Opinion: B.C. NDP unafraid to say ‘no’ to teachers

One of the key differences between the current NDP government and the NDP government of the 1990s is that the current administration appears to be surer of itself when faced with a bit of heat.

Whether it is staring down the environmental movement, the teachers union or a handful of social activists, this version of an NDP government has found an ability to stay the course amid a sea of controversies.

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By contrast, the 1990s NDP government (at least during its first mandate) seemed afraid of various interest groups the party had counted on for traditional support, including environmentalists, trade unionists and social service groups.

The so-called “war of the woods” that pitted environmentalists against the forest industry had the NDP government almost in panic mode. An attempt to revamp the auto insurance system melted in the face of well-organized opposition.

The party, back then, was also distracted by a simmering scandal (known as “Bingogate”) that dragged on for years, along with a number of other controversies. As well, it was dogged by allegations of phony budget making.

The current NDP bunch is really still just starting out in power, but they have avoided scandals and so far at least are taking a tough line when they need to. Even the occasional controversy does not seem to have much of an impact.

Part of this tougher approach is reflected in the personality of the man who leads the government, Premier John Horgan. While there is no doubt he brings a passion for reform to the office, it is also abundantly clear he is not going to be pushed around.

For example, he continues to take a tough stance on the standoff between the eight hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en First Nations and the construction of a natural gas pipeline near Kitimat. He has rightly refused their demands for a face-to-face meeting and has repeatedly said the “rule of law” must be followed (a reference to a court injunction in favour of the project).

Moreover, Horgan is not the only key government figure displaying a steeliness in the job. Finance Minister Carole James is locked in a tough fight with the B.C. Teachers Federation, which continues to demand the education budget be greatly increased to accommodate their fairly expensive contract demands.

James has curtly refused the union’s demands and continues to insist it bargain within the negotiating mandate like all other public sector unions. I do not think for a minute that she will cave on this, even if the teachers hit the picket line.

Many teachers have taken to social media to condemn the NDP government for refusing to greatly expand education resources and are threatening to “never vote NDP again.” While the early 1990s NDP government would have been rattled by that kind of talk, I detect zero concerns within the current version on this point.

James will present her next budget in the coming weeks, and the expectations are that it will be balanced with a tiny surplus. This can only happen if she says “no” to many hands from many sectors reaching out for more funding.

Finally, Attorney General David Eby is not walking away from trying to change the auto insurance system, despite a well-organized and well-financed campaign against his efforts brought by the legal profession. Eby has lost one court case, but he continues to push for significant changes, some of which may prove to be unpopular. However, unlike the ill-fated efforts by the NDP to reform ICBC in the ’90s, these changes seem to stand a better chance at success.

This current government showed its willingness to take on some of the party’s traditional base of support with its decision early on to build the Site C dam. Next came welcoming the giant LNG Canada project, as well as its tepid opposition to the Trans Mountain pipeline and, finally, saying “no” to the BCTF.

Who knows whether this trend will continue as the next election hovers into view, but so far at least, this version of an NDP government is not lacking in confidence, even though it is in a minority position in the legislature.

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