Friday, February 17, 2006

Denials, confusion continue as children and families back in news

VICTORIA - There is something weirdly self-destructive about the Liberals' handling of the children and families' ministry.
The legislature has been back for three days, and already the government is looking evasive and disorganized. And its wounds are mostly self-inflicted.
The latest controversy is over ministry management changes, why they were made and how they affect its ability to deliver services. Deputy minister Alison MacPhail - the equivalent to the CEO - was shuffled out first, moved into a newly created post in another ministry. Days later director of child protection Jeremy Berland was moved. The government agreed to keep him as an assistant deputy minister and pay him $115,000 a year while he does research at the University of Victoria.
The timing raises obvious and legitimate questions. The inquest into the death of Sherry Charlie, the toddler beaten to death weeks after being placed in care under a new ministry policy, is just being completed. Child and Youth Officer Jane Morley has handed in her report on the ministry's internal review into Sherry's death. And in April Ted Hughes will present his much more sweeping report into the ministry's performance and the effect of eliminating the Children's Commission and the Child and Family Advocate.
And the ministry still has clear problems. Its own internal statistics show that only one in five reports of child abuse or neglect is being completed within the 30-day standard set by the ministry. Thousands are still open more than three months after they were filed. Major questions remain about salvaging a botched regionalization effort that was at the centre of Liberal plans.
So why add instability by removing top managers at such a critical time?
The question is reasonable. And I'd expect it could be readily answered by a candid government. The people in the jobs may be burned out, and need a change. Their new positions recognize their contributions and effort, and will still prove value, the government could say.
Or it could laud their past work, but say the premier's office, or Children and Families Minister Stan Hagen, felt it was time for new managers with different skills. And again, the soft landings could be justified.
Instead, there's been dodging and evasions.
Who, for example, decided that it was a good idea for child protection director Jeremy Berland to move to the UVic research job?
The government isn't saying. Hagen says he had no idea the idea was being discussed until the deal was done, and doesn't think he should have known. It was a personnel matter, and it would be political interference if he had any role, Hagen said.
The Liberal spin types deny that the premier's office was involved, though they won't say who was. (The acting deputy minister signed of on the deal, but he had been in the job only days.)
Two former deputy ministers with long experience think both claims ludicrous. The premier's office is involved in all such decisions, they say. And ministers have every right to know about and block such moves if they fear problems will be created in the ministry. If Hagen really returned from holidays to learn two of his most critical managers had been moved in his absence something has gone seriously wrong with the system, they say.
The result of all this is more confusion and uncertainty - exactly what the ministry does not need.
And it follows a terrible tradition of denial.
As the ministry's regionalization plan fell years behind schedule, the government kept claiming everything was fine. As questions mounted about Sherry Charlie's death, it refused to acknowledge problems or the need for an independent review until political pressure was overwhelming. When critics complained the Coroner's Service wasn't reviewing child deaths properly, the government denied any problems - until 713 abandoned child death files were found abandoned in a warehouse.
By now they should have learned that some clear answers, and willingness to acknowledge mistakes, would be a start to restoring public confidence.
Footnote: Morley has delivered her report on the ministry's handling of its review into Sherry Charlie's death to Attorney General Wally Oppal. Its public release is being delayed while the ministry cuts any information that violates the province's privacy rules. If Morley reported to the legislature, not the attorney general, her office would make those cuts independently.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Health care Throne Speech shows Liberals' agenda skimpy

VICTORIA - That was an odd Throne Speech from the Liberals.
It's bold to make a look at the basic principles of health care the centrepiece, including a plan to "update" the Canada Health Act.
Gordon Campbell is right in arguing that it's time to decide what the act really means, especially when it promises things like "reasonable access" to medically necessary procedures.
The Quebec Supreme Court has already ruled that the words have to mean something. The court supported a man who argued that he had the right to seek private care - paid for by the government - because he had waited unreasonably long for surgery.
Unless politicians begin to come clean on what the act really means, the courts will take on the task of providing definitions.
But there are obvious problems with the initiative.
For starters, the Canada Health Act is federal law. B.C., like other provinces can have a debate, but Ottawa decides whether to listen, and balances the concerns of all the provinces.
This is also a fuzzy exercise to make the centre of the Throne Speech. Campbell isn't promising fast action on the issues, only some provincial version of the Canada Health Act by 2009. It's hardly a galvanizing agenda item in the near term.
And it's a potentially big political problem, depending on where this review takes the government.
Campbell says that B.C.'s legislation will ultimately set out the province's position on the Canada Health Act's five key promises. The act isn't complex. It says provinces must have a publicly administered health care system that provides needed medical care in a reasonably timely way, fair payment to doctors and equal access for all Canadians. No user fees on top of government payment, or special charges for speedier, better care.
Defining those terms is challenging.
But Campbell proposes to add a fifth principle - sustainability.
And that may be the most challenging of all. Campbell argues that an aging population and rising costs of care mean we just can't keep on doing what we're doing now. "We all know that it's not sustainable," he says.
That's not really true. Cost increases are worrying, but Canadian health care spending as a percentage of GDP was unchanged between 1991 and 2001. A federal finance department review in 2004 that even without changes health spending would remain easily manageable until 2040 and beyond.
But if you do accept Campbell's premise, then the government is looking at some very rough decisions.
This isn't - or shouldn't be - about whether care is delivered by a public hospital or a private clinic. If the health care plan pays the bills, and there is no preferential treatment, then the principles of the Canada Health Act aren't compromised. The public-private debate can be settled on the basis of cost and effectiveness.
The notion that health care spending is not sustainable, and must be capped, carries big implications. Letting people pay directly for special care doesn't decrease health care spending, it increases it.
Capping spending in the name of sustainability can involve finding ways of reducing demand, such as keeping people healthy longer, and cutting costs.
But it also means saying some treatments will simply no longer be done, ebcause we don't want to spend the money. Period. And that is a tough sell.
Once you're past the health care discussion, the Throne Speech was pretty thin - a nod to children and families' ministry problems, more money for the Coroners' Service, some smallish education items and the Spirit Bearfor provincial animal.
The speech highlights a problem for the Liberals. Their first-term agenda was based on reducing government and cutting costs, reflecting a suspicion about government services.
.Now that work is done, it's tougher to come up with an agenda for the second term.
But without a government agenda, the opposition take control.
It's a big problem for the Liberals, and the Throne Speech suggest they have yet to solve it.
Footnote: Short shrift for the regions in this Throne Speech, and no mention of the late unlamented "Heartlands Strategy." Not one word on the softwood dispute. Also mostly silence on the New Relationship with First Nations, which was the dominant theme in last fall's Throne Speech. The challenges of turning the good intentions into specific agreements have proved tough.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Olympic overruns a warning we need more control

VICTORIA - I used to be a manager, and probably that shapes my response to the Vancouver Olympic financial problems.
If someone who worked for me came back soon after a project started, confessed they had got the numbers wrong and asked for a lot more money, I might come up with the cash. But I would be unhappy, and trust them less.
That's roughly where the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee is today.
VANOC, as it is called, has been warning vaguely about cost overruns for a couple of months. Now management says the cost of building the Olympic venues and housing was going to be way more than they had told the public. The $470-million budget was going to be overspent by $110 million.
The explanations get a little vague. The IOC demanded the Olympic bid be prepared based on 2002 costs, the organizing committee said. Now, four years later, things cost more, especially because construction costs in the province have been rising sharply.
But IOC requirements don't explain why VANOC didn't provide more accurate numbers to government when it asked for financial commitments. If it had, the committee wouldn't be looking for more money now.
And it doesn't explan why the public wasn't told about the real construction costs.
There's no need to panic. The venue overrun is 23 per cent, bad but still manageable. If the operating costs - about $1.5 billion - can be controlled, and revenues reach the target levels, then there will be no nasty shocks. (The idea that a two-week sports event can cost $1.5 billion to run is in itself alarming.)
But there is every reason to be watchful. The Games organizers have already broken trust. They said they would need $470 million from you to build the venues. Now they want much more.
VANOC says you're not to worry. "We are determined never to go back to the taxpayers," says CEO John Furlong.
Except they already promised no more money would be needed, when they asked for support for the Olympic bid. Once you have broken trust, you better expect to be watched much more closely.
Provincial taxpayers are on the hook for any Olympic overruns or losses.
We are the owners, the guarantors, but are kept mostly in the dark. VANOC's published financial statements provide no useful information to allow assessment of progress, costs or coming problems. Shareholders in a tiny business get better information. (That may improve next month, when provincial Auditor General Wayne Strelioff provides an independent update.)
It's our show. We put up a big chunk of the money - about $1.3 billion if you count the Sea-to-Sky Highway project. We've taken all the risk. But we're ignored. If any company treated shareholders like VANOC treats us, the directors would be dumped.
The province has three directors on the 20-person VANOC board, including close Campbell advisor Ken Dobell and Rusty Goepel and Richard Turner, both at the top of the business heap and finance experts. (Whistler gets two board seats.)
None of the province's directors are accountable to you. If Olympics minister Colin Hansen is too busy to sit on VANOC, why not a Liberal MLA to bring accountability?
It's not simply a question of looking out for your money. The economic justification for the Olympics is the spinoff benefits - the tourism, and investment that follow. But as former auditor general George Morfitt noted, that will only happen with planning and investment. A keen MLA on the VANOC board could help ensure all opportunities were seized, and that benefits came to to the entire Lower Mainland and the rest of the province.
This is the critical time for the Olympics. Decisions made now will be irrevocable.
And while VANOC neds to get on with the job, it shouldn't shy from greater openness and accountability. Especially when it comes to the people who wll pay the bills.
Footnote: Turin's Olympic committee went back to government last month for another $110 million, pushing the operating costs to $1.6 billion - more than VANOC has budgeted for Games still four years away. The late request is a reminder that governments are captives of the Olympic committee as the Games near. Saying no - and risking a global embarrassment - is not an option.