Friday, October 08, 2010

NDP’s expulsion of MLA bad deal for voters

Politically, it might make sense to kick MLA Bob Simpson out of the New Democrat caucus.
But it’s another step away from a functioning democratic system that voters can respect.
NDP leader Carole James gave Simpson the boot this week. His immediate offence was some mild observations about the lack of specifics in her speech to the Union of B.C. Municipalities.
The Cariboo North MLA had also been raising questions internally about the party’s direction, lack of clear policies and failure to grab more voter support as the Liberals stumbled.
Simpson didn’t want to be part of the team, James said, as she showed him the door.
Parties need common policies and some internal discipline. Voters are reluctant to support a party that might lurch off in uncharted directions or implode in internal bickering.
But the current fashion calls for much more than that.
MLAs and MPs often seem to have lost the ability to form independent thoughts, ordered to recite the talking points handed out by the leader’s office or say nothing at all.
The people paid to manage such things believe that is the best way to win power. The messages are tightly scripted so politicians don’t say anything that the other side could attack. (And they don’t consider MLAs and MPs quite bright enough to use their own judgment.)
It might be the best way to win power. Just as it might be astute to avoid any serious talk about policies and spend a lot of time bashing the other side.
But while the parties are fighting perpetual campaigns aimed at victory in the next election, they’re losing a more important battle to rebuild public trust in a battered political system.
Simpson was kicked out of the caucus after his brief report on the UBCM convention speeches by provincial and federal politicians appeared on a couple of websites.
He was sharply critical of speeches by Stockwell Day and Premier Gordon Campbell and offered some praise for a speech by B.C. Green party leader Jane Sterk..
And he was not dazzled by James’s’ speech. "The leader of the opposition likewise had little concrete to offer the delegates other than a commitment to be more consultative than the current government and a promise to explore the possibility of revenue sharing with local governments," he wrote. "This is a timely concept which has the potential to address the resource needs of local governments, but the lack of specifics was a disappointment to delegates."
The municipal politicians had real problems grappling with the services they need to provide and the available revenue sources, but didn’t hear anything meaningful from federal and provincial politicians.
"They were simply politicking for the press, not serving the real and immediate needs of UBCM delegates and their constituents," Simpson wrote.
You could expect James would be displeased, even if the comments are accurate. Simpson acknowledged he anticipated a lecture.
Instead, he was given a chance to apologize, declined and was then then kicked out of the caucus. He will sit as an independent.
Simpson’s comments don’t seem that far out of line.
In fact, while that kind of candor might irritate the leader’s office and party brass, it’s useful.
Problems don’t get solved when people are prevented from talking about them. And the best decisions come from a free, informed discussion by all involved.
Maybe those discussions can take place behind closed doors. But there is little evidence they do.
And in any case, it’s also important that citizens see they are taking place. Elected officials are supposed to represent their constituents and raise their concerns - even if the party doesn’t like it.
Instead, the public perception is that they almost always do what they are told. The orders of the leader’s office come before the duty to represent their constituents.
Maybe that’s the way to win elections. But it’s also a sure way to convince voters the system is broken — and that they’re the losers.
Footnote: The issue was a relief to the Liberals, glad the attention was off the HST. It exposed some rifts in the NDP over James’s leadership, but they will likely be short-lived. For all the grumbling, the party’s poll standings have been the best in years. It hardly seems time to get into a leadership debate.

Bob Simpson's expulsion and group home closures

Two useful pieces from the Times Colonist today.
An editorial suggests it might be better for democracy if more MLAs and MPs emulated Bob Simpson and were more candid in their comments. It might make political sense to muzzle MLAs and encourage them to repeat scripted talking points rather than sharing their own views or raising the concerns of their constituents, just as it might make political sense for a party in opposition to avoid any clear policy positions.
But in pursuing tactics that lead to power, what if the parties steadily destroying public confidence in the political system.
And in a column, Jody Paterson looks at cuts to services and group home closures that are hammering the developmentally disabled and their families.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

The special prosecutor, Oppal and the perception of bias

OK, there are differences in the two cases.
But Terry Robertson is in trouble with the law society because he accepted an appointment as special prosecutor to look into allegations of irregularities and election law violations in Kash Heed's campaign without revealing his law firm had donated to the campaign. (Story here.)
By not disclosing the potential conflict, Robertson "failed to meet the expected standard that requires a lawyer to disclose to his client any previous connection to the parties in a matter," the society found.
The failure to disclose is the issue. But the underlying concern is that the government would have decided that Robertson could be seen to be biased and wouldn't have been appointed.
Which leads, again, to the appointment of Wally Oppal to head the inquiry into the Pickton investigation and the missing women investigation.
If a law firm donation to a candidate is seen to raise a potential conflict of interest, how can four years as a Liberal cabinet minister and public comments supporting the police investigation and questioning the need for an inquiry not raise the perception of bias?
(The Vancouver Sun backed Oppal's appointment in an editorial today. The fact that it took 560 words to come up with a lukewarm endorsement - how else to consider the phrase "Based on what we know, there is no reason to believe Oppal has an untenable conflict of interest because of his foray into partisan politics" - suggests the appointment remains questionable.)

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

The media, Vander Zalm and the HST-cut rumours

What we're supposed to offer, those of us in Sarah Palin's "lamestream media," is quality assurance.
A wild-eyed blogger - as opposed to a steely-eyed one - might report an unsubstantiated claim the premier was about to announce a cut in the HST rate, for example.
But professional reporters would carefully check out the rumour. If the sources were shaky or non-existent, the story wouldn't make it - or at least it would make it clear that the information was one step above coffee-shop gossip. (Though really, why report something one step above gossip? Not reporting seems the best option.)
That quality assurance wobbled last week. A little before midnight last Wednesday, Bill Vander Zalm and the Fight HST forces issued a press released headlined "Rumours abound Campbell will reduce HST rate on Friday."
That's when the premier was to address the Union of B.C. Municipalities. The Vander Zalm release cited "reliable sources" who also confirmed Campbell would announce the HST referendum would be held earlier than next September.
The CBC and CTV bit with news stories Thursday. The CBC report noted the premier's office called the rumours "completely untrue." CTV reports had similar denials and a weird quote from Vander Zalm that "sometimes these very reliable sources may not be that reliable."
But the chance of an HST rate cut was reported seriously based solely on Vander Zalm's e-mailed news release.
Well, not solely. The Province's clever columnist Mike Smyth, in a piece written before Vander Zalm dropped his bomb, asked "could Gordon Campbell announce a reduction in the harmonized sales tax at the Union of B.C. Municipalities Convention this week?" And CBC reporters said the capital was buzzing with rumours Campbell would announce the provincial share of the HST would be reduced from seven to six per cent.
I'm sure rumours were buzzing. But that could mean one person was spreading the same rumour to anyone who would listen, who would then say, yeah, I heard that too.
Campbell didn't announce a reduction in the HST. Finance Minister Colin Hansen said Vander Zalm must be hearing voices.
Over at, perhaps the most consistently interesting B.C. blog, the Gazetter believes the evidence points to some successful media manipulation.
The Liberal government floated the rumour of a cut in the HST to draw attention to Campbell's speech, the theory goes, and Vander Zalm and company spread the rumour of an earlier vote on the HST to make mischief.
I expect he gives almost everyone involved too much credit. The reports of an HST rate cut didn't help the Liberals. Anything Campbell had to offer at UBCM - and he didn't have much - would seem anticlimactic after the rumours of big announcements.
And Vander Zalm ended up looking goofy - the man whose reliable sources were not.
Vander Zalm said it wasn't his problem if the media chose to report his claims.
Which does seem like the issue in all this. As a young reporter, in the last days of typewriters, I learned from Harold Evan's five-book series on newspapering and All the President's Men, the Woodward-Bernstein book on Watergate.
Two sources, was the rule. Two credible people, in a position to know, who could vouch for the accuracy of the information to be reported.
None of this is simple. Vander Zalm is a public figure right now; if he says a big tax change is coming, should the media refuse to report that?
If they do, they can be called irresponsible. If they don't, they're keeping information from the people.
What we should bring to the relationship with readers, viewers and listeners, are judgment, experience and intelligence.
I can't discern any guiding intelligence behind the HST rumours.
But I also don't think it was a great week for the paid media workers.
Footnote: Two other points. As the Gazetteer notes, the focus on the rumour came at the expense of other reporting, including on StatsCan numbers that showed the Canadian economy shrank in July in part because of the HST's impact.
And why the rush to report on speculation about the speech, when by the next day everyone would know exactly what Campbell said.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

An important on-the-ground perspective from Afghanistan

"After nine years of effort in the country, and several years of intense effort in Kandahar City and the surrounding districts, there is no substantial progress that we can claim for the region. Violence and insecurity are at record levels. The Taliban move and strike throughout most of the country at will. Public confidence in the Karzai regime and NATO is near zero...

"Yes, we should be commended for taking on the part of Afghanistan known to be the toughest. But it must also be recognized that we have failed, and we need to examine whether the failure was in our approach, in the strategies and tactics applied to the mission -- or was success in Afghanistan never even possible? If the latter, then tough questions must be asked of our military and political leadership, about their ability to identify the point when it became apparent that this cause was lost."

Peter Dimitroff is a security advisor to NGOs in Kandahar and has worked in the country for years. His perspective is that we have spent billions and sacrificed lives while accomplishing little or nothing of lasting value.
And as government, media and society we've failed to even count the costs or assess whether this made sense.
It's an important piece in the Times Colonist today.