Friday, September 03, 2004

Premiers, PM fumbling health care summit

VICTORIA - Are these guys kidding, the premiers and Paul Martin, as they stumble towards what's supposed to be some sort of break-through meeting on health care?
The premiers have just wrapped up their final preparations for Martin's televised summit. (Without Ralph Klein, who was too busy to show up.)
The good news is that at least they've come up with an agenda for Martin's meeting, something he apparently hadn't got around to yet.
That seems like a sign. The meeting is barely one week way, and Martin and Health Minister Ujjal Dosanjh haven't come up with a schedule of what they want to talk about. Nothing wrong with winging it sometimes, but funding and reforming health care seems a little complex to tackle without a plan.
So give the premiers credit for at least getting an agenda done. They propose spending a couple of hours late on the first day talking about accountability; a full day on the big challenges - like wait times and home care ; and the third day on funding.
Give the premiers credit for nerve, too. They're still pushing ahead with their pitch for a new, federally funded national pharmacare plan. And to pressure Martin, they hauled out a giant prop for their closing press conference, a blown-up newspaper ad from the election campaign including health care promises.
Fair enough, although Gordon Campbell and the rest should expect to see blow-ups of their campaign promises popping up. The Liberals pledge to reduce wait lists, which have climbed since the election, springs to mind.
The meeting, which was supposed to fix health care for a generation, is likely going to turn into another federal-provincial squabble over money. By the end of day three Ottawa will have come up with more cash, the provinces will be unhappy with the amount, some sort of new committee or task force will be appointed to look at a couple of high-profile issues and it will be business as usual.
That's not so so terrible really. The health care system works well enough that we're not in any crisis. Health care costs took the same amount of our GDP in 2001 as they did a decade earlier. Cost increases may be worrying; they are not any sort of critical problem.
The extra money - although it's not much - will help. The federal government has offered an extra $9 billion over five years, which would mean about $240 million more a year for B.C. Ottawa is likely to come up with more money at the meeting, probably with some sort of strings on how it can be spent.
But by the time the meeting is over attentive Canadians will likely be wondering what happened to all that talk about reforming the system, and all those reports and commissions.
Every premier deplores long waits for surgery, for example, and Martin has vowed to tackle them. But the immediate problem could be solved with money, if we chose. Eliminating the wait for hip surgery in B.C., one of the most critical, would involve a one-time commitment of $25 million. If personal taxes were increased by one-half of one per cent, or a couple of weeks' gambling revenue dedicated to eliminating the wait, the problem would be fixed.
The underlying issues could then be addressed through a national commitment to prevention, eliminating unnecessary surgery, increased efficiency, wait time guarantees and anything else that will make the system work better.
The premiers apparently think a national pharmacare program is a good thing, and they're right. A single process for approving new drugs, and a national agency could bargain much more aggressively with the drug companies, would reduce costs.
But if they were serious, they could begin work on a national pharmacare plan today, with or without Ottawa.
Those kinds of things aren't likely to get acted on next week in Ottawa. Too bad.
Footnote: The premiers came up with eight issues for day two of the talks: waiting times; a national pharmacare program; home care; human resources; healthy living; information technology; improving services in the north; and aboriginal health. It's a good list, but they've also allotted four times as much of the schedule to talk about funding as they have for a discussion of waiting times.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Time for a BC energy heritage fund

VICTORIA - A BC Energy Heritage Fund makes such good sense I can't believe the government hasn't already set one up.
The principle is simple. Set up a permanent savings account for future generations, and fund it with a set share of oil and gas revenues.
The fund recognizes that the oil and gas will run out someday, and in one stroke preserves some of the money for our grandchildren and ensures governments don't get too hooked on volatile - and ultimately finite - energy revenues.
It's a pretty straightforward idea, with a lot of benefits and no big drawbacks.
And it's already tested and proven workable. Up in Alaska, they started wondering about the flood of revenue that would be coming into government as oil and has fields were developed in the late '70s.
Alaskans knew the money would stop flowing some day. So they passed a law that said 25 per cent of new energy revenues would go into a permanent fund for future generations. It's up to $33 billion now, a cushion against tougher times. The fund has been invested so successfully that it's been able to pay dividends of about $1,300 a year to the public.
Alberta's fund took in energy revenue from 1975 to 1996, and stands at about $11 billion; Norway has more than $100 billion set aside from its energy revenues against the day the gas stops flowing.
Why not here?
The Pembina Institute, an Alberta think tank, proposed such a fund in its recent report on government and the oil and gas industry in Canada. Government shouldn't become dependent on uncertain energy revenues for its basic operations, the institute suggested. (How uncertain? In 1995 B.C. natural gas royalties were just under $98 million; this year they will be $1.2 billion.)
And sooner or later, the oil and gas will be gone. We owe it future generations to set aside some money for them, the institute argues.
It makes sense. And it also provides a useful check on government.
As the Liberals - and the NDP before them - have set out to encourage oil and gas development, critics have been quick to claim that they're in too much of a hurry, eager for quick cash. That's one of the shots opponents of coalbed methane development in the East Kootenay took at the Liberals (unfairly, I'd say).
But it's still a reasonable concern. Governments get as desperate for cash as the rest of us, and will be tempted to sell off resources in a hurry, and not necessarily at the best price.
Requiring that a significant chunk of the money for the future reduces that pressure, and takes one criticism away from development opponents.
Energy Minister Richard Neufeld isn't keen on the idea. He says that if the government uses energy revenues to pay down the province's debt future generations will benefit.
But that hasn't happened, and paying down the debt isn't part of the Liberals' current plan.
And without a heritage fund there's no commitment to bind future governments, and no constant reminder that we're providing for the future.
The only real argument against a fund is that government should be able to spend all the money it can take in right away. That's hardly compelling.
It's a good time for B.C. to establish a heritage fund. The budget is balanced, so devoting a share of energy revenues to a permanent fund wouldn't result in deficits. Energy revenues are still on the rise, so there's room to divert some of the cash.
And the Liberals are launching major new initiatives to promote coalbed methane and offshore oil and gas. Setting aside a large share of those revenues for the future will ease concerns that the government is just interested in quick cash to pay for its tax cuts.
How can saving a part of the wealth for our children's children be a bad idea?
Footnote: The Pembina Institute study, which looked at activities from 1996 to 2002, found B.C. governments did a good job of getting the best price for oil and gas resources from the companies. Both Saskatchewan and Alberta, it concluded, left money on the table by undercharging the companies.

Monday, August 30, 2004

Stakes high for all parties in coming Surrey byelection

VICTORIA - The overdue byelection in Surrey Panorama Ridge is going to offer a great chance to judge how the Liberals will fare in next year's vote.
Sure, byelections almost always go against the governing party. They're a safe way for voters to express dissatisfaction without committing to a whole new government.
But the Liberals' success - or failure - is still going to be a good indication of how well they will do next May.
The byelection is needed to replace Gulzmar Cheema, who resigned back in May to launch an unsuccessful campaign as a federal Liberal. Premier Gordon Campbell had six months to call the byelection. He's let three months pass already, depriving voters in the riding representation.
Even if Campbell calls the byelection this week, the results won't be final until mid-October. For the first two weeks of the fall legislative session, no one will speak for the riding. (Campbell criticized the NDP for byelection delays for that reason.)
It should be a fascinating race.
For starters, the riding is a good case study. In the 2001 election its vote closely mirrored the overall results. Across B.C. the Liberals got 58 per cent of the popular vote, and the NDP 22 per cent. In Surrey Panorama the Liberals took 60 per cent and the NDP 20 per cent.
There's the byelection factor to consider, but the results will still give an indication of how much the Liberal support has eroded.
The NDP has nominated Jagrup Brar, who looks a strong candidate. He's lived in the riding for 10 years and runs SEEDS, a federal program that helps people start their own businesses. He's well-known in the large IndoCanadian community, and would be seen as a moderate New Democrat.
Brar's had the NDP nomination since May. The Liberals have yet to set a date for a nomination meeting.
But their only declared candidate so far adds another interesting twist to the race.
Mary Polak is a Surrey school trustee who took an unsuccessful shot at becoming a federal Conservative candidate earlier this year. She was a school trustee - and for part of the time the chair - when the Surrey board spent almost $1 million trying to keep three kids' books depicting same sex parents out of Surrey schools. (The court ruled the ban had been made on excessively narrow grounds, including on the basis of religion. The board then banned the books again citing their quality.)
Polak would be a strong candidate in the riding, but her background makes some Liberals edgy. The party needs a broad base of support; Polak's brand of social conservatism will alienate some voters.
The byelection is also a critical test for the smaller parties who hope to grab votes from people disenchanted with both the Liberals and the NDP.
The newest entrant will be the fledgling BC Democrat Alliance, which leader Tom Morino says will be a moderate alternative to the Liberals. Morino - who will run in the byelection - is a Sooke councillor, two-time provincial Liberal candidate and former member of the party's provincial executive. (Morino had hoped to revive Gordon Wilson's Progress Democratic Alliance, but that got too complicated.)
Morino wants candidates in every riding next May to offer a serious alternative to the Liberals; his showing in Surrey Panorama will show whether that's realistic.
The Unity Party - which took seven per cent of the vote in the riding in 2001 - faces a similar challenge in portraying itself as the credible centre-right alternative to the Liberals.
And the Green Party will be looking to improve on its nine-per-cent support in the riding in order to convince prospective backers that they won't just be casting a protest vote next May.
It's going to be an important byelections for all the parties that hope to play a role in next May's general election.
All that's left is for Campbell to get on with it.
Footnote: Unity head Chris Delaney is promising an announcement Wednesday on efforts to unite centre-right opposition to the Liberals in the next election, with support expected from at least some other parties and municipal politicians. Unity's poll standings indicate the party could be a big factor in some close races.