Saturday, July 17, 2004

Government cruelly fighting against families of disabled

VICTORIA - It should make you ashamed to see how your government is treating Cheryl Hutchinson.
Ms. Hutchinson is 34, a bright, accomplished university graduate and a talented composer
She also suffers from cerebral palsy, and is dependent on 24-hour care for all her physical needs, from going to the bathroom to getting dressed. The government recognizes the need, and says she's eligible for $6,000 a month so she can hire support workers.
But not the support worker she wants, the one who quit his job when she was 13 to provide full-time care for her, who carried her to the school bus when there was no money for a wheelchair, fed her, bathed her, the one who loves her.
Because he's her father.
The B.C. government - almost alone among provinces - has decided that people eligible for assistance can hire anyone they choose to provide care. Except a family member.
Ms. Hutchinson, along with a handful of others, has been fighting the ban. And this week she won. A BC Human Rights Tribunal ruled that the policy was discriminatory and unjustified, punishing her because of her severe disability and her father by barring him from work simply because he's a family member.
It should be a time to celebrate, after a seven-year struggle to get government to do the right thing. But no - the government plans to appeal the ruling.
Why won't the government let family members provide paid care? It's all about families, the government argued before the tribunal, and encouraging them to recognize their legal and moral obligation to provide care.
And it's all about money, as well. More and more family members might want to be paid, the government argued, and who knows where it would end.
It's a bit much to imagine Phillip Hutchinson being lectured about family.
He's cared for Cheryl as a single parent for two decades, given up his job and lived on the edge of poverty. He's given her the chance to go to high school and university and experience life. As her physical health has failed he's got up every few hours in the night to turn Cheryl over in bed, bathed her and done everything to help her lead a safe, full life. I'd say he knows about family.
The government also argued allowing family members to be paid could somehow turn into a major expense, without offering any convincing evidence.
Remember, the government is prepared to pay a stranger to provide care. Just not a family member.
There are no floodgates to open here. About 500 people, virtually all severely disabled, receive funding for individualized care under the current program. Allowing a handful of them to chose to hire family members doesn't increase the cost.
And as the tribunal noted, the government can set its own guidelines for when paid family care is allowed. Seven other provinces do that; in Alberta, with a similar program only four out of 8,500 clients have paid family care. B.C. finds it impossible to develop any policy but an absolute ban.
Ms. Hutchinson has tried paid caregivers. One made her feel unsafe, pushing her wheelchair into traffic against the lights. Another refused a request for juice because she didn't want to have to lift her on to the toilet later. Others quit, or found the work too hard.
Imagine for one moment being dependent on a succession of strangers for everything from getting dressed to bathing, solely because of a government policy. The Hutchinsons can't; for the last several years they have sent the money back to the ministry and Mr. Hutchinson, now 71, has provided the care.
Attorney General Geoff Plant says the tribunal decision must be appealed because it has far-reaching implications.
But there would have been no decision if governments - this includes the NDP government - had simply developed a fair policy that respected individual choice and peoples' right to dignity.
They haven't. And people like Cheryl Hutchinson are suffering because of their failure.
- From the Vancouver Sun

Thursday, July 15, 2004

CRTC closure of radio station a threat to freedom

VICTORIA - On the surface, the CRTC's decision to shut down a Quebec City radio station because its announcers were offensive jerks just looks nuts.
Look a little deeper, and it still looks nuts.
The CRTC, the federal regulator that decides who gets television and radio licences and on what terms, cancelled the licence of CHOI-FM, the top-rated radio station in Quebec's capital. Without a licence, the station is dead. The people who work there are on the street. Listeners lose a choice in the market.
And freedom of speech takes a big hit from government.
CHOI got in trouble because two announcers on its morning show kept saying offensive things, even after they had warnings from the CRTC.
The show sounds stupid, crude and offensive. The announcers regularly picked on a local TV weather announcer, mocking her appearance and her intelligence and describing here as "a cat in heat."
Commenting on a news story about abuse of a psychiatric patient, the morning man asked "Why don't they just pull the plug on him? He doesn't deserve to live."
And when a Quebec university boasted of its success in attracting foreign students, the morning man ranted that for African students, "the ones who are sent abroad to study are the sons of people who are disgusting. . . the sons of plunderers, cannibals who control certain Third World countries and can afford to send their children to Quebec to go to school."
Pretty appalling stuff, in the worst traditions of mindless shock radio and television.
But no reason for a government agency to decide to shut the station down for being offensive.
We've got laws to prevent people from promoting hatred. If the announcers broke those laws, charge them and let the courts sort it out.
And we've got legal recourse for people whose reputations are damaged by false statements. People who were defamed by the radio hosts should be encouraged to file lawsuits to shut them up and get damages.
But the station isn't losing its licence for breaking any laws. It's being shut down because a government body - after getting about one complaint a month - has decided it's offensive, a dangerously subjective criteria.
I fined the ultraviolent, sexist world of televised wrestling profoundly offensive. I'm appalled by the gross stupidity and cruelty paraded on television by Jerry Springer and the like. Other people may have their own lost of objectionable shows or publications.
But freedom of speech is more important than the personal prejudices of an individual, or a government agency. And protecting it requires a willingness to stand up for the rights of people even when you disagree completely with what they are saying. (The free speech rights of people who are in the mainstream are never challenged; it's the people on the edges who end up needing protection.)
That doesn't mean Canadians are powerless. If a radio station is offensive, they can change the dial. If it is deeply offensive, then they can launch a boycott of advertisers who keep the show on the air. If someone wants to have the station playing in an office, they can insist it be turned off.
But it's dangerous and wrong for the government to decide what kind of speech is allowed.
There's no absolute right to free speech. We accept the need for some essential legal limitations, cautiously imposed by legislators. Shout 'fire' in a crowded theatre and you'll be charged with mischief and liable for the damage that results. Incite hatred and you risk criminal charges. Tell damaging lies and you could face a lawsuit.
But it a huge leap from those necessary constraints to shutting down a radio station, or silencing individuals, not because they've broken any laws but because someone powerful just doesn't like what they are saying.
Footnote: Among those criticizing the decision is Conservative leader Stephen Harper, obviously no fan of this kind of radio. But Harper has argued for Canadians' right to freedom of expression on a range of issues. He's demonstrating that you can't simply support free speech when it suits you.

MLAs are in it to serve, not for the money

VICTORIA - The Liberals deserve a little grief for the quiet way they let cabinet ministers up their expense claims.
And some MLAs' claims could stand a closer look.
But fundamentally it's wrong to get outraged over the expenses MLAs and ministers claim for time spent in Victoria on public business.
Sure, I'm critical of lots of the things MLAs say and do.
But I'm amazed and a little angered when I hear people complaining about politicians getting rich at the public's expense, or running for office for the big bucks.
You can criticize MLAs for lots of things. But if you complain about them being in it for the money, you're just wrong. (And maybe revealing something about yourself.)
The changes to the capital allowance - the $150 a day, tax free, that MLAs can claim for every day they spend working in Victoria - are a legitimate story.
MLAs used to be able to claim the money when the legislature was sitting, which is now about four months a year.
But the Liberals changed that, letting cabinet ministers claim for days when the legislature wasn't sitting, as long as they were in Victoria on ministry business.
The Liberals deserve some criticism for the way the changes was done. They made a big deal about taking a five-per-cent cut in their base pay - though not in the extra pay for ministers and the premier - while keeping quiet on the extra money for ministers.
And voters in some ridings will also likely want to know why their MLAs' claims are much greater than the norm. Dave Hayer, Tony Bhullar and Paul Nettleton all topped $20,000 in capital allowance claims last year. The average for MLAs was under $14,000.
But on balance it's tough to get all worked up about the expenses.
MLAs make about $70,000. That's good money, sure. But it's not enough to cover the cost of your real home and four months in Victoria.
And it's also not enough to make it worth trying to get elected for the money.
Remember, there's no job security.There's no pension. You'll spend months away from your family, heading home on weekends to catch up with what you have missed. (Yes, lots of British Columbians work on the road and have the same issues. That doesn't make them less real.) And you'll be putting your career on hold, always a risky business.
Some MLAs are probably earning more than they would in the job market.
But most are making a sacrifice, giving up money, privacy and freedom to be an MLA. They could be making as much - or a lot more - doing their normal work back home. But they want to make a difference.
Cabinet ministers make about $108,000, junior ministers about $94,000, Premier Gordon Campbell about $114,000. Again, those are good incomes.
But these are also - mostly - big jobs. What's it worth to be the minister of children and families and go to bed every night wondering if you're doing the right thing for the thousands of childre in the government's care? What should we pay the health minister, in charge of an $11-billion operation? (Colin Hansen's pay is barely half the salary of the health deputy minister.)
Too much, too little, the debate is legitimate.
But what's not legitimate is the myth that politicians are greedy, or getting rich at our expense.
It's just not worth going into this kind of life for the money. The sacrifices - in your work, your family life and every other area - are just too great.
Mostly, people seek to become MLAs - of any party - because they think they can play a role in making their communities a better place to live.
It doesn't always work out that way, and they aren't always effective.
But it's about service, not money, and they deserve credit for trying.
Footnote: The strains are greatest on MLAs from outside the Lower Mainland and most of Vancouver Island. They not only face horrendous travel complications, but give up much more in terms of their privacy. An urban MLA can get lost in Vancouver; if you represent Fort Nelson, eveyone knows who you are and has an opinion to share.

Monday, July 12, 2004

Liberals in dire straits outside Lower Mainland

VICTORIA - The Heartland, Region 250, the rest of B.C. - whatever you want to call it, the people there have little use for the Liberal government.
Two polls released last week painted a worrying overall picture for the Liberals, and a positively grim one outside the Lower Mainland.
Ipsos-Reid found the Liberals and NDP virtually tied provincially. The Mustel Group found the NDP had the support of 45 per cent of decided voters; the Liberals only 33 per cent.
But both agreed that outside the Lower Mainland the numbers were much worse for the Liberals. If this lasts, some 30 MLAs risk losing their seats next May.
Ipsos-Reid found the Liberals had the support of 43 per cent of voters in the Lower Mainland, 10 points ahead of the NDP.
But in the rest of the province the New Democrats had the support of 46 per cent of voters, with the Liberals at 28 per cent. More than half the people who supported the Liberals in 2001 have now rejected the party.
A closer look at the polls reveal even deeper problems for the Liberals.
Ipsos-Reid asked people if they thought things in B.C. had grown worse, or better, since the Liberals were elected.
Overall, 42 per cent of people surveyed thought things had grown worse; only 30 per cent though the province had improved under the Liberals.
Outside the Lower Mainland, the negative opinion was much stronger. The people who thought the province had gone downhill since the election outnumber the positives by two-to-one.
Maybe, an optimistic Liberal might say, they're acknowledging the effects of factors like the softwood lumber dispute, but still think the government is doing a good job.
Except the poll also asked people what they thought of Gordon Campbell's performance as premier. Across the entire province, about 60 per cent of people disapproved of Campbell's performance as premier. Outside the Lower Mainland, it was 70 per cent.
And 52 per cent of the public in the regions strongly disapproved of Campbell's performance. Glen Clark's strongly disapprove judgment was 57 per cent as his government collapsed in scandal and incompetence.
We would be badly served by a weather-vane government, chasing popularity through a series of policies based on the latest poll.
But we're also not well-served by a government that feels no need to respond effectively when voters across much of the province are sending a clear message. When 70 per cent of voters think you're doing a bad job as premier and half your supporters have walked away, perhaps they have a point worth considering.
It's hard to see much acknowledgment of that from the Liberals. They brushed off these polls, as they have the others.
That's bad news for a lot of Liberal MLAs.
It's also bad news for the province. If the trend continues, then one clear possibility after the next election is a Liberal government based largely on seats in the Lower Mainland, with a handful of MLAs from the rest of B.C. The rest of the province will have the same sense of political disenfranchisement that many British Columbians felt after the last federal election.
The Liberals believe that disenchanted voters will return to the fold once they start considering the possibility of an NDP government. And they hope an improving economy will also win support.
There's no doubt Carole James will come under much closer scrutiny in the coming months, and will face some tough policy questions.
But it's less clear that the improving economy will make much difference. The situation is already better in many parts of the province, but the Liberals' standing has not improved.
And health, not the economy, was the dominant issue in the Mustel poll. And that's not a Liberal strength.
Politicians like to dismiss polls.
But when the message is this clear, that's will only make things worse. It is saying to those people that their opinion has no value.
Footnote: The emergence of health care as the major issue for British Columbians is bad news for the government. British Columbians are less satisfied with their health services than other Canadians already, and the health authorities are facing another tough year. The five regional health authorities got their budgets from the province last week, with an average 1.6-per-cent funding increase. (Interior Health ot a 1.3-per-cent increase.)