Monday, December 31, 2007

A New Year's resolution, with a twist

A New Year’s resolution, with a twist
I’ve been writing similar columns this time of year for a while now, always urging readers to make the same resolution.
Decide to pay attention for the next 12 months. To the people closest to you, but also to the way life works for people in your town and across the world. We’re not good at paying attention.
We suddenly notice people have changed - children have grown up, parents have grown old, lovers have grown apart. We wonder, when did that happen?
Of course it happened every day, right in front of us. But we weren’t paying attention.
We miss a lot. You grow close to people when you share experiences with them, travel through life together.
But if you don’t notice where their lives are taking them, the little bumps and joys, you’re left behind. Soon you’re somewhere else all together.
And the smallest things you missed put you there. A hesitation when you ask how things are. A laugh. A brief sad look. The kind of things you don’t notice, unless you’re paying attention.
It’s not just about the people right around you, though. I believe that when people see that something is wrong - an injustice, cruelty, waste, foolishness - they want to right it.
If they can’t, they expect those responsible to fix it, with that responsibility often falling to governments.
I have to believe that. There’s not much point in writing this kind of column unless you believe that people will consider the information and analysis and - at least sometimes - do something with it. Just chronicling our troubles isn’t enough.
I also believe it’s true. It takes us a while for us to figure out there is really a problem, and then longer to decide what to do. Longer still to judge who should do it.
But we don’t like to see people left behind, or children in care shortchanged, or businesses struggling with pointless government regulations and paperwork. Eventually, we deal with the problems.
But only if we notice - if we’re paying attention.
Here in Victoria, we’ve suddenly noticed big problems on our streets. Drunken louts at bar closing time. A lot of homeless people, including many dealing with serious mental illness, damaging drug addictions or both.
They didn’t just appear one day, a group of 50 hanging around the needle exchange, panhandlers on the corners, heaps of belongings and cold-looking people outside Streetlink, the main shelter.
But we didn’t notice when the first people released from mental hospitals in the 1970s, with the promise of support in the community, started showing up on the streets. The support wasn’t there; they could make their way without it; so they fell.
We didn’t notice when the small group of older alcohol addicts were joined by more and more people haunted by cocaine, their limbs twitching, sores on neck and arms and faces.
Because we didn’t notice, governments thought we didn’t care. If we’d been paying attention, it would never have got so bad.
Instead, this all got so much worse that we now face a giant problem.
So I’m amending the resolution that I hope you’ll adopt. It’s still to pay attention. And really, it’s best to start close to home. With the people you live with each day, the world you inhabit - the way the breeze feels on your face or the sky looks like at dusk on a middling spring day.
But when it comes to the bigger world, maybe this year we could all resolve to focus. To pick something that seems wrong, and make it better.
Maybe it troubles you that children in care are pushed out into the world the day they turn 19, with no real support or guidance. (Except for the efforts of some extraordinary foster parents.) Or you don’t think people with mental illnesses should be dumped on the streets.
Pick something, and resolve to make it better by the end of the year. Demand action of politicians. Give some money. Give some time. Hold yourself accountable.
Footnote: To the regular readers out there, and the editors who decide to run the columns: Thanks. It’s a great privilege to be able to share information and thoughts on things I think important. And a great responsibility. I do appreciate you’re willingness to read this far, whether you agree with me or not.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Censored government reports on Basi-Virk raise questions

Bill Tieleman, who has done a fine job covering the Basi-Virk BC Rail corruption trial, writes on the results of an FOI request for the reports of the government staffer who has been monitoring the courtroom happenings. The results suggest Attorney General Wally Oppal mislead the legislature about what the staffer was doing.
And the censored reports raise questions about what the government is keeping from the public.
You can read it here.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Government's silence on sea lice and wild salmon a problem

Sea lice are quite creepy. They look like little tadpoles - maybe one-quarter of an inch long. And they attach themselves to salmon and other fish and suck their blood.
It's usually not a problem. A few lice don't hurt a fish.
But for several years, researchers have been finding that salmon farms changed things. The concentration of fish in a small area meant dense sea lice populations as well. And the lice didn't just stick around. If a migrating wild salmon passed through the area, it encountered much denser populations than in the rest of the ocean.
And too many sea lice - particularly on a three-inch young salmon - can kill. (It's not a B.C. problem. European fish farms have faced the same issue.)
The industry and government have denied the problem exists. The industry has tended to attack the researchers.
The province has ordered a few farms fallowed during migration periods. But it's pro-industry. The government has had an all-party legislative committee report on aquaculture for eight months now without responding in anyway to the recommendations.
But the evidence of the sea lice problem has been piling up. Last year, when an environmental group laid charges, the Attorney General's Ministry appointed a special prosecutor to decide whether they should go ahead. Bill Smart - the special prosecutor in the Glen Clark case - sought independent scientific advice. The fisheries expert, Frederick Whoriskey, concluded salmon farms were creating a sea lice problem that was killing pink salmon in the Broughton Archipelago. A single farm produces more than 50 million sea lice eggs a year, he found.
Smart concluded that sea lice from salmon farms were harming the wild fish. He decided not to go ahead with the prosecution because it wasn't clear that was against the law.
The industry went on the attack; the government ignored the independent prosector's report.
This month, a research study published in the journal Science found the sea lice from salmon farms in the area threaten wild pink salmon with extinction. Local pinks could be gone within four years, the researchers reported.
This was a peer-reviewed study; other scientists had to assess its legitimacy before it could be published.
Research can always be disputed. The provincially funded Pacific Salmon Forum says its research shows no connection between fish farms and sea lice on wild salmon.
But the findings published in Science can't sensibly be ignored. Risking the future of wild salmon stocks, given the evidence, would be reckless.
The question is whether the industry and the government will see it that way.
The industry's reaction so far has unfortunately been to deny a problem. Accepting the risk would open the door to potential solutions. The authors of the Science article note that relocating the fish farms to deeper waters or away from wild salmon migration routes would help.
The provincial government has seemed frozen. It handed the whole problem off to an all-party committee of MLAs, with an NDP majority, which held hearings. Its report was done in May.
Agriculture Minister Pat Bell said the government would have a new aquaculture policy by the fall. But so far, nothing.
The industry provides needed jobs in coastal communities and the farmed salmon fetches about $240 million a year. The economic impact is significant.
But opposition has moved beyond the environmental movement. A coalition of some 100 ecotourism businesses says the sea lice damage to wild salmon threatens their $1.4-billion industry. It bought a full-page ad in The Globe and Mail this fall to press the federal and provincial governments for action.
And the future of wild salmon is one those issues that goes beyond fishermen and coastal communities.
There are lots of factors in the vanishing salmon, from climate change to development to logging practices.
But sea lice are part of the problem, according to solid research. The government is going to face increasing pressure to deal with the issue.
Footnote: The legislative committee called for governments to help the industry to move to "closed containment" systems instead of mesh pens. But the salmon farmers say practical technology doesn't exist. The committee also offered common sense measures like removing environmental protection from the Agricuture Ministry, was is charged with promoting the industry.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Mulroney makes the case an inquiry is needed

I want an inquiry into the Mulroney-Schreiber scandal. It will cost a lot, say $75 million, and no one will likely be found guilty of anything.
But we need a light that can shine into the dark and sleazy world of lobbyists and pals and politicians in Ottawa. An inquiry might do that.
Brian Mulroney's testimony before the ethics committee was the last straw.
Sure, he succeeded in reminding everyone that Karlheinz Schreiber, the German businessmen who paid him with bundles of cash, has a tenuous grasp of the truth.
That was no surprise. Schreiber has shown he'll lie under oath if it's advantageous.
Schreiber had been distributing money and favours around Ottawa for years in an effort to get an arms plant built in Nova Scotia.
Mulroney testified he met with on June 23, 1993, while he was still prime minister. They didn't talk about future work, Mulroney said, "except to say that given my international background and contact he'd like to keep in touch and perhaps call on me again some day in the future."
Nine weeks later, while Mulroney was no longer prime minister was still an MP, he went off to meet with Schreiber in an airport hotel room.
According to Mulroney, Schreiber wanted him to lobby other countries to buy armoured vehicles from the same company that hoped to build a plant in Canada.
Schreiber says he was paying Mulroney to use his influence to clear the way for the Nova Scotia plant.
Both agree that Mulroney took an envelope of cash from Schreiber. There was no contract or written agreement or even a specific indication of what he was supposed to do. Just an envelope stuffed with $1,000 bills - $75,000 Mulroney says, while Schreiber says $100,000.
Mulroney's explanation was that Schreiber said he was an international businessman who dealt in cash.
But what kind of international businessman is that? Are we really to believe that Bill Gates and Richard Branson don't use cheques?
Mulroney says it was a mistake on his part.
But he repeated the mistake twice more, meeting Schreiber in hotel rooms in Montreal and New York over the next year and taking more envelopes full of cash.
Mulroney never deposited the money in a bank. He just kept in safe deposit boxes and "integrated" it into his requirements.
The former prime minister testified he lobbied world leaders on Schreiber's behalf, but there's no record of his activities or corroboration.
Mulroney also acknowledged that while he took the money in 1993 and 1994, he didn't report it to Revenue Canada until 1999, after Schreiber faced criminal charges.
His explanation didn't make much sense. He claimed the money was used only for his expenses; he took no money for his work. So it wasn't income.
But then once Schreiber got in trouble, Mulroney said he decided to declare it to Revenue Canada.
Mulroney also left questions about his 1996 testimony in his lawsuit against the federal government over allegations related to Air Canada's purchase of planes from Airbus. The government paid Mulroney $2.1 million to settle the suit, which he says all went to expenses related to it.
During that process, Mulroney testified under oath that he had met Schreiber "once or twice for coffee" after leaving office. He said the question he was asked only related to the Airbus affair, and he had no obligation to reveal the hotel room meetings to collect cash.
Who knows what to believe? And that's not even getting into Schreiber's other political donations, or his claim that he contributed money to the effort to oust Joe Clark, clearing the way for Mulroney.
Add the whole sordid mess to the corruption uncovered by the Gomery inquiry, and it is impossible to have confidence the federal government is not tainted.
An inquiry is the only way to restore public trust.
Footnote: Columnist Norman Spector had a front row seat as Mulroney's chief of staff. He wrote in The Globe and Mail that action needs to be taken to curb the influence of lobbyists who move back and forth between partisan activities and attempts to influence the politicians they support with time and money.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

What's the government hiding in the Basi-Virk case?

The always interesting PacificGazette takes a look at the government's effort to keep secret documents the lawyers in the Basi-Virk trial say are needed to defend their clients.
The government is apparently choosing to invoke lawyer-client privilege to keep documents from the court. Like any client, it could choose to waive the privilege and release the information.
The Gazeteer offers a good summary and links here.

Liberals reverse child rep budget cut blunder

Score another one for democracy and Vaughn Palmer.
The Liberals made a big blunder earlier this month, practically and politically. Government MLAs on the legislative finance committee cut the budget request of the Representative for Children and Youth, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond.
After about 45 minutes of unfocused questioning, the Liberal MLAs decided to cut the proposed budget of the representative by 11 per cent. They didn't say where the office should reduce spending or offer any rationale. Turpel-Lafond had told them the cuts would make it impossible to do critical elements of her job, like investigating children's deaths,
But the Liberals went ahead. The New Democrats on the committee, who wanted to provide the full amount requested, were outvoted.
Why? The other officers of the legislature - the ombudsman, auditor general and the rest - had received their full requests. Why chop the representative?
Given the lack of any answers that made sense, it was hard not to notice that days before Turpel-Lafond had reported critically on the government's lack of progress on implementing the Hughes report. She found there had been no action on key recommendations designed to improve things in the troubled ministry of children and families.
The budget cut looked much like payback, petty, vindictive - and self-destructive.
The Liberal attack was led by MLAs Randy Hawes and Ian Black. It showed a remarkable lack of common sense or awareness of just what a mess the government has made of most areas affecting the lives of children and families over the last six years.
Hawes has tried to defend the cuts to the budget. He says there wasn't enough detail to satisfy him that the extra money Turpel-Lafond was seeking, so he pushed for a lower budget.
Fair enough, on some level. But 45 minutes of questions followed by a closed-door decision to cut funding doesn't seem like a serious attempt to find out about any concerns.
And if Hawes and his fellow Liberals didn't have enough information to approve the budget, the certainly didn't have enough to cut it, either.
The representative was looking for more money - an increase from $4.8 million to $6.6 million.
But that was no surprise. The office was created as a result of Ted Hughes report on the many problems in the government's support for vulnerable children and families. The agency started with a rough budget set up by managers in the attorney generals ministry, before there were any real plans or staff.
The government acknowledged the guess at funding. A year ago, the Liberal chair of the same committee assured Turpel-Lafond that money wouldn't stand in the way of working on a better future for B.C. children.
"As the budget moves forward, if you have any requests, if something isn't working, if you find that it wasn't enough or there have been changes, as a committee, we are mandated to be here for you," said Blair Lekstrom, then the committee chairman.
But the six Liberal MLAs on the committee didn't agree. The committee chopped $700,000 from the budget.
Hawes hadn't complained about a lavish $560,000 reno at the ministry of children and families. He and the other Liberals voted for a 29-per-cent raise and expensive pension plan for themselves. Then they got all careful when the advocate for children came looking for money.
The public reaction was quick and negative. Vaughn Palmer of the Vancouver Sun, one of Canada's best political columnists, is insightful but usually judicious in assessing politicians' performance. This time he called the Liberals on the committee "nitwits."
And Friday, the committee called special meeting to take another look at the budget. The premier's office had read the clippings.
You, and Palmer, helped convince the Liberals that it was a mistake. They could not get away with cutting the money for independent oversight in this area. They restored all the money they had cut.
In all, it's probably been useful. Turpel-Lafond need to establish her independence, She's done that by facing down the government on budget cuts.
Footnote: Liberal MLA Bill Bennett chairs the committee. I'm not sure if he deserves blame for letting the cuts go ahead or credit for working out solution after meetings with Premier Gordon Campbell. A pre-election cabinet shuffle is likely in June; Bennett, dumped over an abusive e-mail he sent, would be a good addition.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

We all helped Pickton kill those women

Robert Pickton had it right. If you're going to kill somebody, pick someone whose death won't much matter, at least to the people who do.
Like addicted women, working in the low end of the sex trade. When they disappear, hardly anyone notices, outside of a few family members.
The missing women's case showed that Vancouver police didn't even care much as they heard the stories - more and more - of women who just vanished. It just didn't rate as serious.
That's largely our fault. When the street sex trade gets too visible, or moves to close to our neighbourhoods or places we go, we're unhappy.
Understandably. The trade brings drugs and cars and noisy fights. Who wants to explain what's happening down the block to a curious six-year-old?
But for at least two decades, our unhappiness has never led us actually to demand a change in the way the trade works. We just want the police to push the street sex trade somewhere else.
After that has happened a half-dozen times, the women end up in the worst possible places, for them. In Vancouver, the Downtown Eastside, a place almost extraterrestrial in its weirdness. In Victoria, a light industrial area that's largely deserted at night. Around the province, the sex trade ends up where there's not much help for the women if something goes wrong.
So they get beat up, or raped - or just vanish, like they were never there. We don't care about that, once they're out of sight. Not enough to do anything, anyway.
And Robert Pickton - and too many others - figure that out. We don't expect the sex trade to stop, really. In fact, in Canada, we've made it legal.
But in one of these cruel and ridiculous perversions, we've fixed the rules so that people who try and work in the legal business face massive risks. Prostitution is legal. But talking to clients about what the arrangement isn't. Living off the avails - or providing a safe workplace, to look at it another way - is also illegal.
Most people selling sex find ways around the problems, sort of. Escort agencies and massage parlours provide a place to work. Independents operate from apartments.
But at any time, about 10 per cent to 20 per cent of the business is done on the street. The women are generally addicted and struggling to live. The work is low-paying and very risky.
And sometimes, deadly. And the risk is largely because of the law, which forces them to work in the most dangerous places.
A lot of people have professed to be troubled by the Pickton trial. Newspapers have nervously warned that their coverage might be upsetting.
But not all that upsetting. Not so upsetting that we would actually change anything so that more women don't die.
The reality is that nothing is different today. The work is as dangerous. Another Robert Pickton could be out there, probably is out there.
It's a cliché to point out how much more we cared about the missing women when they were dead than when they're alive.
But it's also truly telling. The Pickton trial cost about $45 million. The investigation into the crimes - including the huge effort at the farm - cost about $70 million. The total is $115 million and rising.
Imagine what could have been done for the 500 street level prostitutes across B.C. - that's a guess - with that money. That's $115 million that could have been spent on addiction services or housing or support - or the early intervention that made have a difference in the lives of the people who ended up on the street.
Yet we can't even be bothered to change the laws so the worst dangers of the sex trade are reduced.
Robert Pickton murdered the six women. His sentence will likely keep him off the streets.
But we helped him kill them. And we've done nothing to change the grim reality that more women will die in the same way.
Footnote: The debate has begun on whether the Crown should press ahead and try Pickton on the other 20 murder charges he faces. There seems little point. The families will get few answers; Pickton, 58, is unlikely ever to be released from custody; and the $30 million could be better spent on the living.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Norman Spector on the lobbyist disease

Norman Spector offers an inside and insightful look at the lessons we should learn from the Schreiber-Mulroney affair (and from the Basi-Virk affair as well, I'd say). The column is in The Globe and Mail today or here today.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Basi-Virk B.C. Rail case grows messier all the time

I take a look at the latest twists and turns, glance at why it's gone so wrong and remind readers what;s going on in a Times Colonist column today.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Taylor's departure caps rough session for Liberals

Some not entirely random notes on the legislature session just ended.
Yes, the legislature was sitting. The MLAs have been back here for four days a week since Oct. 1, with a couple of breaks. They will have sat 19 weeks this year.
It's been an eventful fall. The big news last week was Finance Minister Carole Taylor's announcement that she won't run in the 2009 election.
That's too bad. Taylor has been good for the Liberals and public life in B.C. since she was elected in 2005. It's not just her success in the job, including reaching agreements with public sector unions at a time when they were fiercely angry with the government.
She's shown that respect, courtesy and civility - and niceness - can be part of the job, even in the ugliest moments in the legislature.
I was won over early. Not long after Taylor was named finance minister, I called on a Friday with some question for the minister. There was no callback by deadline, but that's OK. Ministers are busy.
But about 8 p.m. I got a call from Taylor. She knew it was too late, but she wanted to apologize for not being able to get back to me in time.
Of course, the flip side to her departure lies in the questions it raises. Even one of the best jobs in cabinet wasn't enough to keep Taylor in the life. It's hardly a recommendation for smart, sane people considering a leap into politics.
All in, it was a good session for the New Democrats. When it started, there was a lot of sniping about Carole James' leadership. By the end, that had been silenced.
Partly, that reflected the problems the government faced over the last eight weeks. Every week brought new bad-news stories. There was the $400-million convention centre cost overrun and Solicitor General John Les' fumbling on the airport Taser death, gang slayings and policing.
Forests Minister Rich Coleman couldn't explain or defend forest land deals that enriched a few select companies by up to $1 billion, at the public's expense.
And Children and Families Minister Tom Christensen was hung out to dry as the Representative for Children and Youth reported the government has failed to act on critical recommendations from the Hughes report. (Christensen also faced revelations that the ministry blew $560,000 on a lavish head-office reno while it refused to provide needed money to help children who had been sexually abused.)
And as well as the usual problems in health care, the NDP raised questions about care-home quality.
There was still lots of good news on the economy. And it's hugely significant that the legislature approved the first two agreements reached under the B.C. treaty process.
But all in all, the Liberals were glad to get out of Dodge.
The session seemed to mark a turning point for a lot of the New Democrats. There was a sense up until now that many of the MLAs were intimidated by the job of holding ministers to account, nervous of making a mistake.
In this session, you could see them getting confident and comfortable, and as a result much more effective. There were a few MLAs who have been consistently effective - Leonard Krog, Adrian Dix, Mike Farnworth, Bob Simpson.
Now there are another dozen who should make ministers nervous.
(One downside is that abuse and catcalling in the legislature rose sharply. The NDP opted for a more combative approach; sadly - at least for those who hope for civility in politics - it seems to have been effective.)
Meanwhile, another big potential time bomb for the Liberals is ticking down. The Basi-Virk corruption case is now scheduled to go to trial in March, amid more twists and turns about evidence and testimony. If it goes ahead, it will be an interesting backdrop for the spring session.
Footnote: Remember the government's $10-million Conversation on Health, an idea of Premier Gordon Campbell? The report was released last week - on the day after the session ended, when Taylor announced she was stepping down and while Campbell was out of the country. It's fair to say the government is not thrilled with what it heard from the public.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Liberals stumble – again – on children and families

I can't figure out why the Liberals are bungling the important work of protecting children and helping families.
They made a mess of the responsibility in their first five years, with reckless budget cuts and mismanagement. That ended with the Ted Hughes review of child and family services in 2005, when the problems spun out of control.
Hughes held the government to account. He blamed the problems in part on budget cuts and botched restructurings. And he made 62 recommendations to get things back on track.
It was an opportunity for a fresh start, and Premier Gordon Campbell grabbed it. He promised to do better. The government would accept and implement every one of the recommendations, Campbell said.
But the Hughes report was delivered in April 2006. And the government has a dismal job in acting on the recommendations.
One of things it did do was restore independent oversight, appointing a representative for children and youth.
This week, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, the Saskatchewan judge who got the job, reported on progress on the Hughes recommendations.
It was horrible. She found only 18 recommendations had been implemented, or almost implemented. Progress was made on another 19.
But that left 25 recommendations - 40 per cent - where there had either been no action, or the Ministry of Children and Families hadn't been able to provide any information to indicate what had been done.
We're talking about protecting the most vulnerable kids and helping struggling families.
The recommendations that have fallen by the way were serious. Some dealt with making sure First Nations child protection agencies were fully supported in the terribly important and difficult work they do. (The death of Sherry Charlie, beaten after being placed in a home by a native agency, led to the Hughes inquiry.)
Hughes said the ministry urgently needed a functioning complaint process, both to help people and gather information about problem areas.
There should be an actual plan for the regionalization push at the core of the government's strategy, Hughes said.
But 19 months later, the ministry couldn't show that those basic recommendations had been acted on.
Worse, the representative's report - couched in polite language - said there were signs the ministry was paying lip service both to the Hughes report and the principle of independent oversight.
Turpel-Lafond said she had hoped the ministry and her office would do a joint, co-operative report on progress on the Hughes' recommendations, which they would present together. Children first and all that. But the ministry balked.
Turpel-Lafond also noted that after she reviewed ministry plans and asked about the lack of reference to the recommendations, it sent her the same document with a few references to the Hughes report inserted.
All this left the government in a bad spot. And then things got worse. When the ministry entered its public meltdown phase, Campbell hired Lesley du Toit, a South African who had been on a ministry expert panel, as a special advisor. Weeks after the Hughes report came down, du Toit was named children and families deputy minister.
Since then, there have been a lot of meetings and talking about transformation, but not much in terms things you can see or measure.
Du Toit did an interview with the Times Colonist - the first time she had agreed to speak with reporters at any length since taking the job. She maintained the representative was wrong in finding a lack of leadership on the recommendations,
Her explanation for the missing information on progress wasn't reassuring. "Part of that is because a lot of the progress we make isn't written into documents; it's progress that is made that can be reflected by saying, 'this is what we've done,'" she said.
Anyone who has been a manager knows that when people can't offer any evidence of actions - especially on specific recommendations like Hughes made - they generally don't exist. Talk of restructuring and continuums is not a substitute for actually getting things done in the meantime.
Campbell and the Liberals were rightly critical of the wretched job the NDP did in managing the children and families file.
Amazingly, they have done worse and are blowing their chance to make a fresh start and set things right.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Courts give another boot toward treaties

The government expected a celebration last week.
The second B.C. treaty process success, an agreement with the Maa-nulth of Vancouver Island, was being introduced in the legislature.
But a big court ruling stole the show. One of the longest, most expensive land-claim cases came to an end with a very big win for the Tsilhqot'in First Nation.
B.C. Supreme Court Justice David Vickers heard the natives claim for their traditional territory, about 4,000 square kilometres in the Chilicotin, near Williams Lake. (That's about two-thirds of the size of Prince Edward Island.)
The Tsilhqot'in claimed title - actual ownership of the land. The provincial and federal governments said that couldn't be proven. Even if the natives spent time there, that didn't equate to ownership.
That's one of the big irritants in relations with First Nations today. They say the government's starting point in negotiations is to fight any title claims.
Vickers found the Tsilhqot'in had occupied the land for 200 years before it was taken from them. There was no payment or agreement to transfer ownership.
So they still owned it. He found they could show title to about half the plan claimed - about 2,000 square kilometres. The Tsilhqot'in had an interest and right to be consulted on the rest of the land.
There are some technical hitches that affect the claim.
But the ruling still sent quick shock waves through the treaty process. Typically, treaty talks have seen First Nations getting about five per cent of the traditional claimed territories. The Tsilhqot'in got 50 per cent by going to court.
There are other variables, of course. Treaty settlements have included cash and resource allocations.
But the Tsilhqot'ins' success means that expectations have just been raised sharply at the negotiating table.
Grand Chief Stewart Phillip sees it as a bigger change than that. "Clearly the process is dead," he said after the ruling. It makes more sense to go to court than negotiate, said Phillip, a long-time opponent of the treaty process.
Not really. For starters, this case has taken 17 years and the Tsilhqot'in still don't actually have anything. If the governments decide to appeal, the case could be lost in the courts for another 10 years. That means more than a generation will have lost a chance at a better life.
Negotiations only work - in any situation from selling a car to trading hockey cards - if both parties have at least some interest in reaching an agreement. The more both want a deal, the better the chances of success.
The track record of the B.C. treaty process suggests no one is that keen on a deal. It's been 14 years since it all began, and more than $1 billion has been spent - about $6,000 per native in the province.
And so far, there are two treaties - the Maa-nulth and the Tsawwassen.
Sure, it's complex sorting out what happened and how much is owed. But two treaties numbers don't suggest great urgency. When people want a deal, they find a way to get it. That has not been happening.
It's understandable. For the federal and provincial governments, there are not many reasons to be keen on agreements. It would be good to have the issue put to bed, and for B.C. some certainty around land claims would bring increased investment and economic activity.
On the other hand, doing nothing has a lot of advantages. It doesn't cost much and the problem can be pushed off into the future, when someone else is in power.
For First Nations, there should be reasons to do a deal and get on with life, with digging out of the hole they're in. But there's also a big fear about settling too soon, for too little.
The Tsilhqot'in ruling should encourage the governments to get serious about reaching agreements. The risk in leaving to the courts is enormous.
And First Nations, all they have to do is look around to see why it's time to settle these claims.
Footnote: Vickers urged the governments and First Nations to sit down and reach agreements, rather than spend money and years in legal battles. "This case demonstrates how the court ... is ill-equipped to effect a reconciliation of competing interests," he noted.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

NDP's affirmative action plan troubling, but worth a try

My first reaction to the NDP's plan to push women and minority candidates into more ridings was negative.
It is undemocratic. Holding seats open for women means men are barred from running. The party members in the riding lose the right to pick the best candidate.
New Democrats backed quotas and affirmative action at their convention last weekend. The party decided to take a new approach to picking candidates for the 2009 election.
Incumbents are safe. Male or female, they can run again without worry. But for the seats held by Liberals, 30 per cent of the NDP candidates must be women. Another 10 per cent must be from other underrepresented groups - gays or people with different coloured skins.
The Liberals have 46 of 79 seats in the legislature; that means the NDP has to nominate women or minorities in about 20 of those ridings.
The party hopes that will happen without coercion or orders from above. Ridings that nominate the desired candidates will get extra campaign funding as an incentive.
But if that doesn't work, the party executive will step in and appoint candidates, whatever the local members think.
The push to elect women goes farther.
In any riding held by the NDP, if the current MLA decides not to run, a woman must be nominated. The aim is to ensure women run where there is a real chance of winning, not as sacrificial lambs or tokens.
So if Corky Evans decides not to run in Nelson-Creston in 2009, no men need apply to represent the riding. It's set aside for a woman.
It's not really fair. Imagine you've worked away for 30 years, and you really are ready to represent a riding in the legislature. You know the people and the issues and they trust you. And now you can't get nominated because you're a man.
Times Colonist cartoonist Adrian Raeside captured the problem, depicting Winston Churchill being rejected as a candidate by NDP leader Carole James.
On the other hand, a letter to the editor wondered how many leaders who could have been more effective than Churchill never were elected, because women were effectively barred from politics.
It's been at least 25 years now that we've been fretting about the lack of women in politics, which remains the preserve of white, middle-class guys.
But in 2005, the share of legislature seats held by women fell, ass it did in the 2001 election. In fact, women's share of seats is is lower todday than it was in 1986.
That should strike you as a problem. Women make up half the population - why do they hold less than one-quarter of the seats?
We all lose as a result. If you're looking for a great read, pick up James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds. The central thesis is that if you bring together people with diverse backgrounds - a plumber, a teacher, an engineer, a hockey player, a painter - and ask them to solve a problem, they'll do well. Diversity, used effectively, is hugely valuable.
It makes sense. Verbally quick, smart, ambitious men - the core group of politicians today - have one way to approach a problem, based on their life experience and what's worked so far.
A woman likely, almost certainly, brings a different life experience. That diversity makes for a better decision.
The bigger question, sadly, is why a woman would want to be an MLA. If you're in opposition, you're flailing around on the margins. If you're in government, you're silenced for the good of the team.
And success in the legislature is defined by how loud you can shout and how cutting your comments are. Both tend to be guy things.
Even getting there requires some affluent buddies to throw in some money and a team to sign up members. Many women have access to neither.
All in, I'm OK with the New Democrats' affirmative action plan.
Not thrilled. It's not democratic.
But then neither is our current system for picking candidates, with mass sign-ups and instant party members.
Really, what have we got to lose by trying something different?
Footnote: The measure was hotly debated at the NDP convention and the party is likely hoping most of its incumbents will run again in 2009. The greatest potential for internal conflict will be over the nomination for winnable ridings.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Taser scandal destroying public trust in police, government

The decision to call a public inquiry into Robert Dziekanski's Taser death might not have come quickly enough for my young friend Spencer.
Solicitor General John Les flip-flopped Monday. Five weeks after Dziekanski's death - and after repeatedly rejecting calls for an independent review - Les caved and announced a public inquiry.
But it might to be too late. Spencer is almost 11, quite smart and aware. On the way to watch a weekend hockey game, he was talking about the video showing four RCMP officers approaching the immigrant, Tasering him, kneeling on him. And Dziekanski dying.
And for Spencer, it was clear. They killed the guy and it didn't have to happen.
That's a bad thing for kids to think about the police.
It must be tough for all the other officers, who are just trying to make things better, I offered. Trying to be positive and all, and because it's true.
By his silence, I knew Spencer wasn't convinced.
And I can't blame him. At that point not a single question about Dziekanksi's death had been raised by anyone in the police or government. The four officers were on the job. Premier Gordon Campbell and Les said they were ready to wait for the RCMP internal investigation and an inquest.
They had no concerns about Taser use in the province.
In fact, the RCMP presented a false story about what happened. A spokesman said the officers had used gestures in an effort to calm Dziekansi. They tried to talk to him, but he was throwing chairs in a crowded area, the spokesman said. The first jolt from the Taser barely had an effect, the spokesman said.
And the RCMP attempted to withhold the video a young Victoria man, Paul Pritchard, had made of the whole affair. Only after Pritchard went to court was the evidence revealed.
It showed the officers making no effort to defuse the situation before repeatedly zapping Dziekanski and jumping on him
The RCMP denies any effort to mislead. "We were giving the information we knew at the time," said spokesman Cpl. Dale Carr, "That's not a lie."
Who cares where the false information came from? The RCMP story about what happened was untrue and covered up damaging facts.
And except for the video, and Pritchard's determination to see it released, that would likely have been the end of the affair.
Les didn't see any need for action. Campbell said he wasn't forming any judgments until all the investigations were concluded - a matter of years. There were no worries about Taser use, although six British Columbians have died after being shot.
For Spencer, and the kids at his elementary school, it looked pretty clear. The police could do what they wanted. Watch the video.
On Monday, Les reversed himself and announced a public inquiry. It will look at Taser use, the actions of the RCMP and the Canadian Border Services and the way people are treated at Vancouver International Airport. (On Tuesday, Campbell refused repeatedly to express confidence in Les.)
The inquiry was overdue. The RCMP is investigating itself, but the force's credibility is gone. There will be an inquest, but those are slow and limited. The federal government promised a review, but really, who expects anything there.
The official police position is that Tasers have never killed anyone. But 18 Canadians have died minutes after being Tasered in the last five years.
In 2005, the Police Complaints Commissioner ordered a review of Taser use. The result was a package of useful recommendations around training, protocols and monitoring.
But the provincial response was largely token. The RCMP, for example, still isn't providing basic information on Taser use to the province's use of force co-ordinator, despite the 2005 recommendation. The government can't see how many officers have received the recommended training in Taser use and excited delirium.
Spencer will be watching what happens next.
Footnote: What did happen with the Police Complaints Commissioner report? Not much. There is a provincial use of force co-ordinator and the government sent out a letter in 2005 telling police about the new guidelines. But there was no follow-up or monitoring. Some forces used the Taser much more frequently after the report; others, like Victoria's, cut back. The government checked out.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Tasers and the lost trust in the RCMP

Most people who watched Robert Dziekanski's life end on the floor of the Vancouver airport felt horror.
But there was also anger, and a sense of trust betrayed. The actions of the RCMP that night - and in the days that followed - marked a turning point. It is hard to maintain trust in our national police force after such a dramatic failure.
The initial focus has been on the police use of Tasers. That is important. In the last four years, 18 Canadians have died after being electrocuted b the devices. Six of them, one-third of the total, have been in B.C.
The devices were introduced in the province in 1998. It seemed a great step forward. The promise was that the Taser would offer an alternative to the use of guns. Imagine being able incapacitate a crazed person waving an axe at police, instead of having to shoot to kill.
But the devices were introduced without a clear code for their use and only limited training. And it became clear that officers were using Tasers more freely and for a wider range of purposes, sometimes simply to get people to follow instructions quickly.
That was not the idea. And given the number of deaths associated with Taser use, it was a dangerous approach.
Part of the problem has been the reluctance of police to acknowledge any risk, despite the mounting toll of people who died within minutes of being Tasered.
The deaths prompted the province's Police Complaints Commissioner to launch a review, led by the Victoria police department. The report backed the use of the devices, but called for better training and stricter rules.
The devices should not be used unless people are actively resisting police, the report said. It's not enough that they're ignoring commands or gesturing wildly.
And even if they are actively resisting, the report said, unless police are being assaulted they should use the Taser as a stun gun, rather than firing the darts into the person. The difference is significant: As a stun gun the Taser is painful, but not incapacitating.
The report warned of the risk that excited delirium - a medical condition that can cause death - is associated with Taser use. And it cautioned that after being Tasered, people hog-tied and left lying on their front might be unable to breathe.
The province said it adopted the recommendations.
But the video of Dziekanski's death - along with the other reports - gives the lie to that claim.
It shows him pacing in the Vancouver airport. A Polish immigrant, he had been there 10 hours. His mother came to meet him, but couldn't find him.
Dziekanski looks agitated. He waves a chair around, pushes something on the floor. A woman appears on the video, moves close and tries to talk to him. She's not afraid. Security guards are looking on.
Then the four RCMP officers arrive. They don't hesitate or try to talk to Dziekanski. They don't confer on whether a translator is available. None of them tries to take his arm. He raises his hands. Moves away.
And they shoot him with the Taser. He screams, falls, gets shocked again and all four leap on top of him. In a short time, he stops moving. None of the officers tries CPR in the minutes captured on the video.
It's bad. But in some ways, what happened in the next few days was worse. The young Victoria man who shot the video voluntarily offered it to the RCMP; officers said they would make a copy and return it the next day. But then they refused to give it back. They would hold it until the investigations were over, they said, perhaps two years.
Meanwhile, the RCMP talked about a struggle in a crowded terminal. They said officers had tried to subdue Dziekanski.
But the terminal was deserted. They didn't try to talk to him. He didn't struggle. The RCMP description bore no resemblance to the scene on the video. It smacked of cover-up.
But the young man threatened to sue. He got the video back and - after sharing it with Dziekanski's mother - released it.
The video should bring immediate, strict controls on Taser use and an end to the current practice that sees the RCMP investigate itself in this type of case.
But nothing will bring Dzieskanski back, or restore the lost trust in Canada's national police force.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Les stumbles on guns and gangs

Whenever someone calls John Les B.C.'s top cop, I flash to Chief Wiggum on the Simpsons.
Specifically, I see Wiggum in his familiar pose, standing in front of a burning plane wreck or exploding school bus, calling out "OK folks, show's over, nothing to see here."
Whenever a concern arises about an issue in his area of responsibility as solicitor general, Les responds pretty much the same way as Chief Wiggum.
When the opposition started asking questions about problems in the Coroners Service and hundreds of incomplete child death reviews abandoned in a warehouse, Les denied there were problems.
The Ted Hughes report showed he was wrong.
When the Vancouver Sun reported that lottery retailers were winning far more prizes than they should and raised fears about lottery security, Les said there was nothing to it. Everything was fine.
An ombudsman's report and external audit have found there were major security problems, minimal controls and ineffective policing by the Gaming Policy Enforcement Branch.
When a terrible crash focused attention on safety enforcement for farmworkers, it was the same story.
Now the issue is gang violence. Things have got crazy in the Lower Mainland, with 10 killings in less than three weeks, including public executions. No one has been arrested.
West Vancouver police Chief Kash Heed believes the fragmented policing in the region helps the gangs. They roam from municipality to municipality; police forces operate, for the most part, separately. That reduces their effectiveness.
Heed raised the issue in opinion pieces. And once again, instead of acknowledging the problem, Les went into denial. Worse, he moved to the attack, calling Heed's boss, the city's mayor, to complain. The chief should just stay quiet, Les suggested. Everything that could be done to fight gangs was already being done, he promised.
Once again, the approach backfired. Les was seen as the defender of the status quo, trying to gag police.
And within 24 hours, Vancouver police announced a new regional gang squad would be created in the coming weeks. Les's claim that everything was being done looked sadly out of touch.
The gang problem is a tough one. Regional policing would obviously help, allowing officers to track gangs and their members wherever they roamed, instead of passing files and requests back and forth.
Finding ways to reduce the money to be made in drugs, most obviously by increasing the availability of legal, prescribed drugs or alternatives, would also help.
And so would reducing the supply of guns. It's chilling to read the recent sentencing decision that saw Lower Mainland criminal Steven Porsch sent to jail for 16 years for arson, assault and selling guns. Undercover officers bought a steady supply of handguns and machine guns from Porsch. For less than $3,000 you could get a Sten gun that will shot 550 rounds a minute, and some ammunition.
It was not long ago that visiting U.S. officers were always struck by one major difference in policing on this side of the border. In Canada, you did not have to approach routine traffic stop as if the driver might be armed.
But in urban centres, that has changed. Guns are common in the gang and wannabe world.
The solutions aren't simple. The weapons are largely smuggled in from the U.S. Improved border security could make that task harder.
And the government act on legislation passed four years ago that would require every gun legally imported into the country be stamped with CA - for Canada - and a serial number. The measure is designed to help police keep track of illegal firearms.
Gun lobby groups oppose the measure, which is supposed to come into effect next month. The Harper government hasn't said if it will take the next step.
The government will likely pass legislation imposing mandatory miminum sentences for gun crimes. Mandatory minimums are a bad idea, removing needed discretion from the courts and encouraging plea bargaining for charges.
Anyway, the problem in dealing with gang crime isn't the sentences. Statistics suggest most gang killings are never solved. Until people are arrested and convicted, the sentence issue is theoretical.
Footnote: As another bad week ended for Les, his ministry announced it had taken action against the Hells Angels. The province has started the legal effort to prove their Nanaimo clubhouse is either the proceeds of crime or used for crime, which would it to be seized.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Surely children deserve adequate protection

When children are at risk of being abused or neglected, their safety - their lives - can depend on a quick, thorough investigation.
The children and families ministry isn't doing that. Investigations routinely remain incomplete for months, while children are at risk and clouds hang over families.
And the situation is substantially worse now than it was a year ago, or even four years ago, when the ministry was in chaos.
The ministry's standards say that child protection investigations should be completed within 30 days.
But that's not happening. NDP critic Nicholas Simons revealed that in September there were 3,264 child protection investigations that were still incomplete more than 90 days after the files were opened. That's three times longer than the ministry standard.
More than three out of four active cases had been open longer than 30 days and were still incomplete. Half the cases were still incomplete after three months.
Worse, the situation is deteriorating. The number of cases still incomplete after 90 days was up almost 20 per cent over last year. And it was 60-per-cent higher than the backlog in 2003.
This is one of the most important and basic indicators of the ministry's effectiveness.
Social workers can never protect every child. At times, they will do their best and bad things will still happen. A boy who is apprehended will suffer in care; a girl who is left with her family will be abused.
That makes it even more critical that frontline workers are able to do the job to the best of their abilities. Their inability to complete child protection investigations signals a critical breakdown.
Children and Families Minister Tom Christensen didn't have any good answers. He noted that the ministry had added 200 social workers this year to address underfunding and staff shortages. And he said there were fewer investigations open for more than a year than in 2001 - hardly a bragging point.
Sometimes, Christensen said, investigations just take longer to do properly. Managers review cases that drag on once a month, he added.
But remember, the ministry set the standard of 30 days. It said that the risk should be assessed and any needed protection measures taken within that time.
And for thousands of children, that's not happening.
The children's ministry continues to be a problem for the Liberals, as it was for the NDP.
The day after Simons raised the issue of incomplete child protection investigations, Times Colonist reporter Lindsay Kines revealed more problems.
Earlier this year, Kines reported that children who had been sexually abused were waiting months for counselling and support, because the program's budget had been frozen for 17 years. Christensen had refused funding requests from a Victoria agency that worked with abused children and was being forced to lay off therapists.
Kines also submitted a freedom of information request for information the ministry had on the issue. He received a review done in early 2006, heavily censored.
And then he tracked down the original and found what the government had tried to hide. The censored passages reported that the 47 agencies providing services to sexually abused children "were unanimous in their view that program funding is inadequate to meet the needs." Programs for abused children had been "neglected" for several years. Children in remote communities were particularly poorly served.
It looked like a cover-up. And it also raised questions about Christensen's statements that he didn't know about funding problems. "It hasn't been identified by communities as a priority for increase," he said this spring. "I'm asking my staff questions about that to see if it's something we need to be looking at more closely."
But that was a year after the report highlighting underfunding was delivered,
Meanwhile, as all this was revealed, Sean Holman at revealed the ministry had spent $560,000 on a truly lavish head office reno.
It's discouraging.
Footnote: I made a stupid mistake in a recent column on the release of forestland from tree farm licences. I wrote that TimberWest benefited in 2004 when the government ripped up a tree farm contract. The benefits really went to Island Timberlands, en entirely different customer. It was a bad error; I apologize.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Fall session going badly for Liberals

Three weeks into the fall session and you can see why Gordon Campbell only let MLAs sit for three days last fall.
The Liberals expected to make the Tsawwassen treaty the focus this year, celebrating a success and highlighting NDP divisions on the treaty.
Instead, they have been battered. Every few days brings another damaging revelation or more tough questions about everything from mismanagement of the out-of-control Vancouver convention centre to abuse and neglect of seniors.
It's often tough for governments when the house is sitting. Most of the time, the party in power can control the news agenda. It can decide and where to make announcements or hold press conferences; ministers can usually command some media attention.
For the opposition, it's tougher to get noticed.
But when the legislature is in session, the opposition gets its big chance. Every day, just before 2 p.m., there is question period. For 30 minutes opposition MLAs get to question cabinet ministers. (Give full credit to Premier Gordon Campbell, who doubled the time for questions as a way to make the legislature more effective.)
That's enough time for a big kick at a main topic and a briefer look at a couple of other issues.
It's not that the public pays any attention. But the 15 reporters and columnists assigned to cover the legislature do. The opposition's goal is to get them to do a story on the issue of the day, one that says the government has messed up. (No one said democracy would be pretty.)
There is a public benefit in all this. Governments don't want to be caught, so they're more careful. And when they do go wrong, the public attention brings change. Ted Hughes' report on children and youth, and the resulting changes, came about because of the relentless questioning of New Democrat Adrian Dix.
For the three weeks of this sitting, the Liberals have faced tough questions of competence and integrity.
They had to respond to questions about seniors abused and neglected in a Victoria care home. Former cabinet minister Graham Bruce's lobbying activities for the Cowichan Tribes were challenged, and are under review.
Forests Minister Rich Coleman still hasn't answered questions about why the government is ripping up tree farm licence agreements that protected forests. Companies are being handed concessions worth hundreds of millions of dollars, with no benefit for the public or justification.
The auditor general handed the Liberals another black eye, with a report on the mismanagement that allowed the Vancouver convention centre cost to escalate from $495 million to $883 million, and counting.
Once again, the government was bedeviled by problems in the children and families ministry. NDP critic Nicholas Simons revealed growing delays in completing investigations into child abuse or neglect.
Time Colonist reporter Lindsay Kines revealed the government had censored a report that said services for child sex abuse victims were inadequate and underfunded.
And then last week reporter Sean Holman revealed on that the ministry had spent $560,000 - almost three times the basic estimate - for a head office renovation. A consultant was paid $40,000 to recommend ways to make it welcoming to First Nations. There's art and great interior design features.
But it's also a ridiculous waste of public money. Frontline workers are swamped; a lavish head office is offensive.
The problem for the Liberals wasn't just the questions; it was the answers. The NDP questioners grew more confident; the ministers' answers lamer.
It's good news for Carole James, who had been criticized for being unable to advance the party lately.
And it's a wake-up call for the Liberals.
But don't expect the Liberals' strong poll standing to slide much. It's not enough for the New Democrats to raise doubts about the Liberals. Carole James and company have to convince voters they can do better. And that's still a big leap.
Footnote: The downside of the session has been a plunge in basic civility in the legislature. That could reflect and NDP decision to be tougher or the increasing tension on the government side. The heckling, shouting and abuse represent a sad decline from the generally higher standard of the last two years.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Liberals betray public with forest-land giveaway

The Liberal government's willingness to hand benefits worth hundreds of millions of dollars to forest company owners is staggering. It simply doesn't make sense.
The government has written contracts with forest companies covering their private land that has been included in provincial tree farm licences. The public compensated the companies handsomely to get them to sign the contracts, which ensure the land is managed and protected as timber-producing forests.
But now all the companies do is ask and the government lets them out of the agreements.
The companies make huge quick profits.
The public loses access, green space, environmental protection, forest jobs - and gets nothing.
This started in 2004. Weyerhaeuser asked the government to take 90,000 hectares out of its tree farm licence.
Ministry staff told Mike de Jong, then the forest minister, it was a bad idea. The company had already been compensated for including the land; the tougher environmental and replanting standards were worth continuing; and the agreement ensured the land stayed as forest. Communities saw this as an important social contract, staff reported.
And if the government let the company take the land out of the tree farm licence, it would have to negotiate compensation, staff said, and that would be tricky.
But de Jong over-ruled the ministry’s non-political staff and said OK to the company's request. He got nothing in compensation for taxpayers. Within months Weyerhaeuser began negotiating its sale to Brascan, which agreed to pay $1.4 billion.
Much of that value was due to De Jong's decision, which meant a $500-million windfall for the company.
Brascan executives said that getting the lands out of the tree farm licence meant an extra $18 million to $24 million a year in profits for the company, now called Island Timberlands.
And for the first time, the company could sell the land for development instead of being obligated to keep it as timber to ensure the future of the Island forest industry.
That meant a huge increase in the land's value. The company now says it has identified 38,000 hectares it wants to take out of forest use. They're worth $300 million to $450 million as is, "with a significantly higher valuation potentially achievable through value-added development activities." De Jong could have said no; nothing bad would have happened and the company had no case for demanding the gift.
He could have asked for compensation for the public or job guarantees, or at least demanded a donation of land for parks. Instead, he handed benefits worth $500 million over and got nothing in return.
Forest Minister Rich Coleman did it again this year. Western Forest Products asked him to let it out of its tree farm licence, reducing its environmental and replanting obligations and allowing more raw log exports.
And, more importantly, freeing up 70,000 acres for sale and development, including waterfront west of Victoria used by surfers, campers and tourists and land adjacent to provincial parks.
It's a gold mine for the company. And the government got nothing for the public - not money, investment commitments or a single acre protected as a park.
Coleman didn't consult anyone - politicians or public - from any of the communities. It was astonishingly arrogant. A developer has already bought the Jordan River property. He won't commit to public access to the surfing beach and camping area.
WFP is also selling another big chunk of land near Sooke Potholes Provincial Park. Just two years ago, the public helped raise money to buy land for the park. Part of the appeal was the park would be surrounded by land protected as forest. It might be logged, but it would replanted. Coleman ended that. The company now has 561 acres for sale around the potholes.
So why did he do it? Coleman says the company asked for help and he delivered. There's no evidence he saved one job or that Western Forest Products needed a handout. Coleman hasn’t released a single scrap of paper showing a review or rationale or business case for his decision.
Now the government is planning the next giveaway, in the Kootenays. Pope & Talbot has been advertising 16,000 acres currently covered by tree-farm licences for sale for development. Coleman maintains he hasn't decided whether to let the company out of the contract.
But in fact, the same developer who bought the Jordan River property has purchased a large lakefront tract from Pope & Talbot. Both the developer and the company seem confident the deal is done, despite Coleman’s claims.
Again, why would the government give a bankrupt forest company a gift worth millions? Especially when the land includes property that's important for running the business.
A company asks for a favour worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The government doesn't negotiate, or protect the public. It says sure. And you lose.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Convention centre a rival to fast ferries for failure

You could make a case that the Vancouver Convention Centre expansion is a bigger scandal than the fast ferry fiasco.
Both are examples of incompetence and overspending, revealed by the auditor general. There are depressing similarities in the way both Liberal and NDP governments mismanaged their megaprojects.
And both Liberals and NDP kept the problems and soaring costs from the public until they were forced to come clean.
The convention centre has run much farther over budget. The initial plan set a $495-million cost; that has now climbed to $883 million. The fast ferries went from $210 million to $454 million.
But there will be a convention centre at the end of it all. The fast ferries were never used and sold for about $20 million to the highest bidder.
Three things give the convention centre the edge as the worse offensive scandal. The contrast between the Liberals’ claims of competence and the mismanagement revealed in the just-released auditor general’s report makes the mess more painful.
The Liberals also betrayed their promise of an open and transparent government, concealing information about the soaring costs from the public.
And in the fast ferries fiasco, people were held accountable, though maybe not all the right people. The CEO was turfed; the board dismissed. Campbell wanted the minister to resign, though that didn’t happen.
But the Liberals have held no one to account. No one has accepted responsibility or resigned or been fired. The old Campbell would have been outraged.
Auditor General Errol Price’s report on the convention centre is grim reading. When the project was announced in 2003, the government said the expansion budget was $495 million.
That was untrue. There was no business plan or design; the only cost estimates were vague and from 2000. The $495-million figure was based on what the province hoped to spend, not what the centre would actually cost.
In 2004, Premier Gordon Campbell guaranteed the cost would not rise above the revised budget of $565 million. “This will be on time and on budget,” he said. “Count on it. There are contingencies built into the project and it’s going to be run professionally.”
That was also not true. Work on the foundation had started, but there was still no final design for the upper floors. You can’t budget when you don’t know what you’re building.
Even then the government had been warned that the real cost would be much higher.
The worst deception occurred last year. Price found Tourism Minister Stan Hagen and Finance Minister Carole Taylor were told in April 2006 that the budget — which had already risen to $615 million — was inadequate to complete the planned building.
But they didn’t tell the public or reveal the problems when asked in the legislature. It was almost a year later, this February, when then project chairman Ken Dobell said the cost would be around $800 million.
The government now says the cost will be $883 million. Price says that might not be enough to finish the building.
One of the problems the auditor general identified was the board the premier picked to manage the convention centre project. It lacked the required expertise in big project management. (Shades of the B.C. Ferries board that oversaw the fast ferries disaster.)
But what it did have was the tightest of ties to the premier’s office. The chair was Dobell, Campbell’s right hand.
This was the premier’s project. And when costs started rising, he had to know.
But the extent of the problems was kept from the public and the legislature.
That’s worrying. If the facts were revealed, the public could have decided the costs should not be allowed to mount. That other communities needed convention facilities too, perhaps, and Vancouver’s project should stay on budget to give them a shot at some money.
The centre is being funded by the province, the federal government and a Lower Mainland hotel-room tax.
But the province agreed to take responsibility for all overruns. Provincial taxpayers’ promised $223-million contribution is now up to $576 million.
It’s a big demonstration of secrecy, lack of accountability and mismanagement from a government that promised to end all three.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Booster seats and lost politicians

The great booster seat controversy is mostly depressing.
And it leaves me wondering what happened to Linda Reid, the minister responsible.
I was a big fan when the Liberals were in opposition; in government, Reid looks to have just lost her way.
Things started out fine. The government launched a campaign to encourage parents to get ready for a new law requiring older, bigger kids to use booster seats in cars.
As part of it, taxpayers picked up the tab for 2,000 booster seats. They were to go to low-income families.
But then the Liberals lost their minds. They sent the car seats out for distribution - but only to Liberal MLAs' constituency offices.
The proud Liberal politicos sent out press releases and posed for pictures, the guardians of poor kids' safety.
"Liberal MLA hands out free car seats for kids," said the headline in Burnaby Now. MLA John Nuraney said not all families could afford the car seats. "We did not want people who could not afford them to suffer because of that," he said.
"The giveaway is part of a larger initiative where the provincial Liberals are sending seats to all constituency offices across the province," the story said.
Oh, those good Liberals.
Except they weren't. The taxpayers picked up the bill. The Liberals MLAs just took the credit.
It was both sleazy and dumb, since they obviously going to be caught playing fast and loose with the facts.
And they were. The NDP asked about it in the legislature. Reid fumbled through some non-answers and fared even worse when reporters scrummed her on the issue.
The problem, fundamentally, was that she trying to defend the indefensible. It was just painful.
In the big scheme of things, trying to score phony political points off kids isn't a huge offence. The booster seats seemed to have ended up in the right parents' hands.
But it left me wondering what happens to politicians, to people like Reid.
I had a lot of time for her when the Liberals were in opposition, literally. She was the critic for the children and families ministry; I wrote about the ministry's problems - and there were a lot of them; and Reid offered useful insights.
More than that. She made a compelling case for a whole different approach. The ministry required much more money and an end to constant restructuring, Reid said. Front-line workers needed a lot more support and more work had to be done on prevention.
And the government should start by figuring what families and children at risk need to thrive, and what that would cost, Reid said. Even the government couldn't afford to do it all, the work should start with a needs-based budget.
Reid seemed knowledgeable, pragmatic and passionate about the ministry and what it could be doing to make peoples' lives better. It wasn't political stuff. It was about doing the right thing.
But then the Liberals were elected. Reid didn't get children and families; that went, disastrously, to Gordon Hogg. She became a junior minister for issue affecting young children.
And everything changed. Her government didn't increase support for the ministry; it announced reckless cuts to the budget for children and families.
Instead of stability, the government launched a disastrously botched re-organization. The process is in its sixth year now, and the future is still unclear.
Maybe that's just the way it is. You say one thing in opposition, and then abandon not just the policies you advocate, but also the principles behind them once you're in government.
Or maybe it's all more complicated. You fight for the right thing in caucus or cabinet and then go along, even if you're betraying the principles you once advocated. You can do more good from inside and all that.
And then you find yourself standing in a hallway, or the legislature, defending - badly - a cockamamie scheme to play political games with a kids' safety program.
You know it's wrong, but there are you are. _
Footnote: How embarrassing was the whole deal? Premier Gordon Campbell handed out booster seats; the photos were prominent on his website. But once the NDP started asking questions, they were shuffled out of the spotlight, like some out-of-favour Soviet general erased from the annual May Day parade photos in Red Square.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Time for tougher controls on police Taser use

The bad thing isn’t necessarily that so many people are dying after being tasered by police.
What’s really worrying is that police forces - at least officially - don’t see any connection between zapping people and their almost immediate deaths.
Robert Dziekanski is the latest victim. His mother, who lives in Kamloops, worked two jobs and saved for years to bring her 40-year-old son to Canada. He flew into in Vancouver, but there were delays in getting into the terminal. She missed him at the airport.
He wandered for 10 hours, unable to get anyone to understand him. Then Dzienkanski started acting aggressively in the airport, alarming people. RCMP officers subdued him with a Taser. He died. His mother is wondering what happened.
The official police position is that Tasers are safe. But at least 17 people have died after being shocked with the devices in Canada in the last five years, six in this province. That seems more than coincidence.
And it’s significant. In B.C., police have only had to shoot more than three people in a year than once in the past decade. Officers are remarkably restrained in their use of weapons, no matter how great the personal risk.
Tasers were proposed in B.C. in 1998 as an alternative to deadly force. They were to be used when officers were ready to draw their guns.
That seemed a very good idea. Anything that gives police an alternative to shooting someone - without putting themselves at increased risk - is good.
But it’s impossible to know if that’s how the stun guns have been used in B.C. The impression is that Tasers have been used as a convenient way to subdue people.
When Victoria police studied Tasers for the B.C. Police Complaints Commissioner in 2004, they found that about one-third of the cases in which it had been used in Canada involved people who were resisting arrest - perhaps pulling an arm away from an officer, or ignoring an order. They weren’t hitting or kicking.
There’s certainly been no evidence that the RCMP had any reason to consider shooting Dziekanski. He had no weapon; there was no imminent danger in the largely empty airport. At least three RCMP officers were there to deal with one angry man.
Don’t get me wrong. Long ago, as a reporter, I did a ride-along with an RCMP officer in Alberta. She stopped a beat-up car full of men on the highway. I sat there with my notebook, wondering what I’d do if things went sideways and we were suddenly fighting five big guys. A Taser would have been reassuring.
The issue here is not the value of the weapon. It’s the need for an accurate assessment of the risks, so that the Tasers can be used to ensure police safety while not subjecting civilians to the risk of death.
Police and the manufacturer argue Tasers don’t kill. But their use has been part of a sequence of events that does. The person being zapped is generally in state of excited delirium, often due to cocaine use. They are then restrained on their stomachs, with hands and feet tied behind their backs. And then they stop breathing and die.
The 2004 report made several recommendations around police training and the need for mandatory reporting anytime a Taser is used. It called for specific training for all officers in excited delirium and an end to “maximum restraint” positions that sees suspects hogtied on their stomachs.
Some of the recommendations have been adopted; others are still not in place. But the continuing toll be taken by Taser use indicates that more needs to be done.
And the greatest concern remains the reluctance of police to acknowledge the risks or that Tasers can kill.
When people are belligerent or violent, there is no easy solution for police. All the alternatives, from pepper spray to baton to talking, carry risks.
But Tasers have proven particularly dangerous. It’s time to ensure their use is treated almost as seriously as discharging a gun in the line of duty.
Footnote: The Dzienkanski case raises once again another problem. The investigation into his death is being conducted by the RCMP, just as the force investigated its officer’s actions when Ian Bush was shot and killed inside the Houston RCMP detachment. The public interest demands an independent investigation.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Slow progress on coming pine beetle disaster

The news is getting and grimmer on the pine beetle front. Yet the crisis still doesn't seem to have really captured the political and public attention it deserves.
It's difficult to grasp the scale of the economic problems ahead. B.C. has never experienced anything like it. Only the collapse of the east Coast cod fishery offers a comparable disaster.
The province has released its latest report on the update, with yet more bad news.
The timber killed by the pine beetle appears to be losing its value as lumber faster than expected, reducing the amount that can be salvaged. And there is some evidence the beetle is attacking more of the younger trees that were considered safe from destruction.
Here's the problem.
The Interior forest industry is running flat out now to harvest pine trees before they're dead and worthless. The government has offered cheap stumpage and bumped the annual allowable cut.
Last year, about 46 million cubic metres of timber were harvested for saw logs. That's about 25 per cent more than before the beetle disaster. The Forest Ministry report said that rate could last about four years, until the timber is gone. The annual allowable cut will be reduced to about half the current levels.
And the harvest will be one-third below the amount of timber being cut down and sawed into two by fours and other lumber back in "normal" times.
There will still be forestry, using other species, pines that survive and young pine trees reaching maturity. But for 50 years -- almost two generations of workers -- the traditional industry will be at half its current levels.

The impact will vary by region. But in the Quesnel area, for an example, the timber supply will be cut by some 35 per cent. About 75 per cent of the 12,000 jobs in the region are linked in some way to the forest industry. That means about 3,100 jobs at risk -- one in four employed people in the community. A similar economic disaster in the Lower Mainland would mean a loss of more than 400,000 jobs within a period of a few years. (And, I expect, it would mean a lot more government action.)
That kind of job loss creates a chain reaction. People have to leave town, so stores and other businesses suffer. The forced sale of houses hurts property values. Schools lose students. It's a nasty spiral.
At the same time the government released its forests report, it issued a progress report on efforts to come up ways to help the affected communities deal with the economic crunch.
So far, the province has been more successful at ensuring the wood gets logged than at dealing with the long-term crisis.
The progress report isn't that reassuring.
There's a big replanting push. The report talks about funding for research on ways to use the damaged wood and efforts to find new markets. Bizarrely, it goes on at length about the fact that pine-beetle wood will be used for the roof of the Olympic speed skating oval.
The government is also gathering geological information to try to lure mining companies into the affected areas. It hopes the wood can be burned to generate power and is looking at encouraging farmland.
But the rate of progress is slow --the report talks about a six-parcel agricultural pilot project. And the report's section on "Maintaining strong communities" is a little surreal. It talks about the LocalMotion program to fund bike paths and about Spirit Squares -- hardly at the centre of economic renewal.
There is more going on.
The federal government has put up $36 million for economic diversification. The Northern Development Initiative Trust has set aside $32 million for economic renewal programs and community and regional groups are at work.
But the crisis is just a few years away and the challenge enormous. And so far, the urgency of the crisis just doesn't seem to have hit home.
Footnote: The other big questions are around what will happen with the massive reforestation effort. There's concern about the threat the beetle might pose to trees as they mature and concern about the effects of global warming on the forest during the 50 years the trees will take to mature.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Lobbying allegations get legislature off to stormy start

It's going to be a crabby 18 months until the next election, at least based on the first week of the fall legislative sitting.
The MLAs have only been back four days as I write this, but things are already pretty rowdy.
The New Democrats have been hammering at two issues - seniors' care and the alleged lobbying activities of former cabinet minister Graham Bruce.
And the government has been fighting back, especially on the Bruce affair. Aboriginal Affairs Minister Mike de Jong, a scrappy performer in the legislature, has led the defence.
It's a changed tone. After the 2005 election, both sides made a real effort to maintain basic civility in the legislature. Things appear to be heading, sadly, back to the bad old days.
The questions about Bruce's activities raise the kinds of issues that are always going to heat things up.
The Vancouver Sun kicked things off, with a report that Bruce had been lobbying the provincial government on behalf of the Cowichan Tribes since 2005. But, the paper reported, he had never signed up with the province's lobbyist registry.
The activities also raised potential problems under conflict-of-interest rules, the report noted. Former cabinet ministers are barred from paid lobbying at the provincial level for two years after they leave office. Bruce started working for the tribes within months of being defeated in 2005.
The lobbyist registry was a part of the Liberal election platform in 2001. They said that the public should know who was lobbying politicians and bureaucrats and what they were seeking. That way, people could judge for themselves whether anything questionable was happening.
It seemed a good idea. Lobbying has become increasingly big business. A lot of the consultants are people with close ties to the political parties - ex-politicians or political staff.
There was a perception that paying for access was part of doing business. Gordon Campbell said that should stop, and the lobbyist registry was the solution.
Bruce initially said he met with Campbell and two ministers to seek funding for the Cowichan Tribes' effort to host the 2008 North American Indigenous Games.
By midweek, the Cowichan Tribe issued a news release criticizing the NDP for raising the issue. Bruce was hired to raise money from local governments, corporate sponsors and others, the band said.
But in the legislature, the NDP cited minutes of tribal committee meetings in which Bruce is quoted as saying he was calling in favours from his former colleagues to get funds released. He was paid $121,000 for work for the tribe.
De Jong said there couldn't have been any lobbying, because B.C. had agreed in 2003 to provide $3.5 million to the games.
But that's not exactly what the government said in announcing the funding in June 2006. It acknowledged the 2003 federal-provincial agreement, but the deal wasn't quite the same as de Jong now claims. "It was agreed Canada and the host province/territory would each contribute 35 per cent to a maximum of $3.5 million," the news release said. Note, up to $3.5 million, not a promise to provide that much.
Bruce hasn't done any interviews since the first Sun story. He released a statement, saying he didn't have to register as a lobbyist. The act doesn't cover lobbying activities by First Nations or their employees, he said, and he spent less than 20 per cent of his time lobbying, the threshold for registration.
James has asked the conflict commissioner to investigate. The information and privacy commissioner, who has responsibility - sort of - for the lobbyist registry.
The whole affair - following similar controversy over former deputy minister Ken Dobell's failure to register - adds to doubts that the lobbyist registry is working.
And the Liberals' defence in both cases rests in part on the notion that the projects were worthwhile, so everyone should just ease up. That's an attitude that eventually gets governments in trouble.
Footnote: There's a whole other aspect to this affair. Much of the information has come from tribal committee meetings released by unhappy band members. The minutes suggest treaty funds borrowed from the government were used to pay Bruce until he could get the provincial grants.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Time to find out if government is selling your resources too cheaply

There’s a big uproar next door in Alberta, one that could end the Conservatives’ 36-year domination of the legislature. And one that could spill over into B.C.
The issue is oil and gas royalties, and whether the government has been selling the province’s resources off far too cheaply.
Since B.C.’s royalty rates have at least partly been shaped by the desire to be competitive with Alberta, that leaves some questions about whether the public has been shortchanged here.
It certainly looks like Albertans lost out. New Premier Ed Stelmach set up a blue-ribbon panel to review the province’s take from oil and gas resources. It reported last month, and said the government had been failing to get full value, giving the companies non-renewable resources on the cheap.
The panel recommended an immediate increase of about 20 per cent, worth an extra $2 billion a year. (The industry, naturally, is outraged.)
Things got worse for the Alberta government. The province’s auditor general released a report this month that said the government knew it could increase royalties by $1 billion to $2 billion a year without losing any economic activity, but didn’t act.
The numbers are much smaller in B.C., and the resource mix is different. Oil and oilsands aren’t a factor.
But Energy Minister Richard Neufeld has cited the need to compete with Alberta in announcing natural gas royalty cuts here. If Alberta has been under pricing the resource, then perhaps so has B.C.
The people of the provinces own the oil and gas. The government auctions the right to explore and drill on sections of land. The companies then pay a royalty on each unit of gas they produce. Effectively, they’re buying it wholesale from the public and then reselling it.
There’s no science to setting gas royalties. It’s like a used-car deal: The buyer tries to pay as little as possible, the seller strives to get as the highest price.
But there’s a difference. With a used car, the seller is usually just looking to get the best price within a week or two. He doesn’t want to stick the rusty Accord in the garage and wait a few years. (Since buyers know that, they gain some advantage).
But with nonrenewable resources - like natural gas - it’s a different story. The gas will almost certainly get more valuable as the years go by. The government can drive a tough bargain; if the energy companies don’t pay now, they might in 10 years.
And there’s an argument against selling off non-renewable resources quickly, at the expense of future generations.
But governments don’t always think long term. They need to get elected every four years. And for them, it might be worth selling the resource a little quickly to get revenue - and jobs - right now.
There’s no doubt the government has focused successfully on increasing the pace of gas production since the Liberals were elected in 2001. The measures went beyond royalty changes and included reduced regulation, road-building support and other moves to encourage companies.
The energy ministry says it constantly monitors the royalty regime to make sure that the rates are appropriate - at a level that encourages companies to invest here, not in Alberta or some other jurisdiction, but not too low.
Yet last year, when the NDP asked basic questions about the costs and benefits of some royalty cuts, it took the ministry four months to come up with information that should have been readily available if the royalties were being monitored.
Anyway, the Alberta energy ministry said it was monitoring royalties closely too.The two provinces’ royalty regimes weren’t identical, but they were linked in the name of competitiveness. If Alberta is leaving money on the table, B.C. might be too.
Fortunately, it’s easy enough to check. B.C.’s auditor general just needs to do the same kind of review his counterpart in Alberta did.The public would be well-served by the answers, whatever they reveal.
Footnote: The whole issue raises - once again - the idea of directing a share of nonrenewable-resource revenues to a heritage fund. That would reduce the incentive for governments to sell of the resource for short-term benefits and leave future generations with a pool of money to cushion the blow when the boom years are over.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Session should end electoral boundaries mystery

One of the interesting things to come in next week's fall legislature session will be Gordon Campbell's plan for new electoral boundaries.
The premier over-ruled the independent Electoral Boundaries Commission last month. He rejected the ridings the commissioners created under legislation intended to prevent political interference in the process. So far, the response to the Campbell's intervention has been mostly positive.
The commission's recommendations included adding five new ridings - four in the Lower Mainland and one in the Okanagan - to reflect population growth.
And it proposed reducing the number of seats in rural B.C. by three to offset the increase in growing areas. The legislature would have gone from 79 to 81 seats.
The proposal to cut the number rural seats didn't go over well.
So Campbell said he was intervening to over-rule the commissioners. The government would pass new legislation this fall, ordering the commission to protect the three rural seats.
The commission didn't do anything wrong. Its mandate under the law was to look at the province's changing population and come up with boundaries that would ensure each MLA would represent about the same number of people. The act
requires ridings to be within 25 per cent of the average population size, although there is an opportunity for larger deviations in exceptional circumstances.
With populations falling - or growing slowly - in some areas, the result would be fewer, larger ridings in those regions.
That meant the Kootenays representation would go from four to three; Cariboo-Thompson from five seats to four; and the north from eight to seven ridings.
Over all, the Lower Mainland and Okanagan would gain power; the rural areas would lose. But that's the nature of representative democracy.
The political kickback was strong though, and Campbell reacted. But exactly what he has in mind remains mysterious.
Remember, the commissioners only proposed adding five new seats to urban areas. So even if the instructions are to protect the three rural seats that faced elimination, the legislature would only need to go to 84 members.
Campbell says the commissioners will be ordered to include a total of eight additional seats, taking the legislature to 87 MLAs.
Campbell didn't say where the extra three seats would go, or how that would be decided.
But it looks like the intent is to add not just five seats to urban areas, but eight.
And that has NDP leader Carole James - who supported protecting the three rural seats - crying foul. She says Campbell is trying to create more safe Liberals seats in the Lower Mainland and in the process reducing overall rural
It's a bit of a mess. The Electoral Boundaries Commission worked for 18 months and spent $3 million working on new riding boundaries under the law. It had hearings set for this fall.
Campbell turned that upside down and it's not yet clear how it will be put back together. The legislation this fall will have to answer the questions about how much freedom the commission will have under his new plan.
One way or another, it's going to cost more money. Eight more MLAs means millions more in salary, support staff, constituency offices and the rest. (That's all a bit ironic given Campbell's 1996 campaign "Pledge with taxpayers"
that promised the number of MLAs would be reduced to less than 60.)
And it's going to make time tight. The new boundaries have to be in the hands of Elections BC within the next eight months. There could be a lot of work to do and little time for public consultation.
The biggest worry is the precedent Campbell is setting. The Electoral Boundaries Commission was established to prevent the party in power from setting boundaries that would improve its candidates' chances. In the U.S., congressional seats
have been so distorted that incumbents have a huge advantage.
Now Campbell's intervention is raising questions about a return to politically influenced electoral boundaries.
Footnote: The changes should be good news for proponents of the single-transferable-vote system of proportional representation. A referendum will be held on the system at the same time as the 2009 election. The increased number
of seats makes the system more representative, particularly in rural areas.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Fuzzy battle plans in B.C.'s climate-change war

There’s likely one question on most peoples’ minds after Premier Gordon Campbell’s big climate-change speech.
What’s he talking about?
At the Union of B.C. Municipalities last week Campbell said the climate-change battle is as significant as the two world wars Canada has fought. But when it came to our marching orders, he didn’t really have that much new to offer.
The premier promised laws to set tough limits on emissions in B.C. — far stricter than the targets set by the Harper government or Arnold Schwarzenegger. But he had announced the same limits in the throne speech in February. And the how of it all is still mostly a mystery.
Here are the basics. By 2020, B.C. is committed to reducing missions to 33-per-cent lower than today’s level. (Even as the population grows to more than five million.) It’s an ambitious target that reflects our desire to see a real action on global warming; interim targets will be set for 2012 and 2016. But how we get there is still pretty vague.
A “blue-ribbon” Climate Action Team, with representatives from environmental organizations, business and industry, the scientific community and First Nations will set interim targets by next summer, Campbell said.
He promised regional meetings on reductions in forestry, mining, energy, landfills and agriculture. Municipalities will get more power to give incentives to green developers and B.C. will adopt California standards for vehicle emissions. (The only money attached to any of the activities was a $50-million commitment for new buses.) And Campbell announced that the government would become “carbon neutral” by 2010.
That doesn’t mean that the government is going to cut its greenhouse-gas emissions — or carbon-dioxide emissions, to use another term — to zero. Instead, the government’s solution will be found in Campbell’s announcement of a new B.C. Carbon Trust.
The trust will sell emission credits to government, business and individuals. The theory is that it will then use the money to support projects that achieve an equivalent reduction in emissions.
Take an example. The premier announced B.C. would immediately be carbon-neutral in its government travel. When Campbell hops on a float plane or Helijet to spend the day in Victoria, and then flies back to Vancouver, he generates about one-sixth of a tonne of greenhouse gases in the round trip.
The trust will sell emission credits at $25 a tonne. So if the premier sends it a cheque for $4, his trip will be carbon neutral. The trust will then spend the money in a way that results in a one-sixth of tonne reduction in emissions somewhere else. It will plant some trees, improve transit or subsidize a windmill so less natural gas is burned to generate power.
The carbon-credit trading deal Campbell has entered into as part of the Western Climate Initiative takes a similar approach. B.C., Manitoba, California and five other states have set emission limits and agreed to establish a carbon-credit trading system by next summer. Jurisdictions that are under their limits will sell the credits to those that can’t cut emissions enough.
It’s a reasonable approach. Organizations know they have to pay for each tonne and have an incentive to reduce their emissions. And a similar market in the European Union — after some initial difficulties, mostly around setting emission caps fairly — has by most accounts worked well.
But these kinds of exercises are also tricky. For example, the B.C. Carbon Trust might not achieve real reductions with the money it takes in.
And setting the cost of credits, in non-market versions like the trust, is a challenge. If the cost is too high, the economy could be hurt; too low and it becomes a cheap licence to continue business as usual. At $25 a tonne, B.C. could achieve half its goal for 2020 by writing an annual cheque for $500 million. (Though $25 is in the ballpark of the emission value set by the active markets.)
There are questions about other aspects of the province’s plans. Campbell has set up both a cabinet committee on climate action and a $4-million climate secretariat within the premier’s office. The committee has had 177 presentations from industry, green groups, scientists and ministries, he said. But not one has been made public.
The secretariat, with six senior managers, hasn’t produced one report on its work. And although Campbell said the government has already identified ways to meet up to 80 per cent of the 2020 goal, the public is still in the dark about what’s ahead — the costs, the opportunities, the industry issues.
None of this is to criticize the commitment. Campbell has grabbed the climate-change issue and set some tough goals. But setting targets without telling the public anything about how they’ll be achieved raises concerns about the soundness of the government’s plans.