Friday, September 29, 2006

Liberal MLAs stall search for child and youth representative

VICTORIA - I can't recall any MLAs behaving quite as irresponsibly or arrogantly as the three Liberals on the legislative committee charged with finding a new representative for children and youth.
The new office was a central recommendation in Ted Hughes' scathing report on the government's many failures in the children and families ministry.
Hughes said the representative should be appointed "as soon as possible" to restore effective, independent oversight. Among other things the new representative would advocate for children in care, investigate trends in child deaths and monitor and report on the effectiveness of the support and care government provides.
The overall report was sharply critical of the role budget cuts and mismanagement had played in hurting services for children and families.
Right, said Premier Gordon Campbell back in the spring. We're on it. The government would work "around the clock" to get the representative's office up and running, he vowed.
But now, in the most blatant way, the three Liberals on the selection committee are stalling the process. Their indifference to Hughes' report, their lack of urgency, are outrageous.
The three are John Rustad of Prince George-Omineca, the chair, and Ron Cantelon of Nanaimo-Parksville and Mary Polak of Langley.
The committee is already far behind schedule. Now the three Liberals say they can't find a single time to meet and work toward finding a representative in the entire month of October.
It's just impossible for the Liberal members to attend a meeting, says Rustad.
"We went through everybody's calendars and October is a zoo," he told Times Colonist reporter Lindsay Kines. "There are so many committees and so many issues that are out there that everyone is booked solid." (The more important meetings include the annual five-day convention for municipal politicians.)
What a pathetic excuse for inaction. This is supposed to be a government priority, according to the premier. It's a rare chance for backbench MLAs to take on a specific, important task.The two NDP committe members, Diane Thorne of Coquitlam and Maurine Karagianis of Esquimalt, say they are available any time for meetings.
But the Liberal MLAs are treating this responsibility like an unwanted intrusion on their time.
The application deadline for the representatives' position closed six weeks ago. The committee's original work schedule called for interviews to be completed in September and a candidate to be selected by now. The legislature would then quickly meet for a day or two to approve the committee's recommendation.
Then the new representative would get on with the important job and begin setting up the office.
Now Rustad and the Liberals propose to finish the interviews in November.
The new representative might not be in place until spring, almost a year after Hughes made his report.
It's hard to accept that the MLAs' behaviour is just a result of indifference. Rustad claims he understands the urgency of the work. "It's very important to have this position in place as soon as possible for the children of the province," he says. "The Ted Hughes report was very clear in terms of that."
Which leaves observers searching for some other explanation for the Liberals' failure.
Do they want to stall the return of an independent officer who would report publicly on the children and families ministry performance? Is the idea of the representative still something the Liberals don't really accept?
Or is the Campbell government worried about having the legislature sit this fall, even for the day or two required to approve the committee's choice for the representative's post? After all, the Liberals did cancel the fall session, eliminating the chance for MLAs to raise issues from health care problems to the softwood agreement to forest safety.
The reasons don't matter. The Liberal MLAs' negligence does. The Hughes' report indicated that the government really didn't care much about its responsibilities to children and families.
Rustad, Polak and Cantelon are showing that not much has changed.
Footnote: When asked about the delays, Rustad initially told Kines that the process was still on track and a representative would be named by mid-October. But 24 hours later he revealed the long delay in the search. It's alarming that the committee chair has such a poor sense of what's going on.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

This time, maybe we will see treaties

VICTORIA - Treaty commissioners are optimists. It’s practically part of the job description to be able to look ahead - year after year - and predict that finally, the long, expensive process is going to produce an agreement.
Every fall, the commission holds a news conference in a hotel here to release its annual report and offer an update on treaty talks. There’s been a couple of gloomy ones. Back in 2002 - in the wake of Gordon Campbell’s destructive and now ignored treaty referendum - the commission warned that unless things changed there was little chance of reaching settlements.
But mostly the message is hopeful. Treaties are just around the corner, the commissioners have regularly said, even as the corner seemed to be moving farther away.
That was the message again this week. Two final agreements have been initialled. The commission expects another three by the end of the year.
This time, the commissioners may be right.
It’s been a long, expensive road to get this far. The treaty process started back in 1992. So far the commission has advanced First Nations $362 million to support negotiations, with $289 million of that loans that at least theoretically to be repaid. The federal and provincial government have spent something similar on their role in the talks, so figure about $600 million total.
It’s money well-spent, if we can reach treaties.
Chief commissioner Steven Point and commissioners Jack Weisgerber and Mike Harcourt made a pretty good case this week that agreements are near. (Even though they have been wrong before.)
All three attended the press conference. (Commissioners Jody Wilson and Wilf Adam, both elected as representatives by the First Nations Summit, didn’t attend. They were attending the First Nations Summit meeting in Kamloops, which was looking at ways to push the treaty process along.)
Weisgerber, the province’s appointment to the commission, is a former Socred MLA and the province’s first aboriginal affairs minister. He was a leader - maybe the leader - in arguing B.C. needed to negotiate treaties.. Harcourt is the former NDP premier who launched the commission and the current process. He’s the federal appointment. And Point, a provincial court judge and former chair of the Sto:lo Nation, was the joint selection of the First Nations Summit and provincial and federal governments. The commission has an impressive roster.
The most encouraging development is that the commission is now looking beyond the immediate challenge of negotiating treaties. It urged provincial and federal governments to be prepared to ratify any final treaties quickly, to build momentum.
That’s a reasonable request. Negotiators for the province and Ottawa have mandates from their masters. Unless they make some terrible blunder, political approval fort he deal they negotiate should be routine.
That wasn’t the case in 1998 when the NIsga’a agreement, reached outside the treaty process, was signed. The provincial Liberals, then in opposition, opposed the treaty. Ottawa delayed its ratification. The process took two years.
A lot of things have changed, starting with the political climate. Campbell was prepared to go to court to kill the Nisga’a deal; now he’s committed to a “New Relationship” that recognizes broad First Nations’ rights. The federal Conservative government may have killed the Kelowna Accord, but Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice says he wants treaties. First Nations, despite lots of frustrations, see a chance for a reasonable deal.
None of this means you should get wildly hopeful that you still won’t be reading columns like this in a decade. There are 57 First Nations involved in talks at 47 tables. Some are going nowhere, as governments focus on negotiations that might produce a quick deal. Some are going backwards.
But there is reason to be hopeful. If three or four treaties can be negotiated - and if they’re approved by the First Nations’ members, another big question mark - then an important pattern will be set.
Every First Nation will still want specific issues addressed. But a basic approach to compensation and rights and self-government will emerge. Things will get easier and progress will be faster.
If the commission is right.
Footnote: Why is this all so important? There’s a moral element. You can’t actually just take peoples’ land and not reach some agreement with them. That didn’t happen. And there’s a practical element. Harcourt noted that business and First Nations should be preparing for the opportunities that land-use certainty will bring once treaties are reached.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Health-care spending scare tactics unfair to public

VICTORIA - Carole Taylor created a pretty big splash with a single PowerPoint slide suggesting that within 11 years health and education could take every penny of government spending.
Too bad it was such a bogus claim. Worse that so many people bought it.
Taylor, the finance minister, tucked the slide into her first quarter financial update this month.
Do you realize, she asked as the slide popped up in the Press Theatre, that by 2017 health care could consume 71 per cent of all government spending? Education would take the rest and everything else would just vanish. It was a pretty dramatic scene setter for the "conversation" on health care that's to kick off this week.
Except it was a fraud. By 2017 my dog Jack could learn to talk. But it's not likely, based on everything I've seen from him so far.
And neither is the health crisis projected by Taylor.
Here's what the finance ministry assumed to reach her worrisome projection. Health ministry costs would increase by eight per cent year after year. Government revenues by three per cent. Education spending by three per cent.
Here's reality. From 1995 to 2005 health ministry spending increased an average 5.5 per cent, not eight per cent.
Education spending over the last five years has increased at 1.3 per cent a year, less than half the rate Taylor projects.
And between 1995 and 2005 government revenues increased by about six per cent a year, not the three per cent the finance minister assumes.
So. Taylor's forecast assumed a 50-per-cent reduction in the growth of government revenue. (That assumes big tax cuts, or a weakening economy.) Education funding would suddenly grow more than twice as fast it has in recent years. And health spending would reach new heights.
Plug in numbers based on reality - the real record from the last decade - and everything changes. The health ministry would then count for about 40 per cent of the total budget by 2017. Just as it does now. The slide looks dramatic; the reality not so much.
The finance ministry now says the graphs were just something worked up in 2004, interesting but not a real projection, they say.
But there were fewer than 20 slides in Taylor's presentation. If one of them shows a crisis barely a decade away, people will pay attention.
Especially as Premier Gordon Campbell kicks off his conversation on health care with British Columbians.
The conversation is a good idea, if done properly. Almost every interest in the health-care world has an advocate - unions, the BC Medical Association, the pharmaceutical companies, the government.
But not the patients or customers or whatever you want to call us.
Taylor's slide - if people took it seriously - would shut down any real conversation. Too many options are eliminated if you think disaster is looming.
It's not. Back in 1985, about one in every three dollars the government took in went to pay for health care. In 1995, the same. And this year, based on the latest financial reports, health will consume less than one-third of provincial revenues.
Look at it another way. In 1985, health spending was about five percent of GDP. By 1995, it was 6.6 per cent. This year it will be about 7.3 per cent. The increase is an issue, but the notion that we can't afford health care - that it's not sustainable - is simply not supported by the facts.
And while we fret about $12 billion in health care costs, we pump $7 billion into slot machines, lotteries and other legalized gambling without any significant public concern.
There are good reasons to manage health-care costs. It's government's biggest budget item and the cost pressures are significant. New technology and drugs are increasingly expensive and as out average age rises we place more demands on the system.
But there's no reason to panic. And a a real health conversation should start with facts, not phony fear-mongering.
Footnote: Taylor also cited warnings from the health authorities that the budget left them without enough money for the coming two years as a sign of pressures in the system In fact, it's a sign of unrealistic budgeting by the province. The current fiscal plan actually calls for a small cut in real per-capita health ministry spending in 2007/8.