Opinion

You Go Patti!

Vancouver School Board chair's tart-tongued defence fits fresh trend: politicians sticking up for the public interest.

By Shannon Rupp 16 Jun 2010 | TheTyee.ca

Shannon Rupp is a Tyee contributing editor. Find her previous columns here.

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VSB chair Patti Bacchus: 'Yeah, I guess this is politics'.

Forget soccer, give me political sparring

When it comes to spectator sports, you can have your Stanley Cup and your World Cup. For sheer entertainment value give me a political dust-up of the sort happening between Education Minister Margaret MacDiarmid and Vancouver school board chair Patti Bacchus.

With functional illiteracy rates in this country around 40 per cent, I've been amazed to see successive governments scoring short-term political points with education cuts while doing long-term damage to the B.C. economy. Yeah: so much for the Liberal claim that it's the party of business.

The hypocrisy is palpable, which is probably one of the reasons the fight between Bacchus and MacDiarmid has taken a personal turn. MacDiarmid started it when she accused Bacchus of politicking, while implying the school board was incompetent at best and possibly corrupt. Ironic coming from a minister forced to defend a government that is fast losing its authority as evidence of its own corruption and incompetence mounts.

That irony wasn't lost on Bacchus, who fired back that, having done her undergrad degree in political science, she recalls a prof defining politics as the struggle over the distribution of scarce resources. "So, yeah, I guess this is politics," the increasingly sarcastic Bacchus told reporters at a news conference.

It's fun to watch them sparring like a couple of mismatched boxers. While the impolitic school board chair is the more fleet-footed of the two, the plodding education minister carries weight and power -- including a hefty budget (of public money) for communications consultants.

No doubt they're the ones who advised sending in the comptroller-general -- MacDiarmid's minion -- to claim that school board trustees mismanaged their budget.

Getting to be a pattern

I relished comptroller-general Cheryl Wenezenki-Yolland's solutions to the budget shortfall, including wringing "concessions from unions." In one phrase, she managed to combine the Campbell government's contempt for working people, like teachers, with an endorsement for a kind of institutionalized theft. A government that has been using legitimately-acquired funds to benefit its cronies is now demanding that specific members of the public pony up a few more bucks to deliver a service that that benefits us all?

I'm not sure what is more breathtaking in that suggestion: the arrogance, or the sheer unmitigated gall.

It's only fair to admit that I get a particular kick out of this spectacle because Bacchus and I were students together in some antediluvian era and I'm amused to see she's as tart-tongued as ever. But I also suspect MacDiarmid's personal attacks on Bacchus have to do with the Liberal party wanting to slay a formidable adversary at the municipal level, rather than face her across the legislature

This is about more than education funding. Bachhus's angry, snide, exasperated voice is not just the sound of one seriously pissed-off electorate. She is another in a growing roster of politicians who are standing up and speaking for the public interest, in disregard of their own careers.

You go Spencer!

I first spotted the trend last year when the NDP's Spencer Chandra Herbert (Vancouver-West End) challenged the Campbell government on its fiscally irresponsible cuts to the arts. That put him at odds with his own party, which has never had anything but contempt for cultural industries.

When it comes to the arts, politicians tend to be of one Philistine mind, albeit for different reasons. The earnest and dull-witted lefties think art is a luxury for the so-called elite. Meanwhile, the right-wing crazies dismiss it because it doesn't generate big, corporate-sized profits. It doesn't employ their friends, which means it can't give them fat-salaried jobs after they leave office. As a result, the sector which employs about half a million people nationally is a political orphan. With no voice in government, it gets more bashing than a piñata.

But as Herbert pointed out, the arts deliver big profits by small-business standards -- 38 cents on the dollar invested in B.C. (And more nationally, and in provinces like Quebec and Ontario, where the investment is greater.)

Arts or lumber?

I watched in disgust as that Liberal-party-of-business eviscerated a profitable industry to buy the illusion of being tough on "handouts" -- well, at least handouts that don't benefit their pals directly. Most people don't realize that all other industries, including forestry and energy, receive heavy government subsidies. But they come in the form of tax breaks and complicated formulas for things like stumpage fees. That's what the never-ending battle over softwood lumber trade with the U.S. is about: the U.S. argues that B.C. timber is subsidized so heavily via the public purse that it amounts to an unfair advantage in the marketplace.

But the beneficiaries of this kind of grant are "a handful of B.C. lumber producers," as the U.S. Coalition for Fair Lumber Imports points out. Arts grants, by contrast, are an investment that benefits the economy and the public by making theatre tickets affordable for everyone.

You go Blair!

Last week another politician, Blair Lekstrom (Peace River South), gave me the hat trick every journo needs to prove there's a trend. He opted to represent his constituents in the Peace River country and oppose the HST rather than play toady to the Liberals. His riding includes many small-business people, like retailers, who will lose their customers to nearby Alberta when the government rams through the ill-considered HST.

Apparently Lekstrom noticed that when Campbell et al became public servants they decided to define "public" as themselves and their buddies. Who knew that when they claimed to be the party of business, they meant their personal business? Or possibly monkey business? They certainly didn't mean the Peace River's business.

At this point, it's impossible even for Liberals to ignore how the Campbell government's self-serving, short-term thinking damages our economy again and again.

As individuals, the politicians standing up for the public interest are all likely to take it on the chin. They're not good little party drones, which means they won't have the party apparatus to promote them into high-profile jobs. Their careers as politicians will be stalled. Or ended.

But they are remarkably good citizens, reminding us of how government by the people, for the people is supposed to work. If we're smart we'll re-elect each and every one of them.

Back up the fighters

In the case of Bacchus and VSB, the public may have to stand up for its representatives sooner rather than later. The smart money is on MacDiarmid firing the elected board and robbing the scrappy chair of her platform. The embattled Liberals don't need to be fighting the public on two fronts, and as governments lose their authority, they usually resort to abusing their power.

Although, given Bacchus's style, I'd ask MacDiarmid if she really wants to knock a captain and her brigade out of theatre and have them come back as guerrillas?

Meanwhile, I've fired up the popcorn maker. This is way more fun than soccer.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Education

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