Friday, February 18, 2005

Liberals wrong, foolish, to cut off budget debate

VICTORIA - What's wrong with the people making decisions for the Liberals?
They've got a budget that is going to find wide support, certainly one that most governments would be happy to take into an election campaign.
And now they're making it look like they have something to hide by indicating that they'll shut down the legislature to avoid detailed debate on their budget.
Worse, they're acting in a way that makes it evident that they know they are doing something wrong - at best evasive, at worst misleading.
The norma - the proper - process for a budget is straightforward. The budget is introduced, and there are six days of general debate on the budget speech.
Then the real work starts with the estiimates' debates. Ministers appear before the legislature to answer detailed questions about their spending plans, where the money will go and what results they'll get.
That's the part the Liberals want to avoid.
Estimates debates often do produce some difficult questions for governments. This time, it might be the details of the $400 million in economic development money that looks much like a pre-election political fund, or the lack of a plan to deliver promised long-term care beds.
Prolonging the session also gives the NDP more chances to raise damaging issues in Question Period each day.
And there's no doubt that ending the session early would be a big advantage for Liberal candidates. The legislature is scheduled to sit until April 18, when the election campaign begins. But shutting down by the end of this month would give the 72 Liberal MLAs an extra six weeks to campaign in their ridings, before the official start of the race. In most cases, their opponents will still be working at their day jobs.
But what about their obligation to us, the people who elected them?
The theory is that governments do not get to spend money without the informed approval of the legislature. MLAs have an important role in critically examining each ministry's spending plans, making sure that the interests of their communities are being served. It's a fundamental principle of our form of government.
There is ample time for the legislature to do that work before the election campaign legally starts, despite the claims of Finance Minister Colin Hansen.
Instead, the government appears to want the legislature to approve billions in spending without proper scrutiny, signing a blank cheque on your behalf.
Efforts to defend shutting down debate have so far been lame. Hansen noted - completely accurately - that Glen Clark had brought in a budget and then called the election within hours in 1996. The implication was that the Liberals aren't that bad; at least there will be a token period of general debate.
The defence is the political equivalent of 'all the other kids are doing it.' And it ignores the fact that the Clark budget, which claimed a surplus and may have decided the election, was false. A superficial debate on the budget wouldn't have revealed that. Detailed estimates debate might well have.
In any case, voters elected the Liberals to do better, not to repeat the abuses of the past.
Instead, they're ducking and dodging to avoid answering a simple question - will the legislature be allowed to review the budget.
Sure, says Gordon Campbell. But he is equivocating, pretending to promise full scrutiny but really only committing to the superficial debate on the speech. I don't know, says Hansen.
And I'm not saying, contributes House leader Graham Bruce.
Not a straight answer to be found.
It's wrong, and it's foolish. This is a budget that the Liberals should be happy to defend, just as they should be happy to champion the principle of accountability.
Instead, they are looking evasive and defensive, and abandoning an important principle.
It is a strange way to choose to head into an election campaign.
Footnote: The Liberals' success in 2001 has earned them a big advantage this time around. MLAs get paid through the campaign; new candidates have to figure out how much time they can take off work to seek votes. If the legislature does break at the beginning of March, Liberal MLAs will be paid to spend much of more than two months campaigning for the party.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Trust me, says Campbell, things will be different

VICTORIA - The budget should be a pretty good launch into the next stage of this long election campaign.
Lots more spending, money to pay down the debt, a quarter-billion-dollar fund to tap for goodies between now and the start of the official campaign - it's all the stuff that voters should like.
But there's a problem. For many voters,Gordon Campbell is going to look like one of those panicky guys in the final days of a dying relationship, swearing that he can change. Just give him another chance and this time he'll pay more attention, bring home flowers every now and then, and take care of the kids more often.
It comes down to trust, like so many things in life.
The Liberals, like all desperate suitors, are doing a lot of things right. Spending across government ministries is going up by more than seven per cent, giving lots of opportunity to win friends. There are tax cuts and reductions in MSP premiums for people with low incomes, an extension of the break for small businesses and new provisions that make it cheaper to buy one of those new non-polluting cars. Health care gets a one-time 6.6-per-cent budget increase, and economic development funding goes from a paltry $18 million to $237 million in one jump. (That’s an election slush fund, as the money disappears again next year. But it’s still a lot to toss towards communities in the next few months.)
The Liberals say look, this is what we wanted to do all along. But to get here, we had to make tough decisions. That's why we kept a tight lid on school spending, and cut funding to the ministry of children and families, made more seniors pay for their prescriptions and didn't deliver those 5,000 promised long-term care beds.
Those were all necessary, unhappy sacrifices, the Liberals say sadly, but they're paying off. Things will be different from now on.
Whether that flies will depend partly on whether people buy the argument that those sacrifices were necessary. The Liberals chopped personal and corporate taxes on their first day in office, before they had even seen the government's books. Those cuts, which knocked $2 billion off revenues, forced the deep cuts to services and prevented the government from coming up with the money needed to deliver on promises like adding 5,000 long-term care beds.
People who believe the tax cuts helped create today's improved economy will likely forgive the Liberals the hard times. Those who think more targeted cuts would have achieved the same goals without turning government upside-down won't.
The Liberals' success will also depend on their ability to convince people that they really have changed. It's easy to play the devoted suitor in a bid to get a relationship back on track, and just as easy to revert to type once the crisis is past.
The Liberals hope this budget will be the political equivalent of a truckload of roses.
But some voters are going to look hard at the details over the next three months. The decision to pay down at least $1.7 billion on the debt - the final number will be closer to $2.2 billion - will get an especially close look.
B.C. already has the second lowest debt in Canada, and there is no urgency to repayment. 
And all the pre-budget consultation indicated that improved services, not debt repayment, was British Columbians’ priority. More of that money could have gone for one-time expenditures, from health care to infrastructure. (Or, boldly, to set up a major legacy fund to help communities cope with the long-term effects of the pine beetle infestation.)
Campbell is already hitting the road to woo voters, launching a tour of chambers of commerce (not really the people who need persuading).
The Liberals' fortunes in the election will depend much on his success in convincing voters that he’s a changed man.
Footnote: The spending jump slows after this year, with education, for example, forecast to rise about one per cent a year after a 2.8-per-cent jump in this budget. That number doesn't include more money for salary increases; that money is in a  separate budget category until the government decides on its new wage mandate to replace the current freeze. That’s a welcome budgeting change.

Monday, February 14, 2005

Long-term care broken promise hurts seniors, health system

VICTORIA - The Liberal promised a big increase in seniors' long-term care.
The reality is fewer beds in the Interior Health Region and no increase across the province.
The campaign promise was 5,000 additional beds across the province by 2006, a 20-per-cent increase.
But in the Interior, there are now actually 333 fewer beds - a loss of about seven per cent of the total the Liberals inherited.
The region started off with 4,700 beds. It closed 1,321 residential care beds, and has replaced them so far with 620 residential care beds - the highest level of care - and 368 assisted living spaces.
Overall, that leaves the region down 333 beds.
(At least that's how the health region counts them. Health Minister Shirley Bond comes up with a higher number of beds by including the extension of high-level services to 53 people who aren't living in care homes. The region is also renting beds in private facilities to help deal with the shortage.)
The quibbles over numbers don't really matter. The Liberal promise was a 20-per-cent increase in care beds across the province by 2006. They said the beds were urgently needed, and claimed there was a 4,200-bed shortfall at the time of the election.
Now they have abandoned the campaign promise. Bond says the beds will be ready by 2008.
And in a period when the number of people in the province over 75 has increased by 13 per cent, the government has added - by the most favorable count - fewer than one per cent more beds. Across B.C., the government claims to have added 171 beds; the health authorities count shows a 274-bed decline from the time of the election.
The numbers are tiny in all regions. The North has at best maintained the number of beds it had four years ago; the Fraser Health Region is down a few dozen beds; on Vancouver Island, the government has added two beds. In the populous and growing Vancouver Coastal region, it has added 33 beds. So much for the 5,000-bed commitment.
There's lots of enthusiasm in the health authorities for the changes in seiors' care currrently under way. Older, outmoded facilities are being closed. New centres offer a range of options, from residential care with full medical support to assisted living homes that provide more independence. An emphasis on supporting people in their homes, or in other non-medical residential settings, is keeping people out of care homes. All these are positive changes that should eventually make life better for seniors.
But in the meantime no one is saying that the current bed supply is adequate for the needs of seniors and their families.
Remember, the Liberals identified this problem in the election campaign, pointing to a major shortage of beds. They promised a plan to address the shortage. And they haven't delivered.
The result is problems through the heath care system. If seniors can't get needed residential care, they end up in acute care hospital beds. That means those beds aren't available for people who need surgery, or who should be admitted through emergency. In the Interior region about 100 of the 1,200 hospital acute care beds are occupied by people who should be in long-term care.
Pemier Gordon Campbell blams the broken promise on the NDP. The long-term care centres were in worse shape than expected, and more beds had to be closed.
But the government completed a review of all the centres almost three years ago. The supposed plan for 5,000 additional beds was approved at a televised cabinet meeting in April 2002. And until now the government has insisted the plan was on track and the deadline would be met.
That raises two concerns. Either government managemen was so poor that no one knew the plan was off the rails, or the government knew and kept silent.
Either way, seniors, their families and anyone who needed the health care system have been hurt by this broken promise.
Footnote: The Liberals are skittish about this issue, which has been a major sore point with smaller communities. The health ministry refuses to release its count of bed closures and openings by region. Bond won't say how many beds the province needs today, based on the ministry's best estimates.