Friday, July 29, 2011

Province undermining missing women inquiry

It might be time to pull the plug on the public inquiry into missing and murdered women.

The Liberal government's support for the inquiry, headed by former attorney general Wally Oppal, has always been suspect. Even when police joined the widespread calls for an independent review, the government dragged its feet.

Now Premier Christy Clark and Attorney General Barry Penner are undermining the inquiry. They have overruled Oppal's decisions on what's required to make it an effective, thorough review of how Robert Pickton could prey on women for years.

Oppal heard applications from individuals and groups that wanted standing at the hearings - the right to review documents, question witnesses, provide evidence and respond to the testimony.

He narrowed the list to 13 groups, and recommended the government provide funding for their legal costs. He was only seeking funding for those groups who were needed to get answers and had "satisfied me that they would not be able to participate fully without financial support," Oppal said.

Penner said no, and Clark has supported the position despite Oppal's pleas for reconsideration. The government can't afford the legal costs, they say. The commission will have lawyers. Perhaps they can look after the interests of the groups. (The government will pay for one lawyer for the families of Pickton's victims.)

Five of the 13 groups have already pulled out of the inquiry, including the Native Women's Association of Canada and WISH, a drop-in centre for Downtown Eastside sex workers.

Penner's concerns about costs are understandable. Inquiries can become expensive.

Except his concern about costs extends only those representing the victims and other missing women. Those groups can be expected to have an interest in, and knowledge of, the factors - police and political indifference, racism, poverty, lack of social supports - that might have played a role in allowing Pickton to kill for years.

Police officers called before the inquiry will have publicly funded lawyers. Any politicians, past or present, who might be called to testify, or even mentioned in the course of the inquiry, will have taxpayer-funded lawyers. So will government employees.

But Clark isn't suggesting those people should rely on the commission's lawyers.

If the concern is costs, and Penner really believes that it's adequate to have the commission's lawyers ensure fairness and a thorough examination of the facts, then he should provide a level playing field. That means no public funding for anyone involved.

Penner won't do that. He is prepared to provide legal funding for those with power, but not for those without it. They are, like the missing women, second class.

It's not just the groups. Kim Rossmo is a former Vancouver police officer whose warnings that a serial killer was at work were ignored. He is a professor in Texas now and was to be an important witness at the inquiry.

But the government has also refused to pay for legal representation for Rossmo. Other officers will have taxpayer-paid lawyers to question him, review documents on their behalf and protect their interests. He is expected to pay for his own lawyer.

The inquiry's credibility is rapidly being eroded. On Friday, the Native Women's Association of Canada called for a federal inquiry.

"The government of B.C. has shut us out of the British Columbia Missing Women Commission of Inquiry, and now we have no confidence that it will be able to produce a fair and balanced report," president Jeannette Corbiere. "The decision of the B.C. government to restrict funding for counsel primarily to police and government agencies demonstrates how flawed and one sided this process has become."

This inquiry should be important. Scores of women disappeared; dozens were killed. The institutions that were supposed to protect all citizens failed them. Without an inquiry, we won't know what went wrong - and whether women continue to be killed.

But the government is undermining before work even starts.

Footnote: Penner also says the groups might be able to participate in less formal hearings that will be held in conjunction with the inquiry. But again, he has not explained why these groups should be denied full participation in the inquiry, as Oppal has recommended, while the legal representation to allow police and politicians to participate is fully funded.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Gap between rich and rest widening

We've become a lot more unequal society in Canada, widening the gap between the rich and the rest. The top earners have increased their share of after-tax income in the last three decades, with the gap widening since 2000.

Middle and lower-income families saw their shares shrink.

The highest income quintile - the top 20 per cent of Canadians - shared 39 per cent of all income in 2009. The bottom 20 per cent split seven per cent of the total income.

This all didn't happen as the result of some unavoidable force of nature (or economics). Governments, for example, made changes that delivered a greater share of the overall income to the rich. Which meant a smaller share for everyone else.

And despite the shift's significance, there was not much public debate.

The Conference Board of Canada has just offered a useful look at the issue (see, and raised important questions.

A few hard-core ideologues see the issue simply. But it's complex.

If you work too hard to reduce income inequality, the theory goes, you remove the rewards that encourage people to build businesses or climb the corporate ladder. The economy is weaker as a result.

If income inequality becomes too great, a society suffers other problems. There are economic ones - when success is only rewarded for a relative handful of winners, the incentive for most people to strive is reduced.

There are also moral issues. The idea of some people enjoying huge incomes while children live a few streets away in desperate poverty should be troubling.

And the Conference Board notes another risk. "To participate fully in society, individuals need a level of resources that is not too far below the norm in that community," it noted.

When people's incomes fall too far - when the gap becomes too great - they are excluded. Which means they have much less stake in accepting the laws and rules imposed by the society that has left them out.

Especially when the rebuff is so pointed. The Conference Board report cites a Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives study that tracked the incomes of the richest one per cent of Canadians, using tax return data. That group - 246,000 people whose average income was $405,000 - claimed almost one-third of all growth in incomes during the boom years from 1998 to 2007.

Market forces have played a role. Globalization meant manufacturing moved offshore to countries with lower labour costs; that reduced demand for workers and resulted in lower wages in countries like Canada. Highly skilled people, by contrast, are in greater demand.

But government policies have widened the income gap. Traditionally, governments have redistributed income to reduce the distance between the rich and the poor. Taxes are progressive, so the rich pay more. Transfer payments - disability assistance, unemployment insurance, pensions - boost the incomes of those at the bottom of the heap. Minimum wage laws and other regulations protect those with the least economic bargaining power.

The Conference Board found that between 1976 and 1994, the tax and transfer system increasingly reduced income inequality.

But since 1994, the trend reversed. Tax and transfer policies played a role in increasing the income gap. In 1990, for example, about 83 per cent of unemployed people were eligible for EI benefits; that was chopped to 48 per cent by 2009.

It's not all gloom. The high-income earners reaped the largest share of economic growth. But the Conference Board reports the average income level of the poorest group of people rose, "marginally," from $12,400 in 1976 to $14,500 in 2009 - about 17 per cent over 33 years. (The numbers are adjusted for inflation.)

But the highest-earning quintile saw a 26 per cent increase in average income. The income gap widened from $92,300 in 1976 to $117,500 in 2009.

A widening income gap isn't inevitable. The Conference Board found Canada had among the highest income gaps among peer countries, ranking 12th out of 17. Many of the more equal countries had equally strong economies.

This should be a central political and social issue for Canadians. The gap between those at the top of the income pyramid and the rest in the middle and bottom is widening. There should be, at least, a discussion of what that means and how much disparity Canadians are prepared to accept.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Globe: Firms with B.C. Liberal ties awarded secret contracts in pro-HST campaign

The Liberals bypassed normal tendering processes and its pro-HST campaign secretly arranged deals with friendly companies and a former aide to Colin Hansen, who introduced the tax as finance minister, Sean Holman reports in The Globe and Mail today.
Campaign Research Ltd., which worked on George Abbott's leadership campaign got $167,800 to conduct those town hall telephone meetings on the tax.
Backbone Technology, which has worked for the Liberal party for 10 years, got $52,747 contract to do the HST website.
And Marc Andrew, Hansen's former aide, was paid more than $33,000 to provide "political advice" to Tom Syer, the head of the HST sales campaign, and help the independent panel that assessed the tax.
None of the contracts were tendered, the normal procedure for contracts worth more than $25,000.
Holman reports the government's response.
There is a simple test of the appropriateness of these contracts.
What would Christy Clark have said if the former NDP government had done the same thing? Would she have accepted the reasons for awarding $250,000 in contracts to friends of the government without competitive bids?
Or cried foul?