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January 1, 2007

The Premier's Year End Review

The special year end video message on Premier Campbell's website concluded by saying: "Reach out and help someone who isn't quite as fortunate as you are." That came from the Premier who has presided over a doubling in the number of homeless while welfare rates were frozen, or in some cases cut. That came from the Premier who announced rental assistance for low income workers, but said those on welfare need not apply as they are ineligible. That came from the Premier who had to be told by Ted Hughes that his cuts to child protection services were wrong.

The written version of the Premier's year end message came in the form of an opinion editorial that described 2006 as the "year of the agreement". That description is bound to evoke memories of 2002 when Campbell presided over the year of the broken contract. In his year end interview with Keith Baldrey of Global TV, when asked about his switch on aboriginal issues, Campbell said he learned. That invites a look at whether the lesson was about changing policies or whether it was just about using less confrontational messaging.

The Premier's op-ed piece mentioned the Central Coast and North Coast Land and Resource Management Plan, settlements in 139 public sector collective agreements, the trade and labour mobility agreement with Alberta, the federal government's transfer of all social housing resources and responsibilities to the Province, the softwood lumber deal, the new relationship with First Nations, movement on control of First Nations' education, agreement to improve First Nations' health status, and the initialing of three final agreements in the treaty process. If one doesn't look too closely at the details, it would be possible to boast about those 2006 highlights; however, the devil is in the details.

Great Bear Rainforest

According to the Premier's op-ed piece, agreements between the Province, First Nations, communities, environmental activists and industry groups will protect 1.8 million hectares (an area more than three times the size of PEI) and create the new Spirit Bear Conservancy, which will provide a lasting home for the province's official mammal, the Spirit Bear. It failed to mention that days before the announcement, the province copyrighted the name "Spirit Bear". Environmentalists who invented the names "Spirit Bear" and "Great Bear Rainforest" deserve credit for a struggle that lasted almost twenty years. While the formal land use plan is important, it does not end that struggle. The Provincial-First Nation land use agreements, which are key to the Central Coast and North Coast Land and Resource Management Plan, include a commitment to establish, a North Coast Plan Implementation and Monitoring Committee (NC PIMC), a Central Coast Plan Implementation and Monitoring Committee (CC PIMC) and an EBM Working Group (EBM WG). Nothing in government announcements or on the government website indicates progress in the establishment of those committees. Work on protecting the Great Bear Rainforest is ongoing. The Campbell government will be tested in 2007 and beyond to demonstrate that measurable outcomes have been established against which progress in implementing the agreements can be measured. Already in 2006 the Raincoast Conservation Society reported that "Less than 20 per cent of salmon watersheds on the central and north coast of BC will receive full protection under the recently announced Great Bear Rainforest agreement." The Society's analysis of 499 salmon watersheds found that 77% had less than half of the watershed land base protected.

Collective Bargaining

Those who support collective bargaining believe that a good deal is one that is agreed to by both sides; hence, both the Campbell government and the unions deserve credit for negotiating agreements that affect over 300,000 public sector workers, without the need for job action. A caller to a talk show asked why no one was protesting what he thought were rich settlements, four or five year agreements averaging 2% to 2.5% per year wage increases plus signing bonuses of $3,000 to $4,000. The answer is that there is no longer anyone like Gordon Campbell in opposition leading the reactionary political right in an effort to get elected. Imagine what would have happened if an NDP government had awarded $1 billion in signing bonuses to public sector workers! It is likely that there would have been demonstrations on the lawns of the legislature. The reactionary right's support can be taken for granted by Campbell.

Signing bonuses are not new, but it is hard to find much precedent for bonuses of $3,000 to $4,000. In 2008, when they file their income taxes for 2007, many public sector workers will report incomes that are lower than they had with their 2006 bonuses. On an income of $50,000, an increase of 2.5% is $1,250. It takes three years of increases like that to catch up to the year of the signing bonus. The agreements take the government a year or two beyond the May 2009 election, but they do not guarantee that public sector workers will remain satisfied that long. When inflation is factored in, most public sector workers will see their real incomes decline after the peak reached with the signing bonus.

Internal Trade with Alberta

On April 28, 2006, the Britsh Columbia-Alberta Trade, Investment, and Labour Mobility Agreement was signed. It comes into force on April 1, 2007, but the transitional period won't end until April 1, 2009. What it means for British Columbia probably won't be understood until well after the May 2009 election. The Campbell government claims that the "agreement has the potential to add $4.8 billion to real GDP and create 78,000 new jobs in B.C. alone." What is not clear is how that will be measured and reported on to British Columbians. Consider one example: Alberta is granting pharmacists the power to prescribe many medications, notwithstanding the strong opposition of the Alberta Medical Association. The agreement covers pharmacists. Will the agreement mean that BC must grant pharmacists equal power? If it doesn't, then what other standards and regulations will be exempted? It will be years before anyone will be able to see measurable results - good or bad.

Social Housing

The BC Housing website reports that: "On June 19, 2006, the Government of Canada and the Province of British Columbia signed the Canada - B.C. Social Housing Agreement transferring the administration of 51,600 social housing units to the Province of British Columbia." Over half, 27,400, of the federal housing units were already administered by the province. Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) will remain responsible for approximately 12,650 co-operative housing units and just over 5,000 housing units on-reserve. The province will gain responsibility for about 24,000 social housing units that are currently administered by CHMC. While the Campbell government boasts that this is an example of a successful agreement, the jury is out on what it means for people in need of social housing. The deal appears to put a 30 year cap on the federal commitment to BC for social housing.

Softwood

The Softwood Lumber Agreement was only adopted after the Harper government beat the Canadian lumber industry into submission with the help of the Campbell government. The Agreement provides a windfall for the provincial government when lumber prices are down, as they are now. There is a 15% export tax when the Random Lengths Composite price is below US$ 315, as it is now. The duty can increase by 50% if the "surge penalty" kicks in, which happens when quotas are exceeded. The export tax is collected by Canada and remitted to the province. In her second quarter financial report released in November, Finance Minister Carole Taylor estimated that taxes flowing to the province from the Agreement will yield $208 million in the fiscal year ending March 31, 2007. The Agreement provides that none of those funds can be used to help the industry that is hurt by the Agreement and by low prices. What kind of a government would boast about that kind of a deal?

First Nations

The Campbell government's about face in its attitude to First Nations is truly breathtaking; nevertheless, the Premier fails to acknowledge the extent of the change. It is fair to say that matters affecting First Nations have finally become non-partisan, after an unfortunate referendum conducted by the Campbell government in its first term. There remains a role for critics to hold the Campbell government accountable for achieving measurable outcomes. Commitments on health and education and the initialing of treaties are steps in a process, but what counts is whether the gaps close between the aboriginal population and other British Columbians.

The First Nations Health Plan could serve as a model of how outcomes expected from government commitments should be specified and measured. It promises that: "The Provincial Health Officer will issue Aboriginal health status reports every five years, with interim updates every two years." Attention should be paid to those accountability reports and corrective action should be taken when necessary to assure that the targets aren't postponed or weakened.

Opposition

The Official Opposition didn't release its own version of a year end review for 2006. As of January 1, 2007 the most recent release on the website for the Official Opposition is a call for a park feasibility study for the Flathead Valley. The NDP's website also ignored the traditional year end review in favour of a focus on "credit card medicine" and the growth of private health care under the Campbell government.

Polling results were disappointing for many New Democrats in 2006 as the Campbell Liberals finished the year with a nine point lead, 45% to 39% with 16% for the Greens. Of course, the next provincial election isn't until May 12, 2009. If the Opposition performs as it did during the brief fall sitting of the Legislature, support for the Liberals may waver. During those four days the government felt the heat on political interference in a freedom of information request regarding the Coroners Service, BC Hydro contracts for coal-fired power plants, failures of private post-secondary institutions, certification of home inspectors and private health care. It is difficult, however, for the Opposition to make any of its criticisms more than a 24-hour story; it takes new information to sustain a story in the news media, and hence keep in it front of the public. That allows the government to set and control the agenda, particularly when the legislature is not sitting.

Since the government's year end boast about agreements had more to do with process than with measurable outcomes, the Opposition may be able to re-visit those matters as it holds the government to account for results. That should make 2007 an interesting year.

2007

January is likely to be a slow period on the political calendar unless the government comes up with some surprises. The Legislature will sit for a Speech from the Throne on February 13th and for the 2007-2008 Budget on February 20th. That is when British Columbians will finally hear what the Campbell government intends to do about welfare rates, the shelter allowance and homelessness. It is embarrassing for a province that is so rich to ignore those who are being left behind. As the Premier said in his year end video, "Reach out and help someone who isn't quite as fortunate as you are."

 
 

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