Campbell’s gimmicky ads do little for those on the street  

Picture this TV ad.  A toddler climbs stairs.   The toddler morphs into a child, the child into teenager, teenager into adult – – all of them climbing stairs.  A worker climbs a ladder to a door marked “employee entrance” (from an advertisement for Achieve BC paid for by the government of B.C.).

What are these dream-like ads from the government trying to tell us?   And what is it costing taxpayers?

One dream interpretation of climbing stairs is “a change in consciousness, or a change in understanding. In a more material sense, it could represent a rise in economic or social status.”  The psychology for Achieve BC seems to be about increased wealth and well-being.

Achieve BC is the brainchild of Premier Campbell and it’s costing more than he had originally hoped.  Campbell thought that he could pay for it out of his office budget when the cost was only $4.7 million.  But as soon as it hit $7.1 million, he shifted it to the budget of the Ministry of Management Services where it remains buried.

Now the cost of Achieve BC is away from public view.  I tried to find out the cost from the Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services when they were in Kamloops last October.   A committee member told me that he would find out and let me know, but no word yet.

At first glance, I wonder why the government spent millions.   I guess it’s supposed to be inspirational.  You can watch a video clip in which the premier says “Achieve BC is about bringing out the best in all of us.  Whether it’s new parents wanting to give their children a healthy start in life, workers striving to be the best in their profession, or students planning for future opportunities – all of us want to be the best we can.”

Achieve B.C. only makes sense in combination with other actions of this government.  When you couple it with Campbell’s plan for low-income British Columbians,  a bigger picture immerges.  In a few months, he intends to cut-off thousands from welfare. The B.C. Liberals refuse to say exactly how many.  It’s a worry to cities, which will suddenly have thousands more homeless people.

The government’s message seems to be “after you find yourself with no means of support, check out Achieve B.C. for inspiration.” Campbell’s plan is a little short on reality.

First, the poor don’t lack motivation.  There’s nothing like the prospect of destitution to focus the mind on trying to get a job.  The problem is that B.C. has one of the highest unemployment rates in Canada.

Low income British Columbians are not likely to have a computer and the internet service required to access the Achieve BC website, in order to receive the premier’s wonderful inspirational message.  And if they had a TV and saw the Achieve BC ad, they could easily mistake it for a promotion for RRSP’s.  Not the kind of stuff that would interest someone who would buy groceries if they had any money.

Those made homeless by this government face a big problem.  Let’s say that they have filled out an application.  Potential employers are not likely to consider an application that gives an address as a sleeping bag under a bridge, or a cardboard box in a back alley.

It doesn’t seem to occur to the premier that the barriers to getting off welfare are affordable housing, education, and access to health care.  But why would that occur to Campbell when his home, powerful connections, and wealth are as common as water is to a fish?

Or maybe the message of Achieve B.C. is not for those on welfare after all.   It’s a message to those of us with computers and TVs, to let us know that the Campbell’s government has a plan, however flawed, to get people off the welfare rolls.

And the poor also serve as a useful warning. Don’t expect higher wages or any improvement in your lives.  Cooperate, or a sawmill or factory could be closing down in your town, and the fate of the poor will befall you.

Speaking of jobs, here’s a new one.  Thanks to my retirement from UCC, a new person is employed.  I plan on putting more time into my retirement project, Trio Technical.

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B.C.’s poor a convenient target in the politics of class rivalry 

Premier Campbell has a New Year’s resolution for B.C.’s poorest – – get off welfare and get a job.  It’s more than a suggestion.  In four months, thousands will be cut off welfare.  The B.C. Liberals refuse to say exactly how many.

The resolution won’t apply to Campbell, however.  Oh no, he prefers welfare, defined as “well-being, happiness, health and prosperity” by the Canadian Oxford dictionary.

The semantic difference between being on welfare and possessing welfare may be slight but they are worlds apart.

While the welfare of the rich is improving, welfare for the poor is under attack.  That wasn’t always so.  Welfare was once a good idea supported by nearly all governments.  Especially in the past when 80 per cent were poor compared to today’s 20 percent.

Modern welfare began over one hundred years ago as a response to disease and child poverty.  Welfare first depended on the philanthropic inclinations the wealthy and was generally treated as a local and private concern.  The government run welfare state soon became the sign of a civilized society.

Welfare was expanded after the First World War when soldiers returned to jobs held by women.  Many of those women lost their jobs to men, and lost husbands on the battlefield. The “mother’s allowance” was established to help those single mothers.

The failure of capitalism during the great depression of the 1930s left all but the wealthy doubting about the supposed restorative power of the marketplace.  It became abundantly clear that philanthropic inclinations and a mother’s allowance was not going to be enough to pull most Canadians out of poverty.

The post-war economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s was a contrast to the dirty thirties.  Wages improved and the number of middle-class Canadians increased.  But they never forgot the depression and poverty was a persistent memory passed down through generations.

That memory of poverty gave political impetus to our modern welfare state with its three cornerstones – – Medicare, the Canada Pension Plan, and the Canada Assistance Plan.

The post-war economic upsurge was followed by a downturn in the 1970s. North American economies have never really recovered since. This period is characterized by an aging population, stagnant wages, growing unemployment, failure of large corporations, cuts of transfer payments to the provinces, and growing welfare ranks.

The growth of food banks are reminiscent of soup lines that my parents saw in the 1930s.  Poverty has thrown Canadians out on the streets.  The number of street people has also grown by the closing of institutions like Kamloops’ Tranquille Sanatorium in which many mentally ill patients were left to fend for themselves.  The generational memory of the depression is fading.

“The modern conservative conception of the welfare state is guided by principles of 19th century liberalism, i.e., less government equals more liberty (Canadian Encyclopedia).”

In this view, the reduction of inequality by the welfare state is seen as the antithesis of pursuit of freedom and material progress.

This is what the welfare state has come to.  Canada’s poor have been targeted, not only as a drain on taxes but as lacking the work ethic of the deserving rich class.  The failure of capitalism to provide a living for all is seldom mentioned.

The poor make a convenient political target because they don’t have the resources to fight back.  Politicians remind the middle class that their taxes going to support able-bodied people on welfare.  B.C.’s working poor don’t need to be reminded that their standard of living has been slipping.

In 1970, low-income Canadians had to work 50 hours a week just to keep above the poverty line.  “In the 1980s, this rose to 87 hours, in the 1990s, to 100 hours,” says University of Regina professor John Conway in his article for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

The politics of class rivalry have worked well for the B.C. Liberals.  By attacking the poor who are on welfare, Premier Campbell can avoid questions about the excessive welfare of the rich.

B.C.’s rich are doing just fine.  Our province has the wealthiest citizens in Canada.  In 1999 the net wealth of the richest 10 per cent was $1,278,534.

Premier Campbell will promote welfare for the rich but not for the poor.   Until the poor have a voice in government, they will continue to be a convenient target.

Kamloopsians scold, enlighten, lecture committee members  

“This is a real education in politics,” committee member Patty Sahota told me during the break.  I had to agree.  The MLA for Burnaby-Edmonds was in Kamloops as part of the Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services.

  merrittherald.com

They came to Kamloops to hear what was on our minds and Kamloopsians didn’t disappoint.  We scolded, enlightened, lectured, and occasionally bored committee members.  My presentation probably fell into the last category.

The proceedings were not only educational, they were often theatrical.  One presenter, Christina Mader, got everyone’s attention when she began to tear pages a book that she had written.  “The very people elected to protect our province are ravaging it. They tear away at who we British Columbians are.”  Rip, there goes a page from her book.  “Our young people – – their education has been shredded.”  Rip. “The fabric of their physical and emotional well-being is ripped.” Rip.

Vern Short knew how wake everyone up.  Before starting his presentation, he asked members of the Standing Committee to stand.  I thought maybe he was playing with words since the standing committee had been sitting all morning.  The chair of the committee just wanted to get on with it. “We’re fine. We’re awake,” she said.  But he persisted.  When committee member Joy MacPhail rose, others slowly followed.  So did I, happy to stretch my legs, smiling at the visual pun as I stood before the reluctantly standing standing committee.

After the pause, Short continued “Disability is the one minority that anyone can join at any time as a result of a sudden automobile accident, a fall down a flight of stairs, cancer or disease.”  Then Short revealed that he was legally blind.  “The single biggest barrier facing persons with disabilities is societal attitude,” he said in his presentation about the lack of opportunities for disabled persons.

My mind wandered as I thought about what I was going to say.  What were those government newspaper and TV advertisements about?  They featured people climbing stairs.  Everyone is climbing – – infants, school children, teenagers, workers, seniors.  What did it all mean?

It turns out that the ads are for a new government website called Achieve B.C. (www.achievebc.ca).  The ads and the website looks expensive but the contents are not new.  There’s a picture of a family climbing (what else?) stairs.  I watched an inspiring video in which Premier Campbell told me that he wants me to the best that I can be.  Inspiration aside, I wondered what we taxpayers were paying for it.

I hoped that a quote would be a good start to my bit.  I found one from Gary Collins before he became Minister of Finance.  Ironically, he is critical of the then NDP government for the very thing his government is guilty of.  “It is the height of hypocrisy and deception for government to bring in a $5 million tax cut for small businesses and then to run ads and send out mail and run radio advertisements telling young people that the government is listening to them and is creating opportunity for them,” Collins told the B.C. legislature in1998

I wonder if that’s where Premier Campbell got the inspiration for Achieve B.C.?  I wanted to know the cost of Achieve B.C.

It all started as a pet project of Premier Campbell but as the cost skyrocketed, the premier shifted it out of his office to the Ministry of Management Services.  The cost is buried there, safe from scrutiny.

I told the committee “I’d like a clear and transparent accounting of the cost of Achieve B.C. I’d rather not see it buried in this line item under Management Services, which has a budget of $63 million for the year and is now $11 million over what’s targeted.”

Committee member Mike Hunter, MLA for Nanaimo, thought it was a reasonable request.  He approached me later and said that he would find the actual cost of Achieve B.C. and get back to me.

That was two months ago.  A few weeks, I received an email from him, assuring me that he hadn’t forgotten my request but that he hadn’t been able to find an answer yet.

I appreciate Mr. Hunter’s efforts and I’m patiently waiting to hear what inspiration is costing us.  In a future column: the true meaning of Achieve B.C.

NDP’s public insurance corporation is saving the BC Liberals from heat

It’s all because of the NDP.  That we have amongst the lowest automobile insurance rates in Canada, that is.

The B.C. Liberals are quick to blame the former NDP government for all their troubles. But they would never admit that our public insurance corporation, ICBC, is saving them from a lot of political heat.

Premier Campbell will grin and bear the distinction of being the only right-wing government in Canada with socialist auto insurance.  He will even strengthen the public insurer that was incorporated by NDP Premier Barrett in 1973.

While Campbell eagerly dismantles BC Hydro, he dare not touch ICBC.  Not now.  Campbell has learned from political blunders.  No, I don’t mean his impaired driving conviction in Hawaii.  I mean the one in New Brunswick.

The otherwise popular Premier Bernard Lord of New Brunswick and his Conservative government were nearly defeated in the last election over auto insurance.  Voters were mad as hell with the price-gouging of private insurance and they were prepared to toss out the government to show their anger.

And the Campbell can’t even look for comfort in that fortress of free enterprise, Alberta.  Their insurance rates are the highest in Canada.   His friend, Alberta premier Ralph Klein is frantically trying to control the political damage by freezing insurance rates.  Klein shrewdly knows when to control the marketplace.  The competitive free enterprise system is the best way to keeps prices low – – except when it doesn’t.  Jim Rivait, with the Insurance Bureau of Canada, was caught off guard by the freeze. “We certainly don’t like them, it’s interventionist. I think we should just fix the problem.”

Private insurance companies fix the problem by making customers pay for their bad investments.  Ironically, insurance companies don’t make money by selling insurance.  In the last 25 years, 1987 was only year that selling insurance was profitable, according to Paul Bobier in his article for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (September, 2003).

Private insurers make money by investing your money in the hope that the investment returns will cover the true cost of insurance and provide a profit for shareholders.

Before the collapse of the stock market, insurance companies (and almost any fool) made big returns by investing money in inflated stocks.  After the bubble burst, pickings are much slimmer.  Now drivers are paying for bad investment returns.

To make matters worse court settlements for injuries to people are rising, now exceeding the cost of repairs to vehicles.  The costs for insurance companies are going up and the returns from investments going down.  But those costs have increased for both private and public insurers, so why the difference in what drivers pay?

The difference is that public insurers are in the insurance business, not the investment business.  Public insurers reduce driving risks, reduce accidents, and consequently damage claims.   For example, ICBC identifies dangerous intersections and roads, and works with local governments to make them safer.  They work with police forces to reduce speeding and violations that cause accidents.

The B.C. Liberals have wisely reversed earlier thinking.  They eagerly canceled photo radar because it was unpopular with speeders.  They put police out of a job.  Now the Liberals have ordered an extra 100 cops to patrol highways with more road checks and speed traps.

“ICBC is willing to fund enhanced enforcement, because that’s one of the best ways to make roads safer, to reduce injuries and fatalities, reduce ultimately ICBC’s claim costs,” says spokesperson Doug McClelland.

And who will pay for those extra police?   You and I will through our auto insurance.  ICBC will pay cops to crack down on speeders to prevent us from hurting ourselves, and thus keep insurance rates down.  Not exactly right-wing policy.

The only other provinces with public insurance plans are Saskatchewan and Manitoba, where insurance increased by only 8 per cent.  In all other provinces with private insurance, increases averaged 58 per cent.

When he thinks he can get away with it, Premier Campbell will revert to his old ways and privatize auto insurance.  He will carve up ICBC the way he is slicing up BC Hydro.  We will soon pay the same high electricity rates and the same high auto insurance rates as Alberta.

Too bad that Campbell doesn’t learn from Alberta’s mistakes.  Public corporations are best served whole, not sliced up.

  After many cuts, Liberals go on spending spree with Games 

Premier Campbell’s conversion to big spender is quite     remarkable.  Before the Olympics, the premier was all for    cutting spending — schools, hospitals, courthouses, shelters for women and youths at risk, campgrounds, Pharmacare, avalanche warning, and just about anything he could.  Winning the Olympic bid for Vancouver has changed his mind.

games

Now the premier can’t spend money fast enough.  Campbell will bankroll the biggest spectacle in the world in 2010. His government will hire thousands of workers over a seven year period to build convention centers, roads, rapid transit and games facilities.  The B.C. Liberals will become a bigger employer than the left-leaning government they replaced.

The premier’s conversion is remarkable because up until now Campbell has led us to believe that governments don’t create jobs.  The role of the government, he has told us over and over,  is to get out of the way of the free enterprise system.   By reducing environmental regulations and lowering wages for workers, we were led to believe that big business would create prosperity that would be only rivaled by our province’s natural beauty.

At least, that was what he thought until the glory of Olympic Games illuminated the new way — spend, spend, spend.  Now he is a believer in big government projects and will spend his way into the hearts of British Columbians and the world.

Or, more correctly, the premier will spend our tax dollars on a huge sports spectacle.  Never mind that we would rather spend our money on more sensible things, like human resources.  Campbell has forgotten that B.C.’s biggest resource is its people and the wisest expenditure is on health, education, clean air and water, safety, and helping the less fortunate to their feet.

Campbell’s gamble is that he will recover our tax dollars through revenue from ticket sales, TV rights, and corporate sponsorship.  It’s not a sure thing.

“The Province of British Columbia, as the sole guarantor of the Games, is assuming all the financial burden of what is, clearly, a risky business venture,” says a report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.   “The 2010 Games will not ‘pay for themselves,'” says the report.  In fact, Olympic games usually lose money or worse, because of bad accounting, no one is ever quite sure.

UCC economist Jim Seldon has seen it all before and cost overruns are common. “I’ve looked at both the studies prepared by the provincial government and the one by the CCPA — plus a lot of other benefit-cost and economic impact studies for ‘events’ of various sorts over the years,” Seldon told me.  Cost recovery is unlikely.

But Seldon thinks that the CCPA study could have done a better job in the study of benefits.  Instead of looking at the costs, look at the value received through the expenditure of our tax dollars.  That could have been tested by a question: “Would you be willing to pay $10 a year more in taxes for the next ten years to have the Olympics come to BC.”

If taxpayers are willing to pay more taxes for the Olympics, then it’s not a cost but a benefit.  “The idea is pretty simple:  if you are willing to pay $10 for something rather than go without it, then that item logically must be worth at least $10 to you and maybe more,” according to Seldon. So, even if we are a bit short in recovering our investment the money may be well spent.  Or not.

And what about all the thousands of construction jobs in created by the Olympic games.  In fact, jobs are created by almost any government project.  It doesn’t matter if it’s building Olympic stadiums, highways, hydro dams, fast ferries, or just digging holes in the ground.

The real question is not whether jobs are created but rather, what are the lasting benefits of those jobs?  Will the pride of hosting a world-class event and attracting world’s attention for a few weeks be worthwhile?

Time will tell if Campbell’s gamble will be a lasting legacy and the money well spent.  Will it be as durable as former Premier W.A.C. Bennett’s hydro dams and a public electrical utility?  Or will it be more like Premier Glen Clarke’s failed dream of B.C. as a world class ship-building province?

In BC Hydro’s case, ideology means higher electricity costs 

When I opened my BC Hydro bill and read the leaflet inside, I thought some transformation must have taken place.  The leaflet said that Accenture was now a B.C. business.  The last I heard, Accenture was based in Bermuda.

hydro

Accenture has been blacklisted by California’s state treasurer for questionable business practices such as relocating to offshore tax havens.  The Ontario Auditor General slammed Accenture in 2001 for a deal to take over a government program that resulted in massive cost over-runs.  Apparently image problem is nothing that can’t be fixed by opening a B.C. office of Accenture.

The flyer said that “Accenture Business Services of BC is committed to building a world-class operation in British Columbia that will contribute to the province’s economic growth and provide employees with expanded career opportunities.”

Accenture, through BC Hydro, is trying to counter the growing opposition to the privatization of the publicly-owned utility.  People are angry that Premier Campbell has handed one-third of BC Hydro operations over to Accenture.  It’s a sweet deal — a ten year contract worth $1.45 billion.

Accenture will save BC Hydro money, Stephen Bruyneel told me. He’s the manger of Corporate Communication for BC Hydro.  He said that Accenture is contractually obliged to save $250 million over ten years.

“Exactly how would Accenture save that money?” I asked.  Well, it turns that we will never know.  Private businesses are not obliged to divulge such things.  But in general, “savings will result from economies of scale,” says Bruyneel, “by having a larger customer base.”

Accenture Business Services of British Columbia has big plans and BC Hydro is just the start. The plan is to bring other North American power companies into the B.C. office.  BC Hydro will share in those profits, Bruyneel said.

“How much profit will Accenture get from the BC Hydro contract?” Sorry, that’s a secret.

Jerri New has a problem with all this secrecy.  She’s the head of the Office & Professional Employees International Union.  Her members were not given much choice — move to Accenture or retire.

“If this is such a good deal,” Jerri New told me, “why is the government afraid to show us the details?”  The whole transfer of a public crown corporation has also been done in secret.  “It’s normal business practice when one company takes over another that hearings are held.  The shareholders of BC Hydro — the people of B.C. — were not consulted,” she said.

Jerri New also disputes BC Hydro’s claim that they could now “focus on its core business of generating, transmitting and distributing electricity.”  Some of that core work is now done by Accenture, such as monitoring water levels in dams.  “The whole computer system is integrated with BC Hydro,” said New, “it’s a matter of public safety.”

The former BC Hydro workers feel betrayed.  They are still providing Information Technology, computer networking, customer service, and building supplies but their employer is now Accenture.

She suspects that profits for Accenture will come by increasing BC Hydro rates.  Accenture is not in business as a public service – – last year they had net revenues of $11.6 billion world-wide.  Also, Accenture will save money from fewer staff.  Of the 1,600 staff that worked for BC Hydro, only about 1,450 moved to Accenture.  That alone results in over one-third of the claimed savings.

BC Hydro employees (some from Kamloops) moved to Accenture call centers in Vernon, Nanaimo, Prince George, and Vancouver.  Most call centers are not unionized, so you can be sure that when the current collective agreement expires, they will be asked to take a pay cut.  And if they don’t, call center operations can be moved to where workers will accept lower wages.

The real question is why Premier Campbell would dismantle a profitable company that provided high customer service and the lowest electricity rates in North America?

The answer is ideology.  In the premier’s mind, crown corporations and public utilities are sources of untapped profits.  Regardless of how efficient they are or how well they are operated, they are public services that must be dismantled for the corporate good.

If money and jobs flow out of the province, and if we pay higher electricity rates, Campbell considers it  a small price to pay for sake his ideology.