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.