Thursday, February 24, 2005

Budget misses pine beetle aid, other B.C. needs

VICTORIA - It's hard to see much evidence of the federal Liberal's BC Dream Team in this week's budget.
Overall, the Liberals seem to have cobbled together a budget with a little something for everyone, although the fine print shows the impact will be smaller, and slower to come, than you might at first think.
But this was the first budget that should have borne the fingerprints of the Liberals' highly touted Dream Team, the high-profile MPs like Ujjal Dosanjh and David Emerson who were recruited to make sure B.C. matters.
And despite the promises, there were relatively few signs that the province has registered in Ottawa.
There a couple of clear positive developments. The Vancouver-based Asia Pacific Foundation gets $50 million, a one-time chunk of cash that's intended to make it self-sufficient. The foundation should continue to help B.C., and Canada, take advantage of opportunities for trade and other ties with Asia.
And UBC got an extra $50 million for Triumf, the cutting edge particle physics research centre.
But the budget had noting specific for pine beetle aid, as Finance Minister Colin Hansen noted. The infestation is a natural disaster on the same level as the collapse of the East Coast cod fishery. That failure resulted in more than $1.5 billion in federal aid to the communities affected.The situation isn't as dire here, in part because there are other opportunities for forest workers and their communities. But B.C. still faces an immense crisis. Once the infestation has run its course - which will end with the death of 80 per cent of the province's lodgepole pine - forest communities face a couple of decades with very little timber to harvest.
Action is needed now to prepare for the coming crunch in 12 to 15 years.
The province has taken relatively small step first steps, promising $101 million over four years. Only $16 million of that is for economic development work; the rest is for reforestation.
That's not nearly enough, and the province's slow start is in part due to the hope that money will be coming from Ottawa.
Emerson is in a good position to understand the issue. He's industry minister, the top political minister for the province and the former head of Canfor.
Emerson says the federal Liberals haven't forgotten the problem, and is continuing to work with the province and industry on the best way to help.
But words are one thing, and action - and money - are another.
There were hints of more specific news for the province still to come.
British Columbia has been lobbying to have the Ottawa-based Canadian Tourism Commission, an $85-million Crown corporation, move to Vancouver. That wasn't announced, but the commission got a $25-million funding increase, which could help pay for the move. Emerson is the minister responsible, and should be able to deliver.
The federal budget also failed to come up with any of the money Prince Rupert has been seeking to take its port to the next level. There is a big increase in money for border security, and infrastructure. But the emphasis, according to the budget documents, is on security, not money for projects like Prince Rupert's port.
It's not fair to expect the federal government to rain dollars down on B.C. We've seen the huge waste of money in other federal economic development programs, which leave taxpayers poorer and produce few results.
But the pine beetle infestation is a foreseeable natural disaster. It can't be halted, but we can act now to reduce the impact on communities, businesses and families. The federal government has an obligation to act.
And there are other investments needed in B.C. that would benefit not just the province, but all Canadians.
Paul Martin made a personal commitment to recognize legitimate needs in the province, and reduce our feeling of distance from a disinterested federal government.
The budget shows he has much more work to do.
Footnote: The lack of federal help in the pine beetle crisis should have British Columbians questioning the province's decision not to use some of this year's surplus - more than $2.2 billion - to establish a legacy fund to help forest communities deal with the coming crunch.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Health care crisis gets Liberals' attention

VICTORIA - It felt like the days of Glen Clark were back this week as the Liberals thrashed around, trying to sort out the problems - health care and political - in the Fraser Health Authority.
On Monday afternoon Health Minister Shirley Bond was still sounding pretty positive about the health region, and specifically about the problems at the over-crowded Surrey Memorial Hospital. She'd asked for a report on measures being taken to improve things at the hospital's emergency room, Bond told NDP MLA Jagrup Brar, but there was no panic.
But by Tuesday morning, the region's CEO, Bob Smith, had got the axe. The health authority board made the decision, said Bond, but her deputy minister had spent a lot of time over there asking questions. And Bond said she had become worried about the authority's inability to react quickly to emerging problems, and supported the firing.
A few hours later, during Question Period, Bond said she was concerned about problems at the Surrey hospital, but mostly she defended the government's overall health record and slagged the former NDP government.
But then the communications people said Premier Gordon Campbell would be available for a secret scrum. (That's the official Press Gallery term. Past premiers have taken questions from reporters each day on their way into caucus and Question Period. Campbell refuses. Occasionally - twice this session, I think - he takes questions in a formal press conference in his office.)
And while we waited in an anteroom, press releases arrived, hot off the copier. Bond was "calling on" the health region to use its $28-million surplus toward expanding the Surrey hospital emergency room.
It's a flip worthy of one of those 13-year-old Romanian gymnasts.
The Liberals promised independence for the five regional health authorities. The government would expect good plans, and measure performance. But the health region boards would decide how to address the needs of their communities.
Until the political heat got to be too great.
There's nothing really wrong with the politicians leaping into the fray. They're ultimately responsible. They answer to us, and they have the sleepless nights when something has gone wrong.
But we'd like them to be involved because they're worried about us. The problems facing Surrey Memorial, which has the second busiest emergency room in Canada, have been evident for years, Bond acknowledged in the legislature. It wasn't until a New Democrat started raising them, three months before the election, that things got urgent.
And note that the government didn't actually come up with any new money, or offer any estimate of what it would actually cost to solve the problems.
The health authority has a small surplus, about 1.5 per cent of total expenses. Use that, says the government, and do what you can.
It would have been more convincing if the government had been able to cost the needed improvements, and fund them out of the $2.8-billion surplus coming for the current fiscal year.
And the intervention would have been better received if it was clear the health region could afford the improvements, but had messed up. The region has had some big bumps in funding, but is looking at less than two per cent annually for the next two years.
Paradoxically, the actions might not help the Liberals politically. When Surrey was represented by Liberals, nothing happened. After just two weeks of Brar raising questions in the legislature, the hospital gets a big improvement. Not bad work for a rookie.
What will voters make of all this? They'll welcome the action, likely.
But they should wonder whether the failure to deliver 5,000 promised long-term care beds has played a role in hospital over-crowding. The Fraser region has fewer beds available for seniors now than it did four years ago.
And they'll also wonder why the government is only now discovering a problem that everyone else had been worried about for years.
Footnote: Forget about worrying about Smith's severance, likely worth more than his salary for a year - $323,000. He changed his life to take the job, and has been fired without cause - the payout is reasonable. (Although it's the second time he's got severance payments of more than $300,000; the NDP came through with a similar amount when his position was eliminated in 1997.)

Monday, February 21, 2005

Seniors' bingo bust highlights gambling hypocrisy

VICTORIA - The great Galiano Island bingo bust brings to mind that bumper sticker, the one that says "Don't steal, government hates the competition."
In case you've missed the news, the B.C. government sent four undercover enforcement officers to laid-back Galiano to break up a fun once-a-week bingo game for about a dozen seniors.
You can run out of fingers counting off what's wrong with this.
For starters, there's the foolish waste of money.
We're talking about a drop-in bingo game in a small restaurant, with all the money - maybe $150 in a good week - going back to the players. Deb McKechnie, owner of Galiano's Grand Central Emporium, offered seniors a discount on their meals and a chance to socialize while having a few laughs over a game of bingo. There's no earthly reason for government to do anything about this.
But, says Solicitor General Rich Coleman, government had to launch an investigation, because someone complained.
OK. But that's what a telephone is for. You pick it up, call the restaurant and ask the owner about the bingo game. She tells the officer what's going on, he tells her what she needs to do to be within the law.
Case closed.
But that's not what happened. Four people - two police officers, and two gaming enforcement officers - slipped quietly into the restaurant, surreptiously gathered their evidence - and then retired to the Island Time B&B. The oceanfront resort boasts that it's Galiano's only five-star accommodation, with a Gazebo hot tub, cozy quilts and sherry in hand-cut crystal decanters. Winter rates range from $125 to $155 a night.
The next day two of the presumably well-rested officers showed up back at the restaurant and told McKechnie she was busted, and being charged with the unauthorized sale of lottery tickets. She started crying (like most taxpayers who have heard the whole story). The officers warned her that they could have laid criminal charges, but decided just to issue a $288 ticket.
Figure the total cost at something over $2,000, to deal with a harmless attempt to give seniors some weekly fun and attract a few more customers to a small business.
Coleman initially defended the exercise.
But by Monday, he was having doubts. "I'm not particularly thrilled with the story myself," he said. "This on the surface is not great. That's why I've asked them to take a review and come back and explain it to me."
Excess aside, this is just the latest chapter in the government's extremely diligent efforts to make sure that it's the only one who makes money from gambling. Charities have been told to quit selling raffle tickets on the Internet, or hassled because they were auctioning off a quilt without all the proper paperwork.
At the same time the government is pushing ahead full-speed with gambling expansion plan. (Yes, the Liberals campaigned on a promise to halt the expansion of gambling, because it hurt families and caused addictions and other social problems. More fool you for believing them.)
The new budget shows the Liberals will have almost doubled the amount of money they take from losing gamblers by 2008. The government made $540 million from gambling when the Liberals were elected; they're shooting for more than $1 billion by the third year of the current plan.
Partly, that comes from getting current gamblers to lose more. (Thus the decision to allow alcohol in casinos, and the approval for ATMs so people who have lost all their cash can dip into their savings.)
The government is also recruiting more gamblers. It has a plan to persuade 170,000 people who don't gamble now that it would be a good idea for them to start.
Sure, that will be the start of a hellish addiction for several thousand of those people, but that's not a big problem for the government.
Seniors playing fun bingo in a small restaurant on Galiano Island - that's a big problem.
Footnote: Last word to McKechnie. "I'm a small-business person really trying to stay alive and my taxes that I have to borrow money to pay are going to operations like this? I'm basically running a small business in hard times, open from 5:30 in the morning . . . seven days a week." Sounds like she should have been a LIberal voter - up until now.