Thursday, December 30, 2010

So this is the New Year

I handle letters to the editor at work. Most are e-mailed, but some come by post or are dropped off.
I keep one of those stuck to my computer. It’s neatly printed on a small sheet of lined paper, ripped from a spiral notebook. The page got wet at some point - maybe the person was writing outside. Some of the words, written in black ink, smudged when the page was folded.
“What makes me happy,” it’s headed.
“Going out for walks along the ocean looking at the boats and fishing boats. Having a cup of coffee in a restaurant. Riding the bus when I have money for bus fare. Going shopping for food and clothes. Filling my fridge up with lots of food. Having money left over. Saving money for a rainy day.”
That was it. No name, or we might have used it as a letter.
I didn’t really think about why I kept the note. I just knew it was a message that I didn’t want to dump in the recycling bin and forget.
The list is charming, maybe a little heart-breaking, in its simplicity.
Charming because it has a kind of beautiful spareness. Walking by the ocean. A restaurant coffee. A chance to buy food and maybe have a few dollars left in case something goes wrong.
The list is not infected by overreaching ambitions; it just sets out ordinary pleasures.
That’s the heartbreaking part.
There must be a story behind the note of someone who often finds those pleasures out of reach. A restaurant coffee is impossible; there is no food in the fridge; pelting rain turns a walk beside the ocean into an ordeal.
But how can that be? The person who wrote the note - a woman, I’ve always thought - sounds like someone committed to making the best of life. Things might be rough, but she keeps on working at it.
So how can a society not make sure that the effort is rewarded with the small things that will make her happy?
There are limits, certainly, on what we can do. At current tax rates, the money to improve life for people with disabilities, unable to work, comes partly from minimum wage workers just getting by on tiny incomes.
But there are also moral limits to how wretched we can make their lives without diminishing ourselves.
There is a judgment here. You could provide an income equal to the average wage for those who can’t work because of a chronic illness, for example.
You could stick them in a poorhouse, spending just enough to keep them alive.
Or you could find some sensible point between the two extremes.
We haven’t done that. A mother who develops a disability that keeps her from working, raising a 13-year-old child, gets $570 a month for rent. Which, in Victoria, means a one-room apartment with a kitchen nook in a dodgy building.
There is an additional $796 a month for everything else - food, clothes, bus passes, phone, all the things a mom and 13-year-old girl need to get by.
The total annual income is less than $16,400 — $315 a week. That is one dismal life, for mother and child.
The note shows how the simplest pleasures can be out of reach.
I don’t think we’re that mean. B.C. voters didn’t say they thought tax cuts that caused suffering for thousands of their neighbours were a good or necessary idea.
Which leads, or lurches, to three wishes for the New Year.
Enjoy every cup of coffee in a warm restaurant, each day your fridge is well-stocked and every walk along the ocean.
Refuse to accept the diminished lives imposed on your fellow citizens, recognizing the shame it brings on us all. Demand better - and put your money and volunteer effort into making it so.
And consider how important it is to pay attention - really pay attention - to the people around you.
Your laughter, your praise, your concern, your love - those are the most precious gifts. And so easily given.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Sub, helicopter debacles bode ill for jet fighter deal

We often launch our kayaks on the Songhees reserve a few hundred metres from the shed where one of Canada’s hopeless submarines is being repaired.
Our kayaks, rentals bought at the end of a summer, were bargains.
The four used British submarines, in contrast, have been disasters.
The Defence Department confirmed just before Christmas that HMCS Victoria will stay in its custom-built shed in Esquimalt until sometime next year as repairs and refits drag on and on, and the bills mount.
The sorry history of the secondhand submarines should be a loud warning about the government’s $16-billion plan to buy new jet fighters.
The Defence Department and the government of the day celebrated the $891-million purchase of the submarines in 1998. Great boats, almost ready to go, strategically essential and a bargain for taxpayers, they said.
Victoria was delivered in 2000. The Defence Department said that after six months of maintenance in Halifax, it would be at sea keeping us safe from whatever submarines are supposed to keep us safe from.
The six months stretched into three years. Then Victoria sailed for CFB Esquimalt and, after a ceremonial welcome, was docked for 10 months to deal with new problems.
It sailed for a few months in 2004. Then a fire on Chicoutimi, another one of the subs, killed a crewman on its delivery voyage from England. Victoria was pulled from service for another seven months.
By May 2005, it was supposedly ready to sail again. But a few months later, Victoria was back into dry dock for what was supposed to be a two-year repair program.
More than five years later, it’s still sitting on land. The Defence Department has announced — and missed — a series of launch dates.
In the decade since Canada has had the ship, it has spent 115 days in service and 117 months undergoing repairs and refits, with the bills steadily mounting.
It’s like buying a used car and being able to drive it for three weeks in the first two years, with the rest of the time spent in the repair shop. And having the dealer keep telling you what a great purchase you made.
Only one of the other three submarines is in regular service. Chicoutimi has been in dry dock since the 2004 fire and is not expected to be ready until 2012.
You could argue the Defence Department just had bad luck with the submarines.
Except that it is part of a pattern of problem-plagued military purchases.
In November, auditor general Sheila Fraser slammed cost overruns and mismanagement in the purchase of two sets of helicopters.
Costs more than doubled, to $11 billion. The project to replace aging Sea King helicopters with CH-148 Cyclones is seven years behind schedule; the CH-147 Chinook program is five years behind schedule.
And, Fraser said, the contract award process for the Chinooks “was not fair, open and transparent” and the Defence Department deliberately downplayed the risks of overruns and delays.
Three big purchases, three big failures. Which, again, raises great concerns about the $16-billion plan to buy 65 F-35 jet fighters.
The costs have soared already, and no contract has yet been signed. The government and the Defence Department have struggled to justify committing to buy the jets from Lockheed Martin without a competitive bidding process. There are no guarantees of economic benefits for Canadian firms, usually part of such deals.
Fraser has warned of significant risks.
And critics suggest Canada doesn’t need the fighters to fulfill its military obligations.
The government has launched a big sales campaign to persuade Canadians that the jets are needed and the project will be properly managed. Trust us, the military and the Harper government ministers say.
But given the track record on military purchases, only a fool would trust a process that has stuck Canadians with inflated bills and left the forces without equipment for years as projects are delayed and delayed again.
Footnote: The other question I ponder, as I paddle past the submarine repair shed into Esquimalt Harbour, is how the government can claim the boats were urgently needed when we have managed perfectly well over the past decade without them.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Abbott's third place could be a good position

With the first lap of the Liberal leadership race done, George Abbott is looking a reasonable bet to be B.C.'s next premier.
Which is probably a bad thing for the struggling New Democrats.
Abbott, education minister before entering the race, isn't a front runner. He and Mike de Jong, who stepped down as attorney general. are tied for third, according to the latest Angus Reid Public Opinion Poll.
Christy Clark has the big lead. She quit cabinet in 2004 and didn't run in 2005, when the Liberals won their second term. Being out of government for five years, she can't be blamed for the HST and other problems. She's a skilled politician and has been a CKNW talk show host with a high profile in the Lower Mainland.
And she's ahead in the race. The poll found 46 per cent of British Columbians identified her as a good choice to be the next Liberal leader. That climbs to 66 per cent among Liberal voters.
Kevin Falcon, most recently health minister, is in second with the support of 28 per cent of the public and 45 per cent of Liberal voters.
And Abbott and de Jong are tied with the support of 25 per cent of the public and 33 per cent of Liberal voters. (Dr. Moira Stilwell, the fifth entrant, is at 10 per cent with both groups.)
There haven't been many big ideas in the campaign. All the candidates offer varying degrees of support for a higher minimum wage and an earlier referendum on the HST. Mike de Jong proposed lowering the voting age to 16. Falcon wants to make it easier to get farmland in the northeast out of the agricultural land reserve. Clark wants to look at an earlier election.
Four of the five candidates say they'll restore some of the cut gambling grants to charities, arts groups and community organizations, which is puzzling since three of the four were part of the government that made the cuts.
It's early in the campaign, of course. And a lot of the candidates' efforts now are targeted winning at influential Liberals and signing up new party members.
Every one who joins by Jan. 14 gets a vote in the Feb. 26 leadership election. Candidates are racing to sign up a lot of supporters.
The party will likely opt for a voting system that reduces the impact of mass sign-ups in urban areas. Every constituency will have 100 votes. They will be apportioned to reflect the voting of party members in the constituency. (So if there are 750 members in a riding, and 150 vote Christy Clark, she gets 20 leadership votes.)
The vote will also use some form of a preferential ballot, in which party members rank candidates. If no one gets a majority in the first count, the voters' second choices are considered.
Depending on the ultimate decision on rules, that could be good news for Abbott.
The provincial Liberals are a coalition, a political home for federal Conservatives, Liberals and even a few New Democrats. One of Gordon Campbell's accomplishments was keeping everyone united.
Clark is a federal Liberal; Falcon is seen as the choice of the federal Conservative faction.
The two camps have to play nice, thanks in part to the preferential ballot system. Slag the other candidate and you stand no chance of emerging as the second choice of his or her supporters.
Depending on how the preferential ballots are counted - that hasn't been settled - the divide between the Clark and Falcon camps could be a boost for Abbott. He could emerge as the compromise candidate to avoid a divided party.
Which is probably bad news for New Democrats. Both Clark and Falcon would have significant weaknesses in an election campaign. Falcon leans to the party's right and could alienate moderate voters; Clark had a spotty record during her three years in cabinet and is carrying some B.C. Rail baggage.
Abbott's third-place position isn't so bad.
Footnote: No candidates have entered the NDP leadership race. The Angus Reid poll found Mike Farnworth is the favorite choice, with 40 per cent of British Columbians and half of NDP voters saying he would be a good choice to replace Carole James. Adrian Dix is second, favoured by 24 per cent of the public 37 per cent of NDP voters.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Political control of coroners needs review

I’m often baffled that MLAs don’t seem to push for the tools to do their jobs more effectively.
The current debate over the independence and effectiveness of the B.C. Coroners Service offers a good example.
Dr. Diane Rothon just quit or was fired as chief coroner after nine months on the job. She has said only that she had a disagreement with the government about the direction of the coroner’s service.
The Times Colonist has been digging a little deeper and found two likely issues — political interference and budget cuts making it impossible for the coroners service to do its job.
The work is important. The service is charged with investigating all “unnatural, unexpected, unexplained or unattended deaths.” Its job is to get the facts - who died, and how and why.
That’s important for families. And the reports help a whole range of organizations prevent future deaths.
In some cases, the coroner also calls inquests - a formal hearing, in front of a five-person jury, which is charged with finding the facts and make recommendations that could save lives in the future.
The work can be controversial. Inquests can highlight government failures or underfunding that costs lives. Recommendations can challenge the status quo and call for action that agencies resist.
The service also produces reports on broader issues — the deaths of children in the government’s care, for example, or youth suicide.
That’s why independence is important. Getting at the truth and making recommendations without political influence is central to the work of the coroner.
But the Times Colonist found three former chief coroners — including Terry Smith, who had the post from 2001 until 2009 - believe the service does not have the needed autonomy to do the work properly. It’s under undue government influence.
The service, for example, is under orders to submit its reports to the government’s political communications arm, the public affairs bureau, before they are released.
At the least, that order gives the government time to plan the best way to spin the report when it is released. But it also raises the spectre of greater influence — of pressure to change the contents of the report before it is made public.
There is an obvious solution. Smith says the government should consider making the coroner an independent officer of the legislature, removing the service from direct political control. “I think in order to have an effective Coroners Service, it needs to have a much higher level of independence," said Smith, who had eight often difficult years in the job. (The proposal is supported by Children and Families Representative Mary ETurpel-Lafond.)
That seems a sensible, practical change. Independent officers - like the children’s representative, information commissioner and auditor general - don’t report to a government minister. They report to committees of MLAs with representatives from all parties. They are, to a significant extent, insulated from political pressure.
MLAs from all parties also review and set the independent officers’ budgets. That makes it harder for politicians to use funding cuts to punish or silence agencies.
The coroners service, for example, has seen its staff fall from 91 in 2007-08 to 81 today. Its budget has been cut 18 per cent in two years and more cuts are likely ahead. The Child Death Review Unit, set up as a result of the Hughes report, is threatened.
Solicitor General Rich Coleman dismisses all the concerns. The service has plenty of independence and can handle the budget cuts, he says.
But simply saying something doesn’t make it so. Three former chief coroners - the people who did the work - say the service doesn’t have the required independence.
At the least, that should be enough to force an outside review of the issues.
It’s surprising that MLAs, given the importance of the work, aren’t calling for a review that might lead to a greater role for them in an area of importance to their constituents.
Footnote: The review should also look at the appropriate qualifications for coroners, especially chief coroners. Most provinces have placed doctors in the top job. B.C., until Rothon’s appointment, has generally opted for chief coroners without medical qualifications, often with a policing background.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Starting your pre-Christmas Saturday

I suggest preparing for the day with a little music here. And then buying more music by the Mountain Goats. The writing is as good as you'll find in music today.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Why the BC Rail scandal shouldn't be forgotten

The B.C. Rail scandal is back in the news, a good thing. New information from search warrants has been released thanks to a media application.
If British Columbians decide just to forget about this scandal, we’ll have given up something as a society.
The issues are huge — corruption tainting the sale of a public railway, broken promises, bribery to exert influence in two cabinet ministers’ offices and a $6-million benefit to two offenders, at taxpayers’ expense, that encouraged guilty pleas and stopped the trial.
This is like stuff from some sleazy Florida municipal government.
The new search warrant information is grim.
It hasn’t been proved in court, but police swore that Erik Bornman, a lobbyist and political foot soldier, told them he started paying bribes to Dave Basi even before the Liberals were elected in 2001 — long before the B.C. Rail bribes.
The money was to pay for “his political support, his support in referring clients to my business and for assistance on client matters,” Bornman said.
After the election, Gary Collins became finance minister, and Basi was named his political aide. Bornman was with Pilothouse Public Affairs, a lobbying firm. Both Bornman and Basi were political operatives, working in federal and provincial Liberal campaigns, particularly active in the federal ones.
Bornman says he paid Basi, and in return Basi steered lobbying clients his way. He also got special treatment for the people who paid Pilothouse to influence government and “political support.”
There is a serious stench about this. Companies or individuals have a concern about government policy. They raise it and are told it might be wise to hire a specific lobbyist. The lobby firm pays a bribe to help get the problem solved.
And all involved co-operate to ensure the re-election of the party in power.
Too many questions remain unanswered.
Why wasn’t Bornman charged with bribery or tax fraud, since he told police he paid less in taxes because he made the bribes look like a legitimate business expense?
Who decided the people who took the bribes were a more important target than those who paid them?
And how much effort was spent ensuring these practices weren’t more common?
The search warrants include the claim Basi had bank deposits that showed unexplained income of $870,000 between 2000 and 2004. Defence lawyers say the Crown’s expert showed the real unexplained amount was $112,000.
But that’s much more than bribes paid by Bornman and capital region developers paying for Basi’s influence getting land out of the agricultural land reserve. Who else paid and benefited?
The warrants also reveal that Brian Kieran, a principal in Pilothouse, paid Basi $3,000 in cash. Basi and Bob Virk, political aide to then transport minister Judith Reid, took a free trip to an NFL game in Denver, thanks to Omnitrax, a bidder for B.C Rail. They paid for their airplane tickets to make it look legit, the warrants say, and Kieran came through with cash so no one would know about the freebie. He billed the client.
It’s all sordid and corrupt. At least some people paid money and got special treatment and favours from government. It mattered who you could pay and who you knew.
The important question is whether these are aberrations, or symptoms of an unhealthy relationship between people who float back and forth between lobbying, campaigns and political jobs in government.
And British Columbians really can’t know, based on the information that is currently available.
They know, for example, that a police search found Bruce Clark, a federal Liberal activist, lobbyist and Christy Clark’s brother, had B.C. Rail sale documents “improperly disclosed” by Basi and Virk. Clark was working for the Washington Marine Group, which was interested in buying the B.C. Rail line to the Roberts Bank superport.
But how did he get the information, and what did he do with it? Those facts have never been revealed.
The Liberals would like people to forget about the scandal. To do that, without more answers, would be to say that British Columbians are comfortable with the threat of a government corruption.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Why Frank Paul died and everything after

I've been writing about Frank Paul since 2002. It was 12 years ago this month that he died in alley where Vancouver police dumped him. He had been picked up for being drunk and dragged into Vancouver cells. But a police officer said he was OK, so he was dragged out and left in an the alley in the cold. (You can read a primer on the sorry case here.)
The police investigation was sloppy and self-serving. Prosecutors did a shoddy job of reviewing the file. The police complaints commissioner and provincial politicians stonewalled calls for an inquiry for nine years.
The inquiry is concluding. Stephen Kelliher, lawyer for the Paul family, offered a clear explanation for how this all happened Tuesday, and it's reported here. It is important to read.

Welfare rates, rules keep people down

Take the time to look into welfare rates and policies and you might wonder why the government dislikes some citizens so much.
The National Council on Welfare released a report this week noting how destructive welfare rates and eligibility polices are across Canada.
A young Victoria woman put the reality simply years ago. She said it seemed the government wanted to provide enough income that she and her son could survive. But not enough that they could escape from the welfare trap. (That was, I note, under the NDP government.)
Premier Gordon Campbell said much the same thing last year. He made an unsuccessful pitch for federal money to increase welfare payments during the recession.
"Income assistance is clearly the last social safety net into which any worker wants to fall," he wrote in an op-ed piece in The Globe and Mail. "Not only are the monthly benefits often less than those payable under EI, but those who are forced to go on welfare risk entering a cycle of dependency that is tough on families, communities and our economy."
In other words, they get trapped.
There's a perverse moral judgment involved. People should just try harder, the unspoken - or sometimes spoken - argument goes. If they can't get a job, they're flawed and don't deserve a decent life.
Of course, 58 per cent of the 132,000 people in income assistance in B.C. have disabilities that keep them from working. Another 8,000 have "multiple persistent barriers to employment."
And then are the kids dependent on income assistance and the people who have lost jobs, run out of employment insurance, used their savings and themselves on welfare, a little unsure how this happened.
And trapped.
If you're single parent with two children and the government has deemed you employable, income assistance provides up to $660 for rent (about half the cost of a two-bedroom place in Victoria).
Between welfare and the family bonus, there's another $623 a month to cover everything else for a family of three - food, clothes, bus passes, a phone, maybe cable, school fees. That's about $20 a day to cover all those things.
All in, the family is supposed to live on less than $300 a week - less than minimum wage. (A single person gets up to $375 for rent and less than $8 a day to live on. Try launching a job hunt while living on $8 a day.)
People get by. But their lives are crappy. And children raised in this kind of poverty face a lifetime of health, educational and work problems.
It's not just a question of income assistance rates, although they have only been increased once since 1994.
The rules grind people into perpetual poverty. In B.C., for example, people on disability assistance or with persistent barriers to employment can earn up to $500 a month without penalty.
But for 48,000 people on income assistance, the government claws back any part-time employment income. Hustle up some work cutting lawns and make $40, and it's deducted from your welfare cheque.
It's a cruel disincentive for people trying to get back into the workforce.
In Alberta, recipients get to keep the first $230 they can earn and one-quarter of any earnings above that. The government says people are "encouraged and supported to work" while on welfare. "Employment can increase their total income and provide valuable work experience."
The National Council on Welfare noted the requirement that applicants exhaust their savings before being eligible was also destructive.
Don Drummond, former chief economist of the TD Bank, supported that observation. "Those in need must essentially first become destitute before they qualify for temporary assistance," he said. "But the record shows once you become destitute you tend to stay in that state. You can't afford to move to where jobs might be or upgrade your skills."
The current policies are cruel and ineffectual. Leadership candidates, for both parties, should be asked what they would do differently.
Footnote: The council report found B.C. support for two-parent families with two children was the third lowest in the country, exceeding only New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Benefits are, in constant dollars, well below 1990 levels.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Grim picture behind cheery jobs news release

You expect a bit of spin in government news releases, but the one on the latest employment numbers left me dizzy.
It read more like party advertising. And that's wrong when the government is apparently ignoring a real problem.
"More people working in B.C. than ever before," said the headline. Employment was at a record level in November, topping the previous mark set in July 2008, before the recession.
True, and good news. But not anywhere near to a complete picture. In November, StatsCan reported 2,326,000 people were working, 2,000 more than in 2008.
But in July 2008 1,874,000 of those working had full-time jobs; the rest were part-time.
Last month, there were 84,000 fewer full-time jobs than before the recession - the ones that matter to people trying to make a life. The gains were entirely in part-time work.
And while there were more jobs overall, there were also more people living in the province and more people looking for work.
In 2008, 108,000 British Columbians were trying, unsuccessfully, to find a job.
Today, 173,000 people are seeking work. The unemployment rate has climbed from 4.4 per cent to 6.9 per cent.
The factors involved reach far beyond this province.
But B.C. has lagged the rest of the country in returning to pre-recession stability.
Nationally, full-time employment is basically at July 2008 levels. In B.C., it's down 4.5 per cent.
The number of unemployed people looking for jobs has increased by 29 per cent nationally and by 60 per cent in this province.
One result has been a steep increase in the number of people relying on income assistance - from 39,405 in July 2008 to 56,000 in October of this year. (That's not including disability income assistance.)
Those people are dirt poor. A single-parent family of three gets $623 a month, plus up to $700 for rent. (If they're crashing with family, they don't get the $700.)
All this is grim for the people out of work or on welfare. But it's also bad for communities. People with decent jobs shop and go to restaurants and fix up their homes. Businesses benefit.
A press release celebrating record employment doesn't reflect economic reality, without at least a paragraph noting the challenges in finding full-time work. It could leave people convinced they are failures, rather than casualties of an economic.
There are other issues in all this. The economy might recover after a recession and people might find work. But many of the new jobs will be lower paying, less secure and without pension plans or other benefits.
StatsCan released a report earlier this year that tracked people who had been laid off. Between 2002 and 2006, almost half returned to work at lower wages, while one-quarter made wage gains in their new jobs.
That's not surprising. Across B.C., more than 10,000 forest-sector jobs have disappeared since 2000, many in the last few years. Some of those people - trades workers, for example - might have found comparable work. But a lot of people left $60,000 a year jobs with good benefits and found $40,000 a year work with no pension or benefit plan.
Governments might not be able to stop global market trends. (Though it is astonishing how incoherent and ineffective B.C.'s forest policy has been over the last 15 years.)
But they should acknowledge the shift and say what they plan to do to ensure the best outcome for citizens. (It's not enough to issue press releases about wood sales to China. That's welcome, but not a coherent plan to address the problems in the job market.)
If fewer people have pension plans, for example, where is the new plan Premier Gordon Campbell promised more than two years ago as art of his 10-point action plan to deal with the recession? If more people are relying on part-time work, where is the overdue increase in the minimum wage to help them?
People's lives are shifting. They deserve more than a cheery press release from the government.
Footnote: The leadership campaigns - for both parties - provide a chance to at least try to get answers from candidates about what they would do to address the major economic shifts that see many British Columbians worse off and some in desperate circumstances.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Is something happening here?

Former Liberal cabinet minister Bill Bennett has some interesting ideas about politics in B.C. that could bring some very large changes. You can read them exclusively at Sean Holman's here.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Children's ministry subverts oversight

The Hughes report recommended - and the resulting legislation requires - the Ministry of Children and Family Development to report incidents where children in its care or receiving services have died or been harmed to the Representative for Children and Youth.
The ministry hasn't been complying. The failure was revealed when the media learned of a 15-year-old girl with Down syndrome who had spent nine days alone with her mother's corpse. When found, she was emaciated, raw with diaper rash and weak. But Minister Mary Polak said the ministry did not report the case because it didn't believe the girl had been harmed by the experience.
That prompted a damning review by the representative that revealed other, similar cases and a systemic failure to comply with the law.
Polak said the ministry will talk with the representative about changes.
But this calls for accountability — either from the person or persons in government who failed to ensure the law was followed or the minister.
A report by Lindsay Kines is here; a Times Colonist editorial here; and the representative's report here.

Monday, December 06, 2010

First thoughts on Carole James resignation

The New Democrats are going to pay a big price for the messy coup that saw a minority of MLAs force Carole James out as leader.

There is lots of blame to level at everyone involved, including James and her advisers for failing to head off the sniping.

But the 13 dissident MLAs who publicly pushed for James’s ouster share responsibility for handing the Liberals a victory in the next election.

And, perhaps, for showing that the NDP simply isn’t viable as an effective opposition party.

Most of the anti-James faction did a lousy job of articulating their complaints, especially considering the seriousness of their actions. Jenny Kwan gave the clearest explanation last week. James didn’t consult MLAs enough and changed positions caucus had agreed on. Under he leadership, the party had failed to set out clear positions on key issues. And she was angry two unions had been tapped to pay party president Moe Sihota a salary.

Those might be important issues to work on. They aren’t a reason to launch a coup and risk destroying the party.

After a weekend spent trying to reach some sort of truce, James decided it was impossible and stepped down.

The coup came although James had won party support in a vote last month; the delegates included a representative from each riding association. And the party constitution called for a leadership review vote at next year’s party convention.

But the dissidents wanted her gone now.

The result is a divided caucus and party and a baffled public. The Liberals are in trouble. The NDP looked to be on track to win the next election, based on the polls.

Yet a minority of MLAs forced out the leader. That raises questions about maturity and judgment.

It also makes voting NDP risky. Who is to say the next leader - the premier, if the party forms government - would not be forced out by a group of disgruntled MLAs? Voters can’t make a confident choice when the party is that unstable.

For that matter, who would want to run for leader — or donate and time and money to a leadership campaign - when the whole exercise can be overturned by a dozen MLAs who decide they don’t like the way things are going?

The NDP’s self-destruction isn’t just a concern for party members.

Our system relies on a effective opposition to critique government actions and policies and raise questions and concerns.

But it’s also important that the opposition party be a credible government-in-waiting.

If the party in power knows that the voters are prepared, given a reason, to hand the government over to the opposition at the next election, it has to take care. The governing party has to moderate positions, listen to critics and respond to the public.

The NDP hasn’t convincingly made the case that it can be a credible alternative. In 49 years, it has won three elections: In 1972, when David Anderson and the Liberals split the vote with the Socreds; in 1991, when Gordon Wilson and the Liberals split the vote with the Socreds; and in 1996, when Wilson’s PDA and Jack Weisgerber’s Reform party took votes from the Liberals.

And in each of those cases, the New Democrats got a lower share of the popular vote than they did under James last year.

The NDP has, in 50 years, been unable to build a base large enough to win a two-party contest. (The reasons don’t really matter for the purposes of this discussion.)

The polls suggest it had a chance of ending that bleak history. That’s unlikely now, at least until 2017.

At a certain point, something has to change if the province is to have a functioning party system, with at least two capable of winning enough voter support to form government.

Has the NDP's time come? (Not in a good way)

From an editorial in Tuesday's Times Colonist on Carole James and the NDP:

"More critically, perhaps, the affair raises the possibility that the NDP is simply not able to perform the role of an effective opposition.
That role goes beyond critiquing issues and holding the government to account. The opposition party must have a credible chance of being elected to govern to fulfil its role. Without that, the party in power has no need to moderate its positions or listen to community concerns. The existence of a viable government-in-waiting on the other side of the legislature is critical in encouraging government responsiveness.
Yet over almost 50 years, the NDP has failed to build a broad base of support. Its three election victories all came when two centre-right parties split the vote."

The editorial is here.

Friday, December 03, 2010

NDP infighting sinking party’s 2013 chances

The New Democrats should all be ashamed of themselves.
The NDP is waging a stupid, incompetent internal war that demonstrates the party is unfit to govern. It's self-destructing when the polls show the party would likely win an election. And there's a pathetic Grade 6 schoolyard bickering feeling to the whole thing.
Broadly, here's the plot. Some MLAs think Carole James should be dumped as leader.
James faced the issue head on at a meeting of the party's provincial council last month. That's about 130 people, including a representative from each riding and various officials. MLAs can't vote, but they do attend.
James won the support of 84 per cent of the council.
But in a dumb move, her supporters handed out yellow scarves for people to wear to show support for James.
Thirteen MLAs didn't take them and were identified publicly as dissidents. They said they felt bullied.
If the ploy was dumb, so was the MLAs' decision not to take the scarves. This isn't grade school. Wear the scarf and sort out the issues later.
The anti-James campaign continued quietly. This week, MLA Jenny Kwan called for a leadership convention to replace James.
Kwan said the party had become less democratic. Decision-making was centralized and MLAs didn't have a voice. James changed party positions and MLAs had to read about in the newspaper. She won't take stands on tough issues or set out a vision.
And Kwan noted MLAs weren't told that party president Moe Sihota - an elected, traditionally volunteer position - was being paid $75,600 a year. Or that the money, donated specifically to pay Sihota, had come from the Steelworkers and CUPE, with a small amount from the B.C. Federation of Labour. (Credit for uncovering all this goes to Sean Holman at
That too was dumb, as it raised the appearance the two unions were buying influence. Otherwise, why not donate to the party and let it decide on pay for the president?
James said she wouldn't quit. She's setting up a meeting of MLAs and about 10 members of the party's executive, including Sihota, to thrash out the issues on Sunday.
It's a colossal mess and no one involved looks good. The dissident MLAs are ignoring the party constitution, which calls for a vote on James's leadership next year, the provincial council vote of support and the destruction of the NDP's chances in the next election.
But James and company have failed to deal with problems until they reached a crisis point and created needless confrontations.
The critics also argue the New Democrats - and James - should be doing better in the polls. The most recent poll, by the Mustel Group, found the NDP with 42 per cent support, to the Liberals' 37 per cent. James had a minus 12 approval rating; Campbell had a minus 28.
If James can keep the party at 42 per cent, she would do better than Dave Barrett, Mike Harcourt or Glen Clark - all elected as NDP premiers with a smaller of the vote.
MLAs should demand a real role in making decisions. The concentration of power in the leader's office has made for bad policy and democratic rot.
But any party that could destroy itself like this can't expect public support. Who would elect an unstable party to government?
There are only a few options. James could bounce the dissidents and claim control of a smaller caucus at the meeting in the next few days.
She could quit and the NDP could plunge into a divisive, destructive leadership race, with or without her as a candidate
Or everyone can climb down a bit. Sihota could step down; James could promise caucus a bigger role; the rational dissidents could pledge to work for the good of the party; the less rational could leave.
Only the last option gives the party a chance in the 2013 election.
Footnote: The chances of successful resolution aren't great. The internal battle has pitted MLAs against each other and growing numbers of ex-politicians like Corky Evans - against James - and Paul Ramsey - for her - have joined the fray.

Saturday morning update

The Globe quotes some dissident MLAs saying they might not attend the caucus meeting, but if they do they don't want to discuss the issues - just to deliver their ultimatum that James should quit. (Though an ultimatum seems to require an "or this will happen" that's missing in this case.)
Refusal to discuss an issue usually signals fear that the person can't come up with a reasonable argument, but perhaps something else is at play.
It all makes the Liberal leadership race more significant, as their chances of re-election rise sharply. At some point, potential New Democrats will have to decide whether it's more useful to take out a Liberal membership and influence the leadership selection process.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

More good than harm in WikiLeaks haul

The release of thousands of secret documents that reveal what governments are really saying about each other undoubtedly poses risks.
But if Canada's top spy is telling the Americans that he's worried Afghan President Hamid Karzai is a weak leader and corrupt - while our politicians are telling us things are going well - then I want to know.
WikiLeaks, a website and organization set up to share information that governments, agencies and corporations want to keep secret, is releasing about 250,000 cables from U.S. diplomats around the world back to Washington.
Lives will be put at risk, the politicians warn.
And international relations will be profoundly damaged if diplomats, politicians and businesspeople can't sit down to exchange views confident that no outsiders will ever know what they said. Let the shine in, and all will be lost, say critics of the document release.
There is a price to be paid. Some information exchange might be reduced; some decisions less well-informed.
But the basic premise of those criticizing WikiLeaks is the public can be kept in the dark - or told lies - while the real facts are kept within the elite, for the greater good.
That seems dangerous, at least as dangerous as too much openness.
Consider the WikiLeaks documents outlining U.S. diplomats' reports to Washington based on 2008 discussions with Jim Rudd, then the head of CSIS and Canada's top spy.
That was a difficult year for the war in Afghanistan. Lives were being lost and money spent, but little was being accomplished. But the government was keen to press on with the mission even as the public had doubts.
Judd's comments to U.S. diplomats in Ottawa would have been a useful addition to the discussion about whether we should keep spending lives and treasure in Afghanistan.
Rudd was not encouraged by progress in Afghanistan, the diplomats reported to their masters in Washington. CSIS identified many problems - President Hamid Karzai's "weak leadership, widespread corruption, the lack of will to press ahead on counter-narcotics, limited Afghan security force capability (particularly the police) and, most recently, the Sarpoza prison break."
(Canada had spent $1 million to improve the prison and Corrections Canada had trained the guards. But in June 2008,Taliban fighters moved into Kandahar, attacked the prison and freed about 1,000 inmates. It was a show of defiance.)
There were some official statements about how difficult things were in Afghanistan in 2008. But there was more cheerleading. The top NATO commander said the Taliban was on the run. Brought to their knees, said a British commander.
But privately, Rudd was sharing a bleak assessment with the U.S. and, presumably, the Canadian government.
None of this is clearcut. If Rudd and others share information with diplomats, perhaps better solutions will be reached.
It can be argued that the head of Canada's spy service shouldn't be making his views public, pushing aside elected representatives.
But should U.S. government representatives get the real story, while Canadians are kept in the dark?
I'm glad to learn that the CSIS head told U.S. contacts that images of Omar Khadr's interrogation would trigger "knee-jerk anti-Americanism" and "paroxysms of moral outrage, a Canadian specialty."
And that he told the Americans that court decisions had "tied CSIS in knots" and cost it public support. Canadian authorities can't even use evidence if it could have been obtained through torture, he complained.
It seems that these things - torture, handcuffed spies, a stalled war, our role in Afghanistan - should be subject to a real public discussion.
But the only honest conversation was between American envoys and Canadian spies. We were on the outside.
And we only know about the real story because of WikiLeaks.
Those on the inside generally like secrecy.
It's harder to see why the rest of us should indulge their desire to have two sets of facts - one for them, and one for the rest of us.
Footnote: The man behind WikiLeaks is Julian Assange, an Australian citizen and former computer hacker. He's keeping a low profile; various governments are discussing espionage or other charges (he faces sexual assault allegations in Sweden) and Sarah Palin has apparently suggested that the U.S. should assassinate him.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Another question for Elections BC

This is troubling.
Elections BC refused to approve the recall petition in Ida Chong's riding based on rules it created after the petition was submitted. It appears incompetent to have failed to have the rules in place, as the Times Colonist noted in an editorial here.
The legislation sets a 200-word limit on the petition. Elections BC ruled MLA counts as five words; HST as three. So the petition was over the limit under the new rules.
An Elections BC official defended the retroactive decision to create the rules.
"The methodology used for word counts had never been an issue in the past because all previous recall applications had come in at well below 200 words," she said.
It's not a compelling defence.
Worse, it's also untrue, as The Gazetteer, establishes here. There haven't been that many recall campaigns; voters should expect better from Elections BC than false statements to defend its decisions.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Government fumbled drinking-driving changes

First the solicitor general, in charge of road safety, tries to convince the public that a little drinking and driving isn't so bad.
Then police reveal that roadside breathalyzer devices in the province - already used to impose licence suspensions on several hundred thousand British Columbians - were badly calibrated. Innocent people likely suffered roadside suspensions and further penalties.
The Liberals' changes to drinking and driving laws have turned into a mess.
Blame two factors.
First, a lack of honesty about the real goals of the changes, which give police power to impose much tougher penalties on drivers without laying impaired driving charges.
Even if a driver hasn't downed enough to blow over .08, the legal definition for impaired driving, police can now impose serious penalties. Blow over .05 and, for a first offence, you lose your licence for three days, have your car impounded and face about $600 in fines and fees.
The government pitched the changes, which took effect Sept. 20, as an effort to improve road safety.
That was partly true. The tougher penalties for people who blew between .05 and .08 make the consequences of being a little impaired much more serious. (That used to bring a 24-hour suspension.)
But the government was also looking for a way to penalize people without laying impaired driving charges under the Criminal Code.
Drivers could and did plead not guilty to those charges and fight them in court. About one-quarter of provincial court time is taken up with impaired charges. The government wanted to save money by taking that option away.
The measures worked. Bars and restaurants reported a 15 to 30 per cent drop in business once the new rules were in place.
That prompted Solicitor General Rich Coleman to encourage a little light drinking and driving. People had got it wrong, he said. "They can go in and have a couple of glasses of wine with dinner and still leave and be OK."
Coleman's advice is simply wrong. A couple of Calgary Herald journalists tested the B.C. limits with the help of the Calgary police department. The woman, who was small, had two glasses of wine and a meal over a couple of hours and blew .062.
Following Coleman's bad advice could be disastrous, in so many ways.
The other big concern was with justice. The new penalties could be imposed by a single police officer. Any appeals were not through the courts and came after the penalty was served.
Given that. you would think the government would accept a responsibility to ensure citizens' rights were protected.
It didn't. The standard for impaired under the Criminal Code is .08 blood alcohol content. But the machines are calibrated to signal fail at 0.1, to allow for a margin of error, which the manufacturers' acknowledge.
But the devices had been set to signal warning - bringing the licence suspension, vehicle impoundment and fines - at .05, with no margin for error.
Until the traffic safety committee of the B.C. Association of Police Chiefs said "recent" RCMP tests showed the roadside devices weren't accurate. Drivers might have been wrongly penalized. The 2,200 devices would be reset to .06 to allow a margin of error.
But about 170 people have a week have faced sanctions based on the faulty breathalyzer tests since Sept. 20. And about 35,000 people a year have been hit with 24-hour suspensions - based on defective machines.
What's most alarming is that the injustice wasn't identified by the solicitor general or the attorney general. Only a subcommittee of the B.C. Association of Police Chiefs protected the rights of citizens.
So we have a government in favour of a little drinking and driving, while bringing in tough penalties for drivers who haven't actually broken the law.
Drinking drivers have been kept off the road. But what a big mess has been made in stumbling toward that goal.
Footnote: Meanwhile, the government has reduced the penalties for driving without a licence or while suspended. Those offences use to result in vehicle impoundments of 30 to 90 days, but too many people just abandoned their cars. A first offence now brings a seven-day vehicle impoundment.

Editorial: Liberals cave to Big Pharma

Today's Times Colonist editorial:

"The last act in a nasty vendetta has finally played out. Premier Gordon Campbell's government has decided to kill B.C.'s only independent drug review agency. And not just kill it, but bury it in an unmarked grave.

The agency involved is called the Therapeutics Initiative. Based at the University of British Columbia, it evaluates new drugs that come on the market.

The Therapeutics Initiative saves taxpayers $50 million annually by finding cheaper alternatives. Largely thanks to its efforts, B.C. has the lowest drug costs in the country, despite offering some of the best coverage.

Moreover, the Therapeutics Initiative runs on a shoestring budget. The agency gets $1 million a year. That means it generates a 50 to one return on investment.

Finally, its researchers have been credited with saving 500 lives by issuing timely warnings about suspect medications..."

Read the rest here.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The breathalyzer scandal

Useful editorial from the Times Colonist:

"The news that poorly calibrated breathalyzer devices could have resulted in licence suspensions and fines for innocent drivers is alarming.

Answers are needed from Solicitor General Rich Coleman, not an unelected police spokesman.

Victoria police Chief Jamie Graham, acting as chairman of the B.C. Association of Chiefs of Police traffic safety committee, announced Friday that the 2,200 roadside testing devices in the province will be recalibrated.

"Recent" RCMP lab tests found a margin of error in the machines. The devices could indicate a driver's blood-alcohol level was over .05 -- the level at which provincial penalties can be imposed -- when he was under the limit.

The solution is to recalibrate the breathalyzers so a "warn" signal is obtained if the driver blows .06, recognizing the potential machine error.

The implications are huge. Since the new drinking and driving rules were introduced, about 170 British Columbians a week have faced three-day licence suspensions, vehicle impoundment and some $600 in fines and fees. That's more than 1,500 people, at least some of whom were potentially innocent.

But the impact is much greater. Since 1977, police have been issuing 24-hour suspensions based on the same roadside test. Some 150,000 people have been penalized in the past five years alone. Again, some apparently should not have been.

The latest effort to curb drinking and driving is welcome and appears to be working.

But concerns about the arbitrary nature of enforcement and the lack of an effective appeal process were raised well in advance of the new laws. Yet the government did not ensure enforcement was fair and reliable.

Police and government have known of the machines' margin of error for years. The "fail" signal, which indicates a driver is over .08, is actually triggered when a person blows 0.1 for that very reason. But they did not ensure accurate testing for the tens of thousands of drivers facing roadside justice.

Police have put the three-day suspensions on hold until the machines are fixed. But what of the drivers who have lost their licences, paid their fines and now have the offences on their records -- and who might have been innocent?

Government sloppiness has created injustice for some drivers and undermined confidence in a controversial measure."

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Big Pharma wins, B.C. taxpayers lose

The government's pandering to Big Pharma by killing a world-acclaimed initiative that ensured only effective drugs were covered by Pharmacare is truly appalling. The Therapeutics Initiative saved the health system hundreds of millions of dollars while ensuring good medical outcomes.
There is no public policy reason to eliminate it. But it also hurt pharmaceutical company profits — B.C. spends much less on prescription drugs than the national average — and they have lobbied for more than a decade to kill it.
Finally, they've won, as this piece reports.
Pharmaceutical companies have a great economic incentive to sell more drugs, at higher prices. That's their job. And it's worth a lot to them to win this kind of victory, so they can spend a great deal on the campaign - political donations and PR campaigns and support for groups that will support them. (Most illness advocacy groups - heart, stroke, cancer - received significant support from drug companies. Some likely couldn't survive without the money.)
Health consumers and taxpayers have to rely on government to look after their interests. It's not working.


One small step that could help is a government-funded Consumers' Health Forum, which I wrote about in the Sun in 2004.

Health care consumers need a voice

VICTORIA - The only people who haven't got a say in the way health care works in Canada are the patients.

Doctors have the BCMA. Nurses, the BCNU. Drug companies have their lobbyists and funded health groups.

But you and I, the people who rely on the system to keep us healthy and fix us when things go wrong? We have no voice.

The government, you might argue. But you'd be wrong. The government doesn't represent health care consumers. It balances a broad range of pressures.

When Health Minister Colin Hansen is locked in a struggle with Nanaimo emergency room doctors, for example, his government represents not just parents who might need to bring a sick baby into emergency at 2 a.m., but businesses that want lower taxes and people pushing for other spending priorities. He's mindful of patients' interests; he's also mindful of the commitment to a balanced budget.

Nothing wrong with that. Just don't interpret it as government representing consumers.

There's a knee-jerk reaction against talking about consumers in the context of government services. But that's what we are -- we pay an average $2,700 a year each for health care, and we consume the service. And we're especially powerless because we're dealing with a monopoly supplier and can't shop elsewhere if we're dissatisfied.

The absence of any real consumer voice has created a vacuum, allowing special interest groups to claim to speak for us. It's obligatory for everyone in a health care debate to talk about putting patients first, while pursuing their own interests.

The Cancer Advocacy Coalition weighed in last week with its annual report linking higher spending on cancer care with lower death rates. The title, Your Money or Your Life, summarizes the message. B.C. has the highest per-capita spending on cancer, the report found, and the lowest mortality rates and shortest waiting times for treatment. More money equals lives saved.

Perhaps. But perhaps B.C. has a lower cancer death rate because people are generally more active and healthier here, or because of tougher anti-smoking rules, or because of a large immigrant population less predisposed to cancer. A true consumer organization would look at all those factors, and weigh the effectiveness of using the same money for other health priorities.

The cancer coalition is doing important work. But it doesn't speak for consumers. Its stated goal is to make cancer the No. 1 health care priority in Canada, not to advocate for better health care.

And like virtually all major health advocacy groups, the cancer coalition depends on funding from big pharmaceutical companies.

Alan Cassels, a drug policy expert at the University of Victoria, says the drug company funding inevitably creates conflicts. "You can almost see the influence of the money."

The problem is compounded because when Health Canada sets out to hold high-level consultations, these are the groups it calls to the table. Each advances its special interest; no one speaks for us.

It's not a uniquely Canadian problem. But fixing it need not be costly or difficult, as Australia has shown.

The Consumers' Health Forum of Australia is almost 20 years old, formed with government support after consumers demanded a health care voice.

It's a coalition of health and community groups. Only organizations that represent consumers -- not providers or care workers or corporations -- are eligible.

The forum represents the public, takes complaints, publishes articles and newsletters, and, most importantly, speaks to the government on behalf of the consumer.

All for about $750,000 a year from government and a bit more from members -- no drug company donations -- and with a staff of eight.

It's a small price to give consumers a long overdue voice.

NDP gives the Liberals something to smile about

I should be writing about the faulty breathalyzers that have been used to impose penalties on hundreds of thousands of British Columbians.
Or Children’s Minister Mary Polak’s bizarre claim that a 15-year-old girl with Down syndrome, found emaciated and raw with diaper rash after spending nine days alone with her mother’s corpse, might not have suffered any harm.
Or a lot of other issues that matter to people right now.
Instead, one more column about politics, thanks to the strange goings-on in the NDP.
That’s an indication the party has got lost. The Liberals are leaderless and wedded to unpopular policies. New Democrats should be focusing attention on problem areas and showing they could do a better job.
Instead, some sort of weird, secret internal rebellion is gripping the party, at the worst possible time.
And it’s being badly mishandled.
NDP leader Carole James faced a leadership test on the weekend when the party’s governing council met in Victoria. A few NDP riding associations had called for a leadership contest next year.
Some New Democrat MLAs were unhappy as well. Last Friday, caucus whip Katrine Conroy gave up that position, apparently in protest. She was supported by MLAs Jenny Kwan, Lana Popham and Claire Trevena.
But none would say what they were actually unhappy about.
Partly, it was about James’s decision to kick Cariboo North MLA Bob Simpson out of the caucus after he offered mild criticism of a speech she made. Or, in some cases, about the arbitrary way the decision was made.
That was a blunder. Simpson’s comments were mild. Leaders have lots of ways to communicate displeasure. And it was wrong and foolish for James to leave MLAs - especially one like Conroy, as whip, and Norm Macdonald as caucus chair – out of the decision.
But you have to think the dissatisfaction runs deeper. One bad call about a difficult member of caucus shouldn’t be such a grand offence.
James took on the dissatisfaction head-on. On Friday, the day before the meeting, she said she was “drawing a line in the sand.” Support her leadership and work together, or not. Get in or get out.
It worked with the council. The call for a leadership contest failed, with about 84 per cent voting to keep James.
But in a dumb move, someone in the James camp decided to put pressure on dissidents by handing out yellow scarves and buttons to signal support for her.
The result was that about a dozen MLAs were immediately identified as refusing to support James’s leadership - hardly a great result.
Why don’t they support James? The MLAs won’t say.
They could argue that such discussions should remain behind closed doors, except their discontent is highly public. (And if one-third of the caucus has doubts about a potential future premier, perhaps discussion of their views is in the public interest.)
From outside, James looks to have a good record. From two seats to 35, a significant lead in the polls and no big negatives. Her approval rating - 33 per cent - is lousy, but that might say more about the way we see politicians than her performance. Certainly it wasn’t helped by the Simpson affair and revelations that a handful of big unions have been chipping in to pay Moe Sihota a salary as party. The money isn’t a general donation to the party; it’s to pay Sihota. “He who pays the piper calls the tune,” the saying goes, which leaves the party playing second fiddle.
But you would hardly think those enough to persuade New Democrat MLAs to attack their own party when the chance of forming the next government looks so good.
MLAs have a balancing act - their own judgment, their commitment to constituents who voted for both a party and a candidate and to a shared vision.
The New Democrats attacking James should be candid about their concerns.
Footnote: Meanwhile. Moira Stilwell became the first Liberal leadership candidate. She stepped down as minister of regional economic and skills development. Stilwell’s a doctor who specializes in nuclear medicine and a political rooke elected last year. That’s likely a plus, given public antipathy to Gordon Campbell and those around him.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The New Democrats, and shadow tolls on the Sea to Sky

Two pieces worth your attention.

Ian Reid writes thoughtfully on the NDP's prospects in the aftermath of the odd weekend party meeting that saw Carole James win the support of voting members of the party's governing council - while 11 New Democrat MLAs are still apparently dissatisfied with her leadership. Read him here.
Their next moves will be critical. The MLas can find a way to work with the party, which is what voters likely expected when they elected them. They can quit. Or they can snipe from within. The Liberals are certainly cheering for the latter two options.

And Laila Yuile has been establishing, without a doubt, that the deal for the private companies who did the Sea to Sky Highway improvements and maintain the road includes payments based on "shadow tolls." Part of their annual payment depends on road use, but instead of collecting from drivers the province pays a toll on users' behalf.
That's consistent with the government's policy that there will be no direct tolls on roads for which there is no non-toll alternative. (Though the skyrocketing ferry fares violate that principle.)
What makes this fascinating is the Transportation Ministry's bizarre insistence that there are no shadow tolls, when as Yuile sets out, the companies are absolutely clear that their payment does include the tolls.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Children's ministry stumbles again

From today's Times Colonist:

"She was 15, with severe developmental disabilities due to Down syndrome. Her mother, with her own issues, died in the home they shared in a Cultus Lake mobile home park.

And for nine days, the girl lived beside her mother's corpse. She had been told not to go out alone.

When rescued, she was emaciated and filthy -- she was unable to use the toilet and had been wearing the same diaper for a week. Her legs and abdomen were raw with diaper rash. Pills and boxes of macaroni were on the floor, apparently left as the girl tried to bring her mother back to life.

The Minister of Children and Family Development had been involved with the family; in fact, the girl's brothers had asked that their sister be taken into care because of their mother's alcoholism and drug abuse and the filth in the house.

The law calls for deaths or such events that cause "serious or long-term impairment" of a child's health to be reported to the Representative for Children and Youth as soon as officials become aware of them.

But the ministry didn't do that. Nine weeks after the girl was discovered, Minister Mary Polak says it's still not clear to her that the girl suffered an injury that required reporting.

That's at once insulting and stupid. . ."

Read the rest here.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Bill Bennett has it right

Cut Bill Bennett’s claims about life inside the Liberal government in half and it’s still ugly.
Reject them entirely and you still face the reality that Bennett is right when he says that each day Gordon Campbell stays as leader is one more blow to the Liberals’ chances for recovery.
The East Kootenay MLA was fired as energy minister Wednesday for saying Campbell should step down now for the good of the party. Next step is expulsion from caucus.
The firing wasn’t unexpected. Bennett noted he had broken the “no surprises” rule by not warning the premier¹s office.
But what happened next was surprising.
Finance Minister Colin Hansen maintained the cabinet had fired Bennett. They might have approved, but only the premier can hire and fire cabinet ministers.
And Hansen and others said Bennett had broken his cabinet oath. That’s not true. Ministers promise to maintain confidentiality about cabinet discussions, not to shut up about everything.
Bennett left the meeting and came to Victoria to face the media.
The scrum was about 35 minutes and, by the end, Bennett had carpet-bombed Campbell. The premier was a bully and autocrat who ignored cabinet, caucus and stakeholders. He had reduced MLAs to tears in meetings. One shouting incident had left Bennett wiping the premier¹s spit from his face, he said.
“He¹s lost the public entirely,” Bennett said. “He should just leave. Every day that Premier Campbell stays around is one less day we have to start a renewal.”
A lineup of ministers denied Bennett’s charges, as did Campbell. Health Minister Kevin Falcon said he had been in shouting matches with the premier, but that was just the way things were done in cabinet.
So who should you believe?
MLAs and ex-MLAs have complained, usually quietly, about Campbell’s bullying. The HST introduction, dropped on a surprised caucus with no discussion or consultation, confirms the tendency to one-man rule.
And Bennett, in my experience, has been a straight shooter.
Maybe he exaggerated or his perceptions were skewed. But if he sees the problems, they exist.
Certainly he’s right that Campbell’s long goodbye is doing great damage to the Liberals.
Campbell acknowledged the public doesn’t trust him. That’s why he’s leaving.
But by staying on until a new leader is in place, likely in March, he’s condemning the party to months of growing unpopularity and tainting the leadership selection process. Cabinet ministers considering a leadership run should be focused on demonstrating they offer a new vision and direction for the party and the government.
Instead, Falcon and George Abbott, both possible candidates, responded to Bennett’s comments by defending Campbell’s leadership and achievements. They stepped forward as apologists for a terribly unpopular premier, as ministers and MLAs have since the HST was introduced to such anger.
Bennett’s concerns about political life need to be addressed, no matter what people think about his criticism of Campbell.
Power has increasingly been concentrated in the leader’s office. MLAs have had little role in shaping policy; if they had, the HST debacle might have been avoided.
And cabinet ministers are often out of the loop. Bennett noted that the sweeping reorganization of resource ministries announced by Campbell was done without the involvement of the ministers responsible for those areas. The deputy ministers working on it were told not to let their ministers know what was going on.
Bennett spoke highly of most of his cabinet colleagues and the people working in government.
But his frustration came through in almost every sentence. And it was based, I’d argue, not on anger at being fired from cabinet but on years of disappointment. MLAs start their time in Victoria with great hopes of making a difference. Those hopes are often replaced by bitterness and disappointment.
“I¹m tired of the bullshit going on in politics,” Bennett said.
He speaks for many British Columbians.
Footnote: Bennett recounted his first-term interest in starting an outdoor caucus - MLAs from both parties interested in hunting, fishing, hiking and snowmobiling issues that are often neglected. Campbell tried to bully him out of the idea, Bennett said, especially rejecting the idea that New Democrat MLAs could be involved. Bennett went ahead anyway.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Bennett tapes

I have always had time for Bill Bennett.

When he made it back into cabinet in a 2008 shuffle, I had this prescient comment:

"Back to good news, I'm glad of the return of Kootenays MLA Bill Bennett to cabinet, this time as tourism, culture and arts minister, and the addition of Peace River MLA Blair Lekstrom as community development minister (although that's not much of a job, except for the pine beetle responsibilities that are cobbled on).
Both are smart, will speak their minds and stand up for their constituents and are from outside the Lower Mainland. They will be valuable around the cabinet table."

Bennett was bounced from cabinet Wednesday for saying Gordon Campbell should step down as premier now to let the party begin rebuilding.

He did not go quietly, accusing Campbell of being a bully and one-man government. The Times Colonist has offered an audio file of his comments in a scrum here.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Recall ups destructive political uncertainty

Things are turning into a mess in B.C.
Recall, leadership squabbling, a lame duck premier who won’t go away, a referendum that might axe the HST – it’s a formula for political chaos.
And political chaos is a formula for government paralysis on issues that matter to British Columbians.
First, recall. The Fight HST forces announced their recall targets Monday. Universities Minister Ida Chong is first on the hit list.
She won her Oak Bay-Gordon Head riding by a skinny margin - 561 votes - in 2009. Lots of recall canvassers have signed up in her riding and nearby Saanich North. And Chong has not been effective in representing the riding on key local issues.
She is thus vulnerable, even given the tough threshold for a successful recall effort. Proponents will need to get signatures from 40 per cent of the people registered to vote in the last election - about 18,000 names. (Chong won with 11,877 votes.)
The recall campaign starts Monday. Proponents have 60 days to get enough signatures to oust the MLA and force a byelection.
The Fight HST crew plans campaigns against Terry Lake in Kamloop North and Don McRae in Comox starting in early January, with more efforts launched every month until the HST is gone or the Liberals bumped from power.
Chong’s recall has become the trial run for both sides.
Her first-day response made no mention of the HST. She said she had done a good job, the NDP was playing a big behind-the-scenes recall role (likely true) and the effort was an abuse of the recall legislation. Recall was supposed to be used against MLAs who acted unethically, Chong said.
That’s just untrue. The successful referendum on recall, which led to the legislation, asked if British Columbians should have the right to remove their MLA between elections. Voters would decide what constituted grounds for dismissal.
And the claim will be a tough sell, given the Liberals’ history. Gordon Campbell was calling for recall campaigns against New Democrat MLAs within months of losing the 1996 election. Kevin Falcon’s Total Recall targeted all 40 NDP MLAs in 1999; he said it had nothing to do with the individuals, but was attempt to oust the government. (The effort flopped, but created big headaches for the New Democrats.)
The justifiable claim that the NDP is playing a political role in the campaigns might deter some people from signing.
Campbell is a big problem for Chong. He has announced he’ll leave after a new leader is selected Feb. 26.
But that’s three months away, And he’s still insisting that he - and Chong - did everything right in bringing in the HST. The only failure was not explaining the decision more effectively after it was a done deal, he says.
In fact, Campbell is a big problem for the party. Lame duck leaders always are. When they are unpopular and don’t recognize that they’re lame, things get really messy.
Campbell says he’s still the premier and in charge of the budget and throne speech. Nothing will change until the new Liberal leader is selected.
For the Liberal party, that’s terrible. Campbell is leaving because the public thinks he’s doing a bad job and doesn’t trust him. Yet he’ll be the face of the party for another three months and defend the budget and throne speech.
Chong and the Liberal party would be helped if Campbell stepped down as premier now. MLAs could select someone - ideally not running for the leadership - to be premier until the leadership was decided. Campbell could cart away some baggage and avoid some unpleasant months.
And the interim premier could announce the HST referendum would be held in February, before a new leader was selected. An earlier departure by Campbell might help the party and calm things down a bit.
But the months ahead - and perhaps until the next election - are going to bring uncertainty that slows investment and progress in B.C.
Footnote: The New Democrats are adding to the uncertainty as some party members continue to take aim at the leadership of Carole James. The issues are likely to be addressed at an NDP provincial council meeting this weekend.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

What's wrong with New Democrats?

I almost choked on my coffee when I read that Dale Lovick was calling for Carole James to be dumped as NDP leader.
What is wrong with this party?
Lovick is on the NDP riding association executive in Nanaimo-North Cowichan. He told Michael Smyth of The Province that the executive recently passed a motion calling on James to step down while a leadership contest takes place.
This from a cabinet minister who stayed loyal, at least publicly, to Glen Clark until the bitter end.
Lovick never called for Clark’s resignation or expressed doubts about the NDP government’s direction.
Now he thinks James should go.
His credentials aren’t great. Lovick was part of an NDP team - a cabinet minister - who ran the party into the ground. People saw the government as dishonest and incompetent and loathed the New Democrats. Lovick and company’s legacy was the NDP’s 2001 election performance - 22 per cent of the vote and two seats.
Today, a recent poll puts the New Democrats at 47 per cent, enough to win a big majority. James doesn’t great approval ratings, but she’s by far people’s first choice.
And Lovick and others are calling for a leadership change.
It’s good NDP riding associations feel free to express their opinions. It’s bad that they seem so foolish.

Come on, folks, let's drink and drive more: Coleman

The weirdness of things in this province continue to amaze.
Solicitor General Rich Coleman — in charge of public safety and increasing alcohol consumption — has to be the first mainstream politician to urge a little more drinking and driving as a good thing.
And his advice that people should feel free to have a couple of glasses of wine with dinner and drive home because they would be under the .05 limit is just flat-out wrong. (Coleman has a problem with stating things as fact that are simply not.) The reality is that people who take his advice could end up facing a lost licence, fines and an impounded car.
The Times Colonist looks at this in an editorial today.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Campbell's $2 billion doomed bet on keeping his job (with your money)

I thought the budget consultation process hit bottom in 2004.
But Gordon Campbell took things to a new low with his TV announcement of an arbitrary 15 per cent tax cut, a desperate, doomed move to hang on to his job at the expense of the Liberal party and the democratic process.
The legislature finance committee - six Liberal MLAs, four New Democrats - travels the province each fall to hear suggestions for the February budget.
It’s a big deal for many people. Business groups propose tax shifts, advocates make the case for spending on schools or health care. People send e-mails or briefs on what they think should be priorities. Many presentations are thoughtful and well-researched.
And the committee writes a report that, theoretically - though rarely practically - shapes the budget.
This year, the government noted that an improving economy offered opportunities. There was an extra $2 billion over the next three years available for initiatives.
"What would you do with additional resources?,” it asked. “Would you fund new programs and services, would you reduce the debt, or would you cut personal income taxes?"
So chambers of commerce and arts groups and non-profits and individuals prepared their submissions. People already working 10 hours a day worked longer to offer their ideas.
Then Campbell went on TV and announced a 15-per-cent tax cut that wiped out that $2 billion, before the committee even started preparing its report.
It was a grand insult. The committee had travelled to 14 communities and done videoconferences with people and organizations in another nine. A lot of effort had gone into hundreds of submissions.
And Campbell gave the finger to them. He decided on a tax cut before he even heard from all those people across the province. The consultation was a sham.
There was no reason for haste. The tax cut doesn’t take effect until Jan. 1. The committee was to report by Nov. 15.
If Campbell had delayed his TV address three weeks, he could have read the committee report and learned what British Columbians believed the budget priorities should be. That would have been polite.
He didn’t, which speaks of a certain contempt for all those people and groups working on their budget submissions.
The New Democrat MLAs withdrew from the committee in protest.
The loyal Liberals defended the premier’s tax cut announcement. You would think, after listening to all those presentations and reading all the submissions, they would have urged the premier to wait a few weeks for the report.
If, as Campbell maintains, all decisions are backed by caucus, surely the Liberal committee members - John Les, Norm Letnick, Don MacRae, John Rustad, Jane Thornthwaite and John van Dongen - would have suggested the tax cut announcement could wait until the public was heard.
But either they weren’t consulted, they were silent or they were ignored. I’m keen to know which.
The previous low point in budget consultation came in 2004, when the government sent out a pre-election campaign flyer/budget consultation document to every household in the province. About 26,000 people responded with budget suggestions. But the flyer went out late, time was tight and the government threw 23,500 of the responses in the garbage and looked at 2,550 - one in 10.
Campbell, seeking political salvation, went farther and ignored every single submission.
Liberal supporters should be the angriest.
If Campbell hadn’t bet $2 billion on a doomed effort to rebuild his personal popularity, the new Liberal leader would have had the chance to announce tax cuts or measures to reduce surgical waits or investments in economic growth.
This isn’t a partisan, or left-right issue, whatever that means.
It’s about bad behaviour, contempt for citizens, docile elected representatives, abuse of power and the reckless spending of $650 million a year.
And it brings shame on the government, and all those who went along with the abuse.
Footnote: First Call, an advocacy group for children and youth, probably speaks for a lot of the organizations - business groups, non-profits, community organizations - who presented to the committee. First Call encourages members to engage in the democratic process, the group noted. But it asked why people should spend time preparing recommendations if the government is going to do whatever it wants anyway. Campbell’s answer should be interesting.

Campbell dragging party down with him

Gordon Campbell's decision to stick around as a lame duck party leader is terrible news for the Liberals.
Campbell took questions from reporters on the day after he announced he would step down.
It was an odd performance. Campbell talked like a popular premier leaving at the top of his game, rather than a liability for his party.
He said he wouldn't step aside for an interim leader. Instead, he'll stay on as leader and premier until a leadership convention is held - within the next six months or so, according to the party's shaky constitution.
That wouldn't be awkward, he said. It's not as if any of the leadership candidates would be questioning the Liberals' past choices on the HST or other issues.
"The new leader, certainly if they're from inside government, will have been part of those decisions," Campbell said.
Bad news for Rich Coleman, Kevin Falcon or anyone else in the current government looking to run for leader on the promise of a new direction.
Even if outside candidates came forward, Campbell said, they surely would accept his priorities.
"They believe in strengthening the private sector economy," he said. "They'll believe in leaving more money in people's pockets. That's what the party has always stood for, and frankly, it's a continuation of that."
Leadership campaigns can be a chance for unpopular parties - like the Liberals - to make a fresh start. They can distance themselves from an unpopular leader - like Campbell - and offer a new vision and style.
Unless the old leader sabotages that opportunity by insisting that it will be business as usual no matter who emerges as Liberal leader.
So Campbell will be peering over the shoulders of leadership candidates, frowning at challenges to the status quo or any concerns about the party's past efforts.
Meanwhile, the Liberal party has apparently been caught off guard by the first leadership contest in 17 years.
The Liberal constitution sets out a leadership vote process. Anyone who joins the party at least seven weeks before the leadership contest gets a vote. Low-polling candidates are dropped until someone gets majority support. And the constitution seems to contemplate a series of mail ballots - kind of a slow motion leadership process.
The Liberals are now considering new rules, according to Sean Holman at
The one-member, one-vote model has appeal. But it also encourages the mass sign-up of instant party members by candidates - religious and ethnic communities are often targeted - and places candidates outside the Lower Mainland at a huge disadvantage.
Holman reports some Liberals are advocating a leadership selection process like the Ontario Conservatives used last year. Each riding had 100 votes; those were allocated based on the party members' choice in a constituency ballot.
That makes it worthwhile to sign up new members, but doesn't let the leadership choice rest on instant Liberals gathered in bulk. (Though it does give the same weight to a riding with 40 members and no hope of electing a Liberal MLA as it does to a powerhouse of party support.)
Meanwhile, the leadership race has begun. Rich Coleman has promised to look at the new drinking-driving laws to see if they're too effective in keeping drivers who have had a glass or two of wine off the roads. George Abbott says he'd step down from cabinet if he runs, to avoid conflict. Coleman says he won't. Kevin Falcon says he hopes Carole Taylor runs. And that's just the early jockeying.
Campbell's decision to hang around, the ghost of Olympics past, does the Liberal party no favours.
And a slow-motion leadership campaign would do the province no favours. Business and consumers hate uncertainty; a long campaign - along with the wait for the HST referendum - create months of political and economic uncertainty.
Footnote: Meanwhile, some New Democrats continue to grumble about Carole James. That seems bizarre - the NDP has a two-to-one lead in the polls and a good chance of forming government no matter who the Liberals select. Plunging the party into a potentially divisive leadership fight makes little sense.

Monday, November 08, 2010

The leadership race begins...

B.C.'s solicitor-general mulls changes to tough drinking and driving laws

VICTORIA - Solicitor-general Rich Coleman said Monday his government is planning to review B.C.'s tough new drinking and driving laws, suggesting any changes could be introduced as early as this coming spring.

"This [the drinking and driving law] has certainly got some issues with it and quite frankly we're going to look at those," Coleman, who has been solicitor-general for just two weeks, said Monday.

Interesting that Coleman says he believes he'll stay in cabinet if he enters the Liberal leadership race, while George Abbott says he won't.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

The Liberal leadership campaign rules

Leadership campaign rules and their application can help or hurt candidates.
The Liberal constitution - supplied helpfully by Sean Holman of - gives the party executive four weeks to set a date for a leadership vote after they get a resignation letter.
They have to set a date for the vote within the next six months. Assuming Gordon Campbell wrote a resignation letter today, the leadership vote would have to be held no later than June 1.
All paid-up party members get a mail-in vote if they have joined at least 41 days - say six weeks - before the date of the leadership convention.
So, if the executive set a Dec. 12 leadership vote, only the people who were already party members could vote.
But parties like leadership races because the candidates rush around signing up new party members who will support them, theoretically building the membership base. (Though instant party members tend not to stick around after the leadership vote.) A later date would give leadership candidates a chance to persuade more people to buy memberships and support them.
This is all uncharted territory. The last leadership contest, which Campbell, of course, won, was 17 years ago and used a telephone voting system the party has abandoned.
To win, a candidate needs a majority. It's not clear, to me anyway, whether that must mean a succession of mail ballots or some form of voting that lets members rank all the candidates.

Resignation brings a new set of problems

Gordon Campbell's resignation was inevitable. He lost the confidence of British Columbians and, finally, of at least some within the Liberal ranks.
But the timing was a surprise and leaves the party, government and province in a tough spot.
I expected Campbell to stick around and defend the HST in the run up to next September's referendum. Then he could leave and a new Liberal leader could declare the tax battle in the past, say lessons had been learned and pledge a fresh start.
That didn't work. Campbell faced increasing internal discontent - note Energy Minister Bill Bennett's criticism of the premier's autocratic decision-making on resource minstry restructuring - that increased when his televised address last week was a failure.
The early departure creates big problems. The Liberal party executive has six months to call a leadership convention. The latest date would be in May.
The HST referendum is set for Sept. 24. That means a new Liberal leader faces months either campaigning in favour of the HST or dodging questions about the tax. Either way, public anger about the tax and the incompetent way it was introduced would fix immediately on the new leader.
The leadership race will also be run with the tax still a live issue. That's bad news for potential candidates from within the current cabinet, like Rich Coleman, Kevin Falcon, George Abbott or Mike de Jong.
They have all defended the HST and backed the government's position that it was not possible or necessary to consult the public. They have all supported the claim the tax "wasn't on the radar" during the election campaign, even though talks on implementing it started days after the vote. They have supported, they insisted, Campbell's actions.
The same actions that so angered the public that he had to resign.
Those are problems for the Liberal party. (Although they could be eased by moving the referendum date up to the spring.)
But months of uncertainty are also bad news for the government and the province.
The government had big, if vague, plans for changes to the education system, for example. Those are stalled. The major shuffle of resource industries to speed project approvals announced last week will slow as all involved wait to see what the new leader thinks.
And work on next year's budget, to be presented in February, will move into high gear in coming months. Absent a leader, decisions on everything from health spending to tax policy will be put off.
This is all coming as the province emerges from a recession and businesses and consumer wait to see if the HST will survive the referendum (or, for that matter, whether the Liberal government will survive recall attempts).
The uncertainty will be damaging.
It's a sad end for Campbell, no matter what people think of his time in government. He rode into office with considerable goodwill in 2001 (in part because the former NDP government was so loathed). And he was re-elected twice. No one has ever challenged his work ethic or commitment to the job. His enthusiasms - for First Nations treaties, health reform, action on climate change and all those other great goals - were compelling.
But they were also short-lived. And as time went on they were overshadowed by broken promises and a sense that this was a one-man government not much interested in the views of anyone outside a like-minded inner circle. It was not just the public's views that were discounted; Liberal MLAs weren't consulted about the HST or a host of other policy directions either.
That was too bad. Leaders, unless they are careful, ended up surrounded by people who think like they do and are far more likely to say "great idea, chief" than they are to raise concerns - either their own or their constituents.
So premiers come to believe, for example, that the reason people oppose the HST is that they are just too dim to recognize the premier's wisdom.
And eventually, they stand in front of the TV cameras offering their resignations.
Footnote: The Liberals should be looking ruefully at that 15 per cent tax cut. It reduced revenue by $1.2 billion over the next two years without saving Campbell's job. That's money a new leader could have used to build quick public support, either through tax cuts or an expansion of needed services.