Thursday, March 09, 2006

Harper and Brison, and the Ottawa common sense black hole

VICTORIA - A Conservative prime minister who thinks he's king, and a Liberal would-be prime minister who lacks common sense and judgment.
Ah, Ottawa.
First Stephen Harper. The new prime minister is continuing to show his contempt for federal Ethics Commissioner Bernard Shapiro in a disturbingly regal way.
Shapiro has not had a successful tenure since being named the first ethics commissioner almost two years ago. He's been criticized for bumbling and censured by Parliament. NDP accountability guru Ed Broadbent has called for his resignation.
But he's in the job, representing the public and attempting to enforce ethics guidelines. As part of that job, he has opened an investigation into whether Harper broke the conflict rules by offering David Emerson an improper inducement to join the Conservatives.
Harper says he won't co-operate. The prime minister has an absolute right to name cabinet members, he says, and anyway Shapiro's a Liberal appointee and he should just go away.
Harper was equally dismissive when Shapiro attempted to investigate efforts by the Martin government to woo Gurmant Grewal. He was the only player who refused to co-operate, or even be interviewed by the commissioner. He sent his communications director.
it shows a pattern of quite blatant contempt for the ethics' rules and the accountability system that govern every other member of Parliament.
It's one thing to make the legal argument that the prime minister is above scrutiny in this area.
But it's quite another to say the prime minister can simply ignore the ethics' commissioner when he feels like it.
And Harper's position also counts as a clear broken promise. The Conservative campaign platform promised to strengthen the commissioner's role. "Stephen Harper will . . . prevent the prime minister from overruling the ethics commissioner on whether the prime minister, a minister, or an official is in violation of the conflict of interest code."
Harper can fire Shapiro, presumably paying severance since his term has three years to run. Or could launch an expensive - to taxpayers - legal challenge.
But the notion that he can simply exempt himself from reviews he doesn't like is sadly undemocratic.
Meanwhile prospective Liberal leadership candidate Scott Brison's hopes are unwinding as a result of the fallout from the income trust scandal.
Brison was a Liberal cabinet minister last November, when the government was considering what to do about income trusts. The news was hugely important to investment types, who could make big profits - at others' expense - if they could suss out the government's decision in advance.
On Nov. 22, Brison exchanged emails with an acquaintance, an investment banker at CIBC who specialized in income trusts, and asked how the banker was doing.
"Things are good except of course for the government bringing the equity markets to a standstill," the banker replied, referring to the long delayed income trust decision.
Brison replied immediately. "You will be happier very soon . . . this week probably." And the next day, then finance minister Ralph Goodale announced good news for investors.
Brison followed up with another email to his banker friend. "U happy?"
His friend was. "I can't express my joy properly."
That looks like a tip from a cabinet minister about what's going to happen, one that would allow insiders to make money at the expense of the unconnected.
The CIBC saw that, and passed the emails on to the RCMP, which had announced a probe of possible leaks The bank has checked its trading records, and says no one took advantage of the message.
Brison says he wishes he hadn't sent the email, but wasn't a leaker. He was just passing on public speculation, he says, and didn't actually know anything about the decision or the announcement.
But what would you think if a cabinet minister sent you an email promising your problems would be resolved within three days - and then followed up with the "U happy" message?
What is it about political life in Ottawa that erodes common sense and good judgment?
Footnote: Harper is risking a destructive showdown the Parliament. He's promised strengthened accountability legislation - which is badly needed - as soon as MPs return April 3. While the opposition doesn't want to force an election, its combined majority will give the other parties a free hand to bash Harper around for considering himself above the ethics rules that bind all other MPs.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Harper wrong to dodge debate on Afghan role

VICTORIA - I don’t know if Canadian Forces are playing an appropriate role in in Afghanistan.
But I am sure the Harper government has it dead wrong when it claims Canadians should blindly accept an open-ended, vague mission
Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay and Stephen Harper want you to do that. Both rejected calls this week for a House of Commons debate on the military mission.
A debate would be bad for forces serving there, MacKay said. "We do not want to, in any way, suggest that we are questioning Canadians' presence there, that we are doing anything except showing our forceful commitment to the mission and to the men and women who are wearing the uniform,” he said. Talking about the mission is bad for morale, and may encourage attacks by those who would drive foreign forces from Afghanistan, he says.
MacKay and Harper have it backwards. We owe the 2,300 men and women in Afghanistan our closest scrutiny of their involvement. We sent them there. Some have already died, and more will. Every Canadian has an obligation to make sure the mission makes sense, that the goals are clear and achievable.
If the answers aren’t satisfactory, then we should make changes, right up to bringing our forces home.
The notion that Canadians should give up their rights and responsibilities because talking about the mission might embolden Afghan fighters is wrong, practically and in principle. There’s no mystery to Western nations’ reluctance to see their troops die overseas. We are not revealing any deep secrets by acknowledging our concern.
Canada has drifted into a military role in Afghanistan with little debate or planning.
The first 850 troops were sent four years ago. They were to help bring stability to the ravaged country, restore some services and fight the Taliban regime that had been supporting terrorists.
And they were a gesture to the U.S., a signal that although Canada would not join the war in Iraq it would join the effort to stamp out terrorists and their support networks.
They have made a contribution. Afghanistan held democratic elections last year, and rebuilding efforts have made progress. But it remains a dangerous, often lawless country, with warring factions, a smashed economy and a violent drug trade.
Last month Canadian troops moved into a more dangerous role, taking command of the multinational brigade in southern Afghanistan. They have taken on a more direct combat role against an aggressive foe, and a complicated balancing act. Our soldiers are supposed to be at once helping Afghanis rebuild and waging war.
The risks in that balancing act became clear when Canadian troops laid down their weapons for a relationship-building meeting with tribal elders, and Lt. Trevor Greene of Vancouver was smashed in the head with an axe.
Canadians need to know what the goals for this mission are, and how long the government expects to have troops there. Harper says their role will be assessed after a year. Canadian generals say that the commitment could be for a decade.
Canadians need to know how success will be measured, and that our troops have the support and equipment they need.
We need to know that all the other support that will help Afghanistan recover - and allow our troops to come home - is being provided. Economic aid and help with rebuilding Afghan society will allow our troops to come home sooner.
We leave lots of our decision to bureaucrats and politicians. We’re busy, they’re generally competent and it’s easier to sit back.
But this is too important. There’s a moral obligation on Canadians to be informed, to pay close attention to the arguments for and against sending our troops into danger.
No one can seriously suggest that has yet happened.
The best way to fix that is a debate in Parliament, in which the government sets out its case and outlines and defends its plans for this military effort.
Footnote: The government has not yet made the case for this military mission. An Ipsos poll has found Canadians fairly evenly divided on whether our forces should be there. An earlier Strategic Counsel poll found 62 per cent of Canadians were opposed to sending troops to Afghanistan. Three-quarters wanted a Parliamentary debate.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Seniors' care problem simple - not enough beds

VICTORIA - There’s nothing complicated or mysterious about what happened to Al and Fanny Albo, the couple so cruelly separated days before her death.
There aren’t enough hospital beds and long-term care spaces to meet the need. That means people suffer.
It’s time for an independent look - across all five health authorities - at how bad the problems are, and what we can do to fix them.
It’s fine that the Interior Health Authority has finally acknowledged procedural problems, and promised changes.
But ultimately this is a capacity problem, one the government acknowledged before taking office. They have chosen not to fix it. Other priorities - tax cuts, spending, paying down the debt - came first.
Take Trail. Since 2001 about 120 long-term care beds have been closed, and 30 new ones opened. That’s a loss of 90 places for frail seniors in in a community with many old people whose children have moved away and a high rate of heart disease.
The Albos - in part because their story was so terrible - have captured political and public attention. But anyone who kept an eye on the Trail Times and papers across B.C. has read similar sad stories. (Which makes the IHA’s sudden discovery of the problems bizarre.)
At the same time home support in Trail has been cut. The Albos were promised adequate home care but didn’t get it, the likely reason they both ended up in the Kootenay Boundary Regional Hospital.
The hospital is also struggling. Health authority statistics for October show the hospital was at more than 100-per-cent capacity almost every day. At times it was trying to deal with 20-per-cent more patients than it was supposed to house.
No wonder hospital administrators are desperate to get seniors out, when patients are stacked in the halls waiting for those beds. The average wait for long-term care in the Interior is 88 days, up almost 50 per cent from a year ago. A senior in acute care is seen as a big problem.
Al Albo watched Health Minister George Abbott respond to his wife’s death only hours before he too died. His son Jerome said they appreciated Abbott’s apology, but were disappointed at much of what he said. "It seemed the government was trying to limit this to being a problem unique to Trail," he said. "It's a province-wide problem.”
He’s right. Back in 2002 the Liberals released their long-term care plan. The province was short 4,200 beds at that moment, the government said. By 2006, it would add 5,000 beds, in line with the 2001 campaign promise - about 1,000 a year.
Since then the population over 75 has increased by about 15 per cent. So today the province should have added about 6,500 beds to meet the need.
Instead, the government has added 607 beds in four years.
There are reasons. The government says the existing beds were in worse shape than they expected, and many had to be closed or fixed. But they knew that in 2002 when they announced a “plan” for 5,000 beds.
People in communities across B.C. pleaded with the government. Keep the old care homes open - even with their flaws - until replacements were ready. The government didn’t, just as it didn’t accelerate the building process once it fell behind.
The government says about 2,300 beds will open this year. But meeting the actual need is still years away.
Abbott has been resisting opposition calls for an independent look at the issue.
But it’s time. We need to know how serious the shortage is, where it’s worst and what we can do. Seniors deserve that.
So do taxpayers . The costs of coping - warehousing seniors in acute care beds, admitting people who might have still been at home with proper support - are likely greater than the costs of fixing the problem.
There’s no benefit in hiding from the problem. Let’s get the facts, and decide what we’e prepared to do to fix it.
Footnote: The Liberals should leap at a review. Families who were suffering in silence have seen the Albo case as a all to action. Abbott is going to spend this entire legislative session dealing with a string of sad cases raised by the opposition if he isn’t willing to announce a proper review.