Opinion

COLUMN: Making bloated government worse

We live in an over-governed society, a fact that’s nowhere more evident than here on southern Vancouver Island, where a dozen boutique municipalities bicker over policing, development and homelessness.

This situation has been made worse by the uproar over Ken Dobell, Premier Gordon Campbell’s right-hand man, which displaced more serious issues as B.C. politicians shouted and finger-pointed their way to a two-week Easter break.

In case you missed it, Dobell was given an absolute discharge in provincial court last week, effectively forgiving him for what the judge called a “trivial” breach of B.C.’s lobbying law. After retiring as deputy minister to the premier and immediately taking up major consulting projects for both the province and the City of Vancouver, Dobell was late registering as a lobbyist, because he didn’t see himself as a lobbyist.

The practical definition of “lobbyist” is someone who guides private business through the maze of government in search of profitable deals. Everyone agrees that is something that should be regulated against corruption, and the lobbyist registry provides at least disclosure.

Until recently, Dobell didn’t fit the definition. He worked for the premier’s office on things like the softwood lumber trade deal, and represents Vancouver on plans for social housing and cultural projects.

Lawyers in Ottawa and here in B.C. have now decided to expand the definition to include consultants representing one level of government to another.

The real story here is that our layer cake of bureaucracy now has a thick icing of costly consultants so its growing staff and executive ranks can talk to each other. The suggestion that Dobell conspired with the premier to siphon off a fortune renovating flophouses and zoning for postage-stamp apartments is just silly. Taxpayers should be told what they’re paying him and what he’s doing for it, and that’s all.

Coincidentally, Canada’s crusty free trade negotiator Simon Reisman died as all this was going on. The Globe and Mail’s obituary described Reisman’s own conflict-of-interest problems as a lobbyist for Lockheed in Ottawa, and his defence that there’s a difference between peddling influence and peddling knowledge.

“Some girls dance and some are whores,” Reisman said of himself and his business partner. “We just dance.”

Lately Dobell took on a private client, a company trying to sell turnstiles for SkyTrain. This is actual lobbying, and like everyone else Dobell should not be permitted to dance in the dark lest there be some hanky-panky at public expense.

The NDP wants Dobell banned from all contact with the B.C. government, and Campbell’s current deputy Jessica McDonald sacked for allowing this shadowy social housing work to go on. The premier should apologize personally, and Attorney-General Wally Oppal should immediately overhaul the lobbyist registry to make sure anyone who fails to make proper disclosure is harshly punished.

I’ll go along with the part about fixing the lobbyist registry. It should be amended to clarify that working for one level of government in dealings with others is not lobbying.

Our taxes already pay handsomely for budgets, business plans and auditors that show how fast government is growing, and by the way the formerly right-wing B.C. Liberal government is growing as fast as it can hire people.

Whether the latest hired hand is a $250-an-hour consultant like Dobell or a lavishly paid executive for Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon’s ridiculous new Crown corporation in charge of the Port Mann bridge is of little significance to the average taxpayer.

Right now we’ve got a government that is able to expand with impunity, because members of the opposition NDP can rend their garments and shout convincingly about everything except bigger government.

tfletcher@blackpress.ca

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