Friday, June 30, 2006

NDP shuffle puts focus on health, community safety

VICTORIA - Carole James was due to shuffle MLAs in and out of critics' jobs about now anyway.
But her caucus shake-up will still be looked at in the context of the NDP's poor performance in two recent polls, which showed Gordon Campbell and his party both with their highest ratings in almost five years. The Liberals ' popularity has increased since last year's election; the New Democrats' support has fallen.
There are a lot of factors, starting with the Liberals' rebirth as a kinder, gentler government. And the election is still three years away. But James has to respond to the polls, if only to keep critics within the party happy. The changes send the message that she recognizes the need for change.
The shuffle was due anyway. The current critics were all appointed just after the election last year; most were unknown quantities with no legislative experience. (James made her choices after asking the MLAs to do written reports on their areas of interest, why they believed they were qualified to tackle those issues and the goals that should be set.)
Some shone, some struggled. It takes a special skill set to be an effective critic. It's not enough to be an expert on the ministry that you're responsible for. You have to build a network of sources around the province. You need to be a sharp questioner in budget debate and quick and confident enough to pin down well-prepared ministers in Question Period.
And then you have to be able to make the most of media attention when it comes.
James' most significant change was to shift Adrian Dix from children and families critic to health.
Dix was an extraordinarily effective critic. There are two goals for a critic, or there should be. Critics certainly want to score points for their side and make the other guys look bad. But they also have a chance to produce meaningful improvements in the way government works. Dix's efforts highlighted the Liberals' failures in the children's ministry. They also produced Ted Hughes' review of the ministry, creation of an independent advocate for children and a total overhaul of ministry management.
By moving him to health James confirms that's going to be an NDP priority. There's still major dissatisfaction with the problem points in the system and the lack of accountability. Health Minister George Abbott is in for a much tougher time.
MIke Farnworth, the NDP's House Leader, moves from economic development critic to public safety and solicitor general. Farnworth's move signals an interest in making crime and safety a bigger issue in the next year.
Twelve of the 32 critics stayed put, including Cariboo North's Bob Simpson, a highly effective forestry critic.
Some MLAs got promotions. North Island’s Claire Trevena went from income assistance to child care and early childhood development while Esquimalt MLA Maurine Karagianis takes over children and family development.
And some choices just seem puzzling. Sunshine Coast Nicholas Simons takes over human rights, multiculturalism and immigration. The issues are hugely important to Vancouver's minority communities; Raj Chouhan of Burnaby had the job until the shuffle.
The shuffle should give the NDP a sharper focus on a couple of priority issues.
But no matter who the critics are, the New Democrats have a problem. It's difficult to score political points off a government that's working hard at being liked by voters. If the government avoids unpopular decisions, responds quickly to problems and abandons plans if the outcry gets too loud, then the opposition is in trouble. The Liberals - despite some backsliding - show signs of having learned that lesson.
The NDP has actually been an effective opposition in many areas. The Liberals abandoned three spring session bills in the face of their criticism, an extraordinary action from a majority government. The legislature has been general civil and productive.
But that's not enough to win voters' support, especially if things are generally going well.
Footnote: Shane Simpson of Vancouver-Hastings stays in environment, an area that should be critical for the NDP. The Greens were at 10 per cent in the Ipsos poll. Both parties are eying those votes. But high-profile moves like protecting much of the Great Bear Rainforest have played well with environmentalists, and left the NDP with a tougher job.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Court case should mean end of class fees and charges

VICTORIA - Education is supposed to be the great equalizer. All children are should get the same chance to make the most of their abilities.
That’s why a new legal effort to win a ban on class fees in B.C. makes sense.
Greater Victoria school trustee John Young is behind the push. The 85-year-old former teacher and principal probably drives his peers nuts with his anti-fee campaigns. He even sued his own school district over the issue.
But Young is right. We’ve decided that a public education system is important. MLAs passed the School Act, which says it’s illegal to charge for classes or the “educational resource materials necessary to participate.” The next budding math genius shouldn’t be shunted aside because his parents can’t afford the class fees.
The B.C. Supreme Court has already ruled on the issue. Young took the Victoria school district to court in 1997 over various fees charged students. Against the law, he said.
Justice Montague Drake agreed. He rejected the district’s arguments about why it’s OK to charge kids to take classes, including the defence that making students pay for materials needed in a course was legal. If the supplies are needed to complete the course, then you couldn’t charge for them. "There should be, then, no charge for the materials used in educational programs," wrote Drake.
The Victoria school district accepted the ruling and came up with a policy fees that met the legal requirements of the School Act. The lost money hurt, but didn’t have any dire consequences, according to the superintendent.
But the government tried to give school districts an out. Cabinet passed an order that said fees for musical instrument rentals, some school supplies and materials to be used in projects that will eventually be taken home by a student are OK. Schools across B.C. have taken that as a licence to charge fees. (Some readers are undoubtedly clenching their fists and muttering darkly about Gordon Campbell’s attack on public education. I should remind them this was 1997; the NDP cabinet passed the order that tried to legitimize user-pay education.)
That’s what Young is challenging, seeking a court declaration that the fees are illegal.
It’s not just a fuss about principle. The fees matter. Students who want to take a course in tourism are asked for $50. Vancouver students can be charged $100 to take calculus and $150 for physical education. For a parent on limited income, already coping with back-to-school costs, it’s a big burden.
School districts exempt poor people from the fees. But should they have to plead poverty? And do their children instead just opt to avoid classes that cost money?
There’s no real equality of opportunity. A child who grows up in a stable family that visits the library every Saturday morning and takes preschool music and gym will have a better chance than a child without those opportunities. Schools in affluent neighbourhoods can count on parents to raise a lot of money to give their kids a better education. Schools in inner-city neighbourhoods or in struggling resource communities can’t count on the same support. Parents there just don’t have the money and connections to raise big money for their schools. Tough luck for those students.
For now, that’s life.
But public school is where every child gets a chance. It takes work, but they can shine. Their abilities and effort matter more than their background.
If it’s worth teaching children something in school, it’s worth making sure they all get the chance. Some 11-year-old kid desperate to learn to play the flute shouldn’t be shut out because her mum doesn’t have the fee charged for the class. A math whiz shouldn’t avoid calculus because it costs too much.
This is B.C. in 2006, one of the most privileged places on Earth. How can we say we don’t want to pay for children’s education?
Footnote: It’s the time to end fees. School districts are desperate for revenue, signing deals with soda companies, pushing parents’ fundraising and even starting risky overseas businesses to try and raise revenue. If the practice isn’t stopped now, fees will become a more and more important source of revenue until they are too significant to eliminate.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Health resignation a challenge to Campbell

VICTORIA - When the government's top health care manager quits in protest over Premier Gordon Campbell's "unsound" plans for health, the public deserves answers.
Dr. Penny Ballem isn't just another bureaucrat. Campbell recruited her to run the health ministry in 2001. Since then she's been at the centre of all the health care changes, with strong support from Campbell.
Until last week, when Ballem quit and went public with her concerns in a letter delivered to Campbell (and quickly leaked).
"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," Ballem wrote. "This, combined with the lack of satisfaction you have expressed in the work the ministry has brought forward to cabinet, has clarified for me that it is time I moved on."
It's a major attack on government health policies from a senior manager who has been steadfastly loyal. Ballem has taken the lead in defending the government's health policies, a job usually reserved for politicians.
Ballem's resignation raises important questions for the public. The premier's office apparently plans major health-care changes that Ballem believes are so "unsound" that she has no choice but to resign. What are they?
Cabinet was apparently unhappy with the proposals coming from the health ministry. What were they, and why did cabinet ministers get so exercised about them?
And was the government's move to shift thousands of surgeries to private clinics one of the areas of conflict?
Campbell's response so far has been lame. He says he doesn't know what policies Ballem was referring to when she used the "unsound" label. Ballem was involved in developing all the current policies, he says.
It's a worrying response. There's clearly a significant policy question - Ballem didn't quit a job she devoted five years to on a whim. Neither Campbell nor Health Minister George Abbott apparently know what the policy question is and had not picked up the phone to call her and find out.
There are other factors at play. Ballem's letter of resignation specifically mentioned that the unsound policies are being promoted by the premier and his deputy minister, Jessica McDonald.
The premier's office under McDonald has been pushing into policy areas that were the preserve of ministries. Its budget has increased 40 per cent over the last two years. About $2.5 million of the increase has gone to set up the "deputy minister's policy secretariat."
Campbell say the secretariat lets his office take a broader look at policy questions than any individual ministry can do. But it also concentrates power within a small group reporting to the premier and undercuts ministries.
Health care remains the top issue for the public and a problem for the government. The spring session of the legislature was dominated by questions about ER problems, crowded hospitals and a shortage of long-term care spaces.
The Liberals hoped that setting up the five regional health authorities would spare them some of the inevitable health-care controversies.
But that hasn't worked. The health authorities aren't responsible to anyone but government, which sets the budgets, appoints the directors and calls the policy shots. When 91-year-old Fanny Albo was pushed from a Trail hospital and died far from family and friends, Ballem was sent to the Kootenays to find out why. (Her review identified major public dissatisfaction with the Interior Health Authority.)
Some Liberal MLAs - taking the brunt of the criticism in their ridings - have been grumbling about the health problems.
All this is unfolding against the backdrop of Campbell's big, vague plans for health care change. He travelled to Europe to look at alternate systems, but hasn't provided any report to the public. He plans some sort of "dialogue" on health care this fall, but again details are non-existent.
Ballem's resignation raises immediate, important questions. The public needs real answers.
Footnote: Ballem's resignation caught Abbott by surprised and the health minister was left looking out of the loop when reporters caught with him late Thursday. Ballem sent her resignation letter to the premier that morning; by day's end Abbott still didn't know she had complained of unsound plans from the premier's office.