Saturday, July 10, 2004

Polls show fractured B.C., Liberal health care problems

VICTORIA - The Liberals should be spooked by dueling poll results that revealed a destructive urban-regional split and some major political problems.
Ipsos-Reid and the Mustel Group came up with some varying results in the polls released this week. But both found a continuing slide in Liberal support outside the Lower Mainland. Some 30 Liberal MLAs from the rest of B.C. could be at risk, an obvious concern for the party.
But it's also a concern for the province. Last month's federal election left many British Columbians glumly convinced that they're doomed to be perpetual political outsiders. The poll results point toward a potential election result that would create a similar sense of alienation for British Columbians outside Vancouver and its sprawl.
Ipsos Reid found the Liberals had the support of 43 per cent of decided voters in the Lower Mainland, with the NDP at 33 per cent. In the rest of the province, the New Democrats were at 46 per cent, comfortably ahead of the Liberals' 28 per cent. (Mustel identifies a similar regional divide.)
But the seats are in the Lower Mainland, and the poll suggests the possibility of an urban-dominated Liberal government, with a scattering of representatives from the rest of B.C.
That result would just add to the sense of alienation and abandonment already felt by many in resource communities. Ipsos-Reid asked people if they believed the province has improved, or grown worse under the Liberals. Lower Mainland residents were evenly divided. In the rest of the province almost half the population thought things had got worse since the election; only 24 per cent saw improvement.
The Liberals are counting on an improving economy to lift its standing in the polls over the next 10 months. (And on voters growing increasingly wary as they consider the prospect of the NDP actually forming a government.)
But the economy has been strengthening for some time. And neither poll showed any improvement in the Liberals' standing, with Ipsos-Reid reporting the Liberal support unchanged at 37 per cent and Mustel a seven-point drop to 33 per cent.
Voters are even recognizing the strengthening economy. A June Ipsos-Reid poll found 58 per cent of British Columbians believed the economy was in good shape, the highest rate recorded in seven years.
But it's not the critical factor when it comes to assessing politicians' performance. This week's poll found that across the province 42 per cent of British Columbians think the province is in worse shape now than when the Liberals took over; only 30 per cent think things have improved.
Liberals who think an improving economy will solve their problems are running a big risk.
So if it's not the economy, what are people worried about?
More bad news for the Liberals. The Mustel Group tracks the public's view of the most important issue facing British Columbians. Before the 2001 election, health care, government and the economy were all given equal weight by respondents.
But the Mustel poll this week found health care is the overwhelmingly dominant issue. And with Prime Minister Paul Martin saying health care is his new priority, and the premiers pushing for more money, more and more attention paid to the health care system and its current weaknesses in the months ahead.
It's not a good issue for the Liberals. StatsCan surveyed Canadians in 2003 on their satisfaction with the health care services they had received in the last 12 months. British Columbians were the least satisfied in Canada. While satisfaction had risen in most provinces since 2001, it was down sharply in B.C.
Patients aren't likely to see any quick improvement to make them change their minds. The five regional health authorities got their budgets from the province this week, with an average 1.6-per-cent funding increase. (Fraser Health, with the fastest growing population, received a 3.3-per-cent boost). Even with improved spending effectiveness health authorities will struggle to deal with the demands of a growing, aging population.
It will be a challenging year for them - and for the Liberals.
- From the Vancouver Sun

Thursday, July 08, 2004

Ombudsman, gay porn legal battle both deserve our money

VICTORIA - It would have been a heck of a federal election campaign issue, I bet.
How would the parties react to news that tax dollars are being spent to help a Vancouver gay and lesbian book store wage a legal battle to bring banned gay porn into Canada?
We can only imagine the response.
But I do know that I'd only vote for a candidate who supported the court decision.
There's a power imbalance in our society. People with resources can exercise their rights much more effectively than those who are less well-off. It costs money to go to court, or to challenge a municipal government decision. Rights are limited by your ability to pay the cost of defending them.
Theat's the reality the BC Supreme Court recognized, and attempted to address, when it ruled that taxpayers should pay Little Sisters Book Emporium's legal costs in its latest censorship battle with Canada Customs. The federal agency has seized and banned two "Meatman" comic books and two books on male bondage. The store wants to challenge the seizure in court, its only avenue of appeal.
But Little Sisters has no money for a 12-week trial. And until now, that would have ended the issue.
No more, and that's a good thing. Last year the Supreme Court of Canada upheld a B.C. ruling that found governments should pay the legal bills for four Interior native bands battling over forest rights. The issues were of public importance, the court ruled, and the bands couldn't afford the legal costs. Justice would only be served if their costs were paid by government.
Little Sisters' lawyer Joe Arvay argued that the same principle should apply in the store's case. The issue - Canada Custom's book banning practices - affects the freedoms of all Canadians. Important questions about arbitrary censorship have been raised. And the store has no money.
And Justice Elizabeth Bennett agreed, noting Canada Customs has barred some 65,000 books, movies and other articles in the last five years. The government should pay for the store's legal costs, she ruled, within strict limits.
Rights don't really exist if there is no practical way to enforce them. The right to appeal a decision to court means nothing if it is only available for those with $150,000 to spend. In many - even most - public interest cases, one side has a huge financial advantage and a strong economic incentive to fight the case; the other has little money and no prospects of a windfall from a legal victory.
The court decision simply levels the playing field in cases of broad public interest. It should be applauded.
Which leads, sadly, to the cuts to the cuts to B.C.'s Office of the Ombudsman, which are a step backward in the same way the court decision is a step forward.
The Ombudsman's office is another attempt to level the playing field in the pursuit of justice, generally on an individual scale. Not everyone has the skills or the resources to tackle government when they believe they are wronged. Certainly few have the ability to fight a particularly intractable or unreasonable institution.
The Ombudsman is their advocate. But the Liberals have cut the Ombudsman's budget by 35 per cent and the number of investigators has been cut in half. Cases involving municipal governments and professional associations had made up about 10 per cent of the complaints handled by the Ombudsman. Those people will no longer be helped, according to the Ombudsman's latest annual report. People challenging decisions or actions by schools or health authorities will now likely face long waits.
It seems a backward step. Some people can take on City Hall or a hospital alone - or with their lawyer - and resolve issues.
But others need help tin the interests of justice.
And as the Little Sister ruling suggests, providing that help is a reasonable role for the state.
Footnote: The Ombudsman's report includes examples of cases tackled during the year, from helping an elderly woman get needed home care to ensuring that an adopted child from outside the province was immediately eligible for MSP benefits to helping a small bsuiness cut through red tape. It's a useful role.

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Caged boys case highlight family justice issues

VICTORIA - The facts are clear enough - if you slap someone around, you'll be in less trouble in court if you hit someone in your family.
A new report looked at how courts in four provinces - not including B.C. - dealt with crimes of violence. The review included comparing the treatment of people guilty of crimes against family members with other offenders.
And on the whole it found the courts were much more lenient when the violence was within the family.
Only 28 per cent of people convicted of a violent sexual assault against a spouse went to jail; the number rose to 36 per cent if the attack was outside the family.
Only 15 per cent of family members convicted of physically abusing children go to jail, compared with the 23 per cent of strangers who commit the same offence.
Across the board you're about 50 per cent more likely to go to jail if you behave violently to an acquaintance or stranger than if you attack a family member.
It's alarming, especially coming in the same week as a court decision that shocked Canadians.
An Ontario couple who had caged their two children for much of the time over a 13-year period pleaded guilty to assault with a weapon, forcible confinement and failure to provide the necessities of life. The boys had been adopted by their aunt and her husband. Their life was a nightmare of physical and psychological abuse starting when the youngest was two and lasting until they were in their late teens.
The abuse was "near torture" over 13 years, Judge Donald Halikowski found. The boys were beaten, threatened and locked in crib-size pens. They were denied water, becoming so thirsty they drank their own urine.
Yet the parents received nine-month jail sentences.
The judge found the boys were difficult, the parents felt bad now and they had “good intentions underscoring their punishments.” Thus the light sentence.
Expect an appeal. Paul Jenkinson of the BC Association of Social Workers spoke for many critics. "This sentence provides no general deterrence to parents who choose to abuse and humiliate their children and provides no hope for abused children seeking justice.”
One case could be an aberration. But the study, by the Centre for Justice Statistics, looked at 47,000 cases. And it found the courts consistently treat offenders who abuse someone in their family more lightly.
It's a finding that is even more critical because in Canada violent crimes are largely done by the people who are supposed to love us. Of the 47,000 violent offenses studied, 35 per cent involved an assault on a spouse. Another eight per cent involved assaults by family members on each other, or children. And 32 per cent involved friends or acquaintances.
That suggests a couple of things.
First, that the family is not the safe place that we all like to think. And second, that the courts' approach of lighter sentences might not reflect the importance of deterring such a major crime problem.
I'm slow to second guess or criticize the courts. My direct experience - as a reporter, not a defendant or crime victim - has been that within the limits set by resources and laws the courts function surprisingly well.
And it's not hard to understand the desire of a judge to find a way to keep a family on the edge of disaster together, and the reasons for imposinge probation, not a jail term.
But the Ontario case, and the study, suggest that their approach to family crime doesn't reflect how widespread, or serious, the problem is.
There's no quick fix, and instant solutions like new law with mandatory sentences would do far more harm than good.
But the study provides important information for the courts to consider in sentencing. And it's a reminder to us all that the family is a dangerous place for far too many people.
Footnote: We warn our children about dangerous strangers. But of the 47,000 violent offences reviewed, 43 per cent involved an attack on a family member; 32 per cent violence against a friend or acquaintance. In 92 per cent of the spousal violence cases men were the offenders; men were also responsible for 84 per cent of the assaults against children and youths.

Monday, July 05, 2004

CN the winner in BC Rail deal

VICTORIA - More questions about the BC Rail deal, as new information emerges just as the federal Competition Bureau approves the sale.
The government has always acknowledged that it might have to give back about $255 million of the $1-billion purchase price to CN Rail. Now it has revealed that the potential refunds come to $629 million, while adding confidently that it doesn't expect to have to hand any money back.
CN isn't just paying isn't for the railway. The company is also buying past tax losses, which it hopes to use to reduce its own tax bill.
But Revenue Canada gets the last word on whether thats legit. So CN negotiated a provision that will force the province to refund the money if the taxman says no.
That's all the government ever mentioned in terms of strings attached to the deal, until now.
But the just released final report on last year's finances bumped that potential refund on tax issues up to $367 million (plus interest). And the documents disclosed for the first time that CN negotiated clauses that could see the province return another $262 million.
That's $629 million in indemnities, as the accountants call them, that could be knocked off the $1-billion sale price.
Routine, the government says, and that's broadly true. Most major transactions provide for adjustments, or dispute resolution. CN may decide that some of the rail cars included in the sale are junk, for example, and want some money back. The government's willingness to offer refund protection may reflect its confidence that the assets being sold are as described.
But CN certainly negotiated well. Any buyer emerging from a deal with more than 60 per cent of its payment subject to refund has done a great job.
And the government has - again - cast a cloud over the deal by keeping the numbers from the public until now.
The newly revealed $262-million indemnity shouldn't be a huge worry. It's almost certain that CN will attempt to negotiate some sort of refund, but it's is hard to see what real surprises could lurk within the sales agreement.
But the jump in the potential refund over tax issues, from $255 million to $367 million, is important.
That means that CN is getting the business and all its assets for $633 million, not the $750 million the government claimed.
And that makes it look a very good deal for CN. BC Rail made a $66-million profit last year and is being sold without any debt. CN can make a 10-per-cent return on its investment without batting an eye. Once it begins cutting staff - about 400 jobs are expected to go - and working to increase traffic, the return soars.
This has been a bungled sale by the Liberals.
First, Gordon Campbell promised not to sell BC Rail. His claim that because the tracks and the ground under them weren't part of the deal the promise hasn't been broken is ludicrous. CN owns the business and the equipment. It's sold. Read the financial press, which talks only of the "deal to buy BC Rail."
Then the government's unnecessary attempt to impose secrecy have meant details of the deal have trickled out, each more damaging because of the way they emerged.
The odd thing is that the sale - though maybe not the price - is entirely defensible.
There arlots of good reasons government shouldn't be in the railway business.
And CN appears to have a genuine enthusiasm for the new business opportunities. CEO Hunter Harrison wasn't just being polite when he talked about the potential of rail service from B.C.'s northwest to Chicago. China's economy is growing rapidly; shipping to Prince Rupert saves a day; and CN believes that creates a great opportunity.
The details of the deal are supposed to be released once the papers are signed later this month. The questions are going to be around for a lot longer.
Footnote: One advantage of selling BC Rail is removing temptation from governments. Trasportation Minister Kevin Falcon makes much of BC Rail's past losses; but they were overwhelmingly produced by Socred governments that considered the railway an economic development tool.

Sunday, July 04, 2004

Liberals get to the 'exciting part' - spending

VICTORIA - So it's on to the "exciting part," says Finance Minister Gary Collins, when the government can stop talking about cuts and start talking about spending.
Mr. Collins unveiled this week the financial report on the past fiscal year, and along with it offered a preview of the Liberals' election platform.
The tough part is over, they will say. The budget is balanced. Now, how shall we spend the surpluses?
Not a bad campaign theme. The current plan calls for a $275-million surplus in next February's budget.
But the cautious Mr. Collins has beat his targets by an average of $800 million a year so far, and the economy is strengthening. The pre-election budget can likely handle $500 million in new spending without putting the surplus at any risk.
But the campaign strategy's success depends on several factors.
One is how voters decide to judge the past three years.
The overhaul of government finances is significant. If government revenues had kept up with inflation over the past three years, they would be about $25.4 billion. Instead -- thanks to Liberal government tax cuts and changes in the economy -- they're about $2 billion lower.
Income tax revenues are down 23 per cent from a status quo projection, corporate tax revenues 30 per cent -- about $1.8 billion in total. MSP and sales tax revenues are higher by about $600 million, but that still leaves considerably more money in taxpayers' pockets.
The campaign debate will focus on what role the tax cuts played in the improved economy, and who benefitted.
The Liberals won't be helped by the budget revelation that the total provincial tax bite is increasing this year for low and middle-income earners, while high-income earners -- a single person earning $80,000, a family with an income of $90,000 -- will pay less.
But their arguments that the tax changes worked will get a boost from an improving economy and increasing business and consumer confidence over the next 10 months.
Voters' judgments on the spending changes are tougher to assess. Spending under the Liberals has risen about 12 per cent over their first three years, outpacing inflation.
Even removing one-time factors, like pension adjustments and last year's natural disasters, the increase is about 10.5 per cent.
Much of the increase has been in health spending, up 19 per cent. Remove that from the equation, and overall spending is up only about five per cent over three years, and down in many areas.
Welfare has taken the biggest hit, a 26-per-cent reduction, with labour and environment ministries also taking significant cuts.
How will voters react to the four-year freeze on funding to universities and colleges, which has forced large tuition increases and limited access?
Will they care that the attorney-general's ministry has cut spending by 14 per cent, largely by closing courthouses and spending what critics say is too little money for treaty negotiations?
One major potential problem for the Liberals is that the cuts are still under way. About a dozen ministries are cutting spending this year.
If the results are visible, and important to enough people, that will undermine the message of new opportunity.
Still, it's a compelling campaign theme that the Liberals will roll out in September when pre-budget consultations start around the province.
For three years, those consultations have always been governed by one hard rule -- no recommendations that involved increased spending.
Now, as Mr. Collins has made clear, it's time to dream big dreams. (Still the cautious finance minister, however, he quickly amended that to "or medium dreams.")
The Liberals plan to talk -- belatedly -- about the reasons for going through the past three years of record deficits and spending restraint.
"Now is the point where we get to dream as a province," Mr. Collins said, musing about more money for K-to-12 education, or early childhood development.
All in all, that's not a bad starting point for an election campaign.
- From the Vancouver Sun