Friday, June 23, 2006

Poll shows Liberals sitting pretty across B.C.

VICTORIA - It was pretty a good week for Gordon Campbell.
An Ipsos-Reid poll reported strong support for both the Liberals and Campbell’s leadership, high enough to make another majority a good bet.
And two independent economic forecasts predict a strong economy through the end of next year, a happy circumstance for any party in power.
The Ipsos poll, especially if read along with the Mustel Group poll released last month, shows a big recovery for the Liberals. The party is at popularity levels it hasn’t since the very brief honeymoon after the 2001 election. Campbell has never had such a strong approval rating.
As recently as two years ago, the Liberals trailed in an Ipsos poll. The NDP was at 44 per cent across the province — 46 per cent outside the Lower Mainland. The Liberals were at 37 per cent provincially and 33 per cent outside the Lower Mainland.
Now the Liberals are at 51 per cent provincially, the NDP at 35 per cent. (Greens have the support of 10 per cent of decided voters.) The support cuts across demographic and geographic lines. Even on Vancouver Island, where NDP support has been strong - the New Democrats took nine of 13 seats in 2005 - the Liberals have a comfortable lead. Campbell’s party is even slightly ahead in terms of support from union households across B.C.
The reasons aren’t complex. The government has come up with more money to ease the problems caused by underfunding in health care, education and services for children and families. It has quit acting the bully with its employees, reaching negotiated settlements with more than 50 unions representing some 200,000 workers.
And it has shed some of the arrogance and unwillingness to admit mistakes. Just compare last year’s handling of the Sherry Charlie case with this year’s response to the death of Fanny Albo after she was pushed from a Trail hospital. The government denied and stonewalled on the Charlie case until the pressure became too great. This year, the health deputy minister was dispatched immediately to prepare a public report on Albo’s death.
Add to all that a strong economy and no hot button issues and you’ve got a formula for political success.
Bad news for the NDP. Carole James still gets better ratings than Campbell. (They’re effectively tied, each with about 50-per-cent of approval ratings. But almost 45 per cent disapprove of Campbell’s performance; only 29 per cent give James thumbs down.)
But poll numbers like these, for a government in its fifth year, are grim news for an opposition. There’s not much the NDP can do to swing voters away from the Liberals if they are general satisfied. Their only hope is that the Liberals will drive voters way, as they did during their first term.
That doesn’t look likely right now. The Liberals are taking more care not to anger voters needlessly. Education Minister Shirley Bond’s attacks on teachers during the run-up to last fall’s strike helped build support for the union; this time she’s stayed quiet.
There are hints of the old style, like the decision to turn the auditor general’s position into a partisan appointment.
And Forest Minister Rich Coleman may come to regret his claim that B.C. took the lead in reaching the proposed softwood settlement that is now in so much trouble.
But generally the Liberals aren’t picking fights and are steering clear of risky issues.
On a practical level, it’s good news for an opposition. The Liberals abandoned three bad bills in the face of NDP concerns in the spring session, choosing not to risk losing political points in a confrontation. Oppositions rarely have such impact on legislation.
In terms of electoral success, the news is not so good for the NDP. If the Liberals don’t mess up, there’s little really that the NDP can do to cause a big shift in support.
Footnote: The Campbell government was jolted this week by the resignation of health deputy minister Penny Ballem, one of the most powerful bureaucrats through its first five years. Ballem, the architect and defender of most health care changes, set out her reasons in a letter to Campbell. "As I have advised you, the plans that you and your deputy minister have established for the organization of the Ministry of Health are unsound and reflect a lack of confidence in my leadership on your part." No response from Campbell yet.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Chopping support for at 19 makes no sense

VICTORIA - Everybody knew something bad could happen if Neil Fahlman was cut loose with no support when he turned 19.
Even the government’s psychologist warned things could go really wrong.
“Without the supports now in place Neil would be extremely vulnerable to his own aggressiveness and impulsivity,” the psychologist found. “He could do significant harm to himself and the community.”
But rules are rules and budgets are budgets. Community Living BC, which delivers services to people with mental disabilities, has a rule that it inherited from government. It is not enough to need help. If your IQ is 70 or above, support stops at 19. You are on your own.
Neil tested at 79, low enough to place him in the bottom 10 per cent of the population. But high enough, according to the policy, that Neil no longer needed help.
This is where the story could have gone very wrong and those warnings of “significant harm” come true.
But Neil’s mother wouldn’t accept the decision. She took the case to B.C. Supreme Court and this month won a victory for Neil and thousands of others.
Fiona Gow adopted Neil when he was five weeks old. When he was diagnosed with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, attention deficit disorder and other problems, she sought help. By the time he turned 15, Neil was a big, volatile kid - he’s now over 300 pounds. Gow and her husband couldn’t cope. Foster care didn’t work, for similar reasons.
Community Living BC helped with a solution. With the help of one-on-one support seven hours a day, Neil started living successfully by himself in a small cabin in a quiet Vancouver Island community. (He qualified for social assistance disability benefits.)
Then his 19th birthday approached. And despite the fact that Community Living BC had approved the support for Neil, and despite the warning from its psychologist, the agency said it was cutting off support, citing the IQ policy.
Leave aside the legal issue for the moment. This is a person with serious behavioural problems, possibly living in your neighbourhood, who has been identified as a danger to himself and others. Is it really sensible to cut off support when he turns 19?
The court did look at the legal issues. Mr. Justice Eric Chamberlist found the legislation establishing Community Living BC said it was to "promote equitable access to community living support" and to "assist adults with developmental disabilities to achieve maximum independence and live full lives in their communities." Denying people needed support because of an IQ test score is contrary to the purposes established by the legislation, the court ruled. If the government wants to cut costs by using arbitrary tests, it needs to amend the legislation or pass a cabinet order.
Community Living BC is trying to figure out whether to appeal.
The issue is really money. The IQ standard was a way to restrict the number of people eligible for help, dumping some who needed it. Fahlman's support - seven hours a day, every day - costs about $1,500 a week.
If Community Living BC has to honour its obligations to people like Fahlman - and there are many of them - it will have to cut somewhere else.
Unless the government recognizes that it is wrong and foolish to abandon people like Fahlman. Impulsive, easily led, unable to consider consequences they can easily be preyed on, or become offenders. Whatever happens, things tend to turn out badly.
It's important that government worries about costs.
But it's ridiculous to say that someone who needs seven hours a day of support, for his own well-being and the protection of the community, is suddenly fine to make his own way in life because he turns 19.
We are just throwing those people away, to land in their parents' basements, in jail or on the streets.
The court ruling could mean an end to that waste. All government has to do is accept it.
Footnote: It is not good to turn 19 in B.C. if you have problems. Children in care are also generally abandoned by the system on their birthday, sent packing from their last foster home, often with few skills, emotional issues and no money. It is cruel, and a formula for disaster.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Cellphones, seatbelts and saving young drivers' lives

VICTORIA - What's wrong with saying to people in their first two years of driving that they shouldn't talk on a cellphone while they're trying to get off a highway or make it through a school zone?
The Canadian Automobile Association wants provinces to look at laws to bar new drivers from talking on the cellphone or fiddling with their iPods when they're behind the wheel.
The distraction is the last thing an inexperienced driver needs, says the association. Police could keep an eye on drivers with an 'N' for novice on their car and issue tickets to new drivers using cellphones.
Solicitor General John Les isn't keen on the idea. It's more important to improve driver education, he says.
It's unclear why the government can't do both. Few people would argue that distraction is a problem for any driver, with the risks rising for the less experienced. The moments it takes to find a ringing cellphone amid the front-seat debris and fumble with the tiny buttons to answer can bring a crash closer. Driver experience will be one factor in avoiding disaster in that kind of situation.
The CAA cites a U.S. study, that found distraction of all kinds - from cellphone use to squabbling kids to managing that burger and fries - played a role in 80 per cent of crashes. (ICBC puts the number much lower, saying only nine per cent of serious and fatal crashes are caused by driver distraction, with cellphones a tiny factor.)
The anecdotal evidence closer to home is convincing. In May a new driver in Chilliwack, talking on her cellphone, drifted on to the shoulder and crashed into a cyclist, killing the mother of two.
The real problem with the law is that it wouldn't be enforced. Hard-pressed police are juggling a tonne of priorities, with the public expecting action on all of them at once. Any law relies on two factors for its effectiveness - the likely penalty, and the chances of actually being caught. If enforcement is non-existent - think of the bicycle helmet law these days - then the penalties are meaningless.
But there's still value. Like the bicycle helmet law, a ban on cellphone use for inexperienced drivers would send a message that the behaviour is dangerous. It would be available when police encountered especially risky behaviour. About 40 countries, including Australia, Britain, Israel, Italy, South America, and Spain and several U.S. states have introduced bans. So has Newfoundland.
Les isn't likely to change his mind.
So instead of a cellphone ban, here is a safety proposal -also aimed at new drivers - that should be easy for government to embrace.
There's one common factor in virtually every serious crash involving new drivers. Not cellphone use, or speed, or impaired driving, although the latter two are also tragically common.
The almost universal factor is failure to use seatbelts. Vancouver Island's crash team looked at a string of crashes involving young drivers in its first months. And while there was a lot of risk-taking, every one had common element. "The lack of seatbelts is absolute -- there wasn't one crash we went to where seatbelts had been used," police said.
Why? New drivers are often young and consider themselves invulnerable. They don't understand the seriousness of driving. And they know that there is little chance of getting a ticket for not using a seatbelt and facing the $138 fine.
The answer is simple. Make seatbelt use effectively mandatory for drivers 'New' or 'Learner' status. Instead of a fine, impose a 30-day licence suspension. New drivers not using a seatbelt don't understand the risks of the road. Give them time to consider them. Make enforcement a priority.
At the least, we'll keep some people alive.
At best, the very act of putting on a seatbelt will remind people each time they start their cars that driving is an activity with some significant risks that calls for care and caution.
Footnote: The government could also make failing to wear a seatbelt an offence that carries penalty points for all drivers, like most other infractions. ICBC estimates about 90-per-cent of drivers use seatbelts, but a Transport Canada survey in 2002 found that in smaller communities in B.C. seatbelt use was about 80 per cent, eighth among provinces and territories.