Political resolution time

By Dermod Travis

Who could possibly have imagined what 2017 had in store for British Columbia 12 months ago?

We were all eye witnesses to a future political science seminar that left 87 MLAs where they didn't quite expect to be sitting in the legislature.

It's time again for a few New Year's resolutions for B.C.'s political class to consider for 2018. 

1. If you did it in government, don't criticize it in opposition, and if you criticized it in opposition, don't do it in government

A few days before Christmas, the BC NDP posted a social media message from Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, Judy Darcy: “Our most urgent priority is to keep people alive, so we're dramatically increasing easy access to naloxone.”

Awfully nice of the NDP to do that, but they're not actually doing it, the government is and they're not the same thing.

Political parties in power would like to think they're synonymous, but they're not. Something the NDP gleefully reminded the Liberals of when they were sitting on the other side of the legislature.

Which reminds me. The government's logo came with the building. You inherited the colours and you will pass them on to the next government, not change the primary colour for an orange pantone in the meantime. 

Beyond the aesthetics, it sends a bad message fresh out of the gate.

And when political appointees get a more generous golden parachute than a MLA's transition allowance provides, perhaps it's time to come up with some constructive approaches to reduce the cost of a change in government, rather than attacking the other side for exorbitant payments to departing appointees knowing full well you'd do the same if elected.

2. When there's an elephant in the room, give it a nodding acknowledgement, if only for the public record

As the official Opposition knows well, the financial state of ICBC and BC Hydro isn't pretty.

Admitting the obvious – that it was some of your choices in government that lead to these messes – may not do much to improve their bottom lines, but it would be a sign of good faith by the BC Liberal party and would likely be well-received by the public.

Whistling Dixie every time the two Crown corporations come up won't suffice.

This headline from Rich Coleman's CBC year-end interview caused a few guffaws on Twitter: “B.C. Liberals had 'pretty good' record on housing.” 

Many property developers likely agree. The homeless, most renters and first-time home buyers would have a different take away from the last 16 years.

3. Less bamboozle all around

It's as though some government communications staffers believe they're acting out an episode of Mad Men.

How did BC Hydro arrive at 550 “infrastructure projects between fiscal 2011 and fiscal 2015?” Take one megaproject and divide it up among a whole bunch of mini-projects.

Work on the GM Shrum Generating Station has been divided into no less than 20 “infrastructure projects” as Hydro terms them.

If you use the Alex Fraser bridge, you'll be happy to know that “rush hour relief is in sight.”

Only thing: most people's sense of “in sight” would mean soon, weeks away, maybe two or three months, not fall of 2018 at the earliest, as long as it stays “on budget and on time,” of course.

4. Let's keep laundering to clothes in 2018

This one doesn't need much in the way of explanation.

5. Disclose, disclose, disclose

The more information a government proactively releases, the more likely the public will buy-in to a policy shift, or at the very least give it a fair hearing.

This next one is more for all of us...

6. Don't let political parties and special interest groups take anyone for fools

As former U.S. president Abraham Lincoln is fond of saying: “don't believe everything you read on the internet.”

If there's no source with a claim, take it with a grain of salt. If no source is provided when requested, it's probably a safe bet to dismiss it altogether.

Be demanding – but diplomatic – political consumers. 

Let's make 2018 B.C.'s political literacy year and scare the bejeezus out of politicians across the province.

– Dermod Travis is the executive director of IntegrityBC.


Site C's bill of goods

By Dermod Travis

Difficult to imagine them getting caught dead in the same room a few weeks ago, but to paraphrase William Shakespeare, “Site C acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.”

The list of supporters includes the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, B.C. Building Trades, Christian Labour Association and the Progressive Contractors Association.

They all seem to think they've won something too, which is going to be fun to watch when the honeymoon is over.

When former Premier Gordon Campbell announced plans to move ahead with Site C in 2010, he justified the $6.6 billion cost by focusing on demand: “The decision to pursue Site C comes at a time when B.C. Hydro forecasts that B.C.'s electricity needs will grow by 20 to 40 per cent over the next 20 years.”

There's a long ways to go to hit even the low end of Campbell's forecast.

B.C. consumed 62,467 gigawatt-hours of electricity in 2010. Last year, it had jumped to 62,951 gigawatt-hours, an increase of 0.8 per cent.

But that's only seven years. How about two decades? B.C. was home to 3.9 million residents in 1996, there were 1.5 million households across the province, GDP had hit $139.9 billion and we consumed 64,664 gigawatt-hours of electricity.

By 2016, B.C.'s population was 4.75 million, there were 468,000 more households, GDP had risen to $240.8 billion and we consumed 1,713 less gigawatt-hours. In 15 of the last 20 years, we've used less electricity than we did in 1996.

Then there's the matter of settling the bill. 

Following the B.C. government's 2014 announcement, Kieron Stopforth – a lead hydro analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance – observed that “The cost range for most large-scale hydropower plants around the world is between $1 million and $6 million per megawatt. That compares with more than $7 million for Site C.” And that was when the cost was $8.8 billion.

How much faith can we have in the new $10.7 billion estimate?

In a 2016 study, University of Oxford's Said Business School professor Bent Flyvbjerg and Harvard Law professor Cass Sunstein examined 2,062 global infrastructure projects and found that the cost-benefit ratio was “typically overestimated by 50 to 200 percent” and that the information behind the ratio analysis “so misleading as to be worse than worthless, because decision makers might think they are being informed when in fact they are misinformed.”

But Horgan has a plan. Buried in a backgrounder to the government's announcement news that "EY Canada has been retained by BC Hydro to provide dedicated budget oversight, timeline evaluation and risk assessment analysis for the duration of the project."

A little over a year ago EY Canada – better known as Ernst & Young – gave Site C a clean bill of health stating the project was “on time and on budget.”

There was a catch. Ernst & Young came to its conclusion relying solely “on information provided by (Hydro). We have not audited, reviewed or otherwise attempted to verify the accuracy or completeness of such information.”

In the very week that B.C. was committing to push ahead with Site C, Alberta auctioned off 595 megawatts of renewable energy capacity.

The “weighted average bid for wind energy was 3.7 cents a kilowatt-hour or $37 per megawatt-hour.”

Site C will provide roughly 4.6 million megawatt-hours of power annually. Harry Swain – former chair of the Site C joint review panel – estimated the cost at $95/MW-Hour in 2016, when it still had an $8.8 billion price tag.

Site C will come home to roost. Pity the premier it falls on.

Will higher energy costs lead to greater conservation, thereby, negating any rate increases? Will it deter new businesses from opening up shop in B.C.?

British Columbians likely fall into one of three groups when it comes to Site C: those adamantly opposed, those fiercely in support and the rest biting their lips in fear.

One thing most will likely agree on, however, is that this can't happen again. No government should leave another government in such circumstances and on that point Horgan was largely silent.

Last December, the B.C. NDP had a Facebook post, it read: "Site C will be yet another cost burden for British Columbians, their children and grandchildren."

After last week's revised forecast probably a safe bet to tack on great-grandchildren as well.

– Dermod Travis is the executive director of IntegrityBC.

Don't legitimize fake news

By Dermod Travis

There are few things that get under my skin fast. But, these days, it takes only two words: fake news. 

Grabbing a cab recently, the driver was well-immersed in the podcast of a national radio show in which the host routinely used the term as he interviewed his guest.

My take away after a 10-minute ride was that it had something to do with dandelions, a medical study and Windsor, Ont. 

The guest had evidently become the target of what might be called the fake news gang of natural medicine or western medicine, difficult to tell which coming in late to the podcast. 

The host was highly sympathetic with his guest. But what really jumped out was how he nonchalantly used 'fake news' in his questions, as though it had become a legitimate term to contrast opinions.

Once all that was needed to dismiss a crackpot theory was simply to say, “more people believe Elvis is still alive than would fall for that” and you would move on, but somehow we're now party to a battle between rival fake news gangs.

It's not a term to legitimatize. It's quackery.

It's as though the phrase is some magical pixie dust that makes everything disappear that runs counter to someone's point of view.

As former U.S. senator, the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said: "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts."

But instead of checking facts, screaming 'fake news' seems to suffice.

Case in point: in the ongoing debate over ICBC and future rate hikes, a few are advocating for private insurance. 

Fair enough, it's a legitimate opinion to hold, but I tweeted a reply that they should be careful what they wish for, Ontario has the highest auto insurance premiums in the land, and it's 100 per cent private.

Backing up the tweet were inter-provincial analyses of auto insurance costs prepared by the Manitoba and Saskatchewan governments, the Insurance Bureau of Canada and the Consumers' Association of Canada all of which put Ontario out front by far and all dismissed as fake news.

Evidently, someone's neighbour doesn't pay the amount cited in the reports for premiums in Alberta. 

By popularizing the term, some are making it mainstream.

Earlier this year, the BC Liberal party was looking for Digital Warriors to help that party “combat fake news.”

Former independent MLA Vicki Huntington must have signed up. How else to explain her refuting the claim that the B.C. NDP had hacked the Liberal party's website?

When facts challenge your opinion, then re-examine your opinion.

In his farewell speech, former President Barack Obama noted: "For too many of us it’s become safer to retreat into our own bubbles... surrounded by people who share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions. 

"And increasingly we become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether it’s true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence...But without some common baseline of facts, without a willingness to admit new information and concede that your opponent might be making a fair point, and that science and reason matter, then we’re going to keep talking past each other."

Maybe that's why TheGoodGodAbove tweeted a new commandment: “thou shalt stop calling everything you don't like 'fake news!' Thou shalt attain a firmer grip on reality.” 

Dermod Travis is the executive director of IntegrityBC.


Fracking unfairly attacked

By Ken Green

Hydraulic fracturing, a well-studied and long-used method of producing oil and gas, has again come under attack in British Columbia.

A coalition of environmental groups, community groups and Indigenous bands are calling for a "full public inquiry" to "investigate the risks and harms associated with fracking."

A resource analyst with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives rejects the New Democrat government's proposed plan to appoint a scientific panel to review hydraulic fracturing. He claims that another scientific review "won't be enough to fully address the true risks of deploying this brute-force technology throughout northeast B.C. Current realities dictate that we need a wide-ranging public inquiry."

Perhaps the anti-fracking coalition isn't satisfied with the idea of a scientific review panel because there has been at least a dozen such reviews and expert panels empowered by governments around the world, staffed with highly-respected scientists and engineers, that all come to basically the same conclusion: Yes, hydraulic fracturing poses a range of environmental and social impacts, but they're relatively rare and manageable with existing technologies and regulatory practices.

Two Fraser Institute studies, in 2014 and 2015, reviewed the findings of 14 such assessments of the risk posed by hydraulic fracturing from high-profile journals and research panels in Canada, the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom. The Canadian assessment was performed by the Canadian Council of Academies.
The review summarized the findings of expert commissions (as well as academic reviews) of the three most prominent risks posed by hydraulic fracturing: to surface and ground water, on air, and through induced seismicity.

On water contamination, a 2013 review article in the journal Science found that "since the advent of hydraulic fracturing, more than one million hydraulic fracturing treatments have been conducted, with perhaps only one documented case of direct groundwater pollution resulting from injection of hydraulic fracturing chemicals used for shale gas extraction."

A 2011 report of the New York State Health Department (which then had a ban on hydraulic fracturing) found that "no significant impact to water resources is likely to occur due to underground vertical migration of fracturing fluids through the shale formations."

With regard to air pollution, a 2014 study conducted for the B.C. Ministry of Health found that short-term exposures to air pollutants were low enough that they didn't pose a significant risk of adverse health effects to people living in the area, while long-term exposures to air pollutants from hydraulic fracturing were generally associated with a low potential for adverse health effects. 

On seismicity, the Canadian Council of Academies found that although hydraulic fracturing operations can cause additional seismicity, most of the earthquakes felt by the public aren't caused by hydraulic fracturing itself, but by the underground injection of waste water. They are mostly very low-strength tremors not felt at the surface of the Earth (although one 4.6-magnitude quake has been linked to hydraulic fracturing, but it didn't cause damage to persons or property). The CCA suggests that the risk of hydraulic fracturing causing earthquakes is low, and can be minimized through "careful site selection, monitoring, and management."

As the Fraser Institute observed in our 2014 assessment of the risk of hydraulic fracturing, fracking in Canada is highly regulated, with extensive governmental oversight and self-imposed industry best-practices.
It's hard to see how a public inquiry into hydraulic fracturing will produce anything significantly different than the voluminous literature that shows the risks of hydraulic fracturing, while real, have been and continue to be managed by traditional engineering and regulatory practices.

Such an inquiry will, however, play into the hands of those who oppose energy production in B.C., depriving the province of significant economic benefits.

Kenneth Green is senior director of the Centre for Natural Resource Studies at the Fraser Institute.

– Troy Media

AWOL on opioid crisis

By Dermod Travis

It's a story all too common in British Columbia. 

Here's how CTV News reported it: “Police believe a drug overdose is the cause of death for two men, apparently in their fifties, who were found lifeless in a car parked at a gas station on Friday morning.”

It didn't happen in B.C., though. It happened in Montreal on Aug. 25 and the real story is what happened next.

In less than six weeks Montreal police had conducted six raids, arresting 13 drug dealers linked to the two deaths. They seized $19,000 in cash, along with fentanyl, about 500 grams of heroin, meth and other drugs.

Montreal police chief Philippe Pichet was blunt commenting after the last raid: “We will follow and stop those who put (fentanyl) into narcotics.” 

Note his choice of words. Pichet was announcing the priority for his department's drug enforcement efforts, he was declaring war on fentanyl “to stave-off a public health crisis.”

It's not an isolated illustration.

Last February, a Gatineau couple were found in their apartment with their unharmed child, four days after overdosing on fentanyl.

Eight months later – following a six-month investigation – the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) announced they had shut down “an illegal weapons and drugs operation” operating in the National Capital Region with the assistance of the Ottawa and Gatineau police services.

Contrast those results with this: in September, Delta police announced the arrest of a 21-year-old dealer alleged to have sold tainted drugs that resulted in nine fentanyl-related overdoes in a span of 20 minutes more than a year earlier.

The identity of the alleged dealer was no secret. His father was granting media interviews within days following the 2016 overdoses.

Or perhaps this tally: “two industrial pill presses seized, one ounce of suspected fentanyl, over 1,200 tablets containing heroin and fentanyl, one kg of fentanyl during a routine traffic stop, a package of Furanyl-fentanyl intercepted at the Vancouver International Mail Centre, a large number of pills laced with fentanyl and 10 arrests.”

Impressive if it was for a medium-sized city's police department, but it's not. 

According to their website, it's the province-wide total for the RCMP in B.C. in 2016.

B.C. isn't lacking for police officers. 

Last year, there were 184 police officers for every 100,000 residents, a tad shy of the national rate of 187. 

Something else has to be at play to explain the stark differences in response to the opioid crisis between B.C. and other provinces. 

Part of it may have something to do with how local communities are policed.

Outside of Atlantic Canada, B.C. is the only province to have more RCMP officers policing local communities than local police departments do – 5,378 versus 2,532 – nearly 7 out of every 10 officers. 

In Quebec, 37 per cent of local police officers are on contract from the provincial police force, in Ontario, 25 per cent are from the OPP and in Alberta, 38 per cent are RCMP. 

There are only 11 municipalities in B.C. with their own police departments: one in Nelson, one in Abbotsford, four in the capital region and five in Metro Vancouver.

Each has its own police board, but their composition differs dramatically from boards elsewhere in Canada.

In Ontario, the provincial government appoints three of the seven-member oversight boards. In Calgary, council appoints all 11 members to the city's police commission.

In B.C., boards are comprised of the mayor, one person appointed by the municipal council and up to seven members appointed by the B.C. government.

Among the appointees to the Vancouver board are an investment advisor, a property developer, a craft brewer and a physician. 

What they may lack in policing background, they more than make up for by what they share in common: six of the seven have donated a total of $265,000 to the B.C. Liberal party since 2005.

Boards are important. It's where community policing priorities are set.

If blame needs to be laid for B.C.'s less than stellar policing response to the opioid crisis it's not with police officers, it's with the former provincial government and not just for their ham-fisted control over police boards, but also for their short-sighted approach to funding the justice system.

Police officers could be forgiven for wondering what's the point in making the arrest if there aren't even enough sheriffs to keep courtrooms open?

It's time for B.C.'s new government to step up.

– Dermod Travis is the executive director of IntegrityBC.

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