Friday, April 07, 2006

Hughes confirms Liberals botched children and families

VICTORIA - Ted Hughes report on the ministry of children and families laid the facts out pretty clearly. The Liberal government has bungled for four years and bi changes are needed to get things back on track.
At 78 Hughes remains a highly respected, straight-talking problem solver.
He did not disappoint with his BC Children and Youth Review.
The Liberals cut too deep into the ministry, he found. They launched a poorly planned, underfunded re-organization, with senior managers spinning in and out through a revolving door. Child death reviews and other important efforts to ensure quality services were forgotten. Children and families lost needed supports.
"The strongest impression I have gleaned from this inquiry is one of a child welfare system that has been buffeted by an unmanageable degree of change," Hughes' report says. "Much of this has gone on against a backdrop of significant funding cuts, even though it is commonly understood that organizational change costs money."
None of that comes as a surprise. Except perhaps to Premier Gordon Campbell, who has steadfastly maintained that everything was fine, and the ministry had enough money.
Hughes wrote about the 900 child death reviews abandoned in a Victoria warehouse. "I can not agree with the premier's earlier assessment that budget cuts did not contribute to the failure of the transition process," he said.
In fact, Hughes found, budget cuts caused problems throughout the ministry. Asked about Campbell's repeated claims to the contrary, Hughes was blunt: "He was wrong."
The ministry didn't have enough money and the government's mismanagement created "a climate of instability and confusion," Hughes found.
This is not just another ministry. Failure here means children's lives can be at risk, their futures blighted, and families lost.
Hughes introduced a short, sharp dose of reality. For four years others have been warning of the same problems. Now, in the face of mounting public pressure and a determined opposition, the government should act.
Hughes has offered a clear blueprint.
For starters, he told the government to restore the important roles that were lost when it killed the Children's Commission and the Child and Family Advocate in 2002.
The replacement - the Child and Youth Officer - has not been adequate, Hughes found. Families have been denied the help they needed to navigate the system and protect their rights, and independent oversight has been lost.
He proposes a new Representative for Children and Youth, an office that would report to the legislature, not the government. It would have "the authority to advocate for individual children and families; advocate for system change; monitor the child welfare system; and review child injuries and deaths."
The representative and two deputies - one aboriginal - should have true independence, he says, and report to a new legislative committee on children and youth with representation from both parties.
Hughes wants the government to start over with its expensive and mismanaged plan to hand ministry operations over to new regional authorities - five aboriginal and five non-aboriginal. "Decentralization can not be done off the side of a desk," the report says. "It requires a dedicated team, and resources. It can not be accomplished in an environment of instability."
That shouldn't be a surprise. But four years after the government launched its effort, Hughes found it necessary to recommend it develop an actual plan.
That needs to include much more consultation with First Nations, he says, and a much larger commitment to supporting them in preparing for whatever changes are ahead.
There's not a lot of good news in the report.
But Hughes does offer 62 recommendations to help the ministry recover from four years of problems.
And he says the extra money in February's budget should be enough to address many of the issues. The budget included $100 million over three years to act on the various ministry reviews.
The four lost years are gone. But at last perhaps the government will face reality, and do the right thing.
Footnote: Hughes aid he expects the government to act on his recommendations, and won't sit quietly if it doesn't. He's been turning down invitations to speak about the review, he said. But if nothing has been done by fall, he may change his mind about those opportunities, Hughes warned.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

A quick guide to the legislature raid twists and turns

VICTORIA - Things are getting weirder and weirder in the great legislature raid case, with a fresh wave of information and even new influence-peddling charges.
Claims that top Liberal political aides were flown to an NFL game by lobbyists, and that developers paid big money to get property eased out of the Agricultural Land Reserve - it all sounds like a plot for a bad movie.
So what’s happened, and what does it mean?
First - and this is important - start with the recognition that none of this new information is proven fact. It comes mostly from the affidavits that RCMP officers swore to get search warrants from the courts. They outlined their evidence and their suspicions, and the court gave them the go-ahead to seize bank records. Dave Basi, the former ministerial aide to then finance minister Gary Collins, denies any wrongdoing. The case won’t be tested the first trial starts, likely in June.
But that doesn’t mean that the information should be ignored. The questions raised are real and serious.
The RCMP allege that lobbyist Eric Bornman paid Basi about $24,000 over the course of a year for information, documents and steering clients his way. The two men knew each other well; both were active in the Paul Martin wing of the federal Liberal party.
Bornman, now starting a career as a lawyer, hasn’t been charged. He provided the police with information when they came calling and will be a prosecution witness
Police also alleged Basi and his cousin Bobby Virk - assistant to the transportation minister Judith Reid - went with their spouses to Denver in 2002 and watched an NFL game. They sat with Gary Rennick, a top exec with OmniTRAX, then a bidder for BC Rail.
And, police say, lobbyist Brian Kieran, a former political columnist and lobbyist for OmniTRAX, paid for the trip. Kieran was a partner with Bornman in Pilothouse Public Affairs. He’s also expected to testify.
Basi and Virk already face fraud and breach of trust charges.
But this week the special prosecutor laid new charges against Basi and two Victoria developers. The men - Tony Young and Jim Duncan - allegedly paid Basi $50,000 to help get property in Sooke out of the Agricultural Land Reserve for a $175-million housing development.
The good news for the government is that the charges are all limited to actions by Basi and Virk. No politicians have been involved in the investigations.
The damage done - at least in the narrowest of terms - is relatively minor. (Taxpayers lost $1 million when Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon cancelled the sale of a BC Rail spur line because the deal may have been compromised.)
But that didn’t stop the NDP from raising legitimate questions once the latest news broke.
The allegations of interference in the agricultural land reserve decision, and the other newly revealed payments, raise questions that go beyond the BC Rail deal, said Carole James. What has the government done to ensure that no other decisions were affected?
The answer seemed to be not very much. Lands Minister Pat Bell said the RCMP told him no one at the Agricultural Land Commission was under investigation. He hadn’t asked his staff to look at any other decisions to make sure things were fine.
And Attorney General Wally Oppal just kept saying that since the matter was before the courts, people should quit asking questions.
That’s not really good enough. It is important to respect the fact that no one has been proven guilty of anything.
But that doesn’t mean the government can’t account for what it and hasn’t done to ensure that the public interest wasn’t compromised. (Although some NDP questions did come close to convicting Basi before he had a chance to defend himself.)
The big questions aren’t really going to be answered until the case works its way through the courts.
Footnote: The NDP has been asking the government to refer its flawed Lobbyist Registration Act to a legislative committee for review. This case shows that should happen. The act - while a very positive step - isn’t ensuring that the public has access to the needed information about the role of lobbyists. The best way to fix that is by involving MLAs.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Union deals open door to a better government

VICTORIA - Give both the government and public sector unions top marks for finding their way to speedy contract settlements.
The deals don't just offer the pleasant prospect of four years free of labour battles. They're the first step towards important changes in the way the public sector works, changes that are important to everyone who relies on - and pays for - government services.
Finance Minister Carole Taylor acknowledged as much as she reacted to the flood of deals reached in the final hours of the month as unions raced for a share of the $1-billion signing bonus.
The negotiations were important in their own right. No rational government or union is keen on strikes and strife.
But the new approach to talks was just the start, Taylor said. "It has set the foundation for a new relationship," she said. "We're pleased that negotiators stepped up to the challenge to begin a dialogue and explore how we can improve services to British Columbians."
That's not just cheery rhetoric. The government has a problem. After four years of cuts, imposed contracts, mass firings and frequent union-bashing, public sector employees were understandably unhappy and demoralized.
A survey released last year by Auditor General Wayne Strelioff found government workers didn’t trust senior management and thought their departments were bad places to work. This wasn't the usual employee grumbling. Strelioff compared the survey results with effective organizations and warned B.C. is in trouble.
So why should you care if they're unhappy? For starters, people who feel abused do poorer work, especially when it comes to the extra effort critical to making organizations better.
But the problems go deeper. B.C. faces a significant skills shortage over the next several decades. Organizations seen as crummy places to work are going to be shunned by the best candidates. Why work somewhere grim, when you can find somewhere exciting and satisfying?
Premier Gordon Campbell says he's ready to sit down with public sector union leaders and start talking (although he's vague about what).
The agreements are a very good start, and both sides deserve credit for reaching them.
Taylor helped by promising early on that there would be money for settlements. She allocated enough money for raises of about 2.5 per cent a year for the next four years. That's enough to allow most employees to make at least a tiny real gain on inflation.
She also dangled a $1-billion carrot for unions that could settle by March 31, when almost all contracts expired. That allowed an average $3,700 signing bonus, a big boost for employees whose wages had been frozen or cut.
It was a good starting point. But unions still had to swallow some very deep anger over the last four years, when some were badly betrayed by the Liberals.
Both sides were able to bridge the gaps - the goal of negotiations in a mature bargaining relationship.
It's good news politically for the government. The public's strong support for the teachers - even after their strike was declared illegal - was a warning that people had tired of government union bashing.
Now there is likely labour peace until this time in 2010, after the Olympics and the next election. (Only likely because the BC Teachers' Federation contract doesn't expire until June. But the union is now isolated. If it demands much more than nurses or other workers, public support won't be as strong.)
That's time that can be used to build on the agreements and start overhauling labour relations in the public sector. The government needs an effective, motivated workforce, and it needs to be able to attract the best people.
Right now, it can't achieve either objective.
The good news is that the government recognizes the problem, and both sides have opened the door to a co-operative start at finding solutions.
It's a remarkable change from the first four years of confrontation.
Footnote: Critics say the new approach shows the government's use of legislation to gut contracts, fire thousands of workers and impose wages was a mistake. But the alternate argument is that the willingness to take a tough stand in the past established needed credibility for these talks. The reality is somewhere in between.