Thursday, April 21, 2011

Vancouver's killed casino might be symbol of change

Vancouver council's decision to reject a mega-casino - and the provincial government's muted reaction - might be symbols of change.
The casino project was backed by Gordon Campbell and promoted by Liberal insiders who stood to profit. It was cited as justification for the $563-million new roof for B.C. Place.
But many Vancouver residents were opposed to another 1,500 slots. The health authority thought it would increase addiction and care costs.
And a lot of business owners weren't keen. A B.C. Lotteries study projected that gamblers from the Lower Mainland would lose $580,000 a day in the casino. That's money that wouldn't be spent in bars or movie theatres (or, for some addicts, on food for the family).
Vancouver council voted unanimously against the casino.
If Campbell were still the boss, Vancouver's politicians would have paid a price for defying the government.
Instead, a quick provincial government news release quoted Jobs Minister Pat Bell saying the government "respects the province and Vancouver city council's decision."
And the release put some distance between the current government and Campbell.
"We have a renewed government under the leadership of Premier Christy Clark, and we are going to take a fresh look at options to develop this property," Bell said (he didn't really say it, of course - no one talks like that).
It's a big reversal. In March 2010, Campbell and cabinet ministers Rich Coleman and Kevin Krueger announced the project as a done deal. It would bring economic activity, Campbell said, standing beside the managers from Paragon, the casino's prospective operator.
But the deal quickly raised questions.
Start with the B.C. Place roof project launched in 2008.
PavCo, the Crown corporation that oversaw the $500-million cost overrun on the Vancouver convention centre, put out a request for proposals for a contractor to put a new roof on the stadium on Nov. 3, 2008.
It gave companies two weeks to bid on a project that would end up costing more than $500 million.
That was ludicrous. Companies couldn't possibly prepare competent, competitive bids.
On Nov. 26, nine days after bidding closed, PavCo signed an agreement with PCL Constructors Canada Inc. It took 17 working days to go from the first call for bids to a commitment.
PCL was also the convention centre builder for PavCo. Its regional manager was a big Liberal donor.
PavCo's plan to pay for the roof relied mainly on leasing public land around the stadium for the development.
That money could have been used for needed services or facilities around the province, or to pay down debt. But the government wanted that new stadium roof.
So on March 6, 2009, PavCo put a formal request for "expressions of interest" and gave potential developers just three weeks to respond.
Three weeks to come up with a plan for a big, prime piece of real estate in a desirable city.
PavCo picked qualified contenders and on April 20 called for proposals, giving companies five weeks to put in bids. Again, not much time for a considered approach, or to line up funding.
Only two bids were submitted.
And Paragon's casino plan won.
Paragon had tight ties to the Campbell government. Insider T. Richard Turner is a party donor - he gave the Liberals $50,000 last year - and was appointed chairman of the B.C. Lottery Corp. and ICBC by the Liberals.
Turner was well-enough connected that when the government started getting spooked about the huge cost of a new stadium roof, he called then-tourism minister Kevin Krueger and told him the roof was a "deal-breaker." Build it, or the casino deal wouldn't go ahead.
So the government went ahead with the roof, at a cost of $125 for every person in the province.
Paragon and B.C. Lotteries might be back with a revised plan.
But right now, Vancouver seems to have made a good choice.
And the new Liberal government seems to have accepted it.
Footnote: Who knows, the Clark government may even abandon the plan to work each year to increase both the number of people who gamble in the province and the amount each one loses. Clark did run for office in 2001 on a promise to halt gambling expansion, a promise that was quickly shredded as the Liberals went on a gambling spree.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Don't be quick to underestimate Dix

I've already blown it once when predicting how new NDP leader Adrian Dix would do as a politician.
Back in December 2004, when Dix won an NDP nomination, I wrote that the Liberals should be pleased.
"For Gordon Campbell, it's like Christmas came three weeks early," I wrote. "Figure the Dix nomination is good for a few Liberal wins in close seats, as well as big laugh lines in campaign speeches."
Dix had, after all, been Glen Clark's closest political adviser as the NDP government plummeted in public support,
And after police raided Clark's home, Dix had produced a memo he had written that he said showed Clark had nothing to do with a friend's casino licence application.
The memo was dated almost a year earlier. But Dix had actually written the memo months later, got the office date stamp from a secretary's desk, and rolled the date back. Dix admitted wrongdoing and resigned.
I predicted Dix would be an easy target for Campbell and the Liberals.
And I was dead wrong. Carole James made Dix critic for the children and families ministry. He was by far the most effective New Democrat (helped by Liberal bungling).
Dix had command of the issues, raised them clearly and revealed government incompetence and indifference. He made life heck for Liberal cabinet ministers.
And, most important, actually made things better for kids and families who depended on the ministry.
The lesson is don't underestimate Dix.
The conventional wisdom, following his third-ballot victory, is that Dix isn't a great choice as NDP leader. Too left, too serious, too much baggage. Mike Farnworth or John Horgan would appeal to more voters, the theory goes.
When an election is called, likable Christy Clark will move move the Liberals to the centre, serious Dix will take the NDP to the left. The Liberals will win re-election, because most voters are moderate, the analysis goes.
But you could make an alternate argument that if Farnworth, for example, and Clark were both claiming the centre, voters might see no reason to swap a known quantity for a new governing party with a similar approach.
And, as I learned, it's a mistake to underestimate how much a very smart, hardworking and, perhaps, excessively focused person can accomplish.
Dix has continued to be an effective critic and strong constituency MLA. He championed the fight against school closures in his riding and helped parents mount an effective case.
His challenge - aside from the baggage - will be convincing voters his policies won't hurt the economy.
Still, Liberals are happy he won the leadership. The association with the late-1990s NDP government will hurt Dix, they think.
And Clark will portray him - accurately - as a supporter of having big business pay more in taxes. That will cost jobs and growth, she'll say.
Dix has a chance to present himself as the smart, slightly nerdy guy who will make government think first of how it can make life better for people who live here. Who will spend less time listening to corporations, and more to people. And who can pull the fractious NDP together.
Clark has her own baggage as deputy premier in the early years of the Campbell government, and a less than dazzling track record as a cabinet minister.
And she risks casting herself as the defender of the status quo.
I'm not sure how many people are fond of the status quo in B.C.
I'm also not sure people are ready to take a chance with Dix.
I am sure that my 2004 predictions that Dix would be a liability were wildly wrong.
Most Liberals seem genuinely pleased the New Democrats chose Dix to lead them into an election, likely this fall.
It's far from certain they will be feeling the same way as a September election campaign unfolds.
Footnote: B.C. Conservative leader-in-waiting John Cummins was quick to congratulate Dix. The Conservative impact is still the biggest unknown in the election, with the potential to cost the Liberals votes and seats.
Dix might help Clark in her effort to warn against splitting the centre-right vote.