Saturday, December 17, 2005

Harper and Layton fare best in debate round one

VICTORIA - Not a bad leader's debate night in Vancouver, although I did feel a bit of a loser spending my Friday evening in front of the television.
Nobody scored a big breakthrough, nobody stumbled badly, but I'd call it a better night for Stephen Harper and Jack Layton than it was for Paul Martin.
They had much easier jobs.
For Harper, the challenge was not to look like an angry right-winger. He mostly succeeded, at least after the first few minutes. The debate relied on taped questions from Canadians. The first one came from a mother with a lesbian daughter, who wanted to know what the parties would do about same sex marriage.
The other three leaders said the issue is one of fundamental human rights and the decision has been made.
Harper offered his new position that while he would allow a free vote on same sex marriage, he would not use the charter of rights' notwithstanding clause to force a ban on same sex rights.
As Martin pointed, it's a foolish position. The charter protects the right to same sex marriage. The free vote is meaningless without a commitment to go the next step and over-rule the charter.
But aside from that, Harper did well. His plan to cut the GST came across as simple and progressive compared with Martin's less coherent defence of other tax cuts. Harper got a great break because the question on the issue came from a disabled woman whose income was so low she paid no taxes. A GST cut would help her, she said, but an income tax reduction would make any difference. It's a strong platform item.
And Harper effectively defended the idea of giving money directly to parents for child care. It's not good policy, directing hundreds of millions of dollars to affluent families whose children are already receiving excellent care. But it was much more concrete than NDP and Liberal commitments to send more money to provinces to create child care spaces.
Across most issues, Harper sounded reasonable, his most important objective. Even on health care, Martin couldn't effectively raise doubts about the Conservatives' stance on issues like the increased role of private companies.
Layton also had an easier job. He wisely made it clear the NDP has no expectation of forming even a minority government. Elect New Democrat MPs, he said in a variety of ways, to make sure the other two parties don't run amok and reward their friends and backers. He hit issues like long-term care, and made a strong pitch for a better deal for new Canadians, a position that will help in close urban races in B.C.
And he wisely focused most of his criticisms on Martin, recognizing that the NDP needs to woo away Liberal voters.
Martin didn't do terribly, especially because he was the consistent target.
But his biggest challenge was to convince voters that the Liberals had something new to offer, and had learned from their mistakes. Faced with the sponsorship scandal, the best Martin could do was to continue to insist only a few people were involved, and note that he had quickly called the Gomery inquiry. It's not likely enough to ease dissatisfaction.
And Martin couldn't isolate Harper as too cozy with the Americans.
B.C. viewers who hoped a Vancouver debate might mean more attention to the province's issues were disappointed.
The other three leaders accused Martin of being slow to raise the softwood issue, and even slower to help companies hurt by the tariffs. Layton criticized the sale of Terasen to a U.S. corporation. And there was talk of the Pacific gateway. But there was nothing to convince voters that any one party would represent B.C. voters most effectively.
Harper likely convinced voters that he's not so scarey, and Layton made the NDP seem a credible option as a third party. That makes them the winners.
Footnote: Gilles Duceppe did fine, although he is largely irrelevant in these debates. He did offer the other leaders a missed opportunity when he said issues like same sex marriage shouldn't be revisited again and again once the vote has been held. No one noted the same could be said for Quebec sovereignty after two referendums.

Business joins call for energy heritage fund

VICTORIA - I remember the bumper stickers in Alberta when oil prices fell in the early ‘80s, and the jobs went away.
‘Lord, give us another oil boom. This time I promise not to blow it all.” (They were actually ruder, but you get the idea.)
The bumper stickers acknowledged a truth. We are, as a species, not good at recognizing that today’s good times won’t last.
And that’s one of the reasons the B.C. government should be looking at a special heritage fund for a share of energy revenues.
I’ve been pitching the idea for a while, but now the Progress Board has joined the cause. The board is a useful creation of Gordon Campbell, a panel of business types that reports regularly on how things are going in the province and on specific policy issues.
Last month the board released a report on energy policies. Among its recommendations was a call for an immediate look at some sort of energy heritage fund.
We are making a tonne of money right now off oil and gas. Prices are high, thanks to war and hurricanes, the reserves are good and government has done well at luring the oil companies.
But it’s not going to last. Prices will go down, fields will run dry and companies will move on to new frontiers. That’s just the way it is.
It’s a problem for governments. Use the energy money now and voters will like you. You can pay for tax cuts, or provide better health care.
But then one day the money stops flowing, and the government is in a very bad spot. People don’t like bad news.
Back in 1995 natural gas royalties were worth less than $100 million to the province. This year, it’s going to be more than $2.5 billion. The royalties were worth $27 to each British Columbian then. Now they’re worth $625 per person.
Sadly, it won’t last.
That’s the appeal of a heritage fund. If governments grow dependent on windfall energy revenues, they face nasty crashes. If they don’t spend the money, they are criticized for excessive surpluses.
But a special fund for resource revenues solves the problem, and provides a break for future generations. Slosh a billion or so a year into a heritage fund, and you end up with a cushion to help the transition when the oil and gas trickle instead of gushing. There’s money to maintain services, or train toolpushes for a new job.
And there’s a recognition that when you cash in on a non-renewable resource, you have an obligation to cut your grandchildren in on the action.
It’s not some unproven idea. Peter Lougheed, Alberta’s popular and competent premier, launched that province’s heritage fund in 1976, with a promise of 30 per cent of energy revenues. The fund was capped in 1988, but stands at $11 billion. Alaska’s fund stands at $32 billion, despite paying dividends to every resident each year. Norway has $227 billion set aside.
There are other advantages.
The B.C. government is keen on both offshore oil and gas and coalbed methane development (although the Progess Board counsels a slow, cautious approach to methane). Both are controversial, and will be more acceptable with a promise of lasting benefits.
And a coalition of environmental groups came out in support of the idea last year. They believe that a heritage fund encourages government to manage the resource prudently. A government that’s short of cash and looking for an energy windfall may be prepared to cut regulatory corners to encourage development. If the revenue is slated for a heritage fund, there is less incentive to rush.
The Progress Board thinks the province has enough immediate financial issues that a heritage fund is still in the future. But it said the government should set up an expert panel to start looking at energy revenues, and reviewing heritage fund models from other jursidictions.
The government should take the excellent advice.
Footnote: The board’s energy report has already had a big influence. It sharply criticized BC Hydro’s energy planning efforts and urged a larger government role in power policy. This month Energy Minister Richard Neufeld scuttled Hydro’s announcement of its new long-term energy plan. The report is available at

Thursday, December 15, 2005

What I said, and what Jane Morley said, on children's issues

In a recent column for the Vancouver Sun I offered my thoughts on the failures of the Child and Youth Office set up to replace the Children's Commission and the Child, Youth and Family Advocate.
Child and Youth Officer Jane Morley had a different view.
Below are the column, and Morley's response. The dedicated can find her annual report at, under publications, and judge for themselves.

Children's needs still the same, they just don't get help now
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - Jane Morley’s annual report as the child and youth officer struck me as hopeless, on so many levels.
And it added to evidence that the decision to eliminate the Children’s Commission and Child and Family Advocate was a damaging mistake.
The report, released four months later than last year, is often incomprehensible, mostly vague and about activity, not results. I have followed these issues, and I can not for the most part figure out what the report is saying.
Consider the officer’s first objective. “Contribute to increased participation of children and youth in decision-making processes related to issues affecting them personally, and acceptance of advocacy for and by children and youth as integral to their meaningful participation.”
First, that’s not really an objective. If you could figure out what that means - and I’m betting you can’t - there’s nothing measurable there, no clear actions or results, no way of judging success. No commitment.
So how is the officer doing on this topic? Not well, according to the report.
“We recognized that some confusion existed about our role in individual cases, and were also concerned about inconsistency in the way we handled telephone calls about individual cases,” the report says. “We recently established an advocacy team to provide more focus and consistency in our approach to individual disputes and complaints.”
And, by the way, the report mentions, the child and youth office gets about 1,000 calls a year from people seeking help with individual cases. That’s one-third the number the Child and Family Advocate got before the Liberals shut that avenue down in 2002. (Alberta’s Children’s Advocate handles up to 4,000 requests for help a year.)
The issues and needs haven’t changed. People just don’t get help now.
That’s by design. The former Child and Family Advocate was charged with helping families and children navigate the system. The legislation setting up the child and youth officer position bars advocacy on behalf of individuals except in “extraordinary cicumstances.”
Morley held a press conference this week to talk about her report.
I don’t think anyone left feeling that they had got answers to some of the most important questions.
Start with the most glaring. At the press conference Morley handed out a handy guide to the eight separate investigations under way into everything from Sherry Charlie’s death to the breakdown of public reporting on how government care for children.
Not one of those investigations was launched because Morley’s office raised concerns about the issues involved. Questions from families, news reports and opposition pressure uncovered the problems and forced the government - for the most part slowly and grudgingly - to act.
That’s a massive failure. The child and youth office has been up and running for more than three years. These issues should have been recognized, and raised. They weren’t.
The result has been a crisis that dominated this session of the legislature, and chaotic and overlapping investigations to try and deal with the unanswered questions.
And confirmation that effective public oversight has been lost.
I grabbed one of the last annual reports from the Children’s Commission as I was writing this. It included 24 specific priorities for the ministry to consider for the coming year, and reported in detail on progress on priorities from previous years. The commission noted it had completed and reported publicly on 137 individual child death reviews and made 101 recommendations to prevent future deaths. (The commission followed up each recommendation and about 90 per cent were at least partially implemented.) It offered exampls in the report.
The commission was also responsible for reviewing all critical injuries to children in the government’s care. It completed 32 reviews that year, half involving suicide attempts, and offered valuable findings on ways that the ministry could respond more effectively. External injury reviews are no longer done.
And the commission reported on its audit of care plans for children, and research projects on suicide and the role of alcohol in child and youth deaths.
The report was clear and specific, celebrating successes as well as noting areas for improvement. It provided insight and accountability. It let the public know that someone was watching to make sure we do our best for the children and familes who need our help the most.
It was, in short, most everything that the child and youth officer’s report was not.

Jane Morley:  Live Kids Need More
By Jane Morley
I recently received an email from a bright and lively woman who has a difficult task working with people who want to turn around their lives, many of whom are young people, some in their teens, who fall between the cracks in the system. She is a sometime journalist and knows that game very well. She writes:
My new line of work has made me acutely aware of the tremendous lack of services out there for struggling families, and I have to admit I get tired of all the media energy for this discussion about child deaths and long for them to apply the same diligence to getting services and support to the live kids.
That is exactly how I feel. I see my job as advising...and hopefully persuading...the Government to transform the child welfare system in British Columbia so that live children and youth can be better served. The excessive, and sometimes furious, focus on death reviews could well derail a genuine child welfare system transformation.
My first thought after reading Paul Willcock's column "Children's needs still the same, they just don't get help now" was a kind of despair. If an experienced journalist and former broadsheet publisher was prepared to willfully misread my annual report in such a fashion, then how could I do what I set out to do and persuade the government to stick to their plans to transform our child welfare system.  
Perhaps my politically knowledgeable friends were right when they advised me not to take the Child and Youth Officer's post. They warned that the issues and dilemmas surrounding child protection constitute an electrified third rail of B.C. politics that has shocked an often rapid succession of ministers and their deputies in Social Credit, NDP and BC Liberal governments.  For more than 30 years, this political electricity has proven fatal to most, if not all, of the superintendents and provincial directors of child welfare in their position. All those in that post were numbered among the bright up-and-comers in the system and many of them went on to have successful careers elsewhere.
This inspired a second thought, and second thoughts are often better than first ones. My second thought was to fight back against any derailment of the system's transformation and child welfare public policy improvements caused by an agitated hunt for political advantage that combines with the tabloid media's mantra that "if it bleeds it leads."  
My reasoning is straightforward. I have a statutory mandate to independently advise the government on how to transform the child welfare system.  This transformation will not happen without harnessing the strengths and commitment of those who went into child welfare to improve the lives of children and youth.  Constant negativity undermines this. There have been far too many buyouts and burnouts.
I feel an obligation, given my mandate, to try to stop the derailment. My independence is an independence to say what I believe is right, not what others want me to say. This includes the government, but it also includes the official opposition and even, dare I say it, voices in the media. If my job, in part, is to "speak truth to power" then it is important for me to recognize that the opposition and the media also have power.
I do not intend to bow to the pressure to focus on child death reviews. Nor do I intend to make broad public statements, extrapolating from the unhappy fact of child death reviews remaining undone, to join those who declare that our child welfare system is in chaos. There is no conclusive evidence that the child welfare system in British Columbia is worse today than 10 years ago or in any way significantly inferior, or superior, to the other child welfare systems across North America.
I want it to be superior. We now have a special opportunity in British Columbia to take a quantum leap forward in addressing the intransigent realities of our failure to improve outcomes for Aboriginal children in B.C. and to make our system the best in North America. The New Relationship, and the recently signed accord with First Nations, holds the promise of meaningful partnership between Aboriginal communities in British Columbia and the provincial government - a partnership that is necessary if we are to bring about transformative change for the most vulnerable children  and youth in this province.
Of course the Government need not accept my advice. They may well not like my recommendations because transformations and transitions cost money and there are many competing demands for money, including rapidly growing amounts for health and education.  But no one in government is saying don't give that advice and that is a good thing.  
It is unfortunate that Adrian Dix, the opposition critic, in ignoring, as did Paul Willcocks, the substance of my report did not take the opportunity to use it as a means to pressure the government to implement the recommendations I made. As most people who work in the child welfare system know, his Leader, Carole James, who knows first hand the system and its problems and the likely cures, is on record favoring greater aboriginal autonomy and community authority and as supporting the move to regionalization that I advocate for in my report.
I don't have all the answers. But in my annual report, I try to raise the necessary questions and issues so that government can provide better answers to protect all our most vulnerable children and youth, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Liberals flip-flop and admit child death failures

VICTORIA - Now we're getting to the truth about child death reviews.
The Liberals first denied there were any problems. Once that was clearly untrue, they denied that the failures had anything to do with chopped budgets or bad planning.
"This is not a result of anything like budget cuts," said Campbell last month as questions mounted. "The transition plan was pretty clearly laid out in the legislation."
Neither claim was true, Solicitor General John Les confirmed this week. Releasing an internal report on 713 forgotten child death files, Les said that budget cuts and mismanagement were to blame.
"There was a failure in the transition process, there was a failure to provide sufficient resources," he said. "There were failures all over the place." There was no plan.
I'm sure Campbell wasn't being intentionally misleading. He just didn't know what was going on, months after the issue had begun to create serious public concern, years after his government eliminated the Children's Commission.
That's telling. The issue wasn't important enough for anyone in government to pay attention, despite all the talk about the need to learn from children's deaths.
That's the root of the failures.
The Children's Commission used to review all child deaths in the province, and investigated about 170 a year in detail. It looked for lessons that could be learned, and reported publicly. In opposition, Campbell was a huge supporter.
But the Liberals were looking to cut costs in 2002. So they eliminated the commission, and the Child and Youth Advocate. A new Child and Youth Officer position was created, with a limited mandate. The responsibility for child death reviews was shifted to the coroner.
Or more accurately, largely abandoned. The coroner's budget was cut by 15 per cent at the same time, so there was no chance the work could be done.
So someone - Les' summary of the report didn't say who - took one look at the 713 child death reviews that had been partially completed by the Children's Commission and decided to forget about them. Too much work, too little money. Off to the warehouse.
Les released a sketchy but welcome report on what went wrong, apologized and said he's referring the whole issue to Ted Hughes, who is already doing an investigation of many issues relating to the children and families ministry. Hughes is to deliver his first report by Feb. 28.
But the whole affair shows that the government didn't consider the child death reviews, or the other work of the Children's Commission, that important.
Otherwise the coroner would have made an issue of his inability to do the work., and the government would have responded. Rich Coleman, the minister responsible for the coroner's office, would have noticed that the reviews had stopped. Gordon Hogg, Christy Clark and Stan Hagen, the three children and families ministers, would have noticed the missing reports. Child and Youth Officer Jane Morley would have raised the issue.
Nobody did.
Morley is not convinced the reports are that useful.
But the government's position, from Campbell on down, is that they are important. "It is really a learning tool to make sure that we do whatever we can to prevent these things from happening in the future," he said.
And the government gave up the chance to learn from hundreds of deaths.
The issue goes beyond that failure, and raises questions about what else has been lost.
The Children's Commission audited ministry practices and reported on successes, and problems. It reviewed critical injuries to children in care, did special reports on issues like suicide and alcohol abuse and offered its views on the ministry's progress. The Child and Youth Advocate helped thousands of children and families deal with the ministry.
Those services were valuable. And they have been lost.
And British Columbians can only wonder what else has been lost to neglect and budget cuts.
Footnote: Les, who moved quickly on the file once it was raised, rejected claims that there was too much emphasis on the issue of child death reviews by parents, the media and the opposition. "It's entirely appropriate that we pay lots of attention to all of this," he said.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

'Popcorn and beer' shot a reminder of Liberal contempt

VICTORIA - I bet hundreds of candidates from all parties danced a little jig as Scott Reid swung in the wind after his ‘popcorn and beer’ comment.
Reid is Paul Martin’s communications director, a job that makes him immensely important to about 150 people in Ottawa. He’s also one of those party power guys who send candidates a big binder of official talking points and demand they stick to the script, as if winning a nomination means candidates lose their minds.
Reid stepped out of the backrooms and into the TV studios on the weekend, on one of those panels where political partisans snipe at each other.
He took aim at Conservative leader Stephen Harper’s promise of $1,200 a year in child care tax credits, a plan that Harper says would give parents a choice in child care. Maybe a day care centre, maybe a subsidy to help a mom stay at home.
But Reid didn’t pick on Harper. He picked on parents.
"Children need care that is regulated, safe and secure and that's what we're building here. Don't give people $25 to blow on beer and popcorn,” he said on TV. “Give them child-care spaces that work."
It’s been a while since my children were that age, but that’s how I remember myself - desperate for popcorn, and beer, and more popcorn, even if it meant locking Rebecca and Sam in the basement for a week or two.
Partly, Reid just sounds stupid. Lord knows, we’ve all sounded stupid.
But the comments got so much attention because they confirm something a lot of voters have suspected about the people at the top of the Liberal heap. They don’t really like us, or trust us. They believe they are much smarter, and wiser. They really think that given a choice you would spend your money on beer and popcorn, and send your toddler off to set pins in some throwback bowling alley.
That starting point - that we’re too clueless or irresponsible to do the right thing - has broader implications. Why let Canadians make other choices, or provide too much information, when the Liberal party knows best?
Perhaps that’s why Reid didn’t focus on the real problems with the Conservatives’ child care proposal.
Harper’s plan would give every family $1,200 a year for each child under six, and let them decide how to use it - for licensed child care, or a babysitter or to help a parent afford to stay home. The money would be taxed, but it could be claimed as income by the lowest earning parent in the household.
The plan fails the common sense test. A family with an annual income over $1 million would get the same grant as a single parent earning $20,000. That’s a waste of scarce tax dollars.
The aim should be to spend money where it makes a difference, and sending cheques to the affluent doesn’t. Their children have the advantages that give them a headstart in life, and their parents can afford the care that’s required.
The real payback - morally and economically - would come from spending on the children who need the help. Who without it, will start school at a disadvantage so great they may never recover. Don’t send their parents $100 a month; spend what it takes to give those children a chance.
The Liberal and NDP plans are similarly unfocused. They plan to continue spending to create licensed child care spaces, without any clear method of ensuring that children who most need support are the priority. (The NDP would increase the child tax credit to help low-income families get child care.)
The details of all three plans will probably remain bit sketchy for most busy Canadians.
But they will remember that Paul Martin’s party thinks they’re too stupid and irresponsible to handle $1,200 a year in child care funding, and would choose popcorn and beer over the future of their children.
Footnote: The popcorn and beer comment wasn’t a slip of the tongue. It reflected Liberal strategy. Reid made the comment on a CBC political show. Liberal strategist John Duffy used the same words on CTV talk show the same day, showing the party brains had considered the attack a good idea.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Olympic costs a growing worry for taxpayers

VICTORIA - It's time to get a little nervous about what the Olympics could cost you.
Olympic organizing committee head John Furlong has just warned - again - that costs are rising quickly, and he's going to be looking for more money from government.
Furlong is vague about how big the financial problem is, and what the options are. But there's not enough money in the current Olympic budget to cover rising costs, he says.
Don't panic, but check your wallet. The provincial government is solely responsible for Olympic cost over-runs, both for capital projects and the Games operations. That's a commitment made by the NDP, and maintained by the Liberals. "The B.C. government will guarantee the potential financial shortfall of the Olympic Organizing Committee," says the formal deal signed by Premier Gordon Campbell.
Campbell says everything will be fine. "Everyone is going to have  to work to make sure they do this within budget and I'm comfortable that they  will," he says. "That's why there's a big contingency in place."  But then Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau promised taxpayers that " The Olympics can  no more lose money than a man can have a baby," and those Games lost $1 billion.
That kind of disaster seems highly unlikely.  But it's hard to be sure, because of the secrecy surrounding Olympic spending.  All in, the Games are supposed to cost something like $2.3 billion to stage -  $620 million for construction, $1.5 billion for operating costs and $139 million for a contingency fund.
You're not on the hook for all the costs. The organizing committee expects $1.3  billion - about 45 per cent of the budget - to come from ticket sales and  sponsorships.
But that leaves taxpayers paying about $1 billion, with 80 per cent of that to come  from provincial taxpayers. Plus any deficit or over-run.
The immediate problem is that you have no idea how well things are going, how your money is being spent or what the risks are. The Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee - VANOC, as it’s called - isn’t accountable to the taxpayers who are paying the bills.
VANOC released its latest financial statements last week, but there's no management commentary to explain the numbers. It's unhelpful to learn $1.2 million has been spent on the figure skating venue without knowing whether it is on budget, or ahead of schedule.
The provincial government has three directors on the 20-person VANOC board, including close Campbell advisor Ken Dobell. Presumably the premier knows what’s going on.
But we don’t, so we have to guess.
Furlong said more money is needed because the Olympic's costs were all stated in 2002 dollars . B.C. construction costs are running up to 50 per cent higher than they were in 2002, Furlong says. (Revenues were also in 2002 dollars.)
Push the numbers forward on the basis of Furlong's statements, and you come up with something like a current worst-case $365-million shortfall. The budget includes a $139-million contingency fund, and Furlong says about $85 million has already been cut from venue costs. So figure $140 million to come from taxpayers, not a terrifying amount.
That's only a wild, uninformed guess, based on the sketchiest information.
And that's the problem. The public is paying the bill, but is being kept in the dark.
Things may improve in the New Year. The government refused calls to have the province's auditor general appointed as the official Games auditor, a bad decision.
But Auditor General Wayne Strelioff still plans an annual look at Olympics financial planning and progress, with the first report due in February or March. It will be a general overview; budget cuts have left the auditor general unable to monitor individual capital projects.
There's no need for panic. But there is a need to recognize that provincial taxpayers are going to pay for any Olympics deficit. They deserve much more information about how things are going.
Footnote: The cost concerns aren't new. Former finance minister Gary Collins was worried about rising costs in 2002. Strelioff gave the Games financial planning good grades in 2003, but warned that the contingency fund wasn't large enough and that there was no margin for error or bad luck. And Furlong first raised concerns about rising costs in April 2004.