Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Why Collins quit, and what comes next

VICTORIA - So why did Gary Collins pack it in after less than one term in government, giving up the finance minister's job to run a fledgling airline?
To start with, Collins will easily triple his income. Cabinet ministers are paid about $110,000; airline CEOs get more, and have a chance at big bonuses and stock options. For a middle-aged man with a two-year-old son and another child due in February - and no pension plan - that's tough to resist. (And while he will continue to work long hours, his home and office will at least be in the same city.)
For another, Collins has also been in provincial politics for 13 years now, a long time to have the same demanding and somewhat weird job.
Even two weeks ago, when Collins unveiled the second quarter financial report predicting a record surplus, he seemed somewhat detached, to the point that a reporter asked if he would be running in the next election. (Of course, Collins said.)
He's a good catch for his new employer, Harmony Airways. The two-year-old business has been without a CEO for two months. So far, it's flown some routes within Canada, and to Mexico and Hawaii and Las Vegas.
But company owner David Ho has his sights set on a much bigger prize. He wants Harmony to win the right, along with Air Canada, to fly into China, targeting several booming cities.
That will require a major effort in lobbying the federal government. Collins, with good federal Liberal ties and support from the B.C. government, is a good choice to make that happen.
What struck me at the second quarter presentation was a sense that Collins may have thought his work here was done. Taxes were cut, the budget was balanced, the government had made a plan and executed it. It's a good record for a finance minister.
Collins isn't noted as a policy or issues guy. You can't go back into Hansard from the days when the Liberals were in opposition and find him speaking passionately about health, or education or forestry. He had no apparent agenda for the second term.
What does it mean politically?
A bit of scrambling, for sure. Collins was the Liberal campaign co-chair, and he's a close advisor to the premier. That's a loss.
His departure also gives a boost to NDP star candidate Gregor Robertson, running in Collins' riding of Vancouver-Fairview. His election chances have just soared.
But the Liberals score some big benefits too.
Collins did the work that left more than 60 per cent of British Columbians convinced the Liberals balanced the budget on the back of the poor and vulnerable.
Now Colin Hansen, the new finance minister, can bring a kinder, gentler face to the job. At the Collins' resignation press conference, Hansen was already talking about the importance of health and education and social services. "For me, government is about providing services to people," he said.
And in turn, new health minister Shirley Bond can bring a new face to that job.
Hansen has done a good job in the challenging health ministry, but the bitter battle with HEU and other tough issues from the first three years still hang over him.
Now the appointment of Shirley Bond as the new health minister gives the Liberals a fresh start there as well. Health is the top issue for voters, who also think the New Democrats would do a better job of managing health care than the Liberals. Bond's considerable challenge - as well as guiding the system - is changing that perception. It would have been an impossible task for Hansen, in the five months left before the election; Bond at least has a shot.
Collins should leave with head held high. For three years he directed the preparation of a financial plan, and the government hit its targets.
And ultimately, that's the test of the finance minister.
Footnote: I - like most journalists - will miss Collins. He was prickly and partisan, but never shied away from an interview and always had command of the facts and numbers. If he said you were wrong about something, you almost certainly were.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Communities need trust fund for pine beetle disaster

VICTORIA - It's time to ditch all the politics and start coming up with a plan to rescue communities across B.C. from the coming pine beetle disaster.
It's hard for politicians to resist blaming the other guys for real or imagined errors.
But this is much too important. A natural disaster is going to slam into dozens of forest communities, far bigger than the 2003 fires or floods or anything else we've experienced. We know it's inevitable. And we have to be ready.
The pine beetle is infesting trees today, and those trees are dying. It's no real problem for us now. We can keep harvesting the timber, which holds its value for perhaps a decade.
But the crisis is smashing the natural cycle of harvest and regeneration. Almost 80 per cent of the province's lodgepole pine are expected to die. Once those trees are gone - either harvested or left to rot - the next generation will be decades away from harvest.
Across the province, communities are facing 20 per cent to 40 per cent reductions in their annual allowable cuts within the next 15 to 20 years. That means huge job losses in communities where forestry is the dominant kingpin of the economy. In some case, mills will simply close. And in every case the damage will last for years, perhaps decades.
In the Quesnel area, to take one example, the timber supply is expected to be cut by almost one-third. About 75 per cent of the 12,000 area jobs are tied to the forest industry, which means more than 2,500 jobs will vanish. That's the equivalent of some calamity wiping out 300,000 jobs in the Lower Mainland.
One response is obvious. Both the Liberals and NDP agree that a legacy or development fund would help communities prepare for the crisis, paying for their efforts to develop other economic opportunities.
It doesn't need to take a big bite out of spending on other programs. Part of the government's plan to address the problem is an increase in harvesting across the province to capture the value of the infested wood. Annual allowable cuts have been increased by up to 40 per cent.
It's proving hard to increase harvest levels quickly. Companies aren't prepared for extra volumes, and markets are uncertain. But by the end of next year harvest levels are expected to be significantly higher.
That means more stumpage and tax revenues for government, money that would - without the crisis - have not flowed into its coffers until well into the future.
And that's the money that could be the start of a permanent funds to help communities prepare for the coming crisis. They could work at tourism promotion, or improve their infrastructure, or support retraining programs. They could pay for studies on alternate economic opportunities, or efforts to attract new industries.
And they could come up with assessments of some of the hard truths. Not all the economic damage can likely be avoided, and families, municipalities, school districts and businesses all need time to make informed decisions about their futures.
There even seems to be rare bipartisan agreement on the value of a legacy fund. Both NDP leader Carole James and Roger Harris, the junior forest minister responsible for responding to the crisis, back the idea. Harris says advisory group is working on plans.
The sooner they report, and the quicker the government response, the better.
The crisis sounds a long way off. But the kinds of economic shifts that are required is immense. Progress will be slow, and victories will be hard-won.
The extra stumpage probably isn't enough money to fund the needed transition, and certainly won't flow quickly enough. But it is a start; a reasonable guess is that the extra harvesting will produce some $15 million a year.
The coming crisis is very bad news, far more damaging than the softwood lumber dispute, or the SARS scare.
The only good news is that for once we have time to prepare.
Footnote: Harris will meet with the 13-member advisory group - representatives of municipalities, First Nations, industry, environmental groups and academics -in January. Communities should expect word on the economic futures fund and other measures after that meeting. And they should demand a firm commitment before the May election.

Poll shows dead heat, big woes for both parties

VICTORIA - There's plenty in the most recent poll to scare the pants off strategists for both the New Democrats and the Liberals.
With five months to go before the May election, the two parties are effectively tied with about 43 per cent of the vote each, according to the Ipsos-Reid poll.
That's astonishing, really. The Liberals have lost more support during their first time than most people would have believed possible, and the New Democrats have managed to clamber out of the trash can the voters dumped them in.
But Ipsos offered up a lot more than just the basic polling data this time.
So we learned that 63 per cent of British Columbians don't think Gordon Campbell and the Liberals can be trusted to keep their promises, and about the same number think they balanced the budget on the backs of the poor and vulnerable.
It's not much cheerier for Carole James. About 60 per cent of voters think she and the NDP are too closely tied to unions, and 45 per cent agree that the New Democrats today are really the same as the old regime.
Those are big negatives. But there's more.
Ipsos-Reid asked which party would do a better job on specific issues.
On health care and education the James and the NDP were judged better able to do the job by about 50 per cent of voters - twice the number who thought the Liberals were the best choice. On social services, the gap was even wider. Almost 60 per cent of voters thought the NDP would do a better job; only 18 per cent thought the Liberals would be more competent.
When it came to the economy and managing the government's finances, the situation was reversed. About 50 per cent of those surveyed said the Liberals are more competent; about 22 per cent picked the NDP.
There are other factors, like leadership. Carole James is judged to be doing a better job as opposition leader than Campbell is as premier. But Campbell was selected as the best choice for premier by 48 per cent of decided voters, compared with 35 per cent for James and 18 per cent for Green leader Adriane Carr.
Liberal supporters should be the most worried by the polls.
The New Democrats are scoring highest on their ability to manage the issues people care about the most. In the most recent Mustel Group poll about 45 per cent of British Columbians picked health or education as the top issues facing the province. Only about 25 per cent picked the economy and government. (That could help explain the Liberals' inability to break clear of the NDP despite an improved economy.)
And while James has big issues to confront, around leadership and competence and an ability to govern for all British Columbians, she also has five months to try and win voters over.
Campbell has five months too, of course. But remember that almost two out of three voters don't believe he can be trusted to keep his promises. That's a huge problem for a leader trying to persuade voters that they are wrong, that he is the right person to deliver the services they want.
Another interesting trend is a sharp reduction in the regional divide. The Liberals still lead the NDP in the Lower Mainland, with 46 per cent support compared ti the NDP's 39 per cent. But the gap has narrowed since an Ipsos poll in July.
And the Liberals in turn have gained ground in a big way across the rest of the province, especially in the North where they now lead the NDP comfortably. (Ipsos defines the North as Williams Lake and above.)
It all points to a closer election than expected, a ferocious campaign and a bid advantage for the party that does the best job of persuading campaign workers and voters to show up.
Footnote: The poll put a simple proposition to voters - that British Columbia can’t afford another four years of Liberal or NDP government. Almost exactly half the voters agreed with assertion. But 12 per cent - one in eight British Columbians - said the province couldn't afford four years under either of the parties.