Sunday, February 22, 2009

Campbell's record on reform falls far short of his ambitious agenda

An excellent piece on what has and hasn't worked out with the Campbell government's promises - most have not, and he's not being called on it.

By Vaughn Palmer, Vancouver Sun January 31, 2009

When Gordon Campbell entered provincial politics a decade and a half ago, he brought with him an ambitious agenda of reform.

Reform, in the sense of opening up the workings of government to the public and making public institutions more accountable.

Reform in the "big R" sense, too. Many of Campbell's ideas overlapped with the federal and provincial Reform parties, with their then in-vogue campaigns for more transparent government and direct democracy.

The agenda helped Campbell round up support between his losing bid for office in 1996 and the winning one in 2001. And perhaps that was the main objective.

Since talking office in 2001, Campbell's interest in the reform theme has waned. He's abandoned some items and reversed others, until not much is left of the original agenda.

Herewith a rundown on the fate of Campbell's promises to make government more open, transparent and accountable, starting with the few pluses, proceeding to the many minuses.

- Establish a fixed election date. Done.

- Appoint a citizens' assembly on electoral reform. Done.

- Put the assembly's recommendation on electoral reform to the voters in a referendum. Done. Twice.

- Deliver truth-in-budgeting legislation. Kept in part. Government books are now maintained on generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) as opposed to earlier inclinations toward commonly-rejected accounting principles (CR... oh, never mind.) But many of the long-term contractual obligations associated with public-private partnerships ($55 billion and counting) are buried in fine print in the public accounts (bottom of p. 72) where you could easily miss them.

- Free votes in the legislature on all matters not specifically identified as a vote of confidence. Almost never. The Liberals have held party line votes on virtually every bill. Dissent has been confined to the closed debates of the Liberal caucus room.

- Establish a Waste Buster website. Launched in 2001, shut down two years later.

- Ministers who exceed their budgets to face a salary cut. Never enforced. Every time ministries were in danger of missing their targets, the government has exempted the ministers via legislation. When the premier faced an overrun on his office budget, the Liberals moved the offending programs to another part of the government.

- Set a fixed parliamentary calendar, with sittings in the spring and fall. Adopted in 2001. But the government abandons the schedule at whim, any time it wants to avoid a fall session.

- Eliminate MLA pensions. MLA pensions had already been abolished by the previous New Democratic Party government when Campbell took office. His B.C. Liberal government restored a revised, albeit less-lucrative version of the MLA pension plan in 2007.

- Repeal the NDP gag law on third-party election advertising. Done. But replaced with a more restrictive Liberal gag law last year.

- Enact workable recall legislation. Nope. "Not a priority," the Liberals say.

- Make it easier for you to have a direct vote on issues, via workable initiative legislation. Nothing done on that one, either.

- Hold an open cabinet meeting every month. Done throughout first term. Not since 2005.

- All major capital spending and land use decisions to be decided by cabinet publicly, in open meetings. Seldom done in the first term, never since.

- Improve access to information. Pretty much betrayed.

The promise, according to Campbell himself: "Government information belongs to the people, not government. All citizens must have timely, effective and affordable access to documents which governments make and keep. Governments should facilitate access, not obstruct it. "

The practice, according to a survey reported earlier this month: "The B.C. government is the second-worst province in Canada after Ontario for responding to freedom of information requests, according to a national audit commissioned by the Canadian Newspaper Association . . . . Overall, B.C. received a C-, just slightly ahead of Ontario."

- Pass legislation requiring balanced budgets every year. Legislation making B.C. a "deficit-free zone" took effect in 2004. But with the law facing its first real test in this economic downturn, the government gives every sign of preparing to repeal or suspend the legislated ban on deficit budgets.

So, there's 16 hard and fast commitments to openness, transparency and accountability. Three kept, two others in the maybe category. Ten abandoned, reversed or outright ignored, with one more (the balanced budget commitment) apparently on life support.

Not an impressive scorecard. But let's give the last word on this disappointing performance to Campbell, from one of his many pious lectures on open and accountable government: "Openness builds trust and integrity. Secrecy feeds distrust and dishonesty."

He said that when he was in Opposition and promising to do better. It is no less true now that he is in government and responsible.

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