Saturday, June 26, 2010

If John Les walks, so should bureaucrat

Les Leyne reviews the special prosecutor's report on John Les and Chilliwack bureaucrat Grant Sanborn in today's column.
Sanborn faces criminal charges for not doing his duty in processing development applications, including a project led by Les, then the mayor. Charges weren't recommended against Les.
Leyne notes the prosecutor found Les and council were strongly pro-development and encouraged city staff to see regulations and bylaws "as guidelines only, with a goal of finding creative ways to make development opportunities happen."
If the political masters told staff bending the law was OK, then it's wrong to penalize staff alone, Leyne concludes.
Worth a read.

Friday, June 25, 2010

No room for retreat on HST

With a few days left before the HST kicks in, it’s hard to see any way out of the muck-filled hole the Liberals have dug for themselves.
No other MLAs have followed Blair Lekstrom’s lead and resigned. Businesses are getting ready to charge the new tax beginning Thursday. The government’s pro-HST ad campaign is all ready to go.
Which all leaves the Liberals in a bad spot. The tax takes effect as proponents of an anti-HST initiative say they have the signatures of almost 670,000 people who want the tax repealed. About 752,000 people voted Liberal in the last election.
If government doesn’t pledge to repeal the tax, the opponents say they will start recall campaigns against targeted MLAs in November.
The Liberals won’t repeal the tax. They’re convinced they are right and the public is wrong; they don’t want to look erratic; and the process is too far along.
The last point is legitimate. Even two months ago, the Liberals could have - and should have - put the tax on hold for proper analysis, consultation and discussion. (None of those steps were taken before the HST deal was done with the federal government.) Now, retreat isn’t warranted.
The harmonized sales tax will cost most people more money. The Times Colonist asked Statistics Canada to run a forecast based on peoples’ spending, the HST and other tax changes and credits. The HST will cost an average family an extra $521. Everyone will pay more, but the cost will be greatest for those with higher incomes.
Shifting $1.9 billion in taxes off businesses and on to individuals and families is bound to mean higher taxes for most British Columbians. And many of them don’t like the idea of paying more to provide tax breaks for corporations, not to improve health care or public safety.
For some people on tight budgets, the extra cost will pinch. But the higher costs will be manageable for most people.
They will also be highly visible. Eat out, pay a gym membership, buy vitamins, use a cellphone, hire a carpenter to fix something and you’ll pay seven per cent more starting on Thursday.
The Liberals continue to pitch the benefits. The theory is that businesses, now facing $1.9 billion less in taxes, will pass the savings on in cheaper prices.
In some competitive sectors, that will happen. But is the carpenter really likely to cut his hourly rate to reflect his savings from the HST?
And many of the industries that benefit sell their goods outside the province - the forest industry will save $140 million a year - so lower prices won’t mean savings for most British Columbians.
That raises the other claim for the HST. If forest companies can sell more wood, then they will be more likely to expand, which could mean additional jobs. A lower tax burden might also encourage business to locate here - again bringing jobs. And, some economists suggest if there is more demand for employees, wages might rise.
The government, relying on a report by University of Calgary economics prof Jack Mintz, says the HST will bring 113,000 additonal jobs by 2020. That’s good. But there are about 2.9 million people with jobs in B.C. today. Adding 13,000 jobs a year isn’t going to create much upward wage pressure.
So the tax will come in. People will see they’re paying more, though not that much. The benefits will invisible.
Even if the HST brings benefits, it’s not about the tax policy anymore. Polls - and all those names on the petitions - indicate people think the Liberals were dishonest in rejecting the HST during the election campaign and then starting talks with Ottawa about the new tax days after taking power.
They are angry at being ordered to pay more taxes so business can pay less, with no discussion or consultation.
And they’re insulted that Campbell and company say the problem is that voters can’t grasp the obvious benefits - that they are, in short, not as smart as their masters.
Footnote: The government’s pro-HST ad campaign starts once the petition drive ends. The risk is a backlash when the public sees tax dollars spent to promote a tax change the public has rejected.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Why Obama should fire his Afghan commander

Barack Obama has an interesting problem.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, heading up the U.S. surge in Afghanistan, has been called back to Washington. The general, a generally astute politician in his own right, co-operated with a Rolling Stone magazine profile.
The subhead captures the flavour" "Stanley McChrystal, Obama's top commander in Afghanistan, has seized control of the war by never taking his eye off the real enemy: The wimps in the White House." McChrystal and his aides see the people elected to run the governments as incompetent schmos in their way, the article suggests.
The generals call the shots in many countries. Obama now has to decide if the U.S. is one of them.
Of course, Canada has had its flirtations with the military. Here's what I wrote in 2008 when Gen. Rick Hillier stepped down as head of the Canadian Forces.


The adulation being lavished on Gen. Rick Hillier makes me glad he's stepping down as chief of defense staff.
That's no criticism of Hillier. He's obviously smart and astute. If I were in the Canadian Forces, certainly in a management role, I'd be sad to see him go.
Hillier had a vision for the military - the equipment, budget, support and public profile it should have.
He wanted Canada to be seen as, and act like, a significant international military force - "one of the big boys."
Like a good corporate guy or politician, he set out to get what he wanted.
And he was good at it. Pushing the politicians a bit sometimes, seeking allies others, charming the media, highly quotable and keeping regular soldiers front and centre. He knew how to cast the military and himself in the best light.
Hillier became a celebrity general, something almost unprecedented in Canada.
Politicians - especially ones like Stephen Harper who shared his desire for more military spending and foreign expeditions - welcomed the chance to share the spotlight with Hillier.
But they learned quickly that Hillier wasn't afraid to use his celebrity and popularity to advance his agenda, whether the government shared it or not.
When he was sworn in as chief of defence staff in February 2005, Hillier used the ceremony - attended by then prime minister Paul Martin - to criticize the Liberal government for neglecting the armed forces.
It was an early warning. Governments that didn't accept Hillier's priorities better watch it.
And they quickly learned that Hillier was adroit in capturing headlines and public support, and setting the agenda. More adroit than the politicians.
Four months later, while government and the public were grappling with what the Afghan mission should be, Hillier defined it.
Canadian Forces were going to fight "detestable murders and scumbags," he said. Their focus wasn't reconstruction or aid. "We are the Canadian Forces, and our job is to be able to kill people," he said.
Which on one level is true. We give our forces weapons so they can kill people when necessary.
On another level, Hillier was on shakier ground. The Canadian Forces job is - or should be - to fill the role that elected representatives set.
Hillier tended to elbow those elected representatives off to the side.
Don Martin, the fine Canwest News columnist, notes that even Canada's participation in the war in Afghanistan was partly Hillier's doing
"With carefully timed speeches and politically incorrect outbursts defending the needs of the soldier, Hillier dwarfed queasy voter opinion about the Afghanistan mission by focusing on strong public support for the military," Martin suggests.
The result of all this was that Hillier became more powerful, in some ways, than the defence ministers he supposedly served.
Whether it was a battle for bigger defence budgets or new arms spending or a power struggle with former defence minister Gordon O'Connor, Hillier emerged victorious.
But who should be setting the objectives for the military and making policy decisions? A career military manager with good political skills, or elected representatives?
O'Connor was a fumbling defence minister, but he was elected. No one has ever voted for Hillier.
The general is being given for a multibillion-dollar increase in military spending. New weapons programs have won quick approval thanks in part to Hillier's effective lobbying and political positioning.
His task was made easier because Canada was at war. What politician wants to be accused of depriving troops of needed equipment?
But that increases concerns about Hillier's role, particularly in steering Canada into an overseas conflict.
And again, it raises questions about what Canadians gave up - tax cuts, or improved health care - to fund the military spending Hillier so adroitly won.
"He didn't fear the politicians," Martin noted in a column on Hillier's departure. "They feared him."
Accurate, I suspect. And anytime politicians are afraid of generals who supposedly work for them, something has gone seriously wrong.
Footnote: Hillier's successes on behalf of the military raise another issue. Were the defence ministers he reported to unusually weak? Or has the increasing centralization of power in the Prime Minister's Office left all ministers with such a diminished role that they can be swept aside?

Waiting to see if the RCMP will really change

Don't be too quick to think the RCMP has really learned from the death of Robert Dziekanski.
Former justice Thomas Braidwood's inquiry report, even with its narrow scope, was devastating. The four officers who responded to a call about a man behaving erratically were incompetent, poorly trained or bad hires. Their actions weren't justified and resulted in Dziekanski's death.
Their statements and written reports were "deliberately misrepresented and overstated" to try and make Dziekanski look bad and justify the officers' actions, Braidwood found. In other words, they lied.
Yet an RCMP internal investigation found no wrongdoing. No one was fired or disciplined. The force said the officers acted appropriately.
Prosecutors, based on the information provided by the RCMP, decided against criminal charges.
And after the death, Braidwood found the RCMP provided the media with statements that weren't deliberately misleading, but included "factual inaccuracies, consistently self-serving, painted Mr. Dziekanski in an unfairly negative, and the officers in an unfairly positive, light."
When the RCMP knew the comments in false, it chose not to correct them - an "error in judgment," Braidwood concludes.
Incompetence is expected in large organizations. The RCMP has about 27,000 employees, about twice as many as the Canadian navy. Things will sometimes go badly wrong. Braidwood noted the case should not reflect unfairly on the reputation of thousands of RCMP officers respected for protecting communities across Canada.
But the RCMP never really acknowledged the officers had done anything wrong.
Quite the opposite. RCMP Deputy Commissioner Gary Bass apologized to Dziekanski's mother earlier this year.
But the apology went through a dozen drafts and Bass, in an internal memo obtained through freedom of information laws, assured his fellow officers he wasn't apologizing for anything the airport four had done. Another apology after the report was released was less equivocal.
While the RCMP was clearing its own, it was diligent in preparing for the inquiry, sending a team of officers to Poland to look into Dziekanski's background. (Which is to say, to dig up dirt). They came back with nothing.
Braidwood's main recommendation was that the RCMP quit investigating themselves when there are concerns or allegations of wrongdoing.
Investigations into potential deaths, serious bodily harm or other possible offences by officers should be conducted by an independent investigation unit staffed by civilians, he recommended.
That's the only way to avoid the perception - or reality - of bias.
It's not a new recommendation. Ontario and Alberta has had such a unit for years. A similar approach has been recommended for B.C.
But the RCMP have always refused such oversight. And since they are responsible for policing about 70 per policing in B.C., the provincial government has never gone ahead.
The provincial government was quick to accept Braidwood's recommendations and promised to create a civilian investigative unit to deal with cases of possible police wrongdoing.
The RCMP, in February, said it would accept independent investigation if provinces had the ability to conduct them.
But it was not clear that the force would also accept the jurisdiction of the B.C. Police Complaints Commission. That too is necessary to ensure true accountability.
None of this is to slight the job done by police officers every day. They face physical risks and complex challenges on our behalf. One minute, they are subduing an angry drunk; the next they are effectively social workers trying to sort out some person's problems. They are expected to ignore provocations.
That doesn't reduce the need for accountability. We give police great powers, including the power to take away the liberty - and in rare cases - lives of other citizens.
That kind of power requires checks and balances that satisfy the public interest.
Perhaps the RCMP will learn from the Braidwood inquiry.
But the culture of any large, hierarchal organization is deeply entrenched. And the RCMP culture has too often placed the interests of the force ahead of accountability.
Footonote: The Dziekanski case cannot be treated as an aberration. In a number of deaths and other incidents in B.C. in recent years, the RCMP has acted in a manner that suggested little interest in accountability or concern about the perception of bias in dealing with possible crimes by officers.