Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Liberals can learn a good lesson from Coquihalla mess
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - Here's hoping Gordon Campbell and the Liberals learn from the great Coquihalla debacle.
The idea of privatizing the highway, and locking rising tolls in place for 55 years, should have been an obvious non-starter for both political and practical reasons.
The Liberals' policy on toll roads pledges that tolls will be introduced to pay for new construction, letting travellers see a link between a toll and improved service. Instead Interior residents just saw that they were going to be paying "temporary" tolls for another 55 years, subsidizing new toll-free roads in other parts of the province (read the Lower Mainland). And despite the government's claims, drivers knew the construction costs that the tolls were supposed to cover were repaid years ago.
It was a cash grab that would hurt the so-called Heartland. And the people reacted accordingly.
The first question for the Liberals is how they got into such a mess. A party in touch with the voters - and listening to MLAs who were willing to speak out on behalf of their constituents - would have seen the wave of public anger heading toward them like an out-of-control semi on the long downhill into Merritt.
Instead, the Liberals stumbled into the disaster and then compounded their problems. They did a lousy job of making the case for the proposal. When people objected, the government's first response edged on insult. The problem, said Transport Minister Judith Reid, is that people just don't understand the plan. The government's solution included spending taxpayers' money on an ad campaign promoting the scheme, a move that just added to the public anger. It galls to have the people elected tell you that you're too dim to see their wisdom; it hurts even more when they use your money to try and sell you on their plans.
Campbell kept pushing the plan when everyone from unions to chambers of commerce to mayors to seniors had made their fundamental opposition clear.
It was a costly mistake.
The government has spent more than $4 million on studies, professional fees and other work preparing for the Coquihalla privatization. A small sum in government, perhaps, but still $4 million that could have been used elsewhere.
It has managed to unite opposition across the Interior, leaving Liberal MLAs in a hole.
And it has undermined its credibility with the international business community. Cabinet has already been warned that companies interested in private-public partnerships have a lot of international options. If B.C. is going to attract companies to build and operate everything from toll bridges to hospitals - a key part of Liberal plans - it has to be competitive.
And a key element in competitiveness is consistency. Killing one of the first major projects for political reasons, after companies spent money preparing to bid, is a black eye for the province.
That's a shame, because both toll roads and public-private partnerships make sense as a way to finance and build new transportation projects. The principle that users should pay, and that costs can be reduced by encouraging competition among private companies, makes sense.
The Liberals have tended towards inflexibility, locked on course whatever the public reaction or the obvious flaws in plans. (Look how long it took the government to acknowledge its plans for children and families were hopelessly compromised.)
But Campbell's decision to abandon the bad Coquihalla plan has been well-received, even though it appears grudging. He'd do well to remember that, and to look to the example of Alberta Premier Ralph Klein who has shown a willingness to walk away from a bad idea. People accept mistakes, from politicians or partners; they just want them to be acknowledged and set right quickly.
For the public, the lesson is clear as well. Get mad enough, and organize a broad enough base of opposition, and governments almost have to respond.
Footnote: The Liberals' transportation problems aren't behind them. Ottawa and the province are fighting over the amount of the federal contribution to a rapid transit line to the Vancouver airport. But Ottawa has also said the choice is between supporting the transit line or improving the highway through the Kicking Horse Pass. It's another decision that will be watched closely in the regions.

Getting tough with drunk drivers by reducing penalties
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA – I learned to scorn mandatory jail sentences when the young guy that I’d seen at church with his wife and two little girls got five years.
He’d taken over the family business - a big responsibility for a young man - and it was failing. And one desperate morning he decided to rob a bank. He was arrested within 25 minutes, after police followed him from the bank back to the shop.
The mandatory minimum for armed robbery was five years, with no flexibility allowed. So that’s what he got.
What he did was wrong. But that was a sentence that did nothing for society, him or his little girls.
It’s still a popular solution to every social or criminal problem that comes along. Make the penalties tougher, and take away the courts’ discretion to consider the benefits of alternatives.
But the get-tough methods don't work. And in fact, they can have quite the opposite effect.
That’s why the Liberal plan to get tough on impaired driving actually includes lighter penalties for people who get behind the wheel drunk.
Politicians have made drunk driving laws tougher. The penalties - especially the provisions for licence suspensions - have grown more punitive and less flexible. The idea was that tough punishment would keep impaired drivers off the road.
But things rarely work out as planned. Economists call it the law of unintended consequences; in trying to accomplish one goal, we actually produce quite different results.
So it’s been with impaired driving. We made penalties tougher, raising fines and lengthening licence suspensions, and took away judges’ ability to be flexible in imposing them.
But the penalties became so severe that more and more people decided it was worth pleading not guilty and going to trial. Even if they lost, they would have 18 months of creeping through the process to prepare for the loss of their licence.
As a result police had to put more time into gathering information before charges were laid, so they would be ready for a trial. The cases crowded the courts, with 25 per cent of provincial court trial time taken up with impaired driving cases.
So police and prosecutors started looking to alternatives to criminal charges, like 24-hour roadside suspensions. And the number of impaired charges dropped.
The get-tough changes actually made the punishment less severe.
Consider the numbers. Last year about 560,000 people in B.C. drove while impaired. Only 50,000 of those were caught by police.
Only 10 per cent of those people were hit with a criminal charge. Police dealt with 90 per cent of impaired drivers by imposing a 24-hour licence suspension.
That means about 4,500 people ended up facing criminal charges. Almost a third weren't convicted. So only about 3,000 people ended up being handed one of those tougher penalties. The changes actually reduced the real consequences for drunk drivers.
Solicitor General Rich Coleman proposes to change that by introducing new provincial offences carrying penalties more severe than a 24-hour suspension, but lighter than Criminal Code sanctions. Fines may be lower, and licence suspensions shorter and more flexible. (You might be allowed to drive to work, for example.)
Repeat offenders or those in crashes could expect Criminal Code charges. But most people would face lesser charges, with penalties much like we used to impose for impaired driving before sanctions were toughened.
The proposed shift to lighter penalties is still a proposal, part of a package of changes proposed by Coleman and now awaiting public comment.
But they will likely go ahead, along with mandatory education or rehab programs for offenders, a requirement already in place in every other province.
It's a useful lesson. Smarter, targeted enforcement and education are what's needed, despite the political appeal of tougher penalties.
Footnote: Most of the proposed changes make sense, but not all. Coleman announced last week that people who receive two 24-hour roadside suspensions within two years could lose their licence for 90 days. Those suspensions are handed out by police, without a court hearing. The longer suspension isn't mandatory, but it remains too severe a penalty to impose without giving the driver the opportunity for a full hearing.