Friday, December 30, 2011

Big life changes and a wish for the new year

I’ve been urging the same New Year’s resolution in columns for 10 years now. Which means it’s great, or I’m unimaginative.
I’m living the resolution right now, and lean toward the former explanation.
We’re heading to Honduras for a year or two in the coming weeks, and who knows where after that, which means quitting my job, getting rid of almost all our stuff and taking a leap into a new and somewhat scary world.
All of which forces me to pay attention, the resolution I’ve been suggesting every year in columns since 2001. 
We worry, we dream, we plan, and life flies by without really paying attention to what matters, the people we love, even ourselves. We miss a lot while we’re worrying about past mistakes or future opportunities.
But leaving behind a life, like a snake shedding its skin, forces you to pay attention to so many things.
In the summer, my partner and I applied for Cuso International postings. She was offered a place in Honduras, I was offered one in Ghana. For a variety of reasons, we picked Honduras.
It’s been interesting, and unexpected. We’ve been through an assessment day to judge if we were good candidates. We’ve spent a week in Ottawa, with an interesting group of people bound for postings in Africa and Latin and South America, in a great orientation course.
And we’ve been getting ready. We rent, so that’s one less complication. But we’ve been sorting and dumping stuff, a painful process, at least for me. Those old maps could be the start of an art project. The TransCanada Airline plates might be valuable. The Celestion 33 speakers are classics. I spent a fortune on art supplies. What if I need a good suit someday?
Mostly though, after a painful process, I’ve let go of things. Someone else can use the art supplies, and I can buy a new suit if I want one.
It helps that a lot of the stuff is junk. Junk I love, sometimes, but not worth anything. The desk/art table I’m writing on was declared surplus in a newspaper some 50 years ago. It’s oak, heavy, austere. Perfect for writing morning pages in south Oak Bay, or making prints in Gordon Head. I won’t find another like it.
But I’ll find some other table I like when I need one. A card table, a door on sawhorses. Who knows?
All the things that matter have associations with people I’ve cared about. That’s adds stress when it comes to shedding them, but it has been good to think about all those who have touched my life in a way that is important many years later. And it’s a reminder that whatever comes next will be linked to people I love.
My partner in life, and this adventure, Jody Paterson, has had an easier time. She’s better at paying attention now, and not worrying about what was or might be.
Despite all the stress, and the occasional crisis, it’s been good. I’ve paid attention. Change does that.
But you can choose to pay attention even if you aren’t making big life changes.
Ten years ago, here’s what I wrote.
“Today, pay attention. Pay attention to the way your lover or friend or reflection looks this evening, to the way your child holds her head as she listens to the story that will ultimately stop too soon. Pay attention to the small yellow light from a candle warming your living room and the cold, bright light from a handful of stars in the clear night sky. Pay attention to what you have, and what you long for.
“So today, and the next day and the day after that, open your eyes.
“Making this world a little better is within our individual grasps. We are fundamentally decent, I believe that. When we finally see the problems of those around us, we will act.
“This year, simply pay attention.”
It’s good advice, I think, and not a hard resolution to adopt. Give it a try in the new year.
Footnote: For more on our plans, check out the link “Heading to Honduras” on the upper right.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Progress Board gives Liberal decade a middling grade

The Progress Board, set up by Gordon Campbell in 2002 to report on how the government is doing and killed by Christy Clark last year, went out with a bang.
The board’s final report this month compared B.C.’s performance on key indicators with its standing in 2000.
It wasn’t a flattering report card for the Liberal government. The province actually slid backward in its economic ranking over the decade, and remained mired in ninth place for social conditions.
The Progress Board was a noble effort. Campbell set up the independent panel to devise measurable standards that could be used to monitor the province’s progress each year. They looked at ways of assessing B.C.’s performance on the economy, health outcomes, environment and social conditions and prepared special reports on key issues.
And the board set goals. It concluded that B.C. should aim to stay in first place for environmental quality and health outcomes — where it was in 2000 — and to rise to first or second place in the other categories by 2010.
It was an ambitious target, but the Liberals embraced it.
The performance has fallen well short of the lofty goals.
B.C. remains in first place among provinces for health outcomes and environmental measurements. (Which, considering all the criticism of the Liberals’ environmental policies, should hearten them.)
But it was ranked fourth for the strength of its economy in 2000; now it has slid a place to rank fifth.
British Columbians had the third⊇highest personal income in 2000; the province had slipped to fourth place by 2010.
The province ranked fifth for employment in 2000; it had fallen two places to seventh by 2010.
And it remained the second worst jurisdiction in Canada for social conditions. B.C. has the highest proportion of its citizens living in poverty, or at least below StatsCan’s low-income cutoff level. When the Liberals took over, the province was in sixth place.
That doesn’t mean that the economy or employment hadn’t grown, or that there had been no improvement in social conditions. Other provinces have just improved at the same rate, or faster, so B.C. lost ground.
Still, the goal was to rise to first or second place in these categories by 2010. Instead, the economic rankings worsened.
The point of using rankings, rather than absolute measures, was to get some idea how the government and B.C. were doing relative to other provinces.
The goal wasn’t to be an average government, but to manage in a way that produced better results here than in other provinces. That hasn’t happened. In fact, B.C. went backward in some key measures.
It’s unfortunate Clark has killed the Progress Board, replacing it with something called the Jobs and Investment Board. It’s unclear if the new body will continue monitoring performance using the same broad range of publicly available measures. Its focus is narrower, with no obvious interest in health, the environment or social conditions.
The results in its final report certainly don’t paint a glowing picture of a province being managed more competently than any other. There’s nothing wrong with being average, but it’s not much to boast about.
That’s a problem for the Liberals, who have been trying to contrast their record with the “decade of decline” under the NDP in the 1990s.
The New Democrat government of the late 1990s was remarkably inept, with a series of largely empty announcements substituting for any coherent, consistent policy direction.
The Progress Board report, though, confirms that the Liberals haven’t been any great shakes at managing the province either, based on the actual results during their tenure. (Partly, that may confirm that government actions are much less significant than they like to claim.)
Political parties often like to run on their opponents’ records. It’s a lower standard to meet — we might not be good, they say, but the other guys are worse. We’ll be hearing a lot of such talk over the next 16 months.
But the reality is that neither of the main parties can claim any great success. Perhaps that will encourage them to quit living in the past, and talk about what they would do if elected.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Time for a real debate on fracking risks, benefits

The fracking debate — or more accurately the absence of one — is another example of B.C.’s great divide.
If fracking was going on in the Lower Mainland, or the Okanagan, it would be front-page news. (Just look at how quick the government was to pay a company $30 million to make the prospect of uranium mining — more benign — vanish from the Okanagan.)
But fracking is booming in the northeast, as energy companies rush into a shale-gas boom. So it’s largely been taking place under the radar. Many people probably have no real idea what it is.
That should change. A full debate about the practice and the government’s approach to regulation is urgently needed.
Fracking has been around for at least three decades. As a newcomer in Alberta long ago, I was intrigued by the Fracmaster trucks rolling around the highways. They pumped water and additives, under pressure, into wells to fracture the rock — thus the name — allowing oil and gas to flow more freely from conventional wells.
Today’s fracking has little in common with that relatively low-tech approach.
Energy companies have tapped a new resource in gas trapped in shale deposits. Horizontal drilling — drilling down and then parallel to the surface — has allowed long wells through the rock formations. New equipment allows the injection of water, sand and chemicals under extremely high pressure to crack the rock, allowing the gas to flow.
The chemicals, some toxic, help the process. The sand flows into the fractures and prevents them from closing. Unlike the old days, when wells were usually fracked once, the industry will repeatedly frack the same well to increase producton.
The advances have allowed the energy companies to exploit vast new reserves around the world that were trapped in the rock formations. Northeastern B.C. has been a particularly hot spot; half the gas in the province is now produced by fracking. The government says production could double by the end of the decade.
That’s got some big benefits. The government has cashed in on auctions for drilling rights and leases and on royalties. (Though the lease revenue plummeted this year to $223 million, compared with $844 million last year.)
The boom has brought jobs to the northeast, and the rush of shale gas onto the market has depressed natural gas prices — good news for consumers.
But there are huge environmental issues and governments have lagged badly in understanding them and regulating the fracking operations.
Start with water. It takes vast amounts of water to generate the pressure needed to frack a single well. Energy companies in B.C. already have the right to withdraw water from lakes and rivers that’s equal to the consumption of a city of more than 700,000 people. They also draw from wells and have applied for large amounts of water from the Williston Reservoir on the Peace River, used by B.C. Hydro to generate power. There is concern other users will be left dry.
Once the chemicals are added, the water is toxic. That creates risk to aquifers, both in the fracking operation and when the companies try to dispose of the water by injecting it into deep wells. The seriousness of the threat has been debated, but this month the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported a preliminary link between fracking and well contamination in Wyoming. Encana, the company involved, disputes the finding.
On top of those risks, fracking has caused earthquakes in the U.S. and England.
Some jurisdictions, like Quebec, and France and some U.S. states, have banned fracking.
But B.C. hasn’t even had a real debate about it, or the regulations and oversight needed.
Independent MLAs Bob Simpson and Vicki Huntington have called for the creation of an all-party legislative committee to hold hearings and report on fracking. It would be a useful start.
Footnote: The province has made some regulatory changes. Companies were required to report water use this year (though about one-third didn’t comply and received fines of under $1,000). And a new online registry will have information about fracking locations, though companies can still keep the chemicals being used secret.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Heading to Honduras

Those paying close attention might have noticed a new link in the upper right here, called Heading to Honduras.
That’s where I’m going in mid-January.
My partner and I both applied to Cuso International for volunteer work. I was offered a post in Ghana, she was offered one in Honduras. For assorted reasons, we picked Honduras, where she’ll be working with an NGO on communications, knowledge development and whatever else they need.
I’ll expect to find some way to volunteer down there, do some work for clients up here (if you need fast, sharp editing or writing, keep me in mind), write, paint and get really good at Spanish.
It’s the right time for us to make this change, and I’m looking forward to living in a new culture in Copan Ruinas.
I’ll write more about all this, and all the years of blogging/columning on events here.
Check out the link. And if you’re around Victoria, come on out to our farewell party Jan. 11 at the Garry Oak room at the Fairfield Community Centre, from 6 to 10 p.m. Music and fun. It’s also a fundraiser for Cuso and PEERS.

Time to kill Campbell's gimmicky education fund

I have good news for Premier Christy Clark — a way to deal with Community Living B.C. underfunding that won’t require spending cuts elsewhere or tax increases.
All she has to do is kill a goofy policy initiative of Gordon Campbell that never really made any sense.
Community Living B.C. says it needs about $65 million more a year to meet the immediate needs of adults with developmental disabilities, what we once called mental handicaps.
Clark says the government doesn’t have the money.
But this year the government is committing $47 million to the Children’s Education Fund, a shoddy piece of public policy that came out of nowhere in 2006 when Campbell needed something cool to announce at the Liberal convention in Penticton.
Campbell said the government would commit $1,000 for every baby born after that year to the education fund. Beginning in 2025, every teen graduating from high school would get the $1,000, plus interest — perhaps about $2,200.
It’s one of those silly ideas that makes sense as a short-term political gimmick when people are tossing around ideas in the premier’s office, but serves no real long-term purpose.
There’s no logical basis for the government to decide that a tuition subsidy for students starting school in 2025 is a priority today — more important than caring for the disabled, improving health care or offering a tax cut to encourage employment growth.
In fact, the notion that the government can predict the needs of students two decades in the future is dubious. Imagine the outgoing Socreds trying to come up with a tuition plan that would work for students in 2011.
The amount, for example, could be a pittance compared to the cost of education more than a decade from now.
Or alternately, a future government, given the need for skilled British Columbians, could have decided post-secondary education should be free to some qualifying students, or even all students. That’s not an outlandish notion, given the shift to a knowledge-based economy in the province.
It’s also odd the government decided the needs of students in 2025 would be greater than students today. About 60 per cent of Canadian students graduate with some debt. For those people, the average debt load is $27,000. It would take $90 a week for nine years to pay off the balance.
That’s a big burden, particularly in a soft employment market. Why not take the $47 million and address today’s needs, through scholarships or education credits or tax breaks, or target First Nations’ high school graduation rates, or address other educational needs?
It’s also bizarre that the fund makes no distinctions based on the needs of either the province, or the students.
A multimillionaire’s child will get $2,000; so will a youth coming out of care, living on income assistance and trying to get an education.
A smart program would target bright students who couldn’t afford an education, and be based on merit and need. Or it could support education for students entering fields that were critical to the province’s future.
We’re talking about serious money. The program started in 2007; by the end of this year the available money in the fund is expected to have reached $230 million.
By 2025, the government will have stashed more than $1 billion in the fund.
The money isn’t counted as an expense in the current budget year. It’s counted as an investment, with the interest showing up on the books as revenue each year. The actual expense will show up on the government books when the payouts begin in 2025. (A development that might not thrill the government, or the taxpayers, of the day, saddled with an expense by a long-gone predecessor.)
It’s interesting that the Liberals don’t talk about the fund anymore. It’s like they realize it makes little sense, but haven’t quite figured out what to do about it. So they just keep committing more than $40 million a year to poor policy.
So there’s some free advice for Clark. Announce the fund is no longer a priority in the wake of the economic slowdown. Allocate the money to CLBC, or some other useful measure.
And take care in future to avoid such poor policy gimmicks.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Federal leadership on health care missing

The biggest issue in the federal government’s move to curb health-care spending increases isn't the new limits, although that should be a concern.
It’s the Harper government’s decision to abandon any leadership role on health care and leave the provinces to sort things out.
The country’s finance ministers were in Victoria this week. The provincial ministers thought they would have a few meals and meetings, talk about big issues and do a little preliminary work on a new health funding plan to replace the current one, which ends in 2014.
Instead, federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty arrived at a lunch in a dining room on a downtown hotel’s top floor - very nice harbour views - and the premiers were handed the new deal. No discussion, he said. Here’s the new funding formula.
The current arrangement provides provinces with six per cent a year increases in federal health care funding. Flaherty said that will continue until 2017, then the increases will be capped at the rate of growth in the economy. There will be minimum increases of three per cent, so health care doesn’t face deep cuts if there’s a recession.
Based on current growth and inflation, the provinces could expect increases of about 4.5 per cent a year.
The federal government provides about 20 per cent of health care costs, with the provinces paying the rest. The change means about $55 million less for B.C. in the first year, increasing by a similar amount each subsequent year. It’s not a huge amount, though after five years the shortfall will be nearing $300 million.
The reaction of the provincial ministers was mixed. Six were critical, either of the lower increases or the federal government’s failure to consult and discuss the change.
But B.C. Finance Minister Kevin Falcon said he was satisfied with the change. He welcomed the long-term certainty, so the province could plan, and supported the desire to reduce federal spending. (That’s a little odd, since during the Liberal leadership campaign he condemned a similar proposal from Christy Clark. Clark did not, it should be noted, include the promise of a minimum increase even if the economy went into reverse.)
A little more skepticism might have been in order. The proposed funding formula doesn’t include any provision for population growth, which means there will be a reduction in real per-capita funding. Nor does it reflect the impact of an aging population, or costly technological advances.
And it isn’t based on any assessment of actual health care needs (note that the meeting involved finance ministers, not health ministers). What if a continued six per cent increases would allow dramatic reductions in wait times, or much better seniors’ care?
Instead, the Harper government picked an arbitrary ceiling that could be sold politically and went ahead.
Canada has room to increase health care spending, if it’s in the public interest. Other countries — Germany and the U.S., for example — spend a higher proportion of their GDP on health care. And the Canadian public, so far, has indicated quality health care is a priority.
The federal government initiative also abdicates any leadership role. Health care is a provincial responsibility, but provinces and territories operate under the terms of the Canada Health Act.
Federal funding is important. But federal leadership in tackling the challenges of delivering cost-effective high-quality care would also be valuable.
As a significant funder, the Harper government could have lead a national discussion of what Canadians expect from care, how technology can be used, how prevention could reduce costs and more effective ways of using health-care staff.
Instead, the provinces will be largely left to their own devices, or to figure out ways to work together on their own.
It’s probably an astute move politically — health care issues tend to earn governments more blame than praise.
But it won’t help Canada move to the best, most cost-effective care.
Footnote: Provincial and territorial premiers will meet in Victoria next week to discuss health care. They will likely call for a federal-provincial conference on the funding formula and the future of care, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper will likely reject the idea.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Justin Trudeau could have been describing Parliament’s session

There’s no real theme to the column, beyond a general sense of wonder.
First, burkas and citizenship. Foreign Affairs Minister Jason Kenney said this week that women would no longer be allowed to take the citizenship oath with their faces covered as part of their religious beliefs.
You can have a good debate about the burka and niqab and their place in society. There are concerns some women are forced into wearing them, making them instruments of oppression. Other women say it is a core part of their religious faith, mandated in the Koran. There are questions about how society changes when some people hide their faces in public.
But Kenney’s reason is goofy. He fears women might not actually be saying the citizenship oath.
Come on. New citizens have all studied and passed a test. We don’t now know whether they are taking the oath, or moving their lips. (Perhaps Kenney will mandate monitors to stand next to every person at the ceremonies in future.) It would be easy to have women wearing head coverings sign a written oath.
Even more offensive was Kenney’s response to questions about legal challenges to the edict. “I’m sure they’ll trump up some stupid Charter of Rights challenge,” he said.
There is nothing “stupid” about asserting the rights guaranteed all Canadians by law. Kenney’s contempt for the law, and those freedoms, is alarming.
Meanwhile, Liberal MP Justin Trudeau got in trouble this week by calling Environment Minister Peter Kent “a piece of s***.”
That, of course, reminded people of his father, then prime minister Pierre Trudeau, being accused of mouthing “f*** off” to opposition MPs 40 years ago.
Trudeau claimed then he was mouthing “fuddle duddle.” Justin Trudeau was more honest, jumping to his feet to apologize and retract his remarks.
So what riled him? NDP environment critic Megan Leslie had asked Kent a question about Canada’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol.
Kent responded by noting that “if she had been in Durban” Leslie would be better informed.
But the Conservative government had, for the first time in the history of Kyoto talks, refused to accredit opposition MPs as observers at the talks, denying them a role. Trudeau thought it a bit much that Kent would bar MPs, then criticize them for not going. (Green leader and Saanich-Gulf Islands MP Elizabeth May cleverly got herself approved as a delegate for Papua-New Guinea; Liberals and New Democrats could have shown similar initiative.)
Sadly, Trudeau’s rudeness was far from the low point of the just concluded parliamentary session. The Conservative majority has not brought civility or even a basic commitment to let MPs actually do the job of representing their constituents. Legislation has been forced through with minimal debate. There is an appalling lack of respect, civility or even basic decency in the Commons, in large part because the Conservatives seem to see evil enemies across the House rather than men and women elected by Canadians to represent them. (It does, of course, take two to bicker.)
As the session ended, the Conservatives confirmed they planned to increase secrecy by barring the press and public from more meetings of parliamentary committees. Conservative MP Tim Wallace said going behind closed doors “gives members of Parliament an opportunity to speak frankly.”
Wallace is acknowledging duplicity, perhaps dishonesty — saying one thing in public, and another when citizens don’t have a chance to know what’s going on.
Then there’s the stonewalling of the G8 spending scandal that saw border security funds diverted to often frivolous projects in Treasury Board president Tony Clement’s riding, Defence Minister Peter MacKay’s misleading explanations for his use of a search and rescue helicopter as a taxi to get him from a fishing camp in Newfoundland and other lapses.
It’s odd. The Liberals were booted out because the Conservatives promised something better. Now they’re turning into what they once condemned.
Footnote: The session ended with Speaker Andrew Scheer, a Conservative MP ruling that a party dirty tricks campaign aimed at Liberal MP Irwon Cotler was “reprehensible,” but not against the rules. The Conservatives were caught calling voters and falsely claiming Cotler had resigned and a byelection would be held. It was later revealed thatthe company hired to make the calls had also worked on Scheer’s election campaign.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Governments need will to fix growing inequality

The Occupiers have packed their tents, but the issue of increasing inequality within Canada shouldn't go away with them.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reported this week that income inequality continues to increase in Canada and around the world.

And it warns trouble lies ahead. "The economic crisis has added urgency to the debate," its report said. "The social contract is starting to unravel in many countries."

Disenfranchised youth "have now been joined by protesters who believe they are bearing the brunt of a crisis for which they have no responsibility while people on higher incomes appear to have been spared."

The OECD analysis debunks the myth that growing inequality is the result of market forces or some inevitable new order. Government policies have ensured that those with high incomes claim a larger share of the country's wealth, while the poor receive a smaller proportion.

The average income of the bottom 10 per cent of Canadians in 2008 was $10,260; the average income of the top 10 per cent of was $103,500. The top 10 per cent had an average income 10 times greater than those at the bottom; in the early 1990s their incomes were only eight times greater.

The richest one per cent of Canadians shared 13.3 per cent of total income in 2007, up from 8.1 per cent in 1980. And the richest one-tenth of one per cent of Canadians - about 13,000 households - claimed 5.3 per cent of all income in Canada. That's more than twice as much as the share they received in 1980.

The growing gap starts with greater wage inequality. Partly, that does reflect market forces. Technological change has seen high-skilled workers benefit more than those with fewer skills.

But provincial and federal government policies have also increased inequality. Canadian governments have promoted part-time work or flexible hours and eased employment standards. The changes improved productivity and brought more people into work, but "the rise in part-time and low-paid work also extended the wage gap," the OECD found.

Canadian governments have played a more direct role in widening the income gap. Tax and benefit policies can narrow, or widen, the gap.

In Canada, they now reduce inequality less than in most of the OECD's 34 member countries.

That reflects choices by government. "Prior to the mid-1990s, the Canadian tax-benefit system was as effective as those in the Nordic countries in stabilizing inequality, offsetting more than 70 per cent of the rise in market income equality," the report found. "The effect of redistribution has declined since then: Taxes and benefits have only offset less than 40 per cent of the rise in inequality."

Tax cuts, for example, have delivered the greatest benefits to the rich - in B.C., income tax cuts have delivered an average benefit of $9,000 a year to the richest 10 per cent of households, while saving the poorest 10 per cent an average $200.

The theory was that everyone would benefit.

It hasn't worked, says OECD secretary-general Angel Gurría. "This study dispels the assumptions that the benefits of economic growth will automatically trickle down to the disadvantaged and that greater inequality fosters greater social mobility," he said. "Without a comprehensive strategy for inclusive growth, inequality will continue to rise."

The OECD offers potential solutions. A greater investment in education, starting in early childhood and continuing into the adult years, would help people improve their job prospects and incomes.

Benefit polices need to be improved. "Large and persistent losses in low-income groups following recessions underline the importance of government transfers and well-conceived income support policies," the report says.

The growing share of income going to top earners means they can afford to pay more in taxes; governments should review tax policies "to ensure that wealthier individuals contribute their fair share."

And "the provision of freely accessible and high-quality public services, such as education, health and family care is important," the OECD says.

But before anything happens, we have to decide that the increasing gap is undesirable. And we have to recognize that government policies have played a significant role in increasing inequality, and can do just as much to reduce it.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Court right to toss drinking-driving law

The B.C. Supreme Court struck a good balance in tossing part of the province’s new drinking-driving laws.
Justice Jon Sigurdson upheld the provisions that penalize people who blow between .05 and .08.
But he ruled that the use of the same approach to levy much tougher penalties for those who blow over .08 — the Criminal Code definition of impairment — is unconstitutional because it violates the Charter of Rights protection against “unreasonable search and seizure.”
The difference is the severity of the penalties. Sigurdson found that the Charter violation was tolerable in the case of the lesser penalties, given the importance of reducing impaired driving.
But the sanctions for blowing over .08 on a roadside screening device are much harsher. People have a right to a reasonable, independent appeal process when they face severe penalties, Sigurdson ruled, and the government has failed to provide one.
The fear that police officers effectively become judge and jury, without an adequate appeal process is well-founded.
It’s not a surprising ruling. The government’s aim — besides reducing impaired driving — was to save money by shifting impaired driving cases out of the courts.
Instead of laying a criminal charge, opening the door to a not guilty plea and trial, the government wanted to come up with similar penalties that could be imposed cheaply. Impaired cases make up about one-third of the caseload in provincial courts, in part because tougher penalties have given drivers a greater incentive to fight the charges.
The changes worked. The deaths linked to impaired driving fell 40 per cent in the year since the change was introduced, and the number of impaired driving charges fell by almost 75 per cent.
But the change, Sigurdson ruled, also violated British Columbians’ rights.
The courts have ruled that when a police officer has a “reasonable suspicion” a driver is impaired he could require a roadside breath test. But the test was simply an indicator that the driver should submit to a proper breathalyzer exam.
If he failed that, criminal charges could be laid. The driver would then have a chance to challenge the charge in court, cross-examine the officer and introduce evidence in his defence.
The provincial regulations skip all those steps. There is an appeal process, but it involves a strictly limited written appeal or hearing before a motor vehicle branch employee. Police don’t have to disclose evidence and there are no questions allowed.
Sigurdson found the province’s penalties for blowing over .08 were significant enough to require better safeguards to prevent innocent people from being wongly punished.
Drivers lose their licences for 90 days and face a $500 fine and the $880 cost of a remedial course. They are required to install ignition interlock devices once their licences are returned, which requires them to provide a clean breath sample before the car will start. Those cost more than $1,500. All in the total cost is more than $4,000, and some people, of course, lose their jobs. (Those who blow between .05 and .08 face a three-day suspension for a first offence, rising to seven days for a second infraction and 30 days for subsequent offences. They face fines of $200 to $400 and a $250 fee to have the licence reinstated. Repeat offenders also must take a course on drinking and driving, which costs $880, and have their cars impounded.)
The government has already been warned about problems with the regime. Earlier this year, a Supreme Court decision noted the appeal process was “fundamentally at odds with basic concepts of fairness and impartiality.”
There are easy fixes, at least going forward. The government can bring in a proper appeal process that respects Charter rights, or it can reduce the penalties.
It’s important to deter impaired driving. But it’s also important to respect basic principles — like innocence until proven guilty, and the right to a fair hearing before serious punishments are imposed.
Footnote: In the first 12 months, police imposed about 25,000 roadside suspensions. About 15,000 involved the more serious penalties for failing the roadside test or refusing to blow. It’s unclear whether drivers will challenge those penalties as a result of the ruling.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

The facts on the Attawapiskat housing and community crisis

I have been meaning to try and sort through the claims about funding for the Attawapiskat First Nations community. The northern community is a disgrace. The Conservative government have attempted to blame poor band management, pointing to $90 million in funding over the past five years.
Fortunately, I don't have to, because âpihtawikosisân lays out the facts here, with useful links to the source documents, including band financial reports.
Well worth a read.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Gloomy forecast sinks balanced budget plan

Amid all the gloom - and there was buckets of it - a glimmer of good news shone through Finance Minister Kevin Falcon’s quarterly report on the province’s finances and economy this week.
Mostly, the news was bad. The outlook for the economy is worse than it was three months ago, and it wasn’t great then. The deficit for the year is now forecast at a record $3.1 billion, $331 million worse than Falcon predicted in his last forecast. (Though the actual number is misleading, since about $1.6 billion reflects the one-time HST incentive to be repaid to the federal government .)
And things could get still worse in the coming months.
The good news is that Falcon is backing away from the ill-considered and potentially disastrous commitment to balance the budget by 2013-14.
Falcon still says that’s his goal. But he now acknowledges the target might be impossible.
British Columbians should heave a collective sigh of relief.
Sure, it’s embarrassing for the government to have to adjust its deficit target again and the whole notion of balanced budget laws is starting to look silly. The Liberals introduced a law making deficits illegal beginning in 2004. They amended it in 2009 to allow two years of deficits, then amended it again to allow two more years. Now, it looks like there’s a good chance of a new amendment, meaning the laws on balanced budgets changes about as often as the ministers responsible for Community Living B.C.
But clinging to the target would be destructive, with the goal of a balanced budget by 2013-14 achieveable only with deep spending cuts that would slash services and hurt the economy.
Falcon is in good company. Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said last month the Harper government won’t likely balance its budget until 2016, two years later than the budget promised. The Ontario government expects to run deficits until 2017, and that target appears optimistic.
What’s happening is a return to traditional Keynesian economic theory. Governments should budget for surpluses when times are good and use money to pay down debt, the approach dictates.
But when there is a recession, governments should be prepared to run deficits both to maintain services and avoid weakening the economy further by reducing demand.
The real-world risk is that governments never quite get around to balancing the budget when times are good, meaning mounting debt, higher interest costs, an increasing burden for future generations and, as we’re seeing in the case of Greece, a nasty day of reckoning when lenders won’t extend more credit.
B.C. is a long way from that point; the province’s credit rating is good and the debt-to-GDP ratio moderate.
Falcon can’t be made to wear all the blame for the growing deficit. The Finance Ministry’s assumptions about economic growth were more moderate than the independent panel of economists that advises government. The problem is that things keep getting worse than expected.
The U.S. economy is stalled, Europe is in crisis and demand in China is falling. B.C.’s export-dependent economy is being badly hurt by reduced demand and falling commodity prices.
And falling financial markets have meant losses in ICBC’s investment portfolio, with the result that the government now forecasts the corporation won’t be able to deliver the budgeted $290 million in revenue.
At the same time, the government can be criticized for unrealistically low spending budgets, which have created crisis in the courts and Community Living B.C.
The expense budgets are even more out of whack for the next two years. Most ministries face two years of budget freezes; health spending is forecast to rise three per cent in each of the next two years, half the rate of the increase this year.
All of which makes the balanced budget target even more out of reach — and Falcon’s retreat even more welcome.
Footnote: Falcon delivered some additional bad news. The move from the HST back to the PST is more complicated, and going more slowly, than anticipated. It looks like the change will take a full 18 months, until March 31, 2013. That’s bad for homebuilders and other economic sectors, and for the Liberals.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Dismal child poverty record, and no plan to improve

The Clark government believes reducing the number of unnecessary regulations is important.
It doesn’t feel the same way about reducing child poverty.
That’s the obvious conclusion from the Liberals’ display of government priorities during the legislative session that wrapped up Thursday.
The Liberals introduced, debated and passed a new law — the Regulatory Reporting Act — that requires an annual report on the number of regulations added and removed during the year, and on initiatives to cut regulations.
Why? Because, Finance Minister Kevin Falcon told the legislature, it’s important — vital — for government “to be publicly accountable for progress or lack of progress” on reducing regulations. Only by measuring and reporting can the public be assured that progress is being made, he said.
But when it was reported that B.C. had the highest rate of child poverty in Canada for the eighth consecutive year, Premier Christy Clark rejected calls for a plan to address the problem, with targets, actions and a requirement for an annual report on “progress or lack of progress,” to use Falcon’s words.
Why no plan? Clark and the other ministers never offered a coherent reason.
Because there isn’t one.
The facts are clear. The annual national look at child poverty, released by First Call, an advocacy group, found that 12 per cent to 16.4 per cent of B.C. children were living in poverty in 2009. That’s the highest proportion of poor kids of any province, a dismal ranking B.C. has retained for eight years. (You can debate poverty measures, but the fact remains this province is the worst.)
So some 100,000 to 140,000 children are being raised in poverty, an increase of about 15 per cent from the previous year.
That’s bad for them; childhood poverty is linked to lifelong health issues, educational limitations, unemployment and a variety of other problems. And it’s bad for the province, since a large number of people will never make the contributions they could have.
Any competent manager — a title the Liberals like to claim — knows that progress starts with a plan. You set targets for improvements, develop action plans with expected outcomes, monitor and report on progress and make needed changes as you go.
Clark said the government doesn’t need a plan. It’s doing things like raising the minimum wage and providing housing supports and launching job strategies. Those will help reduce child poverty.
Maybe, though it’s an odd claim since the government has insisted for most of the last decade that raising the minimum wage wouldn’t reduce poverty.
But a bunch of random actions aren’t a plan. There’s no objective, even a modest one like moving B.C. from the worst in Canada to the seventh worst. There’s no estimate of the effect of any actions on reducing poverty.
And there’s no reporting or accountability. Reducing regulations, the government passed a law to make sure there would be real accountability there. Not for reducing the number of children living in poverty.
Children and Families Minister Mary McNeil says the government has “committed to working closely with municipalities” to develop regional poverty reduction plans. That might be useful, if it ever happens. But it should also be part of a provincial poverty plan, with targets and outcomes and public reporting on progress.
There’s nothing radical about the idea of developing a plan to reduce child poverty. Seven other provinces already have plans or are working on them. Alberta is expected to launch a plan. That would leave B.C. and Saskatchewan as the only provinces without a coherent plan to reduce child poverty.
The current approach isn’t working, despite some reductions in the number of poor children in recent years. If it was, B.C. wouldn’t still have the worst record in Canada.
Falcon’s Regulation Reporting Act passed into law on the last day of the session. That mattered to the government.
Poor kids are still waiting.
Footnote: A plan could make quick progress. About one-third of the children living in poverty have parents dependent on income assistance or disability benefits. (A single parent with two children who is deemed employable gets up to $660 a month for housing and another $623 a month for everything else.) Providing enough support to lift those children out of poverty, or allowing their parents to earn some money without losing benefits, would move B.C. into the top half of the rankings.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Big pension problems get tiny government response

Canadians have lost a lot over the years.
A generation ago, most people could count on buying a home for the equivalent of about three year’s salary. That dream is gone.
And a generation ago, most people could count on retiring with a guaranteed pension from their company. They knew how much they would get, and with Canada Pension Plan and old age security, they could count on a comfortable retirement.
It’s extraordinary how that has been taken away, with no real debate.
Companies decided defined benefit plans — ones that paid a guaranteed retirement income — were too costly.
Employee and company paid into defined benefit plans. If the reserves looked they might not provide the promised benefits in future, they had to be topped up.
So companies pushed to eliminate the plans, or change them to defined contribution plans. Employees and company would contribute and the funds invested. The pension would be based on however much money was in the fund on retirement. There was no obligation to provide an income. (Government workers, including MPs and MLAs, still have defined benefit plans. MLAs and MPs believe you should pay for guaranteed pensions for them, but not that you should have one.)
And work changed, from long-term employment with big companies to much less certain work, often part-time or on contract, and without any pension.
In fact, only one in four British Columbians have workplace pensions today.
This huge change in the social contract hasn’t been discussed. And while workplace pensions have been slashed, there has been no corresponding increase in public retirement benefits. Those benefits are low compared to other OECD countries, in large part because Canadians could once count on workplace pension plans.
The Harper government has offered a token response to the pension problems with legislation allowing new pooled pension plans.
It’s a lame response to a real problem. The new plans would give small business the opportunity to provide a pension plan by signing a deal with a bank or investment company. The employees would have the voluntary chance to contribute, and the employer could also contribute if he chose (not that likely, I’d say). The investment firm would take its cut for managing the money and the savings would be available at retirement.
Some employers will offer the plan. Some people will sign on.
But not many. And there is no real benefit over RRSPs; people who have not contributed to their own retirement fund, for whatever reason, are unlikely to opt into voluntary pooled plan.
The government could have easily made the plan at least slightly better. It could have allowed the pooled plans, and had the funds managed by the Canadian Pension Plan investment experts. That’s similar to the approach taken in Saskatchewan, where such a plan already exists. That’s also the model promised by the B.C. government in 2008, and never delivered.
That would have provided excellent money management at the lowest cost. Instead, the Harper government offered the banks and the investment houses the chance to manage the money and collect the fees.
That’s strange, because earlier this year Finance Minister Jim Flaherty called for an investigation into the high fees charged by providers of Canadian mutual funds and other investments. A study found Canadians pay more than twice as much in management fees as Americans. Those costs significantly reduce the money being available for retirement. Now Flaherty is opening a new market for them.
This isn’t just an issue for those nearing retirement age.
The giant baby boom bulge is now nearing 65. In 1971, there were 6.2 British Columbians of working age for every person over 65. By 2034, there will be just 2.4 working-age people for each person over 65. If boomers push for better pensions, the cost will fall heavily on those still working.
Footnote: The best option would be a planned increase in CPP benefits, now capped at about $935 a month. That would require increased contributions by employees and employers. The minimum retirees can expect in Canada is about $1,170 per month — that’s basic old-age security plus a guaranteed income supplement for the poorest seniors.

Friday, November 18, 2011

After 20 years, Jumbo still in limbo

The past week in the legislature offered good reminders of how surreal things can get in the grand old building.
On Tuesday, the issue of whether the Jumbo Glacier resort near Invermere would be approved was big. Opponents, including former NHL star Scott Niedermayer, were in Victoria. The New Democrats backed them, and raised the issue in question period.
What’s surreal about that, you might ask?
Coincidentally, the next day I was clearing files off an old iMac. And I came across my last column about the controversial issue of approval for the resort. It was from October 2004.
Seven years have gone by and the governments involved haven’t been able to say yes or no to the giant project, which could include some 6,000 housing units, 23 lifts, stores, restaurants and jobs. And bring more than $500 million in economic activity.
The 2004 column noted that occasion was surreal as well. For one thing, the project had already spent 13 years in various efforts to get approvals and translate dreams into construction.
Then resource minister George Abbott had just announced that the project had passed provincial environmental assessment review. But even though the Liberals actually had a resort minister at the time, charged with promoting such developments, Abbott distanced the government from the proposal.
The real decision would be made by East Kootenay Regional District directors, he said. Look over there.
Seven years later, Lands Minister Steve Thomson has the responsibility for approving or rejecting the master development agreement for the project. He says he needs to think about the costs and benefits, First Nations opposition, community attitudes and other factors.
You can argue either way. Jumbo would be the only resort in North America where you could drive to high glacier skiing. The valley has already been logged and mined. The jobs and investment fit Premier Christy Clark’s stated agenda.
But the resort would hurt existing heli-skiing businesses. It could damage grizzly populations, which concerns First Nations and reduces ecotourism activities.
The Ktunaxa First Nation, an effective band with its own resort development and casino, opposes the project in territory it claims. An economic assessment it commissioned found the resort wouldn’t increase economic activity, as it would just take customers from other B.C. ski hills.
What’s really striking is that seven years have gone by without a decision. The issue has divided the community. The developer has kept spending money. Opponents have spent money too. Government workers have been preparing reports and memos, for which you have been paying.
And government is unable to say, this makes sense, or no, it does not.
Politically, the shadow of provincial Conservative leader John Cummins looms over the decision. If the government decides not to allow the project, Cummins will complain about the Liberals granting First Nations a veto on development.
Cummins likewise loomed over the week’s other wildly surreal moments.
On Monday, Liberal MLA Eric Foster introduced a private members bill calling on the legislature to support the federal government’s repeal of the long-gun registry.
That’s silly. It’s a federal issue; the province has no role.
But MLAs from both parties spent an hour talking about guns and crime, a remarkable waste of scarce legislature time (and the $100,000-a-year MLAs’ time). Liberal MLA Bill Bennett argued people need guns to defend themselves against the state, suggesting he’s got some concerns about just where Christy Clark is going with the government. Or something.
So why such a waste of time and money?
Because the Liberals want to line up on the side of people who think the gun registry was a terrible idea — voters who might drift to Cummins and the Conservatives.
Less time on pointless gun talk, and more on speedy project decisions would serve the public better.
Footnote: Bennett, who represents the Jumbo resort region, used a private member’s statement to blast both parties for their handling of the project approvals. “The twists and turns in government process over the last 20 years on this project are a disgrace.” he said. “All members should be embarrassed by the unjust way that this proponent has been forced to tread water for 20 years by both political parties in this House today. I ask, on behalf of my region: Please, let’s have a decision.”

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Keystone, Prosperity and government negotiators

There are many interesting aspects of the decision to delay the Keystone pipeline. The Times Colonist has a useful editorial here.

One striking thing is how quickly the company moved from its position that the oilsands crude pipeline had to traverse a sensitive Nebraska aquifer. The routing was necessary for the project, the developer had maintained all through the approval process, despite major protests from the people and politicians of the state, including the Republican governor.

But as soon as the U.S. government put the approval process on hold, the company changed its tune. The pipeline would be rerouted to avoid the aquifer.

It's a process that should be familiar to British Columbians. The provincial government approved plans for Taseko's Prosperity Mine, and accepted the company's claim it needed to use a large, fish-bearing lake as a tailings dump, destroying it. The Liberal government gave approval.

But the federal government said no, the environmental damage and impact on First Nations outweighed the economic benefits. It blocked the mine.

And Taseko quickly came back with a new proposal that didn't require the destruction of Fish Lake. It would spend about $300 million more and manage the tailings in a less damaging way. (I wrote more about the province's lax approach here.)

Both cases are a reminder that companies want to do things as cheaply as governments will allow (while avoiding obvious liabilities from future problems). They want the low-cost tailings dump, or the shorter pipeline route, because they can make more money, which is their duty to shareholders.

Governments need to be knowledgeable, tough bargainers to avoid unnecessary environmental damage or other decisions not in the public interest. (Yes, there is such a thing as necessary environmental damage. We aren't living in tents in the trees, after all.)

It's not at all clear that governments are tough or skilled bargainers. The B.C. government was prepared to let Taseko destroy a lake unnecessarily; it also handed huge benefits to forest companies when it released land from tree farm licences without getting compensation for taxpayers.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Report fails to clear Basi-Virk plea deal questions

UBC president Stephen Toope didn’t come up with answers about how taxpayers ended up paying $6 million to cover the legal fees of two Liberal staffers who admitted taking bribes.
That wasn’t Toope’s asssignment, he said when he delivered a report on when taxpayers should and shouldn’t pay the legal bills for government employees. The government asked him to make recommendations about the policy in the future, not report on how it worked in the past.
Toope’s report was useful. But it didn’t dispel the smell hanging over the B.C. Rail scandal and the $6 million payout that helped ensure guilty pleas from Dave Basi and Bob Virk, shutting down the B.C. Rail corruption trial well before all the evidence was heard.
The government chose to release Toope’s report while he was in India, part of Christy Clark’s Asian tour. The University of B.C. has good reasons to be building ties with China and India. But the approach did emphasize the close ties between Toope and the government, and Clark’s unavailability to deal with questions.
Toope recommended the government keep on picking up the legal fees for government workers facing job-related lawsuits or criminal charges. 
Partly, it’s a matter of fairness. If people are doing their jobs, and someone sues them or files criminal charges, they shouldn’t face crushing legal bills.
It’s also practical. If an enforcement officer fears facing a huge legal bill as a result of being sued for denying a development permit, he might just say yes to a bad project. Legal indemnification supports independent decisions in the public interest.
Toope recommended a clearer written policy, and better ways of managing costs in big ticket criminal cases. The government has effectively written a blank cheque to defence lawyers and special prosecutors. Toope said those costs could be reduced, at least on the defence side.
And he said the government should seek to recover costs if people are found guilty — something it chose not to do in the Basi-Virk case.
Toope also found there has been no real policy about covering costs in criminal cases. Public sector managers tried to push for a written policy, but the politicians never got around to making any decisions.
But the understanding, from the first case — when the government paid former Glen Clark’s legal fees in the casino licensing case — was clear. If the defendants were found not guilty, the taxpayers paid. If they broke the law, they had to pay for their own defence.
Until Basi-Virk. The government had claims on the defendants’ assets and could have collected a significant chunk of cash. But government, prosecutor and defence cut a deal. The two men pleaded guilty, and got an easy sentence of house arrest. The government — you — covered $6 million in legal fees.
The NDP raised the issue in question period this week. Attorney General Shirley Bond read from a statement in October 20101, when David Loukidelis, deputy in the Attorney General’s Ministry, and Graham Whitmarsh, finance deputy, said they made the decision because the Basi and Virk had limited ability to pay. The $6 million ensured a guilty plea; the alternative was to let the trial continue at a potentially greater cost, with no assurance of a conviction.
But it remains unclear how the two deputy ministers decided Basi and Virk couldn’t pay (the government already had $350,000 in security from Basi it could have claimed), how they had estimated trial costs and whether considered that the $6 million looked much an incentive to plead guilty, creating a perception damaging to government and the justice system.
Auditor General John Doyle is also looking at the $6 million payout.
Hopefully, he’ll come up with some better answers for the public.
In the meantime, the B.C. Rail scandal continues to hang over the government.
Footnote: The legal fee issue isn’t the only remaining question. It’s still unclear, for example, why lobbyists Brian Kieran and Erik Bornman, who both admitted paying bribes to Basi and Virk to get inside information on the deal, weren’t charged. It’s also unclear whether that was normal practice for them, or Basi and Virk. They also admitted leaking information to lobbyist Bruce Clark (Christy Clark’s brother), but it has never been explained why they did.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Flaherty gives Clark a chance to avoid deep cuts to balance budget in short term

Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty offered Christy Clark a big break this week, if she’s prepared to grab it.
Flaherty conceded the Conservatives can’t deliver on their promise to balance the federal budget by the 2014 fiscal year.
It’s more likely to take until 2016, he said, although the budget could be balanced a year earlier if the Harper government finds some $4 billion in annual spending to cut.
That revised plan is good news for Canadians. The pledge to end deficits by 2014, despite the continuing economic slowdown, was always dubious. Clinging to it would have meant damaging spending cuts or tax increases at a time when the economy is already faltering.
But Clark and the B.C. government are still committed to returning to surpluses by the 2013/14 fiscal year — a year earlier than the original federal plan, and perhaps two years ahead of Flaherty’s revised projection.
The provincial government has no credible plan to get there. The last budget, in February, was a stopgap. Gordon Campbell had been forced out. The Liberals didn’t have a leader.
So the budget plugged in some numbers to let the Liberals claim there was a plan to eliminate the deficit, even though they made no real sense.
The budget increased health spending 6.2 per cent this year. But somehow, miraculously, the government proposes to cut that to three per cent increases in each of the next two years.
Most ministries — 13 of the 16 — are dealing with budget cuts this year, and freezes for the next two years.
That’s not a realistic plan, even with a continuing wage freeze.
The government faces increasing costs across the board, as well as a number of specific, costly pressure. Community Living B.C. needs an extra $65 million a year. The federal government’s “tough-on-crime” legislation will cost hundreds of millions a year in court and jail costs. Education Minister George Abbott is promising new programs in schools.
The budget was also based on the continued higher tax revenue from the HST, which voters tossed out in the referendum.
In the September budget update, after the first three months, of the fiscal year, Finance Minister Kevin Falcon acknowledged that the plan no longer worked. The budget projected — optimistically — a surplus of $152 million in 2013/14.
Falcon said that reworking the numbers without the HST produced a projected deficit of $610 million for the same year.
If the government sticks to its plan — and its budget law — it would have to find $458 million in cuts, or revenue increases, to eke out a barely balanced budget, he said.
And cuts, remember, would be to budgets that are already inadequate to maintain core services.
That’s not the only problem. The government was reasonably conservative in its revenue forecasts, which might have created the potential for extra money. But the world economic situation has worsened. U.S. markets for B.C. exports remain weak, the growth in exports to Asia has slowed significantly and Europe is in disarray.
Sticking to the budget plan would require deep cuts to already underfunded ministries, or tax increases. Either would damage the economy. The prudent course would be to accept that the global economic problems justify a deficits for a few more years.
The timing makes this all tricky. The first surplus budget is supposed to be introduced in February 2013, three months before the next election. Many voters will likely recall the 2009 pre-election budget, and the forecast $495-million deficit that ballooned to $1.8 billion. The NDP and Conservatives will argue that any budget forecasts from the Liberals aren’t to be trusted.
And Clark has a problem in provincial Conservative leader John Cummins. His goal is to outflank the Liberals on the right, and he’ll be on the attack if Clark decides to abandon the current plan to balance the budget.
Flaherty’s announcement this week could help the Liberals deal with those attacks. If the Harper Conservatives consider it prudent to take more time to balanced budgets, why shouldn’t the B.C. Liberals take the same course?
Footnote: If the government is going to abandon the current plan to eliminate the deficit by 2013, they will likely be an indication later this month when Falcon presents the second quarter update on the first six months of the current fiscal year.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Former CLBC chair confirms, belatedly, underfunding

The Vancouver Sun had an odd letter to the editor from a former chair of Community Living BC today. (Not the current chair, as the published version indicated.)
Lois Hollstedt was the first chair of the board and served until 2010. She argues in the letter that the Crown corporation is underfunded - undoubtedly true.
And that more problems are ahead as the lack of funding, in the face of growing demand, creates a continuing crisis - also undoubtedly true.
But where was Hollstedt as the crisis developed?
Last year, as CLBC chair, she wrote the introduction to the corporation's annual report and concluded with this:
"Finally, as we continue to serve more and more people, our budget has expanded to meet demand," Hollstedt wrote. "It has been my privilege to be involved in these changes and I want to thank everyone for their roles in bringing CLBC into reality and for continuing to work toward our vision."
That was not true. The budget had not expanded to meet demand, as she now confirms. An honest and accurate report from the board would have raised the issues Hollstedt sets out in the letter to the editor much earlier.
So why did she say the opposite? Is the board representing the people CLBC was created to serve, or acting in the government's interest?
My intent is not to single out Hollstedt. But there has been a striking co-option of advocates, and the results have been damaging.

The published letter is below:

CLBC board chair hopes publicity results in money


Re: Community Living seeks to restore core values, Oct. 29

While your story presented a good and fair overview of CLBC's creation, it did not discuss the lack of money provided by government to fully fund the mission it gave to the organization.

Simply, the growth in people asking for and needing service has been greater than the money provided.

Demand has grown from four to six per cent a year, inflation is two to three per cent a year, and the money has not kept pace.

The 2010/11 Annual Report (page 26) shows over five years operating money grew 9.4 per cent ($622 million to $681 million) while adults served grew 29.6 per cent (10,400 to 13,481).

2011-12 budgets increased 0.79 per cent and the $8 million announced last month lifts it to a 1.2-per-cent increase for this year.

Your story indicates 2,800 people are on the wait-list. Without substantial new resources, people will not get the services they need, and government was told by me and by the CEO that this would happen.

In 2010-11 the equivalent of $39 million in service changes were redirected to new people, and without this difficult work by a dedicated staff across B.C. the problem would be so much worse.

Let us hope the publicity from this continuing story will result in significant new money for more people to have their needs met.

Lois Hollstedt CLBC Board Chair

Sunday, November 06, 2011

A safe, useful way to keep the Occupy movement evolving

In Vancouver and Victoria, it's clear the cities are going to shift the Occupy campers from their current venues.
And it's equally clear some of the people involved are going to be inclined to resist.
Before people start getting arrested, or hurt, and before anything ugly that distracts from the issues that prompted the whole effort in the first place, all involved - city and occupiers - should consider the proposals of Mr. Beer and Hockey here.
He has spent time in the Occupy Vancouver camp, and was there when the young woman died this weekend. As a "a peaceful, gradualist, Godwinian Anarchist" he has a proposal worth serious consideration. (And read more on his blog when you're there, if you're not familiar with it. He's a heck of a writer and an astute observer.)

Friday, November 04, 2011

Poll delivers bad news to Clark and Liberals

Christy Clark went all tough on crime this week, proudly enrolling in Stephen Harper’s “lock-em-up” camp. Strange for a federal Liberal, who mostly think the crime measures — mandatory minimum sentences and the like — are expensive, ineffective political pandering.
A day later, a poll showed why.
The New Democrats have the kind of support that would see them elected an 2013, the Angus Reid poll found.
And a big factor is John Cummins and the B.C. Conservatives, a rather serious problem for the Liberals.
The poll is bad news for Clark. It found 40 per cent of voters say they would vote for the NDP in the next election. The Liberals are at 31 per cent, a serious gap.
The Greens are at eight per cent support, in their typical range.
But the Conservatives are at 18 per cent, unprecedented heights for a party that has been firmly, even proudly, on the political fringes for more than three decades.
If the Conservatives hold that support, or anything close to it, the centre-right vote will be split and the Liberals will lose a lot of seats.
Of course, people often say they support parties with limited chances of success between elections, before returning to the fold when it matters.
But several things might make this different, with Cummins the main one. He’s an experienced, skilled campaigner, as shown by his six successful campaigns to be an MP under Reform, Alliance and Conservative banners. He has attracted others with experience to the party and knows how to do the basic stuff that other fledgling political efforts, like the Greens, tend to mess up. Cummins has been quick off the mark and effective in issuing news releases critiquing the Clark government, for example.
And Cummins has a chance, with some credible candidates, to make a pitch to voters who aren’t happy with either of thetwo main parties, a significant group these days.
The poll looked at how votes were shifting and found some interesting changes.
The Liberals have lost the support of about one-third of the people who voted for them in 2009, according the other poll results. About two-thirds of the defectors have shifted their support to the Conservatives, but more than one in four former Liberal voters now support the NDP.
But the New Democrats have also lost the support of 16 per cent of their former supporters — and half of those people have jumped to the Conservatives.
The poll isn’t all bad news for the Liberals. The poll found 25 per cent of those surveyed think Clark would make the best premier, compared to 19 per cent who pick Adrian Dix. She was judged significantly better-suited to deal with the economy, which was the top issue identified.
However she and Dix were tied in their approval ratings in their current jobs.
And, significantly, 12 per cent of respondents said their opinion of Clark had improved in the past three months, while 39 per cent said it had worsened. Dix fared better, with 18 per cent saying they were more impressed with him based on the last three months, while 17 per cent said their opinion had worsened.
Clark faced a formidable challenge in convincing voters that her Liberal government would be different than the Gordon Campbell version. The worsening poll results suggest she’s not succeeding.
And now she has to try to turn back the Conservative surge, which will also be difficult. Clark could push the Liberals to the right, as she did with her tough on crime talk, but that risks alienating more moderate voters.
The Liberals can argue, as they did this week, that voting Conservative would result in an NDP government. That, however, sounds both arrogant and uninspiring. “Vote for us, in spite of what we’ve done” is a weak slogan.
The election is stlill 18 months away. But Clark and the Liberals have a lot of work ahead of them.
Footnote: The poll was conducted Oct. 31 and Nov. 31 and based on an online sample of 803 people. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 per cent.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

More evidence independent CLBC review needed

Chelsea McGarry is 18. The young Quesnel woman has Down syndrome, autism, early onset Alzheimer’s, diabetes and celiac disease.
It’s been quite a struggle. But Chelsea had been receiving enough supports and service to allow her mum, Shelley, to care for her at home.
Until now. Because when Chelsea turns 19 in December, those supports get chopped and her file transfers to Community Living B.C.
And that problem-plagued Crown corporation, struggling with underfunding, refused to approve a care plan.
Chelsea’s mother has been battling for support. Children’s Representative Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond has advocated for her, and so has her MLA, Bob Simpson.
But only when Times Colonist reporter Lindsay Kines reported on the nightmare did CLBC agree to new meetings to resolve the issues, and the outcome of those is far from clear.
It’s yet another example of how vulnerable are, how fearful they are of making waves in case they face reprisals, and how badly an independent review of the troubled agency is needed.
CLBC was set up in 2005 to provide support and services to adults with developmental disabilities — mental handicaps — and their families. Many have other emotional, mental and physical problems that complicate their lives.
But every year since then, the amount of money available per client has been cut. Services have been reduced and the approximately 550 teens who “age out” and shift to CLBC supports face massive struggles to maintain the quality of their lives.
The corporation has pushed people from staffed group homes, sometimes after years of residence, into homeshares, a a cheaper alternative. CLBC has argued that some clients do better in the new settings.
But Kines uncovered a review of one of the companies managing homeshare services in the Lower Mainland. The consultants report, done for CLBC, was shocking. The consultant could find no evidence basic background checks had been done on some of those providing homeshares to vulnerable adults. There was a lack of training and poor oversight. Homeshare providers weren’t given the information they needed on client’s behavioural and health problems, leading to potentially dangerous incidents and a series of “crisis situations.”
The company, which manages 44 homeshare contracts, was stretched too thinly to properly monitor care. Its manager noted the rush to close group homes — almost 10 per cent have been closed — created similar pressures across the province.
It’s far from the only example of problems.
CLBC refused for months to provide information on wait lists, before revealing that 2,089 people — about one in six clients — receiving some services were waiting for supports to meet identified needs. Another 751 people were getting no services and waiting for help and support. It’s still not know how long the waits last.
The government was forced to come up with an extra $6 million in September because inadequate funding had left clients facing urgent threats to their health and safety, an indication of a basic planning and budgeting failure.
And the government effectively acknowledged the problems, recently firing the CEO of Community Living BC and the minister responsible, Harry Bloy. (The corporation has reported to four different ministers in the last year.)
New Social Development Minister Stephanie Cadieux has promised internal reviews and a greater focus on responding to families’ concerns.
That’s not good enough. CLBC has already betrayed families’ trust by repeatedly denying that people were being forced from group homes before finally admitting that was simply untrue.
And the attempts to deal with individual cases when they capture media attention themselves raises more concerns.
What of the people with developmental disabilities without advocates — those whose parents are dead, or families estranged? There is no one to speak for them, and many can’t do it themselves.
The government has acknowledged its failures in this important are. And independent review, with input from families and advocates, and a public report are needed to chart a way out of this crisis.
Footnote: The Representative for Children and Youth only has authority to investigate problems and advocate for individuals until they turn 19. Turpel-Lafond has suggested that be raised — perhaps to 24 — in recognition that adulthood is instantly attained on the 19th birthday. That too would be a useful change.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

We too walk past those who need our help

Two-year-old Wang Yue wanders into a Guangdong street and is knocked down by a van that speeds on. Eighteen people pass here as she lies in the street without stopping to help. She cries, laying in her own blood. At last, a peasant woman picks her up off the street. She died Friday.
The horrible scene, captured on closed-circuit TV and seen by millions, has sparked a global discussion. Why are people in today’s China so indifferent to a child in pain, crying, bloody, in the street? How can they turn away from suffering? Has the rush for economic success drained people of humanity?
Last week in B.C., John Gaffney finally got out of hospital, after five months. He wasn’t sick. Community Living B.C. didn’t want to pay for a group home for Gaffney, who is 46 and has Down syndrome and dementia. His parents didn’t think he would be safe in the home share CLBC proposed. So he stayed in hospital. (That wouldn’t happen to someone without a disability.)
Gaffney is a symbol. It’s clear that CLBC has lost its way. The focus has shifted from supporting adults with mental handicaps in living full lives, to dealing with “urgent health and safety needs,” as the corporation said in seeking more funding. The government has shuffled ministers, fired the CEO and offered a series of changing stories about what’s going on.
But until last week, no one in government acknowledged the people being forced from group homes they had shared for years, or the clients who lost every support when they turned 19.
They walked around those people.
With good excuses, I’m sure. Deficits and finite resources and other priorities. Some of the people who walked and rode past Wang Yue probably had good excuses too.
Then Liberal MLAs Randy Hawes and John Van Dongen joined families and advocates and the opposition in saying the government was failing people who really needed support. But the indifference to their plight lasted at least a year, as threats to health and safety and quality of life grew.
Last week in B.C., the missing women’s inquiry was getting underway in Vancouver. The first witnesses were testifying about how Robert Pickton could kill women for years without being apprehended.
There are lots of reasons. But fundamentally, Pickton and many others could prey on the women because we — governments, police and most of us — choose to make it easy. We walked around them, as people in that Guangdong market walked around Wang Yue’s broken body.
Consider the evidence in just the first few days of inquiry. A majority of Vancouver street-level sex trade workers reported suffering beatings, rape and other violence, testified Kate Shannon, a public health researcher and a professor in the faculty of medicine at the University of B.C. Most never reported the attacks to police, because if they did officers would sometimes pick up them late at night, detain them and then drop off in some distant part of the city to find their own way home. Others feared harassment, arrest or theft by officers.
The desire to avoid police also meant workers took greater risks, like getting into a car without assessing the danger or ignoring lists of dangerous potential clients.
John Lowman, a Simon Fraser University criminology professor who researches prostitution, said public and police pressure forced sex workers into darker and more dangerous neighbourhoods, where they were easier prey.
Catherine Astin, a nurse who worked on the Downtown Eastside, said she and colleagues noticed women were disappearing. But they didn’t go to the police.
Police and frontline workers shouldn’t be singled out.
Prostitution is legal in Canada. But the government, on our behalf, has passed laws that increase the danger for workers. Communication for the purposes of prostitution is illegal, forcing women into the shadows and preventing them from screening clients.
Living off the avails of prostitution is illegal, so women cannot band together in a safe location and hire their own security.
Everyone knew those laws, and the way they were being selectively enforced, put women at risk, led to them being beaten and killed. No one cared enough to do anything about it. Lowman testified predators found it easy to justify violence against people that society had signalled were disposable.
Maybe we wouldn’t walk past a child lying in the street. But we’re certainly prepared to turn away from others whose suffering is just as real.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Cover-up fears as taxpayers pay $30 million to mining company

The provincial government’s $30-million payout to Boss Power Corp. stinks.
Taxpayers are paying compensation to the company because the government bungled its ban on uranium mining
The last-minute settlement suggests the government paid a premium so damaging evidence wouldn’t be heard in court.
And there is every reason to believe politicians ordered government managers to break the law and penalized a manager who tried to do the right thing.
Boss Power had the rights to the Blizzard claim, a uranium deposit about 50 kms southeast of Kelowna. The company could expect fierce opposition to any mine, but a seven-year moratorium on uranium mining lapsed in 1987. The company planned to press on with the project.
In 2007, Kevin Krueger, then the junior minister mines, confirmed the government had no policy or regulations prohibiting uranium development, although he acknowledged public opposition.
In 2008, that changed. The government issued a news released headlined “Government confirms position on uranium development.”
It set out a new approach. Uranium mining wasn’t part of the province’s plans, Krueger said.
Boss Power sued. The company had staked its claim, spent money on developing the deposits and said it had been encouraged by the government.
The ban took away its rights and the government should pay compensation, the company said.
The government’s statement of defence was revealing. It said the ban only applied to new projects. Boss was free to go ahead.
But 10 months later, the government brought a blanket, retroactive ban. The lawsuit went ahead.
Meanwhile, the government, according to the its own court filings, was breaking the law.
Boss Power applied in 2008, before the ban, to do exploratory work on its claim. The law requires the chief inspector of mines, then Doug Sweeney, to assess the application on its merits.
But the then-deputy minister, Greg Reimer, and assistant deputy minister John Cavanagh ordered Sweeney to ignore the application. They had asked the Attorney General’s Ministry for an opinion on whether it was legal.
It wasn’t, they were told, according to the government’s admissions in the legal case.
Then they repeated the order that Sweeney not fulfill his statutory duty.
Sweeney had legal and ethical concerns. He was relieved of his responsibilities for the file, and the marching orders went to more compliant officials. Sweeney ultimately left government, and says his family, career and reputation were damaged by the affair. (Cavanagh disputes the accuracy of the government’s admissions.)
These facts emerged as Boss Power’s case moved through the courts.
When Boss found out what had happened behind the scenes, it added a charge of “misfeasance of public office” to the lawsuit.
Basically, that alleged the government abused its power, which would givethe company a claim to additional compensation.
All this was set to come out in court if the case went ahead. The officials would have testified, and had to answer questions about whether politicians ordered them to break the law.
Until the government came up with $30 million of your money, plus more to cover Boss Power’s legal costs, to end the case.
Which inevitably brings to mind the decision to cover $6 million in legal costs for Dave Basi and Bob Virk to head off the revelation of potentially damaging evidence in that case.
The NDP raised the issue in question period Monday, but got no answers.
So we don’t know who gave the order to ignore the company’s application, or why the Attorney General Ministry’s legal opinion was ignored. We don’t know how much the settlement costs rose because of the government’s abuse of power.
We do know that a government that can’t find money to meet the needs of people with developmental disabilities can come up with $30 million to keep potentially damaging evidence from being heard in court.
Footnote: The government issued a news release on the settlement late on Oct. 19, the day the shipbuilding contracts were dominating the news. If it was an attempt to hide the news, it failed miserably.
The other interesting question is whether this would be an issue, or if there would be ban, if the deposits were in the north, not the Okanagan.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Uranium ban costs taxpayers $30 million

From the files:

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Uranium a glowing problem for government

The province's handling of uranium mining brings to mind Homer Simpson's approach to operating a nuclear power plant.
And the stumbles could get expensive for taxpayers, if a disgruntled company does well in court...

Back in 2009, I wrote about the risk to taxpayers of a uranium mining ban imposed by the government.
Unfortunately, the column was accurate. This week the government announced it's paying $30 million, plus legal costs, to Boss Power Corp. as compensation for its belated decision to ban uranium mining.Back in 2009, I noted the potential cost to taxpayers as a result of the government's mishandling of the controversial issue of uranium mining in the province.
The government issued its new release on the same day as the shipbuilding announcement, an indication it might not have wanted people to notice the payment.

The rest of the 2009 column is here.

Hawes, Clark and an MLA's job

Randy Hawes and Christy Clark offered up two very different visions of what MLAs are supposed to be doing on Monday.

And our democracy, and society, would be a lot better if more politicians acted like Hawes.

In the morning, New Democrat Nicholas Simons introduced a motion calling on the government to halt the closing of group homes for people with mental handicaps. About 65 have been closed, almost 10 per cent, often forcing longtime residents into new, less supportive settings. Community Living B.C., the Crown corporation delivering services to people with developmental disabilities, is trying to cut costs.

The motion was a gesture. It will never be passed.

Liberal MLA Kevin Krueger, briefly the minister responsible for CLBC, spoke against it. The closures are good, he said, everything is fine. Nanaimo Liberal MLA Ron Cantelon offered the same general view.

A couple of New Democrats, as expected, supported the motion put forward by Simons.

And then Hawes spoke. He talked about the concerns his constituents had raised. A man in his 70s, with a wife slipping into Alzheimer's, had cared for their developmentally disabled son for 50 years. The father still wanted to care for his son, and his wife, and thought he could - if he get two more days a week of respite care. But CLBC couldn't provide it, so the man faced the "heartbreaking choice" of placing his son in care, which would cost the government much more, Hawes recounted.

A single mother, who had worked and raised and supported her mentally handicapped daughter who needed round-the-clock care, was told supports would be cut when the girl turned 19. The mom was told she would have to quit her job, go on welfare and try to provide the care her daughter needed.

Hawes said this just wasn't right. He said the former minister responsible, Harry Bloy, had told the legislature no clients were being forced out of group homes against their will.

That wasn't true, he said.

Simons's motion was simplistic, Hawes said.

But something has gone wrong, he continued. There should be a "top-tobottom examination of CLBC, which included the parents and the selfadvocates that originally set this up."

And while that's happening, Hawes said, the government should immediately provide services to those who need them.

"We need to give those families that today aren't seeing hope . We need to give them hope, and we need to give it to them now," he said.

About two hours later, CLBC was the topic in question period, the 30 minutes allocated for the opposition to raise issues with the government. The New Democrats, again, pressed Premier Clark for a review of CLBC and a moratorium on group home closures.

Clark said the government is spending quite a lot - about $50,000 per client a year, if you count welfare - on people with developmental disabilities.

But she rejected, again and again, calls for an independent review of CLBC - the "top-to-bottom examination" Hawes had urged.

And then Clark offered up something revealing.

New Democrat Carole James prefaced a question with a reference to the "heartbreaking stories from families about a lack of care for their children." She cited the case of a mentally handicapped woman forced from the group home she had lived in for 19 years.

Clark said the opposition is being negative.

"And you know what?" she said. "I don't necessarily begrudge them that. I used to sit as children and families critic. I know the game the member is playing."

I didn't realize Clark was playing a game back then, as I watched the debates. I thought the lives of children at risk were important enough that MLAs would be serious and honest.

Just like Hawes on the lack of support for people with developmental disabilities.

"In the over 10 years that I've been in this legislature, there's no issue that's caused me more loss of sleep or more concern for those most vulnerable people," he said. "We need to act now."

I'd rather have an MLA who loses sleep than one who thinks the legislature is a place to play political games.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Gambling app and Clark's 'creeping sickness'

Christy Clark used to be clear on gambling expansion. She was against it. The Liberals, and Clark, promised to halt gambling expansion in their 2001 campaign.
Now her government is continuing a 10-year effort to increase both the number of people gambling and the already large amounts they lose.
The B.C. government already has the dubious distinction of being the first in North America to introduce online betting, a form of gambling with heightened risk of reckless betting and addiction.
Now B.C. Lotteries plans another first, by developing apps for cellphones and other devices so people can lose money while on the move.
What's wrong with that, some would ask? If people are foolish enough to lose money on bets, that's their problem.
In opposition, Clark offered pointed responses to that position.
The NDP government was considering gambling expansion to increase its take, then about $270 million.
Today, it's $1.1 billion.
"Does this government not realize that every dollar that they pull from the economy is another dollar that the consumer won't be spending here in British Columbia?" Clark asked. "This is money that won't be going to your local grocery store, clothing store or gas station."
OK, times change and new information emerges. A politician's principled stand in opposition fades when it's time to find more revenue to balance the budget. Clark might have decided that, indirectly, the losses stay in the province, even if local businesses are hurt.
But some flip-flops are hard to rationalize.
Here's Clark, again in the legislature, on the extensive research showing gambling expansion would hurt women and families.
"Those studies are all there that tell us over and over again that expanding gambling has a deleterious effect on women's health, on their personal safety and on their economic stability," she said. "Based on those studies, we know that."
Clark was right then. And the research findings haven't changed.
It's hard to rationalize choosing to harm the health and safety of women, and thus their children, in pursuit of bigger gambling profits.
Maybe Clark didn't believe any of the stuff she said; that it was just political posturing. But she and the Liberals seemed sincere. Certainly the campaign promise to halt gambling expansion was clear.
The government tried to justify online betting by arguing people would do it anyway, gambling on riskier websites outside B.C. That was a dubious claim; the fact those sites are risky deterred people.
There's no similar justification for introducing mobile gambling. The industry is in its infancy, with limited acceptance. The greatest interest is in jurisdictions where many people have cellphones and few have computer access.
But mobile gambling will help lure new, young gamblers. B.C. Lotteries, in its government-approved business plan, has targets for increasing the number of British Columbians who gamble regularly.
In 2010-11, about 61 per cent of adults - some 2.3 million British Columbians - gambled at least once a month. By 2013-14, the government hopes to increase that to 63 per cent, creating another 182,000 gamblers.
(The average loss per person, over a year, is $890. Somewhere between three and six per cent will become problem gamblers or addicts.)
Colin Campbell, gaming policy expert at Douglas College in Vancouver, called the plan "a deliberate attempt to target the youth market."
The lottery corporation has been advertising on websites offering free games widely used by the same group.
So much for families first, and Clark's view that gambling expansion is "a creeping sickness."
Footnote: Mobile gambling, like online betting, poses special risks, according to David Hodgins, head of the University of Calgary's Addictive Behaviours Laboratory. There is a greater risk of addiction, in part because of the easy access at any time, and a greater incidence of alcohol and drug abuse among online problem gamblers.
Teens seemed to show the highest likelihood for online gambling addictions. And the spread of Internet and mobile gambling continues the process of normalizing and legitimizing an activity that was once considered negative and damaging.