Friday, October 22, 2004

Government rush leaves your privacy at risk

VICTORIA - Mostly, it comes down to trust and common sense when your government says it has a plan to protect your privacy from a powerful neighbour.
The BC Liberals have - after almost no debate or public consultation - just passed a law that they say will protect British Columbians' privacy from the extraordinary provisions of the USA Patriot Act.
You should be skeptical.
This issue came up in the spring, when the Liberals decided they could save money by contracting out the administration of the Medical Services Plan and Pharmacare. The idea was to hire a private company - one that already had the software needed - and save a lot of money.
That's reasonable, with the right safeguards.
But the BC Government Employees' Union raised an alarm. In the wake of 911, the U.S. government had passed the USA Patriot Act. It pulls any companies with significant operations in America into the service of the U.S. government. They are required to hand over any information they have, on people anywhere in the world, over to the FBI, and they're forbidden to tell anyone.
So if the B.C. contracting went ahead, the U.S. government could download your medical records, your credit rating, the prescription drugs you and your children used, and plunk them into a database that would pop up the next time you decide to do a weekend in Washington State.
Why would they want to? Mostly because they can. People who have access to information want to gather and use it. It may prove useful, and it certainly justifies someone's job.
Don't worry, say the Liberals. We think we've fixed the problem with a new B.C. law. Trust us.
But trust has already been shaken. When the government appeared ready to contract out the MSP records to a U.S. company this spring, the BCGEU warned of the privacy risk. Health Minister Colin Hansen was dismissive: "The privacy of information is not compromised in the least way possible," he said then.
He was wrong. The privacy of information would be compromised, dramatically, as the government was later forced to admit.
The government still wanted to go ahead with the MSP/Pharmacare deal with Maximus Inc. of Arizona. So it has just passed legislation that is supposed to protect your private information from the reach of the Patriot Act. Companies and government would be barred from storing information outside Canada, or disclosing it. If they were asked for information by foreign government, they would have to report the request.
That leaves big companies with a choice. Obey the B.C. law. Or obey the USA Patriot Act.
This is where common sense comes in.
Because the choice is no choice at all. Disobey the Patriot Act and companies risk serious penalties, the loss of huge contracts and possible political problems in the United States, the world's largest economy. Disobey the B.C. law, and you pay a fine.
Which option would you choose when the FBI came calling?
What's most alarming is the government's baffling rush to pass this bill.
B.C. Privacy Commissioner David Loukidelis is weeks away from delivering a major report on the implications of the Patriot Act, and an assessment of the risks. He has received submissions from corporations and governments, and the best advice.
But the B.C. government has rushed through this legislation. It's not retroactive, so there's no need for haste. Delay doesn't increase the risk.
The obvious conclusion is that the government is in a big hurry to get on with contracting our information to U.S. corporations.
Privacy is a significant issue in these days of supercomputers and global networks. Your business - what you tell your doctor, how your children are doing, what you own and what you owe - should be your business.
It's important. and by rushing through a law, without the privacy commissioner's report., the government has failed to recognize the value British Columbians place on their right to personal privacy.
Footnote: How many questions or suggestions from Liberal MLAs as the changes moved through the legislature? Sadly, none. I would have expected backbenchers to have suggestions or questions about the details of the legislation that's supposed to stand behind your privacy and the FBI's appetite for information.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Tax cut good news, and timely for Liberals' byelection hopes

VICTORIA - Call me cynical, but it seems like a heck of a coincidence that the Liberals decided to offer up a sales tax cut days before a hotly contested Surrey byelection.
But leave that aside for now.
The first thing to note is that this is good news.
Knocking the sales tax from 7.5 per cent to seven per cent will cost the government about $280 million a year, which means that the average British Columbian will be about $70 ahead of the game. Not a huge amount, but a good deal for families, especially ones that are spending most of their income on life's basics.
And the second thing - leaving aside lingering concerns about the Liberals' reckless first day tax cuts and the resulting huge deficits - is that the government can afford to roll back the sales tax increase it imposed in 2002. The economy is doing well enough to generate more revenue for governments.
After that, it's time to start ticking off some concerns.
Premier Gordon Campbell denied the sales tax cut had anything to do with next Thursday's byelection in Surrey-Panorama Ridge. The latest poll suggests that the Liberals and NDP are effectively tied, given the Liberals a shot at being the first governing party to win a byelection in B.C. since 1981.
Finance Minister Gary Collins said the government wasn't sure it could afford to reduce the tax until last week, so couldn't have given you a break any earlier.
And he wanted to make the cut through legislation introduced in the House, and feared that the fall sitting might end within days. That made it risky to wait any longer, he said. (That was a surprise; the schedule calls for the sitting to last until the end of November.)
It's an argument that's impossible to refute. But the government tabled its latest financial update five weeks ago, and it projected a surplus this year of more than $1 billion. The tax cut will cost the government about $130 million for the rest of this fiscal year. If the aim was to get money in your pocket as quickly as possible, there was room to do the cut earlier. And never in B.C. history has this kind of change been made outside of the normal budget process.
Then there's the matter of the legislative committee that has been touring the province, gathering information on what should be done with the coming surpluses. They've heard a range of suggestions. Some people want to use all the money to pay down the province's debt, others want to see tax cuts of various types. And some would like the surpluses spent to restore services, or reduce surgical wait lists.
The committee is scheduled to report in a few weeks. It would have been useful to see what they learned about the wishes of British Columbians before the decision to cut the tax was made.
Collins disagrees, and says there is wide agreement that rolling back the sales tax increase should be a priority.
What's ahead, one of the media pack asked Campbell in a rare press conference. If you'll cut the sales tax by one-half a percentage point in the middle of a byelection campaign, how big will the tax cuts be in the actual election budget next February?
The premier said the budget would be based on the Liberals' existing plans.
But the plans don't contemplate the kind of surpluses that are now on the horizon. The government has room to provide adequate funding to the ministry of children and families, or effectively wipe out health care waiting lists.
Or to cut the sales tax rate in half over the next three years.
Your reaction to this cut will help decide where the money goes.
Footnote: Tax changes are supposed to be secret until they are presented to the legislature, to make sure that no one profits from advance notice. Collins announced the cut at 2:12 p.m. By 2:14 p.m. Retail BC had a press release out praising the move. The association denied any advance notice, and said they had the release ready to go in case of an announcement.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Liberals fumble questions about on-line betting

VICTORIA - A surreal day at the legislature.
The cabinet minister for gambling says he has no opinion on whether gambling has expanded in B.C. over the last three years.
The cabinet minister for addictions refuses to answer questions on gambling addiction. That's not my responsibility, she says.
Gambling addiction, it turns out, is the responsibility of - yes, you guessed it - the minister responsible for creating more gamblers.
Even the Liberal backbenchers - generally a pretty enthusiastic bunch when it comes to pounding their desks any time a cabinet minister answers a question - seemed dismayed. The best they could manage was a few tentative taps.
The Liberals were trying to answer NDP questions about why they had introduced Internet gambling.
For the money, obviously. There's no public policy reason for encouraging people to bet on sports events from their homes, no community lobby demanding that people be encouraged to gamble from their home computer.
The Liberal election campaign platform included a promise to rein in gambling in B.C.
Gordon Campbell - and a raft of other Liberals - spoke out against gambling in opposition. He promised, in writing, that a Liberal government would "stop the expansion of gambling that has increased gambling addiction and put strains on families."
They have done the opposite.
There were 2,400 slot machines in 10 casinos when the Liberals took over. They've doubled the number of slots in three years, and are on track towards more than 8,000 of the machines by the end of next year.
Slot machines were restricted to casinos; now the government is pushing them into community bingo halls.
When the Liberals took over, gambling netted the province $560 million - money taken from losing bettors. This year it will be more than $850 million, and they're planning on cracking $1 billion.
The Liberals have moved casinos to 24-hour operation, raised betting limits, allowed alcohol to be served on the casino floor.
And now they have become the second jurisdiction in North America to move gambling on to the Internet.
Just selling lottery tickets on-line, Solicitor General Rich Coleman told the legislature, a less-than-accurate description of the BC Lottery Corp. initiative. People are able to bet on sports events, and the corporation has introduced a new "game" just for web gamblers who want to bet on football. Those bets can only be placed through the website, a dandy traffic-building measure. (The lottery corporation made a pitch to take betting online during the NDP years, and was told to forget it.)
So, given all that, have the Liberals broken their promise to "stop the expansion of gambling that has increased gambling addiction and put strains on families." Have they in fact expanded gambling?
Coleman says some people may think so.
But what do you think, a reporter asked.
"I don't really have an opinion," said Coleman, responsible for gambling policy and for dealing with gambling addiction in B.C.
Come on. People aren't stupid. Twice as many slots, on-line betting, mega-casinos, VLTs in bingo halls, another $300 million in profits from losers.
That's expanded gambling.
It's equally weird that Brenda Locke, the junior minister for mental health and addictions, isn't responsible for gambling addictions. Some 160,000 people in B.C. are problem gamblers. Their problem is, according to the experts, like any other addiction.
Not my responsibility, says Locke. Coleman - responsible for increasing gambling revenues - is also responsible for reducing and treating gambling addiction. (That's much like putting the tobacco manufacturers in charge of reducing smoking.)
So what did they have to say, those Liberals who used to be so strongly opposed to gambling expansion on principle and on practical grounds? Kevin Krueger, for example, was once a fierce gambling critic who urged NDP backbenchers to stand up to their government on the issue. What did he say now?
Krueger - like the rest of the Liberal MLAs - said nothing at all.
Footnote: The BC Lottery Corp. web site attempts to bar people under 19 from betting. Coleman was vague in the method, but it appears that if you enter your name the corporation launches quick electronic searches of other databases to gather information about you. Expect some privacy concerns to be raised..