Thursday, April 10, 2003

Beautiful building, and we bring it shame
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - A local newspaper columnist suggested Press Gallery types could be considered embedded journalists, just like the TV reporters over there in Iraq.
Just like them, she implied, we lose perspective. We're too close to the politicians, too far from real life and too caught up in the often irrelevant small dramas in this fine old building.
She's probably right.
I watch Question Period every day, and half listen to what passes for debates in the house. I'm used to it, the bickering and pointless insults and steadfast refusal to provide serious answers to serious questions.
Barbara Macaulay brought her Grade 5 and 6 class to watch Question Period. They weren't used to the rudeness and stupidity. The kids were shocked by "ugly behaviour" and a "base tone of baiting and bully-like comments."
"The display of arrogance and infantile name-calling was a terrific non-example for my students," she wrote.
She's right. It happens day after day, and has for years. But that doesn't make it less appalling or destructive. The people in the legislature - smart, caring people - are acting wretchedly.
Not all debate is unworthy. There are some excellent members' statements, some rare useful question-and-answer exchanges.
But too often the debates are pointless posturing.
This isn't a slag against the Liberals. The NDP were equally unable to see the benefits of treating the legislature, and individual MLAs, with respect.
But the minimal opposition gave the Liberals a chance to try something new, to create the chance for real debate. And they've failed.
You could see how badly they failed earlier this month, when NDP leader Joy MacPhail skipped morning debate on the transportation budget after a late-night sitting.
Independent MLA Paul Nettleton took the chance to raise questions about BC Rail.
When he finished, a problem. No MacPhail, so no one to start asking questions. Liberal MLA Blair Suffredine tried to ask about the Francois Lake ferry privatization and other local transportation issues.
Sorry, said Transportation Minister Judith Reid, I'm ready to talk about BC Rail today, with the appropriate staff on hand. Call my office for a meeting.
So Barry Penner rose, to ask about upgrades to a dangerous stretch of Hwy 1 near Bridal Falls. Reid lay her head on her desk in mock dismay, and gave him the same non-response.
MLA Pat Bell rode to the rescue with some BC Rail questions, but admitted he was going back over old ground.
All in all, a lame display. Surely Reid could at least have tried to answer questions from MLAs concerned about her ministry's plans for their communities. And surely those answers would have been better provided publicly.
The Liberals have made big changes in one area, bumping up security. (Maybe that's why I feel more like an embedded journalist.) First it was a cardlock system for all the doors that used to be open to the public, with special ID cards for everyone who wanted to get into the building. Now it's a $200,000 project to put in electronic vehicle control gates and day-and-night surveillance cameras at the driveways.
Current world events helped prompt the new security, the government said.
Please. These old buildings aren't a terror target. In decades, protests have been almost uniformly peaceful, and when things went wrong they have been well-managed by security staff and police.
One security guard was injured in an anti-logging protest in the early '90s. Aside from that one regrettable incident he public has strolled in to meet with their representatives. It's our building, and we've been welcome.
We're going backwards. We don't need tighter security, or crews digging trenches for underground wiring for surveillance cameras.
Instead we need more respect.
These are lovely buildings you own down here. It lifts my heart to see them most days.
It's a shame that what goes on inside the chamber does so little credit to the surroundings.
Footnote: Solicitor General Rich Coleman showed how the legislature could work. Coleman raised the question of alcohol abuse and FAS in an answer to a reporter's question, and was roundly - and wrongly - criticized for a lack of racial sensitivity. But faced with demands for an apology, he offered a clear and unequivocal one.

Influence of big corporate donors cloud over politics
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - Who are you going to believe, Gordon Campbell or your grandmother?
Campbell says it doesn't matter how dependent the Liberals are on donations from corporations, the government's decisions aren't affected.
But my grandmother was fond of proverbs, including the observation that 'he who pays the piper calls the tune.' And whatever Campbell says, most British Columbians believe that's true.
The latest political financial reports are out, showing the Liberals raked in about $4.3 million in donations last year. Most of the money came from corporations making donations over $250. When it came to financial support from individuals, the Liberals actually trailed the NDP.
No problem, says Campbell. The donations are fully disclosed, so everyone knows who has given and can decide for themselves if big givers are getting special treatment. And the Liberals make decisions based on what's best for the province, he says, not what's best for donors like Accenture, which gave $12,000 to the Liberals as it negotiated a contract to take over about one-third of BC Hydro's operations.
But it is a problem.
Campbell's claim that it makes no difference at all if a mining company like Teck Cominco gives more than $50,000 to the Liberal party flies in the face of most peoples' experience. Most of us listen to the people who write the cheques, the bosses or parents or bank managers. We still do what's right, but we aren't blissfully blind to their expectations, or the consequences of disappointing them. That's reality.
And most of us bring our experience to bear when we consider the Liberals' relationships with the corporations that provide more than 60 per cent of the money going to run the party and fight elections. According to a study done in 2000 almost 90 per cent of Canadians believed "people with money have a lot of influence over the government."
The perception - no matter what Campbell says about the reality - is that governments are beholden to corporate or big union interests. And that's damaging to our democracy.
It's a tough issue for the party in power. NDP leader Joy MacPhail now wants political finance reform, urging an end to donations by unions and companies and limits on the size of individual donations. But Campbell notes rightly that she had a decade in power, and never found the issue a priority. No government is keen to change the system, because the party in power has a big fund-raising advantage.
Campbell said changing the system would cost taxpayers money. Prime Minister Jean Chretien plans to end corporate and union donations, and replace the lost money with taxpayer subsidies to parties based on their share of the popular vote. Taxpayers shouldn't be asked to fund parties any more than they already do, Campbell says.
But there are alternatives, starting with simply leaving parties to trim their spending to fit their reduced revenue.
Liberal party spending has jumped by almost 40 per cent in three years. The budget for paid staff has almost tripled. Is that kind of increase really necessary? A large paid party staff and big central office don't necessarily enhance public involvement in politics; in fact it could reduce the influence of traditional volunteers.
The public doesn't trust the current process. They believe that when a corporation takes shareholders' money and gives it to a governing party, or a union hands over members' dues. there is an expectation of benefit. And they believe that when an organization has given $200,000 to a party, he expects his phone calls will be returned just a little more quickly.
That's corrosive, another damaging blow to peoples' belief that there is a meaningful role for them in our political life.
Campbell can change that, simply by referring the whole issue to the assembly of ordinary citizens that will soon be asked to prepare a plan for electoral reform.
The alternative is growing, destructive cynicism.
Footnote: The political finance reports released by Elections BC revealed a weak Green Party. Despite their strong poll standing, the Greens only raised in $87,000 in donations last year, with an average of 10 donors in each riding. That's nowhere near enough to fund a serious campaign in 2005