Monday, June 30, 2008

Coleman's autocratic style could be problem in new ministry
June 27, 2008

Dare we hope that a new day is dawning with news this week that B.C.’s most pressing social issues are now the responsibility of a single provincial ministry?
The new Housing and Social Development Ministry is an amalgam of various challenging bits pulled from other ministries, and on that front reminds me of the old “Ministry of Lost Causes” - the wink-wink nudge-nudge name for the now-defunct Community, Aboriginal and Women’s Ministry, which seemed more than anything to be a place where unpopular issues went to die.
The rebundled housing ministry has responsibility for virtually everything that relates to poverty: welfare; subsidized housing and homelessness; addiction and mental health strategy; landlord-tenant disputes; transition houses. It’s also got responsibility for anyone with a disability, including those with mental handicaps. Every impoverished and disadvantaged person in the province will be a client of the new ministry in one way or the other.
But at the same time, the ministry also manages two major B.C. revenue streams: alcohol sales and gaming. That’s not to say it’s able to spend the almost $2 billion in net revenues that drinking and gambling generate every year in B.C., but surely it can’t hurt to be in the room whenever that much money is flying around.
MLA Rich Coleman will preside over the new creation. He’s familiar with at least some of the issues, having had responsibility for gaming in a previous cabinet job and more recently, for social housing as part of his Forests Ministry portfolio. Whether he’s up for a considerably more intense portfolio at a point in time when B.C.’s social problems have never been worse - well, I guess we’ll see.
I generally take the measure of a politician from their time in Opposition, when they haven’t yet been brought to heel by “party discipline.” So I browsed old newspaper files this week for stories from Coleman’s five years in Opposition under Glen Clark’s New Democrat government (1996-2001).
Coleman was new to politics then, having previously been a real estate developer, security adviser, and RCMP officer. Given that he was the housing critic at the time, the strategies he was promoting then have real relevance to his current position.
The good news: He’s clearly an engaged, caring kind of guy. The Fort Langley-Aldergrove MLA has an active history with Kinsmen and Rotary clubs and his local Chamber of Commerce, and has won three awards over the years for his community involvement. As a new MLA, he personally advocated on behalf of a family fighting to keep their children from being apprehended by the province.
The bad news: He’s a long-time believer in leaving it to the private sector to sort out housing issues. He’s on record opposing government construction of social housing, contending instead that the province’s role in the issue should be limited to providing individual rent subsidies. Coleman was so adamant on that point that a worried Co-operative Housing Federation formed a special committee in 2000 just to combat his take on the subject.
People change, of course, and Coleman’s tack these past two years as minister responsible for housing certainly seems to indicate some changed thinking.
Under his leadership these past two years, the province has bought a total of 32 building sites and old hotels in Vancouver for conversion into social housing, which will house 1,800 people all told when built out sometime around 2010. Purse strings are loosening in our region as well.
What’s perhaps more of a concern in the new gig, then, is Coleman’s style. As we’ve learned the hard way from the appalling handoff of forestry lands to private developers in Port Alberni and now Sooke, Coleman feels no need to consult with anyone outside of government before doing whatever he wants.
And while nobody likes hearing that they’re making mistakes, Coleman really seems to dislike criticism. In the past few months alone, he has challenged the findings of the forest-safety ombudsman, a team of Simon Fraser University researchers looking into homelessness, and planners working on a massive mixed-housing development at the Riverview psychiatric hospital site. As forests minister, his autocratic ways managed to unite industry workers and environmentalists in a call for his resignation.
That doesn’t bode well for his new position. Addressing the complex problems of poor and disadvantaged citizens simply can’t be done in the absence of genuine community consultation. We need a minister who knows how to listen, and Coleman doesn’t come across as someone who gets that.
But hey, maybe this time will be different. With a deepening social crisis hanging in the balance, we’ll know soon enough.

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