Saturday, May 15, 2004

Incompetence leads to children and families flop

VICTORIA - The Liberals have made a remarkable mess of their plans for the ministry of children and families.
The Walls' audit got the headlines this week. But at the same time the government released an assessment of their efforts to restructure the ministry. And it is much more damning.
After two years and tens of millions of dollars, stunningly little has been accomplished. The changes that were supposed to make a 12-per-cent cut in ministry spending possible are mired in confusion. The spending cuts are still being made.
It is baffling that so much time and money could have spent without anyone in government noticing that the entire process was like one of those phoney Hollywood stage sets. Former minister Gordon Hogg kept insisting cheerfully that things were great, even ahead of schedule. In reality, as the report released this week confirms, things were a mess.
The government unveiled its big plans for the ministry back in January 2002. Those included deep spending and staff cuts, justified by a shift to 11 new semi-independent authorities that would deliver services. Ten would be regional authorities - five aboriginal, and five non-aboriginal - to take over children's services. A province-wide Community Living Authority would provide services to mentally disabled British Columbians and their families, with a $600-million budget.
The plan was flawed from the start. The government was warned of the risks in launching a massive restructuring while simultaneously slashing the ministry budget.
But Mr. Hogg was always confident. There was a great show of public consultation. Doug Walls was, we now know, pushing his agenda tirelessly. Advisory committees were named. Why, Mr. Hogg said a year ago, things were going so well that the Community Living Authority would be up and running by the fall of 2003, along with the first two regional child protection authorities.
We now know Mr. Hogg was hopelessly wrong. The regional authorities won't be ready until 2006.
And the this week's "readiness report" on the Community Living Authority paints such a bleak picture of the lack of progress that it too will be delayed. Children and Families Christy Clark says the target is now late 2005.
The report reveals that after two years of work, the most basic questions haven't been answered.
The government's fundamentally flawed approach has "resulted in a lack of co-ordination between the planning and operational components, with the result that there has been no opportunity to develop the organization and systems required."
The ministry hasn't figured out how it's going to cope with the significant transition costs. It doesn't have a plan to meet increasing demand within its current budget. It doesn't have a management team to lead the change. It hasn't figured out how to deal with the labour relations issues, which were complicated by last fall's job protection deal with the BCGEU.
And it still hasn't sorted out the basic question of how services will be delivered.
Remember, this is after more than two years and repeated assurances that everything was moving along ahead of schedule.
Mr. Hogg's chances of returning to cabinet should be non-existent.
But how is it that no one in government noticed the mismanagement - not the premier and cabinet, or the senior deputy ministers, or the government caucus committee that's supposed to be a watchdog. Alarms were raised regularly by people outside government, but they were either ignored or mocked by the Liberals.
It's a hugely incompetent performance. Leave aside the merits of the proposed shift to new authorities, which is widely - though not universally - supported.
The issue here is the government's ability to develop a plan and execute it. And it failed spectacularly.
It is also a huge betrayal. In opposition, Gordon Campbell said the ministry needed more money to do its work. The Liberals' New Era campaign promised a halt to endless to bureaucratic restructuring.
What they've delivered is $185 million in spending cuts and an endless, grossly mismanaged restructuring effort.
B.C.'s most vulnerable children and adults deserve better.

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Friday, May 14, 2004

One year to election, and LIberals face a real challenge

VICTORIA - Start counting down - one year from today (Monday) you'll be heading off to elect the next provincial government.
Three years ago most people would have expected it to be an easy Liberal re-election victory. Not so lopsided as 2001, certainly, but still another big majority.
No more. Based on the latest polls the Liberals will face a tough battle and some 30 of the party's 75 MLAs will be out of a job. An NDP victory is no longer out of the question, a stunning turnaround given the party's dismal performance in government and overwhelming rejection three years ago.
The Liberals aren't panicked. They're confident that as the election comes closer voters will look more closely at the NDP and their record.
That's the first big factor to watch as the next year unfolds. NDP leader Carole James has been relatively untested in terms of what her party would do in government.
The former NDP government was widely and accurately seen as incompetent and wasteful, and a particularly poor manager of public sector wage costs. James has to prove that she - and the leading NDP candidates - would do better.
It will mean walking a political tightrope. James has said repeatedly that she "can't turn back the clock" and undo LIberal decisions. But she will have to provide specifics to win trust and votes. Would an NDP government restore the 15-per-cent wage rollback for Hospital Employees' Union members, for example? And if it did, where would the extra $250 million a year come from? One answer will anger public sector union members; the other will anger many other voters.
The Liberals face their own challenges.
With only a year to go, Premier Gordon Campbell points to a long list of New Era campaign promises that have been delivered.
But voters - as the polls indicate - have major doubts, linked to failures in key areas.
Health care is not better under the Liberals than it was under the NDP. The economy has not improved in the way the Liberals promised. Universities and colleges are harder to get into, and cost more. The promised improvements in the children and families ministry have been botched. The tax cut did not deliver the promised returns to government, and this year taxes actually increased for lower and middle-income British Columbians, while going down for the more affluent.
Partly, the Liberals need luck, especially on the economy. (And that should worry them, given that the only luck they have had so far has been bad - think of SARS, softwood, 911, fires, floods.)
Analysts have been upgrading their economic growth estimates for this year, a change that would mean more jobs and better pay.
More importantly, a stronger economy would allow the Liberals to bring in a credible pre-election budget next February that included spending increases for health and education. They could then claim that the sacrifices were begininning to py off.
The Liberals also need to find a way through difficult negotiations with teachers, nurses and doctors in coming months, especially critical after their mishandling of the HEU strike.
And they have to find a way to deal with the Campbell problem. B.C. premiers always trail their party in popularity. But Campbell's approval rating is dismal, with only 29 per cent of British Columbians approving of his performance. (Glen Clark, in his worst days, fell to 19-per-cent approval.)
There are lots of theories about why people believe Campbell is doing a bad job. He's seen as untrustworthy by people who believe he broke critical promises on issues like BC Rail and respecting contracts. And he's blamed for a wide perception that the Liberal government doesn't care about the effects of its policies on ordinary British Columbians.
The Liberal pitch will be based on asking for four more years to complete the job and capture the benefits of the Olympics.
The race is on. And the mere fact that it is a race, and not an easy Liberal walk, is an indication of how many more surprises may lie ahead.
Footnote: For the NDP, a critical issue will be who emerge as candidates. Newcomers may not inspire confidence; veterans of the Clark government will be a reminder of its bleak performance. For the Liberals, a critical issue will be whether the Unity Party is able to capture right-wing votes in close races that would have gone Liberal.

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Tougher laws against street people not the answer

VICTORIA - I learned to to look carefully out the bus windows in Mexico City whenever we hit an intersection. A red light might mean a human pyramid - a man on the bottom, a kid about 10 who clambered up to stand on his shoulders and then a five-year-old, often in some ragtag costume, who scrambled up to stand on the very top, madly blowing a whistle. A silent ta-daa, everybody leaps down to the hot pavement and then dashes to collect money from drivers before the light changes.
It was weirder outside the main business district. There it was often just sickly looking men who took big swigs from plastic bottles and then breathed fire across the street, hoping drivers would toss them a few coins. (They were sickly looking because they used a mix of diesel and water to make the flames.)
Which leads, in a circular way, to MLA Lorne Mayencourt's bills that aim to put an end to squeegee people and aggressive panhandlers, and make it easier for property owners to bar people they don't like.
Mayencourt probably reflects the views of many people in his downtown Vancouver community. Many of them find panhandlers not just a nuisance, but threatening. Others wish they would all just go away.
And I can see that.
But it also gets a little uglier. Mayencourt did a reasonable job of explaining why he had introduced the bills in a scrum outside the chamber. But then he went a little father: "We're telling them that the streets belong to the people who pay for them."
So you low-income single mom, these aren't your streets. A citizen's rights are linked to the amount of taxes he pays.
You can make a good case for setting limits on peoples' actions, at least ones that affect others. If confrontational panhandlers make people feel unsafe, then there's a case for stopping them.
It's tricky ground. It's unrealistic to say people should simply ignore the approaches of panhandlers. If someone feels menaced, if their ability to make use of the streets is reduced, then something should be done.
But it's a short step from that argument to sweeping away anyone who makes people feel uncomfortable. And that 's wrong and dangerous. All people have a right to use the streets and public places.
The other problems with Mayencourt's bill are purely practical. It's hard to see how they are going to make any real difference.
Mayencourt cited the example of a woman whose car window was smashed by a squeegee person as an example of the need for a new law. But assault, smashing windows, threatening people, even jaywalking are all already offences. If law enforcement is the answer, the tools are already there.
It's not. Police have better things to do than arrest panhandlers, or issue tickets that they can't pay because they have no money.
There are no simple answers. One response is to look at why people are on the streets. If cuts to support programs for at-risk youth or a lack of treatment options for the addicted or mentally ill are a factor - and they likely are - then that needs to be part of the solution. If people are camped out in storefronts because there are no other safe places, then why not provide them?
At the risk of being simplistic, part of the answer lies within us. If we see these people as threatening aliens and respond in that way, we set the stage for deeper division. If we nod and say hello - even without giving money - we bring our community together. (And if we make personal contributions to the many effective agencies working with them, we do even more.)
We tend to like simple solutions: more law and order, or more social spending.
But ultimately this is about people and how they get along. And that is never simple.
Footnote: Mayencourt's bill isn't going anywhere. The big guys in government aren't keen, and only one private member's bill has passed in more than 20 years. That was MLA Steve Orcherton's bill extending patient's right to alternative health care. The Liberal repealed it shortly after the election. But it's still healthy to see a backbencher at least getting an idea on the agenda.

Monday, May 10, 2004

Penner shows health care better if you can pay

VICTORIA - Queue-jumping MLA Barry Penner deserves our thanks.
The Abbotsford Liberal pushed the issue of two-tier health care out in the open, by taking the dramatic step of paying for surgery at a private clinic to avoid health care wait lists.
Let me be clear. If was in Penner's situation, I would do the same thing. He's had a bad back for a couple of years, and injured it while exercising in mid-April. His doctor put him on a wait list for surgery to repair a damaged disc. It was elective, but it was pressing enough that the operation was scheduled within a couple of weeks.
Then the Hospital Employees' Union strike began, and the procedure wasn't urgent enough to be done under essential services.
Penner says his doctor disagreed. He was in pain, and worried - even scared, I'd say - about long-term damage. So he went to a private clinic and paid for the surgery.
I'd do the same, even knowing that the surgery was probably illegal. (And I, like Penner, would express regret about it.)
But that's not the way health care is supposed to work in Canada. The Canada Health Act requires equal access to care. Canadians have taken it as a principle that income shouldn't determine who gets needed treatment and who has to wait.
Governments have been working hard to ignore the reality that private treatment has already created a two-tier system.
Which is fine if you have money.
But what if you can't come up with the cash? (Penner won't say how much his operation cost, because the clinic swears clients to secrecy, a nice surreptitious touch.)
Then you wait. You risk the permanent damage Penner was worried about. If you don't have the same benefits as MLAs, you lose income. You suffer.
That is today's reality - a world in which there is one standard of health care for people with money, and another for those without. So far government's have decided to pretend it's not happening. Health Minister Colin Hansen introduced a bill last year that would have targeted the abuses. The Liberals passed it. But then Premier Gordon Campbell, under pressure from private clinics, said the law wouldn't go into effect.
The government is still trying to avoid the issue. Hansen struggled to explain why Penner's surgery - and thousands more like it - aren't a violation of the Canada Health Act's ban on paying to jump the queue for medically necessary procedures.
Penner didn't jump the queue, Hansen said, he just stepped out of it.
Anyway there's no clear definition of medically necessary, Hansen added, although surely Penner's surgery would qualify under anyone's definition.
And he noted correctly that Penner would have got his surgery in the public system if not for the strike.
But this isn't about the strike. Waiting lists have climbed steadily since the election, and private operations for people who don't want to wait are done every day.
At its base the issue isn't complex. Waiting lists are climbing because governments won't pay for the treatments people need. There are enough operating rooms, nurses and in most cases doctors. Governments don't believe treating people in a timely way is a spending priority. (Every year since 1997 about 2,600 British Columbians have been told they need hip replacements and put on a waiting list. But in every year but one 2,300 replacements have been performed. So waiting lists grow until it now takes an average four months to get an operation. A one-time $25-million investment would clear the backlog.)
Penner deserves our thanks. He has provided a high-profile demonstration that two-tier care exists.
Now all Canadians need to decide if we are ready to accept a health care system which lets people with money get speedy treatment, while others wait, and often, suffer.
Footnote: Hansen also noted that queue-jumping has already been sanctioned by the federal government in some cases. The WCB can pay for private treatment for claimants, and RCMP members and federal prisoners also are allowed to go private. When injuries and illness cost governments money, they find ways around the queue. In opposition, the Liberals opposed the practise; they have now changed their minds.

IWA the Liberals' partner in health sector wage cuts

VICTORIA - Back in 1994 it would have been hard to predict that Dave Haggard and the IWA would become the Liberals' allies in privatizing health sector jobs and cutting employees' wages.
The Liberals could have shifted the work to private companies without the IWA's help. But it would have been a heck of a lot harder and slower without the union.
What a difference a decade makes. Back in 1994 Haggard and the IWA were waging war on MacMillan Bloedel over work done by construction companies using members of "rat unions." The unions were employer-controlled and negotiated inferior contracts, said Haggard. The IWA threatened boycotts and the dispute led to violent clashes in Port Alberni.
Flash forward. The Liberals want health authorities to be able fire Hospital Employees Union members and contract with private companies to do the work. The goal is to save money, largely by hiring new employees at much lower wages and with fewer benefits.
The Liberals could clear the way for the changes. They used legislation to remove job protection in health care workers ' contracts and eliminate successor rights.
But that still left a risk. The private companies bidding on the contracts knew they could probably fill the jobs with new workers who would work for much lower wages.
But they couldn't be guaranteed that those wages would stay low. The HEU would almost certainly try and organize the workplaces. The employees might decide to form their own association, or hook up with some other large union. Even if they didn't, the threat would always be there, creating uncertainty for the companies.
And that's where Haggard and the IWA came in. Before a single employee was hired, the IWA sat down with the three companies bidding for most of the work and signed a contract that provided low wages and few benefits.
When hiring started, job applicants were told they had to sign an IWA membership card before they would be interviewed. The companies and the IWA co-operated to force them into the union, and subject them to a contract they never had a chance to see, let alone vote on.
It was a good deal for the companies, which got an insurance policy against employees deciding to form a union and advance their own issues.
The government got lower bids for the work, since the companies didn't have to worry about their labour costs going up.
The IWA picked up a lot of dues revenue, without having to go through the hassle of convincing the workers that they actually wanted to hand part of their wages.
The employees didn't do quite so well. There's lots of talk about the efficiencies of private companies, and there are some benefits. But the real savings simply come from paying people less. Contracting out laundry services meant wages for an employee went from $34,000 under the HEU to $21,000 under the IWA contract, with benefits taking a similar cut.
The employees, in short, got what looks very much like the kind of contract Haggard used to rail against.
The employees could decertify, of course, but that's slow and difficult.
And in any case the government effectively took that option away, passing legislation last year to strip these employees of the successor rights enjoyed by employees at every other private business in the province. A health sector company facing a union or contract it doesn't like can fire the employees and walk away. A new operator then takes over, free to sign a more accommodating contract with a friendly union like the IWA. (This isn't theoretical; it has already happened.)
It's a sorry role for the IWA, one that has embarrassed many members and drawn sanctions from the Canadian Labour Congress.
And it's surprising that the union's members have stood by and watched as the IWA played a part in reducing not just wages, but the basic rights of workers.
Footnote: Haggard has been anointed as a federal Liberal candidate in New Westminster-Coquitlam, spared the trouble of a nomination battle thanks to Paul Martin's intervention. It's a reminder of how out of touch Martin is with B.C. To beat Conservative incumbent Paul Forseth, Haggard needs to capture votes from the NDP. Given the IWA's health role, that's not going to happen.