Saturday, August 29, 2009

Harper's Senate picks and MLAs' lost minds

After a fair stretch watching politics up close, I remain baffled at what happens to people once elected. Consider, for starters, Stephen Harper and the latest batch of brazen patronage appointments to the Senate.
Among the most recent nine were the Conservative party election campaign chair, who is also an effective fundraiser, Harper's long-time, loyal communications assistant and - for Pete's sake - the Conservative Party's president.
Harper used to rail against such abuses. The Senate shouldn't be a retirement home or rich reward for political backroom types, he said. It should represent Canadians. No more payoffs to party backers at taxpayers' expense. (Senators are paid $130,000 and get a rich pension.)
Now, Harper is another old-school politician, just fine with the same kind of cronyism he once condemned.
The official Conservative explanation is that since Senate reform is stalled and the upper house has a majority of senators appointed by past Liberal governments, Harper needs to get loyalists in place to support government legislation and Senate reform.
Anyway, the Liberals did the same thing, the apologists add.
I can understand the idea of trying to grab control of the Senate. It's not particularly noble and contradicts everything Harper stood for as an outsider determined to bring reform. But it's pragmatic.
That still doesn't mean, though, that he had to use Senate jobs to reward loyal friends. There are hundreds of competent, committed conservatives sympathetic to the government's direction and known and respected in their communities. Why not seek them out? (And, in the process, increase respect for the Senate and politicians generally.)
The second excuse - that the other guys were worse - is more destructive. It's an admission that right and wrong aren't important, and inevitably means a race to the bottom.
It's not just Harper. It's a contagion every bit as infectious as swine flu. In opposition, the B.C. Liberals seemed genuine about doing things differently, in ways large and small. You'll never see our ministers being trailed by aides when they have to walk a few steps to a cabinet meeting, one told me. But they are, and the number of support staff hired to record the ministers' every word and carry their files has multiplied.
And MLAs spoke their minds. Here's Kevin Krueger on gambling: "Women in B.C. will die because of gambling expansion ... So children may die as a result of gambling expansion, and their blood will be on the heads of the government that expanded gambling and of the MLAs who voted for it."
Now he's silent.
I was thinking about this when the 26 new MLAs sat down in the legislature for the first time Tuesday.
It's a great honour, to be selected by your fellow citizens to represent them. Generally, it's been earned in community service, working co-operatively with people of varied views and backgrounds. The chamber looks great, the Speaker is dressed up, people are sitting above, watching.
And then everybody starts yelling and catcalling across the way. Questions are barbed; responses are empty prattle. Pound the desk for your guy; jeer at their guy.
It's embarrassing. And it's inexplicable. How could good people let this happen to them?
Next door in Alberta, Conservative MLA Guy Boutilier was kicked out of the government caucus. His crime was publicly raising concerns about the cancellation of a long-term care centre in his community of Fort McMurray. The project had been approved and announced by Premier Ed Stelmach months before the 2008 election. Now the government said it would be put off four years and Boutilier spoke up to say that wasn't right.
We have a party system. Members have to share core principles and policies to allow election of a government that reflects the public will.
But there's nothing that says they have to turn into desk-thumping zombies, follow all orders or quit speaking for the people they represent.
Is there?
Footnote: I am genuinely baffled at how this happens. MLAs should be important. They represent the people. Yet they are shunted into minor roles. Government MLAs were as surprised as the rest of the public by the imposition of the HST. They weren't asked how it would affect their communities or what they thought. They were just given talking points.

Friday, August 28, 2009

A big shake-up in addiction services is coming - but is there a plan?

The Whistler Pique had an interesting open letter suggesting massive changes in addictions services. It appears the health authorities - or some of them - are cancelling contracts with community based agencies. They would then, presumably, offer the services directly, from treatment to drug education and prevention.
Will it cost more or less? Be more effective, or not?
It's worrying. When health authorities weigh a choice between cutting hip surgeries or addiction services, the grumpy people on the hip waiting list are a formidable lobby group. (That was not a criticism - I would be one of those grumpy people in a flash if my hip was crumbling.)

Behind the surprise ban on garbage exports

Why, after Vancouver had been working for at least 18 months on plans to have waste trucked to the U.S. for disposal, did the provincial government impose a ban on waste exports in the throne speech? The ban also comes out of the blue for the Cowichan Valley, Whistler and Powell River, which all have existing contracts to send waste to U.S. landfills.
Could it have anything to do with the efforts of well-connected lobbyists who are pushing their clients' plans to profit by keeping the garbage in the province - like Ken Dobell and Andrew Wilkinson, former Liberal party president.
Jeff Nagle has an interesting report here.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Inside the premier's secret scrums

Wonder where those quotes from Premier Gordon Campbell you see on the news or read in the paper come from?
Often, from what press gallery types call secret scrums. Reporters are summoned to the premier's office and wait for Campbell to emerge, stand in front of flags and take questions. (Past premiers took questions in the halls whenever reporters grabbed them, providing daily access when the legislature was witting. Campbell brushes past in favour of managed conferences when he chooses.)
Sean Holman, multi-media journalist, posted a video of segment of this week's post-throne speech conference here.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Throne Speech a million miles from campaign promises

If the Throne Speech had been any gloomier, Lt.-Gov. Stephen Point would have had to wear sackcloth and ashes to read it.
"The worst recession in 27 years." "Seismic economic shifts that were unpredictable and brutally deceiving in their speed and force." A "maelstrom" that left "the fiscal cupboard bare."
You get the picture.
All that, the speech said, meant big changes - big cuts - are coming to government.
Throne Speeches don't lay out specifics. Those will come, at least to some extent, in Tuesday's budget.
But the speech, delivered by Point but written by the premier's office, made it clear that cuts and other changes are coming in every area of government.
The review of spending by B.C. Ferries and TransLink will be extended to Crown corporations and government agencies and health authorities and school districts. Grants to communities and agencies are to be reduced, Public sector wages will be frozen for the next four years. (The speech didn't say whether MLAs pay, which is indexed to inflation, would continue to rise automatically each year.)
The Liberals' argument is that revenues are down so much that deficits are unavoidable for the next four years.
But borrowing to meet today's needs would have to be repaid in future. The Campbell government is determined to keep that debt as small as possible. Beyond "critical health and education services," everything else is on the block.
There are three large concerns with that approach.
First, Gordon Campbell has maintained that over the last eight years government has been pared down to the essentials. Further cuts must come at the expense of those essentials.
Second, it is widely accepted that government spending in a downturn is a way of cushioning the impact. Stimulus spending isn't just about building highways - it's also about keeping people working in communities.
And third, the government has no mandate for this type of change.
Barely three months ago, during the election campaign, Campbell insisted B.C. would avoid the worst effects of the downturn. He promised a $495 million deficit this year and a smaller deficit next, before a return to balanced budgets. He pledged to deliver the spending commitments in the February budget.
Now, he says, none of those things actually turned out to be true.
Just as the Liberals' rejection of the HST during the campaign - in writing - turned out to be false. The Liberals devoted a large part of the Throne Speech to defending the new tax. None of it addressed the betrayal of pledging not to introduce the tax in May and reversing course weeks after the election.
The other striking policy shift - again not hinted at in the election campaign - is a further expansion of private power projects in B.C. with the aim of becoming a big exporter of electricity. The Liberals have always said the goal of the energy policy was self-sufficiency. Now B.C.'s rivers are to be developed to allow companies to become electricity exporters.
There were other measures announced in the speech.
Prince George will get a new Wood Innovation and Design Centre.
The controversial, $600-million plan to build a power transmission line northwest from Terrace along Highway 37 will go ahead. And the province is supporting a pipeline corridor to allow liquefied natural gas to be exported through Kitimat by tanker.
Cellphone in cars will be targeted by legislation and a few other promised bills will be introduced. The move to full-day kindergarten, in some form, will start by 2010. Private power companies will get more help.
But the main focus, the big theme, was the need to cut government spending sharply.
Campbell claimed a mandate for that approach. Voters elected the Liberals because they promised good management, he said.
It's tough to make that claim while insisting you completely bungled your economic forecast and budget - and didn't recognize the problems until after the election.
Footnote: The Throne Speech is available on the government website - - for those interested in taking a firsthand look.

Time to take the big money out of politics

Even as the last naive man in political journalism, I can't shed the idea that big donors get special treatment from parties.
Politics run on money. Advertising, charter aircraft, polling, strategists, staff - winning takes big bucks.
So when Teck Cominco sends six-figure cheques to the Liberals, or CUPE BC chips in $165,000 for the NDP campaign, I figure they have a better chance of getting access than I do. The parties know that irritating big donors threatens their chance of being elected.
The politicians insist it doesn't work that way. You could write a $5 million cheque to fund a campaign - which is legal in B.C. - but not get any extra attention from the politicians.
Even if that's true, the current system is still corrosive. A 2000 survey found almost 90 per cent of Canadians believe "people with money have a lot of influence over the government."
And donors believe the same thing.
The official line is that contributors are supporting the party that, if elected, would create an environment serving their broad interests. It's cast as legitimate participation in the democratic process, not an attempt to buy special attention.
I don't buy it. Neither do the donors.
Consider Paul Martin's Liberal leadership campaign. He had an absolute lock on the job; companies didn't have to contribute shareholders' money to ensure a Martin win.
But the leadership campaign pulled in $12 million, largely from corporate donors. The only reason to contribute was to be seen and remembered as a supporter once Martin was prime minister.
Consider also the B.C. Liberals' 2001 haul of $4.3 million from corporations. The party would have had a huge majority without that money; the companies, required to act in shareholders' interests, must have expected a return for those contributions.
Which leads to the new Elections B.C. report on political contributions heading into the last election.
The Liberals were given $9.5 million for the campaign. About 70 per cent was from businesses, the rest from individuals. Less than one-third of their funds came from actual voters.
The NDP received about $5.4 million, with about 40 per cent from unions. The Green party took in $106,000. For every $50 the NDP could spend, the Greens could spend $1.
If money affects the outcome, and people and organizations donate out of self-interest, then our elections are for sale. If businesses or unions see the chance to spend money to help elect a sympathetic - or indebted - government, they will.
And the rest of us will be on the outside.
There is a way to end this.
Manitoba and Quebec have banned union and corporate donations. Ontario allows them, but limits all donations - business, union or individual - to $15,500 per year (and an extra $15,500 for an election campaign).
The federal government - with legislation passed by the Liberals and strengthened by the Conservatives - has banned corporate and union donations and limited individual donations to $1,000. "This act will put an end to the influence of big money on federal political parties,'' Harper said in introducing his bill.
Parties still need money to run campaigns. When corporate and business donations were banned federally, public funding for parties, based on the number of votes received in the last election, was introduced to supplement individual donations.
Getting that formula right is tricky. Forcing parties to make do with less cash would be useful, as volunteers and grassroots efforts would be more important.
The Greens and NDP in B.C. both pledge to ban corporate and union donations and limit individual donations.
Gordon Campbell wants to stick with unlimited donations. People can judge if a party is favouring donors and vote them out in four years, he argues.
But that's not true. Voters can't really examine hundreds of pages of donations, recognize names or monitor all government decisions.
In B.C., parties - and democracy - are effectively for sale.
Footnote: Chief Electoral Officer Harry Neufeld called for a review of political finance rules in his report on the 2005 election. B.C. was a leader when the current regulations were introduced in 1995, but is now lagging other provinces.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Big pharma's long reach

So, when a legitimate science/slash medical journal publishes an article written by an expert researcher touting, indirectly, the benefits of a drug, can you trust it? Can you assume the scientist wrote it, or should you suspect a PR firm paid by a pharmaceutical company actually did the research, wrote the article and got the researcher to claim authorship?
And what happens if your doctor, being diligent, reads and relies on the PR firm's work?
Some of the answers here.