Tuesday, December 10, 2002

Gun registry scandal shows waste, arrogance and dishonesty
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - The federal gun registry scandal should make you sick to your stomach.
And the Liberal's defence of their incompetence, their refusal to take any responsibility for cheating you, should make you furiously angry.
Allan Rock was the justice minister when legislation was introduced back in 1995 requiring owners to register their guns. It would cost $117 million, the government promised, but fees would cover most of that cost.
Taxpayers would be on the hook for only $2 million.
Now Auditor General Sheila Fraser has exposed the government as incredibly incompetent, dishonest, or both - the explanation I favour.
She reviewed the program this year and found it will cost taxpayers at least $1 billion by 2004-5. She couldn't even do a full audit to find out where the money went, because "the financial information provided for audit by the department does not fairly present the cost of the program to the government." The government couldn't or wouldn't provide an honest, complete account of what it did, to the official auditor.
Fraser's sharpest criticism came over the government's failure to go back to Parliament - and the public - and get approval to turn a $2-million program into a $1-billion one.
"The issue here is not gun control," she reported. "And it's not even astronomical cost overruns, although those are serious. What's really inexcusable is that Parliament was in the dark." When costs were skyrocketing the ministry never told Parliament; never stopped to think if the whole exercise made sense.
The Liberal government's response is truly pathetic.
Prime Minister Jean Chretien tried to blame the provinces and gun owners, saying they didn't do enough to co-operate.
Rot. The challenges in bringing in such an unpopular program were completely clear in 1995. Any competent plan would have incorporated the costs of dealing with them.
Rock, now justice minister, now defends the program by saying "What value can you put on human life?"
It's a stupid response. The issue is what value do you put on responsible, competent spending of public money. What value do you put on honesty in government? What value do you put on the other programs that could have been funded with $1 billion?
Rock is saying wasteful spending of your money doesn't matter, and accountability doesn't matter. Lord help us if he stays in the Liberal leadership race.
Current Justice Minister Martin Cauchon says the program is working and no one - politician or bureaucrat - will be disciplined for blowing your money.
Gun registration makes sense, if it's affordable. If your neighbour starts making threats, it's valuable for police to be able to check if there are guns in the house and decide if they should stay there.
And Canadians don't, and shouldn't, have a right to own guns. It's a privilege, to be balanced against their record of responsibility.
But if the registration system made sense at $2 million, it's hard to see any results that are worth $1 billion, or about $500 per gun registered.
The percentage of homicides involving firearms has increased by 13 per cent since the registration plan was put in place. (Handguns are the real issue, and they have been subject to registration in Canada for almost 70 years.)
Undoubtedly the process has kept some people who shouldn't have guns from hanging on to them. And it has almost certainly saved lives, simply by ensuring that a violent person didn't have a deadly weapon at hand in a moment of anger.
But how many more lives would have been saved if $1 billion had been spent on more effective policing, or domestic violence prevention - or health care?
They wasted your money, abused Parliament and kept the truth hidden.
And as far as I can tell, they don't even care.
Paul Willcocks can be reached at willcocks@ultranet.ca

Campbell ignores warnings on education, rural woes
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - Gordon Campbell is too quick to brush off concerns that he doesn't want to hear.
Even when they come from his own MLAs.
The legislative finance committee - 10 Liberals and New Democrat Joy MacPhail - toured the province and came back with what could have been useful warnings about education under-funding and a growing rural-urban gap.
But it took the premier only a few days to say, basically, forget about it.
The committee, chaired by Blair Lekstrom, heard from groups with comments on how the Liberals should approach the next budget.
It reported there is still general support for staying the course and balancing the budget by 2004/5.
But at the same time its report pointed out a growing gap between life in rural and urban B.C., and placed some of the blame directly on the Liberals' policies.
"The situation is becoming critical for resource-dependent communities hit hard by the combined impact of the government's restraint program and the current economic uncertainly in the forestry and the mining sector," the report said.
The committee simply acknowledged reality. The government's spending cuts have struck hardest outside Vancouver and Victoria. The report rightly notes that the loss of even a few jobs in a smaller centre has a significant economic impact, and warns that threats to already limited services undermine community viability.
And while it said the support remains for achieving the balanced budget target, there are also immediate needs out there, and it proposed immediate solutions.
It proposed an aid program for rural communities. The Liberals keep talking about the importance of helping communities hurt by the softwood crisis, but says it's up to Ottawa to come up with the money. The committee says that's not good enough, and says the aid needs to be extended beyond forest-dependent communities.
The committee also came back with a valuable warning of growing problems in B.C.'s schools.
"The shortage of funds is reaching a critical stage for rural schools and schools-based programs in urban areas," says the report. Lift the three-year spending freeze, the committee said, or at least seriously consider lifting it.
The Liberals increased the education budget by less than one-half per cent this year, despite higher costs for everything from MSP premiums to salaries. They've frozen it for the next two years. That means that school districts have to cut something like $100 million from their real spending each year, just to absorb rising costs.
And the committee - of Liberal MLAs mind you - came back convinced that's going to do damage.
It's politically risky - and socially and economically foolish - to begin to put the quality of education children receive at risk. That's not to say that more spending equals better education. But forcing cuts on the fly, based on an arbitrary freeze, increases the risks of falling educational quality.
The issue is growing in importance. Lekstrom said education was a bigger issue than health care during the tour. And the last McIntyre and Mustel poll showed support for the Liberals among parents of school-age children falling from over 50 per cent to 35 per cent this fall.
But only a few days after the report was released, Campbell dumped cold water on any hopes that the government would look for ways to find the money for schools called for by Liberals MLAs.
Tax cuts and balancing the budget come first, he said. "When we have a healthy balance sheet and there are additional revenues, we certainly would look at education as one of the top priorities for expenditure," he said.
To be fair, it's important to remember that the committee reported support for staying the course on balancing the budget within two years.
But it also highlighted wide concerns about harm being done to children and communities. And it said those concerns were real, and should be heeded.
Paul Willcocks can be reached at willcocks@ultranet.ca

By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - Funny how BC Ferries has never quite achieved the beloved status of BC Hydro.
Islanders value the service, sort of, but there aren't that many of us. And even Islanders spend more time grumbling about the ferries than singing their praises.
So the Liberals didn't have to worry much about political fallout when they set out to shake up the ferry corporation.
The plans for BC Ferries, unveiled by Transportation Minister Judith Reid, look like a reasonable stab at figuring out what to do with the corporation.
It's sort of semi-privatization. BC Ferries will no longer be a taxpayer-supported Crown corporation. But it won't be a real private company either.
Bear with me here.
First, BC Ferries gets a new name, BC Ferry Services. It won't be a Crown corporation; just another company out there trying to make a buck.
Sort of. The voting shares in the new company will be held by something called the BC Ferry Authority, run by a government-appointed board. That group will in turn name the board for BC Ferry Services.
It's a compromise. The new company isn't really private. If it angers people too much, they can still squeeze the politicians, who can fire the authority board.
But it does offer politicians some insulation. If people get mad at the ferry corporation - and I expect they will - the politicians can always initially blame the board, which can always blame the need to balance revenue and expense.
That's not such a bad principle really. Islanders like to talk about the ferry service as an extension of the highway system. But there aren't highways everywhere; some communities are served by cruddy gravel roads. And it's a bit much to expect people in those communities to dig deep to subsidize ferry service for people who have decided they want to live on an island.
The government has built in some protection for Islanders, at least for the first five years.
The average rate increases for the main routes between the Island and the Mainland will be 2.8 per cent; across all other routes the increases will average 4.4 per cent a year. Add that to a 3.8-per-cent rate increase that take effect Sunday, and fares will be 30 per cent higher on most routes five years from now, and 20-per-cent higher on the main routes.
But the real crunch will come in five years.
Reid says the new company is going to have to invest $2 billion in news ships and terminal improvements over the next 15 years. It can borrow the money, but only if lenders are confident that enough money will come in to pay the loans back. And it's not at all clear that these fare increases will provide enough profits to allow that.
Chair David Emerson hopes that the corporation will start pulling in a lot more money from other profit centres. Now the head of Canfor, Emerson previously ran the Vancouver Airport Authority, the model for this effort. He hopes restaurants and boutiques - and even bars - on boats and at terminals can produce a steady stream of cash for the new company. "It's my hope that people will actually celebrate going for a trip on BC Ferries," he says.
BC Ferries has done a poor job of trying to grab extra money from passengers, as anyone who has tried to eat in the terminal restaurants knows. But even doubling the revenue from food and retailing will only add about $20 million a year to the corporation's bottom line. The new company will need more than that to service those loans.
That means cost-cutting will be on the agenda.
And so, likely, will be more fare increases once the first five-year agreement expires, especially if the government tries to renege on the promised share of gas tax revenues for the ferry system.

Paul Willcocks can be reached at willcocks@ultranet.ca