Wednesday, January 29, 2003

The Liberals' no-good, very bad day
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - That was one rotten day for the Liberals.
It was bad enough that the people trying to oust Val Roddick showed up with enough signatures to clear the first hurdle in the recall process.
But then reporters were called down to Agriculture Minister John van Dongen's office, where, grim-faced, he said he was resigning as a cabinet minister because the RCMP are investigating him.
It's too soon to drag out the "government in disarray" headlines. But this is starting to look familiar, not just from the bad old days in provincial politics but also from personal experience in organizations that have lost their way.
One day, you're the new guys, showing up each day looking for ways to push toward your goals. And then suddenly, you realize you're walking into work wondering what new things are going to go wrong in the next 10 hours.
In three weeks, the Liberals have faced a string of disasters that have left them tarnished and reeling, starting with Premier Gordon Campbell's drunk-driving arrest.
It's impossible to assess the long-term impact of van Dongen's troubles.
He's an unlikely candidate for the first cabinet resignation, widely regarded as a decent, ethical man. It's hard to imagine him jaywalking, let alone committing a more serious offence.
And no one is talking about the investigation.
Attorney General Geoff Plant says he learned of the issue some time ago -- he won't say how -- and sent the information to police and ministry officials.
Police told him about two weeks ago that van Dongen was a target. Plant was allowed to tell the premier, but not van Dongen, until the weekend.
But the short-term impact is obvious. The premier commits a criminal offence; a minister is under investigation; the public is alarmed.
It's easier to assess the impact of the Roddick recall effort, and it's bad news for the Liberals.
Roddick may not be recalled. Proponents need almost 12,000 valid signatures - that is signatures from people who were on the voters' list in Delta South at the time of the 2001 election. They have more than 13,000 signatures, but some may be duplicates, or signatures from people who weren't on the old voters' list.
But the damage is done. The recall forces got a huge number of signatures, in one of the safest Liberal seats in the province. (Even when the NDP was at rock bottom, recall proponents couldn't unseat any MLAs.)
Organizers had the threat to the community's hospital as a major issue, but lots of communities face similar threats.
And then there's the way they made it over the top. The campaign was barely halfway to its goal, and stalling, with two weeks to go.
Then Campbell's mug shots hit the news, and the recall campaign took off.
It's a bad sign when the premier starts dragging down his MLAs. And it's an even worse sign when an MLA starts publicly acknowledging that the premier is a problem, as Roddick did this week.
The premier's arrest gave a boost to the recall campaign, she said, along with the decision to build a $19,000 smoking room for a judge and include commercial fishing rights in treaties with First Nations.
It's noteworthy that the premier was part of the problem; it's equally noteworthy that Roddick went public with the observation.
The counting will be done in about three weeks; if the organizers have enough signatures, then a byelection will be called in 90 days.
Odds are a Liberal candidate, probably Roddick, would win.
But meanwhile, across the province -- from Nelson to Nanaimo -- other groups are looking at recall with new enthusiasm.
And other MLAs are looking at Roddick's predicament, and the premier's role, and considering what lessons they should draw from her unpleasant ordeal.
At least some of them are likely deciding that it's time for a little more independence from the premier and the party line.

Working forest shouldn't produce big cheers or fears
By Paul Willcocks
VANCOUVER - It's hard to get all worked up about the Liberals' working forest plans.
Sustainable Resource Minister Stan Hagen has floated a fairly vague discussion paper, and is seeking comments by March. He wants about half the province designated a working forest by the end of the year.
Industry likes the idea, in a quiet sort of way; environmental groups hate it, in a much noisier way.
Me, I left a briefing in Hagen's office slightly puzzled and convinced there's less here than meets the eye.
The working forest won't add one hectare to the land that's available for logging in B.C. All the land to be designated working forest is available for logging today. All the parks and protected areas remain the same. It won't change the environmental requirements imposed on logging companies. It won't make logging more affordable. There's not going to a stampede to start logging in new areas.
So what's the point?
Hagen talked a lot about certainty, the need to let companies know what the rules are when they start planning to cut trees on Crown land, and to give them the assurance that those rules won't be changed arbitrarily or based on public or political pressure.
He promised that it would be no more difficult to create parks or protected areas than it has been. A clearer process would just be in place.
Things got confusing when he denied that the plan would create any new "impediments" to establishing new parks or protected areas.
But wait a minute. That is, after all, part of the legislation's point from the industry's perspective. They feel that parks have been created without enough thought, and especially without enough consideration to lost economic value. They wanted an assurance that wouldn't happen. Logically, the working forest legislation will have to create new impediments, even if they take the form of mandatory assessments of the potential lost jobs and revenue.
And that seems reasonable enough.
There's room for concern, especially because the plan is so vague.
Hagen promised that other uses of the land - mining, or recreation - would continue to be considered in making plans for the working forest, although forestry demands would be given considerable priority.
But the discussion paper suggests the government might designate some areas for forestry only, ending recreational access or possible other industrial uses.
And while Hagen said it would be no more difficult to create parks, he also allowed that any timber lost to a park in the future might have to be made up from an existing park - a pretty serious barrier to protecting new areas of special interest. (Although with 12 per cent of the province protected, the Liberals will not be in a big rush to create new parks. Just look at the lack of action on their pledge to preserve Burns Bog in the Lower Mainland.)
It may be when details of the legislation are revealed things will look different. But right now, there's not much to fear - or to hope for - from the legislation.
The small step towards certainty is useful. But the reality is that as long as treaty talks with First Nations haven't resolved land ownership issues - or at least set out some long-term plans for shared management - then companies won't have the certainty they need in much of the province.
Forests Minister Mike de Jong also still has to reveal how he plans to claw back enough timber from existing tenures to create a market-based stumpage system, and what sort of tenure reform he plans.
And again, until he does the industry can't plan for the future.
The picture may change as the details come into focus. But so far, the working forest plan looks like a reasonable, modest gesture toward providing a little more certainty for the industry.
Paul Willcocks can be reached at