Strategic Thoughts

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October 26, 2007

Update and Correction: I am informed that Ken Dobell left the VCCEP Board over the summer and that his contract as special advisor to the Premier was not renewed.

Convention Centre Expansion Boondoggle

Finance Minister Carole Taylor attempted to deflect criticism following the release of Acting-Auditor General Errol Price's report on the Vancouver Convention Centre Expansion Project by saying "at least it isn't wrapped in plastic." That's an oblique reference to the fast-ferries, which for a time were shrink-wrapped. Tourism Minister Stan Hagen used a similar defense when he last danced around projected cost, saying they were in the neighbourhood of $800 million. His line was "at least the convention centre will be useful." Hagen and Taylor should both recall the words of a hotel executive that the convention centre expansion could be "the biggest empty ballroom in town." The service plan for the current convention centre projects an operating loss of $3.34 million this fiscal year. The government's hope is that a bigger convention centre won't produce bigger loses, but everyone in the tourism industry isn't convinced.

The Campbell government would like you to believe that much of the cost overrun for the Vancouver Convention Centre Expansion Project (VCCEP) is primarily due to rising construction costs, but the Auditor observed: "The casual observer could be forgiven in thinking that the original budget for the convention centre was $495 million, since that is what was initially announced when VCCEP was created in 2003. However, that initial amount and a subsequently announced increase to $535 million were not based on detailed designs or a detailed costing. Rather, they were based on approved funding levels from the provincial and federal governments and Tourism Vancouver." In other words, they didn't have a clue how much it would cost to build when they made the commitment to start construction; work on the foundation began before the design was substantially complete. The Campbell government's handling of the project gives new meaning to the phrase: "ready, fire, aim".

David Podmore, Chair of the VCCEP Board since April 19, 2007, authored a written response that is included in the Auditor's Report. He objected to the Auditor's observation that: "Although the latest approved budget is for $883.2 million, there is no guarantee that this will be the final cost." Podmore wrote: "The Auditor General's report does not, however, make a clear distinction between the actions and oversight of the previous Chair and Board (which commissioned the OAG's review) and the new Chair and Board appointed on April 19, 2007." He went on to list a number of steps the new Board has taken to bring the project under control and questioned whether the Auditor had taken those measures into consideration when doubting the reliability of the latest cost estimate. In the course of time we'll see who is right on that score.

The previous Chair of VCCEP was none other than the Premier's right-hand-man, former Deputy Minister, now special advisor, Ken Dobell. In question period on October 25th, NDP MLA Leonard Krog noted that Dobell remains on the Board of VCCEP, as well as in numerous other positions, and asked Carole Taylor why Dobell hasn't been asked to "step aside". Attorney General Wally Oppal assumed the role of "Minister of Defense" and summarized the role of special prosecutors. A special prosecutor has been appointed to review the matter of Dobell not registering as a lobbyist, but that has nothing to do with the question asked by Krog. Maurine Karagianis again asked the question, which was again ignored. That's why it's called question period, not answer period. NDP Leader Carole James started question period with the simple question that is on many minds: "When is this government going to hold someone - anyone - accountable for this entire mess?" The answer seems to be that as long as the Campbell Liberals think they can cling to power, and they have a 10 point lead in the polls, they will consider re-election to be approval of any and all misdeeds.


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