Thursday, July 17, 2008

Watchdog finds bungling, negligence in forest deal that enriched company

After the auditor general's devastating report on the government's incompetence and negligence in removing vast tracts of prime Vancouver Island land from a tree farm licence, things shouldn't have got much worse.
Within hours, they did.
Current Forests Minister Pat Bell responded to the report as if he hadn't read a single word.
Instead of accepting the recommendations, or offering a fact-based rebuttal, he attacked Auditor General John Doyle, an Australian chosen for the independent post by a unanimous vote of the legislature. "If Mr. Doyle thinks this is the way we do business in Canada, he's dead wrong," Bell blustered.
It was a lame attempt to divert attention from the most damning auditor general's report since the fast ferry scandal.
And a written response from the ministry, while it raised some sound points, did nothing to refute the auditor general's main findings.
Last year, then forests minister Rich Coleman handed Western Forest Products a big gift. The international corporation wanted the government to release 70,000 acres, including prime real estate along the coast of Victoria, from tree farm licences.
The land had been protected as working forest and managed under the same rules as Crown land. In return, the government had provided extra harvesting rights on Crown land.
Getting the land out of the tree farm licence meant up to $200 million in windfall gains for WFP, which could sell it for real estate development, export more raw logs and work to lower environmental standards.
But for communities, the change meant loss of wildlife habitat, green space and other economic opportunities.
All development planning became irrelevant when Coleman signed the deal and what had been 280 square kilometres of protected green space was opened for subdivisions.
The auditor general found Coleman made the decision without knowing how much the deal was worth to the corporation. He didn't seek compensation - normal in such deals - because he wanted to company to get all the benefits.
Coleman thought Western Forest Product needed the money to strengthen its balance sheet.
But he didn't how much it needed, or whether other sources besides the taxpayers were available or what Western Forest Products would do with the windfall.
And he made the decision without any consultation with affected communities or other stakeholders and without information on the costs to the public.
Coleman got a five-page briefing note from the ministry and said OK. He's never offered any explanation beyond saying the company needed the money and supporting it was good for the coastal forest industry. But Coleman could never produce an analysis or cost-benefit study to justify the decision.
In fact, the auditor general asked Coleman for a meeting as part of his reviews so he could understand the minister's thinking. Coleman refused. (Which makes Bell's bluster more ridiculous.)
The auditor general found the removal was made "without sufficient regard for the public interest."
The government failed to do the most basic due diligence to see if the company really did need assistance.
And the watchdog found the government failed to make any effort to assess whether the gift to the corporation would be of any public benefit, whether in protecting forest jobs or in some other area.
Coleman had made the decision based on a five-page briefing note, which Doyle found was "incomplete" and "did not make a persuasive case for allowing the land removal."
The option of compensation wasn't even considered in the material.
"There was no explanation of how allowing the land removal was in the public interest," the report found.
And Coleman was ultimately responsible.
"The minister was the final check in the process and the statutory decision-maker but, given the importance of the decision, he did not do enough to ensure that due regard was given to the public interest," the auditor general concluded.
It's a devastating report, one that finds both incompetence and negligence.
Footnote: Bell's bizarre reaction included a complaint that there were no recommendations in the report, as if a call for basic competence and diligence was not enough.
Coleman's place in cabinet should be in count as a result of the report, particularly given the sensitivity of his new role responsible for welfare and services for the disabled.
Premier Gordon Campbell also faces some tough questions about his role.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

AG finds Coleman, government failed to protect public interest while enriching forest company

The auditor general's report on the government's decision to remove 70,000 acres of private land from tree farm licences on southern Vancouver Island to clear the way for real estate development offers a brutal critique of an incompentent process. Former forest minister Rich Coleman failed in his duty to protect the public interest, the auditor general found.
I'll have something up this evening, but in the interim there's a Times Colonist editorial here and a Les Leyne column here.
Both are well-worth reading.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Khadr video confirms Canada’s disgrace

Most of us haven't paid much attention to the case of Omar Khadr, the Canadian captured by U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan in 2002.
Khadr, then 16, was shot twice in the back during the fight; the Americans believe he threw a grenade that killed a U.S. soldier.
Since then, he's been a prisoner, mostly at Guantanamo Bay, the detention centre the U.S. set up in Cuba to escape its own and international laws on the treatment of prisoners.
Other western countries, including Britain and Australia, have repatriated their nationals from Guantanamo because of concerns about prisoner abuse and the lack of rights.
Canada, even though Khadr was a boy when he was captured, hasn't made any effort to bring him here to be dealt with in our courts.
And the Canadian government has insisted that it was monitoring the situation and Khadr was being treated humanely.
That probably reassured a lot of people, who then felt they didn't need to think much about the case.
Khadr said he was tortured, but both the Liberal and Conservative governments said everything was fine.
Except the Canadian government lied to us.
CSIS and Canadian Foreign Affairs officials questioned Khadr in 2003 and 2004, when he was still not old enough to vote here.
The government knew then that the Guantanamo interrogation experts had decided to soften up Khadr before the Canadian officials arrived.
For three weeks, the teen was moved to a different cell of holding area every three hours night and day. That's three weeks with no real sleep or human contact.
I'm no expert in international law. But I'm a parent, and if a child of mine were treated that way, I'd call it torture.
And I'd certainly call any government that said the treatment was "humane" both dishonest and morally bankrupt.
The U.S. interest in Khadr is understandable. His parents were Islamic extremists who lived in Toronto and Pakistan. His father was killed in an anti-terrorist raid in 2003. Omar played with Osama bin Laden's children.
When he was captured, less than a year after the attack on the World Trade Centre, the U.S. was desperate for any information on bin Laden and al-Qaeda.
So interrogators started questioning the 15-year-old as soon as he regained consciousness in a U.S. military hospital at Bagram in Afghanistan.
The first U.S. interrogator told Michelle Shephard of the Toronto Star that it was "neat" to watch Khadr's vital signs change on the life support machines as he answered questions.
Humane treatment, says the Canadian government.
Khadr's interrogators at Bagram included U.S. Sgt. Joshua Claus, later convicted of maltreatment and assault in the killing of another prisoner - an innocent Afghan taxi driver - during questioning. Claus says he didn't torture Khadr; censored statements by Khadr suggest he did.
Given that governments lied about humane treatment, it is hard to accept claims that Khadr was not tortured.
This week, the videos of the Canadian officials questioning of Khadr were released by court order.
They show no torture.
But they do show what you would expect: A scared 16-year-old, trapped indefinitely in a detention centre, threatened and sleep-deprived, who thinks the Canadian officials are there to rescue him.
He soon learns that's not true. The hidden camera captures him pleading with them to "Help me" or "Kill me." The words aren't clear.
The bare facts should shame Canadians. A child soldier brainwashed by his parents - anyone who knows 15-year-olds knows they are mostly big kids - is captured.
The evidence on whether he threw the grenade is uncertain.
He's abused and says whatever his captors want to hear.
While Guantanamo Bay prisoners from every other western nation are repatriated, Canada won't ask for Khadr's return and questions him - after three weeks of abuse - and turns the results over to the U.S.
And the federal government - under both the Liberals and the Conservatives - lies to Canadians about Khadr's treatment and won't make the simple effort to have him returned here to face a legitimate court.
Footnote: The video released this week made headlines around the world. Most of the coverage focused on the abominable treatment Khadr had received, the pathetic state he was in and the Canadian government's inexplicable failure to do the right thing.

Are we selling off gas resources too cheaply?

Six months into the year, and the B.C. government has sold almost $1 billion worth of gas leases.
That’s just short of the record total for all of 2007. Which on one level is good news. The $970 million collected so far will pay for services or be put toward the province’s debt. On the other hand, we’re making a lot of money selling off non-renewable assets. It’s a bit like like a farm family who decide to sell more and more of the property to cover today’s bills, until there is nothing left for the next generation.
The companies will pay royalties to the province on the gas they pump out of the ground, if their search is successful.
But those too are finite - the money will only flow into the provincial coffers as long as the gas flows from the wells. Then what happens? And the topic of royalties raises a whole other issue. One reason the companies are buying leases and licences in B.C. is because we’re selling off the gas more cheaply than Alberta, our main competitor. We’re charging about seven per cent less than our neighbour, according to one industry expert.
And that’s because last year Alberta decided the public should get a larger share of the record profits energy companies are making. After independent reviews found the province was not getting a fair price for the oil and gas under the ground, Alberta’s Conservative government raised its royalty rates.
B.C. had a similar royalty plan, perhaps a little more generous to the companies to encourage development. But the government hasn’t raised rates here to get a better deal for the public.
Last month, B.C.’s deputy minister for oil and gas told an industry conference in Calgary that the only changes B.C. is considering are incentives - royalty cuts - to encourage companies to invest in infrastructure and deeper wells. The comments won a round of applause.
One problem in all this is that governments face a conflict of interest. Natural gas royalties are forecast at $1.2 billion this year, on their way to topping corporate taxes as a revenue source. The industry provides a lot of good jobs. All governments are always looking ahead to the next election. That means there is an incentive to sell off resources now, at the expense of the future. The lease sales are done by auction, so the companies are paying the going rate. But setting royalty rates - the cut the government takes when gas is taken from the ground - is just as subjective as setting a price for a used car you want to sell.
Make them low, and you can encourage more development now. But if they’re too low, the resource is sold too cheaply and the public loses out. (There’s no need for haste. The gas is likely to get more valuable with each passing year.) That’s why Alberta raised its rates. The government received two public reports - one from an independent panel of experts and another from the province’s auditor general - that found it was selling off energy resources too cheaply, shortchanging the public by up to $2 billion a year. The B.C. government hasn’t done that kind of review.
As you read this, some communications staffer is probably writing a letter Energy Minister Richard Neufeld will sign that points out - rightly - that royalty cuts have resulted in much greater gas development. The letter will also likely say that the Energy Ministry regularly reviews royalty levels to make sure they’re appropriate. But if you ask to see those reviews, you won’t get them. And there simply has not been an independent, open review like those the Alberta government conducted. An independent royalty review would make good sense. So would a heritage fund - a place to set some of these revenues aside for the future.
Partly, that’s simply prudent. These are non-renewable resources. It’s risky to build government spending on revenue that might not be there for our children. And a heritage fund would reduce the temptation for governments to grab the cash and jobs now, even if it means selling resources too cheaply. Footnote: A coalition of environmental groups called for the establishment of a heritage fund in 2004. And the B.C. Progress Board, a business-oriented body set up by Premier Gordon Campbell to provide advice, called for the province to look at setting up a heritage fund for a share of oil and gas revenues in 2005.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

For kids in care, a court date is more likely than a grad dance

Bob Ritchie is one of the interesting people I only know because I write a column. We've never met, but he's a prolific writer of letters to the editor and e-mails to politicians and journalists.
Ritchie lives in Qualicum; he's 78 and worked for B.C. Hydro, in an office job.
And he cares passionately about a lot of issues, from the need for a tougher stance on crime to what he sees as a crisis in the state of children and families in B.C. He looks at life in the province, and the future, and doesn't like what he sees.
I don't always agree with Ritchie, but I admire his commitment and bold approach to solving problems, and always read his e-mails with interest.
So do a lot of other people. A quick bit of research found he had raised issues publicly some 60 times in the last 12 months, with letters to the editor in papers around the province or mentions in columns or news stories. (And that is in what has been a very tough year for him personally.)
And I respect him. He gave me a shot this week, an e-mail with this subject line: "Paul please show me that you really care. I would sure like to get more out of reading your articles. You have seemed to have lost interest. Bob."
I haven't lost interest. It does get exhausting being fierce all the time, as Ritchie expects. It takes a lot of research to build an airtight argument. And I don't want to seem like a crabby nag.
But Ritchie is right. It is important to keep raising the issues that really matter.
Which leads, in a roundabout way, to a speech by Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond last month.
The province's Representative for Children and Youth offered a preview of a massive research project that tracked the lives of 50,000 children born in B.C. since 1986.
The first results confirmed Ritchie's point that we need to do so much better. The data showed, Turpel-Lafond said, that children taken into the government's care were more likely to end up charged with a crime than to graduate from high school.
Think about the teens you know. How many end up facing in trouble with the law?
For adolescents receiving services from the Ministry of Children and Families, 44 per cent end up facing criminal charges.
More than one-third of children in care tracked by the study ended up serving time in jail. That shows major problems, given how hard the courts work to keep young people out of prison.
Of course, children in care very often start off with some big handicaps. Fetal alcohol effect (a big concern of Ritchie's), learning disabilities, emotional problems from neglect or abuse, or health problems from a rough infancy - these are going to take their toll.
Still, are their years in care improving their chances of success - of graduating from high school, instead of into the criminal justice system, for example?
For some youths, certainly. But the statistics suggest not for most of the children in care.
There are lots of areas for improvement. But there's a basic principle behind the failures.
Lots of kids only graduate from high school because their parents encourage, push and grind them. If they skip school or bring home a dismal report card, their parents lean on them any way they can. And the kids make it.
And lots of teens get in the same kind of scrapes with the law that kids in care do. But their parents sweep in and pull them back from the brink. They provide the support the courts are looking for when deciding whether to divert the case to some resolution outside the criminal justice system.
Not kids in the government's care. We've decided not to care enough about them.
OK, Bob?
Footonote: Practically, children in care as young as 13 end up with little support if things go sideways.
Foster parents can't track them and the ministry doesn't know what's going in their lives.
Turpel-Lafond notes almost 600 teens in care, as young as 16, are on "independent living" agreements, living in rooms or cheap apartments on their own. It is a formula for bad choices and worse outcomes.
The full report is to be released this fall.