Thursday, June 15, 2006

BC Ferries safety questions demand government answers

VICTORIA - It’s been a choppy patch for BC Ferries.
Fares have soared. The Queen of Oak Bay crushed a flotilla of boats last year in Horseshoe Bay.
And then in March the Queen of the North sank, claiming two lives and wreaking havoc on service between Prince Rupert and Port Hardy.
So far, the Liberal government has stayed above the fray. It changed B.C. Ferries from a Crown corporation to a sort-of independent business in 2003. If you’ve got worries, talk to the company, cabinet ministers said.
But three years on the pretence that ferries have nothing to do with government has pretty much unravelled.
Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon might have just been able to dodge most questions about soaring ferry fares and their effect on regional economies.
But he can’t avoid the hard questions about safety on BC Ferries in the aftermath of the Queen of the North disaster. David Hahn, the corporation’s CEO, has been handling the issue, but his credibility has been damaged. People need to hear from the government, which owns the corporation and is ultimately responsible.
Hahn and the BC Ferry and Marine Workers have been feuding about safety. It’s been a bizarre spectacle - try and imagine Air Canada’s management and unions tossing public abuse at each other after a plane crash. The union complains safety issues have been ignored. Hahn says union members are refusing to co-operate with an internal investigation into the sinking.
And then Derik Bowland dropped a bombshell on BC Ferries.
Bowland isn’t just another critic. He started with BC Ferries in February as director of safety, health and environment. He left a $200,000 job as cruise ship captain to take on the senior safety job. And then five days after the sinking - less than two months after he started work - he left.
Now Bowland is suing B.C. Ferries, claiming its refusal to address safety problems and efforts to prevent him from doing his job effectively forced him from the post.
It’s important to remember that he has his own agenda as an ex-employee suing the company. And none of the allegations in his statement of claim have been proved.
But they are terribly serious. Bowland alleges he began pointing out major safety shortcomings soon after he began work and warned warning that “there was a strong likelihood of catastrophic incidents if safety practices and protocols were not immediately improved.”
Bowland alleges the corporation refused to recognize serious problems in safety policies and practices. If it had the Queen of the North might not have sunk, he says.
And he alleges B.C. Ferries executives first undermined and the blocked entirely his efforts to investigate the sinking, which claimed two lives. That’s when he left the job.
Hahn has given one radio interview on the lawsuit, saying Bowland was a short-term employee who had never been on the Queen of the North. No warnings of safety problems reached him or other senior executives, he says.
But Hahn has a credibility problem. The Transportation Safety Board is investigating the sinking. On May 11 it delivered a letter to him warning of problems. "Information gathered so far has revealed that some bridge team members were not familiar with the use of all the bridge equipment and controls," the letter warned. B.C. Ferries needs to examine its training, the letter said.
Hahn didn’t reveal the letter’s existence for two weeks and then described it as “benign” in an interview. When a reporter uncovered the letter the warning looked far from routine. (Hahn now says he will release material from the safety board within 24 hours of receiving it.)
The questions are beginning pile up. The answers from B.C. Ferries are inadequate; the report from the Transportation Safety Board is months - perhaps more than a year - away.
It’s time for the government to step in, review safety and report to the public.
Footnote: Hahn has proposed B.C. Ferries do its own safety audit and release the results. He says he is talking to a “credible” individual about leading the review. At this point, an internal review won’t be enough to provide the needed reassurances about safety. The government needs to take the lead.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Ken Thomson, Charles Bronson and me

VICTORIA - Mostly what I thought when I heard that Ken Thomson had died was that now I could only claim personal acquaintance with two billionaires.
Not that I knew Mr. Thomson well, but we did dine together. Thomson Newspapers, in the last years that there was such a thing, had a conference at a golf resort in Florida and he had flown in for the last day. Since I was in my beloved corporate stage at that point, and could be counted on to use a knife and fork at dinner, I was seated at the chairman's table that evening.
Talk was strained. Thomson seemed shy, and a little odd. He tossed his tie over his shoulder when the soup came to avoid spills - although his crisp white shirt was then exposed to risk. He spoke of his father Roy - who had been dead for almost 20 years - as if he were a powerful presence. What would Dad say, he wondered, when talk turned to some difficult decision.
Thomson's brilliance in the 30 years he ran the company was in knowing when to get in and out of businesses. The corporation moved into North Sea oil and then out when growth prospects slowed. It made money in retailing with the Hudson's Bay Company and then left the business. Thomson built its British-based travel operations into a $1-billion business and then sold it.
By the time we sat down to dinner Thomson was giving newspapers one last chance.
The corporation had done wonderfully from papers since Roy Thomson bought the Timmins Express in 1934. Up until the 1980s the monopoly newspapers in towns across North America produced huge profit margins and cash that was used to expand the corporation, both into international newspaper holdings and new business areas.
Then urban sprawl engulfed many of the communities Thomson newspapers had dominated, and competition rolled in along with it. New technology slashed the costs of entry for rivals.
By the late 1980s the newspaper business was still producing good profits, but it wasn't growing. Thomson had a richly deserved reputation for frugal operation, so cost-cutting to boost profits wasn't an option. There was nothing to cut.
But to his credit Thomson was not prepared to give up on newspapers, the foundation of the business, without giving us a good chance. By the time of that dinner the newspaper division - some 150 papers with more than $1 billion in revenue - was on its second batch of senior managers charged with finding ways to deliver growth.
It didn't work. Within a few years the newspapers were up for sale. The Thomson Corp. focused on electronic publishing, selling specialized information about banking and the law to clients who would pay top dollar.
But back to dinner. Conversation did not flow terribly smoothly, despite our best efforts. Thomson, while very nice, was not one of those big guys with an easy and entirely superficial charm. We struggled for topics.
Until the publisher from a Louisiana newspaper - not just smart but a woman, ensuring her place at the favoured table - mentioned traditional New Orleans jazz. Thomson became genuinely interested. He loved the music, and then wondered if we had seen a Charles Bronson movie called Hard Times, set in New Orleans in the '30s. (It is a good movie.)
One of his favourites, said Thomson, who said he was a fan of Bronson, although a bit disappointed in some of the later Death Wish sequels. He had sent Bronson a note when he was shooting in Toronto - it might have been Death Wish V - inviting him to dinner, but never got a reply. Thomson looked kind of sad at that. He really would have found an evening talking movies with Charles Bronson a great pleasure.
It was charming. Not just his fondness for the movies, but his willingness to share his enthusiasm with us.
A smart business guy, of course. But I'll think of a movie buff, and a grown man still faintly intimidated by a larger-than-life father.
Footnote: For those interested, the other billionaire acquaintances are two of the senior members of the New Brunswick Irving family, for whom I managed newspapers for a time.

Spending on substance abuse just makes sense

VICTORIA - Somebody tried to break into my car this spring, hammering a screwdriver into the lock and then tugging enthusiastically on the front passenger window.
I count myself another victim of our drug policy. The attempted crime took place on a lovely residential street across from Government House, where Lt.-Gov. Iona Campagnolo lives. In Victoria, according to police, 90 per cent of property crimes are committed by people hunting drug money.
That's almost 25 crimes a day, mostly petty offences like the assault on my aging Honda. But the cost is still high. The bill for fixing my car was almost $400. And what's the damage done when peoples' sense of security is undermined by small crimes?
Those kinds of things weren't even included in the latest, most complete report on the costs of substance abuse in B.C.
But it still found that drugs, alcohol and tobacco cost every British Columbian more than $1,400 last year. The study by the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse was the first attempt in a decade to calculate the costs of drug, alcohol and tobacco use.
It found substance abuse cost Canada $39.8 billion in 2002 - about $6 billion more than the B.C. government spends on everything, from health care to policing.
Behind the numbers, there's a terrible human cost. Lives destroyed, families broken. For most of us, there's a moral obligation to help people in trouble - and drug abusers are surely in trouble.
Even without the moral component, dealing with the problem makes economic sense. Reduce substance abuse and you reap huge benefits.
The Canadian Centre in Substance Abuse study, based on 2002 data, found illegal drugs created direct and indirect costs of $8.2 billion; alcohol abuse $14.6 billion; and tobacco abuse $17 billion.
Abuse cost $24.3 billion in lost productivity; $8.8 billion in health care costs; and $5.4 billion in law-enforcement costs. That doesn't include the costs of crime or the effect on communities of having downtowns crowded with the addicted and desperate.
It's a such waste, of lives and of money.
Substance abuse won't go away. But any success in helping people to end or reduce their abuse will pay great benefits.
Look at the numbers. B.C. has done relatively well in terms of tobacco abuse. We have the fourth lowest per-capita cost among provinces at $563 a year. But Ontario has the lowest cost. If we could match that province, tobacco-related costs in B.C. would fall by $250 million a year.
Illegal drugs cost B.C. significantly more per capita than any other province. Again, bringing costs in line with Ontario - which is in the middle of the pack nationally - would result in a $505-million saving.
Alcohol abuse costs B.C. $536 per capita, second highest among the provinces. Again, matching Ontario would a $393-million improvement.
So without any breakthrough or miraculous cure, simply by doing as well as Ontario, we'd save $1.1 billion in substance costs.
We know what to do, starting with ensuring that people can get treatment. (That doesn't happen now; if an addict calls and says she is ready to detox, she'll almost always be told to call back in a week to see if a space is available.)
But we choose not to do it. Prime Minister Stephen Harper refuses to support safe injection sites even though the evidence shows Vancouver's centre has saved lives, made the community safer and resulted in more addicts entering treatment. Attorney General Wally Oppal says a Victoria drug court - which would give offenders help in cleaning up - would be great, but isn't a priority. And treatment is still terribly limited.
Our current approach has failed. Substance abuse costs society more now than it did a decade ago, the study found.
But still we fumble on, unwilling to do make the investments in prevention, treatment and harm reduction that would save lives and billions of dollars.
Footnote: The Alberta Alcohol and Drug Addiction Commission had a response to the national study available on its website within five weeks of it's release. The national study is available at