Friday, June 10, 2005

Liberals trip over 10-per-cent MLA raise

VICTORIA – It’s probably not a good sign when a new government stumbles in its first day on the job.
The Liberal caucus, old hands and first-time MLAs, headed to the legislature for their first caucus meeting last week. They took the oath of office in the impressive red-carpeted chamber, posing for pictures and leaving with their official MLA lapel pins, an especially handy identifier until security guards learn to recognize their faces.
During a break, the media-shy Gordon Campbell held a press conference in his office. Asked about raises for MLAs by an alert Canadian Press reporter, he allowed that the things have changed.
Liberal MLAs took a five-per-cent pay cut in their base pay in 2002, a gesture that saved government about $300,000 a year. MLAs’ pay increases each year based on the consumer price index and average weekly wages. The Liberals turned those down as well.
But it’s a new legislature, Campbell said, and time to end the restraint.
Just don’t call it a pay increase. "They didn't get a pay raise," Campbell insisted. "It's a signal that this is a new legislature. They took a cut for four years."
Some reporters left the premier’s office thinking Liberal MLAs had got a five-per-cent raise.
But no. Reverse the five-per-cent rollback, and add in the annual increase the Liberals had forsaken, and the real increase is 10.1 per cent. Liberal MLAs were paid a base of $68,500. Now they’ll get an extra $135 a week – before taxes – or $75,400 a year.
And while Campbell might not consider that a raise, most of us would think a bigger cheque every two weeks equals a pay increase.
The catch-up had to come. New Democrats Joy MacPhail and Jenny Kwan didn’t join in the Liberals’ gesture. The prospect that the 33 New Democrat MLAs would be paid 10.1 per cent more than their Liberal counterparts is bizarre.
But it seemed a bumbling, catch us if you can way to get the information out. Why not a proper, informative release with the new pay rate, supported by the argument that the government can now afford to pay MLAs a bit more?
There are consequences to that position. Government workers who have accepted a wage freeze – or seen contracting out and wage cuts - would wonder if they too were due for big catch-up raises.
As the MLAs filed into the red-carpeted chamber, I wasn’t thinking about their rate of pay, and I’m sure they weren’t either.
It’s a big deal to be elected as the representative from your region. A big honor, a big responsibility and a big day.
And generally, the job represents a big sacrifice. MLAs – especially in smaller communities – are constantly on call. They are away from home for about one-quarter of the year. They abandon their career. The have zero job security, and a mediocre pension. And many take a big pay cut to serve.
Whatever the party, or the quirks of the individual, we owe them. And of all the shots at provincial politicians, the most unfair and ridiculous is the claim they are in it for the money. Some would make three times as much in another job; all of them are making large trade-offs. The pay is not bad, but I’m not sure it is enough for what we expect from these people.
I suppose a few MLAs were wondering that as well when they learned that Jeff Bray, the former Liberal MLA defeated by NDP leader Carole James, would be paid more than $90,000 in his new job as executive director of the Liberal caucus. It’s a rare job market where defeat means a 35-per-cent pay jump.
The Liberals did a poor job of presenting the MLAs’ pay raise.
But don’t let that affect your attitude towards your own representative. These people – NDP and Liberal – have taken on a tough job, and deserve full credit.
Footnote: Campbell got lots of cheering and applause when he strode in to the caucus meeting. But the 46 MLAs this time couldn’t make quite as much noise as the 77 elected in 2001. And not all the defeated Liberals share the enthusiasm for the Liberal campaign effort.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Government betrayed public in salmon-cancer scandal

VICTORIA - The B.C. government discovered in March that salmon from a fish farm were contaminated with malachite green, a cancer-causing fungicide.
By the time fisheries ministry tests found the problem, Stolt Sea Farms had already sent about 100 tonnes to stores and restaurants, in Canada, the U.S. and Asia.
But no one from the ministry, or the company, thought that was something you should know about as you shopped for groceries.
The provincial government notified the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. But although federal regulations ban the sale of food products with any malachite green contamination, the agency decided this was only a Class 2 health risk, which meant no public recall was needed. The Class 2 assessment means the agency decided that at worst eating the fish would "lead to temporary or non-life-threatening health consequences, or that the probability of serious adverse consequences is considered remote."
Stolt was told to try and get the salmon back. No one told you anything.
Ultimately about one-third of the fish made it on to people's plates, some 200,000 servings, laced with a carcinogen.
I accept the agency's analysis of the small health risk. While Canada and the U.S. don't allow any malachite green contamination, Japan allows five parts per billion, and the European Union two parts per billion. The highest contamination in the tested fish was 1.3 parts per billion. If you were Swiss, you could be eating more fungicide with every farmed salmon dinner. There was likely no harm done.
Unless you count the damage to the basic trust between citizen and government.
The provincial and federal governments knew that contaminated farmed salmon was on the market. But they chose not to tell you.
We tend to worry that the state will turn into Big Brother in active ways, peering into our lives, telling us what to do, limiting our freedoms.
But Big Brother can crush our basic right to control our lives simply by withholding information.
Lots of people would happily barbecue the contaminated salmon.
But others people spend money on bottled water, and shop out healthy foods. And those people were betrayed by governments that denied them the information they needed to make an informed choice. They ate food that they would never have knowingly consumed.
It's not in the public interest to keep this information secret. You benefit from the facts, and the chance to make your own decisions.
So why the secrecy?
The governments may have placed the interests of the company, or the industry, ahead of the consumer. The provincial Liberals may have recognized that an announcement that contaminated farmed salmon were on the market would hurt their election chances. (They lost every seat with a significant fish farming industry anyway.) And of course incompetence and bad judgment should never ruled out as a cause.
But the end result was that both governments knew people were buying salmon laced with a substance banned because it's a cancer risk.
And they didn't tell you.
I've been a booster of aquaculture. The science I've seen suggests that done right, and properly regulated, fish farms can provide jobs and produce a valuable commodity, without unreasonable consequences. (I expect a beating from Rafe Mair in our Monday morning radio session for that paragraph.)
But the actions of government, and the companies, have made the industry almost impossible to defend.
Stolt is part of the world's largest aquaculture company. Its managers and PR consultants should know that since 1982, and the Tylenol tampering deaths, the correct crisis response for any corporation has been clear. Acknowledge the issue. Tell people what you are doing about it. Err on the side of caution.
Stolt didn't the public. And it still hopes to sell the contaminated fish overseas.
But the real betrayal is by both governments. They knew contaminated fish were being sold, and chose not to tell you.
And that raises the obvious question - how often have governments put the interest of the industry ahead of the public?
Footnote: The industry faces other challenges, over sea lice and the spread of disease to wild stocks. Next week's cabinet shuffle will likely see a new minister on the file, and perhaps a hiving off of the fisheries component of the agriculture, food and fisheries ministry.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Police complaints commissioner handcuffed by weak law

VICTORIA - Watch for an early showdown between Wally Oppal and Rich Coleman over the need for effective civilian oversight of police departments.
Police Complaints Commissioner Dirk Ryneveld has just delivered his report on 55 complaints against the Vancouver police department.
It's grim reading. A 14-month independent RCMP investigation substantiated nine cases of police misconduct.
That's not the worrying part. Nine cases aren't so bad, really, given the workload of the Vancouver police. Unacceptable, but not shocking.
What is shocking is the way the current provincial legislation lets a police force evade civilian oversight. The Vancouver department, its chief and the union have basically told the complaints commissioner to get lost, exploiting the weakness in the law.
The office of the police complaints commission was established in 1998, largely due to a review done by Oppal. Under the new system people who were unhappy with the police would still go first to their local department with concerns.
But if they felt their complaints had been ignored they could go to the commissioner and ask for a review.
Great theory, and one that is widely supported. We ask police to take on difficult assignments, and allow them great powers. It's reasonable and necessary that those powers be balanced with accountability.
But that is not the way the Vancouver police force sees it, according to Ryneveld's report. In the case of these complaints, officers -- with the support of Chief Jamie Graham -- refused to be interviewed by the RCMP investigators.
It's part of a pattern. When the commissioner investigated the death of Jeffrey Berg after he was arrested by Vancouver police, the department stalled in providing critical evidence. When the Victoria police were asked to review the death of Robert Bagnell, after he was Tasered by the Vancouver police, they threatened to walk away from the investigation because of the lack of co-operation from the Vancouver department.
The government knows the law needs strengthening. In his first annual report, released more than a year ago, Ryneveld called for legislative changes to make the system work.
But even before that, the problems were evident. Ryneveld's predecessor resigned amid great controversy. Investigations have been tied up in procedural wrangling, undermining public confidence in the process, and the police. (The probe into police actions at the "Riot at the Hyatt" was stalled for five years because of costly legal battles.)
Ryneveld reported that the legislation governing the commission was "one of the main obstacles to effective performance of our duties."
"It is unclear, ambiguous and does not provide adequate remedies to the office of the police complaints commissioner to ensure effective civilian oversight," he wrote.
Ryneveld recommended the law be changed to make it clear that the commissioner can launch an independent fact-finding investigation if the initial internal police investigation appears flawed.
Without it, he added in his annual report, "the concept of civilian oversight is severely compromised."
And Ryneveld wanted the law changed to make it clear that he's an independent officer of the legislature, and not an employee of the solicitor general.
Coleman brushed off the concerns last year, without offering any arguments against the proposed changes.
But Oppal -- then still a Supreme Court justice -- backed Ryneveld's recommendations for change, agreeing they were needed to ensure effective civilian oversight of police.
And now both men will be in cabinet, quite possibly squaring off over this issue.
It's not just a Vancouver issue. Ryneveld notes in his latest report that other police forces across the province have co-operated with his office. But without clear and effective accountability provisions in the law, that co-operation will always be uncertain.
An effective complaint commission is important for police and the public. Both need confidence in the fairness and effectiveness of the process.
Ryneveld has already made the case for change.
The latest investigation into the Vancouver police department is a strong case for change. The Liberals should be listening, and acting.
Footnote: Ryneveld's opinions aren't easily dismissed. He was a veteran Crown prosecutor in Victoria before taking a leave to help prosecute people accused of war crimes at The Hague. He has worked effectively with police officers through his career. He is not, in short, some unrealistic alarmist.