Friday, July 09, 2010

HST ad-cost secrecy a Liberal self-inflicted wound

Poor Colin Hansen. Being the front man for the harmonized sales tax is a wretched job that seems to get worse every day.
Now that the anti-HST petition signatures are being counted, the government is launching its ad campaign to try and sell the tax. It's running radio ads around the province over the next three weeks and plans to mail flyers to every one of B.C.'s 1.7 million households.
But as the campaign lurched out of the starting gate, Hansen was back on the defensive.
What will the radio ads cost, reporters asked. I don't know, he said.
What about the flyer? I don't know that either, Hansen responded.
He was involved in planning the strategy and the messaging, Hansen acknowledged. But he doesn't know what it is costing taxpayers.
Which leaves the public to consider two options. Hansen doesn't pay much attention to how their money is spent. Or he's determined to keep it a secret in case people get angry about the expense.
The second is the correct answer, I'd say. As health minister, Hansen was amazingly well-informed on all aspects of the ministry, including the financial ones.
If he doesn't know what these campaigns cost, it's because the Public Affairs Bureau, finance ministry staff and Hansen decided it was best that he didn't. That way, he could avoid questions about the costs.
So as they met to develop the marketing plans, Hansen was careful never to say, "hey, what's this going to cost, anyway?" And the staff took care not to volunteer the information.
It's a dumb strategy. The Globe and Mail headline was "Liberals refuse to disclose costs of HST ads." A National Post online column was headlined "B.C. Liberals' HST amateur hour routine." Critics were quick to suggest Hansen was either not being honest or irresponsible in approving campaigns costing millions of dollars without knowing the price tag.
The Liberals have, despite all the open and transparent talk, always refused to reveal the cost of ad campaigns. The information would be available in the annual financial reports, they said.
So a year from now, taxpayers might be able to figure out how much they paid for the ads and the flyers about the HST.
It's hard to see how refusing to provide the information helps the Liberals. If they came clean, some people might be angry at the cost. But this approach means people can be angry about the cost and the secrecy.
This is also about what's right. You would expect a government, spending taxpayers' money, would be open.
That's what Gordon Campbell demanded in opposition. Ads promoting the NDP governments and their policies were "disgusting," he said.
When the government was slow to say what the campaigns cost, Campbell was furious. "The taxpayers who are funding this latest exercise in NDP election propaganda deserve to know the full cost, in terms of preparation, production and distribution," he said.
But that was then. Now secrecy is OK. (It is worth noting that the NDP lost, spectacularly, the next election.)
Hansen said he wasn't interested in the cost, as long as the Public Affairs Bureau stayed within its budget for the year.
But two days later, he announced a lower-than-forecast deficit for the last fiscal year because the government, thanks to "unprecedented" spending scrutiny, had spent $833 million less than projected.
But the scrutiny apparently doesn't extend to PR campaign costs.
Meanwhile, the anti-HST battle is also moving to the courts with a legal challenge to the tax.
The government passed a bill eliminating the provincial sales tax. But, unlike other provinces, there was no debate or vote on the new tax.
I might have been inclined to dismiss the challenge. But the lawyer is Joe Arvay, former general counsel for the attorney general's ministry. Arvay is recognized as a top constitutional lawyer.
Footnote: The public accounts this week revealed the government spent $37 million on the "You gotta be there" Olympic ads. Bob Mackin of 24 Hours obtained government documents that said "voting age" British Columbians were a key target audience and the campaigns were to include "special Premier-focused promotions." Which sounds much like Liberal party advertising, paid for by taxpayers.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Canada's invisible quote

You have seen it hundreds, thousands, of times, but never taken notice.
"Could we ever know each other in the slightest without the arts?"
- Gabrielle Roy

Where? See here.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

How much damage is a mine worth? (Not a rhetorical question)

How much environmental damage is justified as a trade-off for the jobs and revenue from a big new open-pit mine?
The proposed Prosperity gold and copper mine about 125 kilometres southwest of Williams Lake would mean about 375 jobs and $20 million a year in revenue for the provincial government. Good news.
And it would require turning a lake into a tailings dump and have "significant adverse environmental effects on fish and fish habitat, navigation, on the current use of lands and resources for traditional purposes by First Nations," according to a federal environmental review. Aboriginal rights and a grizzly population might be at risk. Bad news.
So what's your decision - approve the mine, or reject it?
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the federal cabinet will face that question in the next few months.
It's a pivotal moment for B.C. And the Prosperity file is an illustration of how poorly the current approval process serves the public interest.
There's a bit of irony in all this. The mining industry has worked hard to improve its image. Too hard, perhaps. It's painted a soft-focus picture of deer grazing amidst the pines on a former mine site. That's what people now expect.
Really, mines almost always mean environmental damage. (So do the communities we live in and airplanes.)
Unless you're prepared to say B.C. is off limits to new mines, the issue should be balance. What's the public benefit - jobs, government revenue, opportunities for new businesses - and what are the costs?
Taseko Mines has been in the approval process since 1995 and has spent about $100 million to get this far. It wants to dig a big open-pit mine over 20 years, then let it fill up with water. A trout lake would be turned into a tailings dump, to be replaced ultimately by a new man-made lake. There would be a mill, roads and a 125-kilometre power line cut through the forest.
Taseko figures it can take $3 billion worth of gold and copper out of the mine over 20 years and produce a 40-per-cent pretax return. The public, which owns the minerals, gets $400 million. (That's one of the places where the process breaks down.)
The B.C. government's environmental assessment process was completed late last year; in January, Environment Minister Barry Penner and then-mines minister Blair Lekstrom said the project should go ahead.
But he federal review rejected some of the key conclusions of the provincial assessment, especially around First Nations' rights. (The governments have been talking about creating a single process; this project raises questions about what standards would be in place - Ottawa's, or the apparently more relaxed provincial rules.)
One missing element is a chance to adjust the deal to get the best deal for the public.
Taseko could build a tailings pond instead of destroying the lakes, for example, though that would add to the $800-million project cost.
Or the company could attempt to address First Nations' concerns through economic measures.
Taseko maintains the federal cabinet will approve the project.
But the company's shareholders appear less confident. The stock plummeted after the federal panel report; it's still down about 20 per. The value of the company has dropped by about $165 million.
The concern doesn't just reflect the uncertainty around federal government approval. First Nations have promised to fight the mine in the courts. The federal environmental assessment report gives them useful ammunition.
There is no easy response to this kind of proposal. The region is facing tough economic times for decades, in part because of the pine beetle disaster. The jobs would be welcome.
And the mining industry will likely say B.C. is a bad place to invest if approval isn't granted.
Two elements are missing from this process: Greater transparency in the way politicians make the final decisions and more opportunities for negotiated steps to balance the costs and benefits.
Footnote: Here's an indication of the uncertainty around the assessment. The CBC report was headlined "Panel sees BC mine as environmental threat." The Vancouver Sun said "Federal panel remains neutral on proposed Prosperity mine." And the Globe and Mail headline was "Environmental review puts future of BC copper-gold mine in doubt."

Monday, July 05, 2010

Some good news on addicton, crime and mental illness

There is much encouraging in this report on an effort in Victoria to reduce the number of people with addictions and mental illness caught in a perpetual, stupid relationship with the criminal justice system.
Perhaps most usefully, the integrated court project is a reminder that individuals can — and are — finding ways to make progress.