Sunday, September 03, 2017

Were the BC Liberals to Blame for Fire Season From Hell?

{This is a short column that I submitted last month to the Williams Lake Tribune, the 100 Mile Free Press, and Vanderhoof Omineca Express. So far it has not been accepted  by any of those papers,but I think it raises a pretty basic question and tries to come up with a fair answer.}

“Interface fires, which occur in places where wildland meets urban development, were at an all-time record high. The interface fires of last summer destroyed over 334 homes and many businesses, and forced the evacuation of over 45,000 people. The total cost of the Firestorm is estimated at $700 million.” Sound familiar?  Those words were written by the Hon. Gary Filmon thirteen and half years ago, in the Report of the Firestorm 2003 Review Committee.
That is why Bill Tieleman, a political columnist and left-wing political strategist in Vancouver,   recently wrote a piece provocatively titled “Blame BC Liberal Neglect, Not Climate Change, for Year of Fires”.  He alleges that that the Liberals ignored key recommendations of the Filmon report, pointing  out that over the years between 2006 and 2015, the government  spent only $8 million a year to remove fuels from just 80,000 of a total of 685,000 hectares of “high risk forest land”.  As then -NDP forest  critic Harry Bains pointed out in Question Period on March 3 2016, it took the government 12 years to treat just  8 percent of the land considered to be high risk by the Filmon Report.  Tieleman calls that the very epitome of the old saying: “Penny-wise, pound foolish.”
In fairness to the previous government, let me push back at Tieleman a bit.   I had initially reasoned that if it cost the government $80 million over a ten-year period to remove fuels from “just” 80,000 hectares, that would be only $1000 per hectare -- so it would have cost $685 million to fully implement the Filmon Report.   In fact, however the Forest Practices Board in its 2015 Report put the true cost of fully treating a hectare of land as somewhere between $5000 and $10,000, depending upon the terrain.  And the pine beetle epidemic and other factors have caused the amount of "high risk" forest to almost double  to 1, 347,000 hectares.   That means the total cost for treating all of the  high-risk forest land would be at least $6.7 billion.  ‘Money doesn’t grow on trees’. And no doubt land-use conflicts would arise closer to population centres, as thinning and prescribed burning would affect quality or value of privately-deeded or First Nations land.  As for Harry Bains and the NDP, why did they wait until March 2016 to start ringing the alarm bells in the Legislature? That leads me to wonder whether the NDP would have fully implemented  the Report’s recommendations, either: after all, politicians get more credit for responding to problems than they do for preventing them, most of the time.
Nevertheless, to those of us have been expecting another Big Fire season for years, the only wonder is that it didn’t happen much sooner. And the fact that the problem has grown bigger should have been a reason for doing more, not an excuse for doing less. It was always obvious that even the partial implementation of the Filmon Report--such as we might have expected under an NDP government--would have been a very worthwhile investment.  For example, an extra $16 million per year over 2006-2015 could have removed extraneous fuel from another 1000-2000 hectares on average surrounding  16 population centres in the interior.  Admittedly, one or two thousand hectares is not a lot to show for 10 years work  and $10 million dollars spent, but in the land adjacent to Williams Lake and 100 Mile House it would have made a significant difference, and would have freed up more firefighters to help smaller communities in the Chilcotin. As the B.C Forest Practices Board pointed out in its Report in 2015, “hazard mitigation costs less than wildfires when all costs are tallied.” No kidding.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Were The Fires Forseeable?

My parents moved to the  Cariboo in the spring of 1973. Despite my initial misgivings, I soon came to be grateful that they did, not least because  it put me into direct contact with two things that despite their fundamental nature had been pushed to the margins of my consciousness in the suburbs of Vancouver:  First Nations people and the working Forest.  With the Forest naturally came an awareness every summer of forest fires.   Since my parents’ house was  in the Wildwood area , at the foot of the airport hill, I jumped at the chance along with my brother  to get an opportunity to work at the Tanker Base at the Williams Lake Airport the following summer, mostly washing the airplanes between missions and while they were being re-fuelled.  I could see what tough, hot important work it was.  It was also dangerous: we even lost two pilots that summer. 

Flash forward 30 years, and I stopped at my parents’ home  in August 2003 en route to a teaching position at the University of Northern British Columbia.  That was the worst fire summer we had had up to that point,  and the smoke-filled sky  and several charred patches of forest that were visible from the highway were seared in my memory.  Still, as our understanding of climate change grew and the number of dead and dried out trees multiplied due to the pine beetle epidemic, I expected that another, much more serious fire season than 2003 was bound to happen. Well, it finally did, and we are living through it now.  (Of course, professional foresters will tell you that my theory about pine beetles and climate change is a little simplistic --sometimes wetter areas with more living trees can become more flammable if they go through an unusually dry spell, because they deposit more fuel on the forest floor, and the fire spreads more quickly from crowns of trees, etc.  Whatever the precise combination of factors, it seems that we had just the right mix of factors this year.)

It is of course too early to point blame at anyone, but I wonder if it is pure coincidence that  so many of the worst fires occurred near population centres?  Is it possible that governments, failing to take heed of the terrible fire season of 2003, did not put enough money into controlled burning near Cache Creek, Ashcroft, 100 Mile and Williams Lake?  It would have required budgeting more money for that purpose, and it would have had the effect of inconveniencing a lot of people with a lot of smoke, so it is perfectly understandable that  such an error of omission could have happened.   I am not an expert, so I don’t pretend to know.  But I am asking the question, and I am expecting some answers. One other thing I want to say: Thanks to all the volunteers.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

The Incredible Christy Clark

{An earlier version of the following column was written for the July, 2017  issue of the Anahim-Nimpo Lake Messenger--MC}


“Incredible” is one of the most over-used and mis-used adjectives in the English language. I generally avoid using it altogether, except I find that it is the best word to describe  our recently-deposed B.C. premier, Christy Clark.  As I see it, the premier’s strategy of trying to embarrass the NDP by placing several of the NDP’s key policies in the Throne Speech is problematic in policy terms and likely to backfire politically.  In terms of policy, what she is saying is that, if the Liberals had gotten 189 more votes in the Courtney-Comox riding, thereby securing a majority of seats in the Legislature, it would somehow have been better to not spend a billion dollars on new child care spaces, or to raise welfare rates by $100 per month, or to have a moratorium on the Massey Bridge, or to have  a ban on corporate and union donations. But, since the Liberals failed to get a majority and were facing defeat on a confidence motion in the Legislature,  these things all of a sudden became the ‘best’ things to do. 

Call me old-fashioned, but either child care is a good thing or it isn’t.  Premiers owe it to their voters to stick to the principles they campaigned on, or they lose credibility with those voters.  For example, if Clark and the Liberals had fallen on the sword of their own platform, and we had  another election in six months’ time, I would expect Conservative voters to see the error of their vote-splitting ways and vote Liberal in enough numbers to win more ridings like Courtney-Comox.  But since the Liberals ignored their own platform and tried to enact the same  tax and spend agenda that they had campaigned against, Conservative voters may learn to trust the Liberals even less.  Then there are the urgent questions of Site C and Kinder-Morgan--you know, the reasons Clark said in May that it was urgent to re-convene the Legislature, until she realized that by dragging her feet before legislation could be changed, she could fill Liberal coffers with new corporate donations.  Incredible.

Most incredible of all are  the messes at ICBC and BC Hydro. At ICBC , it was revealed this year that insurance rates had been suppressed for political reasons and that the Corporation had been forced to raid its capital reserves to the tune of about $500 million. Meanwhile , over at BC Hydro, the Liberal cabinet--which had stripped the BC Utilities Commission of its rate-setting authority in 2012-- has been setting BC Hydro’s annual rate increases well below the actual cost of acquiring and distributing electricity. BC Hydro has been forced to take on debt in order to pay $1.3 billion in dividends to the BC government. These practices have increased BC Hydro’s debt to the point that Moody’s is warning that this trend may threaten the province’s credit rating. 

Of course, the Liberals could just let the NDP government and its allies in the Green Party take the heat for any such downgrade while they are in office, along with the unavoidable rate increases at ICBC and BC Hydro,  making it easier for the Liberals to return to power  in 6-18 months  with a grinning Christy Clark once again recapturing the premier’s chair.  Given who is truly responsible for these messes, that would be “incredible”. But don’t bet against it.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Three Darts, Five Laurels: My First Newspaper Column for 2017

{This is a column that I wrote for the Anahim -Nimpo Messenger, 100 Mile Free Press, and Omineca Express for December 2016/January 2017.  It contains a few brief retrospective observations about the year past.--MC}

Before welcoming in the New Year I have three things to get off my chest--on softwood lumber, electoral  reform and political fundraising---and five Christmas presents to give out (to my picks for the top 5 MPs of 2016). 

First, softwood.  Cariboo-Prince George MP Todd Docherty says he’s unhappy with the Liberal effort on the softwood lumber file. Well, I was unhappy with Stephen Harper’s effort on the softwood file:  he basically capitulated to the Americans without making a serious effort to get the promised amount of buy-in from Canadian Lumber producers, mainly because he wanted a deal before the 2008 election and wanted to cozy up to former US President Bush.    Moreover, despite having a stronger basic legal position than the U.S., the Canadian government handed over $1billion of the duties collected from Canadian companies--$500 million to the US companies, and $450 million to the Bush Administration.   No wonder a lot of smaller lumber exporters felt let down, sacrificed by their own government for larger political ends. So, exactly how have the Liberals fared worse than that?  I’m still waiting to receive any useful instruction  from Todd Doherty on how to handle the Softwood file---and see only negative lessons from the record of the previous Conservative government.

Second, electoral reform. I never expected Justin Trudeau to keep his election promise “to make 2015 the last first-past-the- post election in Canadian History.”  Even so, I was appalled that Trudeau and Democratic Reform Minister  Maryam Monsef wouldn’t clearly commit to the idea of a referendum or even a free vote in the House of Commons on proportional representation, just because of the small chance that they might lose control of the agenda and actually be forced to keep the promise that they had so clearly made.  Shame on both of them.

Third, political fundraising.  On this issue, too, the Liberals were deceptive and hypocritical in the same old ways that they always have been. A Chinese billionaire gets around the $1,500 contribution limit by making donations to Trudeau’s favourite charity (which just happens to be called the Trudeau Foundation) and  by offering to pay for the erection of a statue  of his famous father. But we are supposed to relax, because after all it is Justin Trudeau and Liberal Party who are receiving the donation. Tighter controls on financial contributions are now to be considered as unnecessary as electoral reform, because it is now the Liberals who are the beneficiaries!

Here are my picks for  “Top 5 MPs of the Year” for performance in Parliament:   1) NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, truly Canada's "Comeback Kid"; 2) Interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose, who has been a great Leader of the Official Opposition; 3) Nathan Cullen, the NDP critic for Environment and Climate Change as well as Democratic Reform; 4) Green Party Leader Elizabeth May; and 5) Liberal Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland.

P.S. Here is a link to two editorials relating to electoral reform, which appeared in both  The Ottawa Citizen and The Edmonton Journal 

Happy New Year!

Monday, November 21, 2016

Canadian Progressives Recognize an Old Problem, and See a New Fix

{An edited version of this article appeared in the Edmonton Journal on November 21, 2016 ; below is the longer unedited version}

Mark Crawford teaches Canadian Government and Democratic Theory at Athabasca University. He was also employed for five years as a public servant both federally and provincially in the areas of trade and labour policy.

As surely as the receding tide slowly unveils a submerged coastline, the current juncture in Canadian public affairs is revealing a long familiar pattern, almost as old as Canada itself: the gradual de-radicalization of a Liberal election platform.

Seasoned progressives saw it coming, of course. Assigning wily veteran John McCallum the task of walking back promises on the timing of Syrian refugee settlement and on Temporary Foreign Workers was just the first, and most deliberate, step. Now, they brace themselves for the release of the Report of the Special Committee on Electoral Reform (ERRE). The prime minister’s vow to make 2015 “the last first-past-the -post election in Canadian history” never sounded convincing, unless he were saddled with  a minority government and therefore had to keep this promise as a condition of remaining in power. Any sincere preference on the prime minister’s part was premised upon the possibility of a majoritarian ranked ballot, or Alternative Vote system being adopted, not any form of proportional representation, with the power-sharing coalitions that they would almost certainly entail.

The biggest obstacle in this regard may not be cynical self-serving calculation as much as sincere self-delusion. Many politicians simply refuse to believe the (counter-intuitive) truth that they would generally make better decisions if they were more constrained by the need to maintain support by representatives of an actual  majority. This belief that greater discretion or agency on the part of the political executive equals better policy is contradicted by both the most serious cross-national research and the Liberals’ own sterling record of productive, activist minority governments. Yet it remains the unreflective default position of most political leaders in this country.

No doubt Justin Trudeau and Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland are convinced that their dramatic rescue of the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with the EU would have been impossible if the Liberals had been forced to work with coalition partners. Leaving aside the logical possibility of forming a true majoritarian coalition with the Conservatives around this and other economic issues--a last-ditch  resort to be sure--it should be remembered that enlightened Greens and New Democrats are not simply “protectionists”.  Many would love to see genuine reciprocal exchange of goods and services, instead of governments holding market access hostage in return for enhanced rights of corporations to sue governments for such “regulatory takings” as public auto insurance, environmental laws and low-priced generic drugs. When strong resistance to investor-state provisions arose in Germany, France, Belgium and elsewhere, and the EU’s bargaining position on behalf of its pharmaceutical giants weakened after the Brexit vote, a window of opportunity opened to negotiate a genuine free trade deal that would benefit all consumers, not just consumers of beef and autos at the expense of consumers of medicines and public goods. Inserting some new language  about health and the environment for investment lawyers to argue about in secretive trade tribunals didn’t turn CETA into a “progressive trade agreement,” any more than labour or environmental side deals and  a so-called Social Services Reservation turned NAFTA into one. It is even more doubtful that Ottawa’s offer to “re-negotiate” NAFTA with President-Elect Trump will do anything to curtail Chapter 11.

And what about the Liberals’ ambitious new infrastructure plan, which hopes to leverage billions in new private investment dollars by expanding the categories of P3s to include equity investment-in-exchange for “negotiated returns”? If “negotiated return” sounds like something that is both sheltered from competition and legally guaranteed (i.e. litigable), then you probably already have a hint of what some of the problems will be--especially in the context of myriad international investment treaties. Yet there is a considerable body of scholarship in economics departments and schools of public management across the country that is critical of P3s (what  the late urban thinker Jane Jacobs called “monstrous hybrids”); a progressive coalition would draw upon that knowledge and exercise greater caution and discretion in awarding public contracts on this basis.

The Liberals now look set to side with the Conservatives on both of the most critical structural issues currently facing our democracy: the persistence of an unfair voting system and the scope of corporations’ rights to privately challenge public policy.  So while Mr. Trudeau may be understandably loathe to make New Democrats and Greens seem more relevant and influential in Parliament by making all of their votes count, he should also realize that, if he doesn’t, he will probably make them more relevant and influential anyway:  by ceding to them the mantle of authentic progressive politics.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

My Newspaper Column for November, 2016

It looks like the world has dodged a big bullet as a result of the U.S.  not electing Donald Trump on November 8.  I say this with some confidence, because as a political scientist I am aware of the fragility of the world in at least three different spheres: the global economy,  global security , and the fledgling global climate change regime.  Mr. Trump was a threat to all three.

I see that he scheduled his last major policy address to take place in Gettysburg.  I can’t help but think that Little Big Horn would have been more appropriate. Ageing white men are outnumbered and surrounded in the political arena, for the first time anyone can remember.

As a political scientist, my attention is also drawn to another event, closer to home: Justin Trudeau’s musing that, since we now have a popular Liberal government, perhaps the people of Canada don’t really need a new electoral system after all.

I found the prime minister’s statement  disturbing, if not exactly surprising.  After all, it was his talk of “Real Change”, and explicit promises like the one “to make the 2015 election the last First -Past-the -Post election ever” that enabled him to pass Mr. Mulcair on his left and drive straight into the Residence at 24 Sussex .  (Like “ settling 25,000 Syrian refugees before  the end of December”,  and “jump-starting the economy,”  perhaps he said it primarily because it sounded good.)

Well, I can think of several reasons for making Mr. Trudeau keep his promise, starting with basic democratic principle.  It is a basic democratic right to have one’s vote count as much as everyone else’s. Our system favours those parties and individuals who are able to get local pluralities--not  even majorities--and punishes everyone else in terms of representation.  Indigenous peoples, for example, are routinely under-represented in our national elections.   All political parties--even the governing party--tend to be underrepresented in certain regions and overrepresented in others, which has clearly been bad for national unity throughout our history. A monolithically Conservative Alberta and a Liberal Ontario was always a fiction, a dangerous illusion created by our electoral system because it tends to under-state the true diversity of our regions. 

Proportional representation is also conducive to better governance. This is what politicians have trouble believing and often refuse to believe--that being forced to take even more interests into account, even co-operating with other parties and forging compromises with them --could possibly be an improvement, because it reduces their discretion to do whatever they want.  To this day, Bill Vander Zalm and Glen Clark probably both believe that if only they had more rope, they wouldn’t have hanged themselves. I suspect that the opposite is true--that if only they had each been forced to hammer out compromises with other groups so as to represent a true majority of the population, they likely would have been saved from themselves.  And we would have had better government.