Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Barring poor voters, Tasers and barking MLAs

Making sure poor people don't get a vote, the Taser scam and zapping MLAs who behave badly. Sometimes, there are just too many good topics, so several items get rolled into one column.
Start with the changes to the rules for running elections. The attention has been on the Liberals' gag law, which restricts the right of individuals to run ads to raise issues in the five months before an election.
The bill has another creepy provision, which will make it harder for poor people to vote.
The law will be changed to prevent people from voting unless they have a home address and government-issued photo ID to prove it.
So if you don't have a driver's licence, or a home, then no vote for you. Estimates put the number of people deprived of the right to vote at 170,000.
Attorney General Wally Opal says the changes were recommended by Elections B.C. to guard against voter fraud.
That's just not true. (I'm not saying Opal is lying; he's not a detail guy, to put it kindly, and relies on what people tell him. But someone isn't telling the truth about this.)
In fact, Elections B.C. is trying to make it possible for more people - including the homeless - to vote. Its last annual report looked at voter fraud and found it's just not a problem in B.C. Not at all.
No one except the Liberals - literally - has said this change is needed.
Which leaves it looking like the party in power is trying shut out some voters in next May's election to increase its chances of success in close ridings.
The link between that topic and Tasers is the question of honesty.
The government has always maintained Taser use was governed by rules designed to protect police and the public.
Those rules, it said, were strengthened after a review done for the Police Complaints Commissioner in 2005. That report said Tasers should only be used when suspects are "actively resisting" police. People who were just unco-operative or difficult shouldn't be zapped.
The claims just weren't true. The solicitor general's ministry sent out a letter to police chiefs after the complaints commissioner's report, with a copy to the RCMP.
But it said nothing about changing policies to limit Taser use. (And in any case, the RCMP, which polices about 70 per cent of the province's population, doesn't accept any direction from or accountability to the provincial government.)
The head of the B.C. Association of Municipal Police Chiefs confirmed the lack of leadership at the current inquiry into Taser use.
"The lack of clarity, the lack of a provincial policy and different opinions is something that has made it more difficult and I look forward to the process of making it clear for our office," said Bob Rich, a deputy chief in Vancouver.
And, finally, a suggestion from Liberal MLA Dennis MacKay that harnesses the power to zap people in a way that might bring better government.
MLAs get to make members' statements just before question period each day. Usually, they say nice things some person or event in their riding. (Though sometimes there's substance - Liberal Bill Bennett and New Democrat Corky Evans have offered thoughtful commentaries on the polygamous community at Bountiful this session.)
MacKay chose to pass on a suggestion from a constituent.
He noted - quite accurately - that many MLAs behave wretchedly during question period, braying and shouting insults and abuse.
"The behaviour would not be tolerated in classrooms in our school system today," MacKay said. "At times it sounds like dogs who bark just for the sake of barking."
You can buy electronic collars that give dogs a shock when they bark, he noted. "I would suggest, Mr. Speaker, that you could look at a similar device to control members of this Legislature. All members who enter this chamber for the debates would be required to wear a similar device."
Shout or heckle, and be zapped.
Footnote: The political culture that embraces, and sometimes celebrates, stupid and rude behaviour in the legislature is baffling and destructive. Most MLAs don't participate, but enough do to disgrace them all. Insults and abuse substitute for sensible questions and answers. Behaviour that would see an eight-year-old sent to his room draws enthusiastic desk-pounding from performing seals on either side of the legislature. It's a sad waste of good people.

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