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?

Softwood deal closer, but it won't be a good one

VICTORIA - Two years into the softwood battle, and it looks like we're
heading toward a deal that will leave Canada worse off than we were under
the old agreement.
The U.S. side unveiled two important documents this week, one a response to
Canada's proposals for a temporary deal and the other a blueprint for the
forest changes needed to bring the days of border controls to an end.
In terms of the temporary deal, we're down to a process that will be
familiar to anyone who has ever tried to buy a used car or a house, or
negotiated a union contract.
Both sides accept that a negotiated deal is the way to end the dispute.
Canada still talks about letting WTO and NAFTA appeals go forward, but the
reality is that resolving the dispute that way could take years, only to be
thwarted by new American trade barriers.
Negotiations have barely begun. But it looks like Canada is heading towards
a deal that will be bad news for the forest industry for the next several
You can have interesting debates about whether Canadian producers are
subsidized, or B.C. rules force companies to dump lumber when the market is
But right now this is just about bargaining and relative power, not who is
right or wrong.
The goal for the American producers is to allow as little Canadian lumber
into the country as possible. Less Canadian wood means greater demand for
their products, providing both more sales and higher prices.
Canadians want an open border. Without access to the U.S. market, our forest
industry is wrecked.
Canada's opening proposal, delivered earlier this month, called for an end
to the 27-per-cent duties being collected by the U.S. They would be replaced
with an export tax that would go into provincial coffers. Under the Canadian
proposal, there would be no export tax on the first 17 billion board feet
shipped to the U.S. each year, $25 per thousand for the next billion and
$100 for any additional shipments.
What does that mean? Canada was effectively saying we'll hold our shipments
to about one-third of the wood consumed in the U.S., more or less our
traditional share. Canada doesn't want any significant trade barriers below
that level.
The U.S. proposal was structured differently. But basically, they proposed a
tax of about $35 per thousand board feet on all shipments up to 17 billion
board feet, and a tax of $175 on all wood above that amount. Since the
lumber is only selling for about $250 these days, that level of export tax
would kill any shipments above the quota.
And that would mean Canadian exports would actually be knocked back below
traditional levels, forcing producers to cut their output by about 10 per
The settlement likely lies somewhere between the two proposals, and Canadian
industry people seem confidence common ground can be found.
But it's a good bet that the final deal will involve some tax on all
shipments to the U.S., unlike the softwood agreement that expired in 2001
and allowed Canadian producers some free access. It will also involve a
substantial tax on higher volumes, to deter Canadian firms from shipping
more wood when markets and prices are strong.
Reaching a deal is just the first problem for Canadian companies, which have
been summoned to Ottawa for a meeting Wednesday to consider options.
Graduated tax levels mean some sort of quota system needs to be in place, or
companies will just rush to get as much wood into the U.S. as quickly as
they can to avoid rising duties. And allocating that quota among companies,
and provinces, is going to produce winners and losers.
The bottom line is that after two years of uncertainty and lost jobs, Canada
is likely to end up with a softwood agreement that is worse than the one
left behind in 2001.
Footnote: The news isn't much brighter on a long-term solution. B.C.'s
planned forestry changes address some of the ground rules the U.S. sets out
for ending any trade barriers. But it's unlikely that they will go far
enough, fast enough, to satisfy U.S. producers. Log exports, and the extent
of the new auction market in timber, will remain stumbling blocks.