Friday, January 28, 2005

SpongeBob, Stephen Harper and same-sex marriage

VICTORIA - I've got to figure out how to apologize to my young friend Spencer for the terrible thing I've done, while innocently thinking we were just going to the movies.
We picked the SpongeBob SquarePants Movie. And now I learn, too late, that I may have inadvertently exposed an impressionable young person to images of . . . tolerance.
The horror. A very bright person like Spencer, encouraged to be tolerant of people who may be different.
The warning of SpongeBob's evil complicity came from James Dobson, the head of a big U.S.-based religious group called Focus on the Family, which thinks there is entirely too much talk of this tolerance stuff.
People pay attention to Dobson. His radio show draws about seven million listeners, and he's credited with helping George Bush to critical wins in Florida and Ohio. (If the group sounds familiar, it may because you heard about it during Cindy Silver's unsuccessful bid for a Liberal nomination; Silver was Focus on the Family's former legal advisor in Canada.)
To be fair, Dobson didn't really have it in for SpongeBob. But the amiable, squeaky-voiced cartoon megastar appeared with Barney, Bob the Builder, Big Bird and all the heavyweights in a video going out to schools for Family Day in March, promoting diversity and understanding. (Nile Rodgers, who wrote 'We Are Family, I've G All My Sisters With Me,' helped create the video through a foundation that he started after 911 to teach kids about diversity.)
Bad idea, says Dobson. Tolerance is just another word hijacked by homosexuals. And just look at the foundation's tolerance pledge, he adds.
"To help keep diversity a wellspring of strength and make America a better place for all, I pledge to have respect for people whose abilities, beliefs, culture, race, sexual identity or other characteristics are different from my own," the pledge says.
OK, I admit that I don't see the evil. Are we supposed to disrespect some of those people? Does that mean we get to hit them, or do we have to be content with shunning?
Which leads, perhaps in a slightly twisting way, to Conservative leader Stephen Harper.
The Conservatives just wrapped up a caucus meeting here in Victoria, and tolerance was much on the agenda. Harper and Prime Minister Paul Martin - meeting on the other coast with his caucus - lobbed long-distance grenades at each other about same sex marriage.
Or they did for a while. I made it to a midday scrum at the Empress Hotel on the second day of the visit. Harper wanted to talk about Jean Chretien' attempts to derail the Gomery inquiry into the sponsorship scandal. He didn't want to talk about same sex marriage. I had my head down, taking notes, when a reporter asked two questions on the issue. When I looked up Harper was gone, bolting from the room.
I like to think Harper was embarrassed. People may feel strongly about the issue. But ultimately, it's no big deal. The question is whether governments issue a piece of paper that uses the word marriage to same sex couples. They don't get any new rights, or financial advantages. No one is compelled to do anything, or even recognize the marriage. It's all about a piece of paper.
And the reality - despite Harper's claims to the contrary - is that the only way out of acknowledging same sex marriages is invoking the notwithstanding clause in the charter of rights and freedoms. That means saying that the state is willing to deprive some Canadians of their constitutionally guaranteed rights because respecting those rights would do serious harm to the country.
And that's a very tough claim, since we're almost two years into allowing same sex marriages in Canada, with no signs of social collapse.
What a choice. Dobson and Harper, or SpongeBob and Paul Martin.
Spencer and I, we want to hear about some real issues.
Footnote: Harper, to his credit, met with a lesbian couple near retirement age who told him how important their 2003 wedding was in healing rifts in their families. But he said he would still have their marriage annulled, and hoped they would be happy with some other form of civil union.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

The Vinning afffair: Strange goings on in the premier's office

VICTORIA - Think you had a lousy week at work?
It could be worse. You could be Prem Vinning, hired on Monday to a great-sounding job in the premier's office, and gone by Wednesday after admiting using a fake name to lob a spftball question to Premier Gordon Campbell on a call-in show.
Liberals should be steamed at the decision to hire Vinning in the first place, which showed wretched political judgment.
The whole mess was reported by Sean Holman, the obsessive watcher of B.C. politics, on his always interesting web site
Vinning was hired as director of Asia-Pacific trade and economic development in the premier's office, a brand new job. The idea that B.C. need a better focus on Asian opportunities makes sense.
But the logical place for that initiative is in the economic development ministry, which has other trade responsibilities and all the needed support staff.
And the logical candidate would likely be someone other than Vinning. That's no slight on his accomplishments. Vinning is fiftyish, one-time housebuilder and part-owner of Jackpine Forest Products up in Williams Lake. He was born in India, grew up and went to school in England. It's not the resume of an obvious candidate for the job of driving trade with Asia.
Vinning has other credentials though. He has been a hugely influential figure in federal Liberal politics in B.C. for 15 years or so, able to deliver nominations and influence elections. Vinning ran unsuccessfully for the federal party in 1993, and has been a power behind the scenes since. If you were looking for support from the IndoCanadian community in B.C., Vinning was probably the first person you called on.
Campbell apparently did. The Liberals publicly blamed star candidate Mary Polak's defeat in the Surrey-Panorama Ridge byelection on a loss of support in the IndoCanadian community. In December, Campbell held meetings to try and win back a voter group that feels ignored by the government they helped elect. And Vinning was a key person on the guest list.
The meetings did not go well, at least according to a report in the IndoCanadian press.
Barely a month later, four months before the May election, Vinning winds up in a good job in the premier's office, working in a field where he does not seem to be the most obvious candidate. Suspicious minds might wonder if part of his allure was the chance to improve Liberal political fortunes - and then wonder if taxpayers should really be paying for that effort.
On top of those concerns, add a lingering controversy. The federal government came up with a $55-million program to help B.C. cope with duties levied under the softwood dispute in late 2002. The first business to get money - and the only one in the first round of payments - was Vinning's Jackpine. (All the other recepients were community groups.) The company got a $2-million loan for a new plant. Two months later, it went to court to seek protection from its creditors. The committee that approved the loan said it was never told about the financial problems.
And then came Campbell's weekend talk show appearance. Vinning, two days before starting his new job, called in. But he used a different name, calling himself Peter. "I'm in the trucking business and, you know, the economy is going great guns and that's good." But what will the premier do about transportation delays, he asked.
"A very, very good question," said Campbell, before launching into a pitch for the Liberals' transportation plans.
Two hours after Holman posted an item on the call, Vinning resigned.
There's a sad haplessness about it all, from the creation of the job through the hiring of Vinning and on to the phoney call dsigned to make the boss look good.
If the Liberals' plan to win back IndoCanadian voters, there going to have to do a lot better.
Footnote: Campbell says he didn't recognize Vinning's voice. Lots of other people did, from both political parties. Perhaps the mini-scandal will convince all parties to end the dubious practice of having political operatives call talk shows to offer easy and supportive questions whenever their masters are on the air.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Bond's job is to get facts on Nelson hospital case

VICTORIA - Health Minister Shirley Bond has two choices - order an independent review of a controversial death at Nelson's hospital, or pick up the phone and ask the coroner's office for some information.
The second choice is the simplest, most sensible option.
Edward Morritt died last March after a series of events that heightened Nelson residents' concerns about the quality of available medical care.
Morritt was 75, and suffered from health problems that could be expected at that age. He fell while working in his yard, made his way into his house, and waited three hours until he could reach a family member. He arrived at Kootenay Lake General Hospital in Nelson by ambulance at 6:18 p.m. Doctors feared internal bleeding. His condition meant x-rays weren't practical. The hospital had ultrasound equipment, but technicians weren't on call after hours.
By 8 p.m., doctors wanted to move him to Kootenay Boundary Regional Hospital in Trail for a CT scan, admission to the Intensive Care Unit and surgical care.
But they couldn't connect with the surgeon, and were told no bed was available. The situation was eventually straightened out, but the result was that Morritt didn't arrive at the hospital until 10:40 p.m. He died less than three hours later. The cause of death was internal bleeding from a ruptured spleen.
People die every day, despite the best care we're able to provide. Perhaps Morritt, who was taking blood thinning medication, was just one of those people who received too serious an injury to allow effective treatment.
But his family, and others in the community, have raised questions about the reduced level of care in the Nelson hospital. They want to know if he could have been saved if more options had been available in his hometown. And they had hoped that a coroner's inquest would provide some answers.
It didn't. Coroner Jeff Dolan ruled the death accidental and made no recommendations.
Perhaps that could have ended the issue.
But CBC News learned that the investigator who reviewed the death for the coroner did make recommendations, which weren't included in the final report. The coroner's agent, Jim Draper, wouldn't reveal specifics but said three important recommendations related to questions about how the health care system may have failed Morritt.
So why weren't the recommendations included? Dolan says he can't answer that question. Lisa Lapointe, speaking for the coroner's office, says she can't discuss specifics, but adds that coroners rarely tell health authorities what to do. (raising the question, why not?)
The result leaves questions about whether service reductions in Nelson were a factor in Morritt's death.
Bond was quick to point to the coroner's report as an indication that everything was fine in Nelson. (The Interior Health Authority made the same claim.)
But Bond says she's content with final report, and doesn't want to compromise the independence of the coroner's office by asking questions about the abandoned recommendations.
That's a bad answer. The medical staff at Nelson's hospital have expressed concerns over the effect of cuts on Morritt and other patients, and the lack of recommendations in the coroner's report. The issue is important to the people of the region. The health minister should want answers.
All Bond has to do is call the coroner's office and ask for the draft recommendations. If the chief coroner says no, she would have to consider next steps, but any effective health minister would ask for the information.
If she is unwilling to do that, Bond should order an independent, public inquiry. It does not need to be involved, or costly. A review of the existing record should suffice. (The health authority hired an Alberta doctor to review the case, but hasn't released its findings.)
Major questions remain about Morritt's death. The health minister's should want to get the answers.
Footnote: Hospital medical staff say Morritt would have been able to get an ultrasound in Nelson before the cuts to services; the IHA says that's not true. The community needs a definitive answer to that and other questions. Restructuring health care is a huge undertaking, with significant risks and benefits. We need to look at the consequences and learn, instead of shying away from the facts.