Monday, January 26, 2004

Hogg deals blow to children and families cuts
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - The wreck of the children and families ministry is a disaster, one that should prompt an immediate freeze on budget cuts and restructuring.
Trust us, the Liberals said. We know what we're doing. Even though every responsible observer says it's reckless to launch a massive restructuring while chopping the ministry budget by $238 million, we can pull this off.
Now it's clear that they didn't know what they were doing. Children and Families Minister Gordon Hogg's resignation, and the firing of the ministry's top bureaucrat, only confirm what's been obvious. The ministry is in a mess. Trust has been betrayed.
Hogg quit because his ministry is under investigation for a questionable financial deal. It appears $400,000 owed the government was written off without proper approval. The lucky debtor was a company linked to Doug Walls, a former Liberal riding association president. Walls is also related to Premier Gordon Campbell by marriage.
Walls' relationship with the ministry - and Hogg's judgment - had already been questioned. Walls, who has worked as a volunteer in the community living field for 20 years, received a string of untendered contracts worth $65,000. Contracts worth more than $25,000 are supposed to be awarded through an open competition. These were split into seven smaller contracts, avoiding the limit. Hogg was warned of the problem. He said he asked ministry staff, and they said everything was fine.
Walls was then named CEO of the interim community living authority, again with no competition. It's a big deal. In four months the semi-independent authority is to take over about 40 per cent of the ministry's operations - some $500 million worth of programs.
Hogg was warned of again of a problem. Walls had been managing the family's Ford dealership in Prince George when it went bankrupt in 1998. The CIBC - out more than $1 million - accused the company of 'kiting' cheques. Police investigated and the case was open. (That's why a special prosecutor was appointed, to decide if charges should be laid.)
This time, Hogg's investigation consisted of asking Advanced Education Minister Shirley Bond about Walls. Walls had backed her campaign and served with her on the school board. She vouched for him in a brief conversation.
Which brings us to the current situation.
The transfer to the new community living authority is already in trouble. An independent review said that unless major decisions were made by the end of this month the June 1 launch date should be scrubbed. It criticized the lack of a permanent CEO, staff or board, and warned of the need for management focus.
Now the minister is gone, the CEO is gone and the ministry's top bureaucrat is gone. And the interim authority is part of the investigation by auditors.
It would be foolish to believe that the June 1 launch date for the new authority can be met, or to ignore the fact that more than 9,000 mentally handicapped British Columbians depend on these programs.
The date will have to be put off, and that raises another problem. The provincial budget due in three weeks will include about $65 million in cuts to the ministry. Hogg said those savings were partly based on the move to the new authority, and that's not going to happen.
The budget needs to reflect the new reality.
The problems spread throughthe ministry. Plans to hand child care and protection services over to 10 new authorities are more than a year behind schedule. The ministry's budgeting has been hopelessly unrealistic. And now its credibility has been dealt a hammer blow.
This isn't a criticism of staff, or the families and volunteers who have worked so hard on plotting a new direction. They have been let down.
The Liberals promised competence, more funding for the ministry and an end to constant re-organization.
They delivered mismanagement, chaos and cuts.
Footnote: The tough work now goes to Alison MacPhail, the new deputy minister, who moves over from the solicitor general's ministry. She was a senior attorney general's staffer under the NDP and worked for the federal government for 13 years.

Stronach versus Martin in the political battle of the rich
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - I almost hope Belinda Stronach wins the Conservative leadership just so Paul Martin gets a chance to pitch himself as the candidate for the average working Canadian.
Martin is of course fabulously rich, although no one seems to have figured out just how fabulously. Figure something over $50 million, anyway.
But Stronach's family fortune - her 71-year-old dad controls Magna International, the car parts giant - is something over $600 million. She was being paid more than $10 million a year to run the company before she quit to seek the leadership.
Not that there's anything wrong with being rich. And in fact you have to give both of them credit. They could be doing anything they choose, but they opted for public life.
But the political rise of the uber-rich does bring to mind the famous image of George Bush the First staring in amazement at a grocery checkout scanning machine during a campaign stop. The machines had been around for ages; but in his world there were people to head off to the grocery store and buy a carton of milk. And unless you have stood in a grocery store checkout line, leaning on a shopping cart filled with stuff you don't remember picking out, how can you really lay claim to understanding the lives of ordinary Canadians?
It's way too early to judge Stronach's candidacy. The opening days of the campaign this week were a little ragged. She came across as someone trying too hard to remember the snappy talking points her handlers have been stressing. The modern practice of sticking to a few vague but clever talking points always forced and unnatural, but experienced politicians make it seem less clunky.
But she may well get better, or ideally may decide that speaking more freely and candidly may be worth the risk of an occasional gaffe. It would be a good move; Canadians are ready for a politician who actually says something, even if they disagree. (As Ralph Klein has proved.)
It's also too early to judge what she stands for, except ina few areas. Against marijuana legalization, because it would make the Americans mad. For same sex marriage, because it's a matter of choice. For tax cuts, which presumably - hopefully - means she is also for spending cuts, although that's unclear.
But so far it's hard to imagine Stronach, rival Stephen Harper and Martin finding much to argue about if they found themselves locked in a room together.
So far it's also hard to judge Stronach's overall suitability for the job.
Good business management skills aren't a bad indicator of success in government. It takes an adjustment - for one thing, in politics your cabinet is made out of whomever the voters elect. You can't send the executive search firm out to line up a better defence minister. But government is a large, complex organization that's difficult to get to do anything new or different, and so is a big company.
We don't know yet how great Stronach's business skills are. The reviews from her three-year stint at the head of Magna are generally good. But it is the family business; that's not quite the same as making your way in the real world.
Some political experience would also be nice as well. Most of us would be reluctant to hire someone to wire our houses who had never done electrical work before. Likewise, we should be nervous about someone who wants to be prime minister who hasn't even served on a school board.
Stronach has already helped the new party. A race between Harper and former Ontario health minister Tony Clement would have been soporifically low-key. There aren't many surprises likely from either man.
Stronach is an unknown quantity, and an interesting one - youngish in political terms at 37, rich, a single mother, new to the political frontrooms. She'll capture needed media and public attention for the new party's leadership race.
Footnote: Federal Liberals in Prince George are wondering what the party has learned from its membership scandals. The founding meeting of the constituency association for the new federal riding was expected to attract about 30 people. Then three busloads of Liberals pulled in from Williams Lake. They left with all the slots on the executive.

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