29 February 2012

Are political donations and Alberta's persistent condo problems related?

Justice should not only be done, but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done. — Lord Hewart, Seventh Lord Chief Justice of England

The same might be said about governing. Governing parties should not only govern justly but should be seen to be governing justly. That is difficult when they receive large political donations from vested interests. To the impartial eye, they might understandably be seen to favour those interests. 

Such is the case in Alberta and the government's action, or lack of it, regarding problems with condominium construction. As more condos were built during the heated economy of the last decade, their construction has often left a lot to be desired. Hundreds of Albertans have been forced out of their condominiums because they were too unsafe to inhabit. Thousands of others have had to spend millions of dollars to repair crumbling buildings, many less than a decade old.

Last year, 300 residents of the Penhorwood complex in Fort McMurray were hastily evacuated in the middle of the night because officials feared the nearly new building would collapse. The owners voted to borrow $35-million to rebuild the entire project.

Owners in Bella Vista condo in Calgary, a building less than 10 years old, face bills between $77,000 and $189,000 each for repairs to the roof, eaves, balcony and parkade in a building where some of the condos are only worth $200,000.The owners are pursuing legal action against the developer.

Earlier this month, about 150 residents of the high-end Bellavera Green Condos in Leduc were given an eviction order because of serious fire-code issues. Fire chief Ernie Polsom reported that the one-year old complex contained “serious Alberta Fire and Building Code violations."

The provincial government has been promising action for some time. Last year, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs said the government is implementing changes such as a new home warranty program, better training for safety codes officers and increased fines for building-code violations. “It’s been a long process," she said, "but we’re getting to the end.”

The question is why the end hasn't been reached. A government committee, led by Conservative MLA Thomas Lukaszuk, issued a report in December 2008 which found Alberta’s system of construction and inspection was inadequate to protect home or condominium owners. Over three years later, nothing has been done and the woes continue.

Perhaps this is just a case of the mills of the gods grinding slowly, but an observer might be excused for wondering if he wasn't seeing an indebted political party hesitant to offend a major benefactor. Indeed, in the case of the Alberta Conservative Party, its major benefactor. The biggest donor to the Conservatives is not, as most would guess, the oil industry, but the construction/real estate industry. In 2009, for example, the Conservatives received 69 per cent of their funding from corporations and 26 per cent of that came from the construction/real estate industry. Does the government's caution, at the expense of homeowners, result from an obligation to a very generous friend, or does it only look that way? In any case, this is a circumstance that fails to meet the standard of integrity laid down by Lord Hewart.

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