Friday, December 30, 2005

Test your global cultural awareness

OK, a question for all those who think themselves well up on popular culture around the world.
Which Canadian sporting event made it into the top three for global television audience this year, trailing only the Superbowl and the UEFA Champions Leage football final?
The answer is the Montreal Grand Prix, one of two North American stops on the F1 circuit. About 53 million people tuned into the race, according to Iniative, a media tracking company that follows such things.
I watch F1, although I'm not sure why. Most races involve four minutes of excitement among 90 minutes of routine, and they are often on at weird times. But the sheer scale of the whole thing and the vast technological effort put into such a limited end are compelling.
But what struck me about the item is how few Canadians would guess at the global reach of the Montreal event, and the potential promotional value.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Leak or not, Liberals bungled corporate tax policy

VICTORIA - I don’t know if Ralph Goodale should resign now that the RCMP are investigating whether pre-election leaks from his ministry helped insiders get richer at the expense of the rest of us.
But I do know that the whole income trust saga is a case study of tax policy bungling, and the triumph of politics over sound planning.
Stripped down to its essence, this is pretty straightforward stuff.
Some smart tax lawyers and corporate types found a loophole in Canada’s income tax laws, and drove through it in ever increasing numbers.
The ploy was simple enough. A corporation is taxed on its profits, including the money sent out to shareholders as dividends. But companies found they could create income trusts and funnel their profits through the trusts to shareholders without paying taxes on the money.
They paid less tax, the payouts to investors were bigger and the value of the businesses increased. Happy days.
Except for people who pay income tax. The rush to take advantage of the trust loophole meant that the federal government was losing about $300 million a year in tax revenue. The money has to come from somewhere.
The federal finance ministry started to worry, belatedly, about the losses. Some economists also questioned whether the shift hurt corporations’ ability to innovate and invest to create growth, since the priority would be on keeping up payments to the trust.
None of this should have caught the government off guard. Australia and the U.S. went through similar experiences almost two decades ago, and decided to close the tax loopholes.
But Ottawa dithered. By the time the federal government started talking about changing the rules, Canadian income trusts were worth $120 billion. They had become popular investments, and a reduction in their tax benefits would cut their value. Canadians would see their RRSPs and mutual fund holdings lose ground.
Corporations, the investment community and seniors’ groups were all over the government. And with an election imminent, the Liberals backed down. On Nov. 23 Goodale announced that income trusts would keep their tax status, and that the tax on regular corporate dividends would be cut to try and reduce the rush to trusts.
The news was sure to have a big effect on investment markets. So the finance ministry made the announcement in the evening. That way everyone supposedly had the same chance to consider the implications before markets opened the next day.
Except that trading patterns that afternoon, hours before the information was public, strongly suggest some people knew what was coming. Trading volumes soared, and some buyers started snapping up shares in companies that would benefit from the announcement. BCE Inc., the communications conglomerate, was a big winner as a result of the dividend tax cut. Its shares jumped 3.3 per cent in the final two hours of trading before the announcement. The Yellow Pages Income Fund rose by 3.4 per cent. Other stocks showed similar extraordinary trading.
The people who bought made quick gains. After Goodale’s announcement that evening their holdings were worth even more.
But the people who sold to them lost out. If they had hung on to those shares for one more day, they would have got much more for them.
It could be that the buyers just made a good guess. Rumors of similar action were flying around in the pre-election frenzy.
But the analysts who have looked closely at the trading patterns say it’s much more likely that some investors had advance knowledge, which they used to their advantage - and to the detriment of those who weren’t in on the plan.
That’s what the RCMP is investigating. It’s a serious issue. If information leaked, then people were cheated and Canada’s reputation as a safe place to invest will have been harmed.
But just as serious is the government’s stumbling response to the whole issue of income trusts, ending with the last-minute pre-election corporate tax cut.
Canadians deserve a more considered, intelligent tax policy.
Footnote: Goodale says he asked his staff if there was a leak and they said no; Paul Martin is standing by his finance minister. But newspaper headlines on the RCMP investigation were not the kind of kick-off the Liberals wanted for the second half of this long campaign.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Rights case finds government abandoned special needs students

VICTORIA - It hardly seems revolutionary to declare that students with learning disabilities have the right to an education.
That’s the essence of a BC Human Rights Tribunal ruling that found the government discriminated against children with disabilities. When cash-strapped school districts needed to cut spending, they made kids like Jeffry Moore take the hit.
Moore’s family launched the human rights’ complaint after he was abandoned by the public school system. Jeffry is bright, but severely dyslexic. By the end of Grade 3 he still couldn’t read. The North Vancouver school district had referred him to its centre for special needs students for intensive help, but then closed it in 1994 to save about $290,000 a year.
Find a private school if you want your child to learn, the Moores were told.
So they did. Jeffrey’s father was a bus driver, and his mother a secretary. Private school bills were crushing. But they didn’t see a choice.
The Moores did see a chance to turn things around for other children, and launched their human rights complaint.
Their victory was complete. They get compensation for a decade of private school costs.
And the tribunal ordered the government to mend its ways. The education ministry has a year to ensure that funding for students with severe learning disabilities reflects the number of children who need help, and to set up a system to make sure that school districts are delivering the services.
It’s the kind of ruling - by a court or tribunal - that raises worries about non-elected people setting public policy. The theory is that politicians are elected to make those decisions. They should have the right to deny education to kids with disabilities, or aboriginal children, or whoever else they choose. the argument goes.
But a reading of the ruling shows the tribunal stayed within the laws the politicians created. The school act says “it is the goal of a democratic society to ensure that all of its members receive an education that enables them to become personally fulfilled and publicly useful, thereby increasing the strength and contributions to the health and stability of that society.”
And the Human Rights Code prevents discrimination. Denying a child an education because of a disability is against the law.
The government can still set education funding levels and spending priorities. School districts can justify a lack of services if providing them would cause extreme hardship, the tribunal noted.
But it’s illegal to deny services to people with disabilities as an easy way of saving money.
British Columbians should welcome the ruling on practical grounds.
Jeffry got the help he needed in a private school. He has just graduated from BCIT and is apprenticing as a plumber. He’s achieving what the school act promised - personal fulfillment and a chance to make society stronger.
Contrast that with the outlook if he had continued to struggle, without adequate help, in the public school system, and dropped out or simply graduated without basic literacy skills.
This isn’t a partisan issue. Jeffry’s case started way back when the Harcourt government was in power, and more than decade later students with special needs are still often the first to suffer when school districts face money troubles. In 2001 school districts had identified 47,000 with special needs. Then the Liberals ended targeted funding for those students. Now school districts say there are only 40,000 students with special needs. Either there has been a miraculous drop in students with learning problems, or thousands of children have been abandoned as a low spending priority.
Vince Ready’s fact-finding report on the teachers’ strike confirmed that support for special needs students is inadequate.
Education Minister Shirley Bond isn’t commenting on the tribunal decision. The government has 60 days to launch an appeal.
But the principle seems simple. The government promises children a chance at an education. It’s a commitment that’s worth keeping, for all students.
Footnote: The government faces more problems over the issue. A Vancouver law firm is planning a class-action lawsuit on behalf of dyslexic students and their families, arguing the failure to identify the disability and help students resulted in serious long-term damage to their lives.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Eat badly, smoke and lose your right to health care

VICTORIA - Down in the U.S. companies are getting ready to fire smokers.
Over in England, overweight people are being told they won't get knee or hip replacements.
And here in B.C., the province's chief medical health officer has just warned that diabetes - largely preventable - is already a $1-billion annual cost to the health care system. Within a decade, that will double unless we change our ways.
All three stories point to the need to start a debate on just how we're going to handle self-inflicted illness and injury when it comes to allocating scarce treatment resources.
Provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall focused on diabetes in his annual report. About 220,000 British Columbians have been diagnosed with the disease, and the number is expected to reach 390,000 within 10 years. Its complications can be cruel - heart and kidney disease, amputations and death.
And the problems are, Kendall reported, largely preventable. About 90 per cent of the cases are Type 2 diabetes, and people can slash their risk - and the cost to us all - if they eat healthier diets, exercise and keep their weight down.
Which raises a question about individual responsibility and the how we allocate finite health care resources.
U.S. companies, facing a health cost crisis far greater than anything we've seen in Canada, have started to make choices, with smokers the first target. Some are increasing health care premiums for smokers, or offering incentives and support for people who quit.
And some are firing people who fail tests for tobacco use. Scotts Miracle-Gro has told its 5,400 employees they have until next fall to quit, or they'll get the chop. (About 30 states have laws protecting people from being fired for smoking.)
It's not a moral judgment that smokers are flawed. The decision is based on economics. Smokers cost too much.
The British National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence has just reported on the right of people with self-inflicted medical problems to treatment, and taken a similar approach The influential institute looked at the hard practical questions. Is it right to make a child needing a liver transplant wait in the queue behind a person whose illness is caused by years of alcohol abuse?
It's a tough question. Alcoholism is a disease too.
The institute took a cautious approach. Patients shouldn't be penalized for making themselves sick, it said. But if their behaviour reduces the chance of a successful outcome, then treatment can legitimately be delayed or denied. Why spend scarce resources on a liver transplant for someone like alcoholic former footballer George Best, who kept drinking and died within three years?
In reality health care providers have made those kinds of decisions. British National Health Managers in East Suffolk needed to save money this year, and so have stopped doing knee and hip replacements for anyone with a Body Mass Index over 30. If you're five foot nine inches and weigh 205 lbs, for example, no replacement. The surgery is riskier, outcomes poorer and artificial joints don't last as long. Joint replacements for overweight people are an inefficient use of scarce dollars.
A similar approach is take by some doctors in B.C, openly or not.
It's a difficult issue, theoretically and practically.
Type 2 diabetes, for example, is not always linked to diet and exercise. And people do not always have control over their circumstances. B.C.'s welfare rates, according to a new study from the Dietitians of Canada, don't allow a nutritious diet. Children from families on welfare are at increased risk of diabetes, and most people wouldn't argue they should be denied treatment.
But we shouldn't dodge the questions. We're already rationing surgery, often in arbitrary and unreasonable ways.
Demand and treatment options are increasing, while resources are finite. Finding the fairest, most efficient way of allocating those resources means looking at all the factors - even ones that make people uncomfortable.
Footnote: The other obvious issue is prevention. Kendall says a 25-per-cent reduction in the diabetes rate would produce annual savings of $200 million. That justifies a large upfront investment to expand existing programs aimed at increasing our health, and reducing the risk of diabetes and other illness.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

STV referendum plan, electoral boundary commission both need work

VICTORIA - Things are looking rocky for the Electoral Boundaries Commission, the panel with a lot to say about how democracy works in B.C.
So rocky - and expensive - that it's time to rethink the path ahead.
The commission is important. It will decide how the province is carved up into ridings for the next election, a process that's complicated and politically sensitive. Rural areas will lose seats, growing urban areas will gain and boundaries will be bent.
And this time the commission has to come up with riding boundaries both for the current system and the proposed single transferable vote proportional representation option. That's part of the preparation for another referendum on STV to be held along with the municipal elections in the fall of 2008.
Premier Gordon Campbell's plan for a second referendum is a clever solution to the narrow defeat for STV in May. The proposed reform just missed the required 60-per-cent threshold. But almost 58 per cent of voters backed the new system. It would be irresponsible for government to ignore that kind of message.
So Campbell announced another referendum for the fall of 2008. This time voters will have more details, including the ridings to be used under the new system.
Under STV there would be fewer, larger ridings, with two to seven MLAs each. Most of Greater Victoria could be one riding, for example, with four MLAs. On election day you would no longer just mark an 'X' beside one candidate, rejecting the rest. You would rank as many candidates as you liked.
When the votes were counted, the results would reflect the rankings. A voter might rank an NDP candidate first, and two Liberals second and third, and a Green fourth. All the votes would matter.
The result should be a more representative and diverse legislature, with MLAs who are more responsive to their communities.
Campbell's proposal makes excellent sense.
But the timing is looking like a problem. Chief Electoral Officer Harry Neufeld told a legislature committee that he is still working out all the planing details. But the tight timeline between the fall referendum in 2008 and the May election in 2009 means Elections BC will have to prepare to run the election under both systems, he says. That could mean a large cost, possibly tens of millions of dollars, to prepare for STV with the money wasted if - unhappily - the referendum should fail.
There are options. Holding the referendum along with the fall municipal elections offers some cost savings. But the overall savings might be greater if a standalone referendum in the fall of 2007 allowed Elections BC to prepare more effectively. Pushing the provincial election back six months to the fall of 2009 would ensure that the budget was debated before the vote and reduce the pressure on Elections BC to spend time and money preparing for two different kinds of elections.
A delay would also allow time to look at controversial appointment to the three-person Electoral Boundaries Commission. The commission was established back in the Vander Zalm days to take the politics out of rejigging ridings. It's always composed of Neufeld, a judge and a third member appointed by the Speaker, after consulting the premier and the opposition leader.
Bill Barisoff picked Louise Burgart of Fort St. James, part owner of Apex Alpine resort and a former school superintendent. NDP leader Carole James backed the choice, knowing Burgart from her own days as head of the BC School Trustees Association.
Burgart is likely an excellent person. But she's also a partisan Liberal, as the always diligent Sean Holman of Public Eye Online has reported. Apex has donated to the party. Burgart campaigned for successful Liberal candidate John Rustad and urged people to vote Liberal in a letter to the Prince George Citizen during the last campaign.
The appointment opens the door wide for future partisan appointments by the party in power, and a graceful way out would serve the public interest.
Footnote: The legislature's finance committee met behind closed doors last week to consider funding recommendations for Elections BC, the auditor general and other independent offices. Their recommendation may include comments on the best way to handle the whole process.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Surrey plan, Alberta test offer health care models

VICTORIA - Anybody wondering about the future of their local hospital should pay close attention to the overhaul of medical services in Surrey.
The problem was crowding at the Surrey Memorial Hospital, in the emergency room and the wards.
But the solution backed by the province wasn't a bigger hospital, or even just a larger ER. Instead the services are being carved up into separate centres, with the aim of reserving acute care hospital beds and high-end emergency care for those who really need them.
So the health region has just opened a "minor treatment unit" for people who don't really need the full emergency service but show up there anyway. Instead of clogging the waiting room and sitting for hours - and creating more delays for people who really need emergency care - they get sent off to the minor treatment centre.
A massive ambulatory care centre is going to be built nearby, sort of a junior hospital. People who need outpatient care, day surgery and other activities that don't require the acute care support can be treated there. It will include a primary care clinic housing family doctors, and people to help with chronic disease management.
The idea is simply. Get every patient into the system where it makes sense. Increased specialization allows cost-efficiencies and wait time management, and you can avoid the high cost of having someone who only needs minor first aid clogging a busy emergency room.
Health Minister George Abbott is an enthusiastic backer of the approach, being tried for the first time in B.C. He expects a similar strategy any time hospitals are built or expanded. "What we're seeing is very much a model for the future," Abbott says.
Hospitals in Salmon Arm, Kamloops, Kelowna and Nanaimo are already under increasing pressure. Abbott says a similar approach will be taken in those communities, although changes will likely be incremental.
The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives released a study this month that advocated taking the concept farther. Dr. Michael Rachlis said governments should be building more specialized surgical clinics for minor procedures and low-risk surgery. A clinic that does only knee and hip replacements can deliver faster, better care at lower cost, just like a service station that does only oil changes.
Rachlis also wants governments to pay a lot more attention to "queue management," the science of moving people from start to finish smoothly and quickly. He argues people wait too long for surgery even when enough operations are being done, because the system is clunky. Patients move through a series of tests and specialists visits with little co-ordination and frequent long delays. Simply managing that process efficiently cuts waiting times.
A report on an Alberta experiment this week confirmed that the approach can work. In the first eight months of a new approach to hip and knee replacements, the wait from getting a referral to specialist to surgery was cut to three months. It had been averaging 20 months.
The project included money to keep operating rooms open. But many of the gains came from managing patients' progress through the system, and eliminating needless waits for tests or to see specialists or physiotherapists. A change as simple as scheduling all tests and consultations for each patient for one day cut out long delays.
Any increased costs were recovered. People who wait almost two years for surgery lose income and suffer, and their health deteriorates. Because patients got surgery before their health began to fail, the average hospital stay was cut from 6.2 days to 4.3 days - an enormous cost saving.
Some of the principles may be harder to apply in smaller centres, although the idea of clinics that are also "minor treatment units" may may good sense where a full emergency room can't be justified.
But the new approaches, in Surrey and across the mountains in Alberta, show that health care problems can be solved within the current system.
Footnote: B.C. needs to make improvements. The province is meeting most of the first handful of wait time standards agreed to by the provincial health ministers. But the province isn't close to providing knee and hip surgery within the required six months. More than half the patients wait longer than that. Many wait much longer.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Harper and Layton fare best in debate round one

VICTORIA - Not a bad leader's debate night in Vancouver, although I did feel a bit of a loser spending my Friday evening in front of the television.
Nobody scored a big breakthrough, nobody stumbled badly, but I'd call it a better night for Stephen Harper and Jack Layton than it was for Paul Martin.
They had much easier jobs.
For Harper, the challenge was not to look like an angry right-winger. He mostly succeeded, at least after the first few minutes. The debate relied on taped questions from Canadians. The first one came from a mother with a lesbian daughter, who wanted to know what the parties would do about same sex marriage.
The other three leaders said the issue is one of fundamental human rights and the decision has been made.
Harper offered his new position that while he would allow a free vote on same sex marriage, he would not use the charter of rights' notwithstanding clause to force a ban on same sex rights.
As Martin pointed, it's a foolish position. The charter protects the right to same sex marriage. The free vote is meaningless without a commitment to go the next step and over-rule the charter.
But aside from that, Harper did well. His plan to cut the GST came across as simple and progressive compared with Martin's less coherent defence of other tax cuts. Harper got a great break because the question on the issue came from a disabled woman whose income was so low she paid no taxes. A GST cut would help her, she said, but an income tax reduction would make any difference. It's a strong platform item.
And Harper effectively defended the idea of giving money directly to parents for child care. It's not good policy, directing hundreds of millions of dollars to affluent families whose children are already receiving excellent care. But it was much more concrete than NDP and Liberal commitments to send more money to provinces to create child care spaces.
Across most issues, Harper sounded reasonable, his most important objective. Even on health care, Martin couldn't effectively raise doubts about the Conservatives' stance on issues like the increased role of private companies.
Layton also had an easier job. He wisely made it clear the NDP has no expectation of forming even a minority government. Elect New Democrat MPs, he said in a variety of ways, to make sure the other two parties don't run amok and reward their friends and backers. He hit issues like long-term care, and made a strong pitch for a better deal for new Canadians, a position that will help in close urban races in B.C.
And he wisely focused most of his criticisms on Martin, recognizing that the NDP needs to woo away Liberal voters.
Martin didn't do terribly, especially because he was the consistent target.
But his biggest challenge was to convince voters that the Liberals had something new to offer, and had learned from their mistakes. Faced with the sponsorship scandal, the best Martin could do was to continue to insist only a few people were involved, and note that he had quickly called the Gomery inquiry. It's not likely enough to ease dissatisfaction.
And Martin couldn't isolate Harper as too cozy with the Americans.
B.C. viewers who hoped a Vancouver debate might mean more attention to the province's issues were disappointed.
The other three leaders accused Martin of being slow to raise the softwood issue, and even slower to help companies hurt by the tariffs. Layton criticized the sale of Terasen to a U.S. corporation. And there was talk of the Pacific gateway. But there was nothing to convince voters that any one party would represent B.C. voters most effectively.
Harper likely convinced voters that he's not so scarey, and Layton made the NDP seem a credible option as a third party. That makes them the winners.
Footnote: Gilles Duceppe did fine, although he is largely irrelevant in these debates. He did offer the other leaders a missed opportunity when he said issues like same sex marriage shouldn't be revisited again and again once the vote has been held. No one noted the same could be said for Quebec sovereignty after two referendums.

Business joins call for energy heritage fund

VICTORIA - I remember the bumper stickers in Alberta when oil prices fell in the early ‘80s, and the jobs went away.
‘Lord, give us another oil boom. This time I promise not to blow it all.” (They were actually ruder, but you get the idea.)
The bumper stickers acknowledged a truth. We are, as a species, not good at recognizing that today’s good times won’t last.
And that’s one of the reasons the B.C. government should be looking at a special heritage fund for a share of energy revenues.
I’ve been pitching the idea for a while, but now the Progress Board has joined the cause. The board is a useful creation of Gordon Campbell, a panel of business types that reports regularly on how things are going in the province and on specific policy issues.
Last month the board released a report on energy policies. Among its recommendations was a call for an immediate look at some sort of energy heritage fund.
We are making a tonne of money right now off oil and gas. Prices are high, thanks to war and hurricanes, the reserves are good and government has done well at luring the oil companies.
But it’s not going to last. Prices will go down, fields will run dry and companies will move on to new frontiers. That’s just the way it is.
It’s a problem for governments. Use the energy money now and voters will like you. You can pay for tax cuts, or provide better health care.
But then one day the money stops flowing, and the government is in a very bad spot. People don’t like bad news.
Back in 1995 natural gas royalties were worth less than $100 million to the province. This year, it’s going to be more than $2.5 billion. The royalties were worth $27 to each British Columbian then. Now they’re worth $625 per person.
Sadly, it won’t last.
That’s the appeal of a heritage fund. If governments grow dependent on windfall energy revenues, they face nasty crashes. If they don’t spend the money, they are criticized for excessive surpluses.
But a special fund for resource revenues solves the problem, and provides a break for future generations. Slosh a billion or so a year into a heritage fund, and you end up with a cushion to help the transition when the oil and gas trickle instead of gushing. There’s money to maintain services, or train toolpushes for a new job.
And there’s a recognition that when you cash in on a non-renewable resource, you have an obligation to cut your grandchildren in on the action.
It’s not some unproven idea. Peter Lougheed, Alberta’s popular and competent premier, launched that province’s heritage fund in 1976, with a promise of 30 per cent of energy revenues. The fund was capped in 1988, but stands at $11 billion. Alaska’s fund stands at $32 billion, despite paying dividends to every resident each year. Norway has $227 billion set aside.
There are other advantages.
The B.C. government is keen on both offshore oil and gas and coalbed methane development (although the Progess Board counsels a slow, cautious approach to methane). Both are controversial, and will be more acceptable with a promise of lasting benefits.
And a coalition of environmental groups came out in support of the idea last year. They believe that a heritage fund encourages government to manage the resource prudently. A government that’s short of cash and looking for an energy windfall may be prepared to cut regulatory corners to encourage development. If the revenue is slated for a heritage fund, there is less incentive to rush.
The Progress Board thinks the province has enough immediate financial issues that a heritage fund is still in the future. But it said the government should set up an expert panel to start looking at energy revenues, and reviewing heritage fund models from other jursidictions.
The government should take the excellent advice.
Footnote: The board’s energy report has already had a big influence. It sharply criticized BC Hydro’s energy planning efforts and urged a larger government role in power policy. This month Energy Minister Richard Neufeld scuttled Hydro’s announcement of its new long-term energy plan. The report is available at

Thursday, December 15, 2005

What I said, and what Jane Morley said, on children's issues

In a recent column for the Vancouver Sun I offered my thoughts on the failures of the Child and Youth Office set up to replace the Children's Commission and the Child, Youth and Family Advocate.
Child and Youth Officer Jane Morley had a different view.
Below are the column, and Morley's response. The dedicated can find her annual report at, under publications, and judge for themselves.

Children's needs still the same, they just don't get help now
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - Jane Morley’s annual report as the child and youth officer struck me as hopeless, on so many levels.
And it added to evidence that the decision to eliminate the Children’s Commission and Child and Family Advocate was a damaging mistake.
The report, released four months later than last year, is often incomprehensible, mostly vague and about activity, not results. I have followed these issues, and I can not for the most part figure out what the report is saying.
Consider the officer’s first objective. “Contribute to increased participation of children and youth in decision-making processes related to issues affecting them personally, and acceptance of advocacy for and by children and youth as integral to their meaningful participation.”
First, that’s not really an objective. If you could figure out what that means - and I’m betting you can’t - there’s nothing measurable there, no clear actions or results, no way of judging success. No commitment.
So how is the officer doing on this topic? Not well, according to the report.
“We recognized that some confusion existed about our role in individual cases, and were also concerned about inconsistency in the way we handled telephone calls about individual cases,” the report says. “We recently established an advocacy team to provide more focus and consistency in our approach to individual disputes and complaints.”
And, by the way, the report mentions, the child and youth office gets about 1,000 calls a year from people seeking help with individual cases. That’s one-third the number the Child and Family Advocate got before the Liberals shut that avenue down in 2002. (Alberta’s Children’s Advocate handles up to 4,000 requests for help a year.)
The issues and needs haven’t changed. People just don’t get help now.
That’s by design. The former Child and Family Advocate was charged with helping families and children navigate the system. The legislation setting up the child and youth officer position bars advocacy on behalf of individuals except in “extraordinary cicumstances.”
Morley held a press conference this week to talk about her report.
I don’t think anyone left feeling that they had got answers to some of the most important questions.
Start with the most glaring. At the press conference Morley handed out a handy guide to the eight separate investigations under way into everything from Sherry Charlie’s death to the breakdown of public reporting on how government care for children.
Not one of those investigations was launched because Morley’s office raised concerns about the issues involved. Questions from families, news reports and opposition pressure uncovered the problems and forced the government - for the most part slowly and grudgingly - to act.
That’s a massive failure. The child and youth office has been up and running for more than three years. These issues should have been recognized, and raised. They weren’t.
The result has been a crisis that dominated this session of the legislature, and chaotic and overlapping investigations to try and deal with the unanswered questions.
And confirmation that effective public oversight has been lost.
I grabbed one of the last annual reports from the Children’s Commission as I was writing this. It included 24 specific priorities for the ministry to consider for the coming year, and reported in detail on progress on priorities from previous years. The commission noted it had completed and reported publicly on 137 individual child death reviews and made 101 recommendations to prevent future deaths. (The commission followed up each recommendation and about 90 per cent were at least partially implemented.) It offered exampls in the report.
The commission was also responsible for reviewing all critical injuries to children in the government’s care. It completed 32 reviews that year, half involving suicide attempts, and offered valuable findings on ways that the ministry could respond more effectively. External injury reviews are no longer done.
And the commission reported on its audit of care plans for children, and research projects on suicide and the role of alcohol in child and youth deaths.
The report was clear and specific, celebrating successes as well as noting areas for improvement. It provided insight and accountability. It let the public know that someone was watching to make sure we do our best for the children and familes who need our help the most.
It was, in short, most everything that the child and youth officer’s report was not.

Jane Morley:  Live Kids Need More
By Jane Morley
I recently received an email from a bright and lively woman who has a difficult task working with people who want to turn around their lives, many of whom are young people, some in their teens, who fall between the cracks in the system. She is a sometime journalist and knows that game very well. She writes:
My new line of work has made me acutely aware of the tremendous lack of services out there for struggling families, and I have to admit I get tired of all the media energy for this discussion about child deaths and long for them to apply the same diligence to getting services and support to the live kids.
That is exactly how I feel. I see my job as advising...and hopefully persuading...the Government to transform the child welfare system in British Columbia so that live children and youth can be better served. The excessive, and sometimes furious, focus on death reviews could well derail a genuine child welfare system transformation.
My first thought after reading Paul Willcock's column "Children's needs still the same, they just don't get help now" was a kind of despair. If an experienced journalist and former broadsheet publisher was prepared to willfully misread my annual report in such a fashion, then how could I do what I set out to do and persuade the government to stick to their plans to transform our child welfare system.  
Perhaps my politically knowledgeable friends were right when they advised me not to take the Child and Youth Officer's post. They warned that the issues and dilemmas surrounding child protection constitute an electrified third rail of B.C. politics that has shocked an often rapid succession of ministers and their deputies in Social Credit, NDP and BC Liberal governments.  For more than 30 years, this political electricity has proven fatal to most, if not all, of the superintendents and provincial directors of child welfare in their position. All those in that post were numbered among the bright up-and-comers in the system and many of them went on to have successful careers elsewhere.
This inspired a second thought, and second thoughts are often better than first ones. My second thought was to fight back against any derailment of the system's transformation and child welfare public policy improvements caused by an agitated hunt for political advantage that combines with the tabloid media's mantra that "if it bleeds it leads."  
My reasoning is straightforward. I have a statutory mandate to independently advise the government on how to transform the child welfare system.  This transformation will not happen without harnessing the strengths and commitment of those who went into child welfare to improve the lives of children and youth.  Constant negativity undermines this. There have been far too many buyouts and burnouts.
I feel an obligation, given my mandate, to try to stop the derailment. My independence is an independence to say what I believe is right, not what others want me to say. This includes the government, but it also includes the official opposition and even, dare I say it, voices in the media. If my job, in part, is to "speak truth to power" then it is important for me to recognize that the opposition and the media also have power.
I do not intend to bow to the pressure to focus on child death reviews. Nor do I intend to make broad public statements, extrapolating from the unhappy fact of child death reviews remaining undone, to join those who declare that our child welfare system is in chaos. There is no conclusive evidence that the child welfare system in British Columbia is worse today than 10 years ago or in any way significantly inferior, or superior, to the other child welfare systems across North America.
I want it to be superior. We now have a special opportunity in British Columbia to take a quantum leap forward in addressing the intransigent realities of our failure to improve outcomes for Aboriginal children in B.C. and to make our system the best in North America. The New Relationship, and the recently signed accord with First Nations, holds the promise of meaningful partnership between Aboriginal communities in British Columbia and the provincial government - a partnership that is necessary if we are to bring about transformative change for the most vulnerable children  and youth in this province.
Of course the Government need not accept my advice. They may well not like my recommendations because transformations and transitions cost money and there are many competing demands for money, including rapidly growing amounts for health and education.  But no one in government is saying don't give that advice and that is a good thing.  
It is unfortunate that Adrian Dix, the opposition critic, in ignoring, as did Paul Willcocks, the substance of my report did not take the opportunity to use it as a means to pressure the government to implement the recommendations I made. As most people who work in the child welfare system know, his Leader, Carole James, who knows first hand the system and its problems and the likely cures, is on record favoring greater aboriginal autonomy and community authority and as supporting the move to regionalization that I advocate for in my report.
I don't have all the answers. But in my annual report, I try to raise the necessary questions and issues so that government can provide better answers to protect all our most vulnerable children and youth, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Liberals flip-flop and admit child death failures

VICTORIA - Now we're getting to the truth about child death reviews.
The Liberals first denied there were any problems. Once that was clearly untrue, they denied that the failures had anything to do with chopped budgets or bad planning.
"This is not a result of anything like budget cuts," said Campbell last month as questions mounted. "The transition plan was pretty clearly laid out in the legislation."
Neither claim was true, Solicitor General John Les confirmed this week. Releasing an internal report on 713 forgotten child death files, Les said that budget cuts and mismanagement were to blame.
"There was a failure in the transition process, there was a failure to provide sufficient resources," he said. "There were failures all over the place." There was no plan.
I'm sure Campbell wasn't being intentionally misleading. He just didn't know what was going on, months after the issue had begun to create serious public concern, years after his government eliminated the Children's Commission.
That's telling. The issue wasn't important enough for anyone in government to pay attention, despite all the talk about the need to learn from children's deaths.
That's the root of the failures.
The Children's Commission used to review all child deaths in the province, and investigated about 170 a year in detail. It looked for lessons that could be learned, and reported publicly. In opposition, Campbell was a huge supporter.
But the Liberals were looking to cut costs in 2002. So they eliminated the commission, and the Child and Youth Advocate. A new Child and Youth Officer position was created, with a limited mandate. The responsibility for child death reviews was shifted to the coroner.
Or more accurately, largely abandoned. The coroner's budget was cut by 15 per cent at the same time, so there was no chance the work could be done.
So someone - Les' summary of the report didn't say who - took one look at the 713 child death reviews that had been partially completed by the Children's Commission and decided to forget about them. Too much work, too little money. Off to the warehouse.
Les released a sketchy but welcome report on what went wrong, apologized and said he's referring the whole issue to Ted Hughes, who is already doing an investigation of many issues relating to the children and families ministry. Hughes is to deliver his first report by Feb. 28.
But the whole affair shows that the government didn't consider the child death reviews, or the other work of the Children's Commission, that important.
Otherwise the coroner would have made an issue of his inability to do the work., and the government would have responded. Rich Coleman, the minister responsible for the coroner's office, would have noticed that the reviews had stopped. Gordon Hogg, Christy Clark and Stan Hagen, the three children and families ministers, would have noticed the missing reports. Child and Youth Officer Jane Morley would have raised the issue.
Nobody did.
Morley is not convinced the reports are that useful.
But the government's position, from Campbell on down, is that they are important. "It is really a learning tool to make sure that we do whatever we can to prevent these things from happening in the future," he said.
And the government gave up the chance to learn from hundreds of deaths.
The issue goes beyond that failure, and raises questions about what else has been lost.
The Children's Commission audited ministry practices and reported on successes, and problems. It reviewed critical injuries to children in care, did special reports on issues like suicide and alcohol abuse and offered its views on the ministry's progress. The Child and Youth Advocate helped thousands of children and families deal with the ministry.
Those services were valuable. And they have been lost.
And British Columbians can only wonder what else has been lost to neglect and budget cuts.
Footnote: Les, who moved quickly on the file once it was raised, rejected claims that there was too much emphasis on the issue of child death reviews by parents, the media and the opposition. "It's entirely appropriate that we pay lots of attention to all of this," he said.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

'Popcorn and beer' shot a reminder of Liberal contempt

VICTORIA - I bet hundreds of candidates from all parties danced a little jig as Scott Reid swung in the wind after his ‘popcorn and beer’ comment.
Reid is Paul Martin’s communications director, a job that makes him immensely important to about 150 people in Ottawa. He’s also one of those party power guys who send candidates a big binder of official talking points and demand they stick to the script, as if winning a nomination means candidates lose their minds.
Reid stepped out of the backrooms and into the TV studios on the weekend, on one of those panels where political partisans snipe at each other.
He took aim at Conservative leader Stephen Harper’s promise of $1,200 a year in child care tax credits, a plan that Harper says would give parents a choice in child care. Maybe a day care centre, maybe a subsidy to help a mom stay at home.
But Reid didn’t pick on Harper. He picked on parents.
"Children need care that is regulated, safe and secure and that's what we're building here. Don't give people $25 to blow on beer and popcorn,” he said on TV. “Give them child-care spaces that work."
It’s been a while since my children were that age, but that’s how I remember myself - desperate for popcorn, and beer, and more popcorn, even if it meant locking Rebecca and Sam in the basement for a week or two.
Partly, Reid just sounds stupid. Lord knows, we’ve all sounded stupid.
But the comments got so much attention because they confirm something a lot of voters have suspected about the people at the top of the Liberal heap. They don’t really like us, or trust us. They believe they are much smarter, and wiser. They really think that given a choice you would spend your money on beer and popcorn, and send your toddler off to set pins in some throwback bowling alley.
That starting point - that we’re too clueless or irresponsible to do the right thing - has broader implications. Why let Canadians make other choices, or provide too much information, when the Liberal party knows best?
Perhaps that’s why Reid didn’t focus on the real problems with the Conservatives’ child care proposal.
Harper’s plan would give every family $1,200 a year for each child under six, and let them decide how to use it - for licensed child care, or a babysitter or to help a parent afford to stay home. The money would be taxed, but it could be claimed as income by the lowest earning parent in the household.
The plan fails the common sense test. A family with an annual income over $1 million would get the same grant as a single parent earning $20,000. That’s a waste of scarce tax dollars.
The aim should be to spend money where it makes a difference, and sending cheques to the affluent doesn’t. Their children have the advantages that give them a headstart in life, and their parents can afford the care that’s required.
The real payback - morally and economically - would come from spending on the children who need the help. Who without it, will start school at a disadvantage so great they may never recover. Don’t send their parents $100 a month; spend what it takes to give those children a chance.
The Liberal and NDP plans are similarly unfocused. They plan to continue spending to create licensed child care spaces, without any clear method of ensuring that children who most need support are the priority. (The NDP would increase the child tax credit to help low-income families get child care.)
The details of all three plans will probably remain bit sketchy for most busy Canadians.
But they will remember that Paul Martin’s party thinks they’re too stupid and irresponsible to handle $1,200 a year in child care funding, and would choose popcorn and beer over the future of their children.
Footnote: The popcorn and beer comment wasn’t a slip of the tongue. It reflected Liberal strategy. Reid made the comment on a CBC political show. Liberal strategist John Duffy used the same words on CTV talk show the same day, showing the party brains had considered the attack a good idea.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Olympic costs a growing worry for taxpayers

VICTORIA - It's time to get a little nervous about what the Olympics could cost you.
Olympic organizing committee head John Furlong has just warned - again - that costs are rising quickly, and he's going to be looking for more money from government.
Furlong is vague about how big the financial problem is, and what the options are. But there's not enough money in the current Olympic budget to cover rising costs, he says.
Don't panic, but check your wallet. The provincial government is solely responsible for Olympic cost over-runs, both for capital projects and the Games operations. That's a commitment made by the NDP, and maintained by the Liberals. "The B.C. government will guarantee the potential financial shortfall of the Olympic Organizing Committee," says the formal deal signed by Premier Gordon Campbell.
Campbell says everything will be fine. "Everyone is going to have  to work to make sure they do this within budget and I'm comfortable that they  will," he says. "That's why there's a big contingency in place."  But then Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau promised taxpayers that " The Olympics can  no more lose money than a man can have a baby," and those Games lost $1 billion.
That kind of disaster seems highly unlikely.  But it's hard to be sure, because of the secrecy surrounding Olympic spending.  All in, the Games are supposed to cost something like $2.3 billion to stage -  $620 million for construction, $1.5 billion for operating costs and $139 million for a contingency fund.
You're not on the hook for all the costs. The organizing committee expects $1.3  billion - about 45 per cent of the budget - to come from ticket sales and  sponsorships.
But that leaves taxpayers paying about $1 billion, with 80 per cent of that to come  from provincial taxpayers. Plus any deficit or over-run.
The immediate problem is that you have no idea how well things are going, how your money is being spent or what the risks are. The Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee - VANOC, as it’s called - isn’t accountable to the taxpayers who are paying the bills.
VANOC released its latest financial statements last week, but there's no management commentary to explain the numbers. It's unhelpful to learn $1.2 million has been spent on the figure skating venue without knowing whether it is on budget, or ahead of schedule.
The provincial government has three directors on the 20-person VANOC board, including close Campbell advisor Ken Dobell. Presumably the premier knows what’s going on.
But we don’t, so we have to guess.
Furlong said more money is needed because the Olympic's costs were all stated in 2002 dollars . B.C. construction costs are running up to 50 per cent higher than they were in 2002, Furlong says. (Revenues were also in 2002 dollars.)
Push the numbers forward on the basis of Furlong's statements, and you come up with something like a current worst-case $365-million shortfall. The budget includes a $139-million contingency fund, and Furlong says about $85 million has already been cut from venue costs. So figure $140 million to come from taxpayers, not a terrifying amount.
That's only a wild, uninformed guess, based on the sketchiest information.
And that's the problem. The public is paying the bill, but is being kept in the dark.
Things may improve in the New Year. The government refused calls to have the province's auditor general appointed as the official Games auditor, a bad decision.
But Auditor General Wayne Strelioff still plans an annual look at Olympics financial planning and progress, with the first report due in February or March. It will be a general overview; budget cuts have left the auditor general unable to monitor individual capital projects.
There's no need for panic. But there is a need to recognize that provincial taxpayers are going to pay for any Olympics deficit. They deserve much more information about how things are going.
Footnote: The cost concerns aren't new. Former finance minister Gary Collins was worried about rising costs in 2002. Strelioff gave the Games financial planning good grades in 2003, but warned that the contingency fund wasn't large enough and that there was no margin for error or bad luck. And Furlong first raised concerns about rising costs in April 2004.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Hydro's energy plan and Site C slam into political doubts

VICTORIA - The Liberals' pledge to keep politicians' hands off Crown corporations like BC Hydro is fading fast.
BC Hydro's brightest and best have been labouring away on a long-term energy plan, with the Site C dam as the centrepiece.
This week was supposed to be the big unveiling. Hydro CEO Bob Elton announced a press conference where he would be flanked by business types, and vice-presidents were fanning out to meet with the media.
And then 20 hours before the big announcement, the politicians pulled the plug.
"In consultation with government, we have now decided to postpone this release and will be doing further work to ensure that this plan meets the needs of ratepayers," Elton said in a terse news release. Hydro's future also needs to be "fully reviewed in the context of government's energy policies."
The order was not well-received in Hydro. The 20-year Integrated Energy Plan has been more than a year in the making, with a high-profile advisory committee, public meetings and lots of consultants and studies. It was to be the definitive look at energy needs for the next two decades, and the best way to meet them. The BC Utilities Commission was set to review it.
Something has gone seriously wrong when the politicians step in at the last minute, stepping all over Hydro's board and management.
Energy Minister Richard Neufeld said the government wanted more time to review the plan, which was presented to Liberal MLAs at a caucus meeting this week. The Crown corporation just got a little ahead of itself, he said.
But Neufeld didn't rule out changes before the plan goes to the utilities' commission.
The explanation leaves a few questions. The government has known for a year the plan was going to the utilities' commission this month, and for days that the announcement was scheduled for this week. There were no big surprises in the document, as energy ministry officials have been involved with the process all along.
So the last-minute cancellation suggests someone - the caucus, the premier's office - got nervous.
There's lots to get nervous about. Hydro's assessment of energy needs and the solutions it backs will have huge implications for the provincial economy. If it underestimates demand, B.C. will need to buy more expensive power from the U.S. If Hydro overestimates, the corporation will build power plants it doesn't need. Both would cost consumers money. If it makes the wrong choices on issues like big coal-fired plants versus small hydro projects, the province's economy is affected.
Hydro's preferred plan is likely based on building the Site C dam across the Peace River near Fort St. John, as well as energy conservation measures and additional power from private producers.
Site C makes a lot of people nervous. The $3.5-billion project was already scuttled by opponents once, in 1991. Independent power producers don't like the proposal, because they want to supply the electricity. First Nations have issues about lost hunting land when thousands of acres are flooded. And the accuracy of Hydro's cost projections have come under fire.
The Liberals have made much of the need to let Crown corporations operate without political interference, never missing a chance to talk about the $460 million lost thanks to the NDP's half-baked fast ferries project.
But there's been increasing recognition that leaving Crown corporations to their own devices carries its own risks and missed opportunities.
The BC Progress Board, a business panel appointed by the premier, weighed in last month with a report saying government, not BC Hydro, should be setting energy policy. "BC Hydro is seen by many concerned parties to heavily outweigh the ministry in staff and resources, which puts the government in the position of not being able to provide adequate oversight and direction," said the panel, chaired by Victoria newspaper mogul David Black.
The last-minute scuttling of the launch of BC Hydro's energy plan suggests the government has come to the same conclusion, and is reining in the Crown corporation.
Footnote: Things will get complicated quickly if the government wants significant changes to the plan. Hydro is supposed to present it to the utilities' commission within the next three months. Any major reworking could make it tough to meet the deadline - especially if BC Hydro's co-operation is less than enthusiastic.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The facts say children at risk aren't being properly protected

VICTORIA - Child protection is the tough front line for social workers.
A teacher calls and reports a little girl is coming to school on snowy days with no coat. A neighbour reports that a toddler keeps showing up with new bruises. A teen is reported to be using drugs, or in the sex trade.
The ministry has to investigate to make sure the children are safe, and take action if they aren't. It can be risky to leave children in a home; it can be tragic to remove them and send them to live with strangers, or even family
members. There are few easy choices.
By its own standards, the ministry is failing. The ministry's standard says that child protection investigations are concluded "when all the information is gathered to determine whether a child needs protection, and what steps, if any,
are required to address the child's need for protection."
That work is supposed to be done in 30 days.
But the New Democrats released figures for October that showed that barely one in five child protection reports was being completed in the appropriate time.
Almost 45 per cent of cases were still open three months after the investigation started.
The ministry was dismissive, characterizing the issue as one of "paperwork." If there is any indication a child is at high risk the ministry acts immediately, said minister Stan Hagen. And anyway, staffers said, things were as bad under the NDP.
The last observation - supported with several years worth of statistics - is entirely irrelevant. The public doesn't care about politics, or which party has the worst record. They want to know if children are being protected.
Trivializing the problem as one of paperwork seems incredible. The standard, for starters, doesn't say anything about filing reports. It says child protection investigations are complete when the risk is assessed and needed
steps taken to ensure child safety. That's supposed to happen within 30 days, and it's not.
And the observation that the ministry moves quickly when it detects high risk isn't really reassuring. The policy calls for complete, thorough prompt investigations. The statistics suggest that is not happening, and that's bad
news for children.
It's not just the NDP that is raising the concern.
The BC Association of Social Workers says child protection workers are swamped. "The caseloads are unmanageable, there's no support and there are no resources for people." says association head Linda Korbin. Reports of neglect and abuse aren't being investigated because social workers don't have time.
And Susanne Dannenberg, a child protection worker in Victoria, resigned over the issue. It can take months before serious safety concerns are investigated, she said. Dannenberg said the fear that child would die because of something she had been unable to do had become too much.
It leaves you, as the people who have a responsibility to help these children, in a tough spot.
The ministry says everything is fine.
But the statistics and the workers say that is not true. That children are at risk every day because warnings aren't being investigated.
It is another reminder of how badly B.C. needs a Children's Commission.
This is exactly the kind of issue the commission investigated and reported on. The commission would audit a sample of child protection cases, assess the strengths and weaknesses in the ministry's response, and report. It would
follow up, to see if things improved.
If there was no cause for concern, the public would know.
If there were problems, the public could demand that it be fixed - before some tragedy like the death of Sherry Charlie prompted a flood of overlapping reviews and investigations.
British Columbians have lost something very important. We're no longer have the ability to be confident that we're fulfilling our responsibilities to the children who need us the most.
The Liberals say trust us. Everything is fine.
It is an answer they would have never have accepted in opposition. It's one we shouldn't accept now.
Footnote: Hagen accused the NDP of fear-mongering on the issue in a response later posted to a government web site. Premier Gordon Campbell is taking a different approach. Dix and the New Democrats raised issues that needed to be
fixed, he said, and the government will act on them.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Harper's law-and-order drug talk the same failed approach

VICTORIA - It's hard to take seriously any politician who calls for mandatory minimum sentences.
That's what Stephen Harper did on his first campaign stop in B.C., casting himself as the non-nonsense sheriff from an old Western. It's time get tough on crime, especially drugs, said Harper. No conditional sentences, an end to harm reduction efforts like safe injection sites and mandatory minimum sentences for people who sell heroin, cocaine and crystal meth.
Mandatory minimum sentences are popular with politicians who can't figure out what else to do, in spite of two problems - they don't work, and they guarantee injustices.
In an earlier life I stood in a Red Deer church and watched a young mother and her three small children make their way to their usual pew without the dad who was there every Sunday. He was in a federal penitentiary.
The family business had been on the brink of collapse, and he was desperate, depressed and terrified. To get enough money to keep going for one more week he took an unloaded rifle and robbed a local bank branch, a stunningly stupid plan. He got about $2,000, was stopped by the police within five minutes, surrendered and admitted everything.
The sentencing guidelines then demanded a five-year minimum sentence for robbery with a weapon. So off he went to prison.
He had done a crime, and a serious one. The bank tellers were terrified, and despite the unloaded weapon something very bad could have happened.
But a five-year prison term made no sense.
Sentencing serves three purposes - to deter others who might offend, rehabilatate the criminal and express society's anger.
This sentence wasn't going to deter similar offenders; the essence of the crime was its lack of judgment and foresight. A five-year term wasn't needed to ensure rehabilitation, just some counselling. And most people reacted with compassion, not anger.
All that was really achieved by the strict sentencing rule was to wreck a family, leave three children without a father for a couple of years and send someone off for an expensive, destructive jail stay.
I have little doubt that without the minimum requirement, the court would have imposed house arrest or a brief jail stay.
Harper's proposed two-year minimum sentences for people arrested for drug trafficking would create the same injustices. A long sentence for a hapless addict for making a delivery or for people growing a dozen marijuana plants is not going to reduce crime.
Despite the promised minimum sentences, it's not even really going to happen. There isn't space in jails, for starters. B.C.'s prison costs are already expected to be $4 million over budget this year because of an increased number of inmates.
In fact mandatory minimum sentences often result in reduced penalties. Criminal Code penalties for impaired driving have become increasingly tough. The practical result has been that more people have fought the charges, and police and prosecutors can't handle the workload. Today only one-in-six drinking drivers caught by B.C. police is actually charged with a Criminal Code offence. The rest receive 24-hour roadside suspensions and are sent on their way.
Expect the same approach to small-time drug traffickers if Harper gets his way.
Harper's drug strategy is based on two basic fallacies - that drugs can be dealt with by attacking the supply side, and that addiction is a moral issue. "Our values are under attack," he said in Vancouver.
From Prohibition to today attacks on the supply side have failed. When enough people desperately want a product, others will profit by providing it.
The solution lies in reducing demand, through education, accessible treatment and and an attack on the issues - like poverty and mental illness - that drive addiction.
In the meantime, safe injection sites, methadone and even prescribed drugs help stabilize the problem and reduce the crime that comes when addicts scramble each day to stay alive.
Harper's drug plan is just more of the same tired, failed exercises.
Footnote: Crime is likely to continue to be an issue, because of high-profile killings in Toronto and a perception that addiction-driven property crime is a growing problem in many communities. But the fact remains that the rate for both violent crimes and homicides are lower today than they were a decade ago, according to StatsCan.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Why the federal campaign started off so dumb

VICTORIA - Day one of the federal campaign, and already the love that dare not speak its name had made the headlines.
Or loves, since as well as same sex marriage the media got all tangled up in whether politicians love their country.
It was all a warning that this campaign will be consistently weird, thanks in part to the hyperactive Blackberry-wielding operatives on both sides.
Stephen Harper raised the same sex issue right out of the gate, promising a free vote in Parliament on ending gay marriage.
It was a curious start, unless Harper just wanted to get the issue over with before the serious campaigning started. Polls show that a majority of Canadians want the law recognizing same sex marriage to stand.
They recognize that the change has no practical impact, since same sex couples already had the same legal and economic rights as other couples. Churches aren't compelled to recognize same sex marriages. (As we saw in the BC Human Rights Tribunal ruling, the Knights of Columbus can even legally deny same sex couples the rental of their hall for a reception.)
The whole debate is only about whether people can get a piece of paper from the state that says they're married. But it is the kind of issue that spooks voters looking for a moderate alternative to the Liberals. Eliminating same sex marriage means using the notwithstanding clause to remove Charter of Rights protections for some Canadians. That rightly scares people.
It wasn't just the love between people that made the news on day one.
Two questions into Harper's first scrum, and a reporter noted Paul Martin had already been talking about his values and affection for Canada. "Do you love this country," the reporter asked the Conservative leader.
It strikes me as a stupid question, but I'm sure other reporters have thought the same thing about some of the things I've asked.
"I think Canada is a great country," Harper said, and then talked about his travels across the land.
But, like some nervous guy hovering at the critical point in a new relationship, he didn't use the ''L" word.
Then things got really weird, thanks to the gaggle of spinners hovering around the candidates and lurking in their campaign war rooms. (A name that should offend people who fought in real wars.) Technology has meant campaigns are increasingly about instant responses to real and imagined missteps by the other side. Printing press releases was too slow; now email messages fly through space into handlers and reporter's Blackberries.
So within an hour the Liberals were zipping off emails to reporters saying Harper doesn’t love Canada. Within two hours, some commentators were speculating that the Conservatives had planted the question to make Harper look good, while others suggested the Liberals planted it to make Harper look bad.
By mid-afternoon, Martin had incorporated the issue into his speech, mocking Harper's reticence and yelling out his love for Canada like a giddy schoolboy.
Within another hour Harper's handlers had rewritten his speech, so at the next campaign stop he complained that Martin was suggesting only Liberals could really love Canada.
It was all wildly foolish, manufactured and irrelevant, and you can expect a lot more of the same over the next seven weeks.
Desperate for some fresh angle to make the news, political operatives in all campaigns have moved into instant response mode. The bulletins and fact checks and gloating comments fly back and forth so quickly that it sometimes seems the candidates' camps are having a conversation largely with each other. The relevance to voters is certainly dubious. (A fact forgotten by reporters trapped in the strange world of the leaders' campaigns, desperately seeking something new to write about the same speeches.)
They all love Canada, or like it a lot, or have warm feelings toward it, even Gilles Duceppe probably. It was a stupid issue. And it won't be the last.
Footnote: The campaign in B.C. is off to a slow start, with the Liberals and the Conservatives rushing to get a full slate of candidates nominated. All three main parties hope to gain ground in the province, with Liberals buoyed by improved poll standings and New Democrats hoping the party's provincial resurgence is a good sign.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Taylor woos the unions with a tempting cash offer

VICTORIA - Finance Minister Carole Taylor has made a useful stab at improving public sector bargaining, offering some $1.3 billion worth of carrots.
She didn't need to bring out any stick; the government's willingness to whack unions around is already well-established.
Taylor needed to find a new approach. The government is heading into negotiations with unions and associations representing some 300,000 workers over the next six months, about 90 per cent of the public sector. It has lots of extra money that unions are eying, and learned from the teachers' strike that the public is tired of imposed settlements.
So Taylor tried to rejig the process.
No more standard wage mandates - a freeze, or two, two and two.
Now the government will set different mandates for groups based on market conditions. Skilled labour, much in demand, can expect bigger increases. Groups already paid ahead of their private sector counterparts, or other provinces, can expect less.
And she's hoping unions and employers will tailor individual agreements to their circumstances. Some people may want time off, or more support, more than they want money.
There's still an overall ceiling on wage and benefit cost increases. The government figures surpluses between now and 2010 will be about $14 billion. (Likely a low estimate.)
It wants to spend $2.6 billion on debt repayment, and split the rest between contract settlements and other expenses.
That leaves about $5.7 billion, or enough to increase total wage and benefit spending by 2.7 per cent a year over each of the next four years.
Not a bad starting point. Unions are going to be looking for increases that match inflation - figure two per cent a year - and provide some catch-up for the ground they lost to wage freezes and rollbacks in the last contract. The money on the table gets them close.
But Taylor went farther. Soaring natural gas prices have pushed the expected surplus for this year to almost $3 billion.
The government has offered unions and associations like the BC Medical Association have a shot at $1 billion of that money - if they can negotiate quickly enough to sign a new contract by the time the fiscal year ends March 31.
The money would have to be used for a one-time payment, but that leaves a lot of room. The cash - about $3,300 per person - could be paid out as signing bonus, or used to bail out benefit plans running into difficulty.
Practically, there are some big hurdles. Most of the unions are still preparing their bargaining positions. Getting a deal in the limited time remaining - especially given the history of mistrust - will be a huge challenge.
But the money is a strong incentive for the unions, while employers who drag their feet will face even tougher talks once the $1 billion is off the table.
The province has also tried to encourage four-year deals, taking the contracts past the Olympics and the next election. As long as there is at least a $450-million surplus in 2010, the unions that sign longer deals will share in $300 million. That means at least an extra 1.6 per cent that year, on top of the negotiated increase.
A lot can go wrong.
Unions traditionally have huge difficulty with settlements that offer different members different rewards. The government would like an electrician - much in demand - to get a bigger raise than the janitor who works the same shift. That's a tough sell.
And the different wage mandates for different sectors - although entirely appropriate - are going to spark fierce debate in the union movement.
Negotiators for the employers, who have become used to just saying no, will also have to show creativity and flexibility.
I have no idea if it's going to work.
But this a well-crafted starting point, with the potential to help both sides develop a much more mature, productive bargaining relationship.
Footnote: The new approach faces a tough test in the form of talks between the government and the BC Medical Association. Doctors have to decide early in the New Year whether to go to arbitration or continue talks. Their approach may send a message about whether the government's approach will fly.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

B.C. needs federal parties to rise above the muck

VICTORIA - Victoria-area Liberal MP Keith Martin summed up the election in a depressing way minutes after the government fell.
Who do you dislike less, he asked, Paul Martin or Stephen Harper?
OK, it wasn’t put quite that flatly, but I heard Martin offer a sorry choice. Sure, you may not like Paul Martin, he said, but jeez look at the alternative.
The interview could be a preview of the long, negative campaign ahead leading to the Jan. 23 election.
Keith Martin is right. Most Canadians are unhappy with the available choices.
Paul Martin is seen as a dithering opportunist with no principle more important than holding on to power. Martin was steadfastly silent on softwood, for example, never even calling U.S. President George Bush on the phone, until the election came closer and he turned hawkish. His party is linked to corruption and waste.
Stephen Harper strikes Canadians as an angry guy with some extremist candidates and an inability to offer a clear idea of what Canada would look like after a decade of Conservative government. (Jack Layton and the NDP may end up with an important role in a minority government; the NDP is not going to form the government.)
Polls show a majority of Canadians disapprove of the performance of both leaders.
It’s not an inspiring starting point for a campaign. With no dominant issues so far, and no positive momentum, both the main parties are looking at a largely negative campaign.
This will be an extremely close race. The polls vary, but most show the two main parties effectively tied. Unless there is a dramatic shift in support, every seat will be important.
That’s potentially good news for B.C. The province’s 36 seats are still much less significant than Ontario’s 106, but in this campaign all parties will have to focus on B.C. to capture critical seats.
The Liberals did that in the 2004 election, with some success. Paul Martins’ BC Dream Team included some weak links, but organizers claim the focus helped the Liberals move from five seats to eight, at the Conservatives’ expense.
Conservative organizers acknowledge the party fumbled in B.C. in ‘04, failing to tailor the campaign to regional concerns. The national effort - aimed at Ontario, naturally - failed to resonate. It treated the Liberals as the major opposition, even though the NDP was a serious factor in B.C.
And the Tories lost five seats, falling to 22 MPs. More critically, the party;’s share of the popular vote - despite the Alliance-Conservative merger - plummeted.
Strategists say they’ve learned their lesson, and promise a more targeted B.C. effort this time around.
But they face a big challenge. A Mustel Group poll found the Conservatives with the support of 24 per cent of decided voters, trailing the NDP, at 33 per cent, and the Liberals, at 38 per cent.
The anger at the Liberals over the sponsorship scandal is real, but Harper has not succeeded in presenting himself as a tolerable alternative. The anti-Liberal vote in B.C. is as likely to go to the NDP as it is to the Conservatives.
There is always hope for a better campaign. Perhaps by the time the real drive starts after Christmas the parties will become worried about the risks of a discouraged and alienated electorate, and begin speaking more about the issues that matter to Canadians and less about why the other leader is an ogre who can not be trusted.
British Columbians should hope so. There are a number of critical issues - softwood, the pine beetle, tourism, health care, First Nations - where federal leadership is needed.
A start has been made, with $100 million pledged for pine beetle aid and a number of commitments linked to the Kelowna summit on aboriginal issues.
But much more needs to be done. And that is what British Columbians should be demanding that all candidates talk about over the next seven weeks.
Footnote: Gordon Campbell says he’s confident that B.C.’s issues won’t be casualties of the election campaign. But even if initiatives like pine beetle aid and support for First Nations’ initiatives survive the election, action will be delayed, perhaps into next fall.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Take a bow MLAs, the legislature is a better place

VICTORIA - You can feel pretty good about the eight-week session of the legislature that just wrapped up.
Not great. There were still some bleak moments.
But the politicians patting themselves on the back as the session ended were right. The Liberals and New Democrats made a big effort to improve the way the B.C. legislature worked, with impressive results.
Some of the progress was just a question of modifying behaviour; some involved significant structural changes. The result was a legislature that did a much better job of reflecting your values and protecting your interests.
The legislature in the past has been described as a zoo with particularly loud and unpleasant animals. I've sat in the gallery and watched school children stare in horrified amazement at the bullying and shouting and insults. Behaviour that would land them in deep trouble on the playground was considered acceptable, maybe even clever.
It was mystifying how bright, responsible people could lose their way so totally.
But this fall they mostly haven't. There's been bluster and the occasional foolish rant, but overall people have been polite and courteous. They've listened when others were speaking, instead of shouting, and they've followed the capable direction of Speaker Bill Barisoff.
I know, it doesn't sound like much, but it's a big change.
But it's not just the tone that's different. The Liberals - to their credit - agreed to double the length of Question Period, to 30 minutes.
Question Period tends - rightly or not - to be the focus of political parties and journalists. It is the opposition's time to question ministers, and they generally hope to raise issues that will make the news.
At 15 minutes - the shortest in the Commonwealth - Question Period used to focus almost entirely on the one big hit, the issue that could lead the evening newscasts.
But the longer Question Period has created time for the opposition to raise many more issues. Regional problems that would never have got an airing, individual concerns, small but important issues have all at least made it on to the agenda.
The ability to press more thoroughly on the major issues has also made ministers look transparently foolish if they persist in non-answers.
And from time to time, there has even been exchanges that sound much like two people trying to solve a problem.
There's been some weird comments that somehow the changes have made the legislature less effective. Rudeness isn't effectiveness, and the session has shown that MLAs can press their points without acting like jerks.
Much of the credit goes to Campbell and Carole James. But the two House leaders, Mike Farnworth for the NDP and Mike de Jong for the Liberals, have played a large role. They've reined in their more excitable colleagues and co-operated to develop a schedule for debate that left both sides happy. This is the first session I can recall where the opposition wasn't complainingg about debates cut short as the government railed against opposition stalling.
OK, there was the collective madness that led to the sneaky attempt to bring in a big MLA pay raise and a costly pension plan. But maybe that will be helpful too. The MLAs who thought quietly that the whole thing was a bad idea, but didn't speak up, now know they should have.
Mostly, there was a sense of relief that after four years there is an opposition. Joy MacPhail and Jenny Kwan worked hard, but the government was not held to account, its plans only barely examined and legislation passed without proper review.
The Liberals may have preferred a much smaller NDP opposition, but most welcome a return to a functioning legislature. Who knows, a larger opposition in their first term may have headed off some of their larger mistakes.
Can it last? Sure, with only a little effort.
And in the meantime, thanks to all the MLAs. It's nice to be able to watch the legislature without constantly cringing.
Footnote: The session showed that Finance Minister Carole Taylor deserved her billing as a star candidate. On the opposition side Adrian Dix, Bob Simpson, Robin Austin and Charlie Wyse were all quick to show the ability to play an effective role in the legislature.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Brandon died, and his mother deserves answers

VICTORIA - One phone conversation with Dayna Humphrey demolishes all the government's evasions on child death reviews.
Humphrey's son died more than two years ago, weeks after he was placed in a Surrey foster home. Like any mother, she wanted to know what happened, how her cheerful two-year-old could have ended up slumped in a too large wheelchair, restraint straps pressing on his neck, no longer breathing.
No one would tell her. The ministry of children and families didn't return calls. She waited seven months for a coroner's report. It was a one-page judgment, that said the cause of Brandon's death was undetermined, didn't even mention that he was in a foster home or government care and made no recommendations.
Humphrey thought placing Brandon briefly in the government's care was the best choice.
He was born three months early, weighing less than two pounds, and suffered from deafness, cerebral palsy and other problems.
Humphrey's marriage had ended. She had two other children, and needed to find work. The 24-hour care that Brandon needed, the challenge of physiotherapy and learning sign language, were too much, and she couldn't get assistance. So she placed Brandon in care for three months to get her life organized for the challenges ahead.
And then he was dead.
Humphrey tried for almost a year to get answers. "I've been slapped down at every step," she says, in a quiet voice. Finally, she gave up.
Then came the admission that files on 713 child deaths had been forgotten in a Victoria warehouse.
"I woke up at 6:30, like I do every morning, to get ready for work and turned on the news and there it was, right in front of me," says Humphrey. "I was devastated. I'm angry. I'm hurt."
She wondered whether proper reviews into those deaths would have yielded lessons that would have saved Brandon's life.
And then she wondered if other children might die, because no one was learning from Brandon's death.
Dayna Humphrey is the perfect rebuttal to the government's claims about child death reviews.
She shows that the reviews are essential, and that since the Liberals eliminated the Children's Commission meaningful reports have ceased. And she proves that there is now no way for families to get the answers they deserve.
Solicitor General John Les has claimed that the forgotten files weren't really forgotten, because the coroner did an initial report.
But the report on Brandon's death shows how inadequate those reviews are when it comes to children's deaths.
A child is in a foster home, left unattended in a wheelchair that doesn't fit him, and dies. And the result is a one-page report with no recommendations. It doesn't look at why a proper wheelchair wasn't available; why he was left alone; whether the number of children in the home was a factor; or even whether support would have allowed Brandon to stay at home.
Les maintains that a child death review team in the Coroner's Office has done detailed reviews on 526 children's deaths over the last three years, including Brandon's.
But only two have been released. Chief Coroner Terry Smith says he has neither the budget nor the legal authority needed to do the reviews.
And while Les says individual death reviews may be released, the coroner says that won't happen.
Questions about Brandon's death have been raised in the legislature every day this week. But Les said he hasn't asked for a copy of the child death review.
He has no answers for Brandon's mother.
When the Children's Commission, she would have got those answers. And British Columbians would have been confident that the death was properly reviewed, and lessons learned.
"That's exactly what it is I'm looking for - an independent third party that can look at these," Humphrey says. "I want to know that somebody out there is looking for my son's voice."
"All the children and all the parents deserve that much."
Footnote: Les continued to say in the legislature this week that the coroner would be releasing both individual reviews, and reports that looked at trends in deaths and specific issues. The coroner's office say that it has no plans to issue individual reports. Parents won't get answers there.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Pay and pension plans die, and the public wins

VICTORIA - The great raise and pension debacle should shake your faith in all 79 MLAs.
The plan to sneak through a 15-per-cent raise - and a pension plan that could take the total compensation increase closer to 50 per cent - was sneaky and self-serving.
Every MLA signed on to the scam last Thursday. Both the Liberals and the NDP knew the public would be furious. But they figured if they stuck together, that wouldn't much matter. What could voters do?
The deal was explicit, and clear, and NDP leader Carole James and Gordon Campbell both agreed. So did every MLA.
And they agreed that they would lift the rules of the legislature, which usually require bills to be passed over several days to allow public comment. That kind of heat could make some MLAs waver, so it took less than two hours to pass the whole thing.
There was no warning to the public that the changes were coming, no studies or consultation. The Legislative Assembly Management Committee - four Liberals, two New Democrats - worked in secret to get the deal together. No one broke the silence.
Then the public went berserk, and James got cold feet. The Liberals pulled the plug on the whole thing.
They're angry, and so are some of the NDP backbenchers. It's disturbing that somehow James couldn't see the reaction coming. And there is no doubt she broke her word.
But she's also right. The process was an abuse of the public trust, especially because of the secrecy.
The initial reports all talked about a 15-per-cent pay raise.
But the real increase, including the value of the new pension plan, is at least twice that amount, and in some cases will be up to 50 per cent.
When the pay raise was rushed through the legislature last week politicians offered a brief summary of the impact. The raises, and increased support for constituency offices, would cost taxpayers about $4 million a year, the summary said.
But it offered no cost for the pension plan.
That was a significant omission. Liberal MLA Randy Hawes, a member of the committee that developed the pension plan in secret, revealed the tab will likely be $3 million to $4 million a year.
Pension calculations are tricky. For example ex-MLAs become eligible for the pensions at 55. If they quit at 35, then their contributions pile up interest for 20 years to help cover the cost of the pension. If they quit at 55, then the taxpayer is on the hook for much more of their pension cost. The plan would also allow former MLAs to buy in.
But the bottom line is that most MLAs who served two terms would have ended up with a pensions worth about $1 million. They would have contributed about $60,000. The rest of the money would have come from taxpayers.
The existing RRSP plan costs taxpayers about $500,000 a year. The new plan would cost up to eight times that much.
It's all dead now, say the Liberals, mostly because they're mad at James. Even elements of the deal which would likely enjoy public support - like increased support for constituency offices - won't be brought back. "This matter, as far as the government is concerned, is a dead issue," said Liberal House leader Mike de Jong.
Don't be so sure that will last. Liberal Lorne Mayencourt was the only MLA to vote against abandoning the raises and pension plan, offering a passionate - but mathematically challenged - defence,
Other MLAs on both sides of the House share his views.
And MLAs likely deserve a pay increase, and a sensible pension plan.
But this effort was an abuse of the public.
Perhaps when the issues do come back, politicians will recognize the importance of openness and appoint an independent commission to tackle the tough questions, and come up with sensible, affordable proposals.
Footnote: Campbell had to tread carefully. He was a consistent opponent of MLA pension plans in opposition. And in 1997 he agreed to improve pension benefits for some MLAs, backing a deal negotiated by then Liberal House leader Gary Collins. Campbell, like James, reneged, leaving Collins to dangle in the wind. Just as James left Mike Farnworth.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Government failed 713 forgotten children

VICTORIA - They sat in a Victoria warehouse for almost three years, partially completed reviews of the deaths of 713 children.
Almost 50 children who killed themselves. Twenty-five who were victims of homicide, and another 25 whose deaths were still mysteries. Fourteen who were in the government’s care.
Apparently no one in government had noticed that the deaths had fallen through the cracks when the Liberals eliminated the Children’s Commission.
Solicitor General John Les walked into the Press Theatre this week to announce the forgotten children, only days after he had said there might be about 80 cases. Work will start now on the forgotten reviews, he said, and his deputy minister will report on what went wrong.
I can offer some suggestions.
The Liberals eliminated the Children’s Commission in 2002 and handed the responsibility for child death reviews to the Coroner’s Office. But they cut the coroner’s budget by $600,000 at the same time, without reducing his responsibilities. The Children’s Commission, by my best guess, had been spending about $1.5 million a year on child death reviews. The coroner was doomed to fail.
And the government made the change without any real transition plan, or monitoring system.
Premier Gordon Campbell denied that this week. The legislation clearly set out a transition plan, he said.
But the premier is forgetful. The Office of Child and Youth Advocate Act simply says the Children’s Commission must transfer any remaining incomplete death investigations to the coroner’s office. The coroner “may” continue the investigations, the law says.
That’s the supposed transition plan. And it was followed. The coroner signed for the 713 incomplete death reviews, taking legal control of the files. And then they sat in the warehouse.
Why does it matter?
For the families of those children, it matters because some wanted answers. They wanted to know why their children died. They hoped that the deaths would gain meaning if something was learned that would help others.
For government, and all of us, it’s important to understand any lessons that could help prevent future deaths. That is the purpose of child death reviews.
And in 713 cases, that wasn’t done.
What is more worrying is that no one noticed. The ministers who should have been paying attention over the last few years - Rich Coleman, Gordon Hogg, Stan Hagen - all said they have no idea what happened.
But those cases represent about two years worth of deaths. How can the government, if it is paying attention, not notice that those reports have just dropped from sight?
Ted Hughes is looking at the whole system of death reviews. He was chairing a panel that included Child and Youth Officer Jane Morley and Chief Coroner Terry Smith. Hagen changed that Friday, handing sole responsibility to Hughes.
That’s reasonable. Morley designed the current system; Smith, according to the premier’s interpretation, was legally responsible for the 713 incomplete investigations. They shouldn’t have been on the review panel.
The small good news is that this failure should end the government’s claim that public accountablility and open reporting is unnecessary.
The Children’s Commission, and the Child Youth Advocate, reported frequently on how children were faring in B.C. The commission reported publicly on close to 200 deaths a year, and over its history made 800 recommendations to keep children from harm.
In the last three years the coroner has released a report on one death, and one report on keeping children safe in bed. It says it has done 546 other child death reviews, but hasn’t released them, or shared recommendations.
And all the while the government has maintained that all is well.
But the Sherry Charlie case and the 713 forgotten children show that all is not well. The secrecy has made it impossible to tell how large the problems may be, or what we must do to respond.
It’s time to admit a major mistake, and restore full, independent reporting on the lives - and deaths - of children in B.C.
Footnote: Campbell said this week that all of the 713 deaths had already received a coroner’s review, which determines cause of death and other basic information. But in fact 40 per cent had received no review before being sent to the warehouse. The coroner says he hasn’t yet begun doing any full child death reviews and needs more money and authority.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

MLAs' secretive pay grab an abuse of public

VICTORIA - You have to wonder if the Liberals and NDP lost their collective mind in their rush to raise their salaries.
In the morning the government admitted that 713 children's deaths weren't properly investigated, their files forgotten in a Victoria warehouse.
And in the afternoon both parties rammed through a 16-per-cent pay raise for all MLAS, taking their base to $86,580.
Most will get extra money for heading up committees, or filling party posts, with a half-dozen MLAs getting pay jumps of at least 30 per cent.
Premier Gordon Campbell will see his pay jump 22 per cent to $146,000 on April 1; NDP leader Carole James and cabinet ministers are up 15 per cent to $131,000.
MLAs also restored their pension plan, even though the Liberals led the crusade to get rid of the former plan.
I have no problem with a raise. Most MLAs sacrifice much to do the job, personally and financially. Their pay should reflect that. And a sensible pension plan also makes sense.
But this was a bushwhacking. Every one of these people ran for office six months ago knowing what the compensation was. None of them suggested that one of their first priorities would be to get down to the business of increasing their pay.
And the entire deal was reached in secret meetings of a legislative committee, with not one word of public discussion or debate. No outsiders were involved; no independent review was done.
MLAs even voted unanimously to suspend the normal rules of the legislature to get the increase approved in 51 minutes. The rules require bills to be debated over several days, to allow public debate and sober second thought.
The change sets the stage for continued big increases.
The MLAs voted to set their pay from now on at 60 per cent of the salary of federal MPs. But federal MPs salary increases are already controversial. They've linked their pay rates to federal judge's salaries, which are set by a commission and have been soaring.
It's remarkably brazen, and unfair to the public. Why not a discussion of linking MLAs' pay to the average weekly wage in the province, so they gained as all British Columbians gained?
Or why not appoint a commissioner - the route taken in the past - to look at MLAs' pay and come up with public recommendations?
The secret deal stinks.
And it is going to create massive headaches. Don't forget that every public sector contract is up for renegotiation over the next seven months. Teachers, for example, fresh from their legislated contract with no pay increases, will soon start their next round of talks.
And predictably enough BCTF head Jinny Sims says the union will now be looking for 15 per cent. Doctors, nurses, government workers can now say that all they want is the same increases that MLAs voted for themselves.
Since MLAs felt no need to justify their proposed increase to their employers - that's you - the unions can make the same demand.
There's no easy way for politicians to increase their pay, and some people will object to any raise, no matter how well-deserved.
But this secret surprise deal violate the principle of openness, transparency and fairness to taxpayers. There is no clear justification offered for the big increases, beyond the fact that MLAs thought they deserved more money.
The pension plan was re-introduced in the same rushed, secretive way. MLAs voted to bring back a pension plan without even knowing what it would cost taxpayers.
The Liberals and New Democrats stood together, with MLAs voting unanimously for the increase, so no party comes out ahead or behind.
But politicians all lose. This is the kind of behaviour that rightly fuels cynicism. This is an obvious case for third party review, an informed public discussion and some common sense.
Instead British Columbians were kept in the dark as MLAs failed to recognize their duty to the public.
Footnote: MLAs also approved a 40-per-cent increase in funding for constituency offices - badly needed for many large rural ridings - and big increases for political support staff. No justification was provided.