Friday, December 03, 2010
Our beleaguered politicians have been the ones doing most of the sharing recently, and it’s about time. Thank you, Bill Bennett, for starting what I hope will be a steady stream of politicians drawing the line at being treated like trash by the lords of the manor.
Believe me, politicians aren’t the only ones who endure abusive behaviour. People inside and outside of government regularly whisper in my ear these days about alarming developments on various fronts, but all are terrified to talk publicly. They’re afraid of being punished if they do.
I confess, I used to think that argument was conspiratorial hogwash. But I’ve come to see that it’s true for those who rely on provincial government funding in some way.
The current government in particular can be brutish in its punishment of those who dare to challenge its decisions, which increasingly come from on high. Speak up and it just may be that your contract doesn’t get renewed next time around, or a policy change wipes out your whole program.
It doesn’t even matter whether that’s actually the case, as long as people believe it is. It’s been a damn effective strategy, but the bullies in high places are getting so full of themselves lately that they’re now introducing thuggish confidentiality clauses into funding contracts just to be sure.
Bill Bennett chose to withdraw the “battered-wife syndrome” comparison he made during his passionate rant about Gordon Campbell a couple weeks ago. But I think it’s apt. That’s the phrase that comes to my mind frequently when talking to people who count on money from government to keep the bills paid and the doors open.
That’s not to trivialize the genuine domestic-abuse cycle in any way, or deride everything that government does. Much of it ticks along in competent fashion.
But in places where decisions get political, it can look a lot like the worst of marriages.
The imbalance of power. The fear and secrecy. The isolation. Bouquets and promises to make it all right just often enough to keep the abused partner on side for another day. And then it’s back to the rough stuff again.
Until Bennett let it all out, I’d begun to wonder whether anyone was going to say something. Community groups are so scared you can barely squeeze a peep out of them, despite the many changes, budget cuts and top-down Big New Ideas jeopardizing all kinds of long-standing and well-used social services throughout the province.
Judging by the silence, I’d have presumed a solid win for government on this front. But no - it’s now making silence a contractual condition even for bidding on a contract.
Its latest Big New Idea - which will significantly change the way B.C. delivers employment-training services - includes a warning to bidders that they could be disqualified if they talk about the proposal to the public, MLAs or the media, “other than as expressly permitted or directed by the Province.”
Asked by potential bidders to clarify this point, the Ministry of Social Development notes in documents on the BC Bid site that “the Ministry will determine, at its sole discretion, when to disqualify a proposal for a breach of the ‘Lobbying’ clause.”
In other words, speak out at your peril.
That’s a pretty big hammer to hold over the heads of community agencies that will be very much affected by the massive changes proposed for employment-training services.
This is the contract that combines all eight federal and provincial employment-training programs for the first time. The plan is to reduce 400 service contracts to a mere 73, using a bidding process and a financial model so onerous for cash-strapped community agencies that it’s almost like handing the contracts to the big corporations sniffing around B.C. for more social-services work.
Doesn’t that sound like something the good citizens of B.C. might want to hear more about from the people who currently deliver the services? Don’t we all deserve a thorough understanding of revamped service contracts representing a combined federal-provincial commitment of $320 million?
“I think we’re going to lose a lot of agencies, especially specialized services,” says Norma Strachan of ASPECT Community Services, an umbrella organization representing 180 community agencies currently doing this work. Yet the government demands silence from those who best know the issues.
Coercive confidentiality clauses and governing by intimidation are strong signals that bad decisions are being made - otherwise, what’s to cover up?
Make some noise, people. Bullies thrive in silence.