Friday, May 27, 2005

Please leaders, end the legislature zoo story

VICTORIA - It's encouraging to hear Gordon Campbell and Carole James talk about co-operating to make the legislature work better, especially for someone whose job involves sitting in the gallery.
The legislature - for all the grandness of the building, and the many fine people inside it - is often a depressing place, many days a genuine embarrassment. I cringe for the school teachers who bring their students to watch Question Period and see adults shouting abuse at each other, posturing and preaching what they know to be nonsense.
These are bright, compassionate people, elected in part because they were good at bringing people together. They'd never shout insults across the room at a community meeting, or mindlessly heckle a speaker
But somehow, inside this building, they lose their bearings.
James has made some useful proposals, including lengthening Question Period. That's the 15 minutes each day that draws much of the media and public attention. Now it's mainly a time for the Opposition to raise issues that they think will result in news stories that make the government look bad.
Not always, of course. There are real questions about real issues. But they are the exception. The opposition looks for the one or two big stories; the government ministers look to avoid answering.
A longer Question Period - B.C. has the shortest in Canada - might help. With 30 minutes, more MLAs would get the chance to raise issues that mattered to their constituents. Cabinet ministers would be less able to simply run out the clock with non-answers.
That's not the only useful reform. The Liberals borrowed an idea from Alberta and set up government caucus committees after the last election, backbencher-dominated groups that were supposed to keep an eye on policies in areas like health, and be watchdogs.
Some Liberal MLAs believe it worked, but it's impossible to tell. The meetings were behind closed doors. No one knew what they were doing (with the result that MLAs looked like they were doing nothing about some issues important to their community).
Campbell should follow through on a 2001 promise to give a bigger role to legislative committees, which have representatives from both parties. The health and education committees did some useful work over the last four years, although relatively little. But others, like the committee on aboriginal affairs haven't met since 2001.
What's needed is a change of mindset on both sides of the legislature. Voters didn't elect MLAs to come here and wage some sort of political war for four years. They want their MLAs to solve problems, and make things better. That does mean holding the government to account, but that can be done in way that is effective, yet civil. (As James showed through much of the election campaign.)
Campbell could send an important signal by consulting with James about who will be the new Speaker, the legislative referee. (Claude Richmond is expected to move to a ministry.) B.C. has an unfortunate tradition of Speakers who are seen as overly partisan.
There's lots of chance for structural reform.
But ultimately, it all comes down to people and how they behave. I rest my biggest hopes hopes on the new MLAs.
Almost half the MLAs who will sit down in the legislature in September - 12 Liberals, 25 New Democrats - will be new, untainted by past practices. They'll be shocked, I expect, when they sit through their first week of the session. And they can either say well, this is the way things work, I guess, or they can make it better.
The opposition can ask questions that seek information, instead of levelling accusations. Ministers can repond fully, tackling the issue head-on. Real information can be provided, and good decisions made.
It would be a leap - each party would have to trust the other. But the new NDP MLAs can treat ministers with respect; the new ministers can answer in the same way.
It might even be catching. Root for them.
Footnote: A Grade 4 teacher here in Victoria wrote the newspaper after taking her class to Question Period. The MLAs' behaviour showed the bullying, rudeness and abusiveness that schools are attempting to eliminate on the playground. Any student would have been sent from class if they acted like the MLAs, she added.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

The Mountain Goats

I have been steadfast in just posting columns here.
But for anyone who likes truly great music - alt-country-rock-minimal - and superb writing, track down music by The Mountain Goats, which I gather is really one guy, John Darnielle. You'll be a little envious, and a lot amazed.

Cabinet choices set the tone for next four years

VICTORIA - It's not easy picking a cabinet.
In the real world, if you need a grocery clerk, or political columnist, you put an ad in the paper and pick the applicant who will do the best job. It's still difficult, but at least you're fishing in a deep pool.
Gordon Campbell's choices are way more complex, and he doesn't get to advertise. If Campbell decides to stay with 27 ministers, he'll be offering cabinet posts to more than half of the 45 elected MLAs. And he'll know that a big chunk of the 18 people left out will be hurt, mad, and maybe vengeful.
The premier can't even pick the people he thinks will do the best job. The cabinet has to be balanced - by region, gender, first language, ideology.
That's not a bad thing. We want representative governments, and who knows if the premier is so great at guessing who will turn out to be an effective minister.
Still, the need for balance restricts Campbell. The last Liberal cabinet had nine women ministers, about one-third of the total. If Campbell wants to match it he will have to appoint nine of the 10 Liberal women elected, with limited attention to experience or potential.
The need for regional balance is just as restrictive. The Liberals' Kootenay caucus had four members, with two in cabinet. Only Bill Bennett survived the election, so he's guaranteed a cabinet spot - maybe as resorts' minister. (A good thing, especially because Bennett could be an aggressive defender of the interests of B.C.'s smaller communities.) Dennis MacKay  - a low-profile MLA - might slip into cabinet as a Liberal survivor in the northwest.
Campbell's challenge includes leap-frogging the star candidates - Wally Oppal, Carole Taylor - over other MLAs. Oppal is an odds-on choice for attorney general, a job which will make the small 'l' liberal Oppal an odd partner with top cop Rich Coleman. Taylor could end up in any one of several ministries.
Some ministers should stay put. Stan Hagen wants to stay in children and families, and the ministry needs both his experience and some stability. It makes sense to leave the very competent Colin Hansen in finance.
Things get trickier in health and education, and most prospective solutions reinforce the rising star of Tom Christensen, currently the education minister. Christensen could stay put, replace Shirley Bond in health or even become attorney general if Campbell chooses.
That still leaves many slots to fill. John van Dongen and Mike de Jong are both likely due for a change after four years in the same ministry. (Van Dongen has become a symbol of Liberal difficulties in managing the aquaculture file.) But replacements will be difficult to find, especially after the defeat of junior forest minister Roger Harris.
Graham Bruce's defeat leaves Campbell without a labour minister - and more significantly, without a House leader. Kamloops MLA Claude Richmond doesn't want to be Speaker any more. Both jobs are important in setting the tone for the new legislature - confrontational or co-operative - and protecting the Liberals' interests.
And there's always the chance that Campbell could opt for bolder change. A majority of British Columbians voted for parties that promised to bring back the environment ministry. Why not do what the people want, and name a senior minister to the post to establish more credibility on the environment front? Other ministries could be restructured, perhaps giving Barry Penner a role in energy policy.
Campbell will probably announce his cabinet around June 8. His choices will signal what kind of government British Columbians can expect for the next four years, and what the Liberals have learned from this election.
And Carole James will unveil her shadow cabinet a few days later, a signal of her direction. James says she has taken the NDP toward the centre; her appointments to key critic jobs will tell the tale.
The 2009 campaign starts in the next two weeks.
Footnote: Eight cabinet ministers went down to defeat, leaving Campbell lots of room for newcomers. But not enough, probably. It will sting to be part of the minority left out of cabinet. James  faces the same issues in deciding on the roles for Glen Clark uber-loyalist Harry Lali and others of the old guard.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Columbia Basin Trust stumbles show need for public alertness

VICTORIA - You should care about problems at the Columbia Basin Trust, both because it's your money and because they show the need for public scrutiny of economic development funds promised in the Liberal campaign.
The trust is beloved in the Kootenays, where it's seen as belated economic justice.
The 1961 Columbia Treaty with the U.S. saw B.C. agree to build dams on the river system to help the Americans produce more power downstream. B.C. got cash in the deal; communities in the way got flooded out.
People in the region kept demanding a share of the benefits, and in 1995 - after the treaty came up for renewal - the NDP government agreed. It set up the trust, which now manages more than $460 million in assets. Earnings flow to a range of community projects.
But all is not well, with the damning finance ministry review only the latest problem. Liberal MLA Barry Penner asked for the review, citing questions about the relationship between Ken Epp, the CEO of trust subsidiary Columbia Basin Trust Energy, and ZE PowerGroup Inc. of Vancouver.
Epp is a part-time CEO, who billed about $600,000 over a three-year period. Among his other consulting clients is ZE Power, which received about $2 million worth of contract work from CBTE during the same period.
The trust's directors, appointed by the province, are showing an alarming lack of concern and openness.
Visit the trust's web site and there's a release from chair Josh Smienk saying that he's "very pleased" that the finance ministry audit didn't find any "actual conflict of interest" on the part of Epp. The subsidiary met all applicable legal requirements, Smienk proclaims. That is true, and it's important.
But the trust's response is wildly unsatisfactory, considering what else the review found.
Epp was in "a perceived and potential conflict of interest," the ministry review reported. "We believe that Mr. Epp has not completely complied with CBTE's Conflict of Interest Guidelines and we also believe that these guidelines do not go far enough to avoid and manage the risk of conflict of interest," it said.
Minimum legal requirements were met, but not "the higher standards that are expected of a person serving the public to avoid and manage the risk of conflict of interest."
The review also called criticized spending practices, including spending money without any approved budget. "Controls were not in place to provide assurances of fairness and value for money for the contracts examined and it was difficult to determine whether these contracts were approved," the report found. "With CBTE's low staffing levels and the perceived conflict of interest of the CEO, it is difficult to effectively manage contracts."
It is not a report that should make board members - or the public - "very pleased."
These are only the latest problems for the trust. In March the board said it wasn't renewing the contract of trust CEO Don Johnston, with no explanation. Interviews for a replacement don't start until next month.
And last year the directors had to cancel a plan to sell the corporation's power-generation business to BC Hydro. The board approved a deal to sell its 50-per-cent interest in four power plants to BC Hydro for $260 million, planning to invest the money.
But the public, still edgy because the Liberals shifted power on the board from local representatives to provincial appointments, hated the idea, and the board retreated. (The plan probably made sense.)
The trust is politically sensitive, and none of the parties wanted it raised as a campaign issue. But expect it to get political attention once the legislature returns.
Meanwhile, the problems should inspire more alertness across the province.
The Liberals have already created the $85-million Northern Development Initiative. During the campaign they promised an extra $50 million for that fund, and $50-million economic development trusts for the southern Interior and and the Vancouver Island/Coast region.
All good ideas. But the trust issues highlight the need for public scrutiny.
Footnote: The new trusts - like the Northern Development Initiative - are likely to be governed by boards of regional and provincial politicians. The legislation setting them up will be in place this year, but if the NDI is an indication it will be well into 2006 before any money flows.