A licence to extend the state's power
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - There's something at once wrong and frightening about the fervent celebration of the attack on the World Trade Centre one year ago.
Wrong, because it rests on the false pretence that Sept. 11 was a defining moment that changed everything, for everyone.
And frightening because it is being used to justify mindless conformity, an erosion of individual rights in favour of the state - and even war.
It was a terrible day. But most people have placed that devastating event into some appropriate place among the other terrible and joyous moments that define a life. About 40,000 children were born in B.C. last year. For those families, 2001 won't be the year the World Trade Centre was destroyed; that pales beside the wonder of a new life beginning. About 315 British Columbians killed themselves last year. For those families, it will be the year that someone was lost, and something in them died too.
The attacks were terrible. But they were not different in purpose or effect than the decades of horrors that the current generation has witnessed.
Even their scale is not beyond comparison. Some 3,000 people died last Sept. 11. Twenty times as many died when the second bomb fell on Nagasaki; twice as many died in Bhopal after the 1994 Union Carbide disaster; about the same number of Africans will die of AIDS while you are at work today.
Last Sept. 11 was an awful day, but everything didn't change because of it. We still go to work, look for happiness, slide into despair. We raise our children. Just like always.
And one year later, I am much less frightened of a terror attack than I am of the governments supposedly on my side.
The state - Canada or Afghanistan, America or Iraq - always wants to increase its power over the people. It's not sinister; if you are in charge of keeping order, then you will want to make that task easier - surveillance cameras on every corner, fewer legal right for citizens. But it's an imperative that means citizens must always be prepared to push back.
For a year governments have been using Sept. 11 as a licence to extend the state's power. And an uncertain public has failed to push back.
Airport security may have needed upgrading, perhaps through improved training. But after last Sept. 11 Ottawa introduced a $24-per-ticket security surcharge, taking $400 million a year from travellers' pockets and wounding regional airlines and the communities they serve. The take from Vancouver alone will be enough to hire more than 600 extra security staff; the need has never been demonstrated.
The federal government likewise made no effective case for $8 billion in increased security spending over the next five years, money it could never find to help Canada's poorest children or reduce the tax burden.
And now the U.S. government is pressuring Canada to spend more on defence, even after a 10-per-cent increase this year. (The Americans spend $400 billion a year on their military, more than the next 25 countries combined. To match their level of per-capita spending, Canada would have to more than triple its defence budget.)
Sadly, it's not just about money. The Bush administration quickly passed the "USA Patriot Act" (the name, commanding mindless acquiescence, should sound alarm bells). Americans lost rights they had treasured for 200 years. The right to legal representation, to a speedy and public trial, to protection from unjustified searches - all gone. Americans can now be jailed indefinitely and secretly, without a trial.
Canada didn't go as far. But the prime minister can now outlaw groups based on secret evidence. Police gained the right to arrest someone who has broken no law on the suspicion that they are involved in terrorist activities. You can now be jailed for refusing to answer police questions.
And then there is war. Canada fought in Afghanistan, to little obvious effect. And now we are being asked to fight in Iraq, not because of anything that nation has done, but because the U.S. believes Saddam Hussein may someday do something. This is not a war on terrorism; it's a beating for a nation the U.S. simply wishes had a different leader.
Enough. Everything did not change in a few terrible hours one year ago. We have rights and freedoms and values worth defending, and a commitment to the rule of law that should not be abandoned when a government finds it convenient.
We will betray our past and our future if instead we allow ourselves to be defined by a single day of terror.
Wednesday, September 11, 2002
Monday, September 09, 2002
Phoney war on terror Sept. 11's worst legacy
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - One year after the attack on New York, and I'm more worried about what the governments supposedly on my side are doing than I am about any terror threat.
The media seems determined to relive last Sept. 11, long after most people have placed the terrible events into some appropriate context among the terrible and joyous moments that define a life.
It's pointless to try and come up with some ranking of horrors, based on numbers or cruelty or intent. Some 3,000 people died in the terror attacks last year, innocents just trying to live their lives. Twenty times as many died when the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki; twice as many died in Bhopal due to a disaster at a Union Carbide plant. About the same number of British Columbians killed themselves in the last decade, and each of those deaths likely means more to a family than Sept. 11.
It was bad. But it wasn't the day that changed everything, a licence for governments to act as if all the old rules no longer apply. New airport taxes in Canada, an attack on Iraq, chipping away at citizens' rights - they're all being defended with the phoney claim that they are part of a necessary war on terror.
Ottawa slapped a $12-per-ticket surcharge on airline tickets after Sept. 11. That ill-conceived and unfair tax is expected to take $2.1 billion from travellers' pockets and has hammered airlines offering service to smaller communities. The tax adds the same amount to a $99 flight as it does to a $4,000 business trip; the result has been to harm the regional airlines providing vital service to smaller centres. Travellers lose; so do the communities.
But common sense seems to have been one of the first casualties of the terror attacks. No one has demonstrated that Canada needs to spend billions more each year on airport security, or $10 billion on other security measures; certainly no one has shown why that is a higher priority than providing education or health care or tax relief.
One of the duties of every citizen is fighting what seems to be an inevitable government impulse to increase the state's power at the expense of the individual. People in positions of authority are eager to make their own jobs easier, even if that means reducing citizens' rights. (That's true in Canada or the U.S., Iraq or Afghanistan.)
So the U.S. government quickly passed the "USA Patriot Act," stripping away rights Americans had enjoyed for 200 years. The right to legal representation, the requirement that the state have some reason to search your home, the right to a speedy and public trial - all gone. Americans now be jailed indefinitely without a trial or a hearing, locked away secretly.
Canada didn't go as far. But the prime minister can now outlaw groups based on secret evidence, making it a crime to belong or even to help a member. About half-a-dozen groups have been designated; the government will add another half-dozen this fall. Police gained the right to arrest someone believed to be involved in terrorist "activities," even if they have broken no law. Citizens lost the right to remain silent; you can now be jailed for refusing to answer questions - even if you are charged with no crime.
The war in Afghanistan has been fought, to little obvious effect. Now the Americans want to bomb Iraq, not because of anything that country has done, but because the U.S. government thinks it might do something bad, someday. It's not a justification that would have survived the most cursory scrutiny a year ago. Now it's good enough.
The Sept. 11 attacks were terrible, and we need to learn from them.
But more terrible still would be allowing governments to use the attacks to justify undermining the fundamental rights of citizens.
Paul Willcocks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Class action suit over BC Hydro deserves to fail
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - Sorry to break the bad news to the people planning a class action suit against the Liberals over BC Hydro's future, but so far they don't have a case.
The proposed class action suit rests on two foundations: that the Liberals are violating their duty to British Columbians, the owners of Hydro, by selling it off cheaply; and that they're breaking their word to voters, justifying the court's intervention.
The Liberals did mislead the public on a range of issues during the election campaign.
But Gordon Campbell was relatively clear on BC Hydro. Power generating facilities and transmission lines would stay under public ownership, he promised.
He never made the same promise about the front end of the business, the part that's now being handed over to Accenture. (British Columbians should be worried about the costs and benefits of handing over about one-third of Hydro's operations - accounting, human relations, computer technology - over to a multinational. But it's not a step towards inevitable privatization, or a broken promise.)
Campbell never hid the fact that the Liberals would consider splitting BC Hydro up into smaller Crown corporations, and would certainly try to get private power producers to play a larger role.
That's not a radical plan. There's no reason BC Hydro has to build and own every power plant in the province. If a community wants to set up its own generating plant, meeting its own needs and selling the surplus, or a company wants to set up wind turbines, why not? As long as the power is competitively priced, then the arrival of more producers, trying different approaches, should benefit consumers and create jobs.
But that's not likely to happen as long as BC Hydro controls both the power plants and the transmission lines. Monopolies don't welcome competition, and with control of the transmission lines - and the rates charged for access - Hydro can slam the door on private power generators.
Imagine you had a monopoly on the grocery business in the province - and also owned the only trucking company able to transport produce. How much are you going to charge me for hauling vegetables when I tell you I want to start a store to compete with your's?
Splitting up BC Hydro isn't a new idea. Mark Jaccard headed a task force that looked at electricity markets for the NDP. It recommended splitting off the transmission functions of BC Hydro into a separate Crown corporation to encourage competition in electricity production. Jaccard's review found encouraging private producers could provide value, shift the risk of developing new capacity off consumers and encourage more green power sources.
And Campbell didn't hide the fact that splitting up Hydro might be part of the Liberals' plans.
There's a certain irony here. The same people who deplore - rightly - the problems created when private companies grow too large and exercise monopoly powers, seem to think that somehow a state-owned giant monopoly - like BC Hydro - is OK.
The real battle over energy in B.C. is just over the horizon. Sometime in the next few weeks the government will release an energy policy paper it's been sitting on for months.
It's going to acknowledge reality. New power is going to cost more. And that means rates are going to go up, or no company, public or private, will be able to build the new capacity that will be needed.
Footnote: British Columbia's outrage over the American's plans for the Sumas II power plant just across the border from Abbotsford may be merited, but it's sure hypocritical. The plant's B.C. opponents - including the government - point to increased air pollution. But the newest, most modern major plant generating power for BC Hydro is in Campbell River. Unlike Sumas II, it was built without the latest pollution scrubbers. As a result it pours out three to 10 times the pollutants of the planned Sumas plant.
Paul Willcocks can be reached at email@example.com
Posted by paul at 8:13 AM