Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Some lessons from a bizarre year

So how about these four lessons from 2008?
Things can change dramatically and rapidly.
People who are supposed to be smart and knowledgeable are neither.
People who are supposed to be looking after the public interest aren't.
And in response to those three, we have to accept our personal responsibility - including our responsibility to demand better from the people who are supposed to be acting in our interest.
A year ago, Premier Gordon Campbell was all fired up about climate change. Dealing with it was a moral and practical imperative, he said, calling for a focus and effort like Canadians brought to two world wars. People should be prepared to sacrifice.
And the public was mostly onside. After all, homeowners were feeling pretty rich as prices climbed ever upward. The economy was ticking along nicely, unless you were a coastal forest worker. Most forecasts called for more growth and rising markets.
A year later, nothing seems certain. The news is all bad and there's no clear bottom in sight. The public isn't quite so convinced that climate change is the big priority.
And the people who were supposed to see the change coming - the ones who are paid well because they claim that ability - didn't.
Packs of quite smart, trained people are paid to focus on a limited number of companies and report on their prospects. They've got great educations, superb technical support and good access to information.
And they were hopeless. An analyst tracking one media company rated it a speculative buy and set a target price of $3.50. It's trading at 50 cents.
They're hopelessness was exceeded by the failure of the agencies that were supposed to be protecting the public interest by regulating markets.
Start with government, of course. It's become fashionable to see regulation as a bad thing. Gordon Campbell even set up Kevin Falcon as junior minister of deregulation in 2001 and set out to cut one-third of the rules in place.
The U.S. deregulation push removed rules that have prevented lenders from offering $500,000 mortgages, with no payments for a year, to people earning minimum wage.
Deregulation allowed the lenders to package the loans in bundles, claim they would produce a steady income, and sell shares in them to other companies. They in turn flogged them- including to people trying to set aside money for retirement.
Deregulation was supposed to be good for the economy. The people who have lost billions and the taxpayers bailing out companies won't agree.
It's not just government regulators who have failed. The big accounting firms audited these companies and didn't report any problems. Bond rating agencies reviewed them and gave great ratings for stability and safety.
Economies go through good and bad times, of course.
But this collapse, without warning, did terrible damage. Remember, in early October Prime Minister Stephen Harper was suggesting the drop in markets was a "buying opportunity." Anyone who took his advice and bought a bundle of leading Canadian stocks has lost about 35 per cent of his money so far.
Cutting unneeded regulation increases freedom and encourages innovation and brings few risks. The fewer unnecessary rules the better. Letting barbers cut hair without a licence means a few people might look funny, but a few great haircutters might emerge.
But that kind of deregulation wasn't at the core of the agendas of many governments over the past two decades.
Which leads to the fourth lesson, based on the first three.
If you want something done right, be prepared to take some personal responsibility. The people who are being paid to work on your behalf might not.
That includes taking responsibility for the people you elect to all levels of government - to vote, of course, but also to keep informed about what they're doing and offer your views.
Onward to 2009.
Footnote: After more than a hundred columns over the last 12 months, I wanted to thank everyone who took the time to read at least some of them and the editors who have found a place in their newspapers. It's a great privilege to have the chance to be part of a discussion with the people who will decide our shared future.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Teachers' union opposition to FSA test unfair to children

It would be a great loss to toss out the Foundation Skills Assessment tests and the chance for more effective public education.
The B.C. Teachers' Federation - and a lot of teachers - want the tests dumped. They are both wrong and short-sighted.
The FSA tests are taken annually by every student in Grades 4 and 7. They provide a snapshot of reading, writing and numeracy skills.
Most parents like the information. They might know how their children are doing and have report cards from school. But the tests are a useful way to help confirm a child is mastering some critical skills.
The teachers' union doesn't like the tests, which among other things, allows comparisons between the success rate in schools, or classrooms. School superintendents aren't that keen either. Districts can also be assessed using the results.
Even Education Minister Shirley Bond, who blasted the teachers' federation on the issue, has been critical of the use of the results. Bond is a former school board chair in Prince George.
The tests are far from perfect. The information they provide has been neglected. There are risks of misuse.
But they're still great tools. For parents, obviously. But also for anyone who cares about doing a better job for students.
The opposition to the tests seems contrived or wrongheaded. The teachers' union says students are stressed by the tests. But it's hard to see why, unless the stress comes from the teacher. There's nothing riding on the tests, and students can be told that.
The union complains about lost teaching time. But two sets of tests in eight years hardly seems a problem.
The union fears teachers are spending too much time preparing students for the tests. If that's a problem, they should stop. There's no need to cram for skills tests.
Then there are the philosophical arguments. The information should not be gathered because someone might misuse it. You can't measure education. The exams just test literacy and numeracy skills, and don't assess all the things that schools provide students. They don't reflect students' backgrounds. The whole idea of testing is seen as a plot by some.
Of course the tests don't measure all the wonderful things schools offer students. But reading, writing and numeracy, those are fundamental enough to be worth measuring.
Of course some people could misuse the data. But that argument could be used to shut down almost every form of research being done in the academic world today. It is a prescription for ignorance.
And of course the results don't reflect different social and economic factors. It is an absolute certainly that the children sent to a $20,000-a-year private school in Vancouver will score better than their Grade 4 counterparts in a school in poor inner city neighbourhood or struggling resource community. But everyone knows that. The results also let you compare schools dealing with similar student populations.
If one is achieving much better results in the core skills tests, we should know that.
The tests should encourage different ways of teaching or preparing children for school or involving parents. Creative, bright people in the system can test new approaches and measure how well they work.
And the results allow valuable research. In the last four weeks, a Simon Fraser University professor released a study on the gap in FSA scores between aboriginal and non-aboriginal students in B.C. Some districts have almost closed the gap; in others, it remains dramatic. The study identified strategies that help improve aboriginal students' success. That could not have been done without the FSA results as a starting point. (The study, of course, adjusted to compensate for socio-economic factors.)
The FSA tests aren't perfect. But eliminating them would be a great step backward.
Instead, parents and teachers should be using the results to learn. And to force the government to provide the support needed so all schools can achieve the best results for children.
Footnote: The teachers' federation is threatening a boycott of the tests. That's irresponsible. The union doesn't run the school system and is accountable to no one but its members. Elected trustees and the provincial government have a mandate to make decisions about education.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The case for throwing shoes at Bush

There have been many times, standing in a press conference or even doing an interview, when I've wanted to take off my shoes and peg them at a politician.
I expect there have been times when some politicians have thought briefly about sending a loafer my way.
Muntadar al-Zaidi, an Iraqi journalist, has become famous for throwing his shows at U.S President George W. Bush at a Baghdad press conference on Sunday.
He missed, but they were pretty good pitches from across the room.
Journalists aren't supposed to throw stuff at the people they cover. The tacit agreement is that they gather information by asking questions, but don't take sides or protest. The process can be rude and chaotic, and often pointless, but the understanding is that in return for access, they act within some broad rules of behaviour.
But I'm pretty sympathetic when it comes to Zaidi's protest.
The Globe and Mail got quite exercised about it all.
In an editorial headlined "A disgrace to journalism," the paper said Zaidi is a "disgrace to his profession and should be fired by his employer." The editorial blasted reporters' organizations for not condemning his actions.
OK, he was wrong. It would be too bad if politicians stopped doing press conferences in case people started throwing things.
But Zaidi, although he had some zip on the throws, was no threat to Bush, who ducked the shoes and appeared mostly puzzled. He was making a point, as his words indicate. (You can judge; the video is on YouTube and has been viewed more than two million times.)
"This is a gift from the Iraqis; this is the farewell kiss, you dog," Zaidi shouted as he threw the first shoe.
The second was on behalf of others: "This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq," he called.
It was a double insult: Hitting someone with a shoe and calling them a dog both show great contempt in the Mideast, where they are seen as symbols of dirtiness.
But consider all this from Zaidi's perspective.
Bush instigated an invasion of Iraq based on false claims that the country was hiding weapons of mass destruction and aiding al-Qaeda.
The war was launched with no real planning for what would happen next, and an apparent expectation that the Iraqis would all do a spirited dance of welcome in the streets and then quickly aside their sectarian differences, elect a government and live happily ever after. Mission Accomplished, as Bush claimed five years ago.
When that didn't happen, the U.S. has bumbled and fumbled.
And Iraqis suffered. About 4.7 million people - more than the population of British Columbia, or one in six Iraqis, are refugees. They have been driven from their homes by fighting, or their homes have simply been destroyed.
At least 100,000 civilians have been killed, more than the Canadian deaths in the First and Second World Wars combined. Some estimates have put the number of deaths much higher, at more than 500,000, when the effects of collapsing health care and other problems are included.
After five years - a period of suffering longer than Europe endured in the Second World War - no end is in sight. Iraq is ranked as one of the five worst "failed states" in the world, worse than Afghanistan. The U.S. is in a rush to leave; the Iraqis face years of internal fighting, external threats and poverty and disorder.
Zaidi didn't act like a journalist. But he did act on behalf of millions of people in Iraq who have been damaged by the ineptitude, recklessness and arrogance of the Bush administration. He's being cheered in the Mideast.
And he's not being much criticized in the U.S. either. Bush leaves a mess - unresolved conflicts, massive debt, a world economic crisis and a discredited and demoralized country.
Dodging a couple of shoes seems a small penance.
Footnote: Zaidi took responsibility for his acts. He faces imprisonment and has already apparently been beaten. The incident does raise significant questions about security; the video shows a sluggish response before officers pile onto Zaidi; if he had been throwing cameras instead of shows, Bush could have been hurt.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

A split decision for B.C. coalbed methane

The politics of coalbed methane in B.C. are a lot more complicated even than getting the stuff out of the ground.
Just look at the government's latest news release on the resource, headlined "Leadership shown in unconventional gas development." Not too informative in itself.
The first paragraph - the lead, as they say - was surprising. Leadership in development in this case meant not going ahead with a coalbed methane project: "Shell Canada will take a break in exploration activity in the Klappan and have more discussions with First Nations and the community, Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources Minister Richard Neufeld announced."
The government was "facilitating this" by barring activity for two years, Neufeld said.
Only then did the release get to the actual development part. The government announced it was awarding a coalbed methane tenure to BP Canada's Mist Mountain project in the East Kootenay.
Even there, the government treaded carefully. It excluded land in the Flathead Valley, near the Montana border.
The Flathead is a revered river in Montana. The state's politicians, and even Barack Obama, were opposed to any coalbed methane development on our side of the border.
So in southeast B.C., near Fernie but away from the U.S. border, coalbed methane is OK.
In the northwest, north of Terrace, not so much.
How come? Partly because environmental groups have targeted the Shell project. They have called the area the Sacred Headwaters, an even more market-savvy name than Great Bear Rainforest.
The opposition, along with First Nations concerns, scared Shell and the government. What oil company or government wants to be blamed internationally for despoiling the Sacred Headwaters?
There are other reasons for the split decision. The Shell project is in a relatively pristine area that includes the headwaters of the Skeena, Nass and Stikine rivers. There's little local support.
The project in the East Kootenay is in an area that's been used for mining and forestry. Many people in the region, and some local governments, supported the development.
But there is still going to be significant opposition. Neufeld says the BP project won't go ahead unless the company can meet the environmental requirements.
The B.C. government has been promoting coalbed methane development for more than a decade. So far, all the province has to show for it is a scattering of test drilling programs, including efforts in the Campbell River area and around Courtenay. The Island’s coal-mining history has attracted considerable interest.
The Mist Mountain project might bring the first real producing wells.
Coalbed methane is the equivalent of natural gas. It's found, as the name suggests, in coal seams, which B.C. has in abundance. But there are some big differences when it comes to getting it out of the ground.
Conventional natural gas is typically found in big pockets, under pressure. Companies drill a couple of holes, the gas rushes out and is sent off in a pipeline. When the deposit is gone the well is capped and that's that. It's relatively tidy and we have a lot of experience with it.
But coalbed methane is found in smaller pockets within the coal seams, so companies need to drill a lot more wells.
And the methane gas is usually trapped beneath underground water. That has to be pumped out before the gas will flow.
Sometimes, the water is of good quality. But often it's contaminated with salt or other pollutants. It has to be pumped back underground to avoid environmental damage.
It's all doable. But the industry's 20-year history has been marked by some environmentally damaging episodes. The government believes those days are behind it - about five per cent of U.S. gas production comes from coalbed methane deposits.
With some estimates putting the coalbed methane reserves at the equivalent of 100 years of current natural gas production, the government sees a lot of jobs and big royalty cheques.
It will still be a tough sell. But picking one project as a test might be the best way to establish whether the coalbed methane industry should have any place in the province.
Footnote: The exclusion of the Flathead Valley from the Kootenay lease makes sense. Why get into a fight with the U.S. as a new administration takes over. But expect B.C. gas opponents to ask why the risks are too great for a watershed that flows into Montana, but acceptable within B.C.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The real greatest

Gretzy was great, Rocket Richard ferocious and I've always had a great fondness for Frank Mahovlich.
But no one I've seen came close to changing games all by himself like Mr. Orr.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

No gambling donations, says Campbell – you decide

The B.C. Liberals don't accept donations from gambling companies, Gordon Campbell said last week.
You decide if the premier is being straight.
Because it looks like some $270,000 went into Liberal coffers between 2002 and 2007 from people and companies linked to the growing gambling business in B.C.
This column rests entirely on the fine work of Sean Holman of the 24 Hours free newspaper and his own website,
Holman was curious about gambling companies and political donations. They didn't show up in the financial reports the parties filed with Elections B.C.
But he decided to dig deeper and checked out the people behind the numbered companies and businesses or individuals with unfamiliar names that contributed to the Liberals.
He found some $265,000 in contributions had come from people connected with the industry - current or former gambling facilities owners or operators. But the donations had not come through the gambling businesses, but indirectly as individual donations or through other companies controlled by the same people.
For example, there was $23,000 in contributions from B-11 Holdings Ltd. and 7779 Ventures Inc. The companies' presidents were Patricia and Gary Hart; Patricia Hart is also president of the service provider to Chances Kamloops, one of the mini-casinos being rolled out in smaller communities.
There was $6,500 from Kings North Development Corp. Its president Mark Ekraut, is also president of the service provider for Bingo Bingo Esquimalt.
The list went on.
Holman called the donors to ask why the contributions were made in that way.
No reason, most said. They just happened to have a chequebook handy from the other company when they contributed, or there was more money in its account or they just couldn't remember.
But then Holman talked to John Becher, who owns the Lucky Dollar Bingo Palace in Terrace.
He said members of the Registered Gaming Management Companies of B.C. - which represents a majority of B.C.'s bingo halls and community gaming centres - were told not to make their donations through their gaming service provider company.
Otherwise, the public might have concerns, he added. "People will say, 'Gee, what's going on here. We can see why the government wants all these slots put in because they're being supported by the gaming association,'" Becher said.
Becher said the request for donations, and the suggested method of donation, came from Tom Nellis, president of the association.
No way, says Nellis. He never suggested members donate to the Liberals in any fashion.
Holman found another interesting fact in the Elections B.C. documents.
Almost one-quarter of the donations came into the Liberal party on the same day, three months before the last provincial election.
Seven different donations on the same day, from people and businesses linked to gambling.
And not one through a company readily identifiable as a gambling interest.
Now that is a coincidence. The odds against all those people in one industry independently deciding to write a cheque to the Liberals on the same day have to be up there with winning a lottery.
Yet Campbell says the party won't accept money from "gaming" companies. (In opposition, the Liberals called it gambling.)
That suggests he believes taking the money would be improper. So if it's happening. . .
The other thing Holman revealed was the emptiness of Campbell's defence of unrestricted political donations. In B.C., unions, businesses, individuals and interest groups can give any amount. Federally, only individual donations are allowed and they're limited to $1,100.
As long as donations are disclosed, Campbell argues, the public can tell if big contributors are getting special treatment from government.
But how are most people to go through hundreds of pages of forms, note a donation from 7779 Ventures Inc., check the officers and directors and cross-reference them against gambling companies or people who get government contracts?
B.C. is an anything goes province. Rich special interests can give what they want. And the public has to wonder how badly political parties come to depend on that support.
Footnote: The backdrop for all this is the Liberals' abandonment of their campaign promise to halt the expansion of gambling because of the damage it does to individuals, families and communities. Campbell has never explained why the principled pledge was forgotten in a massive expansion of slots and casinos and the introduction of online betting.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Harper, Dion need to go now

Stephen Harper has to go.
That's the biggest message I'd take from the one-week political crisis that was eased Thursday when Gov. Gen Michaelle Jean agreed to Stephen Harper's proposal to shut down the Commons until Jan. 26.
If she had required him to face the House, the government would have fallen. That would have meant a Liberal-NDP coalition or an election, depending upon Jean's judgment about the next step.
Harper and the Conservatives won a seven-week reprieve and some manoevuring room.
But at considerable cost.
Harper provoked this whole crisis stupidly and unnecessarily. Elected with a minority, he promised an end to partisanship. And then at the first opportunity, he launched attacks on the financial supports critical to the other parties, while leaving intact the subsidies that benefit the Conservatives. He moved to take away federal employees' to strike and to limit pay equity provisions. (And tabled a budget surplus forecast that no economists believed credible and offered no actions to address the economic crisis.)
The measures were so important, Harper said, that the government would include them in a confidence vote. If they were defeated, there would be an election.
The moves were so outrageous, even the disheartened Liberals were roused. Harper actually united the centre left way more quickly than he was able to unite the centre right.
Harper defended the measures, then retreated, first saying it wouldn't be a confidence vote, then dumping them.
But the damage had been done; the coalition train was rolling. The Liberals and New Democrats agreed on an economic plan. The Bloc Quebecois didn't join, but agreed not to vote against the next two budgets. As long as those passed, the coalition could survive until early 2011.
A smart leader wouldn't have created this mess. Once in it, he would recognize the need to admit error and move on.
Harper, perhaps because of all those years on the outside fighting governments, went on the attack. He was dishonest about the Bloc's role and seemed to suggest the 38 per cent of Quebec voters who supported the party were somehow second-class citizens. He re-opened the separatism debate, for short-term political gain, a shamefully reckless act.
When the smart - and right - thing would have been to reach out, Harper started punching. Even Thursday, after Jean allowed the government to survive, he wouldn't acknowledge any error.
What should happen between now and Jan. 26 is a new start. The Conservatives should be talking with the opposition, and offering a real chance to be involved in budget preparation. It's a minority government; compromise is needed. Harper seems unable to do that. And at this point, he wouldn't be trusted anyway.
If the Conservatives want a chance to govern for a couple of years and then win a majority, they need a new leader, someone like Environment Minister Jim Prentice. (While Harper was picking fights, Prentice had invited the opposition environment critics to come with him next week to a climate change meeting in Poland on the successor to the Kyoto accord.)
There's a lesson here for the Liberals too. What is Stephane Dion doing as party leader until May?
He resigned Oct. 20. Taking seven months to pick a new leader suggests you don't just care. Canadians were supposed to embrace the idea that he would be prime minister for a few months and then whoever the Liberal party delegates choose would take over.
That's irresponsible. The party should have a leader by Jan. 26. Let MPs and riding associations choose, or move to one vote for every party member, instead of the tainted delegate system. Webcast candidates' debates and provide central locations if members want to watch them together. Allow online voting. Choose.
It's been a destructive, ugly episode. Without real change, it will be replayed at the end of January, to the detriment of Canadians.
Footnote: This might mark a turning point. If neither party can address its immediate leadership problems, that will suggest MPs and party members have lost any influence and power is firmly held by whoever can win the leader's job. The leader was supposed to serve at the pleasure of the party's MPs. No more.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

So, are the Liberals ready to do their jobs too?

In the post below I write about the responsibility of Conservative MPs to take control of the party away from Stephen Harper.
Liberals, MPs and party members, have their own test.
Stephane Dion resigned in October. The leadership convention is set for May.
That's simply goofy. If you had a business, and had decided to get rid of a manager for poor performance, would you leave him on the job for seven months - knowing he was going - while you looked for a replacement?
The Liberals should have had a leadership convention at the end of November.
Now they need to find a way to have a new leader before Jan. 26, when Parliament resumes.
That shouldn't be hard. Allow online voting and perhaps move to one vote for every party member, instead of the tainted delegate system. Webcast candidates' debates and provide central locations if members want to watch them together. The failure to treat this with urgency is bizarre.
How can the coalition claim to be credible when Dion - rejected by Canadians - would be prime minister for a few months before a mystery PM would be selected in a process open to abuse?

So, are Conservative MPs ready to do their jobs?

Conservative MPs face the biggest test between now and the end of January. Go along and keep repeating the talking points supplied by the prime minister's office — which will play well with supporters — or bring their own judgment to bear on what needs to be done to govern effectively for the next couple of years, and win a majority in the next election.
The party has a lot of gratitude, rightly, to Stephen Harper for getting it into power.
But he's failed to win majorities in two elections waged under highly favourable circumstances, messed up terribly in the early days of this government and increasingly appears unable to change.
Will Conservative MPs recognize their responsibility and power to share a decision on Harper's future.
It's also a test of our system, I suppose. Have prime ministers and premiers become so powerful that they, barring disastrous defeats or years of plotting, they are unchecked by their supposed peers?

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Conservatives' choice: Harper, or a chance to govern effectively

Blame Stephen Harper for the mess in Ottawa.
Faced with a minority government and an economic crisis, his first acts acknowledged neither.
When the Conservatives delivered their economic update last week, they didn't announce plans to help people worried about their pensions or losing their jobs.
Instead, Harper launched a sneak attacks on his "enemies." In the name of spending restraint, he said, federal government employees would lose the right to strike.
And the government would end the five-year-old public financing of political parties. That arrangement, introduced when union and corporate donations were banned, provides parties that get at least two per cent support nationally get $1.95 per year per vote they received in the preceding election.
The move had little to do with saving money. The goal was to weaken the opposition parties to the point that they could not function and consolidate the Conservatives' grasp on power. The Conservatives raise more donations. The change would have left them with about $19 million a year in revenue - four times as much as any other party.
Vote for the measures, he said, or he'd call an election, likely figuring the bully tactics would work.
It was a stunning blunder. The Liberals, who had been dispirited and content to drift along until next May's leadership convention, were fuelled with moral outrage. The New Democrats reacted in the same way.
Harper did the almost impossible in re-energizing the parties, driving them together and giving them a legitimate pretext for action by failing to respond to the economic crisis with a stimulus package. Dumb, vindictive and arrogant - a disastrous combination.
Within 48 hours, the Liberals and NDP had cobbled together an agreement for a coalition government to rule for 18 months, with the support of the Bloc Québécois. Stéphane Dion would be prime minister until May, when the new Liberal leader would take over. The NDP would get about one-third of cabinet seats.
The opposition parties would defeat the government and advise Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean that they had the support of a majority of MPs and should get a chance to govern.
It's a legitimate legal claim, according to most experts, and Jean has considerable discretion.
But a rickety coalition of parties with little in common but a loathing of Harper is not the government Canada needs at this time.
A critical element in dealing with the economic crisis is stability. Investors, already skittish and cash-poor, are going to shun jurisdictions where policy is unpredictable.
And despite the coalition's manifesto, the situation remains inherently unpredictable. The new government, if it emerges, will only survive if all three parties stay onside.
That includes, of course, the Bloc Québécois, a party with no commitment to the national interest.
The coalition government would also result in a profound sense of betrayal by many voters who were elated by the Conservatives' win, particularly in the West, where the party won almost 80 per cent of the seats. There are lots of references to coups on the letters' pages. They're wrong, but the sentiment is still real.
Harper's response has been to fight. He's expected to ask Jean to shut down Parliament before there can be a confidence vote, which she might or might not do. It will reconvene in January and the Conservatives will use the time to attack the coalition proposal.
Harper is showing bad judgment, again. The campaign probably won't succeed.
And it removes any chance for what's really needed - a Parliament that works, where the Conservatives govern like a party that received a minority of seats and the popular vote.
It's hard to see a ready solution. The Conservatives need to persuade the opposition parties - and Canadians - that the bullying and arrogance will end.
Which means, realistically, that Harper needs to go, to give the party a fresh start.
Now that's a test of leadership.
Footnote: What does it mean for B.C.? The bad news would be the focus on Quebec and Ontario and the overall risk of instability. The good news would be some strong cabinet ministers, aid for forest communities and a government that has to work hard to keep MPs and supporters onside.

Conservatives have to fix Harper's bungling

Stephen Harper has managed, through incompetence, arrogance and hopeless judgment, to create a crisis for the country and his party. Hard to see how long he can stick around.
But a coalition government, based largely on loathing of Harper, is not a useful solution. It will be destabilizing and leave 40 per cent of voters - especially those concentrated in the west - feeling screwed once again.
The Times Colonist offers a useful view of what should happen next here.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Global crisis, but B.C.'s got some breathing room

So what does the big financial crisis mean for the B.C. government - tax increases, spending cuts, deficits?
None of the above, at least for this year and next.
But the budget that will come down in 2010 - the first for the new government to be elected in May - might pose some problems.
It's a mark of the ludicrous conservatism of the Liberals' budgeting that despite the worst economic woes in almost 80 years - and unplanned tax cuts - the surplus this year will still be larger than the government projected.
Tax revenues will be below budget by some $423 million, Finance Minister Colin Hansen said as he released the latest quarterly report. But $350 million of that is because of the cuts Premier Gordon Campbell announced last month in response to the slowdown.
And despite all the turmoil, all other revenue is expected to be up four per cent over the budget forecast. A manager in the private sector would get into trouble for that sort of sandbagging.
Next year is also probably OK. The Liberals, to their considerable credit, provide three-year financial plans. The budgeted revenue figure for 2009/10 is $39.9 billion. There are certainly some risks, but revenue for this year is now expected to be $38.9; a 2.6-per-cent increase next year is within reach
And the plans provide for an overall 2.5 per cent spending increase - and a 5.9 per cent increase in health spending the health budget for this year. There was also a $1.1-billion cushion built into the budget forecast.
All in, the Liberals should be able to table a pre-election budget without significant spending cuts, tax increases or a deficit. By the 2010 budget, things look tighter. Next year, remember, the projection is for a 2.6-per-cent revenue increase. But the budget calls for a four-per-cent revenue jump in the following year. That might be a stretch.
On the spending side, there is a four-per-cent increase for health, education and advanced education. That's tight, given the pressures for more spending. Still, the budget includes $1.1 billion in contingencies and cushions.
There's room for the government to shuffle things around and stay in the black, but it could be tight.
Of course, it's questionable whether we should be quite so fixed on deficits. B.C. has a law that bars deficit budgets (though doesn't have any effect if a government budgets for a surplus, but ends up with a deficit). The rationale is understandable. Spending more than you take in can become a bad habit; the NDP governments through the 1990s showed that. But Stephen Harper is prepared to run federal deficits for a year or two because of the current economic crisis, and he's hardly an ideological bedmate of Glen Clark's.
If things spiral downward, by 2010 or 2011 the provincial government might face some tough choices.
Without tax increases - never a great idea in a recession - serious spending cuts might be needed to avoid a deficit. Who really wants to tell a senior she can't get a hip replacement, or parents of a disabled child that therapy has to wait, because of an ideological opposition of deficits?
There is nothing wrong with borrowing some money in tough times, as long as you pay it back as quickly as possible. The alternative could be a longer recession and more losses for B.C families.
Deficits might not be necessary. But it will be interesting to see if either the Liberals or the New Democrats will acknowledge the possibility. The backdrop for all this is the economy as an issue in the coming election. A Mustel Group poll released this week found the Liberals and NDP effectively tied. It also showed the economy was named as the main issue facing the province by 40 per cent of respondents - a huge jump.
Footnote: A month after Gordon Campbell's pledge to curb any avoidable spending in response to the economic crunch, nothing has happened. Most noticeably, taxpayers are still paying for a massive ad blitz aimed largely at bolstering the Liberal's re-election hopes. British Columbians asked for the ads, Finance Minister Colin Hansen said this week.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Hidden donations from gambling industry to Liberals?

Is there a link between political donations and the Liberals' decision to break their promise to halt gambling expansion in the province?
After all, Gordon Campbell was clear - gambling created "losers" and destroyed families. Kevin Krueger said government gambling was immoral, fuelling crime, violence, suicides and family disintegration.
But once elected, the government went on a gambling spree, including mini-casinos with VLTs in smaller communities across the province, online betting and plans to recruit new gamblers each year and increase the average losses per person.
San Holman reveals some fascinating information about the industry's hidden donations to the Liberals here.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Forcing homeless people into shelter

Rich Coleman is musing about finding a way to force homeless people into shelters when the weather makes life on the street dangerous. The media interest was raised after a woman who had declined shelter burned to death in her shopping cart while trying to stay warm.
It's an issue worth considering, but as Coleman notes, there are big legal and ethical issues and nothing will happen soon.
Rather than mess about with complicated legal questions, Coleman could address the issue now. The woman who died chose to stay on the street in part because going to a shelter would have meant abandoning her shopping cart and all her worldly possessions. It would not be hard or costly to have secure outdoor space for carts at shelters, staffed by a minimum wage worker making the transition from the streets. Other homeless people chose a doorway because available shelters won't take their pet or allow couples to stay together, or because the available spaces are just too chaotic, noisy and theft-prone.
Making improvements to address those problems would be fairly cheap and easy.
Also, Coleman talks about forcing people into "beds," when in many cases the reality is a mat on a floor in a large room. That's better than nothing, but more accuracy in language would help in dealing with a complex issue.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

From Russian assassins to the Basi-Virk trial

I've been reading about Vera Zasulich, who invented terrorism as we know it when she shot the governor of St. Petersburg in 1878.
And I'm amazed at the straight line between 19th century Russia under Tsar Alexander II, the U.S. detention camp at Guantanamo Bay and B.C. Supreme Court.
My reading tends to books grabbed fairly randomly from the new arrivals at the library or the well-selected sale offerings at Munro's Book Store here. One advantage is the serendipitous discovery of connections. (The disadvantage is the lack of context that comes with random readings.)
The book is Angel of Vengeance by Ana Siljak. It's about Zasulich and Russia in a time of possibilities - socialism, serfdom, religion, the tsar, a big bureaucracy and youth, mostly well-off, dreaming of change.
Tsar Alexander had a liberal bent, in part because revolution seemed a threat. Legal reform was important, he decided.
"Let truth and mercy reign in the law courts," he proclaimed in 1864. Courts would treat all Russians equally, "from the person of the highest to that of the lowest rank." Juries would decide cases and the system would be open to all.
Then Vera Zasulich shot the governor. A great defence lawyer painted her as a person driven to try and stop state cruelty. (The governor had abused a political prisoner.)
The jury found her not guilty, followed by celebrations in the streets and much official anger, in part because there had been other legal setbacks in the effort to fight subversion.
The justice minister had a solution. No more trials for accused assassins or terrorists. New military tribunals would hear those cases, under new rules.
Alexander initially rejected the proposal as too extreme. But within months, he caved. The military tribunals took over these cases.
Which is exactly what George W. Bush and the U.S. government did after 9/11. A new class of criminals was created, with few rights. A parallel legal system was established. Suspects could be held for years without charges; evidence obtained by torture was accepted; rights were ignored.
Canadian Omar Khadr, captured by the U.S. as a 15-year-old in Afghanistan, is the last Guantanamo prisoner from a western country.
From the tsar's besieged Russia to America today. Who would think?
The line can be stretched a little farther. Alexander's goal wasn't fair treatment of political prisoners. He believed that an accessible, consistent and fair justice system would stabilize society. People might not always like the decisions, but if justice was more or less equitable, they could count on their rights being protected.
Which leads to British Columbia today.
Specifically, to the B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver, where Dave Basi, Bobby Virk and Aneal Basi and a clutch of lawyers are still arguing over the evidence in the B.C. Rail corruption case.
It has been almost five years since the police raided the legislature and seized evidence. The allegations are serious, for the three men, all former Liberal political appointees, and the government.
But more than five years after the publicly owned railway was sold, there are no answers.
It's obviously unfair to the three accused. (And there is no evidence they or their lawyers have delayed the trial; Justice Elizabeth Bennett has been critical of the special prosecutor for failing to follow disclosure rules. Now a last-minute RCMP legal intervention threatens more delays.)
And it's unfair to the public, heading toward next May's election with no answers about a scandal that began before the 2005 campaign.
The case is a symptom. The courts have become too expensive and too slow to be a realistic option for most Canadians looking for justice. They are left to fend for themselves, unable to count on the right a fair hearing and impartial judgment.
Tsar Alexander would have considered it a broken justice system.
Footnote: If money is no object or a case truly significant, the system delivers sound judgments.
But for most people, seeking redress when they are wronged or facing a minor criminal charge, the costs of presenting the case - say $8,000 a day for a lawyer's appearances in court - tilts the balance hugely to those with the money to wear down the other side.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Province cuts leaky school deal, but leaves leaky condo owners outside

The Globe and Mail reported the government has reached some sort of secret compensation deal over hundreds of leaky schools. But the government's willingness to accept a confidentiality clause leaves leaky condo owners wondering if they should be getting the same compensation. A Times Colonist editorial editorial looks at the issue.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Local elections offer some good news for NDP

Municipal politics are their own world. But last weekend's election results raise interesting issues for both parties with six months left until the next provincial election.
The big news was Gregor Robertson's win to become mayor of Vancouver. A few months ago, Robertson was an NDP MLA, sitting across the red-carpeted legislature from Gordon Campbell.
Now he's the province's most prominent mayor, backed by a council with a definite NDP tilt. Geoff Meggs, one of the new Vancouver councillors, was Glen Clark's communications director for three years.
The NPA - the Liberal-aligned party in Vancouver - lost the mayor's office and captured only one council seat.
So now Campbell is facing Robertson again, this time as a mayor with an agenda that includes pressing the province for action on homelessness.
That doesn't necessarily mean conflict. Robertson is a pragmatic business owner. He knows working with the provincial and federal governments is more effective than fighting.
But where the former Vancouver council opted to hired Ken Dobell, Campbell's former deputy, to influence the government, Robertson will be more willing to turn up the heat publicly if necessary.
And the election came on the same weekend that Angus Reid Strategies released a poll showing the New Democrats ahead of the Liberals in Greater Vancouver. (That poll was challenged by an Ipsos-Reid survey that showed the Liberals with a nine-point lead provincially and a greater margin in the Lower Mainland.)
Even a couple of years ago, the Liberals could be more confident that they would start with a good base of public support if there was showdown between Robertson and Campbell. Now, that's not so sure.
But it's not just Vancouver. In a lot of communities, there seemed to be either an appetite for change, a slide to the centre-left or both.
I pause for a few disclaimers, like in those pharmaceutical ads when they warn that the drug, while great, might make your eyebrows fall out and cause frequent, unpredictable fainting.
For starters, municipal politics shouldn't really be burdened with left-right labels. Deciding whether to put in a sidewalk shouldn't be based on some ideology.
And across B.C., there were two constants. Voter turnout was dismal - 77 per cent of eligible voters didn't bother. And incumbents were overwhelmingly re-elected.
Still, there were signs that voters in many municipalities, large and small, were ready to back change.
Here in Victoria, new Mayor Dean Fortin was backed by a lot of NDP supporters; he replaces a mayor with Liberal ties who chose not to run. Prince George shifted at least slightly away from the Liberal side, Kelowna ended up with a couple of greenish councilors and Grand Forks has a mayor who was the B.C. Marijuana Party leader in the 2001 election.
None of these translate directly into NDP support. But they raise the prospect of more pressure from some municipal leaders on issues like homelessness and crime.
And they suggest some voters are ready to try a new direction.
Times Colonist columnist Les Leyne noted the results also suggest that voters are not as afraid of returning to the NDP, at least municipally, as the Liberals have hoped. (A position affirmed by the New Democrats' two byelection wins last month.)
The Liberals are still strong favorites to win the May election. Most polls have them with a reasonable lead and Campbell - although the surveys show a lot of negatives - outpolls NDP leader Carole James on managing the economy. That's likely to be a big issue.
But the municipal elections, like the Angus Reid poll results, were good news for the NDP. They picked up some potential allies in the important Lower Mainland and got at least a suggestion that some voters see a need for change.
The next six months - starting with the brief legislature sitting now under way - will be interesting.
Footnote: It should be time to declare a democratic crisis in municipal and school board elections. With a few exceptions, voter turnout was terrible and candidates - often in ridiculously large fields - had real difficulty in getting their positions and qualifications before the public. Elections B.C. should be charged with recommending ways to increase meaningful participation.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

How to get elected to council or as mayor

I ran into a Victoria council candidate as we launched our kayaks Saturday morning. He was going out fishing.
Which is healthy, but perhaps not the best use of election day morning, when some last-minute phone calls to supporters might help turnout.
Running municipal campaigns is tough, for a lot of reasons. Incumbents have a huge advantage, based mainly on name recognition.
Bernard von Schulmann offers a how-to guide on getting elected here that should be required reading for anyone thinking about entering a campaign next time around.
It's fine to run just to raise ideas, of course, but getting elected takes more work and planning.

Another poll, and the Liberals are on top

Angus Reid Strategies had the NDP five points ahead (see the post below); Ipsos Reid finds the Liberals up by nine with this poll.
Which will make for some interesting debates on polling methods and plenty of nervous types in both parties.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Campbell looking like a liability for Liberals

Fixed election dates make for a better democracy.
But some Liberals must be wishing Premier Gordon Campbell had been more interested in political advantage and a less in this democracy stuff. (All the more reason to give Campbell full credit for his commitment.)
If the election date hadn't been fixed for next May 12, four years after the last vote, the Liberals would have options. They could have called an election last spring, when the economy was strong. They could put off the election until May 2010, giving them time to rebuild support. Or to find a new leader.
The latest Angus Reid Strategies poll is not good news for Campbell.
The NDP is ahead of the Liberals by five points. It has the support of 44 per cent of decided voters; the Liberals 39 per cent; and the Greens 11 per cent.
The last Angus Reid poll found the parties effectively tied, with the NDP at 41 per cent and the Liberals at 38 per cent. The poll's margin of error is 3.5 points. Now, the gap has widened into statistical significance.
With six months until election day, that's bad news for the Liberals. The party in power often sags in the polls between elections, only to rebound.
But it's not good to be behind with months to go.
The Liberals have a significant problem. They have built their public presence around Gordon Campbell. He's front and centre for good news announcements. His priorities - like climate change, or help for First Nations - become the government's (at least for a while).
Now it appears Campbell might be dragging down his party.
The Angus Reid Strategies poll asked for people's judgments of Campbell and NDP leader Carole James.
The responses raised some fascinating questions about what will matter to votes in May.
Overall, about one-third of people thought James would be the best premier; one-third chose Campbell; and one-third were undecided.
The poll also measured momentum. In the last two months, Campbell fell sharply in respondents' estimation. But people were being over by James.
Here is where gets interesting. The poll also asked about attitudes toward the two party leaders.
Campbell was well ahead on ability to manage the economy, decisiveness and vision.
James was rated more highly for honesty, understanding British Columbians' problems and sharing their values and ideas.
And more highly for caring about the environment; ironic, given the NDP's fight against the carbon tax.
There are very clever pollsters and political strategy types trying to figure out what this will mean next May.
Are people likely to vote for a good economic manager who is out of touch with their concerns and can't be trusted?
Or for a person they trust, with inferior skills.
And how will the economic collapse affect all this. When everything is haywire, will Campbell's perceived strength on the economy win big support?
Or will voters decided that it's easier for a trustworthy person to learn skills than it is for a skilled person to learn how to be trustworthy.
There are a couple of other interesting elements in this poll.
The big one is that the Liberals trail the NDP among Greater Vancouver voters, 46 per cent to 41 per cent. In the last Angus Reid poll, in August, the parties were effectively tied. There are a lot of seats in Greater Vancouver. And the only place the Liberals are ahead is in the northern Interior.
Objectively, this shouldn't be happening. The government has messed up often - on seniors' care, children and families, health care.
But the government's finances are in good shape and there are jobs for more people.
Yet the Liberals are in trouble, if the polls reflect the public's views.
The legislature is back this week, for a few days. What happens could be important for the next election.
Footnote: The poll is available at One interesting element in all this is the big shift since 2005. James was considered suspect as a long-term leader. She has ground out a base of support.
Now it's Campbell who faces some tough questions about whether he's helping or hurting his party.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Why not just give confirmed addicts their drugs

The “tough-punishment” crowd came to mind when I heard the Victoria police had caught three people smoking crack cocaine this week. They were parked in the police department lot. The police station is a distinctive - and attractive - building. And the parking lot almost always has some marked police cars in it. So the trio - two men and a women - weren’t confused about where they were. They were bringing something to a friend in cells. But they decided to do drugs before venturing into the police station. An officer noticed a car full of smoke and knocked on the window. They rolled it down to talk to him, he smelled drugs and the men were charged with cocaine possession and driving while impaired.
First, the case shows how frustrating police work must be some days. Instead of fighting crime, officers are social workers and counsellors for the troubled, like people who smoke cocaine in the police station parking lot and are surprised to be arrested.
Second, it reveals the laughable flaw in the argument that tougher sentences will make any real difference.
People who smoke drugs outside a police station don’t think about whether they will get a conditional sentence or jail time. They don’t assess consequences. If they did, the probably wouldn’t be drug addicts. (So, teach your children about choices, consequences and reasonable risk.) They are likely the people smashing their way into your car in a parkade or stealing your bicycle. Tougher sentences are not going to make them change their ways.
That should be the objective. It would be great if, in a moment of clarity, they realized that stealing was wrong and decided never to do it again because it must hurt the victims.
But really, it’s OK if they just stop.
That’s not the approach we take, though. Prescribing an effective heroin substitute for a long-term addict who just can’t or won’t quit makes practical sense. He or she is healthier, safer, less likely to go to jail, more likely to be living an orderly life - and to enter treatment. And less likely to be committing property crimes every day to get drug money. The NAOMI project reported last month on a thee-year trial in Montreal and Vancouver that tested the effect of prescribing both heroin and a heroin substitute for confirmed addicts. (Participants had to have been through treatment unsuccessfully twice; the mean age was 40 and they were pretty much considered impossible to treat.)
By any rational measure, prescription heroin and heroin substitutes made sense. After a year in the program, almost 90 per cent of those prescribed heroin or Dilaudid - the chemical substitute - had entered treatment or weren’t using heroin illicitly. (Only 54 per cent of those on a methadone program succeeded in achieving the one-year clean period.)
Those who stayed on the program spent far less money on drugs of any kind. The median monthly spending fell from $1,500 - or $50 a day - to $400. The number of participants who said they had committed crimes was cut in half, from 70 per cent to 36 per cent.
And the study found no negative effects, for individuals or communities. Other studies have shown similar results for programs offering substitutes for crystal meth and cocaine.
No one is comfortable with the idea of people using drugs. But in health terms, heroin does far less damage than alcohol or tobacco. The problems are mostly related to the struggle to get and use drugs illicitly, not the substances themselves.
It would be wrong to make drug use too easy for people for whom treatment could likely be successful.
But that leaves several thousand addicts in B.C, who could be helped through prescription drugs - and several hundred thousand fewer crimes each year in B.C. and far fewer customers for drug-supplying gangs. How could this be a bad thing?
Footnote: The other remarkable failure is our efforts at prevention. Drug education programs have been out there for almost 40 years, but alcoholism and other substance issues have increased over most of that period. What we are doing doesn’t work, but we seem unwilling to change.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Lobbying, and just being helpful

Last month, Patrick Kinsella - among the most influential of Campbell backers and co-chair of the last two Liberal campaigns, drew attention to the emptiness of B.C.'s lobbyist rules when he simply refused to co-operate with an investigation into potential Lobbyist Act violations. The law as written gives Information and Privacy Commissioner David Loukidelis - theoretically the watchdog - no authority to ask questions, Kinsella said.
Now the intrepid Sean Holman of the 24Hours free newspaper and his own website,, has reported other intriguing activities involving Kinsella.
The consultant sat in on meetings with then solicitor general John Les and gambling industry representatives who wanted to push mini-casinos and VLTs into smaller communities. Kinsella wasn't paid, the industry says. He was just being helpful. The industry has donated more than $40,000 to the party since 2005. (The investigation into land development issues that forced Les from cabinet in April is apparently grinding on.)
The activities, explored by Holman here, raise interesting questions about lobbying, government relations and political donations. in this

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

FOI cover up, or isolated mistake - your call

Children's Minister Tom Christensen says it was a mistake. Yes, his ministry violated freedom of information law and tried to hide reports that children who had been sexually abused weren't getting needed help.
But it was an honest error, he says, not a cover up or attempt to avoid the release of information embarrassing to the government.
You decide.
Back in June 2007, Times Colonist reporter Lindsay Kines filed a freedom of information request with the Ministry of Children and Families. There were signs of problems with a program that was supposed to help children who had been sexually abused. Kines wanted to know if the problems were real and what, if anything, the ministry had done about them.
It took three months, but he got a response to the FOI request. The material included a report based on a 2006 review of the sexual abuse intervention program.
The report was heavily censored, with paragraphs and pages whited out. The ministry said it was keeping much of the report secret because it was advice to Children's Minister Tom Christensen. The FOI laws give the government the option of choosing to keep such information secret.
Kines is a persistent reporter. He dug up an uncensored copy of the report. And he found that the censorship didn't appear to involve advice to the minister.
Instead, almost anything critical or that revealed problems in services for children who had been abused was kept secret. Positive comments were left untouched.
The ministry hid the report's finding that agencies working with sexually abused children "were unanimous in their view that program funding is insufficient." It removed the finding that the program is a "critical element" of service children, "deserving of a more explicit focus."
And it censored the passage that reported "pervasive view among providers that the program has been neglected by government decision makers over the past several years."
The ministry also blanked out a list of the main concerns expressed by agencies that deliver the program across the province, including a lack of money, low wages for counsellors and limited support for training.
And it hid some recommendations, including a call to "establish appropriate funding" for the needed services. At that time, budgets had been frozen for years.
Christensen he didn't know anything about the censorship. Kines sent both reports to Information and Privacy Commissioner David Loukidelis and asked him to investigate the way his request was handled.
And Loukidelis has just reported.
The censorship wasn't justified, he found.
In fact, the ministry had based its decisions on the claim the report was a draft version. Then it said that was a mistake; the report was really in its final form and the law required it to be released.
Even given the claim, Loukidelis called the ministry's decisions on what to keep secret "perplexing." Information that was critical was generally hidden; the same types of information, if positive, were left untouched. The result was a falsely positive impression of the program.
And Loukidelis also noted that the ministry had failed to fulfil another part of its obligation under the act. While freedom of information law allows government to keep some things secret, it doesn't require secrecy.
Government is supposed to consider whether the principle of openness really needs to be abandoned. That didn't happen.
Christensen it was all a mistake. Staff have been added and training improved. The failure was an aberration.
But how can the public rely on that? If Kines had not pushed harder and discovered the uncensored version of the report, the hidden truth would never have been revealed.
And what impact does a system of flagging "sensitive" requests - from journalists, political parties and interest groups - for special treatment have on the process. Earlier this year, Loukidelis raised concerns that government was discriminating against environmental groups using the freedom-of-information process, charging more and moving slowly on their requests.
Aberration, or a culture of secrecy? You decide.
Footnote: The Liberals were the biggest users of the FOI process in opposition and champions of the principle of openness. In government, they have been criticized by lengthening delays and unnecessary hurdles in dealing with requests.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Property assessment freeze bad for many homeowners, says columnist

Don Cayo is one of the people I point to when blogland gets too critical of the snappily named MSM.
He suggests in this column that the property freeze Gordon Campbell announced at the Liberal convention might help owners of high-end commercial properties and, as a result, hurt homeowners.
If the 2008 assessments had gone ahead, Cayo's analysis suggests, home assessments would have fallen. But demand was still good for high-end office/commercials space on July 1, the nominal assessment date. Their assessments - and likely share of taxes - would have increased.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Obama and a new world

I was 15 when the photo appeared, in Life magazine, I think. Barack Obama was six.
It was a black and white shot of a Mississippi sheriff named Lawrence Rainey. He was beefy, bald guy in uniform, something between a grin and smirk over his long chin. Black cowboy boots, with short socks, so you saw a patch of white hairy shin, as he sprawled with one leg crossed over the other, his right hand dipping into a pouch of Red Man tobacco, a chaw in his cheek.
He was sitting in a courtroom. Around him were grinning co-defendants, all charged in the murder of three young civil rights workers.
The picture showed the men believed they had done nothing wrong. And that they would get away with murder.
And the two sheriffs and gang of Ku Klux Klansmen who killed the three men were almost right.
The state wouldn't charge them. It took three years for the federal government to bring charges of violating the dead men's civil rights, by killing them.
Only seven of 18 men charged were convicted. No one served more than six years in jail.
The photo was one of those defining images - of hate and power and a place where the most basic rule of law was unknown. Where you could be killed by the police for talking about human rights.
That was 1967, not long ago really.
And now Americans have elected a black president.
It's remarkable. The United States has carried a stain since its birth, because the founding fathers accepted the continued slavery of blacks, many of them with shame. The country fought a bloody Civil War over the issue, but never really dealt with racism and an apartheid-like segregation. (Not that Canada does not have its own ghosts.)
The civil rights movement was one of those rare, morally pure causes. And it attracted people willing to die for the cause, like James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, the murdered civil rights workers.
And yet within Obama's lifetime, America has changed, beyond what I ever expected.
"Change" was the Obama campaign theme. That's encouraging too.
The United States has always had its dark side. American exceptionalism - the belief that the U.S. is unlike any country in the world, better in a profound way - has justified some terrible intrusions into other countries.
But in the last eight years, it has truly lost its way. A war based on lies, huge tax cuts for the already rich, indifference to survivors of a devastating hurricane. A financial free-for-all that brought riches to a handful before its collapse cost average Americans billions and plunged the world economy into recession. Prison camps with no rules, and torture.
Change seems like a good thing.
Who knows how much change Obama will be able to deliver. As I'm writing, it looks like there will be enough Republican senators to block any major initiatives that they oppose.
And his options are going to be limited. The U.S. is a financial mess and running ridiculous deficits. The government will have little money to spend on new programs.
What does it mean for Canada? Obama talked about opening the North American Free Trade Agreement, but his quarrel is with Mexico, not Canada.
He'll launch a major escalation of the war in Afghanistan. Canada would then face pressure to continue to fight beyond 2011.
And Alberta's tarsands might be in trouble. Obama has pledged to reject "dirty" energy sources, one that require excessive greenhouse gases.
Obama's focus is going to be largely internal. Canada's challenge will be getting any attention.
But who cares?
Obama represents, in some ways, the triumph of a vision. The civil rights movement was a dangerous, uncertain struggle. The election of an African American, despite all the prejudices and racism that are part of life in the U.S., and Canada, is remarkable.
Footnote: It's 8:01 and CNN has just declared Obama the new president. The election does raise some interesting questions about what voters today are looking for in political candidates. Obama's calm, consensus-based approach to politics, his ability to build a broad base of support, united in hope, changes politics.

Assessment freeze, tax deferral useful stopgaps

How bad is it going to get in British Columbia?
And who is going to take the brunt of the beating as the economy reels from the collapse of a global financial system that proved as sturdy as a house of cards built by a distracted five-year-old?
Premier Gordon Campbell's newest proposals suggest things could get considerably worse, although that might also be a tactic. The Liberals appear to be road testing a campaign strategy based on convincing people that times are scary, and the New Democrats are too risky to put in power.
Campbell unveiled the latest plans to deal with the economic crisis at the party's convention in Whistler. They make sense, although Campbell's speech might also have raised some false hopes about the government's intentions.
The government decided to abandon the annual property assessment reviews this year. The July 2007 assessments will be used when municipalities and the province decide how much property and school taxes individual owners should pay.
That means some wasted work. The B.C. Assessment Authority was taken by surprise by the announcement. It had been reviewing property values across the province to come up with this year's revised assessments.
But the change offers some advantages. Given the big clouds over real estate markets, many owners would likely have challenged assessments that were based on values before the market dropped.
That would have meant a lot of appeal hearings and problems for municipalities, which would have had to set mill rates while assessment roles were uncertain.
Some people have interpreted the plan as a freeze on property taxes. It's not. The assessment freeze means each homeowner's share of property taxes won't change.
But towns and cities will still set a mill rate that provides the revenue they end.
And in every municipality, that will be higher than last year's rate. Assessments won't change, but taxes will go up.
Campbell also promised legislation that would allow many owners to defer their property taxes in each of the next two years.
People with at least 15-per-cent equity in their homes - say not more than a $250,000 mortgage on a home assessed at $300,000 - can defer taxes.
They will have to sign a form saying that paying property taxes would be a hardship and agree to pay interest at prime, about four per cent this week. They can pay when they like or the province will collect the money when the property is sold. (People over 55 can already defer property taxes.)
It's a reasonable plan. The province will cover the lost revenues for municipalities. Taxpayers face some administration costs and perhaps a little interest, plus any bad debt risks.
And homeowners in a jam get a small reprieve for two years.
Forest Minister Pat Bell pitched the benefits to forest communities. People who had lost their jobs and couldn't pay their property taxes would get help in hanging on to their houses.
But then what? Are the forest jobs coming back? Or are people just going to be deeper in debt, with houses they can't sell and no prospects?
That part, especially given the current economic turmoil, is far from clear. And the government hasn't offered any specific vision for forest communities coping with weak markets and decades of limited logging to come because of the pine beetle disaster.
Campbell also tested a campaign slogan at the Whistler convention - "Keep B.C. Strong."
The idea is to portray the NDP as a reckless choice in difficult times. Campbell talked a lot about the incompetence of the NDP government in the 1990s.
And the Glen Clark government was hopeless. No plan, incompetent management, just dismal.
But that was 1999. Some 550,000 of today's voters were in high school. About 180,000 voters who were married then, aren't today.
Are they really remembering 1999, when Ricky Martin was living La Vida Loca?
Footnote: For political types, this is all fascinating. The Liberals should be in a strong position - times are mostly good - but next May's election result seems surprisingly uncertain. Voters are leery of Campbell, for vague reasons. That makes it very difficult for the Liberals to figure out how to build a successful campaign.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Are too aggressive Liberals helping James?

I've got to admit, I didn't watch Carole James economic pitch on TV. I was watching David Copperfield make a '48 Lincoln appear out of nowhere at the local arena. I still have no idea how he did it.
There's an analogy there somewhere - maybe to the challenges James faces in next May's election, or the mysterious way Gordon Campbell has managed to make support disappear when his party should be riding high.
But having written about Campbell's 10-point plan, mostly approvingly, it seemed fair to look at the speech James gave, which is available on the NDP website.
It was not bad, really. Certainly better on one level than the stiff, distant and bureaucratic speech Campbell's staffers wrote for him.
James did a better job of talking to British Columbians about their concerns.
Basically, she said the measures Campbell had proposed made sense, but were inadequate. She supported the retroactive income tax cut, worth about $144 million this year as a one-time break.
But James also said she would remove the carbon tax. That means an extra $631 million in people's pockets next year. And, of course, $631 million less in government revenue.
It's a political winner, but bad policy. The carbon tax makes sense. It is offset by other tax cuts. The tax encourages people and companies to reduce their consumption of greenhouse-gas emitting fuels. It rewards innovation. It's a sensible tax shift. But, as Stephane Dion found, that can still be a tough sale.
The NDP knows some price on emissions is needed. But its position is playing well.
James, like Campbell, also supported moving ahead more quickly on some infrastructure projects to help the economy. He wouldn't say which projects would get priority; James promised faster seismic upgrading for schools, 2,400 more affordable housing units to deal with the homelessness crisis and accelerated transit spending.
And she proposed other measures the premier had rejected. Skills training and post-secondary education are important when times are tough, she said, so school budgets would be boosted, student grants restored and interest on student loans cut.
Raw log exports would be cut and more effort and money spent on economic measures aimed at helping forest communities. A
And James promised to attack waste and excess spending, pointing to the Vancouver convention centre, where cost overruns have cost provincial taxpayers $450 million. (Expect to hear much about that from New Democrats over the next six months.)
James released a costing for her tax cuts and spending. It looked sound for this year and next, but cut things too fine for 2010/11. There was the risk of a deficit then
All in all, it was a reasonable plan, but probably not likely to shift many voters.
There were grounds for concern about whether it would be affordable if times got tougher. And the Liberals could be expected to attack the details.
But then the Liberals got self-destructive, in a way that should worry supporters.
For weeks, caucus communications staff - publicly funded - have been running an attack campaign. It's been over the top, the kind of rhetoric that partisans love and uncommitted voters loathe. The team leapt into action after James' speech.
Finance Minister Colin Hansen went on Christy Clark's radio show and said, "We have seen the projections for provincial revenues collapse in the last six weeks, to the tune of billions of dollars."
Except a week earlier, Hansen had said things were difficult and volatile, but revenue projections were "still running ahead of what we were anticipating at the time of the budget."
His explanation was that revenues for this year were on budget, but not for the rest of the three-year plan period.
But if things are on track this year, yet revenues are to be down "billions" in the next two years, then the Liberals must be considering tax increases or significant cuts.
The next quarterly update, around the end of this month, will now be very closely watched.
Footnote: The revenue outlook is volatile. The budget, for example, calls for the government to take in $1.9 billion in property transfer tax on home sales in the next fiscal year. Recent projections of a big drop in sales could knock $400 million off the money available to spend.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Premier's autism centre plan drawing hard questions

Gordon Campbell seemed to catch everyone by surprise with the announcement of a $20-million contribution to a privately planned autism centre with a vague mandate.
And not everyone involved with the issues is pleased, based on this e-mail to the province's auditor general.

TO: Office of the Auditor General of BC
FROM: Dawn Steele & Cyndi Gerlach, Moms on the Move
RE: Request for review of Premier's/Minister's role in committing $20 million in public funds for a private proposal to build an autism centre
DATE: October 29, 2008

Dear Sirs,

We are both parents of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and coordinators of Moms on the Move, a volunteer provincial network that has provided information, advocacy and support to BC families of individuals with autism and other special needs for over eight years. We are the largest such network in BC, linking over 1,000 families and community members.

We are writing to request that you investigate the role of the Premier's office in allocating $20 million in provincial funding and/or other public resources/property to a private proponent seeking to build an "autism centre;" and further, to review whether the Minister responsible for autism policy in BC has failed to ensure that public resources intended to serve children with autism are being allocated in a manner consistent with provincial autism policy and good governance practices with regard to procurement, accountability and public interest.

We were invited, along with other autism community groups leaders, to a meeting hosted by the project proponents, Wendy and Sergio Cocchia, at their downtown hotel on July 24. At that meeting, they informed us:
a.. They are parents of a child with autism but have no expertise or experience in delivering autism services or supports
b.. They are personally acquainted with the Premier and have been asking him for several years to provide public funding and/or property to help them build a provincial autism centre
c.. The Premier gave Sergio Cocchia a "heads-up" in advance that the February 2008 budget would include funding for their centre.
d.. The Premier invited Cocchia to meet him in February following the budget, committed $20 million in Provincial funds towards constructing a new building to house their centre and asked him to develop and submit a formal proposal by the fall.
e.. The Premier said the $20 million would have to be paid out by March 31, 2009, or it would be lost to "general revenues."
f.. In response to questions, the proponent said he was unaware of any needs assessment, formal RFP, advertisement or competitive process.
g.. The proponents established a foundation and intend to fundraise to construct a $34-million building, possibly at the SFU Campus on Burnaby Mountain.
h.. The purpose of the centre was not determined. Facilities could include space to deliver therapy, research and training; a sports centre, swimming pool and baseball diamond where children with autism could enjoy recreation "safely;" a coffee shop or perhaps a training spa/salon; videoconferencing, plus accommodations for out-of town families who might visit.
i.. Government would provide no new funds for any of the proposed activities; families would have to pay from existing resources or fundraise to cover all costs.
j.. Participants were invited to help decide what to do with this new centre, as a formal proposal had to be submitted this fall.
No government officials were present on July 24 to comment further or confirm this. There has still been no formal government announcement regarding this proposal, availability of new public funds and/or government's objectives, intentions or project parameters. The 2008 Throne Speech contains a single sentence referencing plans for a provincial residential centre for autism education and reseach. No details were provided in the provincial budget. The Service Plan of the Ministry for Children and Families, which has responsibility for out-of-school supports and treatment for children with autism, has no reference to this plan. Neither does the Ministry of Education, which has responsibility for K-12 special education, and which abandoned earlier plans from the 2007 Throne Speech to create a provincial model school for autism suggested by the same proponents following strong commnuity opposition. All we have are several comments quoted in response to media questions: 1) The MCFD Minister confirmed a "notional commitment" was made and 2) The Minister for Housing and Welfare said the funding would come from his budget.

$20 million is equivalent to half the annual MCF budget for autism, which funds early intervention therapy for some 5,000 children. The Province has no equivalent program to fund therapy for other developmental disabilities, like Down Syndrome. At the July 24 meeting, community leaders welcomed the prospect of new provincial funding, given the urgent need to enhance and expand treatment, but questioned the appropriateness of spending it all on a building, especially when other under-utilized community facilities (like public schools) could provide any needed space. The centralized delivery model is also inconsistent with provincial policy and families' preference to access services locally, and would offer little to the vast majority of families beyond the immediate vicinity. Participants also questioned the appropriateness of the Premier's personally handling this project outside normal channels and accountability systems.

Community feedback
Participants at the July 24 meeting proposed that our group, as the largest autism network in BC, be used to seek further community feedback. We created an informal Web survey and distributed the link to over 1,000 community members (parents, professionals and service providers), including the proponents. When preliminary feedback indicated overwhelming opposition, we immediately advised the Premier and proponents of concerns being expressed (all cited correspondence copied below).

We continued to run the survey over 7 weeks in August and September and a total of 531 responses were received. A summary of the full results is attached. Individual responses and detailed comments can be browsed directly at:
Key findings:
a.. Parents overwhelmingly prefer local delivery of autism treatment - the worst gaps are in rural areas, not Greater Vancouver
b.. Addressing gaps in funded services and supports for all ages is far more important for families than a new building/ provincial centre, which ranked last in a list of priorities
c.. 95% agreed there were better ways to spend government funds to serve children with autism in BC
d.. A majority think funding for new services should be shared with other disabilities
e.. A majority also had process concerns: 80% think the Minister should handle such inititiaves through normal channels; 96% would prefer a competitive process for soliciting proposals.
Attempts to share concerns
We have tried several times to share the detailed survey results and comments and/or to further engage with the proponents. They have dismissed these concerns in media comments, declined or failed to respond to our approaches and have not shared further information or offered further engagement since the July 24 meeting.

Sources involved in this project insist that MCF Minister Tom Christensen was not party to the Premier's initial discussions or commitment, and was not even aware of the plans until this summer. They claim all decisions are still being made by the Premier, and that he remains 100% committed to funding a new provincial autism centre, despite the lack of any clear purpose, and whether or not that's what the community wants or needs. This week, we were told: "The train has left the station" - the project is going ahead, although the proponents still can't decide what the centre could offer that the community actually wants, and the Minister has no say in this.

However, since the Premier's response to our initial approach referred us to Minister Christensen, on Sept. 19, we asked the Minister to meet with us to discuss the survey feedback and the Province's plans. On Oct. 23, the Minister responded, declining to meet. He said he "understood" community discussions were underway and suggested we participate, although we had told him that we tried without success to meet with the proponents. Our provincial network has not been informed of any other public discussions underway.

Given events to date, we are not confident that further efforts to engage with the proponents or government will lead to meaningful consideration of community concerns reflected in our survey. The process to date also raises grave questions of competence in the leadership of this project to assure its success. Further, we believe it is the duty of the Ministry responsible, not a private group, to conduct any necessary discussions, set parameters and respond to concerns about the spending of public dollars.

Governance concerns
The Premier's commitment to spend $20 million in provincial funds on a privately-held building to house a provincial autism centre represents a significant investment of public funds and a significant departure from current policy and models of autism service delivery. This could instead fund services and supports for an additional 2,500 children with special needs who are being denied/waitlisted for vital early intervention services, pay for vital treatment that many families have to cover privately, or go towards urgently-needed research, training, assessment, special education or adult services. The need for the Province to invest in such a centre was further challenged by the recent announcement that a competing private group plans to open their own provincial autism centre in Burnaby in January 2009, without any public funding.

There has been no formal announcement regarding government's plans, objectives or intentions and no government effort to engage with the community to ensure that new funds for autism are spent effectively and in accordance with government policy. The Minister responsible and the proponents won't acknowledge or discuss concerns, the Minister responsible seems to be abdicating responsibility, it's unclear who's in charge, most families are still in the dark and we're being told that it doesn't matter what anybody thinks because the Premier wants this project to go ahead regardless. The latest third-party reports we have are that the former Sunny Hill hospital site is now also on offer, and that the purpose of the proposed centre still remains undetermined.

We ask that you specifically investigate/review the following questions:
1) Who is in charge? To what extent is the Premier managing this project directly, instead of allowing the Minister responsible for autism policy to manage his portfolio through normal channels, and to what extent has this muddied accountability, created concern and confusion and invited possible mis-spending of public dollars?

2) Has the Province failed to act transparently by not providing clear, timely and appropriate information to the public and affected communities regarding its intentions and objectives with an initiative that represents a significant policy shift and spending equal to half the current autism budget?

3) Does the Ministry responsible have an obligation to hold, supervise or at least participate in public consultations on major publicly-funded initiatives to ensure these are undertaken in good faith, in an open, accessible and objective manner, especially when there is evidence of significant community opposition?

4) Did the Premier act appropriately when he failed to undertake any needs assessment before committing public funds in response to a private request by an associate for support of a private initiative outside the current policy framework?

5) Was the Premier acting in accordance with provincial procurement policy and/or good governance practice when he committed $20 million without testing the offered proposal against existing provincial autism policy, without requiring credentials consistent with the proposed project, without any public discussion and without any open, competitive bidding process?

6) Minister Rich Coleman has stated in the media that this autism project will be funded from his budget for welfare and social housing - is this correct and if so, is it inappropriate? Is he therefore the Minister responsible if it's his budget?

7) Has the Province negotiated with the City of Vancouver or another party to provide lands at the former Sunny Hill hospital site to the proponents for their project and if so, on what terms?
The patterns described here are worryingly similar to those that surrounded the inception of Community Living BC, which is now widely seen as a disastrous undertaking that has consumed enormous public resources without improving the lives of those it was created to serve. MOMS repeatedly raised similar warnings during the CLBC restructuring process and urged government to reconsider, but with no success. I hope that we could avoid repeating this through proactive intervention from your office to ensure that the $20 million available is spent effectively in the public interest.

Please contact us if you have any questions (Tel 604 874-1416). We would be happy to meet with you to discuss this further, at your convenience.


Dawn Steele & Cyndi Gerlach
Moms on the Move

Election tactics in Saanich-Gulf Islands should get close look

Some odd — even worrying — things happened in the Saanich-Gulf Island’s riding successfully held by Conservative cabinet minister Gary Lunn.
One election dirty trick involved phone fraud and seemed both unethical and illegal. The RCMP response, which suggested election fraud allegations just aren’t a priority, was disturbing.
And while there is no evidence of wrongdoing, it appears third-party advertisers played a disproportionate role in the riding.
If nothing else, the events raise questions about the effectiveness of current laws and enforcement efforts.
First, some background. Lunn, natural resources minister in the last government, faced a tough fight for re-election. He won with 37 per cent of the vote in 2006, in part thanks to a three-way opposition vote split.
The Liberals nominated Briony Penn, a high-profile, respected environmentalist. She hoped to appeal to Green voters. Mid-campaign, NDP candidate Julian West withdrew from the race after a creepy past incident of public nudity resurfaced. (That’s fuelled some conspiracy talk on the political blogs, with no apparent foundation.)
West withdrew too late to have his name taken off the ballot, but Penn’s prospects were still helped by the departure. The NDP riding association wrote to all party members saying West was not a candidate and the party wasn’t endorsing anyone.
But in the days before the election, residents were flooded with taped phone messages urging them to vote for West. People who had caller ID saw the call was coming from the phone of NDP riding association president Bill Graham.
Except that was not true. Whoever made the calls used “spoofing” software to make it appear as if the calls were coming from Graham’s number.
The scam didn’t likely affect the outcome. Lunn had 2,625 more votes than Penn. West received 3,667 votes, but they certainly can’t all be attributed to the calls. Some people always vote NDP; others might have chosen to cast their ballots to ensure the party gets the $1.95 per vote in annual public financing.
But the scam certainly could have changed the outcome under slightly different circumstances.
Elections Canada refuses to confirm or deny investigations. Telus says it can’t do anything. The RCMP maintains no laws were broken.
But lawyers disagree. It’s a Criminal Code offence to knowingly provide false information over the phone or to fraudulently impersonate another.
That’s not the only odd development in the riding.
Third-party advertisers are allowed to participate in Canadian election campaigns, subject to spending limits. The aim is to allow interested groups or individuals to join the debate, while setting limits to make sure the rich can’t buy elections. People who favour or oppose a carbon tax, for example, can make sure the issue is front and centre or support sympathetic candidates.
Andrew MacLeod, of the consistently interesting, took a close look at third-party spending in Saanich-Gulf Islands.
In the 308 ridings across Canada, 59 third-party groups registered with Elections Canada. Five registered in Saanich-Gulf Islands using the same address — a law firm that includes Bruce Hallsor, a Lunn supporter.
Hallsor says the groups recognized his expertise in electoral law. But he is vice-president of the Conservative riding association and co-chaired the Conservative B.C. campaign in 2006. (Hallsor is also a strong proponent of electoral reform and a champion of Scouting — literally, a Boy Scout in the often scrappy world of politics.)
Four of the five, MacLeod found, also had the same financial agent: The Citizens Against Higher Taxes, the Dean Park Advocacy Association, the Economic Advisory Council of Saanich and the Saanich Peninsula Citizens Council.
Each third-party participant is limited to spending $3,666 in any riding. Candidates, this time, were limited to $92,000. And it’s illegal for third-party participants to split into multiple subsets to avoid spending limits.
The spending filings for Saanich-Gulf Islands will be watched closely. If Lunn spent to the limit, and several third-party groups with a common address spent heavily to support him, expect some tough questions.
Footnote: The Lunn campaign had its own complaints. He was a high-profile target as a potentially vulnerable B.C. Conservative. The Dogwood Initiative registered as a third party participant and worked hard - but unsuccessfully - to defeat Lunn based on his support for increasing tanker traffic in B.C. coastal waters. The campaign said the group misrepresented his position.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Sunday, October 26, 2008

James gets TV time too

A few eyebrows were raised when Gordon Campbell used the provincial legislative TV channel to broadcast his speech on the economy. The channel had been used to bring the proceedings in the legislature to cable subscribers around the province. It hadn't been seen as a communications vehicle for the governing party.
And, it looks it isn't. Carole James has successfully argued she deserves the chance to talk about the economy on the legislative channel. (A good decision by Speaker Bill Barisoff, once he allowed the premier's TV speech.)
Stay tuned.


For Immediate Release
October 26, 2008


VICTORIA -- NDP Leader Carole James will deliver a televised statement on the economy on Monday, October 27 at 6:15 PM.

The statement will air on Hansard television.

- 30 -

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Less than meets the eye to Campbell's big talk

Gordon Campbell offered up some spooky pre-Halloween rhetoric about the global economic crisis night, but outlined a pretty modest response.
Businesses will get about $190 million a year in tax breaks and benefits.
Individuals will get a one-time break. The three-per-cent tax cut scheduled for Jan.1 and with the two-per-cent cut introduced July 1 will both be made retroactive to the beginning of this year. That will cost the government about $144 million in revenue this year; nothing after that. For a taxpayer making $50,000, it's worth about an extra $140 this year.
The government will advance some infrastructure projects to keep people working, but Campbell couldn't say which ones. It will increase the payment to B.C. Ferries to restore sailings cut by the corporation and provide a one-third fare cut for December and January.
And it is working on some sort of voluntary, user-pay pension plan for people who don't have access to.
It's a reasonable, modest response to the economic woes. Consumers will have a little more money this year and businesses will get little breaks to help them through tough times.
The cuts are small enough that the province won't have any trouble maintaining current services and a big surplus this year and next. The government is on track for a surplus of about $2 billion this year. The measures Campbell announced will only knock about $350 million off that total.
The lack of focus on regions facing the toughest, especially forest communities, was notable. There is about $50 million in property tax relief for industry, which will be helpful. And the infrastructure projects could include resource roads. But most measures are broad brush.
The other notable aspect is the premier's decision to ditch the practice of presenting budget measures - which this was - in the legislature.
Campbell unveiled the plan in a speech broadcast on the legislature TV channel at 6:15 p.m. He had hoped TV newscasts would broadcast it live, but they said no thanks.
The whole deal was set up for political effect. Reporters were in a mini-lockup starting at 5:15 and forbidden from filing until after Campbell finished speaking. The aim, in part, was to make it tough for any opposition or expert reaction to make it into the evening newscasts or even into the papers. Reporters were on tight deadlines.
Campbell said the legislature would be recalled on Nov. 20 "to enact these measures."
But the fall session, which had been cancelled by the Liberals, was only to last until Nov. 27. If the Liberals stick to that timeline, MLAs had better bring their rubber stamps with them.
A longer session would allow MLAs from all parties to debate the measures and propose changes or different approaches. (And would allow the government to pass some critical bills it abandoned in the spring citing lack of time.)
Politically, it's tough to judge the impact of the announcements.
The tax cuts will be welcomed by businesses and many individuals. But people waiting for surgery, hoping for improvements to their children's education or with other priorities will wonder why those are taking second place to tax cuts.
Part of Campbell's goal, with six months until the official start of the election campaign, was to demonstrate that he and the Liberals are the people to manage the economy in troubled times.
Public reaction in the next six or seven weeks will be interesting. The measures are useful, but basically more of the same. The tax cuts were almost all planned and have just been implemented earlier than scheduled. The government says it plans no spending changes.
Carole James faces three challenges between now and the session. She has to convince voters that the NDP has the same competence. She has to demonstrate more empathy or understanding than Campbell. And she has to make a credible case for the potential for more creative, active efforts to encourage needed economic activity.
Footnote: Campbell also promised better deposit protection for people with credit union accounts. The pension plan for the 75 per cent of workers not covered by company or union plans appears to be very much work in progress, with no details. Campbell did say he hoped the user-pay plan could be in place by the end of next year.\