Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Not the Throne Speech Campbell expected
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - It had to be kind of a bummer for Gordon Campbell to have to sit through the Throne Speech this week.
Not that Lt.-Gov. Iona Campagnolo mumbled or anything.
But after almost three years in power, Campbell likely expected things to be going much better. If the Liberals' plans had worked - and if they hadn't been hit with a lot of bad breaks - the economy would be humming now, government would be remade and the province's revenues would be growing enough to allow more spending on services.
It hasn't worked. So a government that faces an election campaign in 14 months finds itself doing a lot of talking about sacrifice - hardly a popular re-election plank - and how great things will be by 2010.
I'm oversimplifying, of course, but criticizing me for that would be like attacking the speech for vague optimism. Throne Speeches offer such a tremendously upbeat look at the world that if you could bottle the essence no one would ever bother with Prozac again. (Where else but a Throne Speech would you read about "the incredibly successful Action Schools program," apparently a better form of PE.)
There are some intriguing ideas. Campbell is going to host a series of roundtables "engaging B.C.'s families in a discussion about their hopes and aspirations." The idea is that participants will be chosen at random to sit down and talk with the premier about where the province should be going. It could be fascinating. (And it certainly can't hurt.)
The government plans a better effort on literacy, and pledges to create 25,000 more post secondary school places by 2010, the idea being that any high school grad with a 75-per-cent average will find a space. But the speech doesn't indicate whether the future grads will be able to afford tuition, given recent increases.
Last year's speech was big on the Heartlands. This year, two things leaped out.
First, the claim that only now "The New Era has begun." The election was apparently a false start, and the Liberals would like you to begin assessing them now.
And second, the appearance of the "Spirit of 2010," a ghostly spectre that's supposed to be leading us to the light.
A Spirit of 2010 tourism strategy is to be introduced later this year.
And Campbell will host the "Spirit of 2010 Business Summit" this spring, pulling businesses, investors and community leaders together to discuss Olympic development strategies and what needs to happen to cash in.
Both those things are great. The Olympics are a big opportunity, and it will take a lot of work to make sure the benefits spread beyond Vancouver and Whistler.
But it's tough to evoke a faint image of the province six years - and two elections from now - as a rallying point. I'm not sure if it's fair to expect fundamental change on a tighter schedule, but I don't make the rules.
Most of the rest of the Throne Speech was routine. The forest policy changes will finally get done; the land use plans for Lillooet and the Central Coast will finally be approved; the government will work harder at encouraging mining; funding for forest campsites is restored. Great, but this is what's expected from government. It's their job.
The Spirit of 2010 was one ghost. Another was the disillusionment lurking in the background, the people who wonder about tax cuts made with too little information, a children and families ministry in chaos and falling incomes. And a third was the knowledge that in a week Finance Minister Gary Collins is going to bring in a budget with deep cuts to most ministries.(Three ministries will cut more than 20 per cent of their spending. Another five must cut more than 10 per cent.)
It will be a testing year for Campbell and the Liberals. The most significant test comes on Tuesday, when they must demonstrate a sound plan to produce the first balanced budget since they were elected.
Footnote: Look for a quick rush of legislation from the Liberals, especially in the economic area. They need to grab the agenda or the NDP will be able to focus attention on the government's many problems.

LIberals right to abandon welfare time limits
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - Give the Liberals credit for dropping their ill-conceived plan to start arbitrarily chopping people off welfare.
The government changed the law to bar people from collecting welfare for more than two years in any five-year period, with the first people to be cut off April 1.
They've been secretive about the impact, refusing to release their estimate of how many people and families would lose benefits.
Now, with six weeks to go until the first people are cut off , new Human Resources Minister Stan Hagen has released the estimates. In the first year 172 will be cut off welfare under the time limit rule; another 167 couples or families with children may have their welfare rates cut by $100 to $300 a month. (The sins of the father being quite literally visited on the children.)
But wait, you say, didn't I read that thousands of people would be cut off?
Indeed you did, and those estimates were probably accurate at the time.
The Liberals' plan started out with exemptions for a half-dozen categories of people who were considered unable to find work. Since then, the list of exempted groups has been steadily growing. By the time Hagen revealed the estimated impact, the exemptions had grown to 25.
Most critically, anyone who had an employment plan and was following it and looking for work wouldn't be cut off under the two-year rule, Hagen said. Since rules already allowed the government to cut off people who weren't looking for work, the reality is that noting has actually changed.
It's welcome about-face from the initial plan. (Although it means the government went through a great deal of time and money, created widespread fear and set communities into panic, all for a change that will save less than $300,000.)
Why the big change in plans?
Two factors are likely at play.
First, some Liberals started with the genuine belief that many welfare recipients are happy freeloaders choosing the dole over work. Time in government introduced them to the real world.
Welfare means a terrible life of struggle and suffering. People want to work to escape that life. But in a competitive job market, many simply can't find work. A person with the kind of problems that led them to welfare is often not the first choice of an employer.
We can do much more to help people on welfare find work, and even to push them forward. But the Liberal review should help help kill the myth of the welfare bum.
Out of 115,000 welfare recipients in the province, the government thinks about 350 people aren't making a good enough effort to find a job. (The Liberals had the same concerns about disability payments, and spent $3.5 million on a massive review that found 98 per cent of recipients were receiving appropriate benefits.)
And second, the government simply listened to those on the front lines who warned that cutting benefits to people who can't find work would just create crime, homelessness and problems. For that, they deserve credit.
The retreat creates some new problems though.
The Liberals' plans called for a major reduction in the number of people on welfare. The budget for people on temporary assistance was chopped by 35 per cent, from $699 million to $451 million this year. The plan calls for an even larger reduction in the budget due next week, part of the push for a balanced provincial budget.
But those savings would only have realized if a great many people had been pushed off welfare because of the time limit. And that is now apparently not going to happen.
The Liberals deserve credit for abandoning a bad idea. We're governed best by people who are willing to acknowledge mistakes, change course and move on. The process was inefficient, even destructive. But in the end, the government did the right thing.
Footnote: Credit should also go to the NDP government, and the Liberals, for successful efforts to help people make the transition from welfare. Increased emphasis on training and career support has proved effective in reducing the welfare rolls steadily since the mid-90s. Any investment in helping people escape welfare will be quickly repaid.