Friday, May 21, 2010

Why did Liberal MLAs march into HST debacle?

What if just one or two Liberal MLAs had decided it was a mistake to bring in the HST without seeking the public's views?
And spoken up, maybe rallied some other backbenchers to ask questions?
These are responsible people, accomplished and respected in their communities. They ran on the Liberal platform. And a new tax, shifting $1.9 billion in taxes from businesses to individuals and families, wasn't part of the platform. The Liberals had always rejected the HST as bad for B.C. and promised, in writing, that it wasn't in their plans.
But within days of the election, the big guys in the Liberal government were looking at the tax.
At some point, Gordon Campbell and Colin Hansen must have let the Liberal MLAs in on the secret.
What if a few of them had raised concerns? They could have said the tax seemed like a good idea, but the public needed to be persuaded. They could have told the premier that they felt a need to talk to people back in their communities and see what they thought.
But either no one did, or, if they tried, they were ignored.
As a result, the Liberal government is in deep trouble.
MLAs were keen to come to Victoria and represent their communities a year ago - 18 of them elected for the first time. Now they're wildly unpopular, defending a decision they had no part in making. (While Campbell travels to Europe and Asia.)
In many ridings, the public is overwhelmingly against the HST. But Liberal MLAs are forced to tell the voters the party knows best and they are just too dim to get it.
A case can be made for the HST, especially since Ontario adopted the tax.
The average person will pay more in tax. The theory is that businesses will pass some of their tax savings on to consumers as lower prices.
And that, given a chance to pay less in taxes, companies will expand their operations in the province. If they need more employees, there will be new jobs and higher pay as companies compete for good workers.
Which could be true. But it would also have been true over the last five years; the Liberals always said it wasn't and rejected the tax.
Sometimes governments just brazen their way through these things. Broken claims of balanced budgets and betrayed promises not to sell B.C. Rail or expand gambling leap to mind.
But that doesn't seem to be working this time. I didn't think the initiative drive against the tax would be successful. The legislation, as Campbell said in opposition, seemed intended to make sure any efforts would fail. The law required people seeking to force a change in government policy to get signatures from 10 per cent of eligible voters in every riding.
There have been six initiative efforts. The best obtained 98,000 signatures, less than half the required amount.
The anti-HST petition has more than 500,000 signatures. Organizers say they have reached the required threshold in 72 of 85 ridings, with more than six weeks to go.
The Liberals can press ahead with the tax even if the HST initiative is successful. (The process requires a separate column.)
But their popularity will sink even lower.
And the HST opponents have pledged to launch recall campaigns against some MLAs if they don't heed the public will. They start with a formidable organization and large volunteer base.
Based on the petition numbers, at least some of those would likely succeed. Seven successful campaigns, followed by NDP victories in the resulting byelections, could topple the Liberal government.
Liberal MLAs are in a tough spot. They are getting clear direction from local voters - don't introduce the HST. And they are defying the public's wishes. (At least so far.)
The government could have been spared a pile of trouble if one or two MLAs had urged a different course on the HST - and if Campbell had listened.
Footnote: A Mustel Group poll this week showed the NDP with a decisive lead. It had 44 per cent, compared with 32 per cent for the Liberals, 13 per cent for the Greens and seven per cent for the Conservatives. Campbell's approval rating plunged to 28 per cent.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Following the BC Rail corruption trial

As well as the usual sources, I suggest anyone interested in the trial check out
Useful links to the coverage as it unfolds and analysis.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Liberals stumble, again, on children and families

Monday was a bad day for the Liberals.
The anti-HST petition people passed the 500,000-signature mark - about one-third of the number people who voted in the last election.
The B.C. Rail corruption trial finally started.
And Ted Hughes - the Liberals' choice to review the troubled children and families' ministry in 2006 - complained the government was sabotaging the effort to restore trust in the system.
Hughes wrote Gordon Campbell with his concerns, but the wandering premier is in China.
Poor Children's Minister Mary Polak was left to respond both to the Hughes letter and a court judgment that found the government was illegally withholding information from the Representative for Children and Youth.
It did not go well.
First, a brief background summary. In 2001, the Liberals eliminated independent oversight of services for vulnerable children and families. Not needed, they said.
After a series of disastrous missteps, ill-considered budget cuts, re-organizations and scandals, the government asked Hughes, a respected retired judge, to investigate.
He made recommendations, including the creation of the independent representative's office to provide advocacy, monitoring and public accountability.
Campbell accepted the recommendations. Legislation was passed giving the representative broad access to information to allow effective monitoring. But the ministry never really seemed to accept the oversight.
When the representative's office decided to review changes to a program aimed at children in the care of a relative, the government wouldn't provide relevant documents.
Only if the representative agreed in advance to keep the information secret, the government proposed, might she be allowed to see the cabinet documents.
That made no sense. The legislations setting up the representative's office, introduced by the Liberal government and passed unanimously by MLAs, gave complete access to all documents, except those protected by lawyer-client privilege. The representative's right to the information was crystal clear.
So Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, the children's representative, went to court to get the information. About 4,500 children are in the program; perhaps more should be. It's important to know how it's working.
The B.C. Supreme Court decision, handed down Friday, was a slap in the face for Campbell and Polak.
There is no justification for withholding the information, Justice Susan Griffin found. The law is clear and the government is refusing to accept it. She ordered the government to hand over the information and pay the legal costs for both sides.
So our money was wasted on lawyers' fees in a doomed effort to keep the facts from us.
The NDP set out to bash Polak around after the ruling. It's a tough spot for a minister, defending the indefensible.
Polak's talking points in question period were embarrassing and unworthy.
She continued to say the government had been prepared to provide the information; it just wanted control over how it would be used.
But the judgment shredded that argument. "I do not agree with the respondents that this case is not about document disclosure," Griffin wrote. "To the contrary, this is exactly what this case is about."
Afterward, Polak told reporters she hadn't read the entire judgment. It was delivered three days earlier. The court found she and her government had broken the law. A careful reading of it would take 30 minutes. It's baffling that she hadn't found time to read the decision.
Meanwhile, the government wouldn’t agree to withdraw new legislation to reduce the representative's access to information.
That prompted the letter from Hughes, who called on the government to abandon the changes, introduced in the legislature last month but not yet debated.
He noted his report called for a fully independent advocacy, monitoring and reporting role for the new office. The proposed curbs on access to information needed to fulfill those roles is wrong, Hughes said, and would "strike a negative blow to the heart" of efforts to rebuild public confidence in the system.
By Tuesday, the government had agreed to withdraw the bill. But the affair has, again, left the Liberals looking like bumblers on a critical issue.
Footnote: Hughes also noted the dysfunctional relationship that has evolved between Turpel-Lafond and Lesley du Toit, the deputy minister in charge of the ministry. He offered to play a mediating role; all parties should grab the badly needed help.