BEYOND THE HEADLINES: Leadership lacking

Columnist Richard Rolke tackles the government's role in B.C.'s education woes

Parents across the province are wondering if their kids will head back to school Tuesday or if summer holidays will continue to roll through September and possibly into October.

During the ongoing labour dispute, much has been made of the teachers’ demand for a wage increase. It’s a sexy topic that the media and politicians can latch on to, particularly because many people  already believe teachers have it pretty good.

What seems to be forgotten during all of the debate, though, is what led to this entire situation.

In 2002, then-education minister Christy Clark proceeded with legislation that stripped the issues of class size and composition (the make-up of a classroom such as special needs children) from the teachers’ contract.

The court ruled in 2011 that the government had overstepped its authority and the legislation was sent back for reworking. However, what was brought back was a virtual repeat of the previous bill.

That move didn’t sit well with the B.C. Supreme Court and in early 2014, it found the latest version of the legislation infringed on teachers’ Charter rights.

“Justice Susan Griffin’s ruling paints a picture of a government that stubbornly stuck to a political agenda, even after the court found Ms. Clark’s bill unconstitutional in 2011. When that verdict was delivered, a chastened Ms. Clark promised to fix the law. Her government vowed to ‘be entirely mindful of every word in the judgment,’” wrote Justine Hunter in the Globe and Mail Jan. 27.

“Further, Justice Griffin concluded that the government hoped to weaken the teachers’ union. The ministry of education’s superintendent for achievement ‘saw it as serving a useful goal of driving a wedge between individual teachers and the (British Columbia Teachers’ Federation),’ she wrote.

“‘The court has concluded that the government did not negotiate in good faith with the union,’ Justice Griffin wrote. ‘One of the problems was that the government representatives were preoccupied by another strategy. Their strategy was to put such pressure on the union that it would provoke a strike by the union. The government representatives thought this would give government the opportunity to gain political support for imposing legislation on the union,’” wrote Hunter.

This past February, the government opted to challenge the second court ruling.

“The judgment is completely unaffordable for taxpayers,” said Education Minister Peter Fassbender in the Globe and Mail, adding that the projected cost of the court rulings is $1 billion.

There’s no question that’s a lot of bucks but more importantly, the courts found not once, but twice, that the provincial government had ignored the laws of the land. Can you imagine what would happen to any of us if we were in a similar situation and a judge had thrown the book at us twice? They’d toss us in the clink or fine us into the next millennium.

And what should perhaps be most troubling is the provincial government is the body responsible for introducing the rules we follow. Many provincial edicts are enforced on rank-and-file British Columbians on a daily basis, whether it is speed limits or environmental contamination.

What message is being sent to the public when those who set the laws can continually challenge court rulings? Leadership by example appears to be missing.

It’s often said that it takes two to tango and there’s no question that the B.C. Teachers Federation hasn’t necessarily handled the current dispute well.

But, in the end, it is the provincial government that created this mess, and until some common sense prevails, parents will be forced to find ways to keep their children entertained.