Friday, May 19, 2006

Harper winning skirmishes, but risks losing public trust

VICTORIA - The first spin was that Stephen Harper and the Conservatives had won political victories around big issues in the last week.
But it looks just as much as if Harper has revealed critical weaknesses that could give the Liberals new life in the next election campaign.
The Conservatives were slicing and dicing on an extended commitment to the war in Afghanistan, the unfair abuse dished out to Harpers' choice to head the new commission on public appointments and the firearms registry.
In each case the government scored some political points. But in each case it treated Parliament, and thus Canadians, with heavy handed disdain. Harper demonstrated that once he thinks he's right Parliament and public opinion don't much matter.
It's exactly the kind of thing many voters already feared about him.
Start with Afghanistan.
Harper wanted to extend Canada's commitment to provide troops, which was to end next February, for another two years. He called a surprise debate in Parliament - MPs had two days to prepare, gather the views of their constituents and consider what the situation in Afghanistan might be in two years. Harper limited it to a few hours. And he indicated he would not be bound by the vote.
A "tactical triumph," one commentator called it. The vote passed and the Liberals were split on the issue, with leadership candidates on both sides.
But where's the triumph? Canadian troops have just been committed to a long, deadly mission with no real public discussion of the risks to them, the support they will need and the chances of success. Instead of seeking a full debate and making a strong case, Harper opted for political cleverness on an issue that demanded better.
The Liberals were divided, which the Harper team will emphasize during the next campaign. But their MPs were allowed to vote freely, hardly a bad thing.
Next consider Harper's response when a Parliamentary committee rejected his choice to head a new accountability agency to watch government appointments and make sure merit and not patronage was the big factor.
The committee's decision was a travesty. The opposition members grilled retired EnCana CEO Gwyn Morgan about past comments that had nothing to do with his ability to handle the job, which he had agreed to take on for $1 a year. They focused on his observation that immigration raises social issues, referring to people who "come from countries where the culture is dominated by violence and lawlessness." Hardly a radical observation.
Harper was miffed. His response was to abandon entirely the promised accountability commission to oversee appointments, an act of presidential petulance.
Finally, there was the gun registry.
Conservatives mostly hate it, partly because many rural Canadians have never accepted the idea that they should have to register guns as they do vehicles and partly becuase it is a symbol of waste and dishonesty under the Liberal government.
But the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police want the registry kept intact. Police use it about 5,000 times a day, they say, and it helps keep officers safer. Canadians, conerned about gun crime, are divided.
Harper could have held a vote on the registry's future and left the question to Parliament. That's the essence of this democracy thing.
Instead, fearing defeat, the Conservatives launched a stealth attack without Parliamentary support. Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day announced a one-year amnesty for shotgun and rifle owners who have ignored the registration requirment, effectively rewarding them for breaking the law. The Conservatives chopped funding to the registry and eliminated fees for permit renewals. They are killing it, while avoiding a vote in Parliament.
Clever tactics, I suppose.
But many Canadians feared Harper's certainty would translate into a contempt for the views of others.
His actions in ignoring the legitimate role of Parliament and concentrating all power in the prime minister's office affirm those fears.
In winning some quick battles, he risks losing the longer political war.
Footnote: Two Liberal leadership candidates - Michael Ignatieff and Scott Brison - voted with the Harper government to extend the Afghanistan commitment. The other six, including Ken Dryden and Stephane Dion, were opposed. It should be a big issue in the leadership race.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

U.S. gets say on B.C. forest policy; public doesn't get say in softwood deal

VICTORIA - The New Democrats took their best shot at digging into the softwood lumber agreement this week, pressing for an emergency debate on the deal.
It didn’t work. And that’s too bad.
The agreement, like any treaty or trade pact, is ultimately between governments. It’s unrealistic to expect MLAs to be able to pick through the softwood deal clause by clause and send government back to the table on any issues they find troubling.
But the legislature - and the public - should get a chance to have an informed say on the broad principles.
That’s what the NDP proposed this week, calling for an emergency debate under the arcane rules of the legislature.
Cariboo North MLA Bob Simpson raised the need for an urgent debate. He cited Trade Minister David Emerson's weekend comments that provinces would be expected to check with Washington before making any forest policy changes during the agreement’s seven-year life.
A "surrender of sovereignty," said Simpson, one that would take away the right of future governments to set forest policy for the province.
Forest Minister Rich Coleman didn't disagree. Any agreement would have to include provisions to satisfy the Americans that provinces weren't going to introduce unfair subsidies for the forest industry, he said.
"So we will be going through that with our legal people, and we're at the table as British Columbia making sure that British Columbian interests are taken care of," he said.
Coleman is right. Any agreement has to include some mechanism to make sure that neither side finds ways to cheat.
But there are a range of solutions. The agreement could provide for independent arbitration, for example, which would protect B.C.'s right to set policy.
All we have now is Emerson's comment that Washington will be able to vet any changes in provincial forest policy.
Coleman wasn't reassuring.
"There's nothing to worry about," he said. B.C. won't need to worry about U.S. approval for policy changes between now and 2013 because it won’t make any.
"We won't because we've done ours," he said. The government has advanced the introduction of market-based stumpage in the Interior. It will now be complete before the softwood deal is signed
It’s an alarming answer. Coleman is acknowledging that the U.S. has a say on B.C. forest policy.
And his claim that forest policy is fixed for the next seven years is implausible.
Maybe everything has been done and the province has got policy to the point of perfection. But perhaps markets will change or the pine beetle disaster will have unforeseen consequences. Maybe future governments will overhaul aspects of forest management to increase safety. The notion that our forest policy is now locked in place is unrealistic.
The NDP wanted the softwood deal discussed under a legislature rule that allows for emergency debate on a "definite matter of urgent public importance."
There were only three days left in this session of the legislature, the deal could be signed by June 15 and MLAs don't sit again until the fall.
This is the only chance to get answers about the sovereignty issue before B.C. is committed, Simpson said.
Speaker Bill Barisoff said no. The softwood discussions have been going on for some time and MLAs have had a chance to ask questions, he said. It's not enough that new details about the deal have emerged, and anyway the NDP can raise the issue in the three remaining Question Periods.
The decision fits with precedent. But it’s a loss for the public.
There are important questions about the tentative deal that haven’t been answered. It’s been treated so far as an issue for government and forest companies.
But it also affects individuals and communities. A draft released by the NDP Tuesday said, for example, that export quotas will be based on a region’s average share of U.S. imports from 2001 and 2005. Those were tough years for the coastal industry and boom times for the Interior, rushing to process beetle-damaged wood. Vancouver Island and Coastal forest communities deserve to know if they’re being locked into seven years of limited access to the U.S. market.
A fuller debate now would ensure that the public supports the agreement, and that issues are raised and addressed before we are locked into a long-term deal.
Footnote: The NDP asked Premier Gordon Campbell if he would guarantee a public debate on the deal before it is signed. No, he said. It’s a good deal, B.C.’s policies will govern forest practices and - apparently - there’s no need for a public discussion of the impact of the seven-year agreement.

Monday, May 15, 2006

To understand First Nations blockades, look to Ottawa

VICTORIA - Of course First Nations are going to stage blockades and occupations of disputed land.
It's the only way they can get government to respond to their claims.
What would you do if you launched a legal effort to get back land you believed someone had taken from you and found that you were being stalled for year after year?
People have been getting mightily exercised about the latest First Nations' blockade over some disputed land in Ontario.
And let it be said that everyone has to obey the rule of law or accept the consequences. That's what keeps our society working.
But before you get too righteous, let me tell you about another land dispute here in B.C. Consider the way the federal government handled it, then decide whether you'd be thinking about a blockade too.
The Doig River and Blueberry River bands were part of the Treaty 8 agreements reached in 1900. They were given reserve land near Fort St. John for giving up their traditional territories.
By 1920 settlers had become established. They wanted the province to build a road to Alberta and - not surprisingly - said the best route was through the reserve land.
OK, said the province. It wrote the federal government and asked for 32 acres to be taken from the reserve for a road. The land wasn't being farmed and maybe a road would even make the rest of the reserve more valuable, the province said.
Of course the province didn't want to pay for the land.
Ottawa - the legal protector of the bands' interests - countered by saying that the province could have the land if it would fence the roadway.
No, said the province. So the federal government just handed the land over. It didn't ask the bands if they wanted to give it up. In fact, Ottawa never actually told them about the deal.
But eventually, decades later, they found out. In 1995 the Treaty 8 association decided to submit a claim for compensation. The Crown had ignored its legal obligations and the bands were owed compensation, the association said.
Here's a nice detail. The association didn't want the dispute to drag on, so they used a new "fast-track" process.
It seemed simple. Even today 32 acres up there aren't worth much. There's no tricky precedents involved. The federal government could admit compensation was owed, and negotiate a deal. Or it could say no, the Crown did nothing wrong.
Figure six months as a reasonable period for definitive answer.
Instead, Ottawa did nothing. Eight years went by and the federal government wouldn't respond to the claim.
Finally, after eight years of waiting for any answer, the First Nations had enough and filed an appeal with the Indian Claims Commission.
The federal government had denied their compensation claim and they wanted to challenge the decision.
Get this. The federal government then argued that the natives had no right to appeal to the commission, because there was nothing to appeal. Their claim hadn't been denied yet. It has been ignored for eight years, but it had not been denied.
Come on, said the Indian Claims Commission, grab some common sense. If the federal government hasn't responded in eight years, it has effectively denied the claim. We're investigating and issuing a decision.
And then - cornered - the federal government said wait , we'd rather negotiate. Talks are going on now.
Ottawa's approach was stall, ignore and then attempt to deny access to legitimate appeal channels. People will grow impatient.
And this case appears to be much too close to the norm. One lawyer involved in the process says B.C. First Nations find claims for specific compensation are regularly stalled for years in a gridlocked system.
It's wrong to break the law or defy the courts.
But when I expect it's something many of would do faced with a government that took our property and then ignored us like we just didn't matter.
Footnote: The Blueberry and Doig could afford to be patient. The tiny didn't just lose the 32 acres for the road. Indian Affairs also handed over reserve land and mineral rights to returning Second World War veterans just before gas reserves were discovered. After a 1995 Supreme Court of Canada ruling in their favour, the bands received $147 million in compensation.