Friday, June 03, 2005

Park fiasco symbol of Liberal failure on environment

VICTORIA - One court case, and you get a snapshot of everything that's wrong with the Liberals when it comes to environmental issues.
Water, Land and Air Protection Minister Bill Barisoff was prepared to spend $100,000 of your money, damage a provincial park - including habitat for a species at risk - and anger local residents.
And all because a nearby business owner wanted to save some money on developing his property.
Here are the facts, briefly. Grohman Narrows Provincial Park is just outside Nelson, small but beautiful, and home to several species-at-risk, including the painted turtle.
It has an entrance road from the highway, in place for more than 20 years.
Three years ago, a development company bought property across the highway from the park, intending to develop a repair shop for heavy trucks. But it needed to build an access road on to the highway. And the transportation ministry said that for safety's sake the two entrances - the garage and the park - needed to be directly across the highway from each other.
Bad news for the developer. Building an access driveway opposite the park's entrance would cost an extra $250,000, because he'd have to blow up some rocks.
So hey, he asked the water, air and land protection ministry, why don't you move your entrance about 30 metres to line up with where I want to build?
It never hurts to ask. And as a good neighbour, it's right the ministry checked to see what the consequences would be. It found the change would cost taxpayers $100,000, damage the park permanently and be bad news for those rare turtles. Construction could kill some, and they were at risk of being regularly crunched by cars if the entrance was moved closer to nesting habitat.
If this decision dealt with some project that promised hundreds of jobs, and had big community support, it might sill be a tough call.
But this was one developer looking to save money. Balance that against the cost to taxpayers, and the damage to the park, and the ministry's answer should have been 'sorry, we're not moving the entrance.'
Barisoff thought different, and in January he ordered the entrance moved.
Oh come on, said the West Kootenay Community Ecosociety. And off to they went to BC Supreme Court, making just the argument that ministry staff had warned about Barisoff about. The minister is bound by the Park Act, the society said, and that means he has to defend them, not damage them.
Justice Janet Sinclair Prowse saw it the same way. The act says the minister is the steward of parks, she noted, and he is only allowed to approve damaging development if it is meets some park need - like building a washroom, or trail.
And Barisoff violated the act by approving damage to help a developer. The entrance has to stay put, Sinclair Prowse ruled. The minister was not fulfilling his basic duties.
Barisoff, like predecessor Joyce Murray before him, is likable. But neither would be described as strong ministers, or passionate advocates for their ministry. Their appointments reflect Gordon Campbell's judgment about its importance.
I mean Campbell didn't even keep the environment ministry name after the last election, replacing it with the clunky - and less apt - ministry of water, land and air protection. (Environment, the ministry that dare not speak its name.)
It will be interesting to see if Campbell acknowledges that abandoning the obvious name was a mistake when he names his new cabinet. (More than half the voters opted for parties that promised to restore the environment ministry.)
There's no need for a zealot at the head of the ministry. But cabinet ministers are expected to fight their corner, even as they recognize the government's overall direction.
Developers have lots of advocates at the table.
Environment - not water, land and air protection - deserves its champion in cabinet.
Footnote: When the legislature finally resumes, likely in September, expect the NDP to be all over this case. Barisoff's decision, as well as violating his legal obligations as minister, is inexplicable. The willingness to spend $100,000 of taxpayers' money to help a developer cut its costs is only one factor; the ministry spent tens of thousands reaching its wrong decision.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Grewal tapes will make your skin crawl

VICTORIA - I've watched enough crime movies to know that it's time for Ottawa politicians to start scheduling their meetings for grungy steam rooms.
That's the easiest way to make sure that nobody is wearing a wire, right?
The sleaze factor in federal politics keeps climbing. And before anybody in B.C. gets smug, remember that most of the players in the latest cringefest are locals. Conservative MP Gurmant Grewal, his silent MP wife Nina, Ujjal Dosanjh and Sudesh Kalia, the insurance salesman friend of both men, are all locals.
If you haven't been reading this stuff - and I don't blame you - here are the basics.
With the fate of the Martin government resting on a coming non-confidence vote, Grewal, the MP for Newton-North Delta, entered into negotiations with Dosanjh and Paul Martin's chief of staff Tim Murphy. The Grewals would abandon Stephen Harper and support the Liberals, if the terms were right. Perhaps a cabinet post for Gurmant, and the Senate for his wife.
Grewal was secretly taping the conversations, and now says he was running a sting. You can read them and decide what you think Grewal's real goal was. Audio files and transcripts are at
Dosanjh and the Liberals say the transcripts are inaccurate and the tapes doctored.
But a reasonable listener is left with the unavoidable sense that this was sleazy business, and the topic of all the discussions was coming up with an incentive - a cabinet post, or some plum - to ensure the Grewals would support the Liberals.
An immediate seat at the cabinet table would be tough, Dosanjh says in one transcript. "If that cannot happen right now, that will be done in two to four weeks. . . I'm sure rewards are there at some point, right. No-one can forget such gestures but they require a certain degree of deniability."
Deniability is a big deal for the Liberals, or at least the reason they keep using to put off Grewal's demands for a commitment. " You have to be able to say that I did not make a deal," says Dosanjh at one point. "That's very important. That's why this kinds of deals are not made in that fashion."
But people who take risks for the party are rewarded the Liberals promise. "Let me make it absolutely clear that we are a welcoming party. . . It is a welcoming mat that has a lot of nice comfy fur on it."
The Liberals blame Grewal. He showed up on their door, the Liberals say, and wanted to trade his vote for benefits - cabinet, a Senate seat, something of value.
Did they send him packing? No. He negotiated with Dosanjh, and Murphy, who speaks for the Big Guy, Ottawa-speak for Paul Martin. When Grewal asked repeatedly about a Senate seat, Murphy and Dosanjh didn't say sorry, we don't do things like that. They said it would be tough, because there are no vacancies right now.
And then there is Harper, who says he knew Grewal was wandering around wearing a wire. I didn't encourage or discourage him, says Harper. MPs have a right to make secret recordings of people they talk with, the man who would be prime minister.
Every Canadian has that legal right. But it's creepy that a political leader thinks it's acceptable or ethical behavior for an MP.
Martin looks just as bad. He knew about the Grewal negotiations. He knows about the tapes. But he still hasn't got around to listening to the words of his health minister and chief of staff, he says, apparently seized with a case of willful blindness. (And demonstrating again the Liberal devotion to deniability.)
It's unclear if any laws were broken.
But trust was. Voters expect their MPs to act on their behalf. But their interests never really came up in the talks, except as a possible excuse for Grewal to use in bolting the Conservatives.
Footnote: The laws around vote-buying are murky. But everyone involved should welcome an RCMP investigation of the case if they are as blameless as they claim. Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe have both asked for a police review.

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Liberals, BCTF need to end feud

VICTORIA - My first reaction was to dismiss the BC Teachers' Federation defamation suit against Gordon Campbell as just the latest development in their tiresome feud.
But then I read the union's statement of claim, and its case looks pretty good. The union may not win, but it has a good chance of getting the issue before a judge, and the premier on the witness stand.
The teachers' federation is suing Campbell over comments he made five days before the election.
"Late last night British Columbians learned of a secret plan to hold a strike vote days after the provincial election," Campbell solemnly announced at the end of a long day of campaigning. "It's a duplicitous plan meant to engineer a school strike only weeks before provincial exams that would throw our school system into chaos. It's obvious that both the NDP and the BCTF have been trying to hide their true intentions. They have run a campaign of deceptions, half-truths and misinformation."
The Liberals had hit on school strikes as a 'wedge issue,' one that could be hammered between the New Democrats and their potential supporters. The Liberals made education an essential service, which means teachers have to maintain minimum service levels established by the Labour Relations Board if they go on strike. Carole James said teachers should have the right to strike, period.
It's a largely empty debate, since both parties would end disruptive job action. (The last two NDP governments legislated an end to school strikes.) But it was still a good political issue, and Campbell jumped all over it.
It may be he has proof to back up his accusations. But all we've seen as a local teachers' union newsletter reminding members of a scheduled meeting two days after the election on contract negotiations - their old one expired a year ago - including a discussion on when to hold a strike vote.
Worrying, perhaps, but short of a secret conspiracy to shut down schools just as thousands of Grade 12 students prepare for crucial provincial exams.
The BCTF says the charge damages the union's representation, one of the elements of defamation. It's hard to argue with that. And they say it's false, another key element. Under the law, the onus would be on Campbell to prove that had reason to believe the charges were true.
So union lawyers would get the chance to ask him about where he got the information, and who decided to raise the issue at the press conference. The court could order the Liberals to produce all their campaign planning materials that mentioned the BCTF. It would not be good for Campbell. (Yes, say some Liberals, but our lawyers could in turn grill the union leaders about their pro-NDP campaign and their job action plans. But all that all that likely means it that both parties end up looking bad, which only counts as a win if you've lost sight of the real goals.)
The BCTF and the Liberals have reason to loathe each other. The Liberals reneged on the teachers' contracts, negotiated in good faith. The BCTF has taken on the role of political opponent, campaigning for the Liberals' defeat. Neither party seems able to avoid poking the other with a sharp stick at every opportunity.
Both sides need to face reality.
The Liberals need to acknowledge that the BCTF is the bargaining agent for 43,000 teachers, who are rightly angry that hard-won contract agreements were broken by the government.
The BCTF needs to acknowledge that it's a union, not a co-manager of the education system. Its first job is to protect the interests of its member, and its positions on class size or student testing are driven by the duty to members, not the needs of children. That's simply a fact.
The two sides don't need to quit disliking each other.
But they should recognize they each have work to do together. It's time to start solving problems instead of fighting.
Footnote: The Liberal party, not taxpayers, is paying for Campbell's defence in the defamation suit. Meanwhile,
BCTF president Jinny Sims has written the premier to ask for a meeting on education issues. It should be a pretty unpleasant session, unless the lawsuit is settled.