Thursday, July 07, 2005

Backbenchers lose power in second Liberal term

VICTORIA - Back in 2001 Gordon Campbell said it was important to give real power to backbench MLAs.
So he boldly set up five government caucus committees. A backbencher - or private member as they prefer to be called - chaired each one. Cabinet ministers sat on the committees, but they were always a minority.
The committees would "open up decision-making, create new opportunities for public input, and involve all government MLAs in developing solutions to the challenges we face," Campbell promised.
There were committees on health, the economy, communities and safety, government operations and natural resources. They were to hear presentations, and develop policy.
And they were to grill cabinet ministers about their plans, and budgets.
The idea - like much from the Liberals' first year- was lifted from Alberta, where Ralph Klein introduced them in 1992. He saw the committees as a needed check on cabinet ministers.
Ministers, Klein observed, want to spend. No one wants to be known as the minister who cut services. One they get the posts, they want to introduce new programs and clever plans - and a good deputy minister will likely have a stack of projects at the ready.
Enter the government caucus committees, and an alert group of backbenchers ready to pounce on sloppy ministry budgets, or plans that failed to meet the needs of their communities. (Backbenchers have a special freedom. Cabinet ministers know that if they ask tough questions about a colleague's plans, they may take a retaliatory beating when their turn comes to take centre stage.)
Backbenchers liked the chance to contribute; ministers - and their staffs - grumbled about the process.
Now the committees are effectively dead, an early casualty of the Liberals' second term. The original five government caucus committees are gone. (Alberta still has six, and counts them an important part of the checks and balances of government.)
Two comittees are left, one on social development, and one on natural resources and the economy. The old emphasis on backbencher power is nowhere to be seen. Cabinet ministers outnumber regular MLAs by two to one. The experiment is over.
Liberal caucus chair Gordon Hogg thinks this analysis too harsh. There are three other cabinet committees, he notes, and they all have backbenchers on them.
But back in 2001, there were five other cabinet committees, all with backbenchers on them.
And even among the three surviving committees, regular MLAs have a much smaller role.
Hogg notes, for example, that backbenchers have half the seats on the committee that reviews all legislation before it reaches the House - "one of our most important committees."
But in 2001, backbenchers had two-thirds of the places on that committee.
Backbench MLAs, speaking for their communities, got almost one-third of the places on the committee that developed the government's priorities. Now one backbencher has a place among seven cabinet ministers.Their role on Treasury Board, the spending watchdog, has also shrunk.
In short, backbenchers are playing a reduced role on important government committees.
There are a lot fewer Liberal MLAs than there were four years ago. But there are still enough to handle the committee work with ease - if the premier had given them the chance.
Campbell raised expectations with his bold commitment to empowering backbench MLAs in 2001.
Now he has pulled power back to the centre.
That's a shame. Not everyone is a good choice for cabinet, and even some excellent candidates get left our because of issues like the need for regional balance.
But individual MLAs have a good sense of what's important to their communities, and bring the kind of diversity to decision-making that leads to better results. The idea of expanding their role recognized those advantages, and the need to make sue that all MLAs have a significant chance to shape government policy.
The government caucus committees did that, according to the premier.
Too bad the idea has fallen out of favour so quickly.
Footnote: One knock heard against the committees was that backbench MLAs lacked political judgment, and that as a result the committees were responsible for some of the government's unpopular decisions. Based on my conversations with MLAs, it's more likely that paying attention to them is a way of avoiding political missteps.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Columbia Basin Trust looks at big dam, power plant buy

Note: I don't post news stories I've done as a rule, but this is quite interesting.

VICTORIA - The Columbia Basin Trust is laying the groundwork to buy more than $200 million worth of dams and power plants from the province.
Chair Josh Smienk confirmed the trust has taken the first steps towards exercising its option to buy the Columbia Power Corp. (CPC), giving it total control over three power plants and other assets in the Kootenays.
The move is the latest twist in the trust's tangled recent history, and represents a 180-degree shift from last year's abandoned plan to sell its share in the power projects.
"The first step is gathering information and analysing it," Smienk said.
Economic Development Minister Colin Hansen confirmed the government is working with the trust to asses the deal.
"We certainly haven't come to any conclusions in that regard," said Hansen, who has just taken over responsibility for the trust from Energy Minister Richard Neufeld.
The trust and the power corporation are both Crown corporations, set up by the NDP in the mid-90s as part of an effort to deliver some of the benefits from the 1961 Columbia Treaty to the region.
The two corporations are equal partners in the power developments, with the original intent that Columbia Power Corp. build and operate the dams and the trust distribute profits and income from investments to the communities.
But the relationship has become strained over a range of issues and the trust is looking at gaining total control.
Smienk said the construction phase is largely complete.
"We're looking at some to form some permanent closure to the initiative," said Smienk. "It allows for the transfer of the management of the assets to the region."
The future of the trust and Columbia Power Corporation have been uncertain for the more than a year.
In January of 2004 the provincial government announced its intention to give the trust control over the CPC, and create a new power company to manage the assets.
That project was abandoned when the trust's directors told the government it wanted to sell its share of the projects to BC Hydro.
The government agreed it would also sell Columbia Power Corp.'s interests in the joint ventures to BC Hydro.
But the deal fell apart in the face of fierce opposition in the region.
And in January, Neufeld said said the existing structure would remain in place.
The Columbia Power Corporation wrote off $750,000 in costs related to the abandoned restructuring effort.
Now the push for change is on again.
Smienk said the possible purchase would be on the agenda when the trust holds a community meeting in Cranbrook this weekend.
Nelson NDP MLA Corky Evans, the party's energy critic, said he's reserving judgment on the proposal.
Last year's plan to sell the power assets was poorly explained and the public felt excluded from the process, he said.
"The trust is now putting forward the opposite alternative," he said. "I don't know if that's a good idea."
Community control and influence over the trust has been weakened since 2001, Evans said. "The trust went into the core review process and never really came out."
The NDP government gave the trust an option to buy Columbia Power Corporation's assets in 2001, just before the election.
The option expires at the end of this month, but the Liberals have agreed to extend it to the fall.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Liberal ad spending details show need for reform

VICTORIA - Now that the details about government advertising are out, you can see why the Liberals kept them secret.
The Liberals budgeted $12 million for advertising, down from the previous year because - they said - non-essential advertising was banned in the four-month run-up to the election.
But the ads kept on coming through the year, and no one would say what each lavish campaign cost.
The Liberals had reason to be embarrassed. They blew through the $12-million budget, and spent another $7.5 million, keeping the over-run a secret until after the election.
And the big spending was on ads that most looked partisan pitches for the Liberals’ good works.
Remember those  best place to work TV ads? The information released by Finance Minister Carole Taylor reveals they started with a weird goal - "A campaign to inform British Columbians about employment opportunities resulting from the improved economic climate."
C’mon. Was it really necessary to spend $3.8 million to tell British Columbians it’s was a good time to check the 'Help Wanted' section in the newspaper, start a business or hit the boss up for a raise?
The government's tourism ads made slightly more sense - but only slightly.
That campaign cost you $4.4 million. The stated goal was to get British Columbians - and Canadians - to vacation in B.C.
But almost all the ads ran in the province. And if the government was really interested in tourism development, all it had to do was pass the extra cash on to Tourism BC. The Crown corporation has detailed strategies for promoting the province, and needs only money. Another $4.4 million would have made a big difference.
The government didn't give the money to Tourism BC. It tossed it into the pot for a series of ad campaigns that to many people seemed much like the Liberals' election commercials.
And there was the $2.5 million on the best place to go to school, telling people to check a web site, because there were more post-secondary and trades education opportunities than they might think.
It's worth reminding people that there are educational opportunities.
But probably $800,000 in advertising, targeted effectively, would have done the job. The remaining $1.7 million would have funded another 180 post-secondary spaces across the province.
The problem is not just with the campaigns, but the way the Liberals handle the over-spending. They could have tapped the contingency budget,and disclosed the extra spending. They did in other areas. Embarrassing , but open and transparent.
Instead, the public affairs' bureau - part of the premier's office budget - sent bills out to ministries, which hadn't budgeted for any ad expense. One of the Liberal reforms was to fund all advertising out of one central budget.
That had allowed former health minister Colin Hansen to maintain steadfastly that not one penny from the health budget was being spend on ad campaigns.
Until the election year. There was still no money in the budget, but the ministry got a surprise invoice from the premier’s office for $630,000 for ad costs, enough to clear some 170 people off the waiting list for hip replacements.
Of course the NDP governments were just as bad, probably worse. They spent more and were equally partisan.
Government advertising will always be controversial.
But other jurisdictions have tackled the problem. The United Kingdom has had guidelines since 1985 to reduce the risk of partisan, publicly funded advertising intended to help the political prospects of the government in power.
And in fact then B.C. Auditor General George Morfitt recommended similar guidelines for the province in 1996. The NDP did nothing about the recommendations, and the Liberals followed their example.
Guidelines don’t make the issue go away, and there will always be grey areas.
But they would be a start, and at least set standards that guard against the use of taxpayers’ money to promote the interests of the party in power.
Footnote: Taylor deserves credit for releasing the information, which the government had kept secret. She says it’s important for governments to communicate effectively, but plans a review of the advertising efforts over the summer, before the budget is introduced in September.