Wednesday, June 10, 2009

New faces get big roles in big cabinet

Governing must be harder than it looks from the outside.
Back in 1996, then opposition leader Gordon Campbell said the New Democrat's 18-person cabinet was way too big - bloated, expensive and out of touch. The Liberal platform promised no more than 12 ministers in cabinet.
That was then. This week, Campbell appointed a 25-member cabinet (including himself). The Liberals only have 49 MLAs; more than half of them are now cabinet ministers. By the time various committee jobs and other posts are handed out, almost everyone should get a little recognition - and extra money.
There were no huge shocks, but some chaåçnges were significant.
Campbell dumped four ministers - Linda Reid, John van Dongen, Gordon Hogg and Joan McIntyre.
That made room for some new faces, including a couple of brand new MLAs thrust into high-profile jobs.
Kash Heed, the former West Vancouver police chief, steps in as solicitor general, responsible for crime, gambling enforcement, ICBC and the coroners. Given concerns about gang violence and RCMP accountability - and Heed's support for regional policing - it is a place he could shine.
Margaret MacDiarmid , another Vancouver rookie, gets education. But she's far from a neophyte. A doctor, MacDiarmid was the B.C. Medical Association president in 2006-7. That meant a lot of work with government. She still faces a tough challenge, as school districts cope with underfunding.
Steve Thomson, a highly respected newcomer from the Okanagan, gets agriculture and lands.
In total, there will be nine new faces around the cabinet table, including seven elected for the first time last month.
The biggest promotion - sort of - went to Langley's Mary Polak, who went from health living to the ministry of children and families. Polak has been typecast, inaccurately, as a hardcore social conservative. But she still faces an immense challenge dealing with a ministry that continues to struggle and faces big money problems. Its budget is projected to grow at less than one per cent a year, as demand rises.
The other minister facing a huge challenge is Kevin Falcon, who goes from transportation to health. Falcon is underestimated. He's not one of cabinet's deep thinkers, but he has shown an ability to set a goal and plow toward it. But health, like children and families, faces big budget problems - health authorities have are looking for ways to comply with a provincial edict to help cut $320 million in spending. And Falcon's partisan approach could backfire when the issue becomes waits for hip replacement or long-term care.
George Abbott, his predecessor in health, gets aboriginal affairs. The issue will be a focus of the government, especially with its new recognition and reconciliation act. But the effort is being driven from the premier's office.
And Shirley Bond goes from education to transportation. Perhaps a Prince George MLA in the job will mean more attention to issues outside the Lower Mainland. Or perhaps not.
Three key ministers stay put. Pat Bell remains in forests. He was only appointed a year ago, but so far has not made much of a mark.
Rich Coleman keeps housing and social development. He seems keen on housing; but less so on the problems for people on - or unable to get - the dismal welfare payments.
And Colin Hansen - an eerily competent minister most of the time - stays in finance.
You do wonder about some of the jobs. Does B.C. really need both a minister of healthy living and sport and a minister for the Olympics and ActNow B.C., which promotes healthy living and sport? Or a minister for climate action, or intergovernmental relations?
But cabinet posts keep MLAs happy and loyal. And who knows, perhaps the new ministers - especially those just elected - will bring a fresh attitude and frankness to cabinet meetings.
That hasn't happened in the past - at least based on the Liberal experiment with open meetings - but you can hope.
Footnote: Cabinet ministers get an extra $50,000 on top of the $100,000 MLAs are paid. But it's not about the money for most. They get access to the premier and staff to walk them to meetings and arrange their days and a chance to feel they're making a difference. They are the cool kids, which is powerful given their nerd roots.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

It's pay the tax you want day, says Catalyst

Property taxes are too high, complains Catalyst Paper Corp. (Like a lot of big industrial taxpayers in communities across B.C.)
Can't pay, won't pay, the corporation insists, to quote Italian playwright Dario Fo.
Instead, Catalyst's president says it will write cheques to four B.C. municipalities based on what it has decided its taxes should be, based on services used.
And that's about one-quarter the tax the municipalities - Campbell River, Port Alberni, Powell River and North Cowichan - have been receiving.
Catalyst says it's willing to pay $1.5 million in Campbell River. Its actual tax bill is $4.6 million, down 10 per cent from last year.
That would leave the municipality $3.1 million short this year, with two solutions. It could raises taxes 20 per cent for residents and small business to make up the difference. Or it could start laying off staff and cutting services for residents.
And Campbell River is in relatively goååçod shape. North Cowichan residents would face a 70-per-cent tax increase to make up the amount Catalyst has decided not to pay.
Catalyst is playing rough. If the municipalities don't go along, the company says it will close one of the four mills, based on tax rates and the willingness of the union local to accept concessions.
It's also challenging the tax levies in B.C. Supreme Court under the Local Government Act, arguing the taxes are "unreasonable." (That actually might be good news for the municipalities. The section of the act the company is relying on says that taxes or fees must be paid even if they are being challenged.)
This isn't really about Catalyst. It's about the end of B.C's. first 150 years. The colony, and then province, has offered extraordinary riches. Big trees, easy to get from the woods and highly sought after. Gold, coal, energy. A lot of buyers and not too many competitors. And money for everyone - owners, companies, employees and towns.
Times have changed, and the adjustments are wrenching - and mostly unhappy.
The mill and mine owners weren't just being kindly when they took on a big share of municipal costs. They needed employees and wanted a stable workforce, which meant families had to be lured. Paying taxes for an arena and policing and parks created the kind of community that ensured a stable workforce. The companies had the money, in those days. And there was even some goodwill and social responsibility involved.
Now, Catalyst looks at competitors in other places paying one-tenth as much in taxes and decides its responsibility to shareholders comes first.
There's no easy good guy/bad guy choice in all this. Industries have a legitimate grievance. Municipalities have been trying to address the issue - they have cut the company's taxes by a combined 11 per cent this year, after several of tax cuts.
This isn't a new issue. More than three years ago, the B.C. Competition Council - chaired by former NDP premier Dan Miller - said industrial taxes were putting operations at risk of closure. It called for a 50-per-cent cut. (Catalyst is proposing a 75-per-cent cut.) The Premier's Progress Board has raised similar concerns.
But the province hasn't acted on the warnings. (Rich Coleman suggested towns across B.C. should cut spending to reduce the industrial tax burden.)
Catalyst and the municipal governments agree on one thing - the provincial government should be involved in this dispute.
Catalyst acknowledges the municipalities would be in big trouble if it didn't pay its tax bills. It says the province should provide several years of transitional funding to allow them to cut services or shift the costs onto other taxpayers.
That too has risks, especially if this is to be repeated across the province.
But the current deadlock is destructive for everyone involved.
It's time for the provincial government to get off its hands and lead.
Footnote: The Liberals' lack of interest in the issue could be strategic - staying out of the negotiations creates a pressure on Catalyst and the municipalities to compromise. Or principled - letting the market decide on business and jobs survival. Or lack of interest.

Monday, June 08, 2009

An optimistic view of newspapers' future

Leaving aside the personal vested interest, I'd argue the future of newspapers, journalism and community are all closely linked.
The industry is struggling to come up with a working business model, as they say. If it can't, who will pay for people to spend their days gathering news and information? There's a ready market for specialized information - companies and individuals will pay significant money for corporate news or updates on legal judgments.
But it's much less clear who will pay for reporters to sit in Victoria courts or cover health authority issues or even report on provincial politics. (The point, for now, is not how well the existing commercial media are doing the job. It's whether anyone will do it.)
And without that reporting to provide a common starting point for communities, what will happen to then. Back in my early days in newspapers, the small daily I worked for was read by more than 70 per cent of adults each day. If we did a decent job on an issue, people had a shared base of information and were motivated to talk about it at work or over the back fence.
Today, about 40 per cent of residents read that paper each day. So where is the common concerns and starting point for considering issues?
Which leads, in a rambling way, to an interesting piece in The Tyee on Glacier Media, a newspaper operator with significant B.C. holdings that sees a future.