Saturday, June 05, 2004

Harper's big defence plans a reminder of his Iraq war eagerness

VICTORIA - I'm guessing Conservative leader Stephen Harper is badly out of step with most Canadians on defence spending - just as he was when he wanted to join the war on Iraq.
Harper wants to increase military spending by 10 per cent immediately, an extra $1.2 billion a year.
Over time a Conservative government would increase military spending by $8 billion a year, he says, a 67-per-cent jump. We'd hire more soldiers, pushing the ranks from the current 52,000 to 80,000, and sink money into new equipment.
Canadians should ensure that the military has the resources to do the work that we ask them to do. That has not always been true, and it's wrong to send people off on potentially dangerous missions with outdated equipment.
But Canada spends $12 billion a year on its armed forces - about $400 per capita. And despite the efforts of a strong defence lobby, most polls show that Canadians think the spending priority should be health care or other programs to improve our quality of life.
It's easy to pluck statistics from the air to prove that Canada spends too little, or too much, on the military. Most comparable countries spend a significantly larger share of their GDP on their military. And Liberal governments did sharply reduce military spending through the '90s to elminate the deficit.
But Canada still ranks 16th on a list of 160 countries around the world in defence spending. We're 11th out of 19 in spending among NATO countries. The number of troops puts us in the top third of European and North American countries.
For an alleged fiscal conservative, Mr. Harper's posiiton is surprising.
Because surely before we introduce massive military spending increase, we need to decide what we want our military to do.
The current mission includes three tasks - protecting Canada, defending North America in co-operation with the U.S. and contributing to peace and international security.
Protecting Canada - and North America - against who, exactly? There's no evidence of any conventional military threats (and despite the fears, there's also little evidence of any real terrorist threats).
And there is even less evidence that the best way to deal with the threats of the new century is by increasing the number of conventional troops, or spending billions on arms programs - like the Navy's $10-billion frigates - that appear firmly aimed at the issues of the past.
It's laudable that the military has a goal of contributing to peace and international security.
But what is the best way of accomplishing that goal? Today we have fewer than 4,000 troops overseas - 2,200 in Afghanistan, 200 in the Mideast, 500 in Haiti, 655 in Bosnia-Herzegovina. It's difficult, dangerous work. It is also a small component of what Canada's military does, and one that could be handled within the current budget. (Or certainly without a 67-per-cent increase.)
And perhaps an extra $8 billion a year could be used much more effectively to build peace and security. Supporting health care in struggling countries, or providing assistance in developing an economic infrastructure and effective market economy might be much more effective. (Accepting the reality that sometimes people with guns are the only thing standing between chaos and security.)
It all seems very risky political ground for Mr. Harper, who is the only leader proposing major military spending increases.
For he is also the only leader who - based on his statements at the time - would have sent Canadian troops to join the war on Iraq. Mr. Harper placed a priority on standing with the U.S., even without UN support for an invasion, and believed the claims of imminent risk from weapons of mass destruction.
If he had been prime minister, Canadian troops would now be in Iraq. Some would already have died.
In a campign where the parties have much in common, that's a defining difference.
And it is likely one that many Canadians will remember as they assess the parties' position on the role - and cost - of the military.
- From the Vancouver Sun, June 5

Thursday, June 03, 2004

The Ramsey horror: inquiry needed into whole affair

VICTORIA - There's no way former judge David Ramsey's jail sentence for sexually assaulting and beating girls and young women girls should end this case.
Ramsey's actions were inhuman. He preyed on young aboriginal sex trade workers and then sat in judgment on them in his Prince George courtroom.
One girl was 12 when Ramsey picked her up and paid her for sex. Three months later, he sat on the bench as the girl was brought before him to face minor charges.
And weeks after that hearing - when he had learned of her age, her past sexual abuse, her hard life, her vulnerability - Ramsey recognized her and picked her up again. That time, he paid for rough sex that ended when she fled.
"Go ahead, tell someone," Ramsey told the child. "No one will believe you - once a whore, always a whore."
He was very nearly right. The abuse started in 1992. The RCMP heard rumours of a bad judge in 1999 - although it's hard to see how the information wouldn't have been floating around in a town of 80,000 much earlier.
But even with the specific and persistent rumours, it took three years for the police to identify the judge and lay charges. The officer in charge said they just had rumours to work with, and other cases to investigate.
In fact the case didn't really move forward until another of the victims, appearing before Ramsey in a hearing that would decide whether she could have custody of her child, collapsed outside court and agreed to testify against him.
Attorney General Geoff Plant said the government will review Ramsey's decisions. That's appropriate. Ramsey made decisions affecting these young women. He sentenced other people for sexually abusing young girls, and for pimping - and then went out and preyed on other women.
But it is not nearly enough.
First Nations want a full inquiry, and they are absolutely right.
The RCMP need to explain exactly what they heard, when and what they did about it. The public needs to know how this could continue for at least eight years. Where were the social agencies who worked with the girls? Why were children able to sell themselves on the streets of a small city? Are there more victims? (Native health workers have said they have heard from another 16 girls with similar stories.)
And how did the fact that the girls were aboriginal and sex trade workers affect the handling of this case?
It's not an isolated incident.
Similar concerns have been expressed about the Vancouver missing women's case, including complaints that police were given warnings that should have raised alarms much earlier.
But sex trade workers don't count as much as the rest of us. No reasonable person could believe that if 50 women from Vancouver's suburbs had gone missing over the same period much more would have been done by police. (And much more attention would have been paid by the media.).
It's tempting to call for a much broader inquiry. First Nations' leaders have complained of a two-tier standard of justice which treats crimes against aboriginals less seriously. Sex trade workers - and remember, prostitution is not illegal - have raised similar concerns.
But looking at those broad issues through a formal inquiry would likely be long, costly and inconclusive.
Instead, et's get answers to how this happened in Prince George, through a public inquiry with the power to call witnesses and compel them to testify. Let's give everyone in the community a chance to come forward and tell what they know.
Ramsey counted on the powerlessness of his victims, which is in turn a product of our willingness to pretend they just don't exist as people, as someone's lost children.
If there is no inquiry, we are saying that he was right. We don't care.

What's wrong with B.C's economy - maybe it's you

Whatever you do, my partner says to me, don’t call us lazy. Okay. British Columbians are not lazy. We just don’t work as hard at our jobs as other people, that’s all. We come up a bit short in the drive department, you might say. We care about quality of life, not crass success. We lead balanced lives, not like those workaholics in Toronto. Which is all very nice. But if you really want to know why B.C. under-performed for two decades, then put down this magazine and go look in the mirror.
- A look at the kind of people who end up in B.C., and why we doom the province to be an economic also-ran.
Pick up this month's BC Business magazine for the complete article.

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

BCMA wait-list campaign a sure winner with public

VICTORIA - Give the Liberals full marks for avoiding a pre-election battle with the BC Nurses Union.
But don't bet any money on them being quite so successful with the doctors.
The deal with the nurses works for both sides. The union and government have agreed on no changes to wages and benefits. If they can't reach agreement on other issues, the old contract will roll over for another two years.
It's not going to be so easy with the BC Medical Association, which has already launched its PR campaign.
The doctors' agreement expired March 31. A conciliation panel will recommend a settlement. If government says no, doctors are free to launch job action.
From the outside, a deal looks possible. Doctors say they'll accept no fee increases for the first two years of a deal. But while the amount a doctor is paid for fixing a hip wouldn't go up, they do want more money budgeted so the same doctor could fix more hips (and make more money).
It's a pretty good pitch, because it puts doctors and the public on the same side. More new hips means shorter waiting lists.
So far, the government isn't buying. Health Minister Colin Hansen says the doctors are the highest paid in Canada and their funding went up 21-per-cent over three years in the last deal. They should do more surgeries without extra pay. The budget stays frozen.
It's going to be a tough line to hold. Money is available - from Ottawa, and from health sector wage cuts. And the public is likely to accept the idea that someone doing more work should get more money.
The BCMA is certainly off to a fast start in trying for that support. The doctors have been running newspaper ads noting that waiting times for surgery have increased under the Liberals. They commissioned a poll by Ipsos-Reid that confirmed that people feel they are waiting too long and are worried. (It also revealed the Liberals' fatal weakness in this dispute, as we'll see.)
The poll found 91 per cent of British Columbians are concerned about the waiting time for surgery, with 66 per cent "very concerned." Only 40 per cent say they're very concerned about health care costs, the priority the Liberals will be forced to defend.
The BCMA has also launched a campaign for wait list guarantees. Doctors note that the median wait for knee replacement has increased from 21 weeks to 30 weeks since the election; for cardiac surgery the median wait has climbed from 13 to 18 weeks. The wait is longer for almost every procedure.
The BCMA says government should establish a maximum wait time for each procedure. If the system can't deliver, the government commits to paying for an operation outside the province or coming up with some other solution to honour the guarantee
Saskatchewan has already started such a program, and other countries have made them work. Patients at least know where they stand (or lie in pain) and we can have an honest public debate about how long we are prepared to make people wait in the name of cost control.
It's going to be tough for the government to explain why that kind of commitment can't be made in B.C. - especially when 88 per cent of those polled supported the idea.
In fact, it will be tough for the government period. This dispute will come down to a question of who the public supports, doctors or politicians. And doctors almost always win.
The poll asked who should be believed when making pronouncements on how to manage health care. Almost 90 per cent of respondents found their family doctor believable; 77 per cent believed the BCMA. But only 44 per cent found Health Minister Colin Hansen believable. Only 37 per cent said they would believe Gordon Campbell.
If this turns into a battle for public support, the government has already lost.
Footnote:The poll highlighted Campbell's credibility problem. It found 38 per cent of those surveyed found him "not at all believable" as a source of information on managing health care. Hansen fared much better - only 21 per cent found him to be completely lacking in credibility.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Cabinet follies; James risky business; and the Liberals go green

VICTORIA - Random notes from the somewhat quieter halls of power.

The Liberals need to either abandon the great open cabinet meeting experiment, or decide to do it right.
This week's televised meeting was useful enough, an extended public service announcement warning about that only you can prevent forest fires and drought. A succession of cabinet minister stressed the serious risk of both this year, even greater than during last year's disastrous summer. They made good points about the need to be careful in the woods, and use less water.
But it sure wasn't - I hope - a cabinet meeting. The ministers read long speeches. Environment Minister Bill Barisoff had some 700 bottles of water lugged in to show how much water an average British Columbians uses each day. No decisions were actually made. If that's how cabinet meetings work, we're in trouble.
The Liberals promised a monthly open, televised meeting to show how government works.
It was a good idea, even accepting that there would be stage management. No one should expect spirited public battles (although it would do a great deal to reassure voters if they did see cabinet ministers challenging each other and asking hard questions).
But the reality has been show-and-tell sessions, with this week's the most obvious example. It's time for the government to start doing it right, or abandon the idea.

The biggest winner out of the meetings so far has been Pro Show, the company that provided stage management - sound systems, lights, slide shows - for the Liberals' election campaign. The company was also hired to stage the open cabinet meetings, a contract worth about $25,000 a pop. There was a competition this year for the contract, but it was tilted heavily to ensure the Liberals' campaign technical team got the job.

NDP leader Carole James hit the campaign trail with federal leader Jack Layton this week, a risky decision.
Provincial and federal politics mix badly in B.C. (Just ask federal Environment Minister David Anderson, who has been slagging the Campbell Liberals in order to establish the difference.)
James is running to form a government, which means she needs policies that will attract broad support. Layton is running to win a couple of dozen seats at best, which means he needs to appeal to a much tinier group and motivate them to get out and vote.
The risk for James is that her endorsement of Layton's policies - like an inheritance tax, which most economists agree is a bad way to raise money - will move her to the margins in B.C.
It's a risk the Liberals hope to exploit, with one press release already accusing James of guilt by association on the inheritance tax idea.

Bad news for fading federal Liberal star candidate Dave Haggard, the IWA head, as the campaign unfolds. Haggard and the IWA have been helping the provincial Liberals privatize health care jobs by signing favorable contracts with the new private companies taking over the work, and forcing employees to accept them - and agree to pay IWA dues - before they are hired.
The Labor Relations Board has just ruled the union certifications are bogus, because employees had no right to decide if they wanted a union, or which one, and no chance to vote on the contracts (which slashed wages and benefits).

The Liberals were getting grudging credit from enviros this week for killing a plan for an open-pit coal mine close to the U.S. border in the Fernie area. Mines Minister Richard Neufeld made the announcement last week, finishing off a project that would have provided 1,500 direct and indirect jobs.
U.S. opposition was a big factor. Montana environmental groups were gearing up for a fight, and state politicians had even got U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell to write Ottawa.
But MLA Bill Bennett had also raised concerns from people in his riding that the mine would be risky in an environmentally sensitive area that's needed for grizzly habitat.
Footnote: Best line at the open cabinet meeting came from Gordon Campbell. When Finance Minister Gary Collins asked how much rain would be needed to ease the drought, Campbell jumped in to say probably 40 days and 40 nights, a wry reference to the series of Biblical type plagues and catastrophes that have beset the Liberals.