Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Surprise shuffle all aimed at children and families

VICTORIA - So the revolving door spins again at the ministry of children and familes, sweeping Stan Hagen out and Tom Christensen in.
Based on past history, he shouldn’t unpack. Christensen is the fourth minister in less than six years for the Liberals; tenth in the last decade if you include the NDP follies.
Premier Gordon Campbell’s shuffle caught everyone by surprise Tuesday. He was supposed to be on holidays and all was to be quiet. The only warning was a news release at 12:15 p.m. that said there would be a shuffle in Vancouver less than two hours later.
It wasn’t a giant shift. Four ministers got new jobs, with the change at children and families driving the rest.
The premier wanted Mike de Jong to replace Christensen at aboriginal affairs, an important ministry for the Liberals now.
That left a hole at labour. Richmond MLA Olga Ilich, who had been minister for tourism, sports and culture, got the labour job, which not coincidentally left her pleasant ministry as a landing spot for Hagen.
Campbell didn’t just shuffle, he added. Surrey-White Rock MLA Gordon Hogg is back in cabinet as a junior minister responsible for getting us all to eat right, exercise and quit smoking. Hogg, who resigned as childen and families minister in 2004 after a troubled tenure, is to champion the ActNow BC program announced by Campbell last year.
The most significant changes are in children and families and aboriginal relations.
The Liberals’ 2001 platform included a promise to stop the endless shuffling and re-organizations at the children and families ministry. They’ve failed badly. Hogg resigned after three chaotic years of stumbles; Christy Clark lasted about nine months before quitting; and Hagen has been in the job less than two years. Community groups desperate to get the minister’s attention are constantly starting work all over again.
Hagen had said that he wanted to keep the job. It was important to provide some stability while making the changes flowing from Ted Hughes’ report on ministry problems, he said.
But Campbell didn’t agree. The premier’s office has already installed its chosen deputy minister in children and families. Leslie du Toit was recruited from South Africa to work as an advisor to the premier before being installed in the ministry. She’s in charge of the ministry’s rather vague future direction.
And now she gets a new minister.
Christensen looks like a good choice. It’s been tough to judge his effectiveness in aboriginal affairs, in part because the premier’s office has played such a large role. But he succeeded in bringing people together when he followed Christy Clark into education. Now he has the chance to tackle one of the government’s critical problem areas. (And his experience in aboriginal affairs will be useful; the children and families’ ministry has large aboriginal focus and significant challenges in dealing with First Nations communities.)
De Jong is a reasonable choice to move into aboriginal affairs. He showed in the labour job that he could temper his natural tendency to love to give reporters a good quote. Caution will be a good thing in aboriginal affairs.
Ilich’s promotion is surprising. She was considered a strong candidate in 2005. But she hasn’t made any particular impression in her current tourism, sports and culture post. The elevation to labour - even at a time when things are likely to be pretty quiet - is a surprise.
But her promotion did open up a place fo Hagen.
I don’t know what to say about Hogg’s return. It seems odd that the Liberals, once the champions of small government, are now creating a fitness minister. The gesture will cost another $200,000 and it’s hard to know what the minister will actually do beyond some cheerleading. And it’s baffling that the junior minister is under tourism, sports and culture, where he will be lost, and not health.
But who can argue against getting people to exercise more, eat less and quit smoking and drinking?
It shouldn’t be hard to tell if this cabinet shuffle was successful. If Christensen is still minister of children and families in three years, and if the ministry is adequately funded and delivering effective services, then it succeeded.
If not, it is just another in a long series of failed efforts.

Harper dips into the pork barrel on defence deal

VICTORIA - How does it happen? How do we vote for a whole new approach to government and end up with the same old politics?
Like or loathe them, what Stephen Harper and the Conservatives mostly promised was something different. No more political pandering, just good common sense. An end to politicians interfering in the awarding of government contracts, for example. From now on, the goal would be to get the best deal for taxpayers.
But not a year in power and it looks like same old, same old in some troubling ways.
The Conservative government plans some big military spending. Top of the shopping list are 16 Chinook helicopters and four C-17 transport planes from Boeing. The deal will cost you something like $8 billion, including 20 years of support.
The Canadian government wants some of that money to stay here, so the contracts are going to specify that half the total spending has to be in Canada. Boeing will want to keep the manufacturing at home; Canadian firms are most likely to be able to bid for the maintenance contracts.
That should mean companies across Canada would get a chance to compete for the work. The ones that came up with the best proposals to keep the aircraft flying safely at the lowest cost would get the work.
That’s even supposed to be the rule. In 1994 Ottawa and the provinces signed a deal to ensure all Canadian suppliers had equal access to government procurement. Provinces weren’t allowed to overlook the best bid just because it came from outside their boundaries. The federal government agreed it wouldn’t hand out contracts to favoured companies or regions.
But there was an exception. The federal government could over-ride the commitment to open bidding “to protect national security or to maintain international peace and security."
And that’s the clause the government has invoked in the Boeing deals. It has become a matter of national security to protect the government’s right to steer contracts to chosen companies, even if their work costs more or is of inferior quality.
You’d think the Conservatives would have learned, since they’ve been down this road before. Back in 1986 a consortium led by Bristol Aircraft in Winnipeg had submitted the best bid on a contract to maintain the military’s CF-18 jet fighters, according to the Defence Ministry.
But at the last minute the Mulroney government over-ruled the military and handed the deal to another group headed by Canadair of Montreal. The decision was seen as an insult to the West; really it was an insult to taxpayers and the pilots who would fly the planes.
Now the current Conservative government has chosen the same path, invoking the “national security” loophole to let it parcel out the goodies.
Industry Minister Maxime Bernier says it’s not about patronage. But the government is going to set quotas, still to be decided, on where the work has to go. Quebec, the West, Atlantic Canada all have to get a taste - even if that means taxpayers are subsidizing companies by paying higher prices.
The decision embraces the culture of the old Ottawa. Companies that want to get these contracts can’t just concentrate on having the best technology or workforce.
They have to find the best lobbyists, the ones with the tightest ties to senior bureaucrats and politicians. Influence in pushing the quota system and steering work their way matters as much as their competence or ability to deliver value for money.
How can the Conservatives have forgotten so quickly? The Liberals were defeated in part because Canadians were tired of this way of doing business. They wanted the political influence, the lobbying and the efforts to favour one region taken out of spending decisions.
Instead, they got a new government that seems quickly to be sliding into the ways of its predecessors, despite all the talk about a new way of doing business.
Footnote: Why not guarantee all regions get some of the work? It increases costs, opens the door to political patronage and to rewards for friends and doesn’t really accomplish anything in terms of regional development. Propping up uncompetitive businesses with government money is just an expensive way to delay the inevitable. (Think Skeena Cellulose.)