Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Hebei Lion, and why you should worry, at least a bit, about tanker traffic

A proposed pipeline to get oil from the tar sands to Kitimat and then into ships that would sail off to China has sparked a new debate about tanker traffic along B.C.'s coast.
There would be a lot of construction jobs, a small number of permanent employees in Kitimat and a boost in Canada's exports.
The risk is that something would go wrong and there would be an oil spill.
Proponents say that won't happen. But on Thursday night, the winds were howling in the Strait of Georgia. The bulk carrier Hebei Lion was anchored off Mayne Island, but the gusts pushed it onto a reef. It was a serious environmental threat.
That was Wednesday night. Have you heard about the grounding of the ship, which is as long as two-and-a-half football fields?
I didn't until today - Saturday afternoon. And then, only thanks to the Washington State environment ministry, (or the department of ecology, it's called).
It issued a news release.

"Ecology was notified by the British Columbia Ministry of Environment, and monitored the incident because it posed a significant risk of a large black oil spill," the Washington government told the public.
“Damage to fuel tanks on a cargo ship that size could have oiled the islands on both sides of the border,” said Dale Jensen, manager of Ecology's Spill Prevention, Preparedness and Response Program. “A major spill also could have forced a closure to vessel traffic. Given the profound environmental and economic risks we're relieved and pleased at the outcome. We mobilized staff and were prepared to deploy response systems as needed.
"State Sen. Kevin Ranker, who represents the 40th District, including his San Juan Island home, said, “This incident once again highlights the importance of having a strong spill prevention and response system in place, not only for Puget Sound but also for large transboundary spills that can have potentially devastating effects on our environment and economy.”

So the B.C. Environment Ministry told Washington State, but provided no information to British Columbians.
The DFO, as far as I can tell, provided no public information.
The Gullf Islands Driftwood had the story by Thursday afternoon.
But 72 hours after an incident that "could have oiled the islands on both sides of the border," according to the government of Washington State, only a small number of British Columbians knew about the grounding. Governments were silent.
The argument for tanker traffic relies heavily on the effectiveness and accountability of governments in protecting the public interest.
But only Washington seemed to think this important enough to tell the public about. The B.C. and Canadian governments didn't think you needed to know.

A late addition: For more on the grounding, check out the posts here.

The need for an Afghan detainee inquiry

I'll write about this in the next day or two, but, for now, I recommend Norman Spector's brief, useful comments here.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The sad story of the passengers' bill of rights

This is a story about a proposed airline passenger’s bill of rights. It suggests, most of all, that those at the top of government aren’t serving the public. They’re catering to the needs of powerful special interests.
The story starts in 2008. Liberal MP Gerry Byrne prepared a motion calling on the government to introduce an airline passenger’s bill of rights. Travellers would be guaranteed remedies for lost bags, unreasonable delays or overbooked flights. The model was similar to protection in Europe.
Politically, it’s a winner. Most people fortunate enough to be able to fly have had bad experiences. Sometimes, the airline has responded admirably. But sometimes, not.
MPs from all parties professed to support the idea, including then transport minister Lawrence Cannon.
But behind the scenes, his office was pleading with the airlines to launch a lobby campaign to defeat the motion, according to documents obtained by Canwest News Service.
While Cannon was promising to bring in a travellers’ bill of rights, a key political staffer in his office was telling the airlines the Conservatives really wanted it killed.
Lobby the Liberals and the Bloc Québécois, Paul Fitzgerald e-mailed the airlines. “I don’t want us to be forced into regulating passenger protection issues.”
It’s creepily dishonest. The minister is pretending to stand up for passengers while his staff is rallying the industry to kill protection.
The government could legitimately oppose such consumer protection. The airlines argued safety would be compromised. Pilots might take off in dangerous conditions if they feared their employer would have to compensate passengers for delays.
More realistically — I hope, as a passenger who relies on those pilots — the Conservatives could argue that protection is not needed because market forces ensure airlines don’t abuse customers, because they would lose business.
But that’s not what happened. The minister claimed the protection was necessary and he supported the measures.
It gets worse.
The motion passed in Parliament with the support of all parties, and the government set about drafting the protection.
Canwest News Service filed a freedom of information request for files on the process. Usually, documents are censored to the point of uselessness. This time, apparently by mistake, the full documents were released.
They showed the minister’s office — despite concerns from non-political Transport Department staff — let the airlines play a major role in drafting the measures. Company executives reviewed several drafts of Flight Rights Canada, as the initiative came to be called. They proposed changes and approved the final version.
The airline bosses even got to approve Cannon’s speech launching the program in advance.
It was sensible to involve the airlines in the process. They can provide useful information on the effects of any passenger protection.
But the government didn’t seek input from consumer associations or the travel industry or groups that could speak for business travellers. They catered to the industry, not the public.
The department staff also told the minister there was no money to let travellers know about their rights.
But he went ahead and read the industry-approved announcement, promising an information campaign that has never happened.
The government has spent a total of $3,640 to let airline passengers across Canada know about their rights.
So, to recap, MPs decided airline passengers needed some basic protection if flights were cancelled without good reason or their bags vanished.
The government pretended to go along, while working behind the scenes with the airlines to try and sabotage the initiative. Their loyalty was to the big corporations.
The minister’s office was attentive to the needs of the airline companies. The public interest was a problem to be managed, not a priority.
This isn’t a Liberal-Conservative thing. I have no confidence that the cozy relationships between the powerful depend on party labels. Mostly, it’s a sad example of how little the interests of voters really matter to those in power.
Footnote: The government’s failure to respect the 2008 motion brought a new private member’s bill from Manitoba NDP MP Jim Maloway to provide travellers with protection modelled on the European Union’s consumer protection for passengers. The Conservatives oppose the protection.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Barry Penner is awesome

No, that's not my political commentary. I do think he's a good MLA who works hard and wants to do a good job.
But over at the creators have dedicated a whole website to "Chronicling the adventures of B.C.'s most awesome MLA."
It's clever fun.
(And thanks to Brenton Walters for posting about the site dedicated to the Chilliwack MLA and environment minister.)

MLA Norm Letnick shows how it's done

I certainly think Liberal MLA Norm Letnick is right about the risks of the government's ill-advised bill that would let police use force to take people to shelters in bad weather, for reasons set out here.
But, in explaining to Sean Holman why he voting against the legislation, Letnick also showed how MLAs can take advantange of Gordon Campbell's promise to allow free votes to use their own judgment and represent the people who elected them.
You can see Letnick's explanation at

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Minister for welfare, housing and horse racing

Rich Coleman might be great at juggling priorities, but I'd argue a ministry dealing with housing issues - from condo concerns to homelessness to affordability - and income assistance and job training should focus on those priorities.
Tossing gambling and liquor sales into the mix just because the minister is interested doesn't make good management sense.
(Sean Holman has interesting additional information here.)

For Immediate Release
November 17, 2009

Ministry of Housing and Social Development


VANCOUVER – The new B.C. Horse Racing Industry Management Committee will help to revitalize and restore financial strength to the province’s horse racing industry, Housing and Social Development Minister Rich Coleman announced today.
“Across North America, the horse racing industry is confronted with competing entertainment attractions that necessitate new, innovative approaches to this sector,” said Coleman. “Here in B.C., the Province is working with leading industry and business experts to help horse racing thrive, with a strong, coherent new management approach that includes centralized financial planning.”

Ontario makes Campbell look bad on HST

It was a dramatic tale of two different approaches to governing this week.
In Ontario, the government introduced HST legislation Monday, setting out the details of the new tax which will take effect July 1, as it will here.
The plans include other big tax cuts and a promise that the total government tax take will fall by $7.7 billion over the next four. Families will get a $1,000 rebate to cover the added costs. Seminars are already underway around the province for businesses.
In B.C., the legislation won't be introduced until next spring. The government acknowledges families will face higher taxes, with much smaller offsetting reductions.
And poor Finance Minister Colin Hansen couldn't even say Monday whether school districts would get funding to cover some $40 million in extra costs because of the harmonized sales tax.
Two governments, heading in the same direction, but in very different ways.
Both know voters will find the new tax tough to swallow. Only Ontario is making much of an effort to win them over.
You could argue that the Liberal government in Ontario is buying support with other tax cuts. This week, it announced HST exemptions for fast food under $4 and newspapers. But seminars on the new tax for small business, in their communities, are simply good, competent government. Clear rules well in advance of implementation help everyone.
The Campbell government is looking inept, or indifferent, in comparison.
That's not good. The Liberals promised, in writing, not to introduce the HST during the May election campaign - and then did just that. Hansen's claim the tax was "not even on the radar" during the campaign makes the decision to introduce it a few weeks later look reckless and ill-considered.
Here's the primer on the HST. It's a new tax that will combine the seven-per-cent provincial sales tax and the five-per-cent GST. For many items, adult clothing for example, there is no net change.
But the GST applies to more things than the provincial sales tax. Provincial governments introduced exemptions, like no PST on bicycles to promote health. Services, like cable or child care, attracted GST but not the provincial tax.
Under the harmonized tax, the GST rules take precedence. A lot more things will be taxed.
The GST also lets businesses deduct the sales tax they pay for inputs. Treating the PST the same way will save B.C. businesses about $1.9 billion. Individuals and families will pay more to offset the business tax break.
The theory is that companies will pass the benefits on in lower prices and B.C. will be more attractive for businesses investors because of lower tax costs.
The provincial government has not been forthcoming with information on what it means for families.
But TD Economics, the analytical arm of the big bank, has released a special report on the tax that offers a useful starting point.
Individuals and families will pay more, the report concludes, as "The tax burden will shift from businesses to consumers."
The TD Economics analysis estimates about 20 per cent of British Columbians' expenditures will now face an additional seven-per-cent tax.
An average household will pay an extra $840 in taxes. But the analysis also projects that businesses will pass on some of the savings from reduced taxes to consumers. That will cut the actual net increase in costs to $400.
The TD Economics report favours the harmonized tax. It's more efficient, it says, and will help Canadian businesses compete for domestic and international markets, the report said.
And the B.C. government continues to cite to the need to offer tax breaks to the forest industry and other big businesses.
But as the legislature finance committee found in its budget consultations, the public isn't buying it. The HST remains unpopular; most submissions said it should not be introduced.
Ontario's government faces the same backlash. But it's doing much more to inform people and try to win them over.
Footnote: The TD Economics' report says the tax will add about 0.7 per cent to the rate of inflation to the province, as the costs of consumer goods and services rise.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Rich, Geoff here - can we talk liquor policy?

Rich Coleman and Geoff Plant spent five years in opposition battling the NDP, and four more years in cabinet as the solicitor general and attorney general respectively.
And now a big private liquor store owner has hired Plant to lobby Coleman for changes that would boost the company's profits.
Plant is a lawyer and smart. Perhaps he would be in demand for such jobs based on his experience and those qualities alone.
But if I were a smaller liquor company, or a community group concerned about increasingly wide open alcohol sales, I'd wonder if Plant also had better access and influence than most to Coleman, after the two spent nine years working together.
And whether that meant I needed to hire someone else - another insider - to make sure I had the ear of the powerful.
You can read it more at, where Sean Holman had the story first. (He does that quite a lot.)