Thursday, September 23, 2004

Liberals raises fears of attack on ICBC's business

VICTORIA - So ICBC's board forces out their CEO and launches a national search for a replacement.
They hire a search firm - figure more than $100,000 - and come up with 80 candidates.
And what do you know, the successful candidate, Paul Taylor, was under their nose all the time, working as one of the most powerful officials in the Campbell government.
You can't blame people for being suspicious that a willingness to do the government's will and scale back ICBC was an important hiring criteria.
Taylor was brought in by Gordon Campbell after the election to drive the budget-cutting exercise. He had experience, having done the same thing in the early '90s for Ralph Klein.
But he doesn't have any experience in insurance, or a financial institution, or in consumer marketing, the backgrounds you might expect for the new CEO of a $3-billion corporation. Beyond a fairly brief stint as a senior vice-president for corporate development at TransAlta Utilities, Taylor doesn't have much private sector management experience on his resume. (That's not a prerequisite; good managers have crossed back and forth from government to the private sector.)
Still the move suggests the Liberal want someone they can count on to reduce ICBC's role and open up the car insurance market from private companies.
That was, after all their campaign promise, to introduce "greater competition in auto insurance, to create increased choice and reduce motor vehicle premiums."
But it hasn't worked out. The Liberals picked Nick Geer, a senior vice-president in Jimmy Pattison's empire, as ICBC CEO. And once on the job he decided that the current level of competition served ICBC and its customers well. He won the battles for a while, but was shoved out this summer by the government, leaving with a $450,000 severance deal.
The concept of more competition makes sense. Companies competing for your business should come up with better products and lower costs for consumers.
And right now there is no real car insurance competition in B.C.
ICBC has a monopoly on basic insurance - the coverage every owner must have to pay for damages related to injuries resulting from a crash. That's 60 per cent of the insurance market.
Optional insurance, like insurance to cover repair costs or increased liability coverage, is open to competition, in theory. But practically ICBC's monopoly on the basic coverage makes it simplest for most people to buy that insurance from the Crown corporation as well. Private companies have about 15 per cent of the optional coverage market, and their share hasn't increased under the Liberals.
Overall, that leaves ICBC with almost 95 per cent of the vehicle insurance market.
But if increased competition makes good theoretical sense, there are some giant practical problems.
For starters, any change to increase competitors' market share is going to hurt ICBC's bottom line, and thus taxpayers. (ICBC profits are expected to boost government revenues by $218 million this year.)
One option is ending ICBC's monopoly on basic insurance. But asked what effect that would have, Geer was blunt: "You would find chaos in the marketplace, you would probably see the bankruptcy of ICBC."
Or ICBC could get out of the optional insurance business. But that would reduce revenues dramatically, without allowing a corresponding cost reduction given the overhead. The result would be plunging contributions to government revenues, and rate increases for drivers on basic insurance.
Delivering on the election promise is risky business.
And pushing for more private insurance in the absence of a clear economic justification - and in the presence of clear risks - speaks of ideology, not good management.
The political risks are especially high in the months before an election. British Columbians can still remember the horror stories from other provinces about soaring private insurance rates, and seem generally satisfied with ICBC.
The Liberals have had enough problems with Crown corporations. They should go very slowly on messing with ICBC
Footnote: The Liberals should be daunted by their record of controversy at BC Hydro, BC Ferries and BC Rail. ICBC is ticking along quietly if unspectacularly under their watch: rates have risen about 13 per cent over three years and coverage has been quietly reduced, but no one has complained too loudly.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Hagen a good choice, but new ministry problems huge

VICTORIA - Stan Hagen looks like a good choice for the tough children and families job.
The veteran minister from the Comox Valley wasn't on most peoples' lists of prospects once Christy Clark packed it in.
And there's been some carping since, based mostly on the notion that Hagen is a businessman and former Socred, and thus a suspect choice for a ministry that's all about delivering services to children and adults in tough spots.
But the Socreds - for all their pro-business, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps attitudes - always stayed close to their base in smaller communities across the province. Politically and practically they recognized the importance of helping people who really needed it.
Hagen reflects those values, I'd say. He's seen the difference government can make in an individual's life, and can be engaged in that level. And that's useful in this ministry.
Not that other Liberals are a pack of Snidely Whiplashes, keen to evict the orphans from their homes. But most have shown more ability to see the big picture - like the benefits of tax cuts - than to recognize individual suffering or fears.
Hagen also has experience in more than half-a-dozen ministries to bring to bear on the huge problems facing children and families. He served in succession of ministries in the constantly changing Socred cabinets from 1986 to 1991.
Under the Liberals he managed to handle sustainable resource management with few scars. And he stepped into human resources after the Liberals' mean-spirited and wasteful attempts to cull the welfare rolls and shifted the focus back to finding jobs for people.
Gordon Campbell is likely looking for the same kind of calming effect in children and families, one of the Liberals' larger betrayals and failures. (They promised both more money and stability for the ministry, and instead delivered budget cuts and botched re-organizations.)
It's also a plus that Hagen - already at normal retirement age - doesn't have to care much about what the premier or anyone else in government really thinks about what he's doing. He's not climbing the slippery political ladder, and is in a position to do the job the way he thinks it needs to be done. If his masters don't like it, they can fire him. That's not a freedom that most cabinet ministers feel.
Hagen may turn out to be a caretaker, in the job only until the election next May produces a new cabinet of one kind or another.
But it's a critical six months for the ministry, which has been grossly mismanaged by the Liberals, just as it was by the New Democrats. (Hagen is the seventh minister in the ministry's eight-year life.)
The Liberals' plans to decentralize the ministry and move to regional authorities are stalled after a huge amount of time and energy have been squandered.
And the ministry is struggling to cope with budget cuts this year, and faces budgets that are effectively frozen for the next two years, despite rising costs and rising need. The first test for the new minister will be to win a large share of the surpluses to allow the ministry to really help children and families - to deliver on the promises the Liberals made, and broke.
The rest of the changes in the mini-shuffle are less significant.
Victoria area MLA Susan Brice was promoted to replace Hagen as human resources minister, stepping up from her job as junior minister for mental health and addiction services. It's a boost for her, but the ministry isn't likely to be a hot spot again until after the election. The Liberals have backed off most of their threats to cut people off benefits, and the next crunch won't come until job placement efforts for welfare recipients begin, inevitably, to lag.
Surrey MLA Brenda Locke replaces Brice, and Vancouver MLA Patrick Wong steps into the politically useful but practically insignificant role as junior minister for immigration and multicultural services.
Footnote: Campbell broke the tradition of swearing-in new cabinet members at Government House, shifting the ceremony to Vancouver's Terminal City Club, a posh private business club. The scene was fitting on one level. The club didn't admit women members until the '90s; the cabinet still has women in only seven out of 27 posts.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Why you should care that Christy Clark quit

VICTORIA - Set the conspiracy theories aside.
Christy Clark says she quit because she found it just too hard to balance politics and the challenges of raising a three-year-old. And that is a very good reason.
Speculation on hidden reasons for the resignation started flying as soon as Clark pulled the plug as children and families minister and said she won't run in the next election.
But I was in the middle of a brief stretch of looking after two boys, four and one, when Clark quit. And charming as Zachary and Gage are, I have no trouble buying her explanation.
There were two main alternate theories. One held that Clark was worried about the fallout from the legislative raids. Her husband, Mark Marrisen, and brother, Bruce Clark, are both high-profile federal Liberal wheels in B.C., and were named in the search warrant information. But neither are under investigation or accused of wrongdoing, and the raids are hardly a sudden development. Don't look there for the reason.
Others mused about a rift between Clark and Gordon Campbell. The theory is that she was more left-leaning, and frustrated with some of the government's policies.
The problem with that theory is the total lack of evidence. Clark has been in cabinet for more than three years. As education minister she left school districts so short of money that they closed schools, increased class sizes and went to four-day weeks. As children and families minister, she's implemented budget cuts to a ministry the Liberals used to say was starved of needed money.
I've never heard a peep that would indicate she disagreed with any of the government's policies. Anyway, I would say Clark's interest - and perhaps skills - lie more in politics than policy.
Trying to raise a preschooler while working at any job is difficult.
For Clark, the challenges were greater. Cabinet jobs are demanding and time-consuming. Building and maintaining political influence - something she values - demands more time and commitment. Evening meetings, drinks after work with colleagues, schmoozing at conventions - those are all part of the deal, and they don't fit well with a child at home.
The resignation isn't great news for the Campbell government, which has fared badly among women voters in most polls. Clark wasn't really as bright a cabinet star as many expected - she was one of those politicians more effective in opposition than in government. But she was the only woman of apparent influence in a cabinet dominated by a few men from the Lower Mainland.
Her resignation also should be worrying news for the rest of us, because of the wider implications.
After a few decades of earnest discussions and conferences about the importance of diversity in our elected officials, not much has changed. When the premiers and the prime minister got together last week to talk about health care, for example, there were no woman at the table. That's a loss.
It's not a question of political correctness. Women and men have different experiences in our society. Women remain the primary caregivers, for children and for the kind of seriously ill or dying family members who were a focus of the home care discussions at the prime minister's health summit.
But they are not part of the top-level political discussions about health care, education or other critical issues. And the decisions will be poorer as a result.
This argument is all based on generalizations.
But it's not really just about gender.
Politics as we practise them today - and this applies at least in part to all parties - tend to be most welcoming to a relatively small group of people, especially at the top. They play an important role in the big decisions. And their judgments are based in part on their life experience as middle-aged, successful males.
Valuable, sure. But it's also ferociously limited. And we're all a little worse off as a result.
Footnote: In the interests of full disclosure, I note that not only am I a middle-aged white guy, but so are my colleagues who write about B.C. politics. Aside from the CBC's Justine Hunter, the legislative Press Gallery is made up of a wonderful insightful pack of middle-aged men.