Friday, October 10, 2008

Insider lobbying scandal and arrogance

The B.C Liberals reputation for arrogance isn't being helped by the latest lobbying scandal.
And the people supposedly on Gordon Campbell's side are doing the biggest damage.
The new lobbying scandal was dug up by the intrepid Sean Holman of the 24 Hours free newspaper and his own website,
The allegation - unproven, but based on evidence that raises reasonable concerns - is that Patrick Kinsella and his company violated the provincial Lobbyist's Act by pushing their clients' interests without registering as lobbyists.
Kinsella is not just another person selling advice on how to get government to do what you want. He's been a powerful political player for decades.
Kinsella guided Gordon Campbell's entry into provincial politics and co-managed the 2001 and 2005 Liberal election campaigns. Mark Jiles, also with the Progressive Group, Kinsella's company, managed Campbell's 2005 campaign in his riding. These are ultimate insiders.
And Holman uncovered information that suggested they had been lobbying the government without registering, as required by laws the Liberals introduced to shed light on the murky world of lobbying.
The Liberals introduced the Lobbyists Registration Act within months of the 2001 election. The government said people had right to know who was trying to influence government policy, their clients and the purpose. That would reduce the risk that party insiders would offer special access to people with money and a desire to steer government policy.
It was a good first step. The NDP had taken no action to bring order to lobbying.
But it hasn't worked. The loopholes were enormous; among the most critical was the lack of any real enforcement effort to ensure people played by the rules.
Theoretically, the province's Information and Privacy Commissioner was supposed to enforce the regulations. But the law was badly drafted and the office no real legal power.
That wasn't a problem in the first scandal, when Campbell associate Ken Dobell admitted violating the act. Dobell, while being paid as an advisor to Campbell, was also being paid to get money for a Vancouver city project. He never declared his lobbyist role.
But Dobell did co-operate with the privacy commissioner when the case went public.
Not Kinsella. His lawyers told commissioner David Loukidelis, who had launched an inquiry, to take a hike. The law gave him no authority, Kinsella's lawyers said.
Legally correct, perhaps. But not so good for Campbell.
The B.C Liberal campaign manager - unlike Dobell - has thumbed his nose at the rules, effectively saying the lobbyist registry is a sham.
If lobbyists decide whether they need to register, with no oversight, there is no real registry - just posturing.
It's an odd decision on Kinsella's part. Why not let Loukidelis look at the concerns, if there is no problem? Why subject the premier to so much negative action.
Especially because of the potential effect on the next election. Kinsella advised Alcan, which received such a generous deal from the government that the B.C. Utilities Commission had to intervene in behalf of consumers. He helped Accenture win a $1.5-billion contract to take over B.C. Hydro office functions, helped get millions in tax breaks for the movie industry and guided a payday loan company in its efforts to shape rules governing that industry.
Lobbying and government relations consulting are legitimate activities. People pay for help in convincing government to bring policies and programs that help them.
If the help is based on guiding the clients in aligning their goals with the public interest, as seen by government, no worries. But if it's based on who you know, that's a problem. People without the money for access are left in the cold.
In the end, Kinsella torpedoed any semblance of effective lobbyist registration. Loukidelis threw up his hands and said he wouldn't try to enforce the rule any more.
Arrogance? You decide.
Footnote: Campbell has nothing to say on the scandal or why the government has stalled needed changes to the Lobbyist Act for two years (while canceling the fall sitting of the legislature). The RCMP now has the option of picking up the investigation, along with any future complaints that come up about possible violation of the act.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

More tools for strategic voting

Many people — of all political stripes — are interested in strategic voting to achieve or block an election outcome. One of the challenges is figuring out how to shift your vote to produce the desired result in your riding. Or, for that matter, whether the race is close enough that you need to bother. If it's not, then voting for the party you like best gets it $1.75 a year in federal funding.
An environmental group has created one tool that looks at the effects of strategic voting in individual ridings. It's purpose is to help defeat the Conservatives, but of course the information is equally useful for people voring strategically with other outcomes in mind.
Another great resource is the election predition project that offers reader-driven assessments of the races in every riding. The project has seven seats in B.C. still close to call; the choices a few voters in those ridings make could determine the next government.
Of course, all this would be much less necessary if we had a system of proportional representation to ensure voters' preferences were more closely reflected in Parliament.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

More warning signs from children and families ministry

It's looking like things are spinning out of control in the Ministry of Children and Families, based on a meltdown at a recent meeting of a legislature committee.
The ministry has a difficult, important job. In 2006, a review by Ted Hughes found it had serious problems and recommended changes. Those included the restoration of an independent officer of the legislature - the representative for children and youth - to report on successes and problems and make recommendations.
Hughes said the representative should report to a committee of MLAs charged with monitoring progress.
The government accepted the report, with Premier Gordon Campbell promising action on all the recommendations.
The committee - six Liberal MLAs and four New Democrats - was established.
But the ministry doesn't seem to have accepted the idea of real oversight and accountability. Last month, I wrote about the ministry's failure to respond fully when representative Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond raised questions about the measures taken to ensure the safety of children placed in the care of relatives.
At the committee meeting, the ministry appeared to be trying to do an end-run around the representative's office to avoid accountability.
The subject is serious. Turpel-Lafond reported in April on the deaths of four children in care in northern B.C. The report - "From Loss to Learning" - found significant systemic problems and made recommendations to address them.
The recommendations called for real change. "The ministry must strengthen practice and supervision in assessing child safety in the north region to prevent injuries or deaths of children in circumstances similar to those of Amanda, Savannah, Rowen and Serena," the representative reported. "Learning from preventable deaths is essential. This investigation found that current safety and assessment practices and planning practices for children have not shown marked improvement since when these children died." The legislative committee adopted the recommendations. Its agenda called for a progress report some six months after the report was presented.
Things went off the rails. The ministry wanted to have a manager talk about the report.
But Turpel-Lafond spoke first. She noted that she had been trying for six months, without success, to get the ministry representatives to sit down and respond to the recommendations.
"I and my staff are deeply disappointed about this fact," she said.
The Hughes report didn't propose the legislative committee be some sort of ministry management committee, she noted. Her office was to provide expert oversight and report to the MLAs.
Instead it looked like ministry managers were trying to cut out the oversight.
And not even in a subtle way. The MLAs on the committee had been sent a lot of information by the ministry five days earlier. But the ministry didn't send the same package to the representative's office until the day before the meeting.
The delay looked much like an attempt to subvert the office's role. Especially given the representative's effort, over months, to get a response from the ministry.
Turpel-Lafond told the MLAs that this wasn't the way things should be working, based on the Hughes report and the legislation. The representative's office should be reviewing the ministry's response and providing its analysis to the legislative committee.
Liberal MLA absences gave the New Democrats a majority in the committee room. They voted to adjourn to give Turpel-Lafond time to review the material from the ministry and report to the committee. A new date will be scheduled.
Children and Families Minister Tom Christensen has a good rep. He shouldn't be happy that the ministry is withholding information and failing to co-operate with an independent officer of the legislature.
But that's what has happened, even though Turpel-Lafond told the committee she had raised the problems with Christensen this summer.
That creates questions about Christensen's grasp of the tough portfolio.
And about where the ministry is going. Why would the children and families management team have such difficulties with the idea of oversight?
Footnote: There was good news at the committee meeting. Turpel-Lafond's efforts to arrange a Children's Forum, bringing together representatives from the ministry, coroner's office, ombudsman, health officer and all the other agencies involved have paid off. The members reported progress in a number of areas.

Strategic voting - part one

It seems likely that strategic voting is going to be a big part of the election, especially in B.C. where up to 10 seats could be in play next week.
Under our current, deeply flawed system, it's inevitable, if unpleasant, that people have to vote for a candidate that isn't their first choice in order to block a party they don't want to see in powe ror support one they do.
The problem is making the most effective choice given the lack of available information on what other voters are going to do.
The Tyee has poll results that could help in making a strategic choice. I'll point to other resources over the next few days.

Monday, October 06, 2008

More insider troubles for BC Liberals

If you haven't, check out Sean Holman's exemplary work on B.C. Liberal co-campaign manager Patrick Kinsella's role in helping companies, from Alcan to payday loan clients, influence government policies. Given the government's various ethical and accountability stumbles, this looks like a major problem, especially if Kinsella continues to refuse to co-operate with an investigation. It's all here.

A Green miscue on the provincial scene

Stuart Herzog says Green leader Jane Sterk is making a big mistake in running in the Vancouver-Fairview byelection. The piece is here.