Friday, September 10, 2010

Nine years after 9/11

And I think the column I wrote on the first anniversary stands up.

A licence to extend the state's power
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - There's something at once wrong and frightening about the fervent celebration of the attack on the World Trade Centre one year ago.
Wrong, because it rests on the false pretence that Sept. 11 was a defining moment that changed everything, for everyone.
And frightening because it is being used to justify mindless conformity, an erosion of individual rights in favour of the state - and even war.
It was a terrible day. But most people have placed that devastating event into some appropriate place among the other terrible and joyous moments that define a life. About 40,000 children were born in B.C. last year. For those families, 2001 won't be the year the World Trade Centre was destroyed; that pales beside the wonder of a new life beginning. About 315 British Columbians killed themselves last year. For those families, it will be the year that someone was lost, and something in them died too.
The attacks were terrible. But they were not different in purpose or effect than the decades of horrors that the current generation has witnessed.
Even their scale is not beyond comparison. Some 3,000 people died last Sept. 11. Twenty times as many died when the second bomb fell on Nagasaki; twice as many died in Bhopal after the 1994 Union Carbide disaster; about the same number of Africans will die of AIDS while you are at work today.
Last Sept. 11 was an awful day, but everything didn't change because of it. We still go to work, look for happiness, slide into despair. We raise our children. Just like always.
And one year later, I am much less frightened of a terror attack than I am of the governments supposedly on my side.
The state - Canada or Afghanistan, America or Iraq - always wants to increase its power over the people. It's not sinister; if you are in charge of keeping order, then you will want to make that task easier - surveillance cameras on every corner, fewer legal right for citizens. But it's an imperative that means citizens must always be prepared to push back.
For a year governments have been using Sept. 11 as a licence to extend the state's power. And an uncertain public has failed to push back.
Airport security may have needed upgrading, perhaps through improved training. But after last Sept. 11 Ottawa introduced a $24-per-ticket security surcharge, taking $400 million a year from travellers' pockets and wounding regional airlines and the communities they serve. The take from Vancouver alone will be enough to hire more than 600 extra security staff; the need has never been demonstrated.
The federal government likewise made no effective case for $8 billion in increased security spending over the next five years, money it could never find to help Canada's poorest children or reduce the tax burden.
And now the U.S. government is pressuring Canada to spend more on defence, even after a 10-per-cent increase this year. (The Americans spend $400 billion a year on their military, more than the next 25 countries combined. To match their level of per-capita spending, Canada would have to more than triple its defence budget.)
Sadly, it's not just about money. The Bush administration quickly passed the "USA Patriot Act" (the name, commanding mindless acquiescence, should sound alarm bells). Americans lost rights they had treasured for 200 years. The right to legal representation, to a speedy and public trial, to protection from unjustified searches - all gone. Americans can now be jailed indefinitely and secretly, without a trial.
Canada didn't go as far. But the prime minister can now outlaw groups based on secret evidence. Police gained the right to arrest someone who has broken no law on the suspicion that they are involved in terrorist activities. You can now be jailed for refusing to answer police questions.
And then there is war. Canada fought in Afghanistan, to little obvious effect. And now we are being asked to fight in Iraq, not because of anything that nation has done, but because the U.S. believes Saddam Hussein may someday do something. This is not a war on terrorism; it's a beating for a nation the U.S. simply wishes had a different leader.
Enough. Everything did not change in a few terrible hours one year ago. We have rights and freedoms and values worth defending, and a commitment to the rule of law that should not be abandoned when a government finds it convenient.
We will betray our past and our future if instead we allow ourselves to be defined by a single day of terror.

Liberals might risk HST referendum

It actually appears the Liberals are seriously considering sending the anti-HST initiative to a provincewide vote next year.
And that seems a remarkably dangerous way to handle an issue that has already done such damage.
The initiative, with its bill to rescind the harmonized sales tax, has made it to the legislative initiatives committee.
The committee - composed of six Liberal and four New Democrat MLAs - has two choices. They can send the bill to the legislature or send it to a provincewide vote Sept. 24, 2011.
In either case, the government doesn't have to actually repeal the tax or even call a vote on the bill. The provincial vote on the tax wouldn't be binding. The bill to eliminate the HST could be left on the order paper or, if the government chose, voted down.
The committee met for the first time Wednesday, in what appeared to be a fairly bumbling start to the process.
The New Democrats were quick to move the bill be sent to the legislature for consideration this fall.
The Liberals said the motion was too hasty. They needed more information on the options, especially on a referendum, the Liberals said.
What would it cost? Could other questions be added to the ballot.
And they proposed compiling a list of questions which the committee's clerk would ask Elections B.C. She would then report on the answers.
The New Democrats thought that inefficient. What if the response raised other questions, they asked?
They proposed just inviting acting Chief Electoral Officer Craig James to answer questions at the next meeting.
Liberal Terry Lake, elected to chair the group, wasn't sure if the committee was allowed to do that. After about 45 minutes of confusion, it was agreed the committee could indeed invite James. (That does seem like the kind of basic question that could have been sorted out in advance.)
That suggested the Liberals believe a referendum might be a good idea. Lake reinforced that view in comments outside the committee room. The anti-HST petition was only signed by 19 per cent of registered voters, he said, and many were misled into supporting the initiative. A referendum might reflect the public will more accurately. (Finance Minister Colin Hansen later used the same talking points.)
It's a risky argument. After all, the Liberals were elected with the support of 26 per cent of registered voters. And the referendum is certain to irk many of the 575,000 people who signed the petitions.
The thinking, according to those in the Liberal camp, is that by the time the referendum is held the anger over the HST will have eased and people will have come to understand the tax is good for them.
And to kill the tax, the anti-HST side would have to get the support of 50 per cent of registered voters - close to 1.5 million votes, or about twice the number the Liberals got in 2009.
So the vote would fail and people would accept the HST and move on.
That could be a serious miscalculation. The anger is not directed just at the tax. Many people believe the government has been arrogant and dishonest in implementing it.
A referendum - at a cost of at least $10 million and likely significantly more - isn't going to reduce that anger. Rather, it will help fuel it as the 2013 election grows closer.
And in the meantime, recall campaigns will likely begin against some Liberal MLAs in November. The Liberals know how disruptive and distracting those campaigns are, based on Kevin Falcon's "Total recall" campaign against the NDP in 1999.
The committee is to meet Monday, hopefully with a representative from Elections B.C., to consider options.
There is no good way for the Liberals to escape this morass.
But keeping the anger alive for another year, through recall efforts and a referendum campaign, seems like a very bad choice.
Footnote: Liberal cabinet ministers all offered great support for Premier Gordon Campbell on their way into a meeting last week. But cracks are starting to appear in the party's base. The skill - or lack of it - in handling the issue in committee will be a factor in quieting or fuelling calls for a change at the top.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

The RCMP is betting $1 billion against a move to a provincial police force

The government's major project inventory report is a useful look at big capital projects being built or considered.
The news releases always go a little overboard - the latest one celebrates $198 billion in projects "planned or underway." Planned is a bit of overstatement; the list includes, for example, a gravel quarry near Port Alberni that has been counted in the inventory since 2004 without moving out of the planned category.
Still, it's a valuable snapshot.
The latest release also notes that the largest project underway is the "the $966-million RCMP E-Division Headquarters in Surrey." The building is a private-public partnership. The private partners get almost $1 billion and agree to build the centre and maintain it for 25 years.
But the RCMP wouldn't need 2,700 people in its B.C. headquarters if it wasn't delivering municipal and regional police services across the province. Which suggests the force is very confident the the government will sign another 20-year contract when the current agreement expires in 2012

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

The HST debacle wouldn't happen in a functioning democracy

It would be useful if the HST debacle convinced all parties to question giving their leaders so much power.
Some Liberals are now publicly saying Premier Gordon Campbell has to go quickly. A mandatory leadership vote, now underway at meetings of Liberal riding associations, might add to the pressure.
Campbell has said he might try to lead the Liberals into the next election in 2013.
But his time is over, thanks mainly to the HST and the way it was introduced. And the Liberal party's future is bleak.
I wonder it this could have been avoided if so much power wasn't concentrated in the premier's office.
The first step toward the HST came when the Liberals tabled a pre-election budget forecasting a $495-million deficit.
It was never credible. And it was a huge leap from past conservative budgets.
But Campbell, through the election campaign, insisted the deficit would not rise above that projection. (Although Finance Ministry officials warned him during the campaign that the budget was unravelling.)
There is a lot of experience and knowledge shared among the 48 Liberal MLAs. Given a chance, some of them might have suggested it would be a mistake to campaign on dubious deficit projection. They might have raised good questions about revenue forecasts.
It doesn't work that way.
After the election, Campbell accepted reality. But he maintains he was still shocked and sent Finance Ministry officials to find ways to reduce the growing deficit.
And they came up with signing for the HST and getting $1.6 billion from Ottawa as an incentive.
Great, Campbell said.
Sure, the party had said it would not introduce a harmonized sales tax during the election campaign. It had reports suggesting long-term benefits, but warning of job and wage losses for more than five years.
And the ministry briefing noted that the tax could be controversial. The HST shifts $1.9 billion in taxes from businesses to individuals and families. That's the equivalent of a 28-per-cent across the board personal income tax increase.
Again, if Campbell had submitted the new tax idea to the other 47 Liberal MLAs for discussion, perhaps some concerns would be raised. They might suggest their constituents wouldn't be so keen on the tax. That perhaps it would be best to do some consultations and analysis before plunging ahead.
That, as Hansen said during the election campaign, "it's clearly a controversial move and one that we would certainly want to get a lot of input on."
But the MLAs never had the chance to raise those concerns. Campbell told the caucus the government was imposing the HST on July 21 - less than 48 hours before the public was told.
The MLAs, representing voters across the province, weren't asked what they thought or given time to consider how the new tax would affect the ridings.
They were told the decision had been made and their job was to defend it. Trust in the wisdom and experience of your leaders.
Good luck, little campers.
And so the Liberal MLAs marched out into an angry public backlash and the threat of recall to defend a tax policy they had absolutely role in introducing.
Leave aside the HST for the moment.
There is something wrong when any major, controversial policy can be imposed without a meaningful discussion involving those elected to represent the public.
No taxation without representation, the British colonists complained in the 18th century, before the American Revolution. No taxes or levies unless they were approved by elected representatives of the people who would pay.
Some 250 years later, British Columbians might have the same complaint. The HST was not really imposed with the consent of those elected to represent the people.
The premier decided. The Liberal MLAs voted as instructed. The New Democrats MLAs all voted no.
Such a waste of peoples' talents and judgment. Such a waste of a democratic system that could offer so much more.
Footnote: Liberal MLAs are apparently happy with Campbell's leadership. But others in the party are suggesting the premier should announce he's stepping down before the Liberal convention in Pentiction Nov. 19-20, in part to avoid getting bad news from a leadership confidence vote being held by constituency associations at pre-convention meetings. (The party's constitution requires the vote.)

Monday, September 06, 2010

Brian Peckford versus Gordon Campbell

This report is interesting.
Peckford is six years older than Gordon Campbell. He won two elections as Newfoundland premier, casting himself as a champion battling for the province's interests against a distant federal government. If he's serious about advising a provincial B.C. Conservative party, that's not good for the Liberals, or centre-right voters in the province.