Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Finding the key changes in the big shuffle
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - Five things you should know about the Liberals' cabinet shuffle.
First, good news on the economic front. The competition, science and enterprise ministry created by the Liberals after the election is gone, and minister Rick Thorpe demoted. The ministry has been a failure.
It's been replaced with a small business and economic development ministry, headed by Chilliwack backbencher John Les. He doesn't have a lot of business experience, but Les has impressed observers.
Mining and forestry also get a boost. Prince George's Pat Bell becomes junior minister for mining; Skeena's Roger Harris does the same for forestry operations. Good news for both industries, especially forestry. (And good news for Liberal candidates in the north and northwest, who can now point to more representation at the cabinet table.)
Second, be very worried about the ministry of children and families. The cabinet swearing-in was at Government House, where the Lieutenant-Governor lives. (Great views across to Washington, amazing gardens, pool, but kind of cold living quarters really.) The ballroom's silence was shattered by Hamish Clark, Christy Clark's two-year-old, shrieking 'mummy,' in the most horrified voice as she stood on the stage with the rest of the cabinet gang. Which shows that even a two-year-old recognizes that it's a bad thing when mom gets made minister of children and families, the most challenging job in government these days.
Clark got off to a poor start. The ministry is a mess. Former minister Gordon Hogg resigned last week; his deputy was fired. But the Liberals still want to transfer about 40 per cent of its operations - about $500 million - to a semi-independent authority June 1. An internal government report last month said the process was far behind schedule and warned that it was impossible to know if the reduced ministry budget would provide the needed services.
But Clark, minutes after being appointed, said the budget won't be changed and she wants to push ahead with the changes planned for June 1. It is a formula for disaster.
Third - and by way of contrast - watch how new Education Minister Tom Christensen handles the jump from the backbench to the second-largest ministry. It's a big vote of confidence for the Okanagan MLA, who impressed Campbell as the head of a Liberal education committee. Unlike Clark, Christensen said he plans to find out what's going on in the ministry before acting. Good idea.
Fourth, pay attention to how veteran Stan Hagen handles the mandatory welfare time limits which are to come into effect April 1. Murray Coell, the last human resources minister, has moved up to community women's and aboriginal services. Now Hagen has to deal with the fallout of the Liberals' secretive plan to become the first Canadian province to introduce arbitrary welfare time limits.
Fifth, watch how this whole cabinet comes together, and whether any of the new ministers makes the jump into the inner circle. Campbell added six ministers, dropped five and left barely one-third in their original jobs. (Although that one-third includes most of the inner circle and key posts.)
The new ministers are taking over with the plans and budgets already set by the people they replace, leaving them with little room to make changes or alter course. Some may chafe at the limits. Watch also whether ministers use the shuffle to duck questions on past problems by claiming it wasn't on their watch.
There are other areas to keep an eye on. Joyce Murray was bumped from environment - enviros thought she did too little, Liberal MLAs thought she did too much - and was replaced by Bill Barisoff, a minister with a profile so low he's almost been invisible. Kevin Falcon makes the jump to transportation, a major promotion the likable but untested Surrey MLA.
Campbell says this team will lead the party into the next election. They've got a lot of work to do.

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.