Friday, October 27, 2006

Campbell drops money and bombshells on UBCM

VICTORIA - It's a lot more fun being premier once there's money to hand out.
Premier Gordon Campbell hit the stage to deliver the closing speech to the Union of BC Municipalities with a bag of goodies and a couple of major policy changes.
At least of one of those policies, which will make municipalities switch to public-private partnerships for all major projects, is likely to create some future sparks.
In the meantime all the good news had the 800 UBCM delegates - councillors and mayors - on their feet a few times.
There will be $20 million for Spirit Squares, which sound like one of those tasty treats served at community dinners, but in fact is a program to develop outdoor meeting places for B.C.'s 150th anniversary in 2008. The province will match municipal spending up to a maximum $500,000 for new or improved parks or meeting places.
Another $21 million will be available over three years for infrastructure projects in towns under 5,000. Instead of the usual 50-50 cost-sharing, the province will cover 80 per cent of the costs for projects worth up to $800,000. The program will be a big boost for communities that can't come up with the larger share of spending required under existing programs.
There's $10 million a year over four years for the cutely named LocalMotion Fund, which will cover half the costs for bike paths, trails and greenways.
All fine and dandy and much appreciated by the municipal reps.
But they got less hearty fare when it came to one of the major issues that dominated the convention, the big increase in homelessness and public poverty.
Campbell talked a lot about providing more affordable housing. He made a pitch for greater density - smaller lots, smaller houses, more tall buildings - as a way of keeping housing costs down and creating more livable communities. He urged councils to approve low-income or supported housing projects more quickly.
And he promised that the next budget would include some increase in the welfare shelter allowance - the maximum amount people on social assistance have to devote to housing. The allowances, like welfare rates generally, are ridiculously low, unchanged in 12 years except for Liberal cuts to some categories in 2002.
A parent with two children is allowed up to $555 a month for housing, an impossibility in much of the province. A single person is allowed $325, not even enough for a campsite in Kelowna. A pregnant woman gets $580 a month for food, housing and everything else.
But Campbell wouldn't say how much the rates would increase, or why nothing is being done to deal with the problem now.
Campbell also casually dropped a bombshell towards the end of his comments on homelessness. The effort to move the mentally ill and others out of institutions over the last 30 years has been "a failed experiment," he said. The people were supposed to receive support to let them live in the community. Instead they have been largely abandoned, adding to homelessness and other urban problems.
But Campbell couldn't say what solutions he had planned - whether health authorities, for example, which still continue to close homes for people with mental illness to save money, would get a budget increase. "We're going to have to find ways to do a much better job," was the best he could offer.
The other bombshell is a new requirement that will make it almost mandatory for municipalities to use public-private partnerships for any infrastructure project worth more than $20 million.
Campbell says it's cheaper and less risky to turn the projects over to a private company. But some municipalities - especially on sensitive projects like water systems - are likely to balk at provincial interference.
All in all, the speech was a success. But it's still unclear whether all those "Spirit Squares" are just going to be new places for the homeless, addicted and mentally ill to hang out.
Footnote: Campbell devoted a large portion of the speech to urban planning, urging smaller lots and houses, more high-density development and fewer rules that push up costs for developers and consumers. The benefits aren't just in reducing housing costs, he said, but in creating healthier communities where people can walk to work.

Gambling expansion brings new crime wave

VICTORIA - It’s all unfolding just as Liberal MLA Kevin Krueger predicted when he warned government about the risks of gambling expansion.
Addictions. Suicides. Families destroyed.
Crime - especially organized crime - on the increase.
The latest bad news comes in the annual report of the province’s Gaming Policy and Enforcement Branch, which reveals a crime explosion at casinos and “community gaming centres.”
Investigations into serious offences like loan sharking and money laundering more than doubled last year. Overall, the branch launched 3,414 investigations - a 36-per-cent increase.
It’s no surprise. Krueger warned government about expanding gambling:  "There is a huge increase in crime, right from breaking into vending machines in order to have money for slot machines, on up to white-collar crime and into really heinous crimes as well."
Criminals like casinos. They’re a good place to move counterfeit money. The branch investigated 1,155 reports of counterfeit offences, up about 3.6 per cent from the previous year.
And casinos are a great place for big-time drug dealers and gangs to launder the proceeds of crime. It’s simple to buy $5,000 worth of chips, make a few safe bets and then cash in and leave with a casino cheque. Criminals can even declare the income. (The federal government does require casinos to report unusual transactions. But it’s hard to track every gambler and, as an Alberta RCMP report noted, casinos are reluctant to risk alienating good customers.)
Then there are the crimes with individual victims.
Problem gamblers and addicts make wonderful customers for loan sharks. They’re desperate and ashamed, but can’t quit. They have jobs and cars and homes - at least for a while - so the lender can usually collect.
The gambling enforcement branch investigated 192 reports of loan sharking last year - almost four new files opened every week. In Richmond, home to he province’s largest casino, RCMP are seeking extra officers to deal with the crime. They report at least five kidnappings in the last 18 months linked to gambling debts.
It’s all unfolding as the Krueger and the Liberals predicted when they were in opposition. That’s why they promised to stop the expansion of gambling.
Instead they went wild, tripling the number of slots, launching Internet betting and pushing mini-casinos into small towns, part of a plan to recruit more gamblers and increase their average loss. (That’s another reason Gordon Campbell said he opposed gambling. Its purpose is to create losers, Campbell said, and he didn’t want a province of losers.)
Meanwhile the Gaming Policy and Enforcement Branch budget has been cut for three consecutive years. The government is spending six per cent less now on enforcement than it did in 2003-4.
In that time the number of slot machines in the province has doubled. The number of casinos and mini-casinos has increased by more than 50 per cent, taking slots into small communities in every corner of the province.
Naturally, enforcement efforts can’t keep up. Last year the gaming branch launched more than 2,000 investigations into criminal activity. The result was 11 Criminal Code charges. It started 650 investigations into Gaming Control Act violations. For the second year, not a single charge was laid under the act.
The branch says its enforcement efforts are relatively new, explaining both the increasing activity and the lack of charges.
But the crime wave is exactly what the Liberals said would result from a gambling expansion.
Krueger, Campbell and the rest also warned about social problems. And the branch’s annual report shows they were right again. Problem-gambling calls to its help line jumped to 5,830 last year - an 86-per-cent increase over the previous year. More slots, more promotion, more gamblers means more addicts and people whose lives are messed up.
The amount committed to responding to gambling problems remained frozen for the fourth consecutive year.
More crime, new opportunities for gangs, more addicted and problem gamblers and addictions and more damaged families.
It’s all unfolding just the way the Liberals predicted.
Footnote: Public concern about gambling expansion seems to be increasing. BC Lotteries tracks public approval and has been forced to downgrade its targets. And Terrace has just become the first community to reject a bid to install slots in a new “community gaming centre,” deciding the social and policing costs outweigh any short-term benefits.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Column odds and ends, from Afghanistan to Cranbrook

VICTORIA - Cleaning up the backlog of "almost" column topics.
First, to Afghanistan. Six Canadians have now been killed patrolling a road construction project only a few kilometres long. My impression was that this was part of the improvements NATO forces were making to improve life for Afghanis. But the road - while perhaps useful for transportation - is being designed for the security of troops, with a 100-metre-wide cleared right-of-way. And it is being pushed through farmers’ fields and buildings, in an a country where a typical farm is two to five acres. It doesn't seem like an exercise that will win the hearts and minds of the locals.
Second, to Ottawa, where the Harper government - acting on an initiative started by the Liberals - pushed up health-care costs by handing big pharmaceutical companies a three-year extension on drug patents, preventing low-cost competition. The new rules affect about 25 per cent of prescription drugs and extend patent protection from five to eight years. Federal NDP health critic Penny Priddy - a former B.C. health minister - called the change a “gift” to big pharmaceutical companies. Generic drug companies say the change will cost the public - and provincial Pharmacare plans - about $120 million a year.
Third, to Toronto, where an Ontario Superior Court judge has tossed out a federal Elections Act rule that denied public political funding to smaller parties. Since 2004, when political donation rules were tightened, federal parties have been entitled to funding of $1.76 per year for each vote they got in the most recent election. But the money was denied to any party that got less than two per cent of the vote nationally or five per cent in the ridings where they ran candidates. Justice Ted Matlow said small parties play an important role and have a right to the same funding. The money will be worth about $60,000 a year to the Marijuana Party, which - along with the Christian Heritage Party and others challenged the law. I am now considering launching the Paul Willcocks Voice of Reason Party, with the aim of capturing 1,000 votes in each of B.C.’s 36 ridings - and as a result $63,000 a year in funding. Unless, as expected, the federal government appeals the decision.
Fourth, to Cranbrook, where provincial Liberal MLA Bill Bennett, also junior mines minister, got cranky about health-care criticism. Bennett lashed out at the NDP, telling Cranbrook Daily Townsman reporter Gerry Warner that he believed the New Democrats have hired an American firm specializing in political dirty tricks to advise them in the health-care conversation. He wasn’t just suspicious about the U.S. connection: “We’re certain they have,” Bennett said.
A serious allegation. How did Bennett know? Turned out it, despite the certainty claim, Bennett had not a shred of evidence, except that he though the New Democrats were being dishonest. (Bennett noted that the NDP had sent staff to a conference on campaigning in Washington in the spring, but since the Liberals had sent chief of staff Martyn Brown to a similar event, that didn’t seem too sinister.) The whole affair looked left Bennett - usually a very solid MLA - looking bad, the kind of person who hurls nasty accusations without a shred of evidence.
Fifth, back to Victoria, where Health Minister George Abbott continued to show a remarkably laid-back attitude to possible violations of the Canada Heath Act this week. When two Vancouver public hospitals admitted selling time on MRIs and other diagnostic machines to private clinics, which in turn offered faster access to care for people who could pay, Abbott said the queue-jumping looked illegal. he ordered a halt and promised an investigation.
So what did the investigation reveal? Too soon to say, says Abbott, which is surprising since this all happened almost two months ago. The obvious conclusion is that the government doesn't much care about the Canada Health Act.
Footnote: And sixth, the great Peter MacKay-Belinda Stronach question: Did MacKay, the jilted Conservative lover, call Stronach a dog in Parliament? He says no; the Liberals say yes and he should apologize; the truth will never be clear. It should make all MPs rethink their frequent descent into the kind of mindless, sneering abuse that would be unacceptable anywhere - except in Parliament. (And a note of congratulations to B.C. MLAs, for setting a higher standard of behaviour since 2005.)

A plug for the CBC TV show Intelligence

The blog is pretty much exclusively my columns, but I want to give a plug to the new CBC series Intelligence, on Tuesday nights at 9 p.m. It would be a shame if the program died for lack of viewers.
It's smart crime/police/politics drama, proudly set in Vancouver. The lead bad guy - Reardon - is a pretty successful mid-level organized criminal, running grow ops, money laundering and related criminal activities, worrying about the rival bikers and the police and his own people. And worrying, also, about an addict ex-wife and an idiot brother who works for him.
On the other side is an ambitious detective who sees an informant relationship with Reardon as her ticket to advancing from criminal policing to a bigger role with CSIS. But she has to deal with the fierce internal politics of the police-CSIS world (including a sexist, ambitious conniving subordinate played brilliantly by Matt Frewer).
Vancouver looks great, the writing is excellent, the characters are interesting and believable and the similarities between the worlds of cops and crooks - and the corporate world for that matter - is striking.
And there is a Canadian look and feel, particularly in the realistic - at least by TV standards - look at the complexity of the lives of all involved.
I hardly ever make an effort to watch specific shows - 24, My Name is Earl, The Office - but I'd stay home for Intelligence.
Give it a try.