Friday, March 19, 2010

Hi, blog readers. I'm away travelling now until May 1. I've left behind some columns that will be running in the Times Colonist during that time but won't be posting them to my blog until my return. Hope you'll continue to read me at the TC site - you'll find my columns here.

NDP: Please don't leave us with no one who gives a damn

With all due respect to a woman who I personally like, there’s a burning question I need to get off my chest: Where the heck are Carole James and the NDP?
I get that a party has to change with the times. The New Democrats know that if they’re to stand a chance of getting elected in 2013, they’ll need to convince the electorate they care as much about the economy as the Liberals do.
But the party’s attempts to morph into Liberal lite have left no one in the legislature to champion the cause of human beings - not just as units of production, but as regular people trying to get through their lives.
It ought to be pretty obvious to us that we all need to care about such things if we’re genuinely going to build B.C.’s economy. The essence of a healthy economy is a skilled, healthy populace who can provide all the brains, brawn and investment capital needed to ensure prosperity long into the future.
Virtually all of us will find ourselves outside the economic machine at some point in our lives, for any of a thousand different reasons. Where is the voice in the legislature for that group, now that so much of the messaging from both sides of the House excludes them?
People get sick. Their children are born with disabilities. A workplace accident changes their lives forever. Their parents get old. They struggle to find decent, affordable daycare. A loved one develops a mental illness, or an addiction to drugs or alcohol.
Such are the events of life for all of us. Nobody escapes.
Yet in our legislature right now, we have one political party that has been busy eroding social supports and preventive services for almost 10 years now, and another that appears to have checked out of the debate entirely. Yikes.
Of course, a 35-member Opposition can’t possibly stay on top of everything the government is doing. MLAs in Opposition also seem to feel a greater duty of care to their constituents than do those in power, which explains the highly local nature of many of the 18 press releases the NDP has issued since the budget came down March 2.
The party has clearly looked into the crystal ball and decided it needs a broader base of support in B.C., which I guess is why it has made the Harmonized Sales Tax its biggest issue of late.
But when the Liberals cut almost $12.4 million out of services to non-aboriginal B.C. children and families and the story is gone from the media in the blink of an eye - well, that’s a pretty big sign that something’s up with the NDP. There was a time when the New Democrats could have whipped up a media frenzy for weeks over a development like that.
When a whole heap of trouble comes raining down on the province’s poor and the only thing that emerges from the NDP is a mediocre press release repeating the government’s own confusing information on the grim list of cuts to basic health care and birth control, you just have to know that the old fire in the belly that was once a party hallmark has faded to a dim flicker.
Is it because the NDP just don’t want to get into these issues anymore? Or are they having trouble engaging the media, and thus have no vehicle for getting their howls of indignation heard?
I don’t know, but I sure hope they figure it out. I don’t adhere to a particular political ideology or voting pattern, but it’s a very sad day when the only party that has ever talked in a meaningful way about caring for people appears to be losing interest in the subject.
"For the NDP to be successful, it needs to have stronger relations with all sectors of the business community," Moe Sihota told Province columnist Mike Smyth last fall, not long before Sihota’s election as the new president of the B.C. New Democratic Party.
"People need to see that the party is attentive to both business and social concerns. You need to reach out so that people feel comfortable."
True enough, Moe. But you can’t have forgotten your own time in Opposition in the 1980s, when every day was another opportunity to stick it to the Socreds over one poorly considered cut and deception after another. Remember how good it felt to hold the government accountable?
Please get back at it, New Democrats. Your new corporate look is scaring me.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Crazy-making cuts instantly increase government costs

The funny thing about the current government is that I often agree with what they say. It’s what they do that makes me crazy.
For instance, here’s the premier in an interview with the Times Colonist last week: "I think it's really important for people to understand that the costs of our health-care system are staggering, frankly.”
Indeed. Health eats up 42 cents of every dollar the government spends. Premier, you’ll get no argument from me on that.
But on the very day that Gordon Campbell was saying that, his government was preparing to eliminate birth-control options for women and men living in poverty, who will soon lose access to IUDs and condoms. It was taking away $50 glucometers from people on income assistance who have diabetes, needed to measure their blood sugar every day. It was cancelling funding for a little plastic adapter that makes it easier for people with asthma to use their inhalers.
And I’m left to wonder: Hey, guys, what the heck are you thinking? And how on Earth did your talk ever come to be quite so far away from your walk?
“Who did they consult? Certainly not a doctor I could ever imagine,” says Dr. Danica Gleave, a Cool Aid Health Centre physician who predicts dire repercussions from the health cuts to people on income assistance. “It just baffles me. These are people who have no backup, no other resources.”
Looks like they didn’t fly the plan past the provincial health officer, either. Asked this week about the cuts, Dr. Perry Kendall wondered whether a cost-benefit analysis had been done. “The impact should be monitored, as this may turn out to be counterproductive to health and budgets in the longer run,” he noted.
Hopefully a journalism teacher has latched onto the press release announcing the cuts. It’s a fine example of modern-day propaganda. (As was Budget 2010; there must be a new communications mandate that all bad things are to be restated as good.)
The headline: “Province protects services for low-income clients.” The opening paragraph: Changes will be implemented “in a manner that is fair to all British Columbians and supports children and families.” The cuts to birth control, glucometers and asthma adapters are needed to “ensure these programs will be available to meet the most medically essential needs of clients.”
Well, except for impoverished people in their fertile years, diabetics and asthmatics. And the ones who no longer qualify for “ready-made” orthotics - insoles, braces and the like, which have also been cut. Oh, and the ones with HIV, hanging onto their health with the help of $20 worth of bottled water every month.
Doctors at the Cool Aid centre typically prescribe IUDs to at least a dozen women on income assistance a week, says Gleave.
“We see all kinds of women who benefit from an IUD - sex workers, people with developmental disabilities, people who have behavioural issues that make it hard for them to be compliant with taking a pill every day. These cuts are being made on the backs of the most vulnerable people,” she says.
“The cuts will result in an increased number of unwanted pregnancies. It will increase emergency-room visits for people with asthma. Every diabetic needs to have a glucometer - it’s a huge safety issue for insulin-dependent people. We’re robbing Peter to pay Paul.”
There are no savings to be had by denying access to IUDs, says Island Sexual Health executive director Bobbi Turner.
“The IUD is the most cost-effective form of birth control out there. Something like the Copper T costs $60 and lasts three to five years,” says Turner. “IUDs are not part of the ‘compassion program’ that drug companies have to provide free birth-control pills to these women, so this change cuts off a really effective form of birth control.”
I tried to get Health Minister Kevin Falcon to talk to me about this, because it’s obvious that the cuts in Rich Coleman’s Ministry of Housing and Social Development will increase health costs almost immediately. But it appears the government doesn’t like to talk about such things, because I just ended up routed back to the MHSD communications staff.
Maybe I should try for Mary Polak next over at the Ministry of Children and Family Development. The cuts ultimately mean more kids in care for the women who end up pregnant. But she’s probably too distracted right now, what with the $12.3 million in community cuts already going on for non-aboriginal children and families served by her ministry.
Or maybe just straight to the top. Premier, do you really want to get a handle on health-care spending? You have to know you’re never going to get there this way.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Read this and weep.

Inside the B.C. 2010 budget lockup

For those of you who have never been in a provincial budget lockup, this is how it is: You spend six hours flipping through page after page of financial information, scribbling asterisks in the margins here and there to signal “Important!” and folding down corners to remind yourself to go back and figure something out late.
And then you leave thinking, hey, did I learn anything new at all? Do I really have a clue about how the next year in B.C. is shaping up?
It has always been thus, ever since my first lockup in 1996 or so. I go every time thinking that maybe this once, I’m going to find the nugget, experience the “Aha!”, make somebody squirm in government by ferreting out The Thing, the one they really didn’t want to talk about.
Not so far. In my experience, it’s more like a shell game. I go up to the nice people in suits with my budget in hand and ask some variation of “Where’d the money go?” They always have a prompt and clear answer, but it’s always some variation of, “No worries, its right over here.”
Is it? Who knows? By then it’s been blended into three other funding streams, cut up across eight new programs, given a different name and shifted to another ministry. Good luck following the money.
The lockup is a provincial tradition that gives several hundred media and “stakeholders” an early look at the coming year’s budget, and to ask questions of deputy ministers and assistant deputy ministers who know their stuff. That’s the real attraction of the event, but you also get a lot of documents to browse through, too.
They call it a lockup because that’s what happens: Once you’re in, you can’t leave until the finance minister rises in the legislature around 2:30 p.m. So you’ve got a lot of time to reflect on those numbers if you arrive early enough. I guess that’s why I always think there’s a chance that in an entire six hours, I might unearth some fascinating fact, some deeper understanding of the figures.
But it’s not just because I’m no expert at numbers. The lockup this week was such a stellar example of obfuscation that I got to wondering whether that’s somebody’s job in government. So much changes budget to budget that a genuine comparison is virtually impossible unless you’re a financial analyst, and I imagine even some of them are tripped up in the fog that politics brings to an exercise like this.
One thing that’s very clear in the budget is the Liberals’ misuse of their own “performance measures” initiative. Come on, you guys! I thought it was a great idea when you started establishing measurements for government performance when you first took office, but what’s the point when you keep changing the goal posts year to year?
I keep vowing to myself I’m going to spread out all the service plans from previous budgets one of these days, and count how many times performance measurements have changed, been severely diluted, or just plain vanished since the initiative started a decade or so ago. I think it would be quite an eye-opener.
The measurements have reached the point of ridiculousness now, as a browse through the 2010-13 ministry service plans underlines. Service plans are where the ministries state their priorities for coming years and then list the performance measures they’ll be using to gauge whether they’ve succeeded.
A couple telling examples from the Ministry of Children and Family Development service plan:
The ministry’s number-one priority is to “Place primary focus on preventing vulnerability in children and youth by providing strong supports for individuals, families and community.” Absolutely. But here’s the single performance measurement the ministry will use to determine whether it’s meeting that priority: An increase in the number of single parents receiving a day-care subsidy.
Really. I can only hope that whoever actually put that into the report as the sole measurement of child and family vulnerability was embarrassed to have to do it.
Another priority calls for early intervention. Bravo. But the sole measurement is a reduction in the number of children coming into government care who are instead placed with extended family and friends.
Targets for improvement are often missed budget to budget - things like aboriginal graduate rates (50 per cent), the number of elementary-school students who are reading at expected levels( as low as 68 per cent), children starting kindergarten behind in their development (28 per cent). Who’s actually responsible for making things happen? Who do we hold accountable?
Us, I guess. We’re the ones who put up with it.