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Looming election shapes Clark, Dix positions in B.C. teachers dispute

British Columbia Premier Christy Clark(left), in Vancouver, British Columbia, Wednesday, December 7, 2011.

Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail/rafal gerszak The Globe and Mail

British Columbia's next provincial election isn't until May, 2013, long after the ongoing dispute with the province's teachers – including a three-day walkout that begins Monday – is largely a footnote.

Still, it's never too early for a government seeking a fourth term, and their opposition rivals, to position themselves for support among voters. The drama with the teachers is allowing Premier Christy Clark – ironically a former education minister – and NDP Leader Adrian Dix to work on their images as they deal with the issue.

"It's part of the image building for Clark and Dix," says political scientist Norman Ruff.

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First, the walkout. Teachers, who have engaged in limited job action since September, are to begin a three-day walkout Monday in response to what the president of the British Columbia Teachers' Federation has called "bullying" legislation to bring in a mediator bound by a government mandate that new contracts can't cost more than old ones.

The "bullying" legislation, officially known as Bill 22, came after fruitless talks. The bill would prevent a walkout, so the teachers are heading out as it makes its way through the legislature, a process that could take some time. Debate in the legislature is to resume Monday as parents are struggling to arrange childcare for their kids.

The B.C. Liberals, intent on a fourth term, are positioning themselves as responsible fiscal managers, having tabled a deficit-busting budget last month that allows no room for the wage increases the province's teachers are seeking. The hard line is important for the Liberals, facing the erosion of their centre-right coalition thanks to a surging B.C. Conservative Party. When the centre-right fractures in B.C., it tends to lose elections to the NDP.

At the same time, Education Minister George Abbott is being careful to avoid being seen as heavy handed. "George Abbott is trying to finesse things," says Mr. Ruff, a professor emeritus at the University of Victoria. That's important in holding the centre, which is another piece of the B.C. Liberal coalition.

The NDP is avoiding a stand on the government's net zero mandate that rules out new contracts that cost more than old ones, presumably because they hope next year to be the government negotiating with the teachers. They are more focused on criticizing the process of negotiations.

"If [Mr. Dix]forms the government, he's going to find himself in a tough bargaining position with the BCTF," says Mr. Ruff, who has seen teachers disputes come and go in the 44 years he has spent watching the B.C. political scene as an academic.

One thing becomes clear in the continuum. The teachers have been a challenge for governments of the left and right, busting the perception the teachers might get a better ride from the union-friendly NDP.

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After all, NDP governments have twice forced the teachers back to work.

And since province-wide bargaining for teachers was enacted in the mid-1990s, there has been only one occasion when talks led to a deal with the teachers.

That was in 2006.

The government was B.C. Liberal. At the time, the government – unlike now – was in a surplus position and trying to arrange labour peace in advance of the 2010 Winter Olympics. The deal included a 16 per cent compensation package, including a 12 per cent wage increase, over five years. Signed and sealed back then. Unthinkable now, with that election looming.

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About the Author
B.C. reporter

Ian Bailey is a Vancouver-based reporter for The Globe and Mail.  He covers politics and general news. Prior to arriving at The Globe and Mail, he reported from Toronto and St. John’s for The Canadian Press.  He has also covered British Columbia for CP, The National Post and The Province. More

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