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.