingualism", and just asks the commissioner to respond to his statements. Wilson states that "there must be a more cost-effective way" with no suggestion that she might not know enough to make that statement.
The thing they really don't get is that raising the canard about cost is offensive to francophones. After all, elections cost money. Having a Legislature costs money. having trials instead of a police state costs money Yet these give force to real rights each of us have as free people. No one ever says "I don't want to come off as being against democracy, BUT can we really afford having an election every four years?". The reason they don't is that the right is so accepted you just accept it as a cost. When you ask if bilingualism or duality is affordable, yup expose not a question but a belief that it isn't a real right in your mind.

The real "apology" is, of course, changing your mind. But Tait and Wilson were ill-served by the spin doctors here. They first lie about what they really did, then in the words of others say they are sorry for contradicting party policy without explaining why they now support the policy. All this may explain why francophones again see a Conservative Party that accepts their rights begrudgingly, and anglophones see a premier who ran on openness muzzling his caucus.

In their own words, it might have been cleaner had Tait and Wilson said something like....

"I've had a chance to reflect on what I said in committee today, regarding maintaining duality in education and the financial costs of allowing kids to be educated in their own language.

I'm elected to ask questions, and I'm always going to ask if there are better ways to do things. But I made a mistake today when I went beyond asking questions, and made some statements without thinking things through.

I want everyone to know that I do understand that in an English community where kids will hear English everywhere, francophone kids need a place where there own language can develop first. I also understand that for francophones who fought hard for that right, it must be insulting to hear someone like me, who had the comfort of growing up with my own language all around me, to suggest that their right is negotiable when money is tight. After all, I would never suggest educating English students in French only schools was an OK way to save money.

I don't apologize for asking questions that I hear, and we shouldn't hide from the fact that a lot of people in my riding wonder about why we pay for two systems. But as an MLA, I have a chance to learn from people whose experience is different than my own. I should have asked more questions before I opened my trap and expressed strong opinions,and I will do better next time."

As for the Premier, he deserves credit for having swiftly laid down the law to his party. And yet......

There are times in leadership when, for all the nastiness and noise in politics, a leader rises to the occasion and reminds us of the better angels of our nature. That comes with the job, and the way one commands this bully pulpit often separates leaders from lieutenants in politics.

It would not have killed the Premier to show he doesn't just accept the political reality of supporting duality, but that he supports the idea and is willing to explain those views and persuade others. It would not have been a bad idea to consider coming out and making a statement like this.....

"Today, I reminded two of my MLAs that our government, and our party, support the principle that both English and French citizens of New Brunswick deserve their own school system, in their own language.

Glenn and Sherry aren't bad people. As they said often in their comments, they understand that having two languages and two great cultures is a good thing for New Brunswick. What they hadn't thought about was that learning your own language is a little different if you grow up French than if you grow up English.

We have done pretty well, here in New Brunswick, with two cultures each learning over the years what it's like for the other guy. Because even good people can sometimes wonder why we need two school systems, and why education is a little different than other services where it's enough just to offer bilingual services, I wanted to explain why it's so important to me that my party support duality in education.

Part of what makes us who we are is the culture we share with people around us. We know Canadians are different from Americans -- we have our own shared historical moments, from Paul Henderson's goal to Terry Fox's Marathon Of Hope. We have our own history we learn in schools. We may watch CSI and House, but we also have our Rick Mercers and Hockey Night in Canada. It's the little things we share that make us who we are.

Being English in Woodstock, my kids never had to wonder who they were. They never had to look for English shows, or music, or books. It was just how the world works.

Over the years, I've learned that not everyone grows up like that. If you're growing up French in Saint John, The Simpsons and Katy Perry and most of what goes viral on YouTube is there in the majority language. If you join a community team or club, the kids there will mostly speak English. To learn your own language, and to learn it perfectly, you need one place where you grow up living in that language only.

Trust me on this. I've struggled to learn French and I'm proud of that. But even speaking a second language well isn't the same as fully commanding your native language. When I speak French, I'm not really able to be completely me. I can get my ideas across, but it's more formal. My personality, my humor, the expressions I use, my own way of looking at the world, and even the little ways of phrasing things I probably picked up from my parents and their parents, that isn't there. Everyone can only be who they are if they have a language they don't just learn, but that they command, one that lets them not just ask where the bathroom is, but that gives them a personality and all the tools to express who they are.

That doesn't mean francophones don't want their kids to be bilingual. We all want our kids to share and know as many cultures and languages as possible. But we only fully do that when we first know who we are. In North America, the world does that for us anglophones. For francophones,yup have to do it despite the world around you.

Education is just different. For those who think you can just ram them together and teach bilingually, let me tell you you're wrong. The French equivalent of Shakespeare isn't translated Shakespeare. That might tell you how Hamlet ends, but we teach our kids Shakespeare to learn how language can create image and nuance and emotion when it's used by a master. In French, you do that with Rostand and Moliere and, here, Chiasson and Leger. We should all know that Trudeau gave us the Charter, but each group may wish to understand our own language's history in greater detail. And the folks who know how to design a curriculum in one don't usually know the other.

And for those who want one bilingual school, or one shared school bus, I'd ask this....does that mean you're ready to accept that all teachers have to be bilingual. All bus drivers? After all, anything less means one group isn't really equal -- they are just adapting to someone else's system.

That's why education is different. In a second language, we may get by, but we all need a language where our personality shines through. I want that for my kids. Francophones want the same for their kids. It is right, and it is a right. And just like voting, or having a fair trial, rights aren't things you need to justify when times are tough. They are just the cost of living in a society as blessed as our own.

Good people can always ask if there's a better way to do something, and we all have to stop and remind ourselves why we have the rights we do. That's why I wanted to explain why I wanted Glenn and Sherry -- and all of us -- to think about how someone else's experience might be different than our own. Not because I said so, but because it's the right thing to do."

Premier Alward is a good man with a tough job. But it's a job he asked for. And in this first moment of leadership, he shrank when the job called on him to lead.