Thursday, September 30, 2004

Every party's future on the line in Surrey byelection

VICTORIA - The Surrey byelection called -finally - by the premier is going to give you a heck of a sneak preview of next May's election.
Each of the parties goes into the byelection under giant question marks. Opinion polls tell one story, but this is the first chance to find out what voters will actually do when they go into the ballot box and have to make a real choice.
Surrey-Panorama Ridge is a good test riding. In the 2001 election voters there reflected the provincial support for the NDP and the Liberals almost exactly. There are no huge local issues to distort the outcome, though the relative strength of the local candidates may be distorting factor.
The Liberals need to win, or at least post a strong showing.
Sure, byelections generally go against the governing party. It's a safe way for voters to send a protest message.
But the Liberals outpolled the NDP by a three-to-one margin in the riding in 2001. The byelection is coming barely six months before the provincial election, lessening the appeal of sending a protest message. And the Liberals have the advantage of a strong candidate and a big split between the Greens and New Democrats.
The candidate is Mary Polak, best known as a Surrey school trustee when that board spent almost $1 million trying to keep three kids' books depicting same sex parents out of Surrey schools.
It looked bizarre and foolish. But Polak, though a member of the ban-the-books bunch, was seen as a moderate. She has a high profile in the riding, and a good rep with a lot of voters.
If the Liberals can't win here - even in a byelection - then they face problems in a lot of ridings.
For the NDP, the question is simple. Are people mad enough at the Liberals to vote New Democrat?
NDP leader Carole James decided not to run in the byelection. She made the decision four month's ago - that's how long Campbell has been delaying - reasoning rightly that it made more sense to work on organizing around the province.
But the byelection is still a test of her ability to convince voters that the New Democrats - despite their dismal record - can be trusted. The party's candidate is Jagrup Brar, who runs a federal program that helps people start their own businesses. He's well-known in the large IndoCanadian community, not much known outside that group. He'll neither hurt nor help the NDP; James will be the one voters judge.
Green leader Adriane Carr is running for her party. It's a chance for her to gain experience and grab some media attention.
But she's running some risks. Carr is seen as a parachute candidate - she says she'll run in the general election in her Sunshine Coast home riding whether she wins or loses in Surrey. That won't help her campaign. (Although development and loss of green space are big issues in the riding.)
Carr also risks highlighting the effects of vote-splitting among those opposed to the Liberals.
Consider the prospect of a Liberal win, partly through an NDP-Green vote split, with the New Democrats in second place. That kind of outcome would leave many voters questioning the wisdom of voting Green.
The Liberals also have to worry about vote-splitting. Polls suggest voters are dissatisfied with the Campbell government, but don't see a credible alternative.
But at least a couple of parties will be trying to appeal to Liberal supporters.
Former Liberal Tom Morino is running for his fledgling BC Democratic Alliance, promising to run as a moderate alternative to the Liberals. He's run twice for the Liberals, so should know how a campaign works.
The Conservative Party, fresh from emerging the Unity Party. Unity took seven per cent of the vote in 2001. Those lost votes were meaningless to the Liberals then; they could matter this time around.
In 28 days, a lot of questions will be answered.
Footnote: The Liberals should lose votes for delaying the byelection and depriving people in the riding of representation for five months. The legislature begins sitting next Monday, and the seat for Surrey-Panorama Ridge will be empty. Campbell criticized the NDP for similar delays

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Taser controls, new police policies will save lives

VICTORIA - The probe of Tasers in B.C. has already paid off with an interim report that recommends tougher controls on the use of the high-tech stun guns.
Tasers were hailed as a great tool for police when they were introduced in 1998. The concept was great - a weapon that shoots darts that zap dangerous suspects with electricity, making them easy to subdue. Police would have one more alternative to shooting suspects, and both they and the person being arrested would be safer.
But in the last 12 months four deaths in the province have been associated with Taser use, in Prince George, Burnaby and Vancouver. Added to reports of almost 50 deaths in the U.S. in the last three years, the cases raised troubling questions.
The police complaints' commissioner set out to answer them, asking Victoria Police Chief Paul Battershill to head up a review.
His interim report, released Wednesday, offers practical recommendations that would allow police to continue using Tasers while decreasing the risk.
And just as importantly, the report calls on police to make changes that could save lives even in cases where Tasers aren't used.
It's a balanced, thorough review of the evidence around Tasers.
The report concludes the weapons are still useful as an intermediate weapon for police. They can disable suspects from a distance - something not possible with pepper spray or clubs - and they can allow an end to a conflict before deadly force is needed.
But it also found that Tasers haven't been treated with the required seriousness.
That's not surprising. The manufacturer's pitch has always been that the weapons pose no health risk; that claim is now being widely questioned around the world.
The report cites "significant inconsistencies" across B.C. in training police to use the weapons. A standard training course on Taser use should be developed, the report says, and all police should receive the training.
It also calls for mandatory reporting any time a Taser is used. That's routine when a gun is used, but not all police forces in B.C. require similar follow-up. Even when the policy is in place, police may not be following it, the report found.
Police should also quit buying the Taser originally introduced in the province, and switch to a less powerful model that provides a greater margin of safety.
All the recommendations make sense. The two requiring reporting and training should have been in place from the beginning, when the former NDP government approved the weapons.
But the report's biggest impact may come from two recommendations that are only partly related to Taser use.
Across B.C., and North America, people captured and restrained by police have been dying. The common scenario is a frenzied, unreasonable suspect, often on cocaine or mentally ill, who is captured, restrained, appears to be calmer and then stops breathing. (Cocaine was a common factor in the cases of all four people who have died after Taser use in B.C.)
The condition is called "excited delirium," and police aren't aware enough of the risks of death, the report found, again recommending a standardized training program. "Although relatively rare, changes in pattern of drug abuse make it likely officers will encounter victims of excited delirium more frequently," the report warns.
The risk of death also appears to be increased by the way in which the people are restrained. The report calls for a ban on use of the "maximal restraint position," where hands and ankles are bound behind the suspect's back and he lies on his chest, saying it may be linked to needless deaths.
Adopting both recommendations will save lives. The Battershill report looked at 22 restraint-related deaths investigated by B.C. coroners between 1990 and 2003. It found a "disturbing familiarity" in the cases. The victim is generally on drugs and acting bizarrely. A violent struggle takes place, without any obvious injuries. Police use restraints, and the person dies.
They were deaths that didn't need to happen.
The recommendations on restraint, and Taser use, should be adopted immediately.
Footnote: Battershill is continuing his investigation of the death of Robert Bagnell, who died in Vancouver after being shot with a Taser. He released the interim report because there was an "urgent need" to get the recommendations out to police, Battershill said.

Monday, September 27, 2004

B.C. voters checking off 'none of the above'

VICTORIA - The lesson from the latest poll is that British Columbians wish there was a "none-of-the-above" box on the election ballot.
Voters think the Liberals are doing a bad job of governing, and believe Gordon Campbell is doing a very bad job as premier.
But they're also not ready to hand government back to the NDP after their record of incompetence.
The result is that eight months before the election a significant number of voters are holding their noses and preparing to vote for a party that they don't really think will represent them, or will govern in their interests.
The latest results come from Ipsos-Reid and reveal that almost two out of three voters think the Liberals do not deserve to be re-elected based on their performance so far.
That's a huge rebuke. The Liberals attracted 58 per cent of the popular vote in the last election. Almost half the people who voted Liberal in 2001 feel like they were let down, and that the government has not done a good enough job to be re-elected.
But despite that terrible review, the Liberals and NDP are effectively tied in the Ipsos poll, each with the support of about 40 per cent of decided voters. (The Greens are at 16 per cent; Unity and others at four per cent.)
And that means that some 100,000 voters are saying that they don't think the Liberals deserve to be re-elected, but would vote for them anyway because the NDP is even worse.
It's not just the parties that are in trouble.
About two-thirds of voters disapprove of the job Campbell is doing as premier; almost half strongly disapprove. Only eight per cent say they strongly approve of his job performance.
NDP leader Carole James fares better. Almost half of those surveyed approved of the job she is doing as leader, and only one-third disapproved.
But her approval rating has dropped eight points since the last survey. James is a relative unknown; the results suggest that voters are not being favorably impressed as they watch her perform on the political stage.
The results also show once again that voters feel pressed into voting for the lesser evil.
The poll asked voters - regardless of which party they supported - to pick the leader they thought would make the best premier.
And while only 34 per cent approved of the job Campbell has done, he still had the support of 41 per cent of decided voters as the best potential premier. James was at 37 per cent, Green leader Adriane Carr was at 14 per cent, and former Unity leader Chris Delaney was ranked as the best potential premier by seven per cent of voters.
Again, some 100,000 people who believe Campbell is doing a poor job still feel he's the best of a bad lot.
This isn't a fluke. An earlier poll found that more than half the supporters of both the Liberals and NDP said they were just picking the lesser of two evils. They didn't think their party would do a good job; they just thought the other guys would be even worse.
Parties can't perfectly mirror every voter's interests and values, and people will almost always disagree with some policies of the party they support.
But it's dangerous when voters think they have no real chance to vote for a party or leader able to deliver the kind of government that they want.
And voting becomes a discouraging experience when people leave the booth sadly convinced that even if the party they supported wins, the province will be badly governed. There is no excitement or inspiration in voting for the lesser of two evils, no confidence in the future and little reason to vote.
All governments ultimately rely on the consent of the governed. That consent is at risk when voters feel they're views and values are no longer represented by any of the parties.
Footnote: The poll showed - again - the huge divide between the Lower Mainland and the rest of the province. Outside Vancouver and its sprawl 70 per cent of voters thought Campbell was doing a bad job, and a similar number said the Liberals didn't deserve to be re-elected based on their performance so far.