Friday, January 21, 2005

Random notes: Chinese bonanza; a new party; and Nettleton

VICTORIA - Random notes: Great economic news, a new party rises and Paul Nettleton jumps ridings.
First, the best economic news for B.C. in ages came from Beijing Friday, where federal Industry Minister David Emerson announced that China has recognized Canada as an approved tourist destination. Sounds like a small thing, but it's a huge breakthrough. Chinese tourists can visit about 30 approved countries - which up until now have not included Canada - fairly easily. If the country isn't on the list, it's far more difficult to leap through an official approval process that can take months - and still end in refusal.
Even more importantly, tour companies are effectively barred from organizing group excursions - the most likely way Chinese would visit Canada - to non-approved countries.
The potential is enormous. Australia doubled its number of visitors from China once it was approved, and Canada has the potential to be a much larger draw for China's new rich and slowly emerging middle class. A 2002 survey found that 1.9 million newly affluent Chinese were interested in visiting Canada. That translates into about $1 billion per year in new tourism revenue, with B.C. in a position to grab a large share of the business.
Canada has been trying to get approval for five years, and has immediately announced plans to open a tourism office in Beijing. The provincial government could wisely set aside part of this year's surplus for a one-time marketing program aimed at China.
Second, yet another new political party for B.C., one that starts with an MLA sitting in the legislature.
The new party is Democratic Reform BC - or DRBC, which they hope you'll pronounce as Doctor BC. The leader is Tom Morino, a lawyer, Vancouver Island town councillor and former Liberal candidate. The MLA is Elayne Brenzinger, the Surrey MLA who quit the Liberal caucus last year.
The party claims a socially progressive, fiscally conservative approach, although its platform seems to have more ideas about spending money than raising it. And the presence of a large number of former Reform BC members will make some people nervous about the socially progressive claim.
I don't give the group much chance. Brenzinger has problems over her ugly allegation of sexual harassment by a colleague in the Liberal caucus, which she later retracted. The party has no money, and at best 2,000 members. And with four months to go it is hard to believe that any fledgling party can insert itself into the fray.
But it will be a factor in Brenzinger's riding of Surrey-Whalley and Morino's home riding of Malahat-Juan de Fuca.
The NDP was already the likely winner Brenzinger's riding; if she draws significant support from the Liberal candidate a New Democrat win becomes a sure thing.
Morino, who barely lost in his riding in 1991 as a Liberal, could play a similar role in his Victoria-area riding.
Third, the other independent MLA, Paul Nettleton, revealed his election plans this week, and they are going to affect two Prince George races.
Nettleton, who quit the Liberals over what he saw as a threat to BC Hydro (and who, like Brenzinger, blames Gordon Campbell for the party's problems) is leaving his old riding of Prince George-Omineca and running against Health Minister Shirley Bond in Prince George-Robson.
Nettleton is going to attract votes, and given his overall approach - he broke with the federal Liberals because he's opposed to same sex marriage - more of those votes are going to come from the Liberal candidates.
That means the Liberal in Omineca - a candidate hasn't been selected yet - is now the favorite.
But Bond's campaign has become much tougher. She won a big victory in 2001, and her profile should help. But it was an NDP riding in the previous two elections, and if Nettleton provides an option for disgruntled potential Liberal voters then Bond could be in trouble.
And there's still four months to go.
Footnote: The polls have convinced both parties that every seat may matter in this election. The Liberals hope to slide MLA Tony Bhullar into Surrey-Panorama Ridge, hoping he put up a good fight against new NDP MLA Jagrup Brar. Olympic gold-winning wrestler Daniel Igali is being courted to run for the Liberals in Bhullar's old riding of Surrey-Newton.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Promise - 5,000 long-term beds; reality so far - 100

VICTORIA - The Liberals' promise of "an additional 5,000 new intermediate and long-term care beds by 2006" has faded away.
Almost four years after the election only 100 additional beds have been added to the system. The New Era promise won't be kept, Health Minister Shirley Bond concedes, with the goal now 2008.
It was an important pledge. The new government even created a junior minister responsible for residential care for seniors, and unveiled a big - if hopelessly muddled -strategy in 2002.
The reality is that the province has gone backwards. The 100 new beds falls short of the increased demand created by an aging and growing population.
It's a significant broken promise. The most obvious impact is on seniors who need the care, and their families. They need the kind of care that was promised, and they can't get it.
But it also affects everyone in the province. When long-term care isn't available, seniors end up in the hospital. That is often miserable for them and the people who care about them.
It's also a major reason why people can't get needed surgery and emergency rooms are jammed, with sick and injured people waiting hours, only to end up on stretchers in halls because there's nowhere else for them to go.
Communities across the province have complained about lost long-term care beds. But most have been unable to get good information about the number of beds lost versus any beds added, or the effects.
Here in Victoria the Capital Regional District, reacting to public concern, studied the issue last year. It found that the Vancouver Island Health Authority had closed almost 600 existing residential care beds. It had opened 105 new residential care beds, and 207 assisted living units, which provide a lower level of support.
Do the math, and you find that means there are 205 fewer beds available - about a seven-per-cent decrease in the time the Liberals were promising a major increase. The region is short 325 beds, based on the government's own model.
"The shortfall is a result of closing too many residential care beds too quickly and not having the  alternatives, including  assisted living, in place," the report found. "This was predicted in 2002 and is in large part a function of the provincial government's fiscal restraint." One in three of the people admitted to residential care had been waiting more than 90 days, VIHA reports, and waits have been increasing.
The government and the health authorities have maintained that the need for long-term care was being reduced thanks to increased support to allow people to stay in their homes, or seniors' housing. But that hasn't really happened either, the capital region study found. The number of seniors needing home support services for example, had increased by nine per cent; funding for the service rose two per cent.
Seniors wait months for the care they need. If they are lucky, they're families struggle to cope with their increasingly complex medical care needs. If they aren't, the end up in hospitals, which must cope with over-crowding and delayed surgeries because acute care beds are blocked by people who don't need them, but have nowhere else to go. (The best estimate is that 10 per cent to 20 per cent of acute care beds are occupied by people who shouldn't be there.)
Bond says the government has created 4,300 new spaces, but had to close 4,200 because the facilities were outmoded. But those facilities had served for years; communities pleaded with the health authorities to keep them open until replacement beds were created; and most could have been maintained until the promised 5,000 additional beds were delivered.
Even acknowledging the challenges, the issue has been badly mishandled with no clear plan, inadequate funding and a refusal to listen to the legitimate complaints of seniors and communities and government MLAs.
It's a broken promise that has hurt us all.
Footnote: Former long-term care minister Katherine Whittred had an undistinguished tenure, but she did complain in writing that the ministry was closing beds without having adequate replacements. She never reported on the response. The junior minister's position for long-term care was eliminated a year ago in a cabinet shuffle.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Nominations posing risks for both parties

VICTORIA - No one was likely sadder than the Liberals to see Steve Orcherton lose his bid for an NDP nomination in Victoria, just as the New Democrats were sorry to see that Cindy Silver couldn't bump off sitting MLA Dan Jarvis.
Both parties know that nominations are being watched as one indication of which party is moving closest to the centre.
The burden is lightest for the Liberals. Their position is defined in voters' minds, and a majority of candidates are known quantities - sitting MLAs running for re-election. As a result, LIberal nomination battles are few and have less significance.
But they're not irrelevant. Media attention has focused - a little excessively - on Silver, and Mary Polak as indicators that the Liberals are shifting to the right on social issues.
Silver has worked for Focus on the Family and the Christian Legal Fellowship of Canada, and is against same-sex marriage. She's seen as a social conservative, and makes many small 'l' liberals nervous about the party's direction.
Her emergence as the lone challenger to any sitting Liberal MLA, in a safe seat, had people wondering whether she had some unofficial party blessing. (Especially because the government was miffed last year when Jarvis said building BC Ferries ships in Germany was a stupid idea.)
Jarvis won the battle by a small margin, with 168 votes to Silver's 138, a turnout that doesn't reflect well on either hopeful's organizational skills.
Polak is known for her role on the Surrey school board that spent $1 million on a legal fight to keep three books depicting same sex couples out of elementary schools. She was also the losing candidate in the Surrey byelection last fall. Now she's jumping boundaries, trying to get the nomination in Langley hoping for a better shot there.
The federal Conservatives showed how many votes could be lost when 'social conservative' candidates are seen as out of touch with mainstream voters. Still, one candidate hardly makes a trend.
The NDP has a more serious problem. Carole James has to convince voters the party has changed. The most concrete evidence will be the candidates who emerge from the nomination process. If they are the same people who were part of the incompetent government that was turfed by the voters in 2001, it will be hard to argue that this is a new NDP.
That's why James is glad Rob Fleming, a Victoria city councillor seen as a moderate, beat Orcherton. The former MLA makes no bones of his strong loyalty to unions, and ran against James for the leadership urging that the party stay on the hard left of B.C.'s political spectrum. Likewise it's good news for James that Helmut Giesbrecht, another New Democrat from the bad old days, lost the nomination battle in Skeena on the weekend.
But James already has candidates who are a liability to the party's overall effort. Harry Lali, a former NDP cabinet minister, a hardliner and fierce Glen Clark loyalist, is already nominated in Yale-Lillooet. Clark's top political advisor Adrian Dix has the nomination in Vancouver Kingsway. The Liberals can point to both as proof the party hasn't changed.
I feel kind of bad to be writing this column. In many ways there would be merit in parties that embraced candidates who shared a few core values but reflected a wide range of views. They could them come together and work our a consensus on policy and action. The wider the debate, the better the ultimate decisions should be.
The alternative risks group-think, with a flock of candidates who share the same ideas, almost always those of the leader.
But the reality - for now - is that parties need to reassure voters that whether they are on the left or the right, they will stay within a broad mainstream. The candidates they nominate will be the critical in providing that reassurance.
Footnote: Former NDP cabinet minister Ted Stevenson has won the nomination in Vancouver-Burrard. Stevenson's personal reputation means he doesn't carry much baggage from the Clark years. The battle between Stevenson and Liberal Lorne Mayencourt, who won by 4,000 votes in 2001, should be one of the toughest in the province.

Film industry hits up government for your money

VICTORIA - Colin Hansen is following a safe rule in dealing with B.C.'s film industry, which once again has its hand out for tax dollars.
When someone wants something from you and demands an immediate answer, it's best to say no, one of my early bosses advised. It's proved to be good advice.
B.C. film companies want a tax break, and say that if they don't get it immediately they'll pull out of the province and head down the road to Ontario or Quebec. The companies already get hefty subsidies from both the provincial and federal governments, which have played a role in helping develop a $1-billion film and TV industry in the province.
But just before Christmas the Ontario government decided to offer incentives to get a bigger share of the business. The Ontario Liberals responded to an industry lobbying effort and increased the money it will pay to film companies working in the province. Quebec quickly followed suit.
And B.C. companies reacted. Give us the same deal within the next couple of weeks or we're gone, said a half-dozen of the larger companies in B.C.
Ultimately it's a business decision, for the companies and for the government. B.C., Ontario and Quebec had been offering similar subsidies. For foreign productions -- TV series and movies -- the governments had been offering a tax credit that effectively reimbursed the companies for 11 per cent of their wage costs. The film industry in Ontario, suffering from the fallout from the SARS panic and the rising Canadian dollar, persuaded the government to raise that credit to 18 per cent. A few days later Quebec upped the ante to 20 per cent.
Governments like to talk about the value of B.C.'s film infrastructure, and the skilled workforce and the great climate and scenic opportunities. We like to think those are the things that makes us Hollywood North.
But the industry has confirmed those aren't the critical factors. The movie industry is chasing subsidies these days. If one province, or Texas or Mexico or Romania, comes up with a better offer, the work can move.
The money is significant. A typical made-in-B.C. movie may have a budget of $20 million, with about $7 million of that local wage costs that are eligible for the subsidy. In B.C., under the current rules, the company would get a $770,000 tax break from the province. In Ontario, the same company would now get an extra $500,000 back from the provincial government. (In both cases, the companies would also get an additional $1.3 million from Ottawa in tax breaks. The B.C. government also provides lots of other help and subsidies to the industry.)
On one hand, the subsidies are obviously galling. A working single parent in Lillooet is being asked to pay higher taxes to subsidize a successful corporation -- and the high-paid workforce -- making movies in Vancouver.
Taxpayers have every right to wonder why the employees in the industry don't take a seven-per-cent pay cut instead of looking to government to come up with the cash to protect their jobs and the companies' profits.
Hansen will probably deliver the tax cuts, either in next month's budget or sooner.
The justification will be that it makes business sense. The film companies say they're willing to send the work to Ontario, claiming that up to half the $1-billion business could be lost.
The government's first task will be to try and judge if the industry is bluffing. Then it will have to calculate the cost of the subsidy, and balance that against the tax revenue that would be lost if the companies follow through on their threats and the spin-off benefits.
And at least for now, the balance will likely come down on the side of the subsidies. Until some other government decides to offer even bigger subsidies to try and attract film companies.
Footnote: Premier Gordon Campbell has oddly decided to thrust himself into the middle of the issue, asking Hansen to set up a meeting with the film industry honchos. It reinforces the impression that he wants to control all the issues, and reduces the province's bargaining ability. Hansen could have said he wants to help, but the boss would only go so far. Campbell can't use that tactic.