Friday, February 04, 2005

Tax breaks for kids’ sports, arts fees needs a hard look

VICTORIA - I feel like a bit of a grinch, raising doubts about Christy Clark's pitch for tax subsidies for parents who sign their kids up for hockey or art classes.
It's obviously appealing, and the goals make sense. Clark lined up an impressive group of backers to launch her effort, some two dozen reps from sports associations, arts groups and health organizations.
Parents are out there spending hundreds or thousands of dollars a year on programs that keep their children active and creative, she says. A tax credit would give them some of that money back, courtesy of other taxpayers, and may allow more families to get their children involved.
But there are a couple of issues, both flowing from the basic question of whether this is the best way of achieving the admirable goal of helping kids grow up happier and healthier.
The most obvious one is how you make sure that this isn't just a tax break for people who are already able to put their children into these kinds of programs. There's not much need to give a family with a household income of $250,000 a $100 tax break because they've enrolled their children in soccer and ballet.
If the policy goal is to ensure that more children participate, then any tax credit should only go to those parents who can't afford to provide the opportunities for their children now. (Or making huge sacrifices, anyway.) Fewer recepients would allow a larger tax break for the families who really needed it, and mean more children were active.
My sense was that the people supporting the idea wren't really thinking about a program only for people with incomes under $40,000, for example.
The other question, the one Finance Minister Colin Hansen is interested in, is whether this is really the best, most cost-effective way to work toward the goal.
Clark says she's leaving the details up to the finance ministry and the health ministry to sort out - her aim is to get the issue on the agenda, and push the Liberals to include some similar tax credit program in their platform for the May election.
The cost could be vary wildly, depending on how extensive and generous the program is, she says, and the important thing is to take a first step.
But say the credit is designed to cover 25 per cent of the registration costs for these progams. My best guess - wildly rough - puts the cost of providing that aid to hockey parents across the province at $4 million. (Based on 40,000 players, at registration costs of $400.) So say $50 million, when you include registration fees for dance and piano and tennis and all the rest.
The question then becomes what else could you do with that money.
It would be enough to give school districts across B.C. an extra $2,500 per class for arts and recreation programs, or launch a masive after-school program aimed at every child under the age of 12, or an even larger program focused on kids most at-risk of inactivity.
Full marks to Clark for rasiing the issue, which should lead to some sort of government response.
Children aren’t active enough, to the point that this generation will actually live shorter lives than their parents, according to Bobbe Wood of the BC Heart and Stroke Foundation. Preventable diseases - diabetes, heart and lung problems - are ging to take more lives, and add huge health care costs, unless we take action now.
Clark also deserves credit for demonstrating how a backbencher, admittedly a highly experienced one, can advance an issue publicly.
It’s an opportunity they make use of much too rarely - only this effort, Lorne Mayencourt’s safe streets bill and Steve Orcherton’s push for alternative medical treatments come to mind.
People elect MLAs to speak out publicly on the issues that matter, not just behind closed doors in caucus commmittees.
Clark showed how effective that can be.
Footnote: Clark plans a private member’s motion urging support for her plan. She said a “bizarre” rule in the B.C. legislature bars MLAs from introducing any actual bills that deal with the collecting or spending of money.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Time to ban corporate, union political donations

VICTORIA - It's time to clean up political fundraising in B.C.
That's not an attack on business, or unions, or any political party. It's simply stating the obvious. No matter what the politicians think, most voters believe that the people who write big cheques to political parties get special access and privileges in return.
Elections BC has just released its latest report on political donations, covering the first 10 months of last year.
The Liberals did well, pulling in more than $5 million, twice as much as the NDP. About 70 per cent of the Liberals' donations came from corporate and business donors.
Individuals came up with about $1.5 million, but when it came to grassroots support - people who donated less than $250 - the Liberals got only $350,000 from 8,600 people.
The NDP, despite the Liberals' frequent attempts to paint the party as under the thumb of big labour, got 80 per cent of its money from individuals. Only $360,000 came from unions. And more than half the NDP's money came from 29,000 individuals who donated less than $250. (The Greens raised $63,000.)
The Liberals' position, like the New Democrats when they were in government, is that the current system is fine. All donations must be disclosed, so the public can see if big donors get special favours.
There is an argument that corporations and unions - acting on behalf of shareholders and members - have a right to try and put up cash to help the party that they think will best serve their interests.
But the arguments against corporate and union donations have become overwhelming.
Last year's fund-raising reports show the BC Automobile Dealers' Association donated almost $60,000 to the Liberals. EnCana gave $42,000, Weyerhaeuser $27,340 and TimberWest $23,000.
Jimmy Pattison, through his various companies, donated $55,000, and Gary Collins' new employer David Ho came up with $80,000.
On the left side of the ledger, the BC Federation of Labour gave $133,000, the BCGEU $85,000 and Hospital Employees' Union about $59,000.
Those are all big cheques. And most peoples' life experience has convinced them that people who write big cheques get special attention. A study done in 2000 found almost 90 per cent of Canadians believed "people with money have a lot of influence over the government."
Both the Liberals and NDP think so too. Liberals say the NDP is in the pocket of its big union donors; the New Democrats say big corporate donors have huge influence over the Campbell party.
They agree that big donations bring special influence.
So does the public, and that breeds cynicism and distance from the political process.
There are alternatives. Manitoba has already banned corporate and union donations, and limited individual donations to $3,000. Quebec has taken similar steps.
Federally, the Chretien government banned union and corporate donations and limited individual contributions to $5,000. Instead, each year parties get $1.75 per vote they received in the last election - about $9 million a year for the LIberals, down to $1 million for the Greens.
The federal system is flawed, mainly because the funding levels are far too generous. Part of the goal of any reform should be to halt the trend that has seen politics turn into a big money business, and try to return to the time when it was built on community support and a clash of ideas. Paul Martin raised $12 million for his bid for the Liberal leadership, an indicator that only people with strong big business connections should hope to be head the party.
Gordon Campbell is opposed to change in the current funding system. Carole James says the NDP would ban both corporate and union donations.
The public should push to make this an election issue, and demand that the Liberals commit to change, or at least to refer the question to another citizens' assembly.
The public believes big money has corrupted our politics. That demands action.
Footnote: Money isn't everything. The Liberals spent $150,000 - almost twice as much as the NDP - in losing the Surrey-Panorama Ridge byelection. Liberal Mary Polak's team spent $36 per vote; New Democrat Jagrup Brar $12 per vote. Both parties were helped by outside spending, a topic for another column.

Leave it to the market, I tell the Senate media committee

(NOTE: I was invited to appear before the Senate committee on media during its two days of hearings in Vancouver. For those interested, here's a pretty good approximation of my comments, which suggest the market will sort out most problems.
And for an alternate view, check out the presentation by David Beers and Charles Campbell - Creating Counterweights to Big Media - at

Thanks for the invitation.
I'm a freelance journalist now, writing mostly about B.C. politics and providing content to daily newspapers, including The Sun, community papers, radio and occasionally television.
Although I started as a journalist, I also had a career in newspaper management.
I was a publisher of what was then Canada's only foreign-owned newspaper,
publisher and president of two newspapers for the Irvings in Saint John, New Brunswick, and a publisher and group manager for The Thomson Corporation through an interesting time. I've been on the board of the Newspaper Marketing Bureau and was vice-chair of The Canadian Press.
The point being, that I come at this from a variety of different perspectives.
I'll try and address some of the key questions I know you want to look at.
Mostly, I'll suggest that government stay out of this. That's based not on any view that the mass media are in great shape, but on my belief in where solutions lie.
But first a few general observations.
I was publisher of The Red Deer Advocate, then British-owned, when I was recruited to be CEO of New Brunswick Publishing Co. and run two daily newspapers for the Irvings.
I turned to the Kent Commission report on the media before I took the job, and it painted a bleak picture of the newspapers and the Irvings' control.
I flew off for interviews, and Arthur Irving raised the issue of interference in the newspapers' content. They would never say a word about what was in the newspapers, he said, and anyone who claimed they did would be a damn liar.
I took the job.
I have always taken my obligation to readers seriously.  I think they offer up some trust in agreeing to read the newspaper. In return, I think we have a commitment to tell them everything that they would find important or interesting as soon as we have the information.
That's what we did in Saint John. We did a series on pollution in the Bay of Fundy, which focused on Irving family businesses - pulp mills and manufacturing plants and refineries. We explored the problems for small businesses in a community when a single conglomerate with a strong commitment to vertical integration dominates the economy. We put out good newspapers.

The owners, I'm sure, were sometimes unhappy, as any business owner facing unfavorable coverage would be.
JK Irving - one of the two brothers I reported to - personally threw one of our reporters out of a company building, because the newspaper's reporting so infuriated him.
But never did the owners raise a concern with me, or send a message through some intermediary, or hint in any way that they wanted us to do anything differently.
They wanted the newspapers run well.
But they never interfered in content.
And they never worried about monthly financial performance. They just wanted to be confident we were acting competently.

After Saint John, I went to Peterborough, and was publisher of The Examiner, a newspaper with a proud history, then owned by The Thomson Corporation. My desk was the same one one Robertson Davies had used during his decade as publisher.
I felt challenged by talk of the glory days of the newspaper.
So I went  back into the bound volumes, and looked at those newspapers. And I found bad writing, superficial coverage, and a failure to reflect life in a mid-size Ontario town through a remarkable 10 years.

On to Victoria, continuing through a brief period when The Thomson Corporation was giving newspapers once last chance. 
Newspapers had been good to Roy and Ken Thomson.
They extracted remarkable profit margins from their generally monopoly newspapers.
But newspaper were seen, even then some 15 years ago, as the - and this is the ultimate curse - "a mature industry."
The corporation made what I see as a good faith effort to challenge that, gave up and sold its newspapers across North America, a $1-billion business.

I suppose the perfect newspaper owner, from an editor's or publisher's - or perhaps some committee members' - perspective would be a private, local owner, with little interest in maximizing profitability, and a matching lack of interest in influencing local events.
There have always been few of those people.
The owners I have worked for were uniformly interested in how many people were reading the newspaper, and how much cash I could send their way at the end of each month. Their concern was often in meeting whatever quarterly profit target would please the principal shareholder or investment analysts.
That is a significant factor affecting the quality of news coverage. But owners - individual or group or corporate - will always set their targets for a return on their investment.
None of the owners were interested in content, except as it related to those two factors.

There are no guarantees that owners will be disinterested. Many of Canada's newspapers were started as vehicles for the proprietor's views.
And owners have a right to say this is what I want in the newspaper.
But exercising the right brings risks. The public does notice, and react. Canwest's experiment in having newspapers run editorials expressing a common, corporate view on some issues was short-lived.
Readers reacted badly.
And the editorials ceased appearing.
And although media corporations may have dominant shareholders, managers have a legal obligation to act in the best interests of all shareholders.
If pursuing a particular viewpoint or demanding certain editorial content damages the business, those other shareholders have a right to complain, and ultimately, I suppose, a case for damages.

I am worried about newspapers, and the other mass media.
When I started working for daily newspapers, close to 80 per cent of people in most towns and cities read the paper on a typical day.
Flawed or not, the newspaper provided a shared understanding of the facts about issues. People could disagree about solutions , but they started from a common understanding of some of the basic issues. The newspaper helped make them a community.
Now the percentage of people who read a daily newspaper on a typical day is 40 per cent to 70 per cent.
That's a big erosion of our role, and in my view a loss for communities.
It should have us desperately concerned that too many people are finding that they do not need a daily newspaper as part of their lives.
But the reasons for that have little to do with changing ownership patterns, or media concentration.
Our communities have changed, and become much more diverse in every sense.  More than one-in-three Vancouver residents now self-identifies as being of Asian ethnic origin; a large percentage are relatively recent arrivals.
Daily newspapers in Vancouver, and across Canada, have not found a way to attract large numbers of those readers.
And they've struggled to convince younger readers that a daily newspaper should be a habit, not an occasional indulgence.

Despite the fears about concentration, the media world has actually become much more diverse.
It is not that long ago that people in Vancouver and its immediate suburbs had a choice of two daily newspapers, two Canadian television stations - and three U.S. stations - and a handful of radio stations.
Now they have four English language daily newspapers - three with the same owners - two Chinese-language daily newspapers, and a couple of U.S.-based daily newspapers.
And apparently soon one or more free daily newspapers.
Most households also get two community newspapers delivered to their door several times a week, and at least in this market they are competing vigorously on the strength of their editorial content. There are at least five weekly newspapers aimed at IndoCanadian readers, and dozens meeting the information needs of other ethnic communities plus a wide range of broadcasters and the Internet information sources.
Even given the concentration of ownership, it's a picture of diversity.

That's not to say  any of these media are necessarily doing a superb job.
But I haven't seen any evidence that concentration or convergence have made a significant difference - positive or negative - in the job being done for readers by the media.
I have concerns.
We've lost at least some of the potential for experimentation, with different owners taking different paths to improve the value for readers, listeners and viewers. It is natural for a large corporate owner to attempt find one best path.
And the potential for abuse does exist. An owner with a large number of properties, especially across media, could be tempted to use editorial coverage in ways that would be both unfair to readers, and anti-competitive - promoting it's television offerings in the news pages for example. That would violate the trust with readers, and provide an unfair competitive advantage.
But I haven't seen it, and so no need for action or intervention.
On to the questions you are asking presenters to consider:

1)  Do Canadians have appropriate amounts and quality of information about international, national, regional and local issues, considering availability, relevance, lack of bias and inclusiveness.

My position is that only Canadians can answer that question, and they answer it most clearly by deciding to support new sources if they are dissatisfied with existing ones.
The market is the only effective way that I can see for concerns about the media to be addressed.
The alternatives - state regulation, or councils with the ability to dictate news coverage, or more publicly funded media - all create new problems, especially around freedom of expression, that should be taken seriously.

2) Are communities, minorities and remote centres appropriately served?

Again, the market will decide that.
But my impression is that lowered costs of entry and a greater advertiser interest in target marketing have meant that in terms of their information needs they are remarkably well-served. Across much of B.C.> remote communities are served by competing newspapers; many are excellent.
The experience and priorities of minorities aren't well-enough reflected in mass media; that will change as a matter of economic survival for the various media providers.

3) Do changes in concentration or cross-ownership affect diversity in the news media or would further concentration be likely to do so?

It's almost inevitable that there would be some reduction in diversity, though much less than claimed.  Some coverage is pooled, but the media has always relied on The Canadian Press or Broadcast News or corporate news services.
Convergence has led to more pooled reporting, which reduces slightly diversity of reporters' judgments.
But the impact has been tiny, and doesn't call for a public policy response.

4)  How can the Government of Canada develop a policy and regulatory framework
that encourages an appropriate diversity of news and views without harming freedom of the press?

It's probably clear that I don't believe that it can.
The Competition Bureau and the CRTC can usefully continue to attempt to maintain market competitiveness, assessing the economic impact of changing ownership.
But beyond that any proposal to improve diversity or quality that I have seen is either ineffective or contrary to basic principles of freedom of expression.
(Often both.)
My view comes down to respect for the public. If they are not receiving the information they fell they need, they will abandon the current dominant media and seek alternatives.
If they believe corporate interests are being placed ahead of their interests, they'll quit reading or watching.
And the media will either improve, or be replaced.

6) Finally, should existing foreign ownership restrictions be changed?

Despite everything I have said, I recognize that we are moving through some large changes in the news and information world in Canada.
Allowing more foreign ownership at this time raises the possibility of a large increase in concentration. Foreign ownership means the opportunity for access to more capital; that increases the likelihood of more acquisitions and concentration.
It seems simply prudent to leave the restrictions in place until we have more experience with the effects of convergence, especially given the lack of any compelling case to change the worlds.

Thanks for the chance to speak with you.
Although I've mostly said don't do anything, I do think the committee's work is important.
And I would like to see similar reviews, perhaps smaller in scale, every three to five years.
I strongly oppose intervention.
But regular outside scrutiny and criticism would be useful for the media and for the people who rely on us.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Money raining down from Victoria, but will it win votes

VICTORIA - It's positively energizing heading into work at the Press Gallery right now, confident that each day will bring a new spending announcement to report.
The mining industry gets a $25-million boost one day, women's shelters $12.5 million the next. Schools hit the jackpot, and get $150 million. Legal aid gets $4.6 million more.
My rough count puts the tally at something like $400 million in the last three weeks. The steady flow of press releases and promises prompted BCTV to dig back into the video vault, and find film from the Liberals' 1996 election campaign. Back then they staged a stunt that had a guy in a bad Glen Clark mask slinging gold coins off a dump truck, the theme being that the NDP was shovelling money off the back of a truck to try and buy votes.
Gordon Campbell - nine years younger - was there with a shovel, scraping up the coins off the pavement and throwing them back on the truck.
The whole thing was kind of cheesy looking, the kind of stunt that probably cost the Liberals votes in that close election.
So is it the same thing in reverse almost a decade later? Are the Liberals doing just what they accused the NDP of doing, chucking money off the back of a truck and trying to buy peoples' votes with their own money?
Not really.
Sure, they're trying to persuade you that all sorts of good things will come if you just re-elect them. And the Campbell government, with a reputation for indifference at best, mean-spiritedness at worst, is trying to show that it really cares about improving services.
But there's at least one significant difference this time around. The Liberals can actually afford to deliver on their promises - or at least the ones made so far - without creating future deficits. Government revenues over the next several years will cover the increased costs. That wasn't true for the NDP in 1996.
The Liberals have their own problems around these spending announcements.
Take the $150 million in additional school funding, for example.
Sounds like a lot. But even with the increase, the money going to school districts will have increased by 8.2 per cent since the Liberals were elected. The consumer price index, the basic measure of inflationary pressures, will have risen by almost 14 per cent through the same period.
Education Minister Tom Christensen argues that's not really a fair comparison. The number of students in the system has gone down, so school districts should expect less money.
That's partly true. But a drop in students doesn't necessarily translate into a drop in costs for school districts; if there are 15 fewer children in a school the heating bill and other fixed costs stay the same. Still, the government can now point to a real increase in the amount of money available per student (or will be able to next year). Since the election the amount of money school boards get per student will have risen by about $225, or 3.5 per cent, in real terms.
Other questions will remain for some voters. Christensen said the new money would be targeted at providing library services, arts and music programs and special needs. Those were all areas hurt by the education funding policies introduced by the LIberals in their first year.
The government position is that there was no choice, The province couldn't afford to provide the desired quality of education for students. Voters will be judging whether that is true, and how much the Liberals' massive first-day tax cuts created the funding crisis. Those judgments will be one factor in how people view these spending announcements. The other major factor will be trust. The Liberals have to convince voters that they are promising the spending because they believe the services are important - and not just because we are in the last months before the election.
Footnote: Expect the announcements to continue. Almost all the initiatives unveiled so far will be included in the Feb. 15 budget, but the Liberals want to make sure they won't be lost on in the flood of news on budget day. That leaves almost two more weeks of spending good news.