Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Straight answers could have headed off Olympic cost concerns

VICTORIA - I probably wouldn’t even be writing about Olympic costs if the Liberals were serious about all their “most open and accountable” government talk.
But faced with the chance to be open about spending, the Liberals opted for secrecy.They ended up looking foolish and turned a small issue into a bigger one. New Democrat Harry Bains has been pushing for answers on Olympic spending during budget debates. But estimates debates, as they’re called, don’t grab much attention. So this week, Bains took the issue to Question Period, the daily 30 minutes guaranteed to get noticed.
How much, he asked Hansen, is the government spending on 2010 Legacies Now?
I don’t know, said Hansen, the minister responsible for the Olympics. Despite its name the agency doesn’t have anything to do with the Olympics, Hansen said, so don’t ask him.
Anyway if people want to know how much has been spent they can wait until June and search through hundreds of pages of Public Accounts. Don’t expect the government to answer a question about how taxpayers’ money is being spent voluntarily.
OK, said NDP leader Carole James, surely Finance Minister Carole Taylor knows how much has been spent. James asked her.
But Taylor stayed in her seat. Hansen, the man who said it had nothing to do with him, leaped up again and refused to provide the information.
So it remains a secret how much taxpayers’ money has gone to 2010 Legacies Now in the last fiscal year.
The Liberals appear to be nervous about the whole issue of Olympic costs. They maintain that the province will contribute only $600 million to staging the Games. Other expenses - like 2010 Legacies Now - are mostly on things the government would have done anyway and shouldn't be counted, they say.
Bains has been making a good case that the tab is really higher.
Most obviously, the government has chosen not to count the Olympic Seretariat as a Games' cost. That would strike most people as illogical; without the Olympics surely we wouldn't need an agency to oversee the province's role. So far the Secretariat has spent $26 million, with the biggest costs still ahead. (The original forecast put the total cost of Games' oversight at $15 million.) The government can make a better argument for keeping 2010 Legacies Now out of the tally. The agency is obviously linked to the Olympics - its website says the agency "creates sustainable legacies that will benefit all British Columbians as a result of hosting the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games." It was launched, with fanfare, as an example of the kind of great benefits that would flow from the Games.
But the activities are varied, from literacy funding to supporting minor sports to paying for big video screens for communities to watch the Games. We would have spent some of that money anyway, says Hansen. Other agency projects are aimed at taking full advantage of the opportunities the Olympics provide to inspire people.
Maybe. But Legacies Now has also been doing activities that are clearly linked to the Games.
In any case the obvious solution is simply to come clean on how much is being spent by Legacies Now and where the money is going. People can decide whether the spending is Olympic-related or not. (And the public can decide if it was worth setting up a new agency to handle the money. Legacy Now adminstration costs ate up $3 million last year; the agency only handed out $17 million.)
Tell the public what you're spending their money on, and how much. Don't refuse to answer, or tell people it's a secret unless they're prepared to wait and search through hundreds of pages of spending information.
It's the right thing to do. And it seems the politically sensible thing to do.
By stonewalling, the government just increased suspicions that it has something to hide on 20101 Legacies Now and Games' costs.
Footnote: For the record, B.C.'s auditor general estimated B.C. taxpayers will be spending $1.25 billion to host the Games, including costs like the Sea-to-Sky Highway improvements and the Olympic Secretariat. The government turned down the auditor general's request for additional funds to allow his office to monitor Olympic spending.


Anonymous said...

Oh well with the bills 21? and 30 we won't have the right to know anyway. Our government will be run in secret. We will only find out what they want us to know. Which is Nothing. A Proud Vancouver Island Separatist. Let The Big Smoke Drown Itself in Pollution

Anonymous said...

It is sad that a sporting even overshadows every thing else. The folks running the event are spending money like crazy and they know they are not accountable to the public. The thought is that somewhere down the road after we all get over the games the bills will come in. And maybe nobody will notice. This government thinks they are smart business people so they should have no problem being up front. However we have seen that they tell us nothing without it getting dragged out of them.The old Russian government which was so secret would be proud of the present government. Watching them at work in question period or estimates quicky makes one wonder just how sleezy they can get.