Monday, January 26, 2009

Progress Board /08 report highlights B.C.'s chronic challenges

Left to my own devices, I’d have a heck of a time trying to take the measure of B.C.’s economic performance. I get that it’s a really important thing to pay attention to, but my brain just doesn’t go there easily.
So I’m grateful for the yearly analysis done by the B.C. Progress Board, a non-profit entity set up eight years ago by the Liberals specifically to track key performance measures in the province.
The annual report certainly doesn’t give you everything you need to know to gauge whether things are improving in B.C. But the economic and social measures it gathers at least provide a partial picture of how B.C. is performing, both over time and compared to other provinces and countries.
The 18 business leaders and academics who form the Progress Board piece together things like hourly wage rates, exports, tax levels, productivity, and long-term employment, then work in social/health indicators like air quality, land preservation, people living below the low-income cutoff, and life expectancy. (Find the 2008 report at
The reports are valuable for what they tell us about B.C., including the challenges that continue to elude us. The 2008 edition finds the Liberals enjoying considerable success on some fronts and spinning their wheels on others, most often on issues that have gotten the best of B.C. for many years now.
The Liberals were elected on a platform of fiscal responsibility and lower taxes, and have seen success on both those fronts. We’ve had four consecutive years of budget surpluses, ending a nearly 13-year stretch of deficits.
If you’re well-paid, you’ll also appreciate that B.C. now has the second-lowest income tax rate (14.7 per cent) in the country for people in the top income bracket. We’re also top of the charts when it comes to producing university graduates.
But the progress report also reveals that some of the tough issues dogging B.C. when the Liberals took office continue to bedevil the province today.
A couple examples: B.C. had one of the lowest productivity rates in Canada when the Liberals formed government in 2001, and some of the highest rates per capita of people living below the national low-income cutoff. We still do. We also have one of the highest crime rates in Canada.
Productivity is essentially a measurement of how many hours of work it takes to produce all of B.C.’s goods and services. It’s important because higher productivity rates mean better wages, a more competitive workforce, and increased revenue for government to fund health care, education, infrastructure, and so on.
But it’s clearly something we struggle with in B.C., and not only because we’re laid-back West Coasters.
“While we are concerned about whether employees in British Columbia are reaching their full potential,” writes the Progress Board in its 2008 report, “of equal importance is the need for governments and private industry to create ‘winning conditions.’ Are we making sufficient investments in infrastructure and innovation? Our benchmark results suggest the answer has consistently been no.”
In terms of people living below the low-income cutoff (a somewhat flawed standard used to estimate poverty), the 2008 report wonders whether there’s something unique about B.C. that explains why it has a high number of “less well-off” people even when the economy is booming. The board promises more study into B.C.’s consistently poor ranking on this front for more than a decade.
Social conditions in B.C. get a “middling” ranking of six from the Progress Board, which came to that conclusion after factoring in things like life expectancy, long-term employment, low-income households and number of income-assistance recipients.
A six isn’t exactly stellar, but it’s still an improvement over the nines and 10s that predominated from 1999-2005. However, I wonder whether the higher welfare caseloads in those years skewed those figures, and disagree with the board’s assumption that any decline in welfare rolls is automatically “good.”
As for crime rates, they’ve fallen dramatically right across the country in the last decade or so, including in B.C. But we’ve still got one of the worst rates in Canada. Yes, the incidence of reported crimes has dropped 14 per cent in B.C. since 1998, but rates have dropped even faster in other provinces.
What does it all mean? That B.C. has seen some successes but still has significant work to do if it really wants to be “the best place on Earth.” Whoever forms government after the May election needs to put aside ideology-based theories of governance and just get the job done.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Goodbye, Stan - you'll be missed

Twenty-eight years ago, on one of the worst nights of my life, Stan Hagen was there for me.
I’ve never forgotten his random act of kindness that April evening at the Nanaimo White Spot, and only wish I’d told him that before he died this week.
We ran into each other fairly regularly over the years, and the first thought in my head every time was of the night at the White Spot. I always wanted to tell him that there was a special place in my heart for him, because he was so kind to me at a time when I was utterly devastated. But wouldn’t you know it, I never did.
We were different people in those days. I was a young piano teacher in Courtenay, in what turned out to be the dying days of my first marriage. He owned a cement plant in town and was raising a happy, clamorous young family of five with his wife Judy.
I knew Stan and Judy because I taught piano to two of their children. We weren’t close pals by any means, but we exchanged pleasantries at the door whenever they brought their kids for piano lessons, and they were regulars at the twice-yearly piano recitals I held in my living room for my little clutch of students.
That night at the White Spot, I was on the run: from my marriage; from the Comox Valley; from the terrible question of whether I should leave my kids behind. I had driven down Island that April evening in a wild and grief-filled panic, knowing only that I needed to get out of town for a night and think.
For reasons I can no longer remember, I’d checked into an unpleasant little motel in an industrial part of Parksville. (It’s still there, and I still can’t drive past it without cringing.) I can’t imagine why I decided to go to the Nanaimo White Spot for dinner, but I suppose it was a familiar place, and God knows I needed comfort.
I walked in and there was Stan, eating by himself. He asked if I wanted to sit with him. If I’d been a bolder type, I probably would have said no, because just about the last thing I wanted at that moment was to have to make polite small talk with the dad of one of my piano students.
But I couldn’t bring myself to be so rude, so I joined him.
He was a religious man, and I was reluctant to answer the inevitable question about what brought me to Nanaimo that night. I was worried he’d judge me for leaving my marriage, let alone contemplating leaving my children, too.
But I was too young and wounded to be able to pull together a quick cover story, and pretty soon I’d told him what brought me there. The funny thing is, I don’t really remember anything of the conversation that followed, except that Stan listened without one shred of judgment.
I left the restaurant a couple hours later deeply grateful for his brief company, and feeling better equipped to deal with the painful decisions I faced.
I didn’t see Stan again for probably five years, by which time our lives had changed dramatically. It was 1986 and I was a reporter in Kamloops, covering the education beat for the Kamloops Sentinel. Stan was a provincial politician, and the minister of advanced education.
I’ll never forget the look on the faces of his aides on the day he and I met up again, during one of Stan’s first visits to Kamloops as a new cabinet minister. It’s not often you see a cabinet minister hugging a journalist, and we laughed at how our lives had ended up intersecting yet again.
As would become the pattern from that point on whenever we ran into each other, the conversation quickly turned to the years when I taught his girls piano, and the many musical adventures they’d embarked on since then. He loved to bring me up to speed on their accomplishments.
I don’t know what it is about certain people, but our paths continued to intersect in surprising ways. Piano dad when I was a piano teacher, cabinet minister when I was a journalist, minister of child and family development for much of the time when I was working in the non-profit sector - Stan was always cropping up in my life. After I moved to Victoria, we’d meet up maybe once a year to have lunch together, and almost never talked politics.
I never took Stan’s measure as a politician, and won’t now. What I do know is that he was a good man, and that I’ll miss him. Godspeed, Stan.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Change of heart on BC welfare may be too little, too late

When Gordon Campbell’s Liberals were first elected in 2001, almost a quarter million British Columbians were living on welfare. Those numbers have fallen by almost 100,000 since then.
Good news or bad? That’s a profound question. The tremendous drop in B.C. welfare rates over the past 14 years is either a marvel of social strategy or a major reason why we’ve ended up with so many people living on our streets. So it’s not the kind of thing you want to get wrong.
The government’s own vision for its welfare programs establishes what we’re shooting for in the province: “Government is committed to helping those most in need and helping people who are able to work achieve sustainable employment.” Are we achieving that vision?
First, a brief welfare primer for B.C. newcomers. Welfare rates hit an historic high in 1995, with 367,387 British Columbians on assistance - 10 per cent of the population. An embarrassed New Democrat government promised a crackdown, and by the late 1990s had adopted a new “tough love” qualification process and welfare-to-work program that continues to this day.
By the time the Liberals took office, the NDP had reduced the number of welfare clients (which includes the children of people on welfare) to 245,000, six per cent of the population. The Liberals have since cut it further, to three per cent: 146,152. Subtract the people with permanent disabilities from that tally, and it turns out that less than one per cent of the population now receives temporary assistance.
Welfare is a mean existence. The money’s just enough to stay poor forever - $610 a month for a single person on temporary assistance, and only for those with a place to live ($235 otherwise). But it’s better than nothing, and a vital component of smart social planning.
Most of the reduction in client numbers was made during the Liberals’ first term in office, when their enthusiasm for slashing social programs knew no bounds. The party’s second term has been significantly different, at least in the last couple of years. Perhaps they just woke up and smelled the coffee, but at any rate the welfare caseload bottomed out in 2007 and has been rising ever so slowly ever since.
For the first time since 1995, the number of people qualifying for welfare is increasing rather than decreasing. This past year, the client load grew by more than 10,000 people.
The government has even begun to hire outreach workers to hit the streets specifically to find people who aren’t on welfare and sign them up - unthinkable in the Liberals’ early years. Welfare rates inched up a little. It could be the Liberals have come to see what many of us had already concluded: that the government had gone too far with its cuts to welfare.
Trying to measure government performance is a challenging task if only because the goal posts keep changing, and rarely more so than in the Ministry of Housing and Social Development, where the welfare program resides. The name of the ministry alone has changed three times since the Liberals took office, and trying to draw comparisons between then and now is a bit like comparing the fabled apple to the orange.
But two long-term trends clearly visible through the haze are an increase in the number of people receiving disability assistance, and a dramatic drop in those receiving temporary assistance.
The number of people receiving disability has almost tripled since 1995, to 81,000 from a low of 26,708. Disability provides a little bigger stipend than regular welfare and includes a cheap annual bus pass, so I’ll take the increase as a positive sign that more people who really need the help are now getting it.
At the same time, however, the number of British Columbians receiving temporary assistance has fallen by more than 80 per cent, from 340,679 to a mere 64,754.
Some people have found jobs through B.C.’s welfare training programs, of course, and others deserved to get dumped from the dole. But many more simply crashed through the gaping holes that developed in the system. In terms of cost-effectiveness, Andrew MacLeod reported in the Tyee in 2005 that we’d spent $31 million on welfare-to-work programs in the Liberals’ first term to save $18 million in welfare payments.
Good on the Liberals for trying harder these past couple years. But the suffering they inflicted to get to this point has been considerable. People lost housing, hope and dignity during the worst of the cutbacks, and problems on our streets skyrocketed.
I’ll be looking for smarter, better-informed welfare policy from the next B.C. government.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Watch the spin on your way to the facts

I wrote in last week’s column about doing my part for the next few months to take the measure of the B.C. government, in the interest of helping us all be better informed come the May election.
It’s only just sinking in this week what a complicated task that’s going to be. I’m neck-deep in fascinating statistics already, but no doubt you’re familiar with that Benjamin Disraeli warning about “lies, damn lies and statistics.” I love stats for their simplicity, but they spin like a dream and are rarely as black and white as they first appear.
What is good government, anyway? It strikes me that I’ll have to settle that point in my head if I’m to have any success with this exercise. The answer that comes quickest to my mind is that good government acts at all times in the best interests of British Columbians overall.
A big job. But would you want any less? No government in the world gets things right all the time, of course, but that’s not to say we don’t want them to try. I want a government that understands its job is to run every aspect of the province well, on behalf of everyone who lives here.
What that means at the individual level varies wildly, which is the point. British Columbians come from all walks of life, and differ substantially about what they want from their government. It’s up to government to take all of that into account, and to run the province in a way that everyone recognizes as fair and wise even when it isn’t exactly how they’d do it.
What that looks like in terms of actual government performance - well, that’s a tricky thing. In a tangled global economy, in a province weighted down by a deliberately distant federal government and frequent ineptitude at the municipal level, how DO you gauge provincial performance when so many other factors are at play?
To the Liberals’ great credit, they did come up with the concept of annual service plans for measuring government performance when first elected in 2001. The plans establish specific goals for every ministry, and each year report on progress toward those goals.
But are the goals in the service plans the right ones? Ah, that’s a whole other question. Some seem to merely measure the measurements, while others are vague enough to be interpreted any number of ways. (For instance, does reaching a goal of reducing the welfare caseload to a certain percentage of the B.C. population mean more people have been helped to find jobs, or simply cut off assistance?)
Still, the plans - on the government Web site at are packed with information. Some of it is puzzling and some is downright useless, but it all helps when it comes to putting the pieces together on government performance.
Equally important are sources of information from outside government, based on the assumption that government plays down or buries things that cast it in a bad light. But it’s five months before an election, and the government isn’t the only one with an agenda. Reader, beware.
An example: I was digging around in homelessness statistics and came across a 2007 report from the New Democrats establishing the number of homeless British Columbians at almost 11,000. I’m sure the NDP didn’t just make the figure up, but can the numbers be trusted absolutely when they come from such a political source? (I guess the real test will be whether they act on those findings if elected.)
If you’re reading a report from the Fraser Institute, keep in mind that it’s probably leans a little too right. If it’s from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, it’s likely too left. If it’s from a business group, social issues will have been ignored; meanwhile, reports from social-justice groups ignore the business case. The remedy for that is to read ‘em all.
I’d love to see a flood of letters to the editor and opinion pieces over the next five months on the subject of good governance. What does that term mean to you? What do you know from your own experiences these past eight years in B.C. that might be useful to the rest of us in gauging the current government’s performance?
For once I want to go into an election feeling absolutely clear about my choices. Hope you’ll join me.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Now's the time for scrutiny of BC government

We’re heading into a big year for B.C. Faltering economy, provincial election looming, massively expensive sporting event on the horizon - if ever there was a time for us citizens to take the measure of our government, this is it.
The election will be upon us in five months. In the run-up to it, B.C. politicians’ eyes will be on us for a change. We get such a chance no more than two or three times a decade - a brief window of opportunity for the public to capture the attention of politicians at a time when they’re highly motivated to listen.
Most of the politicians I know are good people wanting to do the right thing. But good intention isn’t the same thing as effective governance, something that the citizenry needs to be much more mindful of when choosing its politicians.
Are B.C.’s Liberals running an effective government? Before you head to the polls in May for the provincial election, make a New Year’s resolution to determine the answer to that.
Whatever you care about most - the environment, social problems, health care, taxes, school support - make it a priority to seek out information that will tell you whether the Liberals have been effective (The government’s own comprehensive Web site at is a great place to start.)
I’m a political agnostic, so will make no recommendations as to who to vote for when the time comes. My own vote remains undecided, except for saying “Yes” to electoral reform in the referendum happening at the same time as the election. I’ve seen no evidence in my years observing B.C.’s political scene that any party has all the answers.
Accountability is the watch word in my mind. Close to home, I note that newly elected Victoria Mayor Dean Fortin is promising in a Globe and Mail interview that there will be a resolution to homelessness in the downtown within six months. The Globe lists Fortin on a prestigious list of “Ten to Watch” in 2009, which I assume means he’s going to be working miracles this year.
It’s a wonderful bit of politicking, but the test is whether he means it. We’ll know soon enough by Fortin’s actions whether he’s the visionary leader we’ve been waiting for in the city, or if it’s all just more empty words leading nowhere. What’s important in the case at hand and anytime a politician makes promises is to hold them to what they said.
That they’re being held accountable at all times by the public ought to be a constant reality of any politician’s tenure, of course, not just at election time. We can’t be waiting three more years to hold the new Victoria council accountable for what it achieves around homelessness.
But it’s in the months before an election that politicians listen most intently. The 2009 provincial election is particularly important , not only because of the financial uncertainties B.C. is heading into over the next few years but also because a major electoral-reform referendum is being conducted at the same time with the potential to dramatically change the face of politics in B.C.
So it’s the public’s time in the sun now - to think about what matters and get some answers from government about its priorities and past performance. If we don’t like what we hear, government has five months to adjust course or risk losing our votes. Nice and direct.
What’s essential to the process, however, is public engagement. Go looking for the evidence that tells you whether government is doing its job. Keep score. Demand better. Extract commitments from those vying to be your MLA, and let them know you’ll be holding them accountable.
Read any reports you can find. Search the Mansard records on the government Web site. Follow the money. Read media coverage, but never rely on it exclusively.
Whoever you choose to vote for, do what you can to establish the person’s performance record. Accountability is vital, but what’s even more important is to know before we elect somebody that they’re up to the challenge.
It’s more difficult to establish a candidate’s performance record if he or she isn’t in government right now or has never run for office before, but you can still learn a lot these days from a Google search and visiting a few good blog sites.
For my part, I’ll spend the next few months trying to take the measure of the government’s performance for my column. But the wisdom will come from all of us. Effective government starts with electing effective people, and we’ve got five precious months ahead of us to figure that out.