Wednesday, November 20, 2002

Nettleton reflects lack of trust in Campbell team
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - Even after talking to him, I'm not sure Paul Nettleton meant to poke such a sharp stick right in the eye of Premier Gordon Campbell.
Nettleton has always struck me as a thoughtful MLA, a good representative for his constituents in the stunning country north of Prince George. If you were betting on the Liberal MLA most likely to speak his mind - carefully - he'd be on your list.
So it wasn't a total shock when Nettleton weighed in with a critique of the Liberal approach to BC Hydro, sent to all his party's MLAs.
Lots of people share at least some of his concerns about the government's plans to hand one-third of the Crown corporation over to a private operator, break the rest into two pieces and invite private companies into the power business.
But Nettleton didn't just disagree with the policy direction. He placed himself firmly in the camp of the people who think the Liberal leadership has a secret agenda, and can't be trusted.
Lord knows we need more backbenchers who are prepared to say what they think, instead of biting their tongues, rolling their eyes and hoping for better days. For most of the NDP government's long, slow journey on to the rocks, MLAs stood loyally on deck, saluting the captain. Liberals MLAs have watched as the government shredded their communities or broken promises.
It's a bad system, for governments and for the public, and some straight talk would be welcome.
But Nettleton went much farther.
"I am firmly convinced that this legislation is only the opening move in a strategy whose ultimate goal is the wholesale privatization of the utility," he said in his letter. Going ahead in the face of public opposition betrays "the sort of arrogance I recall, now with some chagrin, denouncing from the Opposition bench."
"I think we have just become infected with the same sort of ideological blindness that once plagued the NDP," he continued.
And given an out - apologize for calling the premier a sneak, stand by the criticism of the policy and accept a suspension - Nettleton stood firm on all his charges.
And that meant he had to go.
What about Nettleton's actual critique, the substance of his concerns?
He goes too far. Nettleton argues that splitting Hydro into two companies, one to make and sell power and one to take over the transmission lines, will inevitably sound "the death knell for BC Hydro." Letting power companies sell to the highest bidder could mean British Columbians would pay soaring prices if California had another crisis.
But splitting the Crown corporation in two makes sense. Letting Hydro control the transmission lines and the power plants is like letting one car manufacturer decide who gets to use the roads. No one else could ever compete.
The change could work well - given a good regulatory framework and a strong commitment to maintaining the benefits of low-cost power for all British Columbians.
That's the Liberals' real problem. People do not trust them to deliver those controls. They do not believe that Campbell will keep his promise not to privatize Hydro.
That suspicion has been reinforced by the secretive approach taken by the Liberals. Energy Minister Richard Neufeld has had a major task force report on energy, including Hydro, for about eight months. He could have released it - we did pay for it - to allow public participation in the debate, while the government worked on the policy. He could have shared the briefing on splitting Hydro up that caucus got three months ago. The debate could have been public, and the Liberals could have made an effort that they do listen to concerns.
Instead, they kept the debate behind closed doors.
Now they're left with a hard question. If the Liberals can't even convince their own MLAs that they're playing this straight, how can they ever convince the public?
Paul Willcocks can be reached at

By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - That was a dead bleak election day for Premier Gordon Campbell. School board and council votes across the province weren't really a referendum on the Liberals' policies. Voters are first looking for candidates who can make the best decisions on zoning issues or local school questions.
But from Vancouver to Prince Rupert to Nelson voters also sent a chilling message to the Liberals.
The left-wing sweep in Vancouver, where the COPE party captured the mayor's job, council, school board and parks board, grabbed most of the headlines.
Mayor-elect Larry Campbell has already promised a referendum on the Olympics and has major differences with the Liberals on health-care policies.
The new school board, facing a huge deficit because of the Liberals' funding freeze, will be much more vocal in fighting for more money.
And generally voters were sending the message that they are concerned with social and quality of life issues -- not just spending cuts.
Given the media attention they can command, the new slate in Vancouver can be a formidable problem for the Liberals.
But it wasn't just Vancouver. In Nelson, incumbent mayor Gary Exner fell. He was not seen as a strong enough defender of the community against Liberal cuts. In Prince Rupert, incumbent mayor Don Scott ---who tried for the Liberal nomination -- was also seen as too close to the provincial government. And down he went.
Even in defeat, candidates made their point about public opposition to the Liberals. In Victoria, a mayoral challenger ran largely on the importance of fighting the Liberal cuts, and pulled one-third of the votes. In Nanaimo Larry Whalley of RecallThemAll, a group advocating recall campaigns against Liberal MLAs, attracted the support of about 20 per cent of voters in the mayor's race.
Campbell -- the premier that is -- says he doesn't see the election results as a rebuke, or an expression of concern.
That's too bad. He's missing an important message from the public. No one should expect the Liberals to abandon the platform they were elected on.
But the growing discontent -- and the prospect of more organized opposition from councils and school boards -- should give them pause about the pace of change and the effects on real people.
Mayors, councillors, school trustees are going to expect to be listened to, not brushed off. And they are going to be emboldened by election results that show many British Columbians share their concerns.
Even the Liberal-dominated committee that toured the province to get advice on next year's budget came back convinced that a crisis has hit communities outside Vancouver and Victoria.
"The growing gap between rural British Columbia and the large urban centres has to be addressed now," their report said. "The situation is becoming critical for resource-dependent communities hit hard by the combined impact of the government's restraint program and the current economic uncertainty."
The committee also provided support for new school trustees, warning that funding shortages are already reaching "a critical stage."
And that's before the next two years of frozen budgets that will leave school districts with no money for rising salaries and other costs. The government should give up on the education spending freeze, the committee found.
Voters were looking first for the best people to direct their communities and schools.
But at the same time, they sent Campbell a clear message of growing dissatisfaction with the effects of Liberal cuts. He'd be wise to listen.
Footnote: Premier Campbell thinks an Olympic referendum, promised by Vancouver's new mayor, would be wrong, since the city has already indicated support for the Games.
"How can people decide to work up front and honestly with a city council that makes agreements and then breaks them?"
Unconvincing words from a premier who has ripped up more than his share of signed agreements in a very short time.
Paul Willcocks can be reached at