Thursday, July 14, 2011

Clark’s stumbles raise political questions

So how’s Christy Clark doing, after four months as premier? That’s a big question for the Liberals. If Clark is doing well, they can afford to delay an election. If not, a fall election is in the cards.
Only a few people know how effective Clark has been in getting the right things done in government - MLAs, deputy ministers, and those affected by government decisions.
Most of us form opinions on what we read about her performance, or see on the news, or our vague sense of what she’s done.
And the media narrative seems to be turning a bit negative.
Clark started well, but that was easy. She just had to not be Gordon Campbell.
So Clark raised the minimum wage - a good and overdue step. She fired both the minister and the top manager in the children and families ministry. She ordered a review of B.C. Hydro’s politically ordered, expensive plans. And she floated a proposal to save the HST, acknowledging the Liberals had been planning to gouge families and benefit corporations.
And she was likable, donning a Canucks’ jersey and just being darn enthusiastic. Clark is a an excellent politician. She sounds good, if you don’t listen too hard.
But the tide seemed to shift last month.
First, Clark sent an unclear message after the Stanley Cup riots. She was hardline initially. “If you are responsible, we will hold you responsible. Your family, friends and employers will know," she said. "We will ensure we have the resources to do this. You will not be able to hide behind your hoodie or your bandana." Get ready for a jail cell, Clark said.
Then she backtracked. The target was a “core” group of instigators, not young people who just got caught “when they were most likely to make a colossal, irreparable mistake.”
Then Clark floated weird ideas for Senate reform in her first official Ottawa visit.
B.C. is shortchanged in the Senate. The province, with 4.5 million people, is represented by six senators. New Brunswick, with 750,000 people, has 10. But fixing the imbalance requires a change to the constitution, virtually impossible given the amending formula and the opposition of provinces that would lose seats.
In Ottawa, Clark said her first choice is abolition. But she had lawyers looking at whether senators could be added for B.C. without changing the constitution, she said.
That’s a nonstarter, experts agree. Adding senators is clearly a constitutional change.
Later, Clark said she had floated a different idea with Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He should leave Senate seats vacant in Atlantic Canada and Quebec so B.C. and other under-represented provinces would have more clout.
The ideas was widely derided as goofy and legally dubious. What prime minister would rile voters in five provinces by deliberately failing to appoint the senators they were entitled to under the constitution?
This week, Clark stumbled on a plan to use a gas tax increase to help pay for a new transit line in the Lower Mainland. Mayors had negotiated the plan and Transportation Minister Blair Lekstrom said the province backed it.
But in a press conference Monday, Clark suggested she might veto the gas tax.
“When British Columbians say that they’re not really excited about paying more gas taxes, I get that,” Clark said. “Because my focus as premier is about how do we make life more affordable for people rather than less affordable.”
By Wednesday, Lekstrom was smoothing the waters and assuring the mayors it was all a misunderstanding.
On one hand, it’s welcome to have a politician willing to stray from carefully crafted and often meaningless talking points. Voters might find some candour, even thinking out loud, welcome.
But the risk is that Clark will be seen as a policy lightweight given to speaking and acting without sufficient thought, and at risk of making big mistakes.
In politics, unfortunately, it’s tough to shake that kind of image once it takes hold.
Footnote: The HST referendum remains the big election factor. If the HST is dumped, the next question will be how many of the former PST exemptions will be cancelled as the government looks to increase revenue. Those decisions could rekindle all the original anti-HST anger and more.

A child's death, a nation's shame

The Times Colonist looked at the shooting death of a five-year-old boy on an Alberta reserve today. The statistical portrait of reserve life was striking and horrifying.

"Consider the numbers. Ethan Yellowbird was a member of the Samson nation. His grandfather is chief. According to the 2006 census, about 3,300 people lived on the reserve. The median age was 20; 37 per cent of the population was under 15.

There were 765 families on the reserve - couples, with or without children, and single parents. And 345 of them, or 45 per cent, were single-parent families. That's more than three times the rate for the rest of the province.

The median family income was $19,776, compared with the Alberta median of $73,823.

The unemployment rate was 27 per cent. Thirty-four per cent of residents over 15 had a high school education or better, compared with 76 per cent of Albertans.

The numbers offer a limited portrait of a struggling community - poor, undereducated and underemployed.

And the large numbers of young people growing up without hope of a better future suggest decades of struggle ahead."

You can read the rest here.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Gambling grant review long overdue

Governments love charities as props whenever they want to expand gambling.
They use them to legitimize what is, overall, a destructive industry. As Gordon Campbell said, before he launched the biggest gambling expansion in B.C.'s history, the only way governments make money from gambling is by creating losers. The B.C. government shouldn't be creating a province of losers, he said.
Governments - Socred, NDP, Liberal - always used the fact that charities get a share of gambling revenues to justify new ways of plucking the public's wallets.
Once the plan is in place, they begin to forget about the charities and grab more and more cash for their own revenues.
There are periodic backlashes. One of the biggest came in 2009, when the government chopped grants to non-profits around the province by 23 per cent. The pool of money went from $156 million to $120 million without warning, consultation or, apparently, a whole lot of thought.
When Christy Clark took over as premier, she added $15 million to last year's grants. But this year, it's once again cut to $120 million.
Clark announced a review of the gambling grants Tuesday, to be headed by Skip Triplett, a consultant and former college president. He's supposed to consult around the province and report by Oct. 31 on better ways of doing the grants.
He is to look at everything - the levels of funding, the criteria, the application process.
The review is overdue. Charities have been getting pushed around on gambling revenue since at least the 1970s. They originally sold lottery tickets in the province, earning commission on the sales that supported their activities. The government pushed them out to make more money.
They ran casinos and bingos, but were shoved out of those activities as well, with the promise that their revenues would be protected. That sparked a lot of fighting when the promise was broken. In 1997, the association representing non-profits that had been involved in gambling signed an agreement with government guaranteeing them 33 per cent of gambling revenues.
If the deal had been kept, charities would be getting about $400 million a year today, not $120 million.
But the Liberals said they wouldn't honour the written agreement.
This year, the government expects to make about $1.2 billion from gambling - lotteries, casinos and online betting. (Which works out to an astonishing $265 in gambling losses for every man, woman and child in the province.)
Non-profits will get $120 million from gambling grants. Communities that have casinos and gambling centres will share $82 million, an incentive to encourage them to accept businesses unpopular with many residents.
And the government will keep the rest - about $1 billion.
The grants are vital to most of the approximately 6,000 organizations that get some funding under the program. School parent advisory councils get $20 per student, for example. Ski patrols, community youth programs, patient support groups, arts organizations - the list is long. The average grant is about $20,000.
The money is never their sole source of income. They fundraise on top of the contributions. But the grants provide a critical support.
There are always grants that could be questioned, by at least some people. But a closer look generally finds the groups are doing useful work.
The review could be useful as well, though many of the needed improvements to the program are obvious. The funding is almost always year-to-year, for example. Multi-year agreements - assuming outcomes are met - would allow much better planning.
The grant criteria are subject to arbitrary changes at any time. When the government chopped grants in 2009, for example, it took particular aim at grants to arts organizations.
The review should be helpful. The grants are part of the justification for expanding gambling. They make a significant difference in communities across the province. It's past time for a proper policy.
Footnote: It's puzzling that MLAs couldn't have done much of this work. The legislature rarely sits and they are supposed to be aware of the opinions of people in their constituencies. At a minimum, they could have reduced the need for provincewide consultations.