Tuesday, November 04, 2003

Liberals take on princely powers to push development
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - The Liberals' latest economic development bill looks remarkably like something Glen Clark might have written.
It's called the Significant Projects Streamlining Act. But it could as easily be called the 'Making the Premier King Act.'
The idea is that it's too hard to get approvals to build things or open mines in B.C., despite the Liberals' pledge to get rid of regulations and make government work better. Approvals take too long, municipalities ask too many questions and things don't get done quickly enough to keep the developers happy.
And the Liberal solution is to give cabinet - which means the premier - the power to designate any project as "significant." Once that's done, cabinet can rewrite the rules, or eliminate them, and make sure the project gets approved in short order. The people behind the project only have to persuade the cabinet that it's a good thing, and with a wave of the pen almost all obstacles can be made to disappear.
It will be convenient. Anyone who has tried to add on to a house or build a new deck would recognize the benefits of being able to skip all those building inspections and plan approvals.
And it's a useful part of the sales pitch for the premier when he courts new industries. What about regulations and approvals, the proponents can ask? No problem, says the premier. We'll designate this a significant project, and the only approvals you need are from me.
If you were a developer, you would love it. And if you were premier, you would really love it. You could get a lot done, quickly, if you didn't have to worry about public consultations or municipal bylaws or planning and zoning restrictions. Attractive idea, public benefit, pressing need - clear the track.
But taxpayers shouldn't be quite so welcoming. This is the kind of approach, after all, that brought us the fast ferries. It could be that we need a stringent approval process most when cabinet or a premier has fallen in love with a project.
Here's how it would work in real life. You would convince a cabinet minister or the premier that the your plan for a new racetrack would be great for the province, And you would warn that it has to be built quickly, or the project couldn't go ahead.
Once the cabinet designates the racetrack a significant project - and their power to pick a public or private partnership is unlimited under the proposed act - things start happening.
If you've got a problem with approvals or zoning, or neighbours are demanding to be consulted, or municipalities are worried about traffic congestion when 200,000 spectators head to the race, you can go to the premier or a cabinet minister. He can order a facilitator to try and resolve the problem. And if that doesn't work, cabinet can just give you a green light to go ahead without the required approvals, on the terms he choses.
There are few limits. The laws says cabinet can't ignore or over-ride provisions of the Agricultural Land Commission Act or the Environmental Assessment Act. But every other act, or any municipal provisions, can be ignored to get a project built more quickly.
Some municipalities are onside, keen to see development come more quickly. And the province does need the jobs.
But taxpayers should be worried. The temptation to take shortcuts - for Olympic projects, the hugely expensive RAV line, new public-private partnerships, a power plant, mine or resort - will be huge. And decision-making will move from the public arena to behind the tightly closed doors of cabinet and the premier's officer.
It's the kind of extraordinary power that should include safeguards and protection for the public interest, or be restricted to clearly defined project types.
But that's not what the bill does. Instead, it confers near absolute power on cabinet.
And that, no matter how good the intentions, should be worrying.
Footnote: The bill is a confirmation of just how much trouble the Liberals have had delivering a streamlined, clear approval process. After more than two years, Industry and developers are still complaining of regulatory overlap and unreasonable delays. Municipalities, and front-line provincial staff, come in for much of the criticism.

Tough talk on youth crime mostly - and wisely - empty
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - There's much less than meets the eye to the Liberals' youth crime bill.
That doesn't mean the new law isn't useful. While politicians love bold initiatives - because we do - small, smart changes often make more sense.
The spin - dutifully reported - was that the new law would see more youths go to jail for doing bad things like trespassing on school grounds to recruit gang members or coerce kids into the sex trade.
The maximum penalty for those offences has been a fine or probation. Now the courts will be able to jail offenders for 30 days.
The government's news release, Solicitor General Rich Coleman and even Premier Gordon Campbell talked about getting tough with young offenders. Earnest reporters trotted off to make sure there would be enough jail space.
But the reality is that almost nothing has changed. Only a few more kids will likely go to jail - which is a good thing.
There's nothing wrong with the changes. They send a signal that certain offences are viewed seriously. There's a remote chance that they'll make some kids think twice, although that's not likely. The average 15-year-old offender is not great at considering consequences. If he was, he wouldn't be doing dangerous things.
And the changes give principals another weapon. If a problem youth won't stay away from the school - whether he's trespassing to get in a fight, sell drugs or just hang out - then school act charges could, in an extraordinary case, result in a few days in custody.
But it's going to be a mighty rare occurrence. All across B.C. only 51 trespassing charges were laid last year under the school act. (There are more than 1,800 schools.)
A few more charges may be laid. And a few youths may spend a couple of days in jail, when they're a real nuisance around a school and police can't figure out a way to make more serious charges stick. But charges will be scarce, and probation the norm.
That's good. Some youths need to be locked up because they're a danger to others. Some kids benefit from a few days in custody so people have a chance to try and help them.
But mostly kids who are locked up learn to be better criminals. That's why the number of youth in custody has fallen by 40 per cent in the last three years.
So if the bill's measures really represent only an almost insignificant, though useful change, why all the tough talk from the Liberals?
They've decided it's a good idea to be seen as tough on crime. That's why Solicitor General Rich Coleman, who does a good tough bit, did the talking about what was really Attorney General Geoff Plant's bill. That's why the news release talked about tougher penalties for kids who trespass on school property for gang activities or sexual exploitation, when really the penalties apply to all school trespass. Usually, it's drug dealing or picking fights that results in charges, not pimping.
It's a risky tactic. Practically, the public loses if our approach to crime is simplistic. It will take much more than tougher penalties to make communities safer. Most criminals don't think about the penalties first.
And politically, the Liberals are on thin ice. People are already worried about the effects of the government's policies on crime rates. And next year Coleman's ministry plans to cut $19 million - about eight per cent - from spending on policing and community safety. Probation officers will have larger caseloads, and supervision of people on house arrest will continue to be lax.
It was a good bill. The changes, although small, are useful.
But the Liberal spin was worrying. We don't need slogans about crime - from either the 'lock-em-up camp' or the 'it's-all-someone-else's-problem camp.'
It's going to take smart, complex - and in the short-term costly - programs to deal with our crime problem.
Footnote: The media - that's me - needs to take a look at our work on this one. Our crime reporting is consistently misleading, giving an overblown sense of the risk. Look around at your family; in B.C., they are 10 times more likely to kill themselves than they are to be killed in some crime.