Let Liberal MLAs
express their views

Paul Willcocks, Times Colonist, June 18, 2010

One of the scariest and saddest revelations in the wake of the Blair Lekstrom resignation is that Liberal MLAs were told the harmonized sales tax was coming two days before the public.

They weren’t asked their opinions. The decision was already made.

They were told the HST was coming, it was the right thing to do and their job was to defend it.

OK, the Liberal MLAs could have spoken up. But they were told about the new tax last July 21, barely two months after the provincial election. And 18 of the 46 MLAs had just been elected a few months earlier and were still feeling their way.

Premier Gordon Campbell told caucus it was a done deal and the new tax would be announced two days later. Resistance would seem both futile and likely to bring reprisals.

It’s insulting — for voters and for the Liberal MLAs. These are elected representatives from all around the province. They have diverse backgrounds and a lot of experience and achievements. The voters respect them. The theory is that they represent the views of their constituents as the government sets policy.

And as well as being insulting, it’s dumb.

James Surowiecki writes a column on business and finance for The New Yorker. He also wrote The Wisdom of Crowds, a fascinating book with the central thesis that the best decisions are reached when people with diverse backgrounds, skills and perspectives are brought together to solve a problem.

Surowiecki cites examples. A lot of very bright NASA people, he notes, were monitoring the space shuttle Columbia after it was damaged on takeoff in 2003. They decided it could return safely; it burned up on re-entry, killing seven people.

While they were smart, they were also all engineers with similar perspectives, educations and experience. There was no one to bring a different perspective.

Surowiecki also looks at the TV show Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Contestants have to answer questions to win money. They have the chance, if they are uncertain, to call an expert — the most knowledgeable person they knew.

And they could poll the audience, a random group of American game-show fans, and go with their choice of the right answer.

Who has proven to be the best bet — the smartest person the contestants knew or a bunch of TV fans?

You can guess the answer. The expert offered the right answer in 65 per cent of questions. The studio audience picked the right answer 91 per cent of the time.

Many people together, with different skills and insights and perspectives, reach the best decisions. (If the process allows them to express those views and encourages discussion and debate, that is.)

That’s how our government is supposed to work. Elected representatives — MLAs or MPs — debate policy and make the decisions. (Though once they are made, MLAs are expected to support the party position.) Historically, they decided who should be premier or prime minister.

But the HST disaster shows how far we have moved from that traditional model of representative democracy.

The decision was made by a handful of people, who were as much, or more, alike as the NASA engineers.

They deferred to the premier. He had spent nine years surrounded by people telling him how smart he was, which does not encourage critical thinking.

The result was disastrous. The tax, which shifts $1.9 billion in taxes from business to families and individuals, might make economic sense.

But it has enraged the public. If Liberal MLAs had been given a real, meaningful chance to talk about the tax, instead of being treated like sheep, the government might not be in such a mess.

The bigger question is why this happens. The people in ridings send their representatives off to Victoria or Ottawa with great hopes.

And they fall silent in the face of party discipline. They don’t say that we need a real chance to think about, research and discuss this tax shift.

We all lose when our representatives are reduced to irrelevancy.

Footnote: The B.C. Rail corruption trial is providing an interesting perspective on all this. It appears Campbell sent memos to ensure ministers mentioned his “strong leadership” when they made speeches. Orders to laud the boss don’t encourage full and frank debate of his ideas.


[BC Liberal cabinet ministers often don’t know about upcoming policy changes, on which their senior staff work directly with Campbell. More...

Finance Minister Colin Hansen might not have known that his own deputy minister and senior staff were planning the HST with Campbell before the May 2009 provincial election. More...]