As a university student, there is arguably no governmental body more influential on where you are, what you’re studying, and what the completion of your study will feel like than the provincial government. While the UFV Senate, Board of Governors, finance team, and other groups make the month-to-month adjustments in course development, allocation of funds per department, and hiring of new staff and professors, the Ministry of Advanced Education sets the boundaries for imagination when it comes to those moves. They set a mandate, they hold final approval on many would-be significant changes, and so, while there’s a responsibility and some flexibility to what the administrators and faculty of UFV do, when you look around and see change, or its absence, it’s possible to trace a great deal of that back to Victoria. Universities may be increasingly run like businesses, but the label on this place is a public, teaching-focused university, which means this week’s budget reveal by Abbotsford-West MLA Michael de Jong is cause for, well, maybe not celebration, but attention from the people with offices in B building.
Okay, everyone knows what the provincial government is, many know there’s an election set for 2017, and so this session of the provincial legislature is a little more of interest than usual — but what to do with this knowledge? Pay attention? Read? Volunteer with a campaign? These options will always be taken up by a minority of people with particular motivations; for the rest of us, politics tends to either exist as a stand-by bit of television entertainment or as a concept that works better in theory than practice most of the time. I never like to choose ignorance — especially when, with something like the provincial government, information is vast and a lot of it is accessible, at least if someone wants to understand how it basically works. But I think that what most people call apathy (and prescribe awareness to combat) often comes from a very keen awareness of what is being missed out on.
Take this last week’s Throne Speech for example. It isn’t terribly long, and it’s available to watch on YouTube. As a text, it’s light on actual information, but that isn’t what it’s there for — it sets the tone for the next year; it tells the story of how the ruling party would like to be perceived, before the critics and the opposition start shouting over them; and, in the right hands, it ought to bond the majority of voters together — this is the party they elected, and this is what they will be hard at work doing.
There’s often something harmful about the way politics gets distorted into entertainment, but charisma, framing, and a certain amount of artifice is necessary to bring people in, to get them interested in what is, no matter how personable a politician seems to be — an endlessly complex process. But to watch the Throne Speech is to see how little the provincial government cares about reaching people outside of its meeting chambers — it’s impossible to imagine anyone making it through its over 20 minutes except for work: political science students, journalists, and the other elected officials sitting in the building where it was delivered.
Lieutenant Governor Judith Guichon, reading from an unwieldy, photo-book-sized folio, did the sort of things we imagine (or hope) vanish after we make it through years of university presentations and student-led lectures: starting sentences incorrectly and doubling back, making very little eye contact, all while the camera slowly faded between a distant long shot and a static medium shot — the kind of direction you’d use to intentionally lull someone to sleep. The only surprising or fascinating variation (besides the questions raised by some of Guichon’s statements about B.C.’s goals and current state), was whether, perhaps, it would be too harsh to say all this — a ball of tissues appearing about the time Guichon discussed tax credits to farmers who donate to nonprofits, hovering beneath her nose, then used at a pause suggested maybe she was fighting to get over a cold.
Of course, the Throne Speech is mainly ceremonial — the points it makes don’t spring into laws. But it doesn’t sit at a great remove from political decisions either. Tuesday’s budget announcement reflects most of its key points: both its focuses on current crises and probable election talking points and its backgrounding of important areas that aren’t commanding the public forum right now. For example, education, which receives two lines in the speech, only referencing the new K-12 curriculum rollout and the Skills for Jobs plan that has favoured trades funding at UFV. Following $50 million in “cost reductions” over the prior three years, this year’s budget projects a slight increase in Advanced Education’s allocation. Governments don’t have to lead ideas about education; in fact, when they do, that’s often where problems begin. But any decisions our political representatives make do lead in a way, and what we’re seeing here is slow-motion maintenance.
So what does motivate the provincial government to change? There are two key examples from this year’s budget: the real estate market, particularly in Vancouver, and the field of social work. In the first case, the government’s quick response to extended media coverage of rising housing prices, capped by a revealing piece of investigative work by Kathy Tomlinson in the Globe and Mail, is basically damage control. And in the second, the dedication of over $200 million to, among other things, hire 100 social workers, is a direct response to a report analyzing child welfare in the province, written by Bob Plecas, a former minister (a report that has been criticized for its lack of a truly independent eye on the situation).
The point here is not that responding to journalism and commissioned reports is the wrong approach, but that it all takes place at a remove from the people of British Columbia. A vote already means both less and more than it should: even someone who voted in the Liberal party has more to say than the one-out-of-three selection can, and a vote for a party always promotes more than an individual person likely would, if they knew the full extent of what they were setting into motion. It’s not unlike the findings of Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page in the U.S., in which they wrote that, when it comes to democracy, “When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo has built into the political system, even when fairly large majorities favour policy change, they generally do not get it.”
B.C.’s recent transit referendum and by-elections suggest some dissatisfaction with the Liberals, but it is unlikely a strong campaign from the NDP will solve these systemic problems — as it stands, students (a strong voting block if they wanted to be! we hear again and again) matter a great deal to the provincial government, at least in their current state: largely busy and silent and bored by the game going on in Victoria, occasionally committed to an issue, but always tempted to just look ahead a few years, when their concerns will no longer have the tag “student” attached. If this situation ever changes, it’s impossible to predict how. But it won’t be found in the fifth session of the 40th parliament of the province of British Columbia.