Tuesday, April 06, 2004

Liberals ignoring Games cost over-run risk

VICTORIA - The Liberals sound lost on the threat of Olympic cost over-runs.
Before the first lick of work has started, Vancouver Olympics organizers are warning that they don't have enough money to build the rinks and ski trails and other facilities needed for the 2010 Games. They'll be coming back to provincial and federal governments for more cash, says Games chair Jack Poole.
That should be a cause for concern. The Games are going to cost about $3 billion; even a small percentage over-run can turn into big dollars. And the government had promised that every cost was included.
The NDP raised the issue in the legislature, asking the government what it has found out about the size of the cost over-runs and what measures are in place to control spending.
Christy Clark responded to the questions - you couldn't say she answered them - in her capacity as deputy premier.
Nothing to worry about, she said. The province won't come up with any more money. The budget is fixed. Contingency funds are built into budgets.
That's a remarkably inaccurate answer. There is no limit to the province's commitment. To win the Games Premier Gordon Campbell promised to assume all responsibility for any Olympic cost over-runs or revenue shortfalls.
It's a reasonable enough risk, but it remains a risk. And simply wishing away the problem of cost over-runs, or hiding from them, is irresponsible.
Especially because the Games' organizers are already warning that the construction cost allowances aren't adequate to cope with inflation and other pressures over the next six years. The Games has a capital budget of $620 million, with the cost shared between the federal and provincial governments. If it's not enough, BC. taxpayers -the ones ultimately on the hook - need to know.
Cost over-runs are a constant Olympic reality. The team organizing the 2006 Games in Piedmont, Italy, visited Vancouver this month to share information. Figure on up to 15 per cent in extra costs for unexpected emergencies, they advised, and 20-per-cent cost over-runs on construction.
Provincial Auditor General Wayne Strelioff has also warned that the $139-million contingency fund included as part of the Games budget might not be adequate. "Achieving the financial results predicted by the Bid Corporation will need excellent management, effective marketing and a favourable economy," he warned.
There's no reason to panic here. There will be lots of ups and downs over the next six years of work to prepare for the Olympics.
But the government's head-in-the-sand approach does a disservice to taxpayers.
Clark didn't provide any information on possible cost over-runs. She responded with a rant about how great the Olympics would be for the province. The New Democrats just hate the idea of the Games, she said, ignoring the fact that the NDP government launched the bid for the 2010 Games. "Those members don't oppose the Olympics because of the cost," Clark said. "Those members oppose the Olympics because they don't want British Columbia to do well." (It is the kind of response that should make everyone cringe. Legitimate questions deserve real answers. Failing that, call the New Democrats stupid, or incompetent. But it's just dumb to argue that they ran for office because the want the province to do badly.)
Clark likewise brushed off a suggestion that makes imminent sense. Why not appoint the province's auditor general as the official auditor for the Games committee, asked the New Democrats?
Again, no answer. But it's a sound proposal, given the taxpayers' interest in financial accountability.
The Games and the Sea-to-Sky Highway improvements are slated to cost provincial taxpayers $1.3 billion, with our share of convention centre expansion and the RAV line to the Vancouver airport on top of that.
If cost over-runs are already threatening to push our share higher, we have a right to answers, not bluster.
Footnote: Clark accused NDP leader Carole James of opposing the Games, and called on her to seek a seat in the legislature so people would know where she stands on this and other issues. The attack - part of a new Liberal attempt to focus on James - backfired when MacPhail noted Campbell is rarely in the legislature either; his attendance is the poorest of any premier in history, she added.

Martin's Dosanjh move makes mockery of democracy
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - How dumb does Paul Martin think we are?
Mr. Democratic Deficit has been going on about the need to give politics back to the people, promising a new way of doing things.
But then he rolled in to Vancouver and did exactly the opposite, a genial despot with a pleasant smile.
Martin wiped out the democratic right of thousands of voters to decide who should represent them in Ottawa, turned our system on its head and still maintained he's the champion of political reform.
By appointing Liberal candidates - or clearing the way for them - Martin exempted his favourites from that irritating nomination process, where you have to win community support and sign up members in order to become a Liberal candidate. That's apparently for the lesser lights. If Martin thinks you have the right stuff, you can skip all that annoying democracy stuff - just like ex-premier Ujjal Dosanjh.
I like Dosanjh. And while his move from provincial NDP leader to federal Liberal candidate raises lots of interesting questions - where are the provincial Liberals on the political spectrum, if an alleged federal Liberal finds a more comfortable home in the NDP - it's his decision.
But it's outrageous that Martin presumes to dictate to the Liberal voters in Vancouver South who their candidate will be. Basic democracy gives them the right to make that choice. Martin is taking it away, because he knows best.
Which is one of the problem with politics as practised today. Martin doesn't know best. We do. Martin, Gordon Campbell, Stephen Harper, Jack Layton, Carole James, they are all very smart I'm sure. But we are, collectively, smarter.
It's bizarre on so many levels.
The Liberals don't actually need a lot of help in arranging nomination contests to get the results the party bosses want. A guy named Bob Russell worked for a long-time to win the Liberal nomination over here in Saanich-Gulf Islands. But he wasn't on the good side of the Martin machine, which backed a succession of candidates against him. The first two dropped out; the third, Pia Shandel, was pushed out of the race by the Martin people only days before the nomination meeting.
That should have clinched it for Russell. Party rules say would-be candidates have to declare at least seven days before the nomination meeting. But rules are apparently meant to be bent. With three days to go, lawyer David Mulroney - a former vice-president in MP David Anderson's riding association, whose firm gets almost a $1 million a year in federal government work - got special permission to enter the race. And surprise, with no time to campaign or sign up members, he won. (Fired Liberal aide David Basi had earlier signed up hundreds of new members in the riding.)
Dosanjh is the only candidate officially imposed by Martin so far. But the way was also cleared for former Canfor head David Emerson and Shirley Chan, with similar treatment likely for B.C. party president Bill Cunningham.
Either through dictate, or backroom dealing, Martin and his people arranged for their favourite candidates to get special treatment.
Voters lose in at least two ways. Their right to choose a candidate has been stolen.
And the favoured candidates owe their loyalty not to the people in the riding, but to Martin and his team. How independent are MPs who owe their nominations to the boss going to be?
Martin is counting on the hand-picked candidates to be high-profile enough to turn around the Liberal fortunes in B.C.
It's a risk. In Dosanjh's case, two other Liberals had already been working to get the nomination. Brushed aside by Martin, neither they nor their supporters are likely to work terribly hard in this election campaign.
And for voters concerned about the Liberals' scandal-plagued reputation for political favoritism, Martin's machinations have just reinforced their worst fears about the "new" Liberal government.
Footnote: Dosanjh's jump to the federal Liberals prompted rare agreement between provincial Liberals and New Democrats - all agree it's a bad thing. New Democrats accused Dosanjh of opportunism and betrayal, lending legitimacy to the Martin government. And provincial Liberals not only don't look forward to dealing with Dosanjh in Ottawa, they aren't happy with Martin's endorsement of a key player in the former NDP government.

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