Tuesday, June 24, 2003

Same sex marriage debate an insult
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - What sort of a crazy country do we live in, where our political leaders can dodge important issues and get themselves all tied up in knots over same sex marriages?
The current noisy, confused and pointless debate should anger most Canadians.
Health care, that's a serious issue. Child poverty, First Nations' problems, softwood lumber, massacres in the Congo, jobs, economic competitiveness - they're all serious issues.
But whether two people can get a sheet of paper that says they're married, that's not a serious issue.
The Ontario Court of Appeal ruled this month that same sex couples have a legal right to get a marriage licence, the same conclusion that B.C.'s Court of Appeal reached last month. The B.C. court - following the lead of earlier rulings in Quebec and Ontario - gave the federal government until next year to fix the law. In this latest ruling, the Ontario court just tossed the law. Same sex marriages are legal there today.
Scary stuff, apparently, though I can't see why. The ruling doesn't mean churches have to accept same sex marriages. It doesn't change the legal or economic status of the couples; the economic rights of people living together have already been established.
Nothing changes, except that now two people of the same sex can take get a marriage certificate, which has the all the meaning and significance they choose to give it.
It's a piece of paper, issued by a government department. In B.C. you go down and apply for the licence, giving your name, birthday, marital status and address. You have to be over 19, or have your parents' consent. You can be married by a religious representative, or a marriage commissioner. And away you go.
You don't have to pledge to go forth and multiply. You don't have stick together until death do you part, as many opposite sex couples have demonstrated.
I usually get a little teary-eyed at weddings. It's wonderfully hopeful, two people saying that they're taking on life together. It seems to me more wonderfully hopeful in many ways if they're both men or women.
But a marriage licence doesn't mean anyone else has to share that goodwill. Many people believe that real marriage involves a man and a woman. Some people believe it's not a real marriage unless they share the same religion, or are committed to having children. Some people believe that it's not a real marriage if you've been married before.
Which is all fine. But they don't get to impose their definition on others.
Just because same sex couples can get a marriage licence doesn't mean anyone else has to approve, or even recognize the marriage. (''Meet my daughter and her friend. . . they've got a marriage licence but I don't think it counts.")
Some have argued that the real issue is whether laws should be made in the courts or Parliament.
But the courts are just saying that Parliament has to make laws that don't conflict with each other. Parliament passed the charter of rights, and a marriage definition law that conflicts with it. That had to be sorted out somewhere; government wouldn't do it; so the court did.
The courts weren't keen on deciding the issue. The first rulings gave the federal government time to revolve the conflict by changing the law, either to legalize same sex marriage, or with some creativity to preserve the current definition.
Now Ottawa is in an uproar, MPs on both sides of the issue are raging, and Ralph Klein is promising to use the notwithstanding clause to block same sex marriages. (The B.C. Liberals, are ignoring the issue.)
I figure that if two men or women want to take a try at marriage, as they define it, more power to them. It's something to be celebrated when anyone finds a person to share their life.
If you disagree, I respect your view.
But with all that faces us today, the fact that is preoccupying our politicians is just crazy.
Footnote: The real villain here is the Liberal government. On this issue, and marijuana possession, the Liberals have been told by the courts that the law won't stand up and must be changed, but the government has been too paralyzed to act.

Children and families cuts to take terrible toll
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - Things are in a nasty mess in the ministry of children and families as it struggles with a reckless plan to chop spending by almost 25 per cent.
Slashing spending on our most vulnerable children and families is an obviously bad idea, one that is unsupported by the facts and betrays Premier Gordon Campbell's past promises to increase funding for the ministry.
But despite warnings and pleas the government has pressed on with its irresponsible plan. It has refused to admit how dangerous the cuts would be, how much damage they would do to children and vulnerable adults and how great the long-term costs.
That changed this week, sort of. The Vancouver Province's Mike Smyth reported on a government document that outlined the kind of cuts that would be needed to chop $350 million from the ministry budget, as the government plans. The report, prepared for Treasury Board, said the cuts would be deep and damaging. The Maples Adolescent Treatment Centre for mentally handicapped youth would be closed, with no place for those kids to go. The province's fetal alcohol syndrome strategy would be scrapped, foster parents - already in short supply - would face a 10 to 15 per cent pay cut and support for troubled families would be cut, with the result that more children would end up in government care. The seven-page list went on.
Finance Minister Gary Collins tried to downplay the concerns this week. The government would likely ease the depth of the cuts, he said, and a decision should be announced within the next week or so.
But the leaked report is only one document, he said, submitted before Treasury Board - the cabinet committee that reviews budgets - had a chance to grill ministry staff about the impact of the cuts.
The children's ministry is exaggerating the risks, Collins said. Some ministry staff have a "rubber stamp" that says 'health and safety risk,' he said, and they use it any time there's a proposal to change the way services are delivered.
Maybe. If you're job is to protect children from abuse, or keep troubled families from exploding, you likely care about the work and recognize that you'll get yelled at if something goes wrong. And you will likely fight budget cuts that make it even a little bit harder to keep kids safe.
And Collins is right. In government, or any organization, someone has to push back and test claims that all the spending is necessary.
But the suggestion that the problem in making these cuts is a stubborn bureaucracy unwilling to change is goofy.
The Liberals used to say the ministry needed more money to do its job, and complained about constant re-organizations. Now they want to cut spending by one-quarter, eliminate one-fifth of the staff - while they completely re-organize the ministry.
It is a formula for disaster. And despite the Liberals' vaunted three-year business plans, this was based on hope and the need to pay for the tax cuts, not a realistic assessment of the needs of children and families. That's why the plan is unraveling.
Collins said one of the problems in assessing the risk involved in making the cuts is that the ministry hasn't been well-managed and doesn't have the needed information. "They put together a plan based on the best data they had, which we now know wasn't very good data," he said.
But that's not something that would suddenly be discovered now, when the cuts are running into trouble. Competent managers would never have accepted a plan for a 23-per-cent budget cut that was based on bad and incomplete information.
The Liberals are putting children and families at risk. They're betraying their promises. And they're trying to save money now at the cost of much greater human and economic costs in future.
Footnote: Don't expect much of a change in the Liberals' plans. Collins said the budget might be increased, but the ministry will still be left facing massive budget cuts and major problems. Which raises an interesting question: why was it important to protect health and education spending, but acceptable to cut services to the most vulnerable children and families?

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