Friday, March 20, 2009

Running a wire on the police

The Times Colonist has been following an interesting case. Victoria police stopped a driver, in case, they said, his car was stolen.
He was difficult. They arrested him and searched his van. He had the audio record function running on his Palm Pilot during the arrest and while they searched the vehicles as he sat, handcuffed, in the back seat of the police car.
But police didn't know that until after the arresting officer had testified at the man's trial for obstructing justice.
The recording was played by defence lawyer Doug Christie (yeh, that guy). The Crown dropped the charges.
The report is here .
Click on the link to transcript of trial on the right to see what happened.
It suggests, sadly, real grounds for concerns about court cases decided on the basis of police testimony.

Nurses find way around coming wage freeze

It looks like the B.C. Nurses Union has retired Solidarity Forever in favour of Take the Money and Run as a rallying song.
The nurses' contract, like collective agreements for pretty much the whole public sector, was set to expire at the end of March in 2010.
That's also when the government has said it will introduce a two-year public sector wage freeze in response to the economic downturn.
The union wasn't keen on a wage freeze, naturally enough. So it approached the government last month to propose a contract extension now, more than a year before it expires, in return for salary increases.
The government liked the idea. It agreed to extend the contract for two years, until April 2012, with a three-per-cent raise in each year. The union and government call it a "labour market adjustment," but it's a wage hike.
Like all collective bargaining, the deal is a trade-off. The nurses' union gets a good guaranteed raise for members at a time of huge economic uncertainty.
The government, which is working on a similar deal with doctors, avoids the threat of disruptions to the health care system in the summer of 2010 and, perhaps, attracts some needed new nurses and doctors.
It's an interesting calculation on the part of both sides. For the union, there's a wage increase above the rate of inflation. And there's no worry about a newly elected government getting fierce about a wage freeze.
For the government, there's a fixed increase for one of the unions that tends to enter contract disputes with public sympathy. And by grabbing the chance to settle with doctors and nurses, it has isolated the other health-sector unions, especially the Hospital Employees Union.
The HEU represents some skilled technical employees and licensed practical nurses, who have similar cases for a "labour market adjustment."
But many members work in areas calling for few specialized skills. In a slow economy, it's not hard to find people to do the work. And those employees are also less likely to win public support than the heirs to Florence Nightingale.
A common front, or at least a co-ordinated bargaining strategy, might have produced larger overall gains. Even if that was unlikely - after all, the HEU signed first in 2006 - the union fears that the raises for nurses and doctors will preclude similar adjustments for its 43,000 members.
But the nurses' union has a legal responsibility to represent its members' interests, not the needs of other health-care workers.
The deal is a reminder that contracts covering almost every public sector worker, from teachers to direct government employees to hospital workers expire a little more than a year from now.
Finance Minister Colin Hansen's budget is based on a wage freeze in the new deals and there is no allowance for any extra expenses. The nurses' deal will cost $120 million in year two, I estimate, money the government doesn't have in its budget plan.
The government goes into these talks with some goodwill. The last round of settlements, which included bonuses of about $4,000 per employee, were well received.
But goodwill has a short shelf life when it comes to labour relations in this province. And the government has hinted at big staff cuts and, possibly, significant layoffs. If those happen, talks will be tougher.
The case for a wage freeze should be strong by next year. But unions - the B.C. Teachers Federation comes to mine - will still be looking for gains.
Taxpayers, though, might not be seeing raises in their workplaces - if they have workplaces. And they might be crabby if their taxes go up to pay for public sector workers' raises.
And on top of all this, add the political question of which party would best represent the public interest in negotiating the next round of contacts.
Footnote: The agreement includes provisions for a nurses' union-government-health authority committee to work on workload, management, job scope and other issues that affect nurses and the system. The government hopes the co-operative approach will result in savings and efficiencies.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Uranium a glowing problem for government

The province's handling of uranium mining brings to mind Homer Simpson's approach to operating a nuclear power plant.
And the stumbles could get expensive for taxpayers, if a disgruntled company does well in court.
Uranium mining brings a classic clash of B.C. values - the resource sector, used to wresting wealth from the ground, versus the urbanites and retirees, who have never forgotten Three Mile Island and The China Syndrome. And who don't much like mining near them in any form.
This month the cabinet had a Homer Simpson moment.
"B.C. strengthens position against uranium mining," a news release was headlined. It said cabinet had an issued an order-in-council - a regulation - "to prevent permits from being issued for uranium and thorium exploration and development in B.C."
But 10 months ago, the government issued a news release headlined "Government confirms position on uranium development."
Uranium mining wasn't on, said junior minister Kevin Krueger. "By confirming our position on these radioactive minerals, we are providing certainty and clarity to the mining industry."
He sure got that wrong. It was the uncertainty about the government's position that prompted the latest cabinet regulation. Krueger's announcement last year said that future mining claims would be barred from rights to uranium.
But that suggested existing claims weren't be affected. "Government will also ensure that all uranium deposits will remain undeveloped," the 2008 news release did add.
The second try at getting it right appears to be more definitive. The new order says no uranium mining permits will be issued.
And it's retroactive, even though governments often get in trouble when they backdate laws and regulations.
A large part of the whole problem is where the uranium lies. The most promising deposit, the Blizzard claim, is about 50 kms southeast of Kelowna. People did not move to the Okanagan to be near a uranium mine.
Canada is already one of the top two uranium-producing countries, along with Australia, and the world's largest mine is in Saskatchewan. But that site is so remote it might as well be in Mars. The Okanagan deposits are close to wine country.
The efforts to deal with the issue are sparked by the activity around the Blizzard claim.
Boss Power Corp., which owns the claim, sued last year after Krueger's announcement.
We've got rights here, and potentially valuable uranium deposits, the company said. You can't just take them away because uranium mining is politically unpopular.
And, the company complained, Krueger's fiat came just days "following a series of meeting between Boss Power management and senior provincial officials up to the assistant deputy minister level in which we were assured that our permit applications would be processed in a fair and transparent manner."
The company's share price fell by 50 per cent in the days after the ban.
In October, Boss sued. The ban was imposed "without any meaningful consultation with the mineral exploration industry, First Nations or the general public and has not only harmed the interests of Boss Power Corp. but may discourage other exploration companies who value the ability to work in a consultative environment."
Then things got stranger. The province filed a statement of defence that, according to the company, said the ban didn't apply to the Blizzard claim because the mines were already registered before it was introduced.
The latest changes to the regulations, made by cabinet last week, were an apparent to target the Blizzard claim.
Which means that the company's lawsuit seeking compensation is likely to go ahead.
It's a tricky issue. Nuclear power is seen by many as a green form of energy, though it's banned in B.C. And you can't have power without fuel.
And the government doesn't want to irk the mining industry.
But residents won't stand for a mine in the Okanagan. The questions now will be whether compensation is due - and whether the ban should have been in place all along.
Footnote: Interest in the deposits goes back a long way. When development seemed likely, in 1980, then premier Bill Bennett brought in a seven-year moratorium on uranium development. The Vander Zalm government let it lapse. Neither the New Democrat or Liberal governments addressed the issue since 1987, when the ban ended.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Questions unanswered about BC Rail payments to Liberal insider

Sure, a lot was happening in the Liberals' first term. But it's hard to see why a Crown corporation had to pay $297,000 to a Liberal insider for help understanding the new government.
Surely picking up the phone and calling Premier Gordon Campbell could have worked just as well.
The New Democrats has been asking a lot of questions about why B.C. Rail paid almost $300,000 to the consulting companies of Patrick Kinsella between 2002 and 2005. They haven't been getting answers.
Kinsella is as well-connected as they come. He's been involved in politics, mostly behind the scenes, for three decades. He has run successful provincial election campaigns for the Socreds and was co-chair of the 2001 and 2005 Liberal campaigns. One of the company's executives managed Gordon Campbell's own campaign.
And his companies have done very well for - and presumably by - companies seeking to have government see things their way.
Sean Holman of used an FOI request to obtain documents from Washington state, where the Progressive Group, one of Kinsella's firms, was seeking a contract.
The company identified successes in winning government decisions worth more than $2 billion to its clients. Progressive helped Accenture "promote and educate the B.C. government of the value of outsourcing a number of the government services," the firm said. That resulted in a 10-year, $1.45-billion deal to take over most of B.C. Hydro's administrative functions.
It helped Alcan persuade the government of the value of a Kitimat smelter expansion; that deal included a new power agreement worth some $1 billion to the corporation. The deal was so rich for Alcan - and so unfair to B.C. Hydro's customers - that the B.C. Utilities Commission overturned it.
Progressive helped the film industry get additional tax breaks worth $65 million a year and persuaded the provincial government - through the Forest Ministry - to contribute $15 million toward a new public-private arena in Langley.
Corporations or individuals are free to hire consultants to help them figure out how best to align their goals with the aims of government. And it could be argued that the best advice might come from those with the closest ties to the politicians and party in power.
Certainly Kinsella's companies have advised an impressive roster of corporations and industries in the province. Plutonic Power, which has a controversial megaproject planned for Bute Inlet rivers, has used him as an adviser. A major payday loan company, gambling companies, ING Canada - it's an impressive list. (Credit to Holman for the diligent research.)
And, of course, B.C. Rail.
The difference in this case is that the Crown corporation was paying Kinsella's company with taxpayers' money.
The NDP raised the issue repeatedly in the legislature last week. There was the usual partisan posturing, but the fundamental questions were legitimate.
What did the companies do for the money? Was there an open tender process? Were the Kinsella companies' ties to the Liberals a factor in the decision?
Premier Gordon Campbell and Attorney General Wally Oppal refused to answer. Oppal said the contract might be relevant to the B.C. Rail corruption trial inching its way through the courts and he wouldn't comment.
That seemed implausible; the consulting payments weren't released as part of evidence in the case. They were in public B.C. Rail documents.
But on Thursday, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Elizabeth Bennett noted the revelations during a pre-trial hearing. Defence lawyer Kevin McCulloch, representing Bob Virk, one of three government aides charged in the case, reminded her of an e-mail that appears to refer to the payments. "It's the backroom Liberal e-mail," he said.
And Kinsella's company than responded with a news release saying it had been hired to help B.C. Rail understand the Liberals "core review" of government activities.
But the questions remain, including the basic one - why would a Crown corporation need to pay a consultant to help it understand the government of the day?
Footnote: Kinsella embarrassed the government last fall when Information Commissioner David Loukidelis launched an investigation into allegations he had acted as a lobbyist without registering, as required by the lobbying laws. Kinsella's lawyers told Loukidelis the law didn't give him authority to investigate and their client wouldn't co-operate voluntarily.