Thursday, March 22, 2007

Politicians' sneak attack on library backfires

VICTORIA - There's something nastily symbolic about the politicans' plan to shut down the magnificent legislative library so they could have better offices.
Especially the sneaky way they were going about it.
The library is the coolest part of the legislative buildings, an annex designed by Francis Rattenbury 13 years after his main building was finished in 1898.
A hall directly behind the red-carpeted legislative chamber leads to a round, marble-clad room that rises four stories to a dome. Off to one side there's a reading room; files and computers are on the other; and behind the desks there are floors of reference material, much of it unavailable anywhere else.
The library has been in the current location since 1915. But late last week politicians revealed they wanted to shut it down. The rotunda would make a grand reception hall for the premier to meet visiting dignitaries and the rest of the space could be carved up for offices. Premier Gordon Campbell went through a couple of weeks ago on a personal tour to consider possibilities.
The plan might be unravelling in the face of public outrage. The NDP, which seemed to be on side, now says the library should stay put.
Space is tight in some parts of the legislature building and up to six more MLAs are expected after the next election as a result of the riding boundaries' review now under way.
And the library is likely used less often as people turn to Google, especially for recent information.
But the fact that politicians didn't try to make a proper case for shutting the library and have released no studies showing either the case for moving - or killing - the library is telling.
Instead, they secretly hatched the idea. The first public revelation came when librarians received transfer notices.
The politicians tried to say the closure was just for two years as part of seismic upgrades for the legislature.
But consider the weasley responses from Speaker Bill Barisoff, nominally responsible for the building.
"We're not closing it down," he told the Vancouver Province columnist Mike Smyth. "We have to move the staff out of there to do some seismic upgrading."
So, Smyth asked, the library will re-open once the work is done?
Barisoff paused, then carefully said, "There will continue to be library services in the legislative precincts, yes." Translated, that meant the library wouldn't re-open. Library services in the legislature precincts could mean a warehouse within five blocks and no staff and no access to the moldering materials.
(I hate it when politicians opt for those silly evasions. Barisoff, from everything I've seen, is a decent guy who would never try that kind of con on people in his real life. Why do they think it's OK when they're trying to put one over on you?)
Maybe there's a case for closing the library, one that goes beyond people's desires for bigger offices and more staff. Most MLAs have crummy cubicles, but they're not around that much.
But maybe there are other solutions to any space problems.
Cabinet ministers have large and posh digs. Perhaps they could be subdivided.
Perhaps the government doesn't even need staffers to stand in the halls, waiting to tape interviews between reporters and cabinet ministers, so more staffers can transcribe them. No previous government has needed that kind of surveillance of its ministers.
The unwillingness to own up to the closure suggests strongly that the politicians have no case.
The odd part is that the library has always seemed an example of how government should work. MLAs, bureaucrats, journalists and the public - anyone looking for answers to tough questions - get fast, excellent service and invaluable information.
It's a model of efficiency.
The politicians, the premier's office, the Speaker, they seem to have forgotten the building belongs to you, not them. Before they start the reno, they owe the owners some justifications beyond their own decide for nicer digs.
Footnote: The decision, officially, will be made by the legislative assembly management committee. That's the same secretive group of MLAs who hatched the doomed plan for politicians' pay increases of up to 30-per-cent - plus a costly pension plan. A little openness might go a long way in avoiding future such debacles.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Little for B.C. in unConservative budget

Mostly, Stephen Harper’s latest budget seemed benign, a grab bag of unrelated spending plans and minor tax cuts designed to persuade people that a Conservative majority wouldn’t be so bad.
Slip a few hundred extra dollars to parents. Repair a small bit of the damage from the foolish child-care cuts. Send more cash along to the provinces, especially Quebec, with all those critical swing seats.
Not much of that old Harper talk about tax cuts and defence spending and slashing the role of government.
In fact, it practically could have been a Liberal budget.
And that’s not such a bad thing really. What’s wrong with a government that decides to cater to voters?
A couple of things, actually.
For starters, this kind of budget doesn’t really show any plan of vision for the country and doesn’t deal with the long-term challenges facing Canada. It’s about the next 12 months.
And the rush to woo the politically significant swing voter blocks — Quebec, Ontario, middle-class families - risks leaving out those who don’t count so much.
Like B.C., at least according to Revenue Minister Rick Thorpe. The government put Thorpe up to respond to the budget, a surprising choice. It is spring break, but the decision also allowed Gordon Campbell and Carole Taylor to avoid being the bad guys.
Thorpe made it clear that the government isn’t happy. If his comments weren’t the sharpest rebuke for a federal government since Campbell was elected, they were in the top few.
And they were pretty legitimate.
The budget bumped spending for the coming year by an unconservative 5.6 per cent, on top of this year’s 7.9-per-cent increase in program spending.
A large chunk of that was additional money to be sent out to provinces, as equalization payments and increased transfers for health and education and social services. The Conservatives even put back a tiny bit of the money they foolishly cut from child-care budgets, recognizing that their vague idea to have businesses open day cares for employees was just foolish. B.C. wll get $33 million a year for child care under the budget; the federal-provincial child-care deal cancelled by Harper was worth $150 million a year.
And tax cuts. A very useful move to cut taxes for the poorest of the working poor. A weird but popular move to give all parents a credit worth $310 per child. (A smarter program would recognize that we would get much greater results by at least slashing the amount going to high-income families and investing heavily where children need the most help.)
And a big business tax break aimed at manufacturers — again, Ontario and Quebec.
But not so much for B.C., as Thorpe pointed out.
The provincial government had been hoping for good news on several fronts.
The whole Pacfic Gateway idea, for one. Campbell sees the task of building roads and railways and airports and ports to improve transportation links with Asia as a national dream, St. Lawrence Seaway kind of national megaproject.
Harper, based on the budget, sees it as something less. There’s an extra $50 million a year toward the Gateway projects, far from what B.C. was seeking.
B.C. has also been looking for more serious help with the pine beetle disaster. In a few years, when the beetle wood is harvested, communities across the North and Interior face huge job losses. The timber supply - the base for up to four out of five jobs in some communities - will be slashed, possibly in half, for decades.
So far, the Conservatives have promised $100 million a year for 10 years. But much more is needed to help communities prepare to make the best of tough times. (Though the province’s lack of urgency on the threat undermines its case for more aid from Ottawa.)
And while Thorpe didn’t raise it, Campbell must be irked by that he has been unable to get the federal government to take First Nations issues seriously or honour at least the spirit of the Kelowna Accord. There’s about $20 million a year in new job training money, but nothing that reflects the Kelowna commitment, the terrible poverty and dislocation on reserves or the province’s “new relationship.”
There’s not much for B.C., especially compared with the bounty sent to Quebec and Ontario.
But the goal here is to set the stage for a Conservative majority government in the next election. And B.C.’s few seats are not all that important.
Footnote: The federal Liberals and the NDP say they oppose the budget, but the Bloc Quebecois will support it. The Bloc is afraid that, given the big jump in federal payments for Quebec in the budget, it would face a backlash if it forced an election. More critically, it fears hurting the Parti Quebecois’ chances in next week’s provincial election. Instead, the Bloc is claiming credit for delivering the cash.