Thursday, December 23, 2004

Making your life, and the world, a better place

VICTORIA - It's the season to remember that a lot of what we're so busy worrying about doesn't really matter all that much.
And more importantly, that we may not be paying enough attention to the things, and people, that really do matter.
I am a fine one to talk, of course. I've written about 280,000 words on B.C. politics and policies this year, about the equivalent of two hefty novels. I've tried to write about things that matter, the decisions and issues that can change peoples' lives.
But the legislature's historic building doesn't just look like a fortress. Sometimes working here can be a bit like living a fantasy castle, its own little magic kingdom. The rest of the world - the real world - looks blurry and distant through the 100-year-old leaded glass windows. So some of those words were probably about issues and events that really didn't matter all that much.
It's easy to get caught up in the discouraging aspects of political life, the squabbling and the foolishness and the silly evasions. (And it gets especially discouraging because the people are so much better than than that individually; they seem to fall under some powerful curse when they enter the legislature.)
All of us can too easily get caught up in the urgent, and the discouraging, the problems and missteps and frustrations that dog our existence at work, or at home. They pile up like a tangled, weighty mass of cordwood and we spend every day pushing at them, rearranging the shape of the heap without actually changing much.
And pretty soon all we can see is the pile.
For the last few years I've given up on a traditional New Year's resolutions - for one thing, most years I seem to be still trying to decide on a resolution in April and by then it's late enough to abandon the whole idea.
Instead, each year I simply resolve to pay attention.
The foundation of a better life - for you, your family, your community, the world - might just lie in making a resolution to pay attention to the people around you, and the world that lies just a little farther away.
It's too easy to miss someone's pain, or sadness, or joy, simply because we're not really paying attention at that moment. The chances to notice that a child is lost or sad, or a parent is alone or frightened come and go. Miss them once, and they may be gone forever, and with them your chance to respond, to make the simple small gesture that can change everything.
I'm convinced that when people notice, when they pay attention, they are mostly compelled to act. That's the reason this kind of work, is worth doing, and those 280,000 words make sense. If people see a wrong, or a sadness, they will respond. It is a fact of our fundamental collective decency.
But it takes that first step in really seeing the people sprawled on the sidewalk in the cold outside the local shelter, or the children struggling to find their place in a world that doesn't seem to really want them.
When we pay attention, we hurt, or we rejoice, but we act.
We also get something very precious. Because the chance to pay attention can be as brief as a shooting star. Another person may for just one moment be ready to talk about her hopes or pain, and if it it is missed the chance to share in a life life, and change it, is gone forever.
It's not just about helping others. Paying attention means noticing the way the sun strikes a flower, or the rain sounds on the roof, or the pure comfort of a warm kitchen when the wind is pushing at the trees. we need to recognize the wonder and joy that can be part of our lives at almost every moment.
And that is important too. We need solace and joy and hope to make our way in this world. And the surest way to find those things is to make a point of looking for them in the people and places and moments of every day.
It is a gift. And I wish it for you this year.

Softwood ruling hammers B.C. - where's Ottawa?
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - Things are looking grim on the softwood front, and it's time for Canada to take the big risk of getting tough with the U.S.
The latest ruling confirms - again - that the Americans aren't going to settle this dispute based on NAFTA or WTO rulings. It's purely political. The American lumber producers have the political clout to influence the U.S. government, and the money to keep coming up with clever strategies to maintain the duties.
This week's ruling by the U.S. Commerce Department found a way to keep duties at 21 per cent. The ruling was "perverted," Forest Minister Mike de Jong said, twisting the facts and using discredited methods to keep the duty 60 per cent higher than even the U.S. had said was warranted only a few months ago.
But it gets much worse than the first media reports - including mine - revealed.
For the first time, the U.S. has targeted B.C. Producers here have now been singled out as the big offenders, and alleged to have earned duties more than twice as high as the average for other provinces.
The change is significant, and bad. The five other provinces covered by the trade penalties were judged to have earned an average 13-per-cent duty, the level expected based on earlier decisions.
But B.C. producers were assessed with a 27-per-cent duty, twice as much the average for the other provinces. B.C. is accused of providing the largest subsidies to its forest companies by undercharging for trees on Crown land, and thus faces the harshest penalties. The U.S. Commerce Department compared log prices on both sides of the border - a comparison already rejected in an earlier World Trade Organization ruling - to reach the conclusion that companies operating in B.C. get a break.
So far, the duties to be paid by B.C. companies will be based on the national average. But producers in other provinces can now be expected to press for a deal that advances their individual interests.
The legal details don't really matter in this battle. The dispute is about profit and politics, not trade agreements and the law.
Canadian and U.S. industry representatives were supposed to meet in Chicago last week to see if they could negotiate a deal. Canada pulled out after the ruling came down.
That's reasonable. There's no prospect of a fair negotiated settlement right now.
What's less reasonable is the belief that a big NAFTA win, expected as early as March, will bring the dispute to an conclusion. That ruling is supposed to mark the end of the appeal process for the U.S., which has lost a string of earlier decisions.
But it won't. The NAFTA panel has just been appointed, and the American lumber industry has already launched a clever attack. It has hired former U.S. attorney general Richard Thornburgh to argue that the whole NAFTA dispute resolution process Canada is counting on violates the U.S. constitution. (The panel includes representatives of both countries, and Thornburgh argues that the constitution bars foreigners from any body that imposes binding decisions on the U.S.)
Thornburgh has written every senator and congressman, and can be expected to have the ear of President George Bush; he was attorney general in the administration of Bush senior.
It doesn't matter if the legal argument is strong or weak. It plays nicely to American preoccupations - remember how much mileage Bush got out of claiming John Kerry would subject military action to a foreign veto - and sets the stage for long legal wrangling that would stall any settlement. That leaves Canada with few choices.
The government can fight, and threaten trade retaliation, or a refusal to co-operate on missile defence or other U.S. priorities. It's risky - the trade relationship is much more important to Canada than it is to the U.S.
But it's also the only option left to defend the industry in B.C., and the families and communities that depend on it.
Footnote: Paul Martin pledged that a Liberal government would pay attention to B.C.'s concerns and problems. But he failed to push the softwood issue successfully during Bush's brief Canadian visit and his government has been silent on this week's attack on B.C. Ottawa needs to offer either a counter-attack, or an aid plan.

Teachers should welcome new plan to reach contracts
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - Teachers made a big mistake in immediately trashing a proposal for a new way of bargaining contracts.
I don't blame them for being mad at the way they've been treated by this government. And elements of the proposal are going to be tough for them to swallow.
But on balance commissioner Don Wright has come up with a plan that could fix what is a hopelessly broken bargaining process between the BC Teachers' Federation and the Public School Employers' Association.
Wright, a former deputy minister, was asked to look at the bargaining process by Labour Minister Graham Bruce.
He found a fundamental problem. Teachers bargain as if they have a right to strike. But they don't.
It's a destructive fiction. The threat of strike - or lockout - is part of normal collective bargaining. Both sides know from the beginning that disaster awaits if they can't reach a deal. As a result they're motivated to compromise and bargain and find solutions.
Teachers cling to the notion that they have the right to strike. But parents consider education an essential service and no one is prepared to see 650,000 students with nowhere to go. As a result any government - left, right or in-between - will quickly use legislation to send them back to work.
That's reality. And it works against a negotiated deal. If school districts think the government will ultimately side with them in an imposed settlement, they have no reason to compromise. If teachers think the government is on their side, they hang tough.
That's why there hasn't been a successfully negotiated deal in 12 years.
Wright proposes a system that would force good faith negotiations. The two sides would get a set time to bargain. If they weren't successful, a commissioner would be appointed to report publicly on each side's positions. That in itself should encourage reasonableness; neither side should want to look like the problem.
The process would continue with mediation, but if a deal wasn't reached both sides would have to submit final positions on all issues to the commissioner. He would pick one in its entirety to form the new contract.
That too is an incentive to a reasonable position. Get too extreme, and you lose everything. (The method, final offer selection, is probably best known as the solution in major league baseball salary disputes when player and team can't agree on a contract.)
Wright also attempts to address, less successfully, the other major concern of teachers.
They want bargaining to deal with issues like maximum class sizes and the number of support staff in schools. Those were included in the teachers' previous contract, but legislated out by the Liberal government, which argued that school districts need the freedom to decide how best to provide education with the funds available. The new law specifically bars negotiation of those types of issues.
It is a thorny problem. Teachers lost the right to negotiate critical elements of their working conditions. (And also lost rights that they had already bargained for, and the employer and government had accepted. Teachers gave up wage increases in return for class size limits, for example, and are right to feel cheated.)
Wright proposes a new system that would bring together teachers, school districts and the province outside the negotiating process "to seek agreement on cost effective approaches to improving working and learning conditions." It's a good attempt at compromise.
Teachers have legitimate grievances. This Liberals promised to honour contracts, then used legislation to gut the teachers' agreement. They have been confrontational and provocative, treating the BCTF as an enemy rather than a participant in improving results for students.
But whatever government is in power, the bargaining problems remain.
Wright has proposed a new, realistic model that offers a chance for more effective collective bargaining, with power balanced between teachers and school districts.
And that is in everyone's interests.
Footnote: Labour Minister Graham Bruce reserved comment on the report. But he'll have to address one major problem. The government has shown already that it won't honour arbitration decisions if it doesn't like the result. There's no reason for the BCTF to accept a binding process that is really only binding if the government wins.

BC Rail corruption charges raise doubts about whole deal
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - The charges alleging corruption in the BC Rail sale are very bad news for the Liberal government.
The talk around the legislature for months has been that there was less to the case than meets the eye. Charges - if there were any - would be petty offences, based on the boastful tendencies of would-be political wheels.
Wrong. The charges are explicit, and raise doubts about the legitimacy not just of the sale of BC Rail's Roberts Bank spur, but of the whole $1-billion deal to sell the Crown corporation.
They are just unproven charges. But they are very serious, taking the case far beyond the Roberts Bank spur or allegations that provincial government staffers tried to trade favours in return for jobs with the Paul Martin Liberals.
Dave Basi - then the top aide to former finance minister Gary Collins - is charged with accepting "money, meals, travel and employment opportunities" to help OmniTRAX in its bid for BC Rail. Bob Virk - ministerial assistant to then transportation minister Judith Reid - is charged with a similar offence, except he is not alleged to have received money along with the other benefits.
Both men are charged with leaking confidential information about the deal.
Most seriously the Crown is alleging Basi and Virk "recklessly put at risk the bidding process " for BC Rail by leaking confidential government documents and other information. Their actions defrauded taxpayers, CN Rail, CP Rail and CIBC World Markets, the financial institution arranging the sale, the prosecutors charge.
This charge isn't about the Roberts Bank spur line sale, a $70-million side deal. It alleges that the whole controversial sale of the Crown corporation was compromised, and taxpayers - among others - lost out as a result.
Transportation Minister Kevin Falcon killed the Roberts Bank deal - at a cost of $1 million to taxpayers - after police warned him it had been compromised.
But Falcon always maintained there were no worries or concerns about the main BC Rail deal. Now you have to decide who was right - the minister or the police and Crown prosecutors who conducted a 15-month investigation.
Look, the government has maintained, the concern was that OmniTRAX had the inside track, and the company didn't even succeed in winning the competition to buy BC Rail. That should show no harm was done.
But no matter who wins, a compromised bidding process - as alleged by the charges - hurts taxpayers and the participants that don't have inside information. If even one participant is moved to reduce its offer because of something it knows, or fears, the whole bidding process goes wrong.
And the Crown is suggesting that is exactly what happened, and that you lost as a result.
The charges even introduced a new player, Aneal Basi, a former Liberal youth wing executive who was hired as a communications staffer in 2002. Aneal, who was introduced in the legislature just before the election by Collins, faces two charges of laundering money accepted by his cousin Dave Basi.
No one has been convicted, and prosecutors often lay a big batch of charges while they figure out which ones might stick.
But this is very bad. (Imagine, for a moment, the Liberals' reaction in opposition to similar charges against NDP political staff.)
The charges leave unanswered questions. If Basi received money, and his cousin laundered it, as the Crown charges, who gave it to him? The charges indicates the payment was in return for assisting OmniTRAX, but don't reveal who put up the money.
The case will move slowly through the courts, and information will gradually emerge.
But meanwhile a huge, controversial and defining deal of the Liberals' first term is under a dark cloud. The Crown says the deal was criminally compromised and the government did not succeed in dealing with the damage.
And while the actions were all by individuals, it is governments that take responsibility.
Footnote: Expect the case to move slowly. All three men appeared before a justice of the peace this week. They'll appear in court at the end of January, with the main order of business likely to be arrangements for the Crown to disclose its evidence to the senior defence lawyers representing each of the three men. A trial is likely more than a year away.

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