Thursday, December 08, 2005

Hydro's energy plan and Site C slam into political doubts

VICTORIA - The Liberals' pledge to keep politicians' hands off Crown corporations like BC Hydro is fading fast.
BC Hydro's brightest and best have been labouring away on a long-term energy plan, with the Site C dam as the centrepiece.
This week was supposed to be the big unveiling. Hydro CEO Bob Elton announced a press conference where he would be flanked by business types, and vice-presidents were fanning out to meet with the media.
And then 20 hours before the big announcement, the politicians pulled the plug.
"In consultation with government, we have now decided to postpone this release and will be doing further work to ensure that this plan meets the needs of ratepayers," Elton said in a terse news release. Hydro's future also needs to be "fully reviewed in the context of government's energy policies."
The order was not well-received in Hydro. The 20-year Integrated Energy Plan has been more than a year in the making, with a high-profile advisory committee, public meetings and lots of consultants and studies. It was to be the definitive look at energy needs for the next two decades, and the best way to meet them. The BC Utilities Commission was set to review it.
Something has gone seriously wrong when the politicians step in at the last minute, stepping all over Hydro's board and management.
Energy Minister Richard Neufeld said the government wanted more time to review the plan, which was presented to Liberal MLAs at a caucus meeting this week. The Crown corporation just got a little ahead of itself, he said.
But Neufeld didn't rule out changes before the plan goes to the utilities' commission.
The explanation leaves a few questions. The government has known for a year the plan was going to the utilities' commission this month, and for days that the announcement was scheduled for this week. There were no big surprises in the document, as energy ministry officials have been involved with the process all along.
So the last-minute cancellation suggests someone - the caucus, the premier's office - got nervous.
There's lots to get nervous about. Hydro's assessment of energy needs and the solutions it backs will have huge implications for the provincial economy. If it underestimates demand, B.C. will need to buy more expensive power from the U.S. If Hydro overestimates, the corporation will build power plants it doesn't need. Both would cost consumers money. If it makes the wrong choices on issues like big coal-fired plants versus small hydro projects, the province's economy is affected.
Hydro's preferred plan is likely based on building the Site C dam across the Peace River near Fort St. John, as well as energy conservation measures and additional power from private producers.
Site C makes a lot of people nervous. The $3.5-billion project was already scuttled by opponents once, in 1991. Independent power producers don't like the proposal, because they want to supply the electricity. First Nations have issues about lost hunting land when thousands of acres are flooded. And the accuracy of Hydro's cost projections have come under fire.
The Liberals have made much of the need to let Crown corporations operate without political interference, never missing a chance to talk about the $460 million lost thanks to the NDP's half-baked fast ferries project.
But there's been increasing recognition that leaving Crown corporations to their own devices carries its own risks and missed opportunities.
The BC Progress Board, a business panel appointed by the premier, weighed in last month with a report saying government, not BC Hydro, should be setting energy policy. "BC Hydro is seen by many concerned parties to heavily outweigh the ministry in staff and resources, which puts the government in the position of not being able to provide adequate oversight and direction," said the panel, chaired by Victoria newspaper mogul David Black.
The last-minute scuttling of the launch of BC Hydro's energy plan suggests the government has come to the same conclusion, and is reining in the Crown corporation.
Footnote: Things will get complicated quickly if the government wants significant changes to the plan. Hydro is supposed to present it to the utilities' commission within the next three months. Any major reworking could make it tough to meet the deadline - especially if BC Hydro's co-operation is less than enthusiastic.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The facts say children at risk aren't being properly protected

VICTORIA - Child protection is the tough front line for social workers.
A teacher calls and reports a little girl is coming to school on snowy days with no coat. A neighbour reports that a toddler keeps showing up with new bruises. A teen is reported to be using drugs, or in the sex trade.
The ministry has to investigate to make sure the children are safe, and take action if they aren't. It can be risky to leave children in a home; it can be tragic to remove them and send them to live with strangers, or even family
members. There are few easy choices.
By its own standards, the ministry is failing. The ministry's standard says that child protection investigations are concluded "when all the information is gathered to determine whether a child needs protection, and what steps, if any,
are required to address the child's need for protection."
That work is supposed to be done in 30 days.
But the New Democrats released figures for October that showed that barely one in five child protection reports was being completed in the appropriate time.
Almost 45 per cent of cases were still open three months after the investigation started.
The ministry was dismissive, characterizing the issue as one of "paperwork." If there is any indication a child is at high risk the ministry acts immediately, said minister Stan Hagen. And anyway, staffers said, things were as bad under the NDP.
The last observation - supported with several years worth of statistics - is entirely irrelevant. The public doesn't care about politics, or which party has the worst record. They want to know if children are being protected.
Trivializing the problem as one of paperwork seems incredible. The standard, for starters, doesn't say anything about filing reports. It says child protection investigations are complete when the risk is assessed and needed
steps taken to ensure child safety. That's supposed to happen within 30 days, and it's not.
And the observation that the ministry moves quickly when it detects high risk isn't really reassuring. The policy calls for complete, thorough prompt investigations. The statistics suggest that is not happening, and that's bad
news for children.
It's not just the NDP that is raising the concern.
The BC Association of Social Workers says child protection workers are swamped. "The caseloads are unmanageable, there's no support and there are no resources for people." says association head Linda Korbin. Reports of neglect and abuse aren't being investigated because social workers don't have time.
And Susanne Dannenberg, a child protection worker in Victoria, resigned over the issue. It can take months before serious safety concerns are investigated, she said. Dannenberg said the fear that child would die because of something she had been unable to do had become too much.
It leaves you, as the people who have a responsibility to help these children, in a tough spot.
The ministry says everything is fine.
But the statistics and the workers say that is not true. That children are at risk every day because warnings aren't being investigated.
It is another reminder of how badly B.C. needs a Children's Commission.
This is exactly the kind of issue the commission investigated and reported on. The commission would audit a sample of child protection cases, assess the strengths and weaknesses in the ministry's response, and report. It would
follow up, to see if things improved.
If there was no cause for concern, the public would know.
If there were problems, the public could demand that it be fixed - before some tragedy like the death of Sherry Charlie prompted a flood of overlapping reviews and investigations.
British Columbians have lost something very important. We're no longer have the ability to be confident that we're fulfilling our responsibilities to the children who need us the most.
The Liberals say trust us. Everything is fine.
It is an answer they would have never have accepted in opposition. It's one we shouldn't accept now.
Footnote: Hagen accused the NDP of fear-mongering on the issue in a response later posted to a government web site. Premier Gordon Campbell is taking a different approach. Dix and the New Democrats raised issues that needed to be
fixed, he said, and the government will act on them.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Harper's law-and-order drug talk the same failed approach

VICTORIA - It's hard to take seriously any politician who calls for mandatory minimum sentences.
That's what Stephen Harper did on his first campaign stop in B.C., casting himself as the non-nonsense sheriff from an old Western. It's time get tough on crime, especially drugs, said Harper. No conditional sentences, an end to harm reduction efforts like safe injection sites and mandatory minimum sentences for people who sell heroin, cocaine and crystal meth.
Mandatory minimum sentences are popular with politicians who can't figure out what else to do, in spite of two problems - they don't work, and they guarantee injustices.
In an earlier life I stood in a Red Deer church and watched a young mother and her three small children make their way to their usual pew without the dad who was there every Sunday. He was in a federal penitentiary.
The family business had been on the brink of collapse, and he was desperate, depressed and terrified. To get enough money to keep going for one more week he took an unloaded rifle and robbed a local bank branch, a stunningly stupid plan. He got about $2,000, was stopped by the police within five minutes, surrendered and admitted everything.
The sentencing guidelines then demanded a five-year minimum sentence for robbery with a weapon. So off he went to prison.
He had done a crime, and a serious one. The bank tellers were terrified, and despite the unloaded weapon something very bad could have happened.
But a five-year prison term made no sense.
Sentencing serves three purposes - to deter others who might offend, rehabilatate the criminal and express society's anger.
This sentence wasn't going to deter similar offenders; the essence of the crime was its lack of judgment and foresight. A five-year term wasn't needed to ensure rehabilitation, just some counselling. And most people reacted with compassion, not anger.
All that was really achieved by the strict sentencing rule was to wreck a family, leave three children without a father for a couple of years and send someone off for an expensive, destructive jail stay.
I have little doubt that without the minimum requirement, the court would have imposed house arrest or a brief jail stay.
Harper's proposed two-year minimum sentences for people arrested for drug trafficking would create the same injustices. A long sentence for a hapless addict for making a delivery or for people growing a dozen marijuana plants is not going to reduce crime.
Despite the promised minimum sentences, it's not even really going to happen. There isn't space in jails, for starters. B.C.'s prison costs are already expected to be $4 million over budget this year because of an increased number of inmates.
In fact mandatory minimum sentences often result in reduced penalties. Criminal Code penalties for impaired driving have become increasingly tough. The practical result has been that more people have fought the charges, and police and prosecutors can't handle the workload. Today only one-in-six drinking drivers caught by B.C. police is actually charged with a Criminal Code offence. The rest receive 24-hour roadside suspensions and are sent on their way.
Expect the same approach to small-time drug traffickers if Harper gets his way.
Harper's drug strategy is based on two basic fallacies - that drugs can be dealt with by attacking the supply side, and that addiction is a moral issue. "Our values are under attack," he said in Vancouver.
From Prohibition to today attacks on the supply side have failed. When enough people desperately want a product, others will profit by providing it.
The solution lies in reducing demand, through education, accessible treatment and and an attack on the issues - like poverty and mental illness - that drive addiction.
In the meantime, safe injection sites, methadone and even prescribed drugs help stabilize the problem and reduce the crime that comes when addicts scramble each day to stay alive.
Harper's drug plan is just more of the same tired, failed exercises.
Footnote: Crime is likely to continue to be an issue, because of high-profile killings in Toronto and a perception that addiction-driven property crime is a growing problem in many communities. But the fact remains that the rate for both violent crimes and homicides are lower today than they were a decade ago, according to StatsCan.