Friday, May 28, 2004

Politicians' decisions - and ours - do bring death

VICTORIA - Paul Martin rolled into Victoria this week, planning to talk about health care but ending up defending himself from Jack Layton's charge that he'd caused 100 people to die in Toronto.
A low blow, Martin called it, and the kind of politics that discourages young voters.
And inaccurate, he added.
The accuracy takes some sorting out. Layton, the NDP leader, said Martin had cut social housing spending when he was finance minister in order to balance the budget. In the aftermath, more people were forced on to the streets and 100 more people died in Toronto.
Martin says the Liberal government spent lots of money on housing. It was the Mulroney government that made cuts, the Liberals added.
The bottom line is that it's tough to prove or disprove Layton's charge. Since it's such a serious - and specific - accusation, that makes it reckless.
But the notion that somehow we shouldn't raise such issues, or use such language, is wrong.
There are real consequences to many political decisions, and we need to be able to acknowledge them.
When governments decide against spending enough money to bring down surgical wait lists, some people will die while they are waiting. Even if urgent cases are dealt with quickly, it's a statistical certainty that misjudgments will be made or unexpected complications will strike. People will die because of the decision not to pay for needed surgery.
That's why government is important, and difficult. In some ministries - health, children and families, human resources - many choices involve life and death decisions, with no easy answers.
Take child protection. Place a priority on keeping children with their families and you will likely have greater overall success than if you take children into government care at the first sign of problems. But some children will suffer, even die, as a result. The choice is difficult because some of the children taken into government care will also suffer and die - their death rate is much higher than the norm.
These are all tough choices. Fund a first-rate counselling team for every high school in the province and you'll save lives, keeping at least some youths from drug abuse or suicide. Triple the number of addiction treatment beds and fewer people will die of drug overdoses and health problems related to a dangerous life. Upgrade military equipment and you'll avoid deadly accidents.
The challenge for government is to reflect our views about how far we're prepared to go and how much we're prepared to spend in saving lives, and where the most effective efforts can be made.
It's unrealistic to argue there should be no limit to our efforts. People don't want to hand all their money over to government so that every possible measure to save lives can be taken.
But it's dangerous to claim that even a discussion of the reality - as Martin suggests - is somehow off limits.
Of course if we're going to impose this kind of disciplined honesty on politicians, we need to hold ourselves up to the same kind of scrutiny. You could go out to a movie this weekend with the family and drop $50, or you could send a cheque for the same amount to one of a number of effective charities and aid organizations - and save lives. Your individual choice is no different than the politicians' choice on your behalf.
It's a favorite rhetorical question - "How many more must die before. . . ."
But we'd have a better public debate, and better public policy, if we made more of an effort to answer the question in some specific way.
It shouldn't be off limits to suggest that politicians' decisions carry consequences, and those consequences include death.
It's simply an acknowledgment of reality. And an election campaign based on reality will produce much better results than one based on a fantasy world where everything is possible, and no decision carries negative consequences.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

First Nations learn from enviro campaigns, target Olympics

VICTORIA - So I was driving down to the legislature, radio a little too loud, when the call came. Forest Minister Mike de Jong would be available in 15 minutes to talk about agreements with First Nations.
I'm always glad of an easy story. And once I arrived, I got an email about a First Nations' protest outside the legislature at noon. That meant there should be a hook for the story. So down to de Jong's office I went, along with a fair crush of the media pack.
it was a pre-emptive strike. De Jong announced a forestry deal with the Bonaparte Band that should be worth $1.8 million, the forty-eighth such agreement. The government and First Nations have been working together well, he said.
Not a bad message. But then - and this is a character trait of this government - de Jong went too far.
But what about the Title and Rights Alliance protest, asked a reporter? "It's sad that there are people who seem more content to continue to engage in inflammatory statements than actually getting down to the tough work involved in moving forward," the minister said. "A group has always found it more attractive to yell and scream and shout rather than sitting down and negotiating difficult deals." First Nations leaders who didn't sign these deals were betraying their people, de Jong suggested.
It seemed, even at the time, to be foolishly provocative. Why pick a needless fight if things are going so well with most First Nations?
But I bought it. First Nations' politics are complicated (like all politics). And there are some leaders - Stewart Phillip of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, for example -who can be counted on to be usually irate.
Then noon came around, and I made it out a little late through the front door of the legislature. I was trapped in a crowd of people in red t-shirts on the steps of the legislature, but climbed over a small wall and made it down to the bottom of the steps, where the TV guys were clustered around the speakers.
And there was Phillip. But beside him, among other leaders, was Ed John of the First Nations Summit. Up on the steps was the chief of the Bonaparte Band - the people de Jong had pointed to evidence that everything was working. Judging by the way he was drumming, the chief was not as convinced.
It's a singular achievement, to bring together B.C.'s often divided First Nations. And de Jong's comments looked both provocative and wrong.
The Liberals had appeared to be making good progress with First Nations. Four treaty agreements in principle, several hundred deals offering economic benefits, generally a stable relationship.
But the protest, part of a caravan to Victoria organized by the fledgling Title and Rights Alliance, indicated that could all be unraveling. The First Nations claimed the governments have been refusing to negotiate, presenting take-it-or-leave-it proposals.
The governments should be, as the young people say, freaked.
United First Nations will be a huge problem in the next year for the Liberals.
Especially united First Nations that are prepared to take lessons from the various enviro groups that have figured out how to steer B.C. policy The alliance is taking advice from veteran environmental campaigners who have experience in cranking up the pressure on a wide range of fronts.
Speakers talked about showing up at forest company annual meetings to raise concern about harvesting on land that's part of treaty talks. They threatened consumer boycotts and international campaigns.
And they pointed to the Olympics as a rare opportunity to take their case to the world (and put a considerable squeeze on the federal and provincial governments). The enviros have shown that it's easy to get Americans and Europeans all riled up about issues they don't really understand with the right symbols. The protest could be highly effective.
The governments need to find a way to head off this protest, or risk serious damage.
Footnote The alliance is getting technical support from the Dogwood Initiative's WIll Horter, a long-time forestry campaigner formerly of Forest Futures and the Sierra Legal Defence Fund, and advice from other veterans of environmental campaigns. It's a support group with a track record of effectiveness in getting issues before the public.

Monday, May 24, 2004

Sorry, but you need to pay attention to this election

VICTORIA - OK, so you never really wanted to start the summer with a federal election.
Especially a summer election with such a difficult set of choices spread before you. Except for the hard-core partisans, the people who treat politics like some sort of game, there's a broad sense that we're left with an uninspiring set of options. Paul Martin has dithered about when the election would be held, and what's it about. Stephen Harper and the new Conservatives - sounds a bit like a British New Wave band - spook many voters, who wonder if Canadian soldiers would be mired in Iraq today if Harper had been prime minister. And Jack Layton and the New Democrats remain out-of-focus.
But it's your job to figure out who would best represent you and cast a vote June 28. And despite the challenges, it's pathetically lame to decide to ignore the whole thing and let other people decide what kind of country you're going to live in. (Certainly, the choices may be limited; that doesn't change the reality that this is your best opportunity.)
It's especially important because this time your vote may matter on a national scale. We're used to everything being decided on the basis of the big chunk of seats in Ontario and Quebec. But this time the polls indicate the outcome of the election is in doubt, and a minority government - at least - is a real possibility
That means B.C.'s 36 seats could decide the kind of government Canada will have for the next several years (or several months, I suppose, if we get a particularly unworkable minority government).
And within B.C., the race is extremely close. The most recent Ipsos-Reid voter survey found Liberal support at 33 per cent, the Conservatives at 31 per cent and the New Democratic Party at 27 per cent.
That's a big swing from the actual B.C. vote in the 2000 election, which was 49 per cent Alliance, seven per cent Conservative, 28 per cent Liberal and 11 per cent New Democrat. That translated into 27 seats for the Alliance-Conservatives, five for the Liberals and two for the NDP.
This time, about half the seats in the province are too close to call today. and those seats could decide what the next government of Canada will look like.
So it's up to you.
It's a big challenge. A remarkable amount of rubbish will be spoken by the candidates over the next five weeks, covered with great seriousness and even commented on by people like me.
Your best hope is to pick a couple of issues you think are most important - perhaps a rational plan for health care, or integrity in government, or a voice for the West and B.C. in Ottawa. That doesn't mean you'll be blind to the rest of the issues; but it will give you a fighting chance of coming up with an informed vote on the subjects that are most important to you.
If that doesn't lead you to a decision on which party to support, you can also look closely at your local candidates and see if that tips the balance. On many issues the three main parties offer little to differentiate themselves. Your vote could come down to which person would do the best job of taking your views to Ottawa.
These are discouraging days for a voter, who have to penetrate the carefully crafted party statements that say as little as possible and then try and judge whether the leaders actually have any intent of doing what they say. (Martin was big on fixing the democratic deficit, for example, but then walked all over democracy to appoint his hand-picked candidates in B.C. ridings.)
But it still matters. It's still your job to sort through the information and make the best choice for your community, and your country.
Good luck. You're going to need it.
Footnote: Your vote also has a cash value this time around. New political funding rules means parties that meet a minimum threshold will get $1.75 per vote each year in funding. Even if your candidate is destined to be a hopeless also-ran, the simple act of voting will give the party extra cash to make an impact over the next four years.