Saturday, January 13, 2007

Time for government to obey law and help disabled

VICTORIA - Surely the government will now give up its wrongheaded legal fight to deny help to people whose lives will be utterly wrecked without it.
Two courts have said the government is breaking its own law by denying needed help to damaged people based on an arbitrary IQ standard.
The people - usually youths turning 19 - can have emotional and mental problems, fetal alcohol disorders, a whole load of issues, even ones that makes them a risk to the community. The government says those don't matter.
If the damaged person scores 70-plus on an IQ test then the government, through Community Living BC, cuts off help.
Neil Fahlman turned out to be the perfect test case to challenge the government's arbitrary action.
Fahlman is a huge, strong young man with lots of problems - fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, attention deficit disorder and an autism variant. As a result he often makes terrible decisions and acts impulsively. He - like a lot of people with fetal alcohol disorders - doesn't see the link between action and consequences, a disastrous disability.
Fahlman has had help all his life. His adoptive mother, a lawyer with the government here, worked hard to line up support and the children and families ministry came through.
But by the time he was 15, Fahlman was too volatile and strong for Gow and her
husband to manage. Foster homes couldn't handle his behaviour.
Then, a solution. Fahlman started living by himself in a small cabin on Vancouver Island. Community Living B.C. provided one-on-one support every day for seven hours to help him and make sure things went well.
It was expensive, about $77,000 a year. But the alternatives were all more costly or dangerous. It was the best way to handle a tough problem.
But Fahlman was going to turn 19. And because his IQ was 79, government policy said he would be cut off support on his birthday.
Community Living BC ordered a review to see if the teen qualified for support as an adult.
"Without the supports now in place Neil would be extremely vulnerable to his own aggressiveness and impulsivity," the psychologist appointed by the agency found. "He could do significant harm to himself and the community."
But Community Living BC, following the ministry's policy lead, said Fahlman's 79 IQ -placing him in the bottom 10 per cent of the population - is over the 70 cutoff. Support denied.
Gow appealed and ended up in B.C. Supreme Court, which found the government's arbitrary denial of help to Fahlman and thousands of others is wrong.
The Community Living BC legislation is clear, the court noted. It is to "promote equitable access to community living support" and "assist adults with developmental disabilities to achieve maximum independence and live full lives in their communities."
The law doesn't say it can deny support to people based on arbitrary standards.
If government wants to set those kinds of rules, it needs to amend the legislation or pass a cabinet order.
Instead, government took the fight to deny aid to the B.C. Court of Appeal - and lost again.
The three justices agreed the legislation doesn't allow the use of IQ to deny services to people who need them. They noted Liberal ministers Gordon Hogg and Linda Reid had both made comments in the legislature that suggested the cutoff was never contemplated when the law was passed.
Fahlman is one among many denied help because of the IQ standard. In too many cases the result has been damaged, lost and wasted lives. The people unable to cope without help have ended up in jail, hospital or on the streets.
All that could have been avoided, in many cases with a just a small amount of support - help with housing, with managing money, with life.
Children and Families Minister Tom Christensen said he's considering the government's next steps.
But the right decision is simple. Obey the law. Increase Community Living BC's budget so it can provide the needed help.
Keeping these people from disaster makes obvious moral and economic sense.
There's no excuse for more stalling.
Footnote: Another aspect of support for people turning 19 is likely to be contentious this year. Children in government care have been effectively pushed out on their own at 19, ready or not - often not. New Child and Youth
Representative Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond - like her predecessor Jane Morley - will likely have harsh words for the failure to give the kids a fair chance in starting adult life.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

A dangerous sales job on Afghan war

VICTORIA - It's dangerous when governments do a sales job on the idea of going to war.
Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay has just dropped into Afghanistan on a visit that seemed largely aimed at making Canadians feel better about that troubled mission.
He toured a small Canadian-funded school where youths are learning to be tinsmiths and announced a $10-million aid program to make sure Afghani police officers actually got paid. Those the kinds of "untold success" that Canadians aren't hearing about, MacKay said.
Cabinet ministers have to sell government policy. That's part of their job, perhaps even in times of war.
But it's troubling. Politicians looking to build support end up downplaying problems and over-emphasizing successes. That's a moderate problem if they're selling the merits of a dubious tax proposal.
It's a much more serious when the public is being sold on sending Canadian troops to die and kill on our behalf.
One risk is that we get slogans - like the foolish argument that "Canadians don't cut and run" - instead of real, considered policy.
Another is that politicians mislead us about the difficulty, length and cost of the struggle ahead. Simply because this war, or any other, may be justifiable does not mean it should be pursued at any cost.
There are success stories. The Taliban has been unable to extend its influence significantly. Afghanistan is safer for some citizens. Women have less reason to fear attack if they go to school or exercise what we consider basic rights. The country is less of a haven for global terrorists.
But the small, incremental improvements mean little in terms of the challenge.
While our politicians sell the mission's success; virtually every independent observer warns of big problems.
As MacKay was preparing to fly into Kandahar, an article in the respected journal Foreign Affairs offered a warning. U.S. expert Barnett Rubin, who visited Afghanistan four times last year, said the country is "at risk of collapsing into chaos."
NATO's military and aid efforts, despite small successes, have not achieved any measurable progress toward real stability and security, Rubin says.
The article - available at - warns that as a result the country remains on the brink of disaster. The wholesale re-emergence of the Taliban and the collapse of the current government are both real possibilities.
Only a much greater military effort and much more aid will save Afghanistan, Rubin argues.
It is the story Canadians have not been getting from their government.
Afghanistan is desperately, unimaginably poor - poorer than any country outside the blighted nations of sub-Saharan Africa.
That in turn means the government has no money to provide services. Its revenues, aside from foreign aid, are about $400 million Canadian. That's about 1.5 per cent of the B.C. government's revenues, to meet the needs of a population of almost 30 million. About $15 per person to provide roads, schools, police, defence and everything else.
Foreign aid helps. Canada has committed $100 million this year, about 10 per cent of our total aid budget. Another $3.50 per person for services.
But the reality is that the Afghan government can't deliver the services needed to ensure that it is seen as a legitimate authority.
Consider policing. MacKay's $10-million grant recognizes that officers have often not received even the meagre official pay of less than $2 a day. Because of that, they have been easily bribed to ignore drug trafficking, thefts and murders.
For many Afghanis the Taliban's harsh system of Islamic law appears a preferred alternative to the current corruption and crime. At least they were protected. As a result, parallel Taliban governments are re-emerging.
There are reasons for Canada to have a role in Afghanistan. The people there need help and a re-emergent Taliban would decrease global security.
But this is a military mission that could take a decade and billions in aid. Based on current evidence, the results would still be uncertain.
The evidence is that the way ahead is much longer, tougher, more expensive and more deadly than the government has so far told Canadians.
Footnote: Canada is committed to a military Afghan military mission until 2009. But debate should be starting now on what needs to be done to ensure there is real progress before that date. The benchmarks need to be measurable and the resources needed - in military support and aid, from Canada and other NATO nations - need to be clearly set out. Then we can decide whether to press on.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Liberals face tough questions on Alcan deal

VICTORIA - So why did Premier Gordon Campbell back a power deal that would have gouged British Columbians and handed the proceeds to Alcan?
That’s one of the tough questions that is going to be asked after the latest twists and turns in the aluminum giant’s 58-year dance with provincial governments.
Back in August Campbell took a break from his holidays to celebrate a complex agreement with Alcan.
The corporation said it intended to modernize its Kitimat smelter. The $1.8-billion project would result in about 550 fewer jobs, but would ensure the plant stayed open for a couple of decades.
As part of the deal B.C. Hydro agreed to buy electricity from Alcan for the next 20 years.
Campbell maintained that the power sale was a good deal for British Columbians. But all the parties fought to keep its terms secret.
The bid for secrecy failed. And the details that emerged prompted angry complaints from consumers and companies developing other power projects.
Alcan’s deal was wildly generous, they maintained. It handed the company huge profits - in the hundreds of millions of dollars - for no reason. The mega-corporation got the agreement even tough the government should have had all the negotiating power.
The government brushed off the concerns.
But it turns out, according to the B.C. Utilities Commission, that the critics were right.
The commission, the watchdog that makes sure consumers are protected, said the deal was fundamentally flawed. B.C. Hydro was agreeing to pay too much for the power, handing Alcan windfall profits. Consumers, individuals and companies would pay unnecessarily high power rates as a result.
The initial ruling supports complaints that this was a sweetheart deal for Alcan.
B.C. Hydro and the government agreed to pay Alcan $110 million in up-front “incentive payments.” It also committed to pay at least $70 per megawatt/hour for electricity, comparable to the rates in its latest open tender process.
Too much, said the commission.
First, Alcan didn’t have to meet all the requirements demanded of the other bidders.
And those companies had to construct new plants. Alcan would simply be tapping its existing Kemano power project, which produces some of the cheapest power in B.C. The electricity that B.C. Hydro was buying for $70 per megawatt/hour costs Alcan $5 to $10 to produce.
Alcan would have made something like $1 billion in profits over the life of the deal.
Now things get interesting. Alcan says unless it’s allowed to make big profits from selling the power it won’t modernize the smelter. It’s not an idle threat; aluminum companies routinely seek and get big concessions from governments in return for investment.
The whole affair will add to fears, especially in Kitimat, that the B.C. government is more interested in making Alcan happy than in protecting the public interest.
The municipality has been in a fierce battle with the government over the Alcan’s power sales. Kitimat argues that the 1950 legislation giving the corporation the right to dam the Nechako River and build the Kemano power project was clear. It could only use the electricity for the smelter or other industrial development in the region.
If the deal was enforced, Kitimat argues, Alcan would have to expand the smelter to use the electricity - protecting jobs - or the power ownership would revert to the government.
The Liberal government says the rules have changed and Alcan can do what it likes with the electricity.The corporation could close the smelter and sell all the electricity, the government maintains.
But the government hasn’t explained when the rules changed, why or who made the decision. Kitimat took the government to B.C. Supreme Court last month to try and make it enforce the 1950 agreement. A decision is expected soon.
There’s no way to predict how this is going to be resolved.
But the whole affair is certain to raise more tough questions about whether the government is paying more attention to Alcan’s arguments than the public interest.
Footnote: An Alcan executive warned Thursday that the expansion will be scrapped if the company can’t sell the power at market rates. But he didn’t deal with the question of what would happen to the electricity if the sales deal doesn’t go through. Kitimat maintains the power - a hugely valuable resource - would belong to the public.