Saturday, December 15, 2007

Liberals reverse child rep budget cut blunder

Score another one for democracy and Vaughn Palmer.
The Liberals made a big blunder earlier this month, practically and politically. Government MLAs on the legislative finance committee cut the budget request of the Representative for Children and Youth, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond.
After about 45 minutes of unfocused questioning, the Liberal MLAs decided to cut the proposed budget of the representative by 11 per cent. They didn't say where the office should reduce spending or offer any rationale. Turpel-Lafond had told them the cuts would make it impossible to do critical elements of her job, like investigating children's deaths,
But the Liberals went ahead. The New Democrats on the committee, who wanted to provide the full amount requested, were outvoted.
Why? The other officers of the legislature - the ombudsman, auditor general and the rest - had received their full requests. Why chop the representative?
Given the lack of any answers that made sense, it was hard not to notice that days before Turpel-Lafond had reported critically on the government's lack of progress on implementing the Hughes report. She found there had been no action on key recommendations designed to improve things in the troubled ministry of children and families.
The budget cut looked much like payback, petty, vindictive - and self-destructive.
The Liberal attack was led by MLAs Randy Hawes and Ian Black. It showed a remarkable lack of common sense or awareness of just what a mess the government has made of most areas affecting the lives of children and families over the last six years.
Hawes has tried to defend the cuts to the budget. He says there wasn't enough detail to satisfy him that the extra money Turpel-Lafond was seeking, so he pushed for a lower budget.
Fair enough, on some level. But 45 minutes of questions followed by a closed-door decision to cut funding doesn't seem like a serious attempt to find out about any concerns.
And if Hawes and his fellow Liberals didn't have enough information to approve the budget, the certainly didn't have enough to cut it, either.
The representative was looking for more money - an increase from $4.8 million to $6.6 million.
But that was no surprise. The office was created as a result of Ted Hughes report on the many problems in the government's support for vulnerable children and families. The agency started with a rough budget set up by managers in the attorney generals ministry, before there were any real plans or staff.
The government acknowledged the guess at funding. A year ago, the Liberal chair of the same committee assured Turpel-Lafond that money wouldn't stand in the way of working on a better future for B.C. children.
"As the budget moves forward, if you have any requests, if something isn't working, if you find that it wasn't enough or there have been changes, as a committee, we are mandated to be here for you," said Blair Lekstrom, then the committee chairman.
But the six Liberal MLAs on the committee didn't agree. The committee chopped $700,000 from the budget.
Hawes hadn't complained about a lavish $560,000 reno at the ministry of children and families. He and the other Liberals voted for a 29-per-cent raise and expensive pension plan for themselves. Then they got all careful when the advocate for children came looking for money.
The public reaction was quick and negative. Vaughn Palmer of the Vancouver Sun, one of Canada's best political columnists, is insightful but usually judicious in assessing politicians' performance. This time he called the Liberals on the committee "nitwits."
And Friday, the committee called special meeting to take another look at the budget. The premier's office had read the clippings.
You, and Palmer, helped convince the Liberals that it was a mistake. They could not get away with cutting the money for independent oversight in this area. They restored all the money they had cut.
In all, it's probably been useful. Turpel-Lafond need to establish her independence, She's done that by facing down the government on budget cuts.
Footnote: Liberal MLA Bill Bennett chairs the committee. I'm not sure if he deserves blame for letting the cuts go ahead or credit for working out solution after meetings with Premier Gordon Campbell. A pre-election cabinet shuffle is likely in June; Bennett, dumped over an abusive e-mail he sent, would be a good addition.


Anonymous said...

This guy ratted out all his other Liberal colleagues on the committee. He's already got a reputation as a bumbler out here in the Kootenays. I would be very surprised if he made his way back into Cabinet.

Anonymous said...

It's not like Black, Hawes or Bennett were unaware of the problems the Rep is trying to address. They've all received dozens, if not hundreds of letters, e-mails and calls from desperate constituents complaining about huge gaps in the Ministry's mandated services to children and families. As has every other Liberal MLA in the province who has chosen to turn a blind eye to the pleas of desperate parents and children for seven years for no reason other than pure, blind, partisan politics.