Friday, December 24, 2010

Abbott's third place could be a good position

With the first lap of the Liberal leadership race done, George Abbott is looking a reasonable bet to be B.C.'s next premier.
Which is probably a bad thing for the struggling New Democrats.
Abbott, education minister before entering the race, isn't a front runner. He and Mike de Jong, who stepped down as attorney general. are tied for third, according to the latest Angus Reid Public Opinion Poll.
Christy Clark has the big lead. She quit cabinet in 2004 and didn't run in 2005, when the Liberals won their second term. Being out of government for five years, she can't be blamed for the HST and other problems. She's a skilled politician and has been a CKNW talk show host with a high profile in the Lower Mainland.
And she's ahead in the race. The poll found 46 per cent of British Columbians identified her as a good choice to be the next Liberal leader. That climbs to 66 per cent among Liberal voters.
Kevin Falcon, most recently health minister, is in second with the support of 28 per cent of the public and 45 per cent of Liberal voters.
And Abbott and de Jong are tied with the support of 25 per cent of the public and 33 per cent of Liberal voters. (Dr. Moira Stilwell, the fifth entrant, is at 10 per cent with both groups.)
There haven't been many big ideas in the campaign. All the candidates offer varying degrees of support for a higher minimum wage and an earlier referendum on the HST. Mike de Jong proposed lowering the voting age to 16. Falcon wants to make it easier to get farmland in the northeast out of the agricultural land reserve. Clark wants to look at an earlier election.
Four of the five candidates say they'll restore some of the cut gambling grants to charities, arts groups and community organizations, which is puzzling since three of the four were part of the government that made the cuts.
It's early in the campaign, of course. And a lot of the candidates' efforts now are targeted winning at influential Liberals and signing up new party members.
Every one who joins by Jan. 14 gets a vote in the Feb. 26 leadership election. Candidates are racing to sign up a lot of supporters.
The party will likely opt for a voting system that reduces the impact of mass sign-ups in urban areas. Every constituency will have 100 votes. They will be apportioned to reflect the voting of party members in the constituency. (So if there are 750 members in a riding, and 150 vote Christy Clark, she gets 20 leadership votes.)
The vote will also use some form of a preferential ballot, in which party members rank candidates. If no one gets a majority in the first count, the voters' second choices are considered.
Depending on the ultimate decision on rules, that could be good news for Abbott.
The provincial Liberals are a coalition, a political home for federal Conservatives, Liberals and even a few New Democrats. One of Gordon Campbell's accomplishments was keeping everyone united.
Clark is a federal Liberal; Falcon is seen as the choice of the federal Conservative faction.
The two camps have to play nice, thanks in part to the preferential ballot system. Slag the other candidate and you stand no chance of emerging as the second choice of his or her supporters.
Depending on how the preferential ballots are counted - that hasn't been settled - the divide between the Clark and Falcon camps could be a boost for Abbott. He could emerge as the compromise candidate to avoid a divided party.
Which is probably bad news for New Democrats. Both Clark and Falcon would have significant weaknesses in an election campaign. Falcon leans to the party's right and could alienate moderate voters; Clark had a spotty record during her three years in cabinet and is carrying some B.C. Rail baggage.
Abbott's third-place position isn't so bad.
Footnote: No candidates have entered the NDP leadership race. The Angus Reid poll found Mike Farnworth is the favorite choice, with 40 per cent of British Columbians and half of NDP voters saying he would be a good choice to replace Carole James. Adrian Dix is second, favoured by 24 per cent of the public 37 per cent of NDP voters.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Political control of coroners needs review

I’m often baffled that MLAs don’t seem to push for the tools to do their jobs more effectively.
The current debate over the independence and effectiveness of the B.C. Coroners Service offers a good example.
Dr. Diane Rothon just quit or was fired as chief coroner after nine months on the job. She has said only that she had a disagreement with the government about the direction of the coroner’s service.
The Times Colonist has been digging a little deeper and found two likely issues — political interference and budget cuts making it impossible for the coroners service to do its job.
The work is important. The service is charged with investigating all “unnatural, unexpected, unexplained or unattended deaths.” Its job is to get the facts - who died, and how and why.
That’s important for families. And the reports help a whole range of organizations prevent future deaths.
In some cases, the coroner also calls inquests - a formal hearing, in front of a five-person jury, which is charged with finding the facts and make recommendations that could save lives in the future.
The work can be controversial. Inquests can highlight government failures or underfunding that costs lives. Recommendations can challenge the status quo and call for action that agencies resist.
The service also produces reports on broader issues — the deaths of children in the government’s care, for example, or youth suicide.
That’s why independence is important. Getting at the truth and making recommendations without political influence is central to the work of the coroner.
But the Times Colonist found three former chief coroners — including Terry Smith, who had the post from 2001 until 2009 - believe the service does not have the needed autonomy to do the work properly. It’s under undue government influence.
The service, for example, is under orders to submit its reports to the government’s political communications arm, the public affairs bureau, before they are released.
At the least, that order gives the government time to plan the best way to spin the report when it is released. But it also raises the spectre of greater influence — of pressure to change the contents of the report before it is made public.
There is an obvious solution. Smith says the government should consider making the coroner an independent officer of the legislature, removing the service from direct political control. “I think in order to have an effective Coroners Service, it needs to have a much higher level of independence," said Smith, who had eight often difficult years in the job. (The proposal is supported by Children and Families Representative Mary ETurpel-Lafond.)
That seems a sensible, practical change. Independent officers - like the children’s representative, information commissioner and auditor general - don’t report to a government minister. They report to committees of MLAs with representatives from all parties. They are, to a significant extent, insulated from political pressure.
MLAs from all parties also review and set the independent officers’ budgets. That makes it harder for politicians to use funding cuts to punish or silence agencies.
The coroners service, for example, has seen its staff fall from 91 in 2007-08 to 81 today. Its budget has been cut 18 per cent in two years and more cuts are likely ahead. The Child Death Review Unit, set up as a result of the Hughes report, is threatened.
Solicitor General Rich Coleman dismisses all the concerns. The service has plenty of independence and can handle the budget cuts, he says.
But simply saying something doesn’t make it so. Three former chief coroners - the people who did the work - say the service doesn’t have the required independence.
At the least, that should be enough to force an outside review of the issues.
It’s surprising that MLAs, given the importance of the work, aren’t calling for a review that might lead to a greater role for them in an area of importance to their constituents.
Footnote: The review should also look at the appropriate qualifications for coroners, especially chief coroners. Most provinces have placed doctors in the top job. B.C., until Rothon’s appointment, has generally opted for chief coroners without medical qualifications, often with a policing background.