Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Liberals should come clean on welfare time limits
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - If the Liberals' radical plan to chop people off welfare makes sense, why are they afraid of telling the truth about it?
B.C. is set to become the first province with mandatory time limits on welfare. If the government deems you employable, you will only be allowed to collect welfare for two years in any five-year period. The first people will hit the deadline April 1.
What will that mean? How many people will lose benefits, and what will become of them?
Human Resources Minister Murray Coell won't say.
He has the information. The ministry has built its budget on reducing the number of people on welfare, and plans to cut spending by $200 million next year. It has calculated how many people will hit the time limits.
But it's a secret. On documents obtained under the freedom of information act, the numbers are blanked out.
Coell won't provide the information. Instead he started a recent newspaper column by trashing people who had concerns about the plan. "People who are opposed to this government's time limits policy are really saying that they are in favour of 'welfare forever' for individuals who can work," the minister wrote.
It was bad enough when Coell talked such rubbish as he avoided questions in the legislature. We're used to such foolishness here. But it's insulting to be told that if you don't unquestioningly follow the Liberal line you're some sort of crazed spendthrift who wants to see people on welfare.
In fact there are important, legitimate questions about the Liberals' radical policy. Some leaked documents suggest 29,000 people will lose benefits, about half the welfare recipients deemed employable.
The government should provide its estimates. It should say how many people it expects to find work, and how many will leave the province. It should reveal how many will be be forced into homelessness.
And it should explain what will happen to a single parent who has received welfare for two years, is hired and then thrown out of work when the business closes. With no welfare or employment insurance, and no savings, what will become of her family while she seeks a new job?
Provinces, including B.C. under the NDP, have made welfare tougher to get. They have used a combination of incentives, job training and punitive measures to push people into the workforce.
That's a good thing. Welfare is a terrible and destructive way to live. Escaping - even for children growing up as welfare's next generation - is hugely difficult. Coell can take pride in successfully reducing the number of people on welfare since the election.
But the public needs straight answers about the coming time limits. Across Canada, if you can't find work and have no money, then you are helped. But now in B.C., if you use up your two years, then you fend for yourself. (Many recipients are exempted, including those with disabilities or multiple barriers to employment. If you have very young children, you won't be cut off, but benefits will be reduced.)
Coell says people who want jobs will be able to get them. The government is spending $75 million a year on job placement and training, he says, and contract agencies have 10,000 jobs waiting for welfare recipients.
Critics say the move will result in serious hardship. With a weak economy, unemployment over nine per cent and some 200,000 people already looking for work, job prospects are bleak for unskilled welfare recipients.
If the Liberals have a sound plan, based on realistic projections and an accurate assessment of the job market, they should come clean. Coell should explain where the needed jobs will come from, and who will be affected and how.
The fact that he is hiding the truth from the public raises serious doubts about whether the Liberal plan makes sense.
Footnote: About 20,000 people have moved from work to welfare in the first 28 months of the Liberal tenure, Coell says. That raises new questions about the likelihood that a greater number can find work in the coming 12 months. Communities and social agencies need to know how big the impact will be when the new rules kick in.

Join the campaign for bring-your-own wine
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - OK, enough with the life-and-death matters of government, of tax cuts and health care and welfare.
Why can't we take our own bottle of wine to a local restaurant for dinner?
Albertans can, as of this week. The government looked at its liquor regulations and realized it was none of the state's business whether people could bring a bottle of wine into a restaurant.
The decision should be up to the restaurant owner, and the diner. There's no need for government red tape to set the rules, Alberta's Conservative government decided this month.
So tonight in Red Deer someone is going to stroll into their neighbourhood restaurant with a $9 bottle of B.C. red tucked under her arm, order a steak sandwich, and enjoy a dandy, low-cost meal. Here, that same bottle of wine will cost $20 or more.
Why not free choice for restaurant owner and diner here, in the land of deregulation, where red tape is to be pruned like so much ugly, tangled growth choking the life out of us?
That's your fault.
Solicitor General Rich Coleman is the man in charge of liquor regulations in the province. There doesn't seem to be any big public policy question involved, he says. Nobody has raised the BYOW issue, he says, so he hasn't given any thought to the idea of allowing British Columbians the freedom to bring their favourite wine to dinner out.
So let's raise it.
There's not a single legitimate argument to justify a role for government in dictating that outside wine is some toxic substance in restaurants, while a bottle plucked from a fat wine list is OK.
Many restaurants won't be keen on the change. Wine is an important profit centre, bringing in up to 20 per cent of revenue for full-service restaurants. Restaurants generally sell it for twice as much as the liquor store cost. Since there's no preparation, that's a tidy profit. Take that away, and food prices may rise, restaurants warn.
Maybe. But perhaps restaurants would find themselves just a little busier if dinner for two cost $25, not $50, because people would eat out more. Maybe those empty tables would be full, and the extra business would more than cover the lost wine revenue.
Or maybe not. But surely that's not government's problem. If I want to take a bottle of wine to dinner, and the people around the corner at Wonder Wok think that's OK, there's no reason the government should be bossing us around.
It's important to remember that the changes in Alberta don't force restaurants to let people bring in wine. The owner gets to decide. If owners value the mark-up, or think it important that the servers pair the right wines with different foods, they can just say no to outside wine.
But if they don't want to stock a wine cellar, or think more people would come if they could BYOW, then they can say yes. So far, many Alberta restaurants have made that decision. (Restaurants can charge a corkage fee for opening the bottle and providing the glasses.)
Alberta's not breaking new ground. Quebec restaurants have the option of having a wine list or letting customers bring their own. A whole segment of moderately priced, casual bring-your-own restaurants has sprung up.
But Alberta is going further, allowing restaurants to choose to serve their own wine while welcoming customers who bring their own. (Most U.S. states and many countries take the same approach.)
Restaurants and their customers get freedom of choice, wine stores pick up some more business, and red tape gets shredded. No wonder the Alberta government embraced the policy.
And surely the B.C. government would too, being just as ardent exponents of choice and free markets.
That leaves it up to you. Want the right to bring that special bottle to your anniversary dinner at the Club Cafe?
Tell Rich Coleman, and your MLA.
Footnote: Giving restaurants and diners freedom of choice would also be a nice gesture to the people who spent money planning and building private liquor stores believing the government was serious about getting out of the business. Now that the Liberals have abandoned that plan, the owners could use the chance to sell a few extra bottles of wine.