Thursday, July 28, 2005

Here's what so bad - and good - about being a politician

VICTORIA - Almost 60 per cent of Canadians say there's no way they want their son or daughter to become prime minister.
And two-thirds don't want their children to go into politics at all.
The concern about being prime minister is understandable. It's a hard job.
I sat beside Jean Chretien at a dinner when he was about three years into his first term, as things were falling apart in the former Yugoslavia. It was a big problem, he said. If I send Canadian soldiers, some of them will be killed. If I don't send them, people will be massacred. Tough decision.
Chretien seemed like a decent, worried human being that night - even if things later went wrong. (I'm not a soft touch. A couple of encounters with Brian Mulroney just left me feeling like I needed a shower.)
The poll suggests a concern that goes beyond the workload and tough decisions. Elected office has become disreputable, like being a hung-over salesman in one of those used-car lots that opens on Thursday and is gone by the end of the weekend.
I write mostly about provincial politics, and the MLAs I've met have all been people who got involved because they wanted to make life better in their communities.They won the nomination because they were good organizers, and seen as smart, fair and able to bring people together. They won the election because a lot of people thought they would do the best job. Being an MLA pays $75,400; many of them took a pay cut, most abandoned careers and turned their lives upside down.
But then things fell apart.
Look at the way politicians talk about each other. Liberal cabinet ministers accuse New Democrat MLAs of wanting to drive everyone in the province on to welfare, and the New Democrats come up with equally outrageous slurs. (Stephen Harper and Paul Martin and their minions are even worse.)
If politicians treat each other with public contempt, braying their way through debates, is it any wonder that polls find that they are are held in low regard? If they say the people on the other side lack honesty, decency and compassion, why shouldn't people believe them?
I don't understand what happens to people who get elected.
They're reasonable, smart, forthright, people of integrity, respected in their communities because they listen, and can build consensus. And they get elected and lose their minds. If the premier says the sky is purple - or that the government hasn't expanded gambling - they agree.
And then there is my small role in all this. A likable Liberal asked recently - again - about why I was so hard on the government.
My columns are generally about things that have gone wrong. I figure that's your expectation as a reader. What matters to you are the problems that need to be fixed. You expect that services will be delivered competently; that's why you pay taxes. If things have gone wrong, you want to know. (I take heart from the fact that the same people now disgruntled about the columns were big fans back when the focus was on NDP missteps,)
I am possibly the last naive person working in the rather splendid legislature building. So my hope is that when the new crop of MLAs arrives in September, they'll behave in a way that reflects their personal values, and the qualities that led their fellow citizens to send them to Victoria.
That's all it would take. The next poll, in a year or two, would find a lot more parents keen on their children growing up to be politicians.
It can be a great job. We all have the chance to change a few lives.
But our elected representatives, MLAs and MPs, have the chance to change thousands, millions of lives.
Nothing in society should be more important, or more valued.
Footnote: The real issue may be around MLAs' divided loyalties, between the people in the riding who elected them, and the premier who has so much control over their ability to be effective. And the real solution may lie in the kind of electoral reform that 58 per cent of British Columbians supported in the May referendum. Campbell's response is expected within the next few months.

Bingo hall slots rake in cash, promote addictions

VICTORIA - The B.C. government's push to create more losers is going well.
Gambling losers, that is.
The government has set out to increase both the number of gamblers, and their individual losses.
The numbers are just in on the latest tactic, locating addictive slot machines in community bingo halls around the province.
It's working. The BC Lottery Corp. reports that in the first four months after slots appeared in the Williams Lake bingo hall, people lost $2.4 million to the machines. Down in Kelowna, people lost $400,000 in three weeks after slots hit the bingo hall - $20,000 a day, or a forecast $7 million this year.
The lottery corporation is keen on slots in bingo halls. Slots and VLTs- the crack cocaine of gambling - are the same machines. The difference in location. And bingo halls, with liquor licences and restaurants, are a way to get the machines into more communities.
The local governments are wooed by a lottery corporation sales effort, and the promise of 10 per cent of the losses. And they're reminded that if they say no, BC Lotteries might put the slots in the next town down the road.
The communities are making the leap with little information on the social and economic damage. That $2.4 million that people lost in Williams Lake is money that they might have spent on local services and entertainment (or in some cases to buy groceries for their families). That economic benefit is gone, because the mini-casino business generates few jobs and sends most of the money down to Victoria.
Communities are left with the social costs - the lost jobs, broken families, crime. ("The people it hurts most are the ones we have a responsibility to protect, such as the poor, women and abused families," said Kamloops MLA Kevin Krueger in opposition. He's been quiet on the plan to put slots in small communities; the bingo hall in Kamloops added 50 slot machines in March.)
The public knows the risks. The government has just released a "baseline study" to begin tracking the effects of gambling in the Lower Mainland. (A little late, you might say.)
It surveyed residents, and found 55 per cent of people believed the harm from gambling outweighs any benefits; only 18 per cent said the benefits were worth the costs.
But governments are hooked, consciously choosing to trade a certain number of casualties for more money.
The B.C. government, through the lottery corporation, has a plan to lure more people into gambling. In 2003, 58 per cent of British Columbians gambled through the corporation. The government plans to recruit enough new gamblers to push that to 67 per cent 2007. That means about 360,000 more people lured into gambling, by ad campaigns, increasingly accessible slots and now Internet betting.
Lots of them will just lose a few dollars. But a new Canada West Foundation study found that 6.9 per cent of British Columbians are either problem gamblers, or at risk. That means that the government's gambling recruitment efforts could spell disaster for some 25,000 families. (The study also found that, despite increased funding , only Newfoundland spends less per capita on problem gambling treatment and prevention.)
All this will be damaging to individuals, and communities. That's why Campbell ran in 2001 on a promise to "stop the expansion of gambling that has increased gambling addiction and put new strains on families."
But the money counts more. So the government has pushed the number and availability of slots. There were 2,400 when the Liberals were elected, now there are 6,600. There were 10 locations with the machines. Now there are 21, with another half-dozen on their way this year.
It's allowed gambling on the Internet, and alcohol and ATMs in casinos and bingo halls.
All this is working. The government is on track to almost double its take to more than $1 billion a year.
The damaged and lost lives are just the price it has chosen to pay.
Footnote: B.C. has avoided the destructive trap of allowing VLTs, called the crack cocaine of gambling. But the only difference between a slot machine and a VLT is location - VLTs are slots in bars or stores. The machines are designed to be addictive, with those bells and lights and occasional payouts all aimed at keeping gamblers on their stools.

Monday, July 25, 2005

A child is dead, and three years later big questions remain

VICTORIA - Little Sherry Charlie shouldn’t have died.
The Port Alberni toddler was battered to death days after being placed in a foster home.
The man who beat her, the father in the home, had a long and violent criminal record. He was on probation for assaulting his spouse.
The children’s ministry knew there was a risk. It had already investigated concerns about the well-being of other children in the home.
But the ministry, and the First Nations agency that arranged the placement, both failed Sherry. And a little girl - 19 months old - died a terrible death.
Bad things happen. And in the difficult world of the ministry of children and families, some things will inevitably go very wrong.
When they do, the public needs quick, complete answers, to help avoid future errors. We are the ones responsible.
It took the government almost three years to release a report on her death. There were reasons for some delays. But taking three years to report on the death of a child is inexcusable.
When the report was finally released, the public got a five-page summary - prepared by the ministry - which left huge unanswered questions. The actual report, still secret, was almost 50 pages long.
The summary confirms that Sherry shouldn’t have died. It reveals that the ministry and Usma Nuu Chah Nulth Community and Human Services made major mistakes.
But while it offers up some facts, it does not provide needed answers.
The Nuu Chah Nulth agency, acting on the authority of the ministry, placed Sherry in the home of her uncle, the man convicted of manslaughter in her death. (The ministry believes - rightly - that placing a child with family is preferable to foster care with non-relatives.)
The agency had not done a criminal record check. It had done only one reference check before Sherry and her few possessions were dropped off at the home.
Why not more diligence? The summary doesn’t provide the needed answers. The agency may have violated ministry policies, the summary says. But it adds that the agency staff thought the policies were just guidelines.There was no training in the new rules. Nobody really knew what it all meant.
Why not? Was the ministry unclear? Were things happening too fast? Was there no money for training? Did the push to find family placements take priority over proper checks? Those questions aren’t answered in the skimpy summary.
When the First Nations agency did try to to get information, the ministry failed.
The agency asked the ministry to check its files to see if there were any issues with the prospective foster family.
There were. The ministry had information about past concerns in the same home. But it didn’t disclose them to the First Nations agency.
The summary says only that the failure was “inadvertent.” But why did it happen? Are ministry files incomplete? Was the worker too overloaded to check? Was training inadequate? No answers.
In the 15 days Sherry was in the home before she died, were there any follow-up visits to see how how was she doing? The ministry summary doesn’t say.
All this matters because we need to know if the problem has been fixed. If frontline workers are prevented from doing their job because budget cuts have left them with too many clients, and too few resources, we need to know. If training is inadequate, or systems don’t work, we need to know that.
Three years after Sherry’s death the only completed review has been done by the ministry - an obvious conflict of interest. The public still doesn’t have answers to basic questions.
The immediate solution is simple - release the full review, edited to protect individuals’ privacy rights.
The real answer is to bring back the Children’s Commission, eliminated by the Liberals, and restore effective independent review of the ministry.
Sherry didn’t have to die this way. At least let’s make her death mean something.
Footnote: The ministry contracted with Nicholas Simons, then employed with a First Nations service provider on the Sunshine Coast, to conduct the still-secret review. Simons is now the newly elected NDP MLA from the area, an indication of how long this has taken - and that the government can expect informed questions when the legislature resumes sitting in September.