Thursday, April 08, 2004

Liberals take aim at Carole James

VICTORIA - The Liberals are getting positively obsessed with Carole James.
Her name came up about 20 times in barely the space of an hour one afternoon before the legislature shut down for Easter, with most of the references from Christy Clark.
And when Labour Minister Graham Bruce did a press release to talk about the latest job numbers, he took the extraordinary step of singling out James as part of a little anti-NDP political spin. Cabinet ministers' news releases are political, of course, but not usually so blatantly partisan. (The job news was good - about 20,000 more people were working in the province in March than were a year ago.)
The Liberals have reason to be rattled. Under James' leadership, the NDP has risen steadily in the polls and is now ahead. Her personal approval rating is much higher than Gordon Campbell's.
But there's a dangerous lack of self-examination in the Liberal response. It's reasonable enough for the Liberals to try and get James to take firmer positions before the election, targets they can then attack.
And it's natural to conclude that when people no longer support you, it's because they just don't understand what you're doing, or don't have a full appreciation how much worse the alternatives are. That's the kind of thinking that leads to tactics like the focus on James.
But it's more important to consider the possibility that people have lost confidence because they don't think you're doing a good job, and think about how you need to change to regain their trust.
The Liberals took after James for her decision not to run in Surrey Panorama. Liberal MLA Gulzmar Cheema has won a federal Liberal nomination; he'll resign his provincial seat when the election is called. James should take the first chance to enter the legislature, Liberals say.
It's not going to happen. James says she can accomplish more this year by travelling around the province than she can in Victoria. She doesn't want to commit to a byelection campaign that could come anytime in the next year, depending on when a federal election is called and when Campbell decides to hold the byelection. And she doesn't want to risk defeat if the Liberals find a star candidate. Surrey Mayor Doug McCallum and Conservative MP Chuck Cadman have both been rumoured as potential Liberal candidates.
And, most importantly, what she has been doing has worked. Why mess with it now?
(The Liberals' claim that it was urgent that a party leader be in the legislature rang a bit hollow anyway. Campbell rarely shows up in the legislature, compared with past premiers. No attendance record is kept - it should be - but my last tally had him missing about 60 per cent of sitting days.)
Voters do have a right to expect more specifics from James and the NDP before the election.
She has opposed offshore oil and expansion of the current types of aquaculture, both important issues for coastal communities. Her position on mining, and balancing the inevitable land use conflicts, is unclear.
And while it is fine to talk about restoring funding to programs like child care for low-income British Columbians, voters are going to want to know where the money will come from. (Though it was striking that a recent Ipsos-Reid poll found that 60 per cent of British Columbians would pay higher property taxes for better municipal services.)
The Liberals risk making two mistakes with this approach.
The emphasis on James - and the rather blatant misrepresentation of her positions at times - is also raising her profile, and indicating just how nervous the Liberals have become.
And it is keeping them from some needed self-examination.
James will need to provide answers.
But she has a year to do that. And it's not likely that the Liberal attacks are going to bump the New Democrats from their election timetable.
Footnote: One of the things James is doing is raising money. The NDP pulled in about $3.4 million last year, up by more than 50 per cent over 2002. The Liberals still raised more, up 20 per cent to $5.5 million. And the Liberals also start with a significant advantage - about $1.5 million on hand for the coming campaign, compared with $150,000 for the NDP. The Greens raised $135,000 last year; Unity $42,000.

Wednesday, April 07, 2004

Children and families' ministry plans a mess

By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - The Liberals have made at least a great a mess of the ministry of children and families as their predecessors.
And that is saying something.
After thousands of hours of work by volunteers across the province - and millions of dollars - the Liberals have slammed the brakes on plans to hand responsibility for child and family services over to new regional authorities.
It's an admission of massive and damaging mismanagement.
Here's what was supposed to happen. The LIberals wanted to create 10 new regional authorities, semi-independent boards like the health authorities. There would be five non-aboriginal authorities, and five aboriginal. As well, a new community living authority would take over province-wide services for the mentally disabled.
Decision-making would be returned to involved communities, producing better results. (And saving money. The Liberals' hopes of slashing the ministry budget were based on cheaper service delivery as a result of the restructuring.)
Now it's fallen apart.
All five non-aboriginal authorities and the community living authority should have been operating now, according to the plan affirmed by former minister Gordon Hogg a year ago.
They aren't. And deputy minister Alison MacPhail, brought in after Hogg's resignation, has just emailed staff and told them the changes are put off until late 2006 or 2007. The regional committees which have worked tremendously hard on the change for two years have been shut down.
The future for the community living authority also remains uncertain. Preparations became tangled up in the Doug Walls scandal. A "readiness report" on when - or if - the transition can go ahead was supposed to be ready Feb. 27. Six weeks later, it remains outstanding.
Meanwhile, the Liberals are chopping $185 million from the ministry budget over two years, with the final $65 million coming this year. (In opposition both Gordon Campbell and current minister Christy Clark said the ministry was under-funded and should get more money. Who knew they didn't mean it?)
Hogg had justified the cuts in part by pointing to the savings from regionalization. But while that's not happening, the cuts still are.
The government has also betrayed thousands of people who have volunteered to make these changes happen. They worked their way through about $7.5 million in planning money, and devoted a huge amount of energy and time. Service clubs, churches, agencies - they all pitched in.
Those people don't understand this decision. The government says it has belatedly decided that the aboriginal and non-aboriginal authorities should start operating at the same time. The aboriginal authorities won't be ready until well into 2006. So everyone waits.
But the regions say they are ready to move forward, and note the plan was always to have the non-aboriginal authorities come on-line as they are ready. They fear the government is backing away from the whole shift. They feel abused and tricked.
It's reasonable for the government to be cautious. The Liberal track record with the ministry does not inspire confidence.
But the word from the field is that the regions are ready. Joyce Preston, the province's Child, Youth and Family Advocate for six years, has worked with transition committees in the Island and Interior regions. They are on track, she says, and the change should go ahead. (Preston also wonders how aboriginal communities are supposed to develop the needed capacity when funding for that purpose is being cut.)
The government has mishandled the ministry since the election, ignoring the obvious risk of slashing budgets while trying to push forward on a major restructuring. It ha squandered money, and time.
And with that, it has lost the right to our confidence or trust.
Before the transition is put off for another three years, the people who have worked so hard on the change - and the people who depend on the services - deserve an independent review of the decision, and a full public report.
Footnote: The Liberals' handling of the ministry also raises critical questions of basic competence - the ability to develop and execute a sensible plan. The Liberals' budget plans for the ministry have been wildly over-optimistic, virtually every deadline in its restructuring has been missed, the people who signed on to support the policy changes feel betrayed and action has been pushed off past the next election.

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.