Les Leyne: Province makes brash claims on cutting red tape

Les Leyne mugshot generic

Does “consolidating websites to make it easier to find information on services” count as reducing red tape?

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Sounds like a dubious claim. Mushing two or more websites together doesn’t do much more than save a click or two. It doesn’t cut the red tape. It just potentially puts all the red tape in one place.

Nonetheless, that move was offered as one shining example of how B.C. is leading the way in regulatory reform.

That was a crusade that started 14 years ago when the B.C. Liberals first took office. It subsided to some extent after several years, but the effort was resurrected a couple of years ago and has been posting some pretty brash claims since then.

There are two places on their overall report card that the B.C. Liberals get As — the triple-A credit rating and a red-tape-reduction mark that the Canadian Federation of Independent Business runs as a publicity campaign. B.C. has pulled down an A four years in a row in that latter category and the government makes a big deal out of it.

(The government pays much less attention to the fact the CFIB awarded the 2014 Paperweight Award, given for weighing down business owners, to Multi-Material B.C., a provincial offshoot.)

The short history of the campaign starts in 2001 when the B.C. Liberals were elected and set out to pry the cold dead hand of government from the neck of free enterprise. They ordered bureaucrats to manually count every single legislative or regulatory directive in which the words “must” or “will” applied to citizens. It came up with 360,000 of them and started hacking away at them.

There was even a minister of deregulation (Kevin Falcon) to lead the charge.

Although Liberals this week are congratulating themselves for a “net zero” rule, which holds that one old regulation has to be killed for every new one hatched, Falcon took an even harder line. He tried to impose a two-for-one edict — for every new regulation, ministries had to expunge two old ones.

So archaic relics like the specific requirement for Doukhobors to register all births and deaths fell by the wayside. Thousands of others were eliminated, many of them invisible to the vast majority of taxpayers.

They knocked the total down by 36 per cent in a few years and subsequent progress has whittled the number down by another nine per cent, to 206,000 today, a reduction of 43 per cent. Net zero is supposed to hold the number at that level through this year.

You can tell by the trend line — 36 per cent in three years and nine per cent in the next 10 years — that the job is getting tougher. It’s undeniable that progress has been made.

And the general mindset of guarding against unnecessary form-filling is always welcome.

You can drive a snowmobile across a highway at a controlled intersection now without needing a permit, for instance. Or host a wedding reception in your backyard (at least in Vancouver and Burnaby, so far) without having to visit a liquor store and the police station to get a liquor permit.

But there’s a certain elasticity creeping into what counts as the elimination of red tape.

The most recent annual report from Regulatory Reform B.C., for example, lists a number of wins, such as the liquor-policy changes, building-code changes and natural-resource permitting.

But it also cites an agreement in principle between Canada and the European Union on trade and investment as a highlight. B.C. had next to nothing to do with that, and any red-tape reduction arising from it is mostly incidental.

And cutting regulation can turn into a sensitive issue at places such as WorkSafe B.C., given its track record on sawmill explosions. There are similar concerns in the wake of the Mount Polley mine dam collapse, subject to the final report on what happened there.

With virtually all of government on the Internet now, the overall thrust seems to have morphed a bit from regulatory reduction to streamlining services, by way of enhancing the websites.

lleyne@timescolonist.com

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