Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Fall session going badly for Liberals

Three weeks into the fall session and you can see why Gordon Campbell only let MLAs sit for three days last fall.
The Liberals expected to make the Tsawwassen treaty the focus this year, celebrating a success and highlighting NDP divisions on the treaty.
Instead, they have been battered. Every few days brings another damaging revelation or more tough questions about everything from mismanagement of the out-of-control Vancouver convention centre to abuse and neglect of seniors.
It's often tough for governments when the house is sitting. Most of the time, the party in power can control the news agenda. It can decide and where to make announcements or hold press conferences; ministers can usually command some media attention.
For the opposition, it's tougher to get noticed.
But when the legislature is in session, the opposition gets its big chance. Every day, just before 2 p.m., there is question period. For 30 minutes opposition MLAs get to question cabinet ministers. (Give full credit to Premier Gordon Campbell, who doubled the time for questions as a way to make the legislature more effective.)
That's enough time for a big kick at a main topic and a briefer look at a couple of other issues.
It's not that the public pays any attention. But the 15 reporters and columnists assigned to cover the legislature do. The opposition's goal is to get them to do a story on the issue of the day, one that says the government has messed up. (No one said democracy would be pretty.)
There is a public benefit in all this. Governments don't want to be caught, so they're more careful. And when they do go wrong, the public attention brings change. Ted Hughes' report on children and youth, and the resulting changes, came about because of the relentless questioning of New Democrat Adrian Dix.
For the three weeks of this sitting, the Liberals have faced tough questions of competence and integrity.
They had to respond to questions about seniors abused and neglected in a Victoria care home. Former cabinet minister Graham Bruce's lobbying activities for the Cowichan Tribes were challenged, and are under review.
Forests Minister Rich Coleman still hasn't answered questions about why the government is ripping up tree farm licence agreements that protected forests. Companies are being handed concessions worth hundreds of millions of dollars, with no benefit for the public or justification.
The auditor general handed the Liberals another black eye, with a report on the mismanagement that allowed the Vancouver convention centre cost to escalate from $495 million to $883 million, and counting.
Once again, the government was bedeviled by problems in the children and families ministry. NDP critic Nicholas Simons revealed growing delays in completing investigations into child abuse or neglect.
Time Colonist reporter Lindsay Kines revealed the government had censored a report that said services for child sex abuse victims were inadequate and underfunded.
And then last week reporter Sean Holman revealed on www.publiceyeonline.com that the ministry had spent $560,000 - almost three times the basic estimate - for a head office renovation. A consultant was paid $40,000 to recommend ways to make it welcoming to First Nations. There's art and great interior design features.
But it's also a ridiculous waste of public money. Frontline workers are swamped; a lavish head office is offensive.
The problem for the Liberals wasn't just the questions; it was the answers. The NDP questioners grew more confident; the ministers' answers lamer.
It's good news for Carole James, who had been criticized for being unable to advance the party lately.
And it's a wake-up call for the Liberals.
But don't expect the Liberals' strong poll standing to slide much. It's not enough for the New Democrats to raise doubts about the Liberals. Carole James and company have to convince voters they can do better. And that's still a big leap.
Footnote: The downside of the session has been a plunge in basic civility in the legislature. That could reflect and NDP decision to be tougher or the increasing tension on the government side. The heckling, shouting and abuse represent a sad decline from the generally higher standard of the last two years.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


It seems that gord has found his scapegoat... Scope !

While not as technocratik as "structural deficit", scope has that apparatchik ring to it. Scope is especially useful when it's combined with a shift in blame to another level of government: As in - "We assured that it was working in concert with the city of Vancouver, which added some additional scope costs."

Excuse me... I need to rinse and spit.