Liberals may be slippery on compensation, but they aren't overpaid
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - It's fair to be irritated by the Liberals' habit of shying away from the facts when they talk about what they pay themselves.
But strip away the cuteness, and you're still left with a group of people who are mostly being paid very average salaries for quite difficult jobs.
The Liberals took some flak after the public accounts revealed that despite the tough talk about restraint, cabinet ministers ended up with a lot more in their pockets than their NDP predecessors.
Until the Liberals took over, cabinet ministers - like all MLAs - could claim $150 a day when the legislature was sitting, to cover the cost of staying in Victoria. When they had to be in the capital at other times, it was assumed that the extra $39,000 they were paid to be in cabinet covered the cost. (Finance Minister Gary Collins says some NDP cabinet ministers claimed for all their time in Victoria, but Opposition leader Joy MacPhail denies that and Collins has produced no evidence.)
The Liberals changed the rule to let cabinet ministers claim $150-a-day for all the time they were here, a switch that could be worth an extra $20,000. Nobody cashed in to that extent. But the average claim was $9,000, the tab for the cabinet came to more than $250,000.
It's fair for voters to be mad at the Liberals for quietly bumping up compensation when they were talking about the need for restraint. That's especially true given their consistent pattern of finding ways to increase their pay and being less than candid.
How did they mislead? When Collins released the public accounts he again claimed that cabinet ministers had 20-per-cent of their salaries being held back, with the money only to be paid if they - and the government - didn't go over budget.
But the holdback only applies to the extra portion they get for being a minister and not to their base pay, a qualification Collins did not acknowledge. The holdback is really only seven per cent of ministers' total salary, a significant amount, but not the claimed 20 per cent.
Likewise the Liberals' five-per cent wage rollback only applied to the base salary for MLAs, not the extra pay cabinet ministers get. As a result, the rollback for Premier Gordon Campbell is three per cent, not five per cent.
On top of those concerns a record number of MLAs are getting extra money on top of their base pay - about 55 out of the 76 Liberals - thanks to the largest cabinet in history and more MLAs getting extra money to head committees.
But leave all that aside, and it's tough to argue that our politicians are overpaid. The premier is paid $113,500, not shabby but not all that much more than someone in upper middle management in lots of companies.
Cabinet ministers get $107,500. Again not shabby. But most of these people work fiercely hard, rarely escape public scrutiny and are under considerable pressure. And they put their own lives and careers on hold.
Who would really want to be health minister, coping with doctors' strikes and bungled long-term care plans and a complicated, messy multi-billion-dollar organzation for about the same pay as a skilled worker who racks up a tonne of overtime?
Assessing pay rates is always a challenge. And it's especially hard to judge for politicians. One person with no particular marketable skills may strike it rich by getting into cabinet. But many of them - a lawyer like Geoff Plant, a doctor like Gulzar Cheema or a successful business owner - are taking a pay cut in order to do a job they think is important.
Politicians in B.C. are involved for lots of reasons. But it sure isn't for the money.
Paul Willcocks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Liberals' forest plans slipping away
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - More bad news for forest communities. The Liberals' optimistic plans to remake the Forest Practices Code have fallen apart.
The Liberals introduced their plan in May. The goal was to get comments, fine-tune the new code in time to pass a bill this fall and then have it in place by next April.
Then along came George Hoberg, the UBC forest management prof asked to lead a review of the proposed new code.
Forest Minister Mike de Jong released Hoberg's report last week. And though de Jong says he still hopes to keep to his schedule, it's hard to see how the fundamental flaws exposed by Hoberg's consultation can be patched up in the next couple of months.
The Liberals are learning that remaking government is tougher than it looks from the opposition benches (or a columnist's chair). But they do deserve full marks for turning to Hoberg for a critique, and for accepting and releasing his report.
And a devastating report it was. Hoberg reported that in meetings with the industry and environmentalists he found a rare unanimity - the code changes were bad. "Virtually all of those who commented had significant problems with the government's proposed direction," he wrote.
Sometimes in B.C.'s polarized political world, that could mean the government has found a good balance.
Not this time. "Given the depth and breadth of the concerns. . . the results-based code proposed in the May 1 proposal does not adequately meet the objectives established by the government," reports Hoberg.
A delay in revising the code wouldn't be a critical problem in normal times. But the forest industry in B.C. is in trouble, and one of the problems is uncertainty about what lies ahead.
Businesses always deal with variables in deciding where and how to invest. The future is uncertain. But too many variables and an investment becomes reckless, and that's how B.C. is now being perceived.
Add them up. The softwood lumber dispute, a fight that could take years with no guarantee of success. No information about federal aid. Uncertainty about land claims. No clear picture of how the Liberals plan to reform tenure, no certainty about how they will move towards market-based stumpage. And now a failed forest practices code plan. Now decide if you would invest your money in expanding a forest-based business in B.C.
The Liberal campaign promise was to move to a results-based code. Instead of pages of regulations setting out how far a logging company operations must stay away from a stream, what kinds of equipment could be used and what daily reports must be filed, the new plan would just say streams must not be damaged and it would be up to the company to decide how to do that. (I'm oversimplifying, but that is my line of work.) The environment would be protected, but companies would be free to log efficiently at the same time.
But almost all of the 58 stakeholder groups that met with Hoberg said the plan won't work. And he set out 23 major issues that have to be dealt with before the government should go ahead.
The questions he raises suggest how little the government really knows about the effects of its plan. Changes need to be examined to ensure that "at a minimum they maintain existing environmental standards," Hoberg reported. The government needs to figure out whether the proposed changes will actually increase costs for the companies. And it needs to guarantee that plans to cut one-third of ministry staff don't mean an end to effective enforcement.
De Jong says he's still hoping to have legislation ready for the fall, and some certainty about the changes would help the industry. But it's better to take the time to do it right - perhaps even by trying the changes in one forest area while work continues - than it would be to have to retreat from hasty, flawed changes.
Paul Willcocks can be reached at email@example.com