Thursday, February 11, 2010

Liberals drifting away from concerns of British Columbians

I figured out why the throne speech worked so badly. It wasn't enough like a magazine cover.

Magazine editors know you have to grab readers with something that promises to make their lives better.

That's why the covers offer "Six ways to cut your grocery bill" or "Five tips to help you child get better grades" or "Four sure paths to business success."

The throne speech didn't tell British Columbians how the government proposed to make their lives better, except in the most abstract ways.

Streamlining the approval process for mines is a worthwhile goal, and could create jobs. But the speech never expressed those benefits clearly. There was no list of "Six ways we're helping you have a chance at a better job."

And what are people to make of a passage like "new emphasis will be placed on parental involvement and on tailoring our education system to each child's individual needs, interests and passions."

It sounds vaguely positive. But it doesn't say anything. There's no chance a parent can hear that and believe the government actually is doing anything to make life better for their child.

Some sections came closer, like the commitment to introduce preschools over the next five years.

But they were so vague it was hard to know if they would actually meet families' needs.

It's not a question of bad writing or a throne speech crafted by committee.

It's a symptom that the government has actually lost sight of the fact that its reason for existence is to make the lives of British Columbians, now and in the future, better.

And that it needs to be able to draw a direct link between whatever it does and the results for us.

Plans for a "comprehensive strategy to put B.C. at the forefront of clean energy development" are fine - if they benefit British Columbians.

There will be some jobs, certainly, and some companies will do well. But if the strategies just mean higher electricity costs for most of us, why is this a government priority?

The problem was on display the day after the throne speech, in the first question period of this session.

Citizens' Services Minister Ben Stewart was asked about a privacy breach that left confidential files on more than 1,400 British Columbians in the hands of an employee convicted of fraud. The people weren't told for seven months they were at risk. Reviews the government failed to protect their information and failed to respond to the breach.

NDP MLA Shane Simpson asked Stewart to apologize to those 1,400 people for the failures that put them at risk of identity theft.

Stewart wouldn't. Surely saying sorry to citizens you have failed is simply recognizing that they are your first concern.

Even more striking was Education Minister Margaret MacDiarmid's response to questions about the deep cuts school districts are making.

She noted that funding to districts rose by 1.9 per cent this year, in spite of a declining enrolment. And she pointed to the coming full-day kindergarten and the expansion of StrongStart centres for preschoolers.

But mostly, MacDiarmid talked about how much the government was spending - not about whether children were getting better educations. Why not say districts are being asked to cut to help keep the deficit down and explain why the government believes it's necessary and possible?

The ministry's budget for the fiscal year that starts April 1 is slated to increase by less than one per cent. School districts have to provide a provincially negotiated teachers' pay increase of at least two per cent. Something has to give.

Why not acknowledge that and explain the main things being done to ensure students' educations aren't being compromised?

An Angus Reid poll last April found less than one-third of British Columbians thought Premier Gordon Campbell understood the problems of people living in the province.

The government isn't doing much to change the minds of all those who think the Liberals are unconcerned with their futures.

Footnote: The throne speech made an effort to sell the harmonized sales tax, but stumbled. In the election campaign 10 months ago, the Liberals said the tax would be bad for British Columbians; the speech said "nothing is more important" for the province's economic future than the tax. The flip-flop is too glaring for people to miss.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Not a whole lot for you in this throne speech

The throne speech, written by the premier's office and read by the lieutenant governor in the legislature, is supposed to set out the government’s intentions.

The problem is the speeches are generally vague.

And in the case of Gordon Campbell's governments, they frequently sketch giant initiatives or tout some grand new cause or direction.

But often, not much happens.

In 2005, the pre-election throne speech featured the "five great goals for a golden decade," which sounded like a slogan from Mao-era China. There hasn't been much talk since of being "a Canadian pioneer in support for people with disabilities and special needs, children at risk and seniors."

After the election, the throne speech for the new session focused on the urgent need for a "new relationship" with First Nations. That didn't get far either.

The 2006 throne speech was about health care reform and announced a "province-wide conversation on health." That $3 million effort - as well as Campbell's fact-finding trip to France, Sweden, Norway and the U.K. - produced few real results.

And 2007 was the year Campbell seized climate change as not just an issue, but also a moral crusade. It's too early to say how much progress will be made.

There wasn't any over-riding theme in this week's throne speech. There was the expected cheering for the Olympics and a defence of the harmonized sales tax.

The speech promised an effort to speed up approvals for big projects like mines. The province hopes to persuade Ottawa that only one environmental assessment is needed for major projects, instead of both federal and provincial reviews.

At the same time the government plans to streamline its own approval process and try to persuade municipalities to look at ways they can make it easier and faster for projects to go ahead.

The speech also promised a review of property tax rates in the province, likely aimed at reducing conflict between municipalities and big industrial taxpayers who claim they are gouged.

The government is also going to push "green energy" projects ahead more quickly, despite concerns about sharply rising electricity rates as a result of that direction. Bioenergy - using wood to produce power or ethanol - is to get a boost.

At the same time, the government announced a ban on mining and oil and gas production in the Flathead Valley on the Montana border in the province's southeast.

What was in it for the average family?

Not much. Families with children under 18 will be able to put off paying their property taxes until their children are older, but there were no details.

The speech talked about "significant reforms" in the education system, but gave no useful information.

More parental involvement, "new forms of schooling," smarter approaches to cut administrative costs were all promised. The latter could mean fewer school districts or elimination of school boards.

The government is still keen on public-private partnerships and the speech promised a P3 dealing with education support services.

And the promised pre-school for three- and four-year-olds is apparently to be delivered by the private sector, not the school system.

The speech sounded another warning about health care costs without offering any clear idea what the government plans to do about them. There was talk of innovation and new choices for patients.

But there was also a warning that health care might become harder to get. "Stemming the unaffordable growth in health costs is essential in meeting our obligation to balance the budget by 2013," the speech said.

Poverty, housing affordability, social issues, employment opportunities - they all got short shrift in the speech.

In fact, told people to expect less. "We must curtail expectations of government," the speech warned.

Given the spending cuts coming in a majority of ministries in next month's budget - and the current shortfalls in health, education and almost every other area - that's probably the critical message from the speech.

Footnote: The green power push will be among the more controversial elements of the policy. The government wants to increase electricity efforts, but major industrial users have warned the plan could double power rates in B.C. with little public benefit.