Friday, June 20, 2008

Carbon tax opposition a challenge for Liberals

After a recent column on donating the coming $100 carbon tax rebate to a good cause, a reader in Nelson e-mailed.
His money is spent already, he wrote, going to the 22-per-cent increase in heating costs he's facing this winter.
Count him as opposed to the tax. And the same day Ipsos Reid released a poll that found most British Columbians shared his view.
More than I expected, and they were also more riled up than I would have predicted.
The carbon tax looks like a potentially serious problem for the Liberals, with the election 11 months away.
So far, the issue hasn't had any effect on their support. The Ipsos survey, done between June 5 and 10, found the Liberals at 47 per cent of decided voters, the NDP at 33 and the Greens at 16. (In the 2005 election, the Liberals got 46 per cent of the vote, the NDP 42 and Greens nine per cent.)
The carbon tax doesn't take effect until July 1. If people are opposed now, they'll be crankier when gas prices rise another 2.4 cents a litre on Canada Day.
The NDP is trying to score points on the issue. Leader Carole James kicked off an "Axe the Tax" campaign this week.
It's a crassly opportunistic move. The New Democrats are on record as supporting a carbon tax. Their opposition to this particular version rests on pretty flimsy ground.
At the same time, the federal Conservatives are bashing Stephane Dion's carbon tax, which is more modest than Campbell's, in their typically hysterical way. Left and right are united against the tax.
The Ipsos poll confirmed that. The poll found 59 per cent of British Columbians oppose the carbon tax. Significantly, 45 per cent said they were strongly opposed.
And a majority of voters who identified themselves as supporters of all three main parties - even Green supporters - opposed the tax. Islanders and people with universities were split evenly on the carbon tax, but in every other group - the Lower Mainland and the rest of the province, men and women, rich and poor, old and young - more than half were opposed.
It looks like the Liberals underestimated the backlash (as I did). Premier Gordon Campbell avoided the whole subject in speeches to northern mayors and the party's business supporters, hoping the issue would go away.
It hasn't. Now he's accusing the NDP, with good reason, of playing politics. The tax is important to reduce emissions, he says, and been offset by other tax cuts for all British Columbians.
Some Liberal MLAs think the government needs to do a better job of explaining the tax.
That will be tough. An ad campaign could backfire, prompting complaints taxpayers' money was being wasted to sell an unpopular tax.
And suspicion about the promise of revenue neutrality runs deep. The carbon tax is designed to reward people who change their behaviour to cut their gas and oil consumption. A Lower Mainland resident, for example, can switch to public transit. That's not likely possible for someone living somewhere outside Mackenzie.
The carbon tax still makes sense. It's a small way to change behaviour and at least initially the tax cuts will offset the costs for most people.
But politically, this is a poser for the Liberals.
Tax revolt campaigns tend to play well, even when they make little sense. (Who could really argue the New Democrats would beat the Liberals in cutting taxes?)
And the Ipsos-Reid poll results are worrying. The breadth of the opposition to the carbon tax - and the depth - suggests problems. Liberals supporters might be less keen on showing up to vote. Undecided voters might decide James deserves a vote.
The Liberals might pull some Green supporters, but politically the carbon tax looks a risk.
It's odd. Campbell's big political problem turns out to come when he goes all green.
Footnote: Federal politics are spilling over in a big way. The Harper government launched a total war against carbon taxes even before Dion's proposal was out, ranting about a "tax on everything" and mocking the notion of tax shifts or revenue neutrality.
And the provincial opposition brings a rare unity - business groups, unions, Canadian Taxpayers' Federation and the NDP all stand together.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

How did Big Pharma win Round One?

I posted a link to a column by a family doctor on the provincial government’s plan to destroy a UBC initiative that helped control Pharmacare costs and save lives.

The Gazetteer – the blogger I find most consistently interesting on a lot of fronts – asked this:

“I, for one, would be interested in your opinion on how this 'decision'
 was deflector-spun out of bounds such that it has remained pretty much 
a non-story despite the fact that it will have a real and lasting
 impact on all British Columbians.

Good question.
The government released the pharmaceutical task force report May 21.
The Sun had a story the next day, which led with the report’s conclusion that B.C. was paying too much for generic drugs.
It noted the criticism of the Therapeutics Initiative and included a response from the Initiative and comments from Adrian Dix that Big Pharma dominated the review panel.
The Tyee covered it as well.
A week later, on May 28, The Sun had a front-page story on international criticism of the attack on the Therapeutics Initiative.
The same day Craig McInnes, a Sun editorial writer, had a column setting out the value of the Initiative and criticizing the composition of the panel.
And the next day, Andre Picard. The Globe’s stellar health columnist, defended the Initiative.
On June 4, The Sun ran an op-ed piece from drug-company funded illness groups supporting the review and quicker approval of new drugs.
Vaughn Palmer offered a balanced view June 10.
The Times Colonist ran a ferocious Colby Cosh column defending the Initiative June 16, and the doctor’s column June 18.
I didn’t look at regional papers.
I meant to write about it, but didn’t have time to read the report. Not a great explanation, but true.
There was a lack of news coverage. How much more would drugs have cost without the Iniatitive? Who was on the review panel? What do people like UVic’s Alan Cassels, who has researched pharmaceuticals, think?
But the report on the drug task force report competed for space – and reader attention – with the CBC reports on casino money-laundering and news on people turned away from shelters.
All in all, the media coverage and analysis weren’t bad, though not impressive either.
It is a complicated story to tell in a form that people will read. And it’s less immediately grabbing than an ER closure or someone getting their hip surgery delayed again. We aren't good at complicated stories.
The issue got not bad coverage. But not great, either. And the public didn't pay much attention.
One issue is the balance of interests. For the drug companies, it’s hugely important to get barriers to quick approval of new drugs pushed aside.
For the average person, defending an effective drug approval process is pretty far down the list of worries.
That suggests a bigger public role for those who have a credible voice. Like Dr. Blair.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Province to gut program that avoided costly, dangerous drug spending

One of B.C.'s great health care successes has been its management of spending on prescription drugs. A major factor has been the Therapeutics Initiative at UBC, which assesses the benefits and risks of new drugs, providing the information needed to determine whether they're worth adding to the list covered by Pharmacare.
It's a success story that has attracted praise from around the world and saved the public hundreds of millions of dollars. Now the government, pushed by Big Pharma, wants to gut the Initiative.
A Victoria doctor in family practice offers a view from the frontlines here.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Now Obama is fighting B.C. over mining

Barack Obama is not even elected president yet, and he's already picking on B.C.
It didn't get much attention, but Obama served notice that if he's elected, he'll lend his support to ban mining in the Flathead Valley in southeastern B.C.
The dispute has been bouncing in and out of the headlines since 2003, especially in Montana.
It has already proved awkward for the provincial government.
In mid-2004, Energy Minister Richard Neufeld cancelled Cline Mining's permit for a planned open pit coal mine in the Flathead, citing environmental concerns and pressure from Montana. The company's share price fell 50 per cent.
And earlier this year, BP America cancelled plans for coalbed methane development in the Flathead after taking heat from Montana interests, including powerful U.S. Senator Max Baucus.
But the battle isn't over, and Obama has signed on to the other side.
Cline has another property in the Flathead Valley, farther from the border. Montana environmentalists - and most of the main politicians - are opposed to a coal mine proposed for that site as well.
And, to add a complication to the mix, BP America still hopes to develop coalbed methane in the Elk Valley, just north of the Flathead.
The series of disputes is putting the government in a bad spot. The pressure from Montana - on the province and the companies - is significant. And a lot of people in the Kootenays support protection of the Flathead.
But on the other side, other residents aren't opposed to more mining, which provides excellent jobs.
The province wants the investment and future royalties from coalbed methane. BP said that if it had developed both the Flathead and Elk Valley properties, the investment would have been about $3 billion. The government would get $2 billion in royalties and $2 billion in corporate taxes over the life of the project, the company said.
And at some point, the B.C. government is going to have to decide how much say it will give U.S. interests on land-use decisions within the province.
The Montana crew has a legitimate interest in the future of the Flathead Valley on our side of the border (as B.C. took a legitimate interest in the air quality impact of a proposed power plant just across the border from Sumas).
The Flathead River is a prized asset in Montana. It forms the border of the U.S. Glacier National Park and offers fishing and recreational opportunities. It's that rare thing - an accessible wild river.
The case for being concerned about development in its headwaters is pretty strong.
But how far should that interest go? By taking aim at BP's coalbed plans for the Elk Valley, Baucus and the other U.S. interests are claiming influence on an area 60 kms or more from the border. And the Elk River flows into the Kootenay. It flows into Montana, where it is dammed to create a lake - hardly a wild river.
Bill Bennett is the Liberal MLA from the region and was mines minister until he resigned after a nasty e-mail exchange with a constituent.
He offered a good analysis of where B.C. should draw the line during the just-ended legislative session.
Bennett drew a clear line between the Elk and Flathead Valleys.
The Elk has been home to mining and logging for more than a century, he noted. It's not some pristine wilderness. The Flathead, while there has been logging and recreational use, hasn't been developed in the same way.
Bennett suggested that, at least for now, the status quo should prevail in the Flathead. His constituents don't want to see coal mining in the valley.
But he'd allow more mining and coalbed methane development in the Elk Valley, giving BP a chance to show how clean its operations can be.
It seems a reasonable compromise.
I wonder what Obama will say.
Footnote: Bennett might have a chance to play a larger role. A cabinet shuffle is expected in next few weeks as the premier moves out people like Claude Richmond and Carole Taylor who have said they won't run in 2009. Bennett would be a good addition, but he might be too independent for Gordon Campbell's taste or the party might decide another Liberal needs the profile more.