Friday, May 28, 2010

Poverty meeting leaves premier looking bad

Liberal MLA Joan McIntyre didn't likely intend to take a shot at Premier Gordon Campbell.
But she did.
McIntyre chairs the legislative committee on children and youth, which held a session on child poverty this week. It was the premier's idea, sort of.
Last June, Representative for Children and Youth Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond asked for a meeting with Campbell and NDP leader Carole James to talk about child poverty.
B.C. has had the highest proportion of children living in poverty in Canada for the last six years, Statistics Canada reports. The recession likely increased the problems. The meeting, Turpel-Lafond said, would allow a non-partisan discussion of what is being done, and could be done, to help children.
"The premier and the opposition leader need to sit down together and think about how we're going to work on the child-poverty issue," Turpel-Lafond said. "Are we addressing it? Are we doing enough? Can we do more and work more collaboratively on it?"
The goal was action. "The issues are quite daunting, but I think good people working together can make change," she said.
James said yes. Campbell refused. He didn't want the issue to be politicized, he said. And the children's representative reports to the legislative committee. She should take up the issue there.
The result was this week's meeting.
But McIntyre's introduction set out clearly - even painfully - how little resemblance the session bore to the meeting sought by the representative almost a year ago.
McIntyre said she wanted to take time to make sure people didn't have "unrealistic expectations" about the outcome. The committee's focus is "strictly" on children at risk or receiving services from the government.
"I also wanted to clarify that developing a strategy or even providing a written analysis does go beyond our terms of reference and crosses over into the realm of government policy making," she said.
So the experts could talk. The MLAs could ask questions. The transcript would go up on a website.
But there would be no action, no recommendation, no report, not even a summary.
It's an anemic interpretation of the committee's role. Its mandate includes increasing awareness about the child welfare system. A report on the impact of poverty could be part of that role.
And it makes the premier's refusal to meet look entirely unjustified.
Especially as the alternative he suggested - going to the committee - was apparently guaranteed to produce no concrete results.
That's too bad. The risks of the meeting were minor and entirely political. The representative might point out problems Campbell would rather not see. James might use the occasion for partisan advantage.
The problems are real. StatsCan has reported B..C. has the highest rate of child poverty in Canada for six straight years. Any improvements have not been great enough to change that standing. (Poverty definitions are tricky; but StatsCan was comparing provinces using a standard approach.)
Across Canada in 2007, 9.5 per cent of children were poor. In B.C., 13 per cent of the children fell below the poverty line. That's some 126,000 children.
There's a good moral objection to needlessly subjecting children to a life of poverty in such a wealthy and skilled province.
There is also a strong pragmatic one. We love rags to riches stories because they are encouraging. But we pay attention to them because they are rare.
Children who start poor tend to stay poor. Poor children have less success in school and are less healthy.
That's not genetic or an indicator that poor parents do a bad job. It's a reflection of poor living conditions, inadequate nutrition and a host of other factors. Research indicates that poverty even affects brain development.
By leaving children in poverty, we are increasing the risk of a tougher adult life for them. And we are guaranteeing higher costs for society in future, while squandering a chance to benefit from these peoples' fullest contributions.
The government doesn't want to commit to a plan on child poverty.
But surely a meeting with the children's representative shouldn't have been impossible.
Footonote: The presentations to the committee were excellent, on everything from the costs of childhood poverty to plans in other provinces to measures that could provide immediate benefits. I'll present some of the highlights in a coming column.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Things get very complicated if HST petition passes

Even if the anti-HST initiative gets the required number of signatures, there is no guarantee the tax is dead.
The initiative process isn't binding on government. Although it's hard to see how the Liberals could simply ignore a successful campaign.
The anti-HST forces reported hitting another milestone this week. They have reached the required threshold in 83 of 85 provincial constituencies, with six weeks to go in their drive.
If they get the signatures of 10 per cent of eligible voters in every riding - which looks highly likely - the process hits the next stage.
Here's how it works.
The petitions have to be submitted to Elections B.C. by July 5. The agency has six weeks to verify the names and rule that the initiative succeeded or failed. (The six previous efforts all failed.)
That could take until Aug. 16.
If the initiative is successful, the petition and a draft bill eliminating the HST go to the legislative initiatives committee of the legislature. That's made up of four New Democrats and six Liberals. It's chaired by Kamloops Liberal MLA Terry Lake; more than 10,000 people have signed the petition in his riding.
The committee has to meet within 30 days and reach a decision within 90 days - say by mid-November.
It has two options. It can send the bill to kill the HST to the legislature. It could be debated in the fall, or put off until next spring.
Or it can send the issue back to Elections B.C. for a province-wide vote. That would be held Sept. 24, 2011.
The vote is no sure thing. The initiative legislation requires support from 50 per cent of registered voters province-wide and 50 per cent of registered voters in two-thirds of ridings.
That's a tough test. The requirement is a majority of registered voters, not just of those who participate. In the 2009 election, there were three million registered voters in the province; only 1.65 million people actually cast ballots.
If it does pass, then the bill to kill the HST has to be introduced in the legislature.
Note that the requirement in both cases is only that the bill be introduced, not that it be passed. The Liberals could decide to amend or defeat it. Or to stall.
The political calculations must be giving strategists terrible headaches.
Start with the most basic question - whether to accept the initiative as a legitimate expression of the public will and eliminate the HST.
Business would be irked. The province wouldn't get the $1.6 billion over three years the federal government is paying to encourage adoption of the tax. And the Liberals would be dealt a public rebuke.
All with no guarantee voters would be forgiving in 2013 when the next election rolls around.
The temptation might be to stick with the tax.
The Liberals might be considering forcing a provincial vote on the initiative and hope it fails. But that would anger the people who oppose the tax.
And if the initiative passes in the vote, the government would have even less time before the next election to try to repair the damage.
It gets more complicated, because the anti-HST forces don't have to sit quietly by and wait for the government to decide.
They are already talking about "Recall in the Fall" if the government doesn't respond to the campaign by killing the tax. It takes signatures from 40 per cent of registered voters to recall an MLA and force a byelection.
Given the organization in place, that seems possible in many ridings. In Lake's riding, for example, 32 per cent of people have already signed the anti-HST petition.
There are many twists, turns and calculations ahead. So far, the Liberals show no sign of changing direction on the tax.
But the box is growing tighter each day. And none of the exits look appealing.
Footnote: Premier Gordon Campbell defended the tax Monday in the legislature, maintaining it would create jobs and opportunities for future generations. The problem is that he is effectively telling a majority of British Columbians that he is smarter than they are.