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May Contest Is NDP's to Win

Eight issues pecking away at Campbell's re-election chances.

By Rafe Mair 9 Feb 2009 | TheTyee.ca

Rafe Mair writes a Monday column for The Tyee. Read previous columns by Rafe Mair here. He also acts as a spokesperson for the Save Our Rivers Society.

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Home to roost. Image by Nora Kelly.

For Premier Campbell, the chickens are coming home to roost and it looks like that old chicken coop is going to be pretty full come election day on May 12.

Chicken one: Surprise! Big deficits. Where the Campbell crowd -- our "business oriented government"-- is in the most trouble is on the economic front. Where just a few weeks after he stated bluntly that we would have a balanced budget in 2009, Premier Campbell was forced to get amendments to his own law requiring balanced budget so that his government can bring two consecutive massive deficits.

Chicken two: P3 boondoggles. The government's commitment to their friends brought about the public/private partnerships, which anyone with half a brain could and did say would disastrous. We were pitched that these partnerships would lessen government financial exposure on large projects. How could any one in high office be so dumb? It is not the partner that makes the guarantee.

As the Port Mann–Macquarie construction fiasco demonstrates, it's the government that guarantees the private partner. It's not governments that go broke, it's private companies. This project that started in the $1.5 billion range will now be $3 billion plus, plus, plus.

In addition to the fiscal grief, the government's announcement of a toll will enrage even its supporters. Why, they are asking, should the Port Mann Bridge have tolls where others don't?

Chicken three: Overruns of Olympic proportions. The cost overruns on the Vancouver Convention Centre, if they stopped today, will cost the taxpayers two times the cost of Premier Glen Clark's "fast ferries."

The original cost of the Olympics was to be $600 million. Only a forensic auditor with infinite patience could figure out what the true cost will be but the lowest estimate is four times the original cost and the highest is six times the estimated figures. As the late American senator Everett Dirksen once said "a billion here, a billion there and pretty soon you're talking real money." Under the agreement with the federal government, the province pays for any overruns.

Chicken four: Taxpayers run over by the Canada Line. Then there is the RAV line, the name of which has been sanitized to the Canada Line. Whatever you call it, the SkyTrain extension has produced not only huge overruns but a lawsuit by the merchants along Cambie Street who, because of the construction, have lost huge sums of money with several going broke. Thus does our autocratic premier deal with small businesses.

Chicken five: Asleep while recession set in. It's interesting to note that the finance minister, Colin Hansen, and the premier blame all these woes on the recession they couldn't foresee while they wouldn't listen for a moment to the NDP blaming their monetary problems on the failing resource industry brought about by the economic meltdowns in several Asian countries.

I believe it's fair to say that the government of the 1990s were blindsided by the economic "Asian flu" whereas the Campbell government would have had plenty of warning of the recession we're in if they had done their sums and proceeded conservatively instead of throwing money around. Instead of doing their homework, they pandered to their development friends, which, as pointed out earlier, amounted to the government taking the financial hits they said the construction companies would have to absorb. "Spreading the risk" Campbell-style has taken a new twist where when a private partner gets into trouble, the government gives it money so it can pay the government what it owes!

Chicken six: Fish farming. In November 2001, when it was thought that the only bad thing about fish farms were the escapes, I interviewed then agriculture, food and fisheries minister Van Dongen. After the show, he asked me why I was making all this fuss. After all, it wasn't a political issue. "It will be, minister it will be," was my reply. And so it has become.

The filing of a lawsuit last week by the Kwicksutaineuk/Ah-Kwa-Mish First Nation demanding that the federal government stop fish farms brings this evolving catastrophe into focus. First Nations have shown admirable restraint and a patience that has now come to an end. In the press release, Chief Chamberlin explained that the decision to take the B.C. government to court was not entered into lightly, but has become a last resort.

He stated, "We have been patient and respectful, attending countless meetings while damage continues to be inflicted on the wild salmon by open net-cage salmon farms. We have waited for provincial support for closed containment technology and we have advanced farm fallowing plans and schedules to no avail. We have tried to work with the government, at a government-to-government level and through the New Relationship initiative, but we are out of time. Wild salmon stocks throughout the entire Broughton are in a sustained and serious decline; some salmon runs may become extinct and never be replaced. The salmon have existed here as long as we have, and it is essential to the survival of our distinct aboriginal culture that plentiful stocks of wild salmon survive."

This lawsuit vindicates the courage of Alexandra Morton whose studies, and the studies they inspired, condemned the stonewalling stupidity of the Campbell government, and have concentrated public opinion. Of profound importance is the Pacific Salmon Foundation report. The panel was chaired by The Honourable John Fraser, which for this purpose can be summed up in these words by the eminent Dr. Craig Orr of The Watershed Watch Salmon Society who said:

"With the usual state of denial, disinterest, and inaction, it's gratifying to finally see recognition of sea lice impacts. Now we need action, given the extremely dire state of Broughton pink and chum wild salmon."

The Campbell government and especially the premier should be mortified and ashamed at this finding which does nothing more than validate the science that the government has had for several years. At the very least, Alexandra Morton should get a full apology.

I think I can say to Mr. van Dongen and his colleagues that fish farming has indeed become a political issue.

Chicken seven: Selling river rights to private firms. The Campbell government's energy policy also focuses on the outdoors. This policy, taken to its logical conclusion, will damage hundreds of B.C. rivers and streams while sending the profits not to the B.C. government as BC Hydro now does, but to shareholders in mega-corporations beyond the borders of our province.

The government, in a clear dereliction of duty, hasn't told us about how the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) will come into play around this critical issue. The government either is so stupid that it doesn't understand NAFTA or it's deliberately deceiving the public.

Two likely NAFTA impacts are that once an American company is given rights to a river it has them for all purposes including bulk water sales; another is that as long as the company is working its water license, it doesn't expire at the stated time but goes on indefinitely. The clincher is that neither the federal nor provincial government can do anything about this as NAFTA is a treaty and its rules trump legislation.

Chicken eight: Shutting out the public. What is becoming clearer is that the energy plan had no public input. No debate was allowed for a plan that, when you look at it, could have been designed by Alcan to best suit the independent power producers.

The two senior governments have held three public hearings on the Bute Inlet initiative of Plutonic Energy (controlled by General Electric). This project would be larger than the possible Site "C" dam and make Plutonic the largest private power provider in the country, involving 17 rivers. But these hearings have been strictly confined to the question of the terms of reference the government environmental assessment process should adopt.

Here is an axiom I recently made up: "If the public doesn't get a hearing in one place, they will in another -- perhaps the voting booth."

The crowds who have come to be heard on the merits of the project are gavelled down as being out of order -- and they're white hot angry. So that you know where I'm coming from, I'm official spokesperson for the Save Our Rivers Society, charged with informing the public just what the energy policy is all about.

There are, as I say, a lot of chickens headed for the coop. Yet, the Liberals could survive if they were to convince voters that they are the better option for recession times than the NDP.

Carole James cannot win by simply pointing out the many and egregious sins of the Campbell government. She must show the NDP as a government-in-waiting with detailed answers to the serious questions that face us.

The election is for Carole James to win or lose.

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