Monday, January 05, 2009

Now's the time for scrutiny of BC government

We’re heading into a big year for B.C. Faltering economy, provincial election looming, massively expensive sporting event on the horizon - if ever there was a time for us citizens to take the measure of our government, this is it.
The election will be upon us in five months. In the run-up to it, B.C. politicians’ eyes will be on us for a change. We get such a chance no more than two or three times a decade - a brief window of opportunity for the public to capture the attention of politicians at a time when they’re highly motivated to listen.
Most of the politicians I know are good people wanting to do the right thing. But good intention isn’t the same thing as effective governance, something that the citizenry needs to be much more mindful of when choosing its politicians.
Are B.C.’s Liberals running an effective government? Before you head to the polls in May for the provincial election, make a New Year’s resolution to determine the answer to that.
Whatever you care about most - the environment, social problems, health care, taxes, school support - make it a priority to seek out information that will tell you whether the Liberals have been effective (The government’s own comprehensive Web site at is a great place to start.)
I’m a political agnostic, so will make no recommendations as to who to vote for when the time comes. My own vote remains undecided, except for saying “Yes” to electoral reform in the referendum happening at the same time as the election. I’ve seen no evidence in my years observing B.C.’s political scene that any party has all the answers.
Accountability is the watch word in my mind. Close to home, I note that newly elected Victoria Mayor Dean Fortin is promising in a Globe and Mail interview that there will be a resolution to homelessness in the downtown within six months. The Globe lists Fortin on a prestigious list of “Ten to Watch” in 2009, which I assume means he’s going to be working miracles this year.
It’s a wonderful bit of politicking, but the test is whether he means it. We’ll know soon enough by Fortin’s actions whether he’s the visionary leader we’ve been waiting for in the city, or if it’s all just more empty words leading nowhere. What’s important in the case at hand and anytime a politician makes promises is to hold them to what they said.
That they’re being held accountable at all times by the public ought to be a constant reality of any politician’s tenure, of course, not just at election time. We can’t be waiting three more years to hold the new Victoria council accountable for what it achieves around homelessness.
But it’s in the months before an election that politicians listen most intently. The 2009 provincial election is particularly important , not only because of the financial uncertainties B.C. is heading into over the next few years but also because a major electoral-reform referendum is being conducted at the same time with the potential to dramatically change the face of politics in B.C.
So it’s the public’s time in the sun now - to think about what matters and get some answers from government about its priorities and past performance. If we don’t like what we hear, government has five months to adjust course or risk losing our votes. Nice and direct.
What’s essential to the process, however, is public engagement. Go looking for the evidence that tells you whether government is doing its job. Keep score. Demand better. Extract commitments from those vying to be your MLA, and let them know you’ll be holding them accountable.
Read any reports you can find. Search the Mansard records on the government Web site. Follow the money. Read media coverage, but never rely on it exclusively.
Whoever you choose to vote for, do what you can to establish the person’s performance record. Accountability is vital, but what’s even more important is to know before we elect somebody that they’re up to the challenge.
It’s more difficult to establish a candidate’s performance record if he or she isn’t in government right now or has never run for office before, but you can still learn a lot these days from a Google search and visiting a few good blog sites.
For my part, I’ll spend the next few months trying to take the measure of the government’s performance for my column. But the wisdom will come from all of us. Effective government starts with electing effective people, and we’ve got five precious months ahead of us to figure that out.

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