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Monday, July 22, 2002

No Place for Drugs?

Times Colonist (Victoria)
I must say that I nearly spilled my double shot espresso coffee the morning of July 19 when I read the column in the TC by John Robson advocating thedecriminalization of marijuana.
My wife was similarly shocked and it took her an extra cigarette just to settle her nerves.
I was so incensed I decided to go to the pharmacy and pick up Ritalin for the kidsand Prozac for the wife and me.
Then I went down to the bar to discuss this issue with my buddies over a few beers.
You can expect a letter-writing campaign from all of us making it clear to ourelected officials that there's no place for drugs in our society.

Monday, May 27, 2002

Demographics not dollars source of health care crisis

Times Colonist (Victoria)
One billion dollars is a lot of money. Think about winning a million-dollar lottery every year for the next thousand years, or imagine picking a $10,000 scratch-and-win ticket every day for about the next 274 years. That's how much a billion dollars is.

Now imagine what would happen if a government put a billion dollars in additional funding into our health-care system. You'd imagine all sorts of wonderful things happening, with people dancing on the streets, right? Wrong!
Since the Gordon Campbell government was elected last year, it has increased health-care funding by over $1 billion. A large chunk of this money was gobbled up by increased pay rates for nurses, doctors and other health-care workers. But there was still hundreds of millions of dollars left over.

For example, when Joy MacPhail was minister of health, she repeatedly announced her government's $125 million for mental-health-plan funding. In Victoria where, because of our mild winters, we get more than our fair share of mentally ill living on our streets, this came as welcome news. Unfortunately very little in the way of actual funding flowed from the NDP's announcements. It took the election of the Liberals to finally see the funding provided.

So with all this good news why do we see people protesting health-care cuts? The simple answer is that we have a public health-care system that is completely out of control. This is something that government officials have long been aware of.

When I worked as a ministerial assistant, I used to often say that if you wanted to watch a hundred million dollars disappear without a trace, just provide it to health, education or social services. Apparently nowadays, in the case of health, even a billion dollars doesn't make much of an impact.

We have now reached the point here in B.C. where half of every dollar spent by our provincial government is on health care. I suspect that if every dollar the province spent were on health care, it would still not be enough.

A few years ago a friend of mine predicted that if the health-care system was not radically reformed we would soon need only two ministries in British Columbia: a Ministry of Finance to collect taxes, and a Ministry of Health to spend it.

The consolidation of health-care services that is now occurring is a critical first step to saving our health-care system from collapse. But if we are to succeed, British Columbians need to understand that is not government underfunding, but demographics that is overstressing our public health-care system.

When Germany set up the world's first government pension plan more than a hundred years ago, they wanted to make sure that most people would not qualify for it. They picked the age of 65 because back then 98 per cent of the population did not live that long. Nowadays, average life expectancy has climbed in to the high 70s and many seniors are living into their 80s and 90s.

The front of the demographic bulge we call the baby boom is now entering their silver years. Thus demand for health-care services will continue to skyrocket.
At the same time, without increased immigration, the supply of new nurses and doctors will continue to decline. Even more importantly, the supply of healthy young taxpayers will also decline.

Given that we make far more use of the health-care system in our senior years than in our youth, this means that demand for our public health services will continue to outstrip the taxpayers' ability to pay for them.

Given that the tail end of the baby boom (those born after 1964) often found themselves shut out of jobs by older boomers, there is going to be very little willingness by that group to see their taxes double or triple in order to keep the "me generation" well taken care of in their golden years.

In fact, we may even see a backlash develop against aging boomers.
Some years ago a friend of mine (who was born in 1967) got into a rather heated discussion with a rather smug older boomer. When challenged as to what his generation hoped to accomplish, my friend caustically replied, "We're going to be the generation that pulls the plug on your life support."

Needless to say the conversation ended soon after, but the words had a chilling accuracy to them.

How acrimonious the health-care debate ultimately gets will depend on what decisions governments make today. The fact that the Campbell government has had the courage to start reforming our health-care system should be viewed with relief rather than alarm.

Wednesday, January 23, 2002

Day of reckoning for BC has arrived

Times Colonist (Victoria)
In Victoria there is no shortage of people affected by the public sector job cuts announced Jan. 17 by the Gordon Campbell government. But amid the turmoil and the tears there is an understanding by many British Columbians that this day of reckoning was long overdue.

In the late 1980s, as then-premier Bill Vander Zalm stumbled from one political crisis to another, he attempted to buy his way back into the hearts of voters by increasing government spending by more than 10 per cent a year. By the time his Social Credit party was defeated, B.C. had gone from having a surplus to having a structural deficit of over $2 billion per year.

This left the new government of Mike Harcourt in a difficult situation. On the one hand, its public sector allies expected his NDP government to increase spending even more quickly; on the other was his election commitment not to spend money the government didn't have.

What emerged was a hodge-podge of policies where economic ministries such as Agriculture and Tourism found their budgets cut by millions, while the ministries of Health, Education, Social Services and the Attorney General found their spending increased by billions.

In order to cover the spread, the Harcourt government continued to run deficit budgets and jacked up taxes and introduced or increased a multitude of user fees. One particularly onerous tax -- a new provincial property tax on homes valued over $400,000 -- led to a taxpayers' revolt that cost Glen Clark his job as finance minister and brought a halt to further tax increases under the Harcourt administration.

With the election of the "new" Clark as premier things went from bad to worse. Billions of dollars continued to be added each year to British Columbia's debt while anti-business rhetoric and growing bureaucratic red tape drove investment and the head offices of companies such as Finning out of B.C.
Thus, in the midst of a North American-wide economic boom, British Columbia's economy flat-lined.

The public and private sectors in B.C. have always regarded each other with suspicion, but under Clark that attitude degenerated into outright hostility. Although some civil servants continued to work diligently to assist those attempting to do business here, others saw business as a socially and environmentally irresponsible force that must be carefully controlled and contained.

What these civil service crusaders failed to understand was that without private sector investment, B.C.'s economy could not grow and without economic growth, public sector funding increases could not be sustained. Tax increases and/or deficit budgets only delay the day of reckoning, and in delaying they also make it that much worse.

Now that day of reckoning has arrived. The tax cuts announced last year by the Campbell government did not cause or hasten these civil service cuts -- the cuts would have had to happen anyway -- but Campbell's tax reduction strategy will accelerate our economic recovery. Also accelerating the recovery is the government's decision to eliminate one-third of government regulation and red tape.

Every unnecessary government regulation hurts our economy by forcing business owners both large and small to spend time and money complying with that regulation. To add insult to injury, these same businesses are often forced to pay fees to cover the administrative costs to the government of these same redundant regulations.

Cutting taxes and reducing government red tape are both critical steps to economic recovery. Eliminating deficit spending is vital to ensuring that tax dollars go to pay for public services rather than interest on accumulated debt. Even NDP icon Tommy Douglas understood that if you deficit-spend, your tax dollars eventually end up going to the bankers rather than to providing services to the public.

There is one other element that is critical to economic recovery and that is having a government that is "open for business." That has certainly been achieved at the political level, but at the bureaucratic level work still needs to be done.

The culture of B.C.'s civil service needs to change so that, as in Alberta, civil servants see their role as assisting private sector investment, rather than serving as obstacles.

This change in attitude will be challenging, as many of the people brought in or promoted by the Clark government are still there. Some will be able to change with the times, others will not.

The challenge for the Campbell government will be finding those people within and outside the civil service who are willing to help bring about this change in the corporate attitude of B.C.'s civil service.

If the Campbell government can achieve this difficult task, they will have ensured the return of British Columbia to prosperity and as a place where people want to do business and invest.