Friday, January 06, 2006

To solve the gun problem, overhaul our drug policy

VICTORIA - The Conservatives, Liberals and New Democrats are falling all over themselves to get tough on gun crime.
And both parties are missing the real problem.
To deal with guns, you have to deal with gangs. And to deal with gangs, you need to make the drug trade less profitable. Nothing that has been proposed by the parties will do that.
Despite the Boxing Day killing in Toronto and several gang shootings in Vancouver, the rate of gun deaths has steadily declined over the last 20 years. When the final numbers are in, forest industry accidents in B.C.will likely have claimed more people than gun violence in 2005.
But the concern is legitimate. Gun deaths are down across Canada, but in centres like Toronto and Vancouver they are rising. There were likely about 100 murders in B.C. this year - the numbers are still being tallied - with three-quarters in the Lower Mainland. Vancouver police report they are dealing with about six per cent more gun incidents each year.
Without effective action, the problem will spill into Victoria and Kelowna and Prince George.
Guns aren't a problem across the urban centres. In Vancouver, young IndoCanadian men have been doing much of the shooting, and dying. In Toronto, it is young black men. The common link is an involvement in gangs.
That's who has the guns, police say, gang members and wannabes.
The Conservatives propose longer mandatory minimum sentences, an end to early parole release and more police. The increased policing, if targeted, will help. The other measures are costly and largely ineffective.
That didn't stop the Liberals from joining the 'get-tough' bandwagon this week. (We're no soft Pollyannas, Justice Minister Irwin Cotler proclaimed this week as the party flip-flopped on mandatory minimum sentences.)
This kind of talk may be good politics, but it's lousy policy.
The people who drive into a neighbourhood and spray a house with bullets already risk serious jail time. They are not given to assessing consequences, so longer prison terms aren’t going to make much difference.
The priority in tackling the gun problem should be eliminating gangs, or at least reducing their power and allure.
And without the big profits from drugs, the gangs could not exist. Young men may still hang around together, and do crime. But without the drug money, they would be a nuisance, not a threat. (The deadly Boxing Day gunfight in Toronto was reportedly over drug turf.)
Prohibition in the U.S. created Al Capone and his rivals, who turned streets into war zones over the big profits. We're creating the same kind of problem with our drug policies.
People who need and want an illegal drug - alcohol, heroin, marijuana - will get it. Criminals will take advantage of the opportunity to supply the market; the more difficult it becomes, the higher the prices and the more profitable the business.
The theory that aggressive enforcement can drive suppliers from the market has been proven wrong. Drug enforcement efforts have cost Canadians more than $2 billion over the last five years. And illegal drugs are easier to get, stronger and cheaper than ever. Attacking the supply has failed over decades, in many countries.
Instead governments should be tackling the demand side. Effective education to reduce the number of young people starting drugs. A massive investment in detox and treatment and support so people can quit, and stay off.
And legalization in various forms to end the hunt for drugs and money that consumes many addicts, and rob the gangs of their profits. Provide controlled heroin supplies and addicts can stabilize their lives, while gangs lose billions in profits that fund their enterprise. Allow possession of a dozen marijuana plants, and gang-run grow ops lose their domestic market.
The drug trade drives this problem. It's the reason gangs can form and thrive, and they're responsible for the rise in gun crime.
After years of failure, surely it's time for politicians to start talking about an approach that could actually work.
Footnote: Switzerland conducted a widely reported experiment in which 1,100 addicts received free heroin. During the test there was a massive reduction in criminal activity by the drug users and an increase in employment -- and not one overdose death. More than 80 people quit drugs while using free legal heroin.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

B.C. voters will decide if Harper or Martin rules

VICTORIA - There's a good chance that a British Columbia voter is going to decide whether we have a Liberal or Conservative minority government.
A lot can change, but the polls suggest an extraordinarily close election, with the two main parties looking at about 115 seats each. They need 159 for a majority.
That means that Paul Martin and Stephen Harper will have to wait until the polls close in B.C. before they find who will be prime minister. Voters in about 20 ridings here will decide which party forms the next government.
That's why you're seeing the party leaders so often. B.C. only has 36 seats to Ontario's 106, but this time each one matters. And 22 of the races in B.C. are too close to call today, with seven of them so tight that any of the three main parties could win. There are potentially critical races in every part of the province.
The Conservatives have a lock on most of the Interior and North, but even in those regions there are some battles. The New Democrats hope Nathan Cullen will hang on to Skeena-Bulkley Valley, one of their five seats, but the Conservatives have a high-profile candidate in two-term Reform MP Mike Scott.
And the New Democrats are looking to make a gain in Southern Interior, where they lost by about 700 votes in 2004. Their candidate, Alex Atamaenko is running again. Conservative incumbent Jim Gouk is retiring, and Derek Zeisman - hurt in a campaign car crash - is attempting to hold the seat for them.
But the biggest battlegrounds will be in the Lower Mainland and on Vancouver Island.
On the Island, New Democrat Jean Crowder is a solid bet to hold on to her Nanaimo-Cowichan seat. But the other five ridings are up for grabs. The Liberals hope Keith Martin can win again in Esquimalt, and that newcomer David Mulroney can hang on to David Anderson's Victoria seat. But in those ridings and across the Island the races are too close to call.
That's also true for many of the 21 seats in the Lower Mainland. Liberals David Emerson, Stephen Owen and Ujjal Dosanjh are likely safe. The Conservatives are counting on wins in Fraser Valley ridings and the New Democrats can count on Libby Davies winning in Vancouver East.
That leaves 14 Lower Mainland ridings too close to call, with all three parties having legitimate hopes . Former NDP provincial cabinet minister Penny Priddy has a good shot at replacing Chuck Cadman in Surrey North, thanks to an endorsement from Cadman's widow. Conservative Cindy Silver - of Focus on the Family fame - hopes to topple Liberal Don Bell in North Vancouver. Liberal insider Billy Cunningham hopes to knock off one-term New Democrat MP Bill Siksay.
The politicians have seen the importance of B.C. Martin was in Vancouver and Victoria this week, announcing plans to reduce the $975 fee that immigrants are charged, a move entirely aimed at winning back voters in Vancouver's multicultural community.
It's a volatile situation, and one that's hard to read.
Most voters seem polarized between those disgusted with the Liberals, and those afraid of the Conservatives. That means we will see more strategic voting. If voters are not enthusiastic about any party, their goal can be to block the most objectionable one.
That's a challenge for all parties, but especially the New Democrats. Liberal Sheila Orr is hoping to make up a 5,000-vote deficit to topple Gary Lunn in Saanich-Gulf Islands. Her best bet is convince some of the 14,000 NDP voters that they have a chance to prevent a Harper government, simply by voting Liberal. The New Democrats have to battle to avoid being squeezed into irrelevance.
It's good news for the province, which is getting extraordinary attention from all the parties.
And it shifts the pressure on to you. Your vote may well choose the next prime minister of Canada.
Footnote: This will be the year of strategic voting. Candidates have to establish their credibility as serious contenders, or risk seeing their support drift away. If a riding is seen as a two-way race, the third candidate is in big trouble as supporters opt to make their votes matter.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Haggard got $81,000 from taxpayers between campaigns

VICTORIA - Dave Haggard turned out to be one of the fainter star candidates on the Liberals' BC Dream Team in 2004, coming third in the election.
But all was not lost. Months after the vote, the federal cabinet government hired Haggard on a $9,000-a-month contract to write a report on apprenticeship. The former IWA union head was paid $81,000 between January and October, and then started to prepare for another run as a Liberal candidate in tis election.
It all shows quite breathtaking contempt for the public.
The Liberals recruit a candidate and parachute him into a riding. The voters reject him, and the Martin team uses taxpayers' money to pay him until it's time to try again, in a different riding.
No patronage or payoff here, says Haggard. Just the happy coincidence that he was the best person in Canada to prepare a report on apprenticeship issues. The pay - $108,000 on an annual basis - wasn't that great, less than he used to make as IWA president, he adds.
Haggard told the Vancouver Sun he did a first-rate job, talking to 275 stakeholders and delivering his report to Human Resources Minister Belinda Stronach. You can't actually judge how useful or necessary the report was, because it hasn't been released. Haggard blames the bureaucracy and Stronach's inexperience for the delay.
The whole affair leaves two questions. Do the Liberals think we're stupid? Or has the Martin team just decided that it doesn't matter what they do, as long as they can convince people that Stephen Harper and the Conservatives would be worse?
It's simply insulting to claim that politics and patronage weren't involved. The study could have been done by government employees. The work could have been awarded fairly, going to the best, most experienced contractor. Instead it went to a failed Liberal candidate, one the Liberal wheels in the province had wooed.
The decision to recruit Haggard for the Dream Teams shows how far out of touch the Liberals are. He's apparently supposed to help them woo leftish voters from the NDP, especially people with strong union sympathies.
But most people interested in a strong and democratic labour movement see Haggard and the IWA as partners with the provincial Liberal government in attacking unionized health care workers.
The BC Liberals wanted to privatize support services in hospitals and care homes. They thought the workers were overpaid, and that the best way to deal with the situation was to fire them - after using legislation to remove all job protection from their existing union agreements - and contract the work out to private companies which would hire new workers at lower wages, with poorer benefits and no protection.
But the health authorities that had to execute the plan were still worried. The private companies might be able to hire people at 30-per-cent lower wages. But then those employees might decide to join join a union -- perhaps even join the HEU -- and seek higher rates.
Haggard and his union saved the day for the employers. The IWA sat down with the three main companies bidding for the privatized work and - before employees were hired - agreed to contracts that provided low wages and few benefits. Job applicants had to sign an IWA membership card if they wanted a job interview.
The IWA got a big jump in dues revenue, including some unprecedented payments. The companies got contracts that they liked.
The employees got the shaft. They were denied the right to decide if they even wanted a union, or which one it should be. They were locked into an agreement they never approved, paying dues to a union they never chose.
Haggard and the IWA, now part of the United Steelworkers, were scorned by most people in the union movement for betraying the employees' rights. It hardly makes him an appealing candidate.
The Liberals didn't get that, just as they didn't get that the $81,000 contract for a failed candidate was simply wrong.
Footnote: Haggard stands little chance of success. He's running against New Democrat Libby Davies, who won by almost 13,000 votes in 2004. Former provincial cabinet minister Joyce Murray is carrying the Liberal banner in New Westminster, where Haggard ran last time and is given a good chance of success.