Month: July 2017

When We Lived In Really Troubled Times

It was quiet in the kitchen but with the normal whispering tick of the wall clock increased in volume to seemingly loud metronomic authority. I can’t remember the day but it was sometime in late May or early June 1940. I can remember my mother sitting in her usual armchair at one end of the kitchen table; my father at the other puffing on his clay pipe, as nearby neighbour Walter “Wally” Emery apologized for his shabby clothes. And my mother reaching out to comfort-pat his arm as he tightened the string holding up his oversized army issue khaki pants and tried to tuck in what was left of his shirt.

Twenty-four hours earlier Wally had been on the beach at Dunkirk trapped between the sea and an advancing German army along with close to 400,000 Allied army soldiers being swept across Europe by a then unstoppable “blitzkrieg.” Wally had been part of that great retreat – still listed as one of the most crushing defeats ever suffered by British forces. .

He was telling us how he and his army buddy would never have made it to the beach had they not stolen a horse to carry them the last desperate kilometers; and how frightening the beach was as he and his friend waited to be numbered among the 338,226 soldiers eventually rescued between May 27 and June 4,1940.

As a 16-year-old on that far off day, I was learning that an army in retreat can produce as many heroes as one capturing enemy strongholds. Wally was 20, maybe 21; hesitantly, modestly telling old friends of bombs and shells falling among the massed troops waiting for a boat ride to home and safety. How the first boat he boarded was small and overturned by a bomb explosion as they reached deep water.

My father sat silent. I think he was back 25 years on a beach where, in April 1915, he lay wounded from dawn to dusk. It was called Gallipoli.

He understood when Wally, with the clock ticking louder than his voice, said: “That’s when I lost my pants and boots. I was having trouble swimming weighted down so got rid of them and was able to swim to another boat and get home.”

When he landed in England he was handed an old pair of pants, a pair of running shoes, a few days leave pass and orders to then report to re-outfit and be reassigned.

What was Wally doing in my home when his own was just around the corner? The men rescued from Dunkirk didn’t have cell phones; there wasn’t time for survival telegrams; poor people didn’t have telephones. Like hundreds, maybe thousands of others shipped by train or bus, Wally got home unannounced to find his dad at work and his mother out shopping.

His second home throughout childhood to young adulthood had been the home of his best friend Tom, my older brother. Wally, Tom and another neighbour Albert Panter were inseparable until 1937 when peritonitis claimed my brother and broke the link.

A year later Albert joined the RAF, Wally the army – and the three families remained as close they had always been. The day Wally came from Dunkirk looking for a cup of tea, a bite to eat and a place to wait until mum and dad came home was just “family” routine.

I made a minor pilgrimage for Wally a few days ago when my sons Nic, Andrew and Jonathan took me to see the movie Dunkirk at Silver City Imax. I think Wally (and my dad) would have given it a stamp of approval for authenticity. It was much as Wally had described and brutally honest.

Sentimentally, I looked for Wally on the beach and found him in a hundred different faces. And I shared with them old fears experienced by any person who has survived a heavy air attack.

As I watched in Imax comfort looking over the heads of massed soldiers waiting on the Dunkirk beach, a toy-sized twin-engine aircraft banked over the ocean to head in a direct line for the largest mass of troops. It stayed steadily on course growing larger on the screen by the second.

My “hostile air craft recognition” skill – essential during the war – is not as reliable as it used to be, but I think it was a Heinkel 111 bomber filling the screen as it released its bomb load of six – or was it eight? – high explosive bombs to stride through the crowded soldiers with each step a killing ground, each gap between explosions a place of salvation.

I was never on the beach at Dunkirk but was present on occasions later in the war trembling as an airborne giant’s bombs marched down a street or across roof tops killing or sparing without discrimination. I have lain prostrate, ears and head covered by outstretched arms, fingers vainly grasping at sidewalk concrete, tense with fear waiting, waiting, waiting and rejoicing to hear a final explosion and know I was still alive.

In the Imax theatre, sitting directly in the path of the now giant Heinkel angel of death, my heart beat picked up. I held tight to my seat until I was absolutely sure I was beyond the reach of the last bomb in the stick. An old memory box had re-opened; the relief was genuine.

If you have ever wondered what it would be like to be under fire, the movie Dunkirk is as close as you can get without being hurt. If you go, rejoice in the evacuation that saved more than 300 thousand Wally Emery’s. But remember, too, the 68,111 killed or wounded who never made it home or who carried the scars of the miracle at Dunkirk to their graves.

Seventy-seven years ago, my father finished his pipe; mother dispatched me to “go find Wally’s mum on Abbey Street; she’ll be at the Co-op store.” I did. She was. The reunion was tears all round, much more tea and the “gopher” boy ordered to a nearby factory to “just tell his dad Wally’s home, safe and well.”

For us,Dunkirk was over,but the Battle of Britain was just warming up for a greater late summer-early fall death struggle. We lived in troubled times.

Platinum Goodbyes – and Replacements

Had hoped to start this week’s message with the thought that our new government masters deserve time to advance friendlier and more transparent governance as promised. Alas, a flood of less than inspiring press releases penned by disciplined party scribes has changed all that.

I was prepared to write: What’s done is done, so let’s give Premier John Horgan and his Green Party saviours a chance to prove their claim that a minority government can deliver good long-term governance. All it needs is a courteous, respectful approach with “transparency” in all decisions.

A wonderful ambition. One all citizens, regardless of party affiliation, would welcome after decades of ill-tempered bickering from whichever party was in opposition.

I did not break out the champagne when Lieutenant Governor Judith Guichon gave the nod to Mr. Horgan and his Green Party trio to coalesce and try governing. I accepted the Royal decree and waited for the next step, the inevitable thinning of public service ranks to meet new ruling party dictates.

Some of the cuts can be understood others must be questioned.Some are insults to all public servants who have sworn and kept oaths to serve their duly elected government and the people regardless of the ideology of the policy makers.

As important as the requirement for sound judgment and transparency in these sadly routine staff juggles is the need for carefully chosen wording in the press releases accompanying the announcements. I have at hand the July 20 release from Premier Horgan’s office regarding four key appointments: Kenneth G. Peterson to the chair of BC Hydro; Cassie J. Doyle to head BC Housing Management Commission; Joy MacPhail to the chair of the Insurance Corporation of BC and Cathy McLay to the board of directors ICBC.

Their areas of expertise are dealt with briefly and can be reviewed in detail at readers’ leisure. I am more interested in some of the general wording in the press release – and the absence of transparency.

Nowhere in the press release is there a mention of the salaries offered the new appointees. Even more telling is the complete lack of information on the amounts to be paid out in compensation to the dislodged appointees being asked to turn in the keys to executive bathrooms. A few days after the press release enterprising journalists put together some numbers and the government confirmed a total payout of close to $14 million. It was transparency by confirmation,not by voluntary disclosure.

Readers interested enough to do a search of “salaries of Crown corporation executives” for details omitted in Premier Horgan’s press release should be sitting down and making sure their coffee cups are well clear of the keyboard. I’ll just tempt them with advance notice that low paid bosses are paid in excess of half a million a year with all benefits included while the top job at Hydro pays double that. Their pensions are the stuff of dreams.

The last time we saw such a major clearing of the decks in BC was around 16 years ago when the Liberals took over after 10 years of NDP rule. The compensation payout at the time was in excess of $9 million.Confirmation that this year exercise will cost $5 million more was accompanied with a pious claim that with inflation factored in the $9 million paid out 16-years ago was actually more than the $14 million floating out the door this year.

If you haven’t yet spilled your coffee, consider Premier Horgan’s explanation why these costly changes are urgently needed: “For 16 years under the Liberal government ordinary people struggled to get ahead – nowhere have they seen that more than in out-of-control housing and Hydro costs. We’re tackling affordability and getting government working for people again starting with Crown corporations and government organizations …These new executives are ready to get to work for British Columbians. They were all chosen for their strong track records … Each of them will face significant challenges because of the choices made by the previous government …”

Is he saying the guard now being dismissed didn’t work hard, didn’t have strong track records,didn’t face significant challenges with the best interests of the people at hearts – but deserved the richest of send offs?

In the spirit of transparency and new friendly behavious Premier Horgan’s press release could have mentioned how one financial Liberal choice has left him with a cash flow that is the envy of the rest of Canada … a Liberal budgeting legacy that helps him meet a multi-million dollar fired and hired payout to Crown corporation heads – plus breadcrumb extra $100 a month to support the living costs of the poor and handicapped.

I promise to write in thankful praise the day our coalescing NDP/Green government introduces substantial cuts to ICBC, Hydro rates, ferry fares, and launches massive low cost housing projects. You may need to reheat your coffee while waiting

One final note: Our new government doesn’t like to be called a coalition, which is why I have used “coalescing” for the NDP/Greens cohabitation period. An interesting word “coalesce” … when things “come together to form one mass or whole.” Or, as the Oxford dictionary explains in definition: “The puddles had coalesced into shallow streams.”

Hey, don’t blame me, I didn’t write the Oxford dictionary.

Transparent or Translucent?

An auspicious day coming up next Tuesday, July 18. It marks the anniversary of the day Brennus of Gaul sacked and burned Rome in 390 BC. It was Nero who watched Rome burn a second time 454 years later on July 18, AD 64 and it’s the day John Horgan is scheduled to delete “designated” from his title and become Premier John Horgan, British Columbia’s 36th.
On the natural side of things, he faces real time forest fires that reduce the ancient Rome burning to camp fire size equivalence; on the political side he faces problems every other premier has faced plus a few he can be guaranteed will be unanticipated.
At his inauguration Tuesday, he will be trotting onto the field of political endeavour as captain of his hand-picked cabinet team of New Democrats, every one of them fulfilling a 16-year-old – or longer – dream of playing big time.
Selecting a cabinet is not easy, never has been. The social and physical geography of a province as vast as BC is so varied in life styles and economics that it is often difficult to find suitable personality matches. Finding men or women who meet high decision-making standards can be even more difficult, but can be eased somewhat if experienced deputy ministers and assistant deputies are already in place and dedicated to traditional public service ideals of serving the government and the people – whatever the government’s political name. Good deputies and their management teams have saved many a rookie minister from disaster.
Then there is – always – caucus, possibly the hardest group to please, yet the easiest to feel and harbour individual hurt if, after years of service, they are over-looked for promotion. Keeping caucus happy can be a premier’s toughest task. And, with no vote losses to spare in this most frail of new administrations, an unhappy caucus could prove the NDP’s undoing.
Adding to the expectation of serving faithfully, NDP caucus members overlooked for cabinet posts will also be coping with, and dependant for survival on, a yet-to-be-tested Confidence and Supply Agreement.
Premier Horgan has recognized that problem early with the appointment of Donna Sanford as executive director of a new secretariat in the premier’s office tasked with “overseeing” the NDP-Green agreement. No salary given yet, no staff recruited, no word on what the secretariat will cost or how those costs will be shared other than the constant truth in all such costs sharing ventures – taxpayers will pick up the tab.
I do not doubt that Ms. Sanford will do a good job but I don’t envy her the task of soothing caucus rebels (every caucus has them) the day they hear that the Greens were briefed earlier on pending policy changes than the NDP foot soldiers.
Green leader Andrew Weaver doesn’t hesitate to remind us he and his back-seat riding trio have been assured they will be kept informed every step of the way. The collective agreement does promise details of deputy minister and ministry staff briefings, adequate background documents – in fact everything “necessary to enable informed participation.”
Premier Horgan has been quoted by local news reporter Amy Smart as saying the new secretariat will boost transparency. It is designed “to be open and transparent so the public understands that we want to make this minority situation work.”
Fair enough, even though he and Mr. Weaver laboured mightily a short time back to make sure an opposing minority failed. I am left wondering if translucent would more accurately describe their tenuous agreement. Dictionaries tell us: “Transparent materials let light pass through them in straight lines so that you can see clearly through them. Translucent materials let some light through, but they scatter the light in all directions so that you cannot see clearly. Tissue paper is an example of translucent….”
I guess we’ll find out soon enough.

Diminishing Trust in Public Service

The revolving door designed to provide compensated exits for senior public servants and easy entrances for hand-picked, politically-correct replacements, is now activated.

It will take some weeks, and hefty payouts, to process selected Liberal administration personnel departures and NDP arrivals, which is mildly surprising considering transitional firing and hiring has been around for some time.

And, each time it has been used, trust in the public service – pledged to faithfully serve governments regardless of political stripe – is eroded.

Back in 1996, I was privileged to hear Ted Hughes OC, QC review the weakening condition of once-proudly neutral public servants at both federal and provincial levels in Canada. The title of his speech to the Victoria Branch of the Institute of Public Administration (IPAC) was Political Neutrality and Political Rights – Rebalancing the Scales.

He opened with a brief review of what had happened in his former stomping ground of Saskatchewan when in the early 1980s Allan Blakeney’s NDP government was defeated and Grant Devine’s Progressive Conservatives assumed power. It was, Ted reported with modest understatement but scalpel-like accuracy, “a time of some disruption in the province.”

Premier Devine, ignoring 40 years of politically neutral public service in Saskatchewan – and most of the rest of Canada – was determined to re-shape his neutral public service with a Conservative tilt.

Ted read from a report by professors Michelmann and Steeves, University of Saskatchewan: “Rather than seeing the public sector as a vibrant, progressive servant of the people they (Devine and his MLAs), while in opposition, were inclined to characterize it as an overblown leviathan, staffed with numerous political hacks, unaccountable to the people and given the proclivities of the (governing party) undermining the liberties of Saskatchewan people.”

It is worth remembering his warning of 21 years ago: “The Canadian tradition of a neutral, career, public service in Canada may be increasingly under challenge … It is not out of control but the trend is there … In my opinion, it is time for a forceful initiative to reverse it, to restate the virtues of Canadian tradition and to appeal to the reason and the logic of our elected representatives so that they, and the people they represent, will appreciate that they will all be better served by an adherence to the time-tested procedures of the past rather than moving step-by-step to gut one of the greatest safeguards of vibrant parliamentary democracy.”

This past week I called Ted to ask him if he thought we had made any progress in the past 21 years in re-establishing faith in a public service designed to offer politically neutral advice to any duly-elected government. “I don’t think so,” was his softly spoken answer.

In my opinion, (not to be confused with Ted’s) in British Columbia the loyalty of the public service to the elected government and the people has been in question since 1972 when the NDP brought an end to 20 years of Social Credit rule by W.A.C. Bennett. After a nervous takeover, the new government launched a weeding out of high-placed civil servants they feared would remain loyal to Social Credit and W.A.C.

When son Bill Bennett defeated the NDP in 1975, the civil service purge went into reverse as his administration sifted out NDP appointees for replacement by more “trustworthy” candidates. The revolving door spun, inexorably, and the public service could no longer claim genuine political neutrality.

The NDP followed Social Credit in 1991. The revolving doors spun … senior bureaucrats out, shiny new party faithful in. There were 10 years of relative bureaucratic stability as New Democrats went through four successive premiers – Mike Harcourt, Glen Clark, Dan Miller and Ujjal Dosanjh. In 2001, the doors spun again as Gordon Campbell’s Liberals began what would be 16 years of continuous power culminating with the defeat in May of Premier Christy Clark.

With the NDP now replacing the Liberals the door is swinging yet again to confirm that in BC loyalty to party will continue to replace merit as the standard for success and promotion in public service.

Back to Ted Hughes who ended his 1996 speech with an appeal to IPAC and an acknowledgment of the personal sacrifices made by dedicated public servants. “They have a duty to carry out government decisions loyally irrespective of the party or person in power and irrespective of their personal opinion.” Tough choices, especially if a newly-elected boss is appointing a party supporter to be in charge of your policy team with party loyalty as a job requisite.

The old loyalty rules governing middle and senior management have been replaced by partisan politics. “The balance,” Ted told his IPAC audience, has been tipped and “the scales are now somewhat out of balance … the Canadian tradition of a neutral, career, public service is becoming increasingly under challenge.”

His final advice was to governments new and old that push public service to ever lower standards of political neutrality: “You and I know,” he told IPAC, “that politics in British Columbia is a deadly serious business – it is no game. If I am correct in that, then if a superbly qualified professional public service is to be in place in this province to serve the elected representatives of the people and the public who elected them, is it not incumbent – if not imperative – to foster a neutral public service where purges will not be the order of the day when a government changes, but rather where continuity will abound, where merit will be awarded and morale maintained at a high level? I hope so.”

I would hope so, too, but pessimistically.

(It is hard to believe that some readers may not be familiar with Ted Hughes,Order of Canada, Queen’s Counsel. But,just in case, a Google of his name will demonstrate why he is worth listening to.)

“Hindsight” – An Exact Science

It was Dr. Laurence J. Peter who, back in the 1980s, wrote: “Hindsight is an exact science.” It is a truth and one which we all learn in life as we look back on things we should have done but didn’t and mumble “if only.”
Premier Christy Clark gave us a classic example a few days ago when she presented the list of promises she intended to fulfill if her minority government was allowed the opportunity. Among the substantial list of citizen benefits was a sprinkle of proposals from political rivals – the opposition in the Legislature.
She said, and I believed her, that she had seen the error of her ways in failing to embrace these ideas earlier, but included them now to demonstrate she was ready to embark on a voyage of cooperation never before seen in a legislature traditionally fractured by dissent rooted in political party dogma.
New Democratic Party members, numbering 41, the main opposition in the 87-seat Legislature, mocked her late conversion to “good ideas” and remained determined to bring her down. They did not trust her to deliver on her promises and, solemnly, moved a vote of non-confidence. With Andrew Weaver’s three Green Party members riding in tag-along tumbril the non-confidence guillotine fell.
The vote to pull the pin was 44-42 – the Speaker, a Liberal Party MLA, did not vote.
In the new legislature, scheduled to sit as soon as Premier John Horgan’s cabinet gets up to speed, the gap between government and opposition will be one vote – 44-43. A precarious position, but one Premier Horgan assured Lieutenant Governor Judith Guichon he could make work and provide stable government.
IF – and the capital is intentional – Christy Clark still leads the Liberals and follows through on her stated preference for reasoned, courteous debate in the Legislature then Horgan’s NDP can survive for months or even four years. However, only an addicted gambler would bet on it.
What will Ms. Clark be reviewing in hindsight as she and her colleagues sharpen their minds and tongues for the in-house re-match to open soon in the Bellville Street theatre? I would think she would be reviewing her last two years as premier when she forgot the time-honoured routine of all governments seeking continuation in office.
In a four-year mandate, the first two are spent doing all the nasty stuff that needs to be done. In the third year, the government loosens the screws and hands out a few modest good news projects. In the fourth year, they open the vault, take care of social programs, modestly increase minimum wages, pump a few more millions into health care and education, take a couple of worthy opposition projects and make sure they work. And then, after thanking the people for making all this possible, they call an election with the promise of even better times ahead.
It was the formula used by W.A.C. Bennett for 20 years of unbroken, reasonably happy and prosperous years.
Ms. Christy forgot the playbook, neglected her people in that fourth year, tried catch-up on the hustings, won a squeaker, delivered a Throne Speech full of promises and relief for those in need and discovered she was at least a year late in the actual delivery of good things. Politically it was a fatal mistake.
Any thoughts on a Premier Horgan government? Not really. He has been given the chance and should now be judged on his performance. I hope he softens his belligerent approach to issues and uses his strength to build rather than destroy. His task will not be easy. The BC electorate is not easily pleased – especially the hard NDP members who demand high, party-pleasing standards from their leaders. They seem to get a little confused in their “us versus them” philosophy when their leader becomes one of “them.” The last time the NDP started a power run was in 1991. In 2001, they were defeated by the Liberals. In 10 years in office the party went through four leader-premiers and never-ending, internal wrangling over who should be in charge.
Premier Horgan should be wary of in-house backslapping. It may not be as brotherly as it seems.
And, Andrew Weaver’s role as the key player keeping Horgan and the NDP in power? Another wait and see scenario. They both condemned Premier Clark’s attempt to cling to power while shamelessly uniting to grasp it for themselves. Their moral ground in politics is not exactly high; both appear to have a “lean and hungry look” for power and “think too much” which, as Shakespeare wrote, “makes such men dangerous.”
We’ll watch to the end of the play – which could be short.