Thursday, December 21, 2006

Health and big surpluses the stories of the year

VICTORIA - I’m writing this as I get ready for a radio chat about the big stories of 2006.
Of course it won’t really be about peoples’ big stories of the year. Those are all individual - a divorce, a new child, a dying friend, love, loss.
No one is going to look back in 20 years and say I remember 2006, that’s the year the Harper minority government pulled out of the Kelowna Accord. It will be the year their daughter went off to school in another country or they moved into that smaller house with so much light.
It’s not that hard to come up with a list of the “big political stories” of the year.
The election of the Harper government in January, with B.C. seats critical to the outcome, seemed big, though the impact hasn’t been that great.
David Emerson’s leap from Liberal backbench to Conservative cabinet, which set new standards of wretched political behaviour, led only to a mediocre softwood-lumber deal.
Premier Gordon Campbell was able to go all enviro in February with a land-use deal for the Great Bear Rainforest and celebrated a raft of public-sector labour agreements through the spring. The Queen of the North went down in March. More charges were laid in the legislature raids in April and Ted Hughes delivered his devastating report on Liberal government bungling in services for children and families.
By fall, three First Nation draft treaties had been initialled. Government approval is a formality. If even two by band members decide to support the treaties it will be a gain for the B.C. Treaty Commission process and an enormous step forward for the province.
They’re are big stories. But it’s like watching the winter ocean waves rolling into a tangle of logs on a rocky beach. The big waves you notice - the splash, the crash.
But it’s the steady, grinding of the smaller waves that changes things, that turns big tangles of logs into little pieces of bark and wood strewn along the beach.
There was no giant health story in 2006. There were big ones. The Fanny Albo case where a woman was cruelly taken far away from family and friends to die alone. Maybe the revelation that public hospitals were allowing people to pay extra to jump the wait lists for tests.
But there were a succession of smaller stories, about patients on stretchers in halls and closets, about jammed emergency rooms and terrible suffering while people waited for surgery.
Together, health care worries were probably one of two really big stories in 2006.
Another - closely related - was the government finances. Finance Minister Carole Taylor’s February budget forecast a $1.45-billion surplus for this year, an enormous cushion. After the first three months of the fiscal year, she said the surplus would be more than $1.5 billion. After another 90 days had passed, the forecast was increased again, to $2.15 billion.
It’s not a blip. The February budget forecast surpluses of $950 million and $550 million in each of the next two years. But Taylor quickly revised those numbers as well. The surpluses are forecast at more than$1.8 billion in each year.
Those my choice for the two big stories. The quality of health care and the big surpluses. And they’re closely linked.
The heath care system needs more money. The current plans call for per-capita spending to lag inflation for the next two years, despite an aging population and much higher costs.
And the province has lots of money, for health care and education and children and families and making a payment on the debt.
But the Liberals seem to have other ideas. Finance Minister Carole Taylor and Premier Gordon Campbell have used wildly wrong numbers in a bizarre effort to care people about the affordability of health care.
Despite the public’s demand in budget consultations for more services , the government seems set to rein in health spending and pay down the debt more quickly.
Look for the response to that decision to be one of the big stories of 2007.
Footnote: Stephane Dion’s selection as Liberal leader could also turn out to be a big B.C. story, and not just because of the strong organizing support he found here. DIon’s focus on the global warming could raise the profile of the issue. Bad news for the B.C. LIberals, who have only a vague climate-change plan and are contemplating several new coal-fired electrical plants.

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