Thursday, February 05, 2004

Forget Janet Jackson's breast, worry about Jerry Springer
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - I tried to avoid writing about Janet Jackson's right breast, I really did.
I mean, how big a deal is it when a pop star flashes a breast for a few seconds, especially in the middle of the Superbowl, an event celebrating excess in every form, from the size of the players and the violence of their crashes to the outrageousness of the TV commercials and the ludicrousness of the half-time spectacle?
It was a real big deal, apparently.
I watched much of the game, even the half-time show, but was puttering around at the same time. Driven to inattention by Justin Timberlake, the ex-boy bandster, I missed the flash seen round the world. (Although as a man of the world I have seen breasts, both right and left, before.)
And then everyone went nuts. Timberlake and Jackson started talking about wardrobe malfunction, as if NASA had been involved. Jackson's name became the most searched Internet topic of all time, showing that a lot of people missed the flash and wanted to see one of her breasts. CBS and MTV started running for cover. Cameron Diaz, Timberlake's current steady, was supposedly peeved.
The American government acted the wackiest. FCC chair Michael Powell - the chief broadcast regulator - promised a quick investigation into the half-time show for violating indecency rules. "I personally was offended by the entire production, and I think that most of the complaints we have received are much broader than just the final incident," he said. A team of experts will be digging into the whole affair to find out just how far the rot has spread, he said.
I don't think people should flash during a football game, even the players. After all, the scantily clad cheerleaders don't deserve competition.
But anyone who thinks Janet Jackson's right breast is the big outrage on TV either hasn't been paying attention or is crazier than a loon.
I'd rather any children of my acquaintance sit through 100 Superbowl hide-and-go-peep shows than watch one day of Jerry Springer and his assorted companions on afternoon TV. (Shows that have drawn not a single investigation from Powell and the other guardians.)
Janet Jackson taught the kids at home that pop stars wear strange clothes, and are willing to shed bits of them for the sake of a career boost. Hardly shocking, or damaging.
But every afternoon Springer and company teach them that people are cruel, stupid, abusive, dishonest, mistrustful and violent. Worse, the shows teach them that a really good time can be had by dragging the most wrecked people on a stage and shrieking abuse at them. (Moms who are angry because their daughters dress like sluts, dads who get paternity test results on stage, people who regularly rip off their own clothes, or someone else's, are restrained by a beefy security guard and left to alternately sob hysterically and swear wildly while the audience boos.)
The daily damage to any sense of human dignity - at a time when kids are watching TV - is astonishing.
Likewise, I'd sit a class of kids down in front of Jackson's finale several dozen times before I'd let them watch pro wrestling, which celebrates an ultra-violence and sex fantasyland out of A Clockwork Orange. I'm not a prude, and am fiercely anti-censorship, but I'm astonished parents haven't boycotted WWE and its ilk into late-night time slots. Implants for the women, steroids for the men and a steady routine of sexism and merciless beatings - aimed at kids.
Jackson flashed one breast, out of some 12 billion out there. Inappropriate for afternoon TV, sure, even in an event so insanely over the top as the SuperBowl, which opened with a tribute to the space shuttle crew that burned up on re-entry last year.
But cause for this kind of global uproar? Not a chance.
Let it go. It's just a breast.
Footnote: Meanwhile in Canada more viewers were worried about a beer commercial that showed - oh, the horror - two women kissing, according to the CRTC. That may be a sleazy way to try to get guys to down more beers, but it doesn't seem like a major crime. Kisses are, when welcomed, a good thing. (I missed that commercial too, proving, that it makes more sense to advertise in your local newspaper.)

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

Doctors and government head to June chaos
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - I staggered home in despair after last week's dueling press conferences by government and doctors.
The two sides are fighting about money again. Doctors say the budget for their services needs to increase over the next three years. The government says no.
And since there is no reasonable process for resolving the deadlock, the two sides are heading for a health care wreck in June.
Once again the big losers will be regional centres, which are both the most obvious targets for doctors' job action and the most seriously damaged. If doctors withdraw services from one hospital in the Lower Mainland, there are others just down the road to take up the slack. That's not true in Prince Rupert or the Kootenays.
The two sides are so far apart, and the mistrust so intense, that this dispute has the feeling of a disaster.
I sympathize with Health Minister Colin Hansen. His position is that there is no more money for health care, doctors are already well-paid (they got a 21-per-cent increase over the term of the last three-year agreement) and other government workers have accepted three-year contracts with no increases. Tax cuts and a balanced budget are both, in his view, more important than finding extra money for health care, because they will create economic growth which will eventually fund better care.
Doctors say the last increase was a catch-up, and that if the government wants more operations done to cope with a growing and aging population, it needs to put more money into the budget for doctors. And the BC Medical Association warns that B.C. will lose doctors unless there's a raise.
Hansen says the doctors' proposals would cost about eight per cent a year; the BCMA doctors says are looking for about 3.5 per cent a year, matching an increase just given to Alberta doctors.
The dispute is familiar. The consequences are always damaging. And governments pretty much always lose.
What's painful is that two supposedly mature organizations still haven't managed to agree on a way to resolve disputes without hurting patients.
Hansen's position is that he and the government are in charge, they write the cheques and they'll decide how many doctors are needed and how much money they get. (It is the same position that's led to the Nanaimo emergency room virtual shutdown.) It's the dream role for every manager who wishes for a free hand in running a business or organization.
But it's not realistic. People don't accept the right of the boss to make those decisions. They form unions to increase their clout in the process, or find ways to enhance their individual bargaining power. Doctors - mobile, publicly supported, politically critical to government - have all the tools they need to press their case.
At this point it's the government that has twice agreed to, and then reneged, on processes that were supposed to avoid these kind of disputes.
First the government agreed to binding arbitration, but the Liberals tore up the award when they didn't like the outcome.
This time, the premier signed an agreement which promised see any dispute ultimately go to a conciliator, who would hear both sides, consider the facts and the government's ability to pay, and prepare a recommendation. The government could accept it or reject. Only then would job action happen.
That was supposed to be the deal. But now the government has told doctors in advance that it will reject any deal that provides any extra money. It's a clear betrayal of the commitment to conciliation, another indication that this government is careless about breaking its word.
Conciliation holds political risks for the government. Reject the report - if it's reasonable - and the public will be angry about the resulting disruption. But it holds no economic risks, because government can always reject the report.
Conciliation is what the government promised. And it's the only alternative to chaos.
Footnote: It's also time to consider long-term solutions. The obvious one is to find ways of reducing the level of conflict with doctors without rolling out wheelbarrows of cash. But government could work more aggressively at reducing demand for services, and increasing supply by shifting more procedures to non-doctors and finding innovative ways of producing more doctors quickly.

No more Heartlands, but good news for resource towns
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - Ding, dong, the Heartlands are dead.
Or at least the Liberals' Heartland strategy is dead, mocked mercilessly out of existence by the very people it was supposed to be placate.
The cabinet shuffle marked the official end of the Heartlands' strategy. Last year, the phrase seemed to work its into every government news release. By the time of the shuffle, not a word was heard about it.
But in fact the cabinet shuffle was good news for B.C.'s regions.
First of all, Premier Gordon Campbell blew up the competition, science and enterprise ministry, created after the 2001 election. The ministry has been a flop, unfocused and widely criticized by the businesspeople who were supposed to be its supporters.
In its place, we're back to a ministry of small business and economic development, names familiar from the NDP years. Chilliwack MLA John Les was jumped from the backbench to the job, a big promotion.
What's in a name? Partly, it sends a signal about a government's approach. Competition, science and enterprise didn't suggest much of a role for government. In fact back in 2001, Campbell promised a smaller role for government and different approach to the economy. "We're committed to creating a competitive environment that allows B.C. entrepreneurs, small business and B.C. industries to thrive and to prosper,'' he said. Government wouldn't help make things happen. It would reduce taxes and regulations and stand back while the investment rushed in.
It didn't work. Job growth has been good in the last year; investment hasn't.
A competitive business environment isn't enough anymore. Lots of places have already got there, and are out promoting their advantages. Sadly, if you build it, they will not necessarily come.
The new ministry acknowledges that reality.
It still needs money. The competition ministry has budgeted $3 million for marketing and promoting B.C. this year, a 40-per-cent from last year. Alberta is spending seven times as much. (B.C. has other marketing budgets, like the forest marketing funds. But so does Alberta.)
This isn't just criticism from a grouchy columnist. Tourism BC examined government tourism expenditures as a percentage of industry revenues in B.C. and Alberta, Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia. The other provinces spent four times as much. To match the spending level in Alberta, our nearest rival, the Liberals would have to double the tourism budget.
And it's not just tourism. Economic promotion generally has been weak, partly because of budget cuts. The competition ministry budget - or its equivalent - was $69 million when the Liberals took over. Since them it's been cut by 30 per cent, with another cut coming in next month's budget.
That aside, the new ministry is still an encouraging move. B.C.'s regions particularly need help in attracting small business and investment, an area where they have lagged far behind the Lower Mainland. And the economic development ministry should provide leadership across government.
That wasn't the only good news in the shuffle for B.C.'s regions. Campbell created two new junior minister's roles, with Skeena's Roger Harris taking on forests and Prince George's Pat Bell responsible for mining. Harris worked in the industry, and should help push needed reforms forward and ensure progress on key initiatives like the 20-per-cent tenure takeback.
And Bell can bring a needed focus to mining, while Energy Minister Richard Neufeld pushes oil and gas.
Just as importantly, the North now has two stronger voices at the cabinet table. Both Bell and Harris are part of a group of Liberal MLAs from resource communities who could push for more action on rural issues over the next year.
There are still going to be serious problems caused by budget cuts to economic development efforts.
But the Liberals have belatedly acknowledged their poor performance in encouraging investment and growth, and taken a significant step towards improvement.
Footnote: The cabinet is still weighted heavily with guys from the Lower Mainland. MLAs from Victoria, the Lower Mainland and the Okanagan get 22 out of 28 seats around the cabinet table. Women are also in short supply - only six cabinet ministers are women, and only Christy Clark has a key post. Not surprisingly, the Liberals actually trailed the NDP among women voters across the province in the last Ipsos-Reid poll.

Monday, February 02, 2004

Where's the money for promoting B.C.?
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - It's great the Liberals have killed the clunky competition, science and enterprise ministry, created in the heady days after the election.
But its replacement -small business and economic development - is going to need more money if new minister John Les is to do the job.
Premier Gordon Campbell denied the competition ministry was a failed experiment, pointing to good job growth. But it's tough to make that claim with a straight face after you've just shut the ministry down.
The old ministry name sounded like a slogan for a Soviet five-year plan. But it also revealed a big Liberal misjudgment.
The NDP government - like most provinces - had a ministry for employment and investment, and another for small business and tourism. (Both ineffective.)
But the Liberals wanted a smaller government role and a different approach to economic development, Mr. Campbell said then. "We're committed to creating a competitive environment that allows B.C. entrepreneurs, small business and B.C. industries to thrive and to prosper,'' he said. Government would cut red tape, reduce taxes and the investment would rush in.
It was a serious misjudgment. A competitive business environment is just the starting point today. Many jurisdictions have already got there, and are out aggressively promoting their advantages.
Not B.C. The competition ministry has budgeted $3 million for marketing and promoting the province this year, down 40 per cent from last year. Next door, much smaller Alberta is spending seven times as much. (B.C. has other promotional efforts, like the forest marketing funds. But so does Alberta.)
It's just not enough. Tourism BC looked at government tourism expenditures as a percentage of industry revenues in B.C. and Alberta, Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia. On average, the other provinces spent four times as much. Just to match Alberta's spending level the Liberals would have to double the tourism budget. The Premier's own Progress Board also called for more spending on tourism promotion.
It's not just tourism. One business leader recalls walking into a Toronto biotech conference in 2002. B.C. had a tiny booth, staffed with one person. Manitoba had a set-up five times as large, with a full staff courting companies. "When it come to business promotion and marketing, we are not in the game," he says.
Nor are we likely to get there fast given the way the ministry is being starved. The budget was $69 million when the Liberals took over; it's been chopped by almost one-third since then, with another 10-per-cent cut in the next budget.
The new ministry is still a positive change. It should have a much clearer focus on economic development, and be able cut across government. Mr. Les assumes big responsibilities - from the Olympics to tourism to economic strategy to international trade - and the chance to develop a co-ordinated strateey. But without the resources, B.C. won't going to be able to compete.
There was other economic good news in the shuffle.There was no mention of the Heartlands at the announcement, last year's buzzword apparently mocked out of existence.
But B.C.'s regions will benefit from the appointment two junior ministers - Skeena's Roger Harris for forests and Prince George's Pat Bell for mining. Energy Minister Richard Neufeld has rightly devoted a lot of his time to the booming gas industry; an added focus on mining is welcome. And significant progress on forest reform is desperately needed before the election.
The two Northern MLAs also add needed regional representation to cabinet, although 21 of the 27 ministers are still from the Lower Mainland, Victoria and the Okanagan. (Only six ministers are women; with only Christy Clark in a major role. It's not surprising that the Liberals trail the NDP among women voters.)
The Liberals' overall economic track record has been disappointing to voters, especially to the party's supporters.
With this shuffle Mr. Campbell has made some overdue changes to sharpen the government's focus and improve its execution.
But without the money needed to do the job, the effort will come up short.
Reality check: We've already decriminalized drunk driving
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - That was a weird little media frenzy over a government report proposing - shock and horror - decriminalizing some drunk driving offences.
How could they even think of such a thing, demanded critics. Don't they know how seriously we view impaired driving? Tougher penalties, that's what needed, said New Democrat Joy MacPhail.
Solicitor General Rich Coleman moved quickly to deny the government would decriminalize drunk driving, dousing the brief fire.
But it was all a load of rubbish.
What the reports didn't say was that we've already decriminalized almost all drunk driving. The changes proposed in the discussion paper - which was released six months ago - would have increased the real penalties and consequences of impaired driving, not reduced them.
In 2002 police in B.C. stopped about 50,000 drivers and found that they were impaired.
And 90 per cent of them faced no criminal charges. Police handed out a 24-hour roadside suspension, the driver caught a cab home and picked up his car the next day, and that was that.
And when nine out of 10 offenders who are caught by police aren't charged, we have effectively decriminalized the offence.
Which makes it bizarre that people got all worked up about a proposal that would have acknowledged the current reality and resulted in tougher penalties for most offenders.
We seize on the idea of tougher penalties and stricter enforcement as the solution to most problems in the justice system, in spite of their proven ineffectiveness in many cases. And we're happier with our fantasies than we are with reality.
In fact, the continuing push for tougher penalties is a main reason that so few people are actually charged with impaired driving.
In response to public concern and lobbying Parliament made the impaired driving penalties, especially the provisions for licence suspensions, more punitive and less flexible. The theory was that the threat of tough punishment would impaired drivers off the road.
But instead the changes made the consequence of a criminal conviction so serious that more and more people decided it was worth pleading not guilty, hiring a lawyer and going to trial. Even if they weren't successful, they would have 18 months of creeping through the process, leaving them time to prepare for a stint without a licence.
The increased chance of a trial, and the likelihood of a tough defence mounted by a lawyer specializing in impaired cases, meant police had to put more time into gathering information and making a case before charges were laid. The growing number of cases crowded the courts, with 25 per cent of provincial court trial time now taken up with impaired driving offences.
Tougher penalties meant more not guilty pleas and trials, more than the police and courts could handle. So they started using the 24-hour suspension as an alternative to laying charges. The number of impaired charges dropped, and for 90 per cent of offenders who were caught by police the offence was decriminalized. The supposed move to tougher penalties actually produced lighter consequences.
Enforcing the law would cost more than government wants to pay. If every impaired driver was charged, we'd need hundreds of extra police officers, and more prosecutors and judges.
Instead, the B.C. government was considering creating provincial offences that would carry penalties that would be tougher than a 24-hour suspension, but less severe than the Criminal Code sanctions. Fines might be lower, and licence suspensions shorter and more flexible. Judges would have the option of allowing offenders to keep driving to work, for example. The penalties would be serious, but would be eased enough that more people would plead guilty, the government hoped.
Repeat offenders or drivers in accidents could expect Criminal Code charges. But most would face lesser charges.
Despite the uproar - and Coleman's rejection of the idea - it makes sense, certainly more sense than our current approach.
Footnote: The paper proposed other changes. It suggested that people who receive two 24-hour suspensions could automatically lose their licence for 90 days, regardless of whether guilt or innocence is determined in court. That's too severe. Other changes -- mandatory education or rehab programs, already the rule in every other province -- make such obvious sense it's amazing they haven't yet been introduced here.