A mess fit for a fascist?

by Rob Wipond, January 2011

Gordon Campbell’s reorganization of our resource ministries is costly, chaotic and destructive.

One of Gordon Campbell’s last major acts as BC Premier, a government reorganization, is old news. However, unless reversed by a new leader, the devastating consequences will be unfolding for years, from Peace River forests through bureaucratic halls to Victoria shores.

The decisions affected nearly every ministry, and thousands of civil servants. But the most significant changes hit our important resource ministries, where many of the highest-level decision-making branches and powers governing lands, mining, agriculture, energy, forests, fish and wildlife, water and the environment were moved to a new Natural Resource Operations (NRO) super-ministry. 

According to an irate (and now former) Liberal Energy Minister Bill Bennett, it was done covertly by two deputy ministers working with Campbell. Deputy ministers are so stratospherically removed from day-to-day realities, it would’ve been not unlike boys choosing a sports fantasy team: They steal the strongest players from around the league by gutting other teams of talent, while giving no thought to the working chemistries, infrastructures, facilities and business-community relationships that actual teams are built on.

The comparison only seems absurd if you’ve never seen reorganizations up close. In recent weeks, bureaucrats have described it privately to me as “mayhem,” “a nightmare,” and “disastrous.”

The BC Public Service head guesstimates hundreds of thousands of dollars will be thrown at changing letterheads, re-making signs, adjusting payroll, and moving offices. However, that only hints at the gargantuan efforts now underway. That’s because, once the fantasy team has been picked, the players themselves have to sort out how it’s actually going to work in the real world.

Isn’t it easy to just rename ministry websites? Well, some parts are going here and some there, and every template, page, link and address has to be correspondingly updated. It’s often a massive undertaking for programmers, and that’s why many ministry websites are perpetually confused. Perusing one ministry’s website recently, banners alternately insisted I was supposedly visiting the Ministry of Energy, the defunct Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources from years ago, and the new Ministry of Forests, Mines and Lands.

Meanwhile, what happens to files? In 1945, we had a Department of Lands—one group governing our land base. How much work was it to divide those files appropriately when that department separated into ministries of forests, parks, mines etc? And how much work to partially recombine them into the Forests and Lands Ministry, then split them again, and then partially recombine and partially divide them simultaneously in 2010 through several ministries? 

And before answering, keep in mind that government filing systems themselves have been changing, while some individual ministries, branches, or sections have developed their own systems to meet changing responsibilities. Records have sometimes been filed primarily according to record type (e.g. Financial; Administration; Correspondence), project name, project type, location and/or dates, been cross-referenced or numbered differently, and been moved between regional offices, Victoria headquarters, or warehouses following changing policies...A not uncommon result: Reviewer Ted Hughes traced BC’s scandalous ignorance about children dying in foster care back to a 2002 reorganization and “failed transfer of files.”

Databases featured prominently there, too. Databases are endemic in government, and require extraordinary efforts to design, construct and maintain. But when reorganized ministry sections suddenly change responsibilities and working relationships, what happens? Hughes described how the Children’s Commission database wasn’t tailored for the Coroners Service’s, so a new database was built to integrate the two. Only upon its completion four years later did we finally find those children. 

Another huge job that reorganizations create, particularly in resource ministries where external working relationships are key, involves contractual arrangements among governments, businesses and non-profits, covering everything from mine authorizations and land leases to fish hatchery co-management and hydro right-of-ways. These legal documents require clear designations of responsibilities. But if a contract says the Ministry of Trees Forever manages your city’s watershed, what happens when that ministry disappears, half spun off into the Ministry of Partial Protection, and the rest absorbed into a new Ministry of Proactive Logging? Therefore, after each reorganization, countless written agreements must be debated over, sorted out and changed, one by one or through legally ratified bulk procedures. So overwhelming a task is this, these sometimes only get definitively sorted when cases land in court. 

And that touches on another giant, expensive clean-up requirement. The Ministry of Energy and Mines Act, for example, establishes the myriad powers of a ministry that no longer exists, and every section of it now uncertainly pertains to different new ministries. After reorganizations, such legislation, often years in development, must be reviewed, sorted out between ministries, and ultimately rewritten.  

So if top-down reorganizations are staggeringly clumsy, risky and wasteful, why are politicians always doing them? Many times, the decisions are just high-profile deck re-shufflings that make politicians look like they’re instituting “fresh ideas and substantial changes.” (Campbell’s Healthy Living and Sport Ministry lasted as long as the Olympics warm-up and cool down.) Other times, though, strong agendas are at work.

That becomes clearer when we look more closely at examples of the impacts of reorganization on specific powers and legislation.

These days, generic phrases are increasingly used to avoid empowering (legally or otherwise) entities that don’t survive reorganizations. So BC’s Integrated Pest Management Act gives “the minister” powers to appoint independent review committees. These committees must include representatives from “a ministry responsible for the administration of each of agriculture, environmental protection, forests and health.” Presumably, the intent was to include diverse, independent voices when reviewing, say, regulations about spraying toxic pesticides. However, with pest management responsibilities, along with representatives for agriculture, environmental protection and forests all moving to the new Natural Resource Operations (NRO) super-ministry, that law technically now gives the NRO minister the power to appoint a board filled almost solely with NRO representatives.

Similarly, if you’re hoping the Ministry of Environment or Aboriginal Relations will defend natural values in the legislated consultations over the Jordan River tree farm licence lands, new salmon farms, or the mega-yacht marina proposed for Victoria’s Inner Harbour, well, most decisions now rest with the NRO alone.

Far from being accidental, such end-runs by politicians around laws and established procedures are increasingly the intent of reorganizations.

Campbell’s official rationale for reorganizing resource ministries was to “streamline” processes. But wouldn’t you consult closely with bureaucrats, then, not simply ineptly force all the key people and decision-making powers into one ministry?

When challenged, Campbell responded that “the resource industries…wanted to see a change.” 

Indeed, corporations have long wanted to cut the democratic diversity of voices out of decision-making over our public resources. So when Campbell’s shill to run the new super-ministry, Steve Thomson, claimed the NRO would soon be “increasing certainty on the land base,” we could intuit whom he was assuring.

All in all, it epitomizes Campbell’s nine-year reign: a unilateral decision not open for discussion, sure to have vast repercussions, planned in secret, wasteful of public resources on a grand scale, and dismissive of every stakeholder except corporations.

The one result we do know for certain: It’s going to become even easier for a single, unaccountable person to rule this province. Thanks for the legacy, Gordo.

Rob Wipond performed contract work for several resource ministries during two reorganizations.