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.