Wednesday, February 14, 2007

B.C. takes green crown, thanks to you

VICTORIA - What do you know, this democracy thing works.
The Liberal government's discovery of climate change, and the resulting extraordinary measures promised in the throne speech, didn't happen just because the premier got a look at China's sprawling cities.
It was you. I can't recall another issue where the public has got so far out ahead of all the political parties and governments, which are now scrambling to catch up.
And Premier Gordon Campbell, a man of enthusiasms, has outscrambled them all. (Of course, the problem with men of enthusiasms is their necessarily short attention span; the next great passion is around the corner.)
Climate change didn't rate one word in the last six throne speeches; the government had no real climate-change plan, just a 2204 document outlining some general directions.
But this week, everything changed. B.C.'s ambitious new climate-change agenda make it a potential leader in North America. The throne speech acknowledged climate change is real, caused by human actions and threatens "life on Earth as we know it." Pretty big change for a government that thought the Kyoto accord was too costly to implement.
The climate-change measures would cut across most areas of our lives. The end target is a one-third reduction from current levels by 2020. A new Climate Action Team, headed by the premier, will set interim targets for 2012 and 2016.
The broad target is backed up by specific commitments. Some are small, like yet another in long history of promises to ban beehive burners.
But others are sweeping. Cars sold in the province will have to meet tough emission standards, with the change phased in starting in 2009. New zero-emission standards for coal plants effectively kill two projects planned for the Interior.
And the oil and gas industry, a major source, will have to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 2000 levels by 2016. That will be a challenge, even given the technological improvements of the past five or six years.
The changes reach down to the local level too. The province promises a new green building code and better transit.
But for all these big ideas, it will be the details that define success or failure, fad or commitment. A new green building code could order an extra two inches of insulation. Or it could mandate measures to cut average energy use - and emissions - by 75 per cent.
The throne speech got good marks all around, with even environmental groups usually critical of government praising the boldness of the vision.
Now we'll see if the government has the commitment to stick with the effort and deal with the inevitable objections anytime change is proposed.
Beyond the climate change measures, the throne speech was pretty thin gruel, although coming changes in education and literacy were hinted at.
The sections on health were worrying. The government continues to exaggerate - wildly - the problem posed by rising health care costs.
But the speech offered little in the way of specific measures to ease pressures on the system or deliver care more effectively.
And even though the conversation on health has barely begun, the speech suggested the government's mind might already be made up. The speech promised "fundamental health reforms that increase individual choice and maximize the supply of health services within the budgets available."
I don't know what that means. That in itself is worrying.
Sadly, it looks like we'll have to wait another year before public concern about homelessness, addictions, mental illness and street problems forces the politicians to play catch up again.
The speech called homelessness "a plague that weakens our cities, siphons our strength, and erodes our social fabric."
But it didn't reveal any serious plan to address the issues, just tinkering around the edges with small but useful measures like municipal zoning changes.
Which means things will grow worse - and probably be at the centre of next year's throne speech.
Footnote: Education got a fair amount of attention in the throne speech, although a lot of the proposals were vague. The government is going to amend the law to let school boards charge user fees for music, shop and sports academies, a backward step. And it looks like a bigger push on literacy, school readiness and greater experimentation in schools is coming.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Liberals face questions over health letter secrecy

VICTORIA - You can tell a lot about what's wrong in government by the clumsy attempts to censor Fraser Health Authority chairman Keith Purchase's resignation letter.
It's not that there was anything unusual about the attempts to keep the facts hidden. In fact, the point is that secrecy has become the norm, the default position in government.
Which is particularly ironic, in a nasty way, because the Liberals promised to run the most open and transparent government in Canada. If they are, Lord help people who live in the other provinces.
It's also telling that the government's attempt to keep Purchase's letter secret come as it launches a conversation on health. It's like sitting down to talk about how school is going with your son, without him mentioning that he's got a report card with four 'Fs' in his back pocket.
Purchase resigned Jan. 25, out of frustration with inadequate funding for the health authority and Health Minister George Abbott's rough firing of Vancouver Coastal chairman Trevor Johnstone.
To be fair, Abbott acknowledged those were the reasons at the time. But he didn't release the letter of resignation, saying it would have to be reviewed under under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.
That took a remarkable 11 days, just to vet a brief letter. No wonder the government routinely breaks the law by failing to respond to information requests within legal deadlines.
When the government did release Purchase's letter of resignation, the government had whited out several sections. No one was supposed to know what Purchase wrote to the minister in those sentences.
But Vaughn Palmer, the superb Vancouver Sun columnist, got the original, uncensored version of the letter. The cuts, Palmer noted, were a "pathetic" attempt to conceal damaging information.
It's a good description, when you consider the sections the government tried to hide.
Purchase noted in his letter to Abbott that the health authority board had already written two letters of concern about inadequate funding for the coming year. He was specific about whjay lay ahead. "Based on that funding information, bed closures and service cuts would be inevitable," he wrote.
The government censored that information in the version of the letter it released.
Purchase warned in the letter that the problems were already hitting the region. "Put simply, we have a crisis situation in the Fraser Health region," he wrote.
The government censored that sentence.
And Purchase explained in the letter why he couldn't sign letters accepting the budget and saying it was adequate to allow care to the standards the government expected.
"I cannot sign this budget or the government's letter of expectation, when I know that Fraser Health will be unable to meet any of your goals with the resources allocated to us," he told Abbott.
The government censored that sentence too.
It's a cover-up. What's the government's justification? It cites sections of freedom of in formation legislation that allow it to invoke secrecy for "policy advice or recommendations developed by a public body or for a minister" and information that could be "harmful to the financial or economic interests of a public body."
First, a resignation letter is not policy advice developed by a public body.
But there's a bigger problem with the government's position.
The law doesn't say the government must keep the information secret. It simply says the government may choose to do so.
An open and transparent government would look at the law and the letter and release it. There's no privacy or public policy reason for secrecy. No reason at all, except to protect the minister and the government from embarrassment.
The case is no one-off example of unwarranted secrecy. The government routinely turned freedom of information law inside out. If the law says information may be kept secret, government acts as if it must be kept secret.
Open and transparent? Not even close.
Footnote: Expect the health authority resignations and firings to be high on the NDP's list of question-period topics now that the legislature has resumed sitting after the long break forced by the Liberals. They're likely also to focus on funding problems in the Vancouver Island, Northern and Interior health regions, where board members have so far made no waves.