Saturday, October 30, 2010

If Campbell's Grade 4 pledge is serious...

If Premier Gordon Campbell is serious about his TV pledge to have every Grade 4 student meeting expectations for reading, writing and numeracy within five years and is willing to fund a serious plan, he'll be creating a real legacy.
The Times Colonist looks at the pledge in an editorial today
And even the discussion confirms the usefulness of the FSA tests, as I argued here.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Assembly of First Nations rejects Oppal inquiry

Shawn A-in-chut Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, and Grand Chief Doug Kelly, chairman of the First Nations Health Council, set out the reasons they have decided that Wally Oppal is the wrong person to head the missing women inquiry and why the inquiry itself is inadequate in a piece in the Times Colonist today.

"We must turn these horrific serial murders into a full exploration of how to protect and support women, especially indigenous women," they write.
"We will be left with the most important question - why were the lives of these and so many other indigenous women in Canada not adequately supported, and how could our systems treat them, and others, as something to be thrown away, then put to the bottom of the heap in pursuing their murderers and abusers? Probably because we didn't care enough to make it different.
"We can't let that happen again. Join us in calling for a real inquiry that puts the lives of those victims at the forefront."

This is, I believe, the first time the AFN has presented its position on the inquiry.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A terrible TV night for Campbell

That was a dismal effort on TV by Premier Gordon Campbell. Especially for an address that was crucial to rebuilding Liberal support and slowing the recall movement.
Campbell announced a surprise big income tax cut - 15 per cent on the first $72,000 of income - effective Jan. 1. Someone earning $50,000 a year will save about $7 a week.
The tax cut will knock about $600 million off government revenues.
Two points are relevant about that number.
First, it’s less than one-third of the $1.9 billion in additional taxes imposed on individuals and families by the new HST.
And second, it comes as the government is running deficits and cutting services because revenues are down. People with developmental disabilities are being forced out of group homes they have lived in for years. Seniors are waiting for health care. Schools are closing.
It hardly seems time for a tax cut.
Campbell announced a couple of education initiatives. The government will continue establishing StrongStart early learning centres. They help families prepare infants and young children for school.
It will begin assessing every child entering school for learning issues that can be addressed.
And Campbell made a goofy commitment. Within five years, he guaranteed, every Grade 4 student will meet expectations for reading, writing and math skills. Today, about 20 per cent of students fall short.
That’s a laudable goal. But it’s a ridiculous, empty political promise.
The children who will be in Grade 4 five years from now are about to enter kindergarten. Almost one-third of them, according to the province’s statistics, aren’t ready to succeed. About 20 per cent have spent their childhood in poverty.
Some 40 per cent of aboriginal children aren’t meeting basic skills expectations in Grade 4. How is that to be entirely changed in five years.
It would be wonderful, if Campbell had a plan to deliver on this promise.
But the education budget is set to rise 1.5 per cent next year and is effectively frozen the following year. With no money, how are schools going to improve the skills of thousands of children, many facing big challenges?
A tax cut and empty education promises. Not inspirational.
The largest block of time - and the first part of the speech - was devoted to defending the HST.
But there was nothing new. The Liberals had opposed harmonizing the provincial sales tax with the GST because of fears the freedom to set tax policy would be limited, Campbell said.
Then Ontario negotiated a deal with more flexibility and the federal government offered $1.6 billion if B.C. signed on.
And, said Campbell, the federal government demanded an instant commitment or B.C. would have to wait two years. (No one in the federal government has confirmed that ultimatum.)
“Should we have consulted more - I sure would have liked to,” Campbell said.
But he felt comfortable signing a deal that permanently shifted $1.9 billion in taxes from business to families and individuals without talking to MLAs or the public or doing financial analysis of the impact.
What’s extraordinary is that Campbell, again, didn’t take the chance to say he was sorry. Sorry that he had put Liberal MLAs in a tough spot. Sorry that so many people felt abused by the government.
Instead he suggested the problem was that British Columbians are just too dim.
Campbell said he talked to a businessman who had some trucks as part of the operation. He was “really upset” because the HST added seven per cent to the cost of his haircut
“But I pointed to the truck in his lot and I said ‘You see that truck over there?’‟
“And he says, ‘Yep’ and I said, “you‟re saving about $5,000 on that truck.‟
“And he said, “I never thought of that.‟
That’s Campbell’s world. Any day, British Columbians will slap themselves on the forehead and say, “Yep, I never thought of that.”
Footnote: It’s hard to say why taxpayers should pay for this TV address. Campbell’s first televised speech to the province as premier, back in 2002, was paid for by the Liberal party. There was nothing in this message that could not have been delivered by press release Or, in the case of the tax cut, in the legislature.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Meet the new cabinet, much like the old cabinet

Cabinet shuffles are mostly political. It's not about the ministers or the government structure. It's the equivalent of designing a new detergent package with big blue letters saying "New, Improved."
Even if the detergent is not much changed. There is only one new minister, Stephanie Cadieux, in community, sport and cultural development. No one was fired. Mostly it's the same crew in slightly modified roles.
There are a couple of significant changes.
George Abbott moves from aboriginal relations to education. Abbott has been in health too, so he's handled tough assignments. They haven't gone wrong, but it's hard to point to big accomplishments.
Premier Gordon Campbell wants to make education and the economy defining issues. So Abbott is going to face big challenges in managing change to the school system while facing well-organized interest groups, from the B.C. Teachers Federation to school trustees.
The other big changes come in the resource ministries. Those are tough to understand.
Basically, Pat Bell is responsible for forests, mining and lands. That adds mining to his former responsibilities, which could make sense. It provides a ministry focused on maximizing forestry and mining opportunities, which should be good for resource-based communities.
But there is also a minister of natural resource operations, Steve Thomson, and a junior minister for mining, Randy Hawes. (Plus Bill Bennett as the energy minister.)
So if you have a great mining opportunity, who do you call - Bell, Thomson, Hawes? Or all three? And how do government employees figure out who does what (especially over the next six months as this all gets sorted out)?
There are other interesting appointments. Rich Coleman is back as solicitor general, but keeps housing because he likes it.
Coleman's former responsibility for income assistance and cuts to services for developmentally disabled adults moves to Kevin Krueger, new minister for social development. Krueger's record in arts and tourism suggest that will end in tears.
The biggest change comes in the premier's office. Martyn Brown, Campbell's chief of staff for more than a dozen years, is out. Paul Taylor is in.
You won't find a more powerful job in most governments. Premiers have a deputy minister, charged with managing the public service and a chief of staff to direct the political agenda, manage the message and make sure the party gets re-elected.
Brown was Campbell's guy through three election wins. But part of the job is taken the fall when things go wrong. So Brown is off to a nice job as deputy minister of tourism, trade and investment. (A softer landing, at public expense, than most of his counterparts experience.)
You can't fault the decision. The Liberals have had an awful go wrong. Their communication strategy has been dreadful. They can't keep doing the same things.
So Taylor takes over his job.
It's interesting that Campbell turned back to a familiar figure. Taylor has been one of the most influential managers in Alberta and B.C for almost two decades. After Ralph Klein took power in 1992, Taylor came up with the plan to cut spending.
Campbell recruited him to do the same thing in this province. Taylor did the work for seven years, then Campbell appointed him to run ICBC in 2004. He left that job in April 2008, to run NaiKun Wind Energy Group, which hoped to score big green energy deals with B.C. Hydro.
That didn't work out. Taylor left NaiKun in June. The company was worth about $100 million when he arrived, and less than $8 million when he left, as B.C. Hydro shunned the wind-power proposals. (Which should be reassuring - Taylor's connections didn't help.)
Same people, yet another round of tinkering with ministry responsibilities, even more odd positions - Naomi Yamamoto is minister for building code renewal and John Les gets an extra $15,000 as parliamentary secretary in charge of selling the HST.
That's the other thing with shuffles. They never do bring the benefits the leaders hope for.
Footnote: Hours after the shuffle, Bill Bennett offered a rare internal critique. The overhaul of resource ministries was made without any consultation with caucus or the ministers, he said. When the government is so unpopular it's time to start involving people in decisions, Bennett said.

Monday, October 25, 2010

A resource perspective on the cabinet shuffle

I'll do a column on the changes announced by the premier, but there's some interesting initial reaction here.
Bernard Von Schulmann's work as a consultant is mostly about resource development in B.C. He's one of a small number of knowledgeable commentators.
If he's puzzled by the cabinet changes, especially around the "dirt industries," the government has to explain quickly how this will work and result in more economic activity outside B.C.'s urban centres.