Thursday, September 24, 2009

It’s time that cracks could start to show in Liberals

I try not to write about politics.
Policies are more important. And politics are baffling. Who can predict what people will do, or why they will do it?
But the downward spiral of the Liberals is creating an interesting political crisis, one that might matter to people in B.C.
Leave aside the why, or whether it’s deserved. The reality is that the Liberals are now considered dishonest by 72 per cent of British Columbians, according to an Ipsos Reid poll.
They are cutting money for programs, agencies and community organizations that matter to people. Health care cuts mean longer waits for hurt and sick people.
So Liberal popularity has plunged.
Voters are supposed to have short attention spans. But the Liberals are hitting the kind of depths that are tough to escape. And the unpopular HST will start hitting people next July 1. The bad news is lasting a long way into the Liberals’ four-year term.
Unless the party re-invents itself.
Gordon Campbell could step down after the Olympics and gamely lug off all the baggage being accumulated now.
That would set the stage for a new Liberal leader, a clean start, and a 2013 win. After all, Carole James still has not really won great support.
It’s an encouraging option for the party. But not so good for anyone in cabinet now with future ambitions.
They’re becoming part of the baggage. The people not to be trusted, who took money the school parent advisory council.
An Angus Reid Strategies poll this month found 75 per cent of British Columbians didn’t think Campbell should run again.
The pollster asked about 15 potential successors. It was bad news for anyone in government today.
Angus Reid asked if each person would make a good or bad premier (or if the respondent had no opinion). Bad ratings were subtracted from the good to get a score.
The big winner was Diane Watts, mayor of Surrey, at plus-14. She got positive ratings as a potential premier from 33 per cent of those polled; 19 per cent thought she would be bad. Subtract bad from good and you get plus-14. (The mathematically adept will have noted that the numbers mean 48 per cent didn’t have an opinion, perhaps because they didn’t know who she was.)
The only other positive rating on the list of 15 potential premiers went to former cabinet minister and radio host Christy Clark. She was rated good by 31 per cent; bad by 30 per cent. Good enough for a plus-one rating.
They have three things in common – they are women, Liberals and not in the Campbell government.
Next on the potential premier list came NDP house leader Mike Farnworth and Attorney General Mike de Jong, his Liberal counterpart. Either would probably do a decent job as premier.
The bad news came for other Liberals. Kevin Falcon had a minus-17 rating; Rich Coleman a minus-21 and Shirley Bond a minus-26. (Nine per cent of those surveyed thought she would make a good premier; 34 per cent thought she would do a bad job.)
Perhaps they just accept the poor ratings as the price of making tough decisions. The “we were elected to be right, not popular” approach.
But some could be wondering if they’re paying too high a price for the premier’s bad policy choices or bungled communications. No one wants career prospects blighted because of someone else’s poor performance.
The New Democrats can’t be thrilled by the poll results either. Carole James had a minus-13 rating –tenth out of 15 potential successors.
This all does have a practical impact.
Liberal MLAs and cabinet ministers have been a compliant lot.
That might change as they see their government and personal political careers at risk. (Just as tensions in the NDP are likely.)
Tougher times for Campbell. But a little internal dissent might mean better government, more attuned to the public’s needs and priorities.
Footnote: There’s another potential source of tension. Solicitor General Kash Heed and Education Minister Margaret MacDiarmid got senior cabinet jobs after the election. Both have struggled to answer questions in the legislature – a small part of the job, but a visible one. Liberal MLAs who were passed over might question the premier’s judgment.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The legislature gets the weirdest yet

I have seen some bizarre times in the legislature, but Kash Heed in question period today was the strangest, weirdest spectacle. It was like SCTV's Sammy Maudlin somehow got elected. The questions were about support for abused women. The answers were all about Kash Heed.
It's towards the end of question period. You can watch it here.

Shelter law fails police, homeless

A Times Colonist editorial today looks at the proposed law that would require police to forcibly take at-risk homeless people to shelters in bad weather.
It is not supportive.

"The half-baked proposal to have police arrest homeless people on cold nights and force them to go to -- but not into -- shelters suggests the government still lacks an understanding of the problem or potential solutions.
Housing Minister Rich Coleman says the law is a humanitarian response to the death of a homeless woman in Vancouver last year. She burned to death while trying to keep warm in a makeshift camp, after police and outreach workers had urged her to go to a shelter. Critics speculate the aim is to sweep homeless people out of sight during the Olympics.
The motives are irrelevant. The reality is that the proposed Assisting to Shelter Act is unworkable and will create more problems than it solves... "

Read the rest here.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Even universities need to hire Liberal insider lobbyists

Quite an excellent, alarming piece from Andrew MacLeod at reporting that some B.C. universities are hiring lobbyists to try and get what they want from the B.C. government.
Not just any lobbyists - ones with close ties to the Liberal party. Simon Fraser University hired a former B.C. Liberal party president. For another issue, the university hired the lobbyist who managed Gordon Campbell's election campaigns.
The B.C. Institute of Technology hired three lobbyists, including Ken Dobell.
There is something profoundly disturbing about this. Taxpayers and students fund the schools and the province sets policy direction. Yet post-secondary educations don't think their presidents can talk to government - bureaucrats or the advanced education minister or the premier. They need to use public funds to hire an insider to lobby the politicians about public policy.
And then the same lobbyists, frequently, donate money and time and effort to the re-election campaigns of the people they are lobbying.
It's a destructive trend, one that leaves the public to conclude that only those with the money to hire friends of the government will be heard. Why else would universities use scarce dollars in this way?
Read MacLeod's report here.

Autism cut decision was made based on a 2003 program review

Children's Minister Mary Polak's budget cuts include elimination of an intensive early intervention prorgam for autistic pre-schoolers.
Defending the decision last week, Polak offered a number of reasons for killing the program.
The most convincing was that despite the much higher cost to help the children, the program delivered no better results than alternatives costing less than one-third the amount per child.
"We have to look at the outcomes and when it comes to what was occurring, . . . we were not seeing any appreciable improvements in the outcomes for those kids," she said.
So what was that based on?
According to the ministry, Polak was referring to a review done in 2003, when the program was in its first full year.
The report on the ministry website is a Powerpoint summary of the research presented in 2005.
"The evaluation project was initiated at the very beginning of the EIBI and IEII programs," it notes. "So, the results only apply to the children and families who were initially involved in these programs, which have developed considerably since the evaluation was completed. Results may be different if the evaluation was conducted today."
And by today, the review's authors were referring to 2005.
It's a lame - even phony - justification for making a policy decision affecting children facing great challenges.
And it's misleading for Polak to suggest the ministry actually had a sound basis for assessing the program's effectiveness before killing it.

UPDATE: In spite of the quote above, Polak said today the effectiveness on intensive treatment played no role in her decision to kill the program.
You can watch her comments when she made the announcement, and today, at publiceyeonline and decide if you buy the claim.
It looks much more like the minister offered a bogus justification and is now trying to retreat without admitting it.

Monday, September 21, 2009

If cuts were 'hard decisions,' they would be made more competently

I can't really buy the "hard decisions" mantra the government us using to defend the cuts raining down all across public services.
There's a creepy paternalism to the claim, like the parent, about to spank a child, who says "this will hurt me more than it hurts you."
It won't. The mum or dad might feel terrible, but the child is getting hit, humiliated and made to feel powerless.
The Liberal cabinet ministers, as public concern about program cuts grows, have said they are facing an extraordinary global crisis. Extraordinarily harsh cuts are needed.
These are hard decisions that no one wants to make, the premier and his ministers say as one.
There are three problems with the claim.
First, no matter how much these choices matter to politicians, they matter more to the people affected by them. Government's mid-year decision to cut $130,000 for high school sports events hammers coaches, parents and kids. For politicians, it's a line item.
Second, in a past life I was a business guy. On a much smaller scale, I made "hard" decisions.
And they weren't all that difficult, in an office or conference room, looking at a spreadsheet. If the column of numbers didn't add up to the desired total, we came up with new numbers. Other managers then made the cuts happen. Jobs were lost or efforts abandoned.
Third, and by far most important factor, there is no evidence that the ministers treated these as hard or serious decisions.
The NDP asked Healthy Living and Sport Minister Ida Chong about a 43-per-cent cut to health promotion funding. Savings in travel, office expenses and administration, she said.
Which is goofy. No one would believe that more than 40 per cent of the spending on the health programs went for office expenses.
Within a couple of days, the Times Colonist reported on one of the real cuts. Chong's ministry killed a program aimed at increasing the health of pregnant women and their children. It had a special focus on reducing the number of children born with fetal alcohol syndrome. That's a great goal, economically and in terms or reducing suffering. The program was enthusiastically launched last September and lauded by Mary Polak, then the minister, as a "pillar" of the effort to improve infant health.
The cancellation came with no warning three months into the fiscal year. The B.C. Women's Hospital and the B.C. Centre of Excellence for Women's Health, which deliver the program, had already spent $100,000 of the promised $420,000 the project this year when they told they would get no money. They will now reduce spending on other areas of women's health to find the $100,000.
And the surprise cancellation meant the plan to assess the program's effectiveness had to be tossed out.
If these were hard decisions for cabinet ministers, they would have taken time to understand the implications.
Chong hadn't, judging by her answers in the legislature.
Not to single her out. If Gambling Minister Rich Coleman found it a hard decision to cut and eliminate gaming grants, he would have asked hard questions before they were made.
He didn't. The cuts included agencies that had received three-year funding commitments. Coleman and Premier Gordon Campbell both initially claimed the commitments weren't real, before having to retreat and restore the funding.
It's unlikely Education Minister Margaret MacDiarmid would have thought it a good idea to halve support for parent advisory councils - even to schools that desperately needed the help - if it was treated as a hard and painful decision.
And in all these cases, the minister would have talked first to the people affected.
Hard decisions are only necessary when there are no options.
But the government has choices. Some cuts, like the $130,000 in support for school sports regional and provincial events, are foolishly small. The education ministry can find that money.
And the government could have decided to let the deficit, given the recession, to be a little larger in order to protect jobs and communities.
Hard decisions? It doesn't look like it.
Footnote: Expect to hear about the $130,000 cut to school sports events as often as you head about the fast ferries. Every time the government spends money in a dubious - like a $500,000 contribution a VANOC gala - the New Democrats will recall the sports cut.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The secrecy around cuts

So does the failure to provide basic information about what government is doing reflect wretched communications strategy or incompetence? Some background to help you decide, courtesy of the Times Colonisthere.