Friday, September 08, 2006

Cancelled fall legislature a disservice to public

VICTORIA - You’re getting short-changed by the Liberals’ decision to cancel the fall session of the legislature.
House leader Mike de Jong confirmed the government is pulling the plug on the session, which was to start Oct. 2 and run until the end of November.
The government has no legislation to pass, he said, so there’s no need. "We're not sitting just for the sake of sitting or passing laws just for the sake of passing laws," he said. "That's not how I measure a successful government."
Fair enough. More laws does not equal better government. In fact, sometimes the public would be well-served by fewer big new ideas from government.
But a successful government can be measured by its willingness to account for its actions and policies. And any government can be improved when MLAs - from all parties - have a chance to raise questions and concerns on behalf of their communities.
The Liberals are shutting down an opportunity for those kind of useful debates.
Gordon Campbell introduced fixed fall and spring legislative sessions in 2001. That was a useful improvement. In the past sessions had been called and ended at the whim of the party in power. When the heat got too much - either  summer heat or political heat - the government could shut the legislature down. The legislature only sat for 40 days in 1996, when the newly elected NDP government was taking a kicking over its false campaign claim of a balanced budget.
The Liberals hinted this might happen in last year’s Throne Speech, which said fall sessions were intended to deal with unfinished business from the spring.
Politically, the move probably makes sense. There’s a sharper focus on the government when the legislature is in session. The opposition uses Question Period each day to grill ministers about policies and problems, and reporters and columnists are watching closely. The government faces a daily risk of bad-news stories. (The Liberals deserve full credit for doubling the length of Question Period to 30 minutes, a major improvement.)
But cancelling the session brings another set of political problems. NDP leader Carole James was quick to accuse the Liberals of “running away from the public" and trying to avoid accountability. Anytime an issue emerges over the next few months James will be reminding people that the legislature could have worked at finding solutions if the sitting hadn’t been cancelled.
Leaving politics aside, the cancellation is a loss for the public. The accountability that the legislature provides is important. Without it, issues can be ignored and problems can fester.
Until last fall’s legislative session, for example, the government had insisted that everything was fine in the ministry of children and families, despite evidence of mounting problems that were leaving children at risk.
It took daily hammering by the NDP to force the government to admit that the system, battered by budget cuts and mismanagement, was in fact failing. Without the session, and the forum it provided, the Hughes inquiry and badly needed improvements might have been stalled. Children and families would have suffered as a result.
And while the focus is on Question Period, the legislature provides a forum for all MLAs - Liberals and New Democrats - to raise issues important to their communities.
There’s no shortage of issues. Communities across B.C. are struggling with homelessness, addictions and mental illness. Health care remains an issue. Forest-dependent communities are waiting for information on how the softwood lumber agreement will affect them. De Jong said that even with the cancelled session, the legislature will sit for a fairly typical number of days this year.
That’s not true. The legislature sat for 42 days in the spring. That will be the third fewest days sine 1991. The average for the last decade is about 63 days.
A much shortened session might have made sense. But the public, and MLAs, are poorly served by the decision to cancel the entire sitting.
Footnote: The legislature may be recalled for one day in the fall. A special committee is seeking a candidate to become the child and youth officer, a new advocacy and oversight position recommended by Ted Hughes in his report on child protection problems. If the committee comes up with a recommendation, the legislature would have to approve the choice.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Clement’s non-decision on safe-injection ignores the facts

VICTORIA - It’s frustrating to watch the Harper government fumble and stumble over the future of Vancouver’s safe-injection site.
After months of waffling - and with less than two weeks before the site’s licence expired - Health Minister Tony Clement said he still couldn’t make up his mind. Instead of granting the three-year licence extension sought for the Insite centre, Clement stalled. The centre can keep going until he makes a decision by end of next year, he said.
It was a blatantly political move. Clement’s non-decision was announced on the Friday before the long weekend, at 7 p.m. Ottawa time. He refused to answer any questions. His handling of the issue suggests the Conservatives want to kill the site, but are afraid it would hurt them politically. By stalling they can keep their intentions secret until after the next election.
Every shred of evidence suggests the safe-injection site has achieved its relatively modest goals without any documented negative effects. The Insite project offers a clean, safe place for people to inject their drugs.  
A nurse is there to deal with problems, help people avoid infection or other medical complications and refer addicts to treatment or services.  Clean needles are available.
The alternative is to have addicts injecting in a flophouse or alley.
The site, the first in North America, has been intensively studied by health researchers. Last month, in Harm Reduction Journal, a report found that it saves taxpayers up to $8 million a year.
Without Insite, there would have been 2,000 additional emergency room visits for abscesses, infections and overdoses, the study found. About 100 of those visits would have resulted in hospitalization, using a desperately needed acute-care bed for an average two weeks.
There were 453 overdoses at Insite. None resulted in death and few required hospital care. Without the centre, 18 to 20 people would have died and and about 100 would have required hospital care.
About 100 people were referred to methadone programs, for many a first step toward dealing with their addiction. At the least, those people will not be scrambling, panhandling and stealing to get money for drugs.
The centre, by cutting down on shared needles and other unsafe practices, also reduced the spread of HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C,  serious public health problems.
Other reviews done for the RCMP found there was no increase in crime in the area. The centre did not create new drug users.
Health care costs reduced. Lives saved. People leaving illegal drug use behind. No increase in crime or drug use. Support from the B.C. government, he City of Vancouver and public health officials.
Surely continuing the program - and extending it to other centres across B.C. and Canada where there is support - is a no-brainer.
Clement doesn’t think so. He wants more studies. In the news release announcing the decision, he offered these crafted quotes.
“We believe the best form of harm reduction is to help addicts to break the cycle of dependency,” Clements is quoted. “We also need better education and prevention to ensure Canadians don’t get addicted to drugs in the first place.” Of course. There is likely not a sane person in Canada - including the operators of the safe-injection site - who would not agree with those words. (And wonder why Clement wasn’t doing more in those areas.)
Safe-injection sites aren’t some miracle solution that makes the problem go away. People using the site are still struggling with their addictions and the pain or emptiness or genetic bad luck that brought them there. Their lives are still terrible, dangerous messes. But the site works, by the most pragmatic measures. It saves lives, prevents the spread of deadly diseases, frees up millions in health care costs for other uses and helps some people get clean. All without one real, demonstrated negative effect.
It’s shameful that a government would, apparently, place politics ahead of both sound health policy and peoples’ lives.
Footnote: Clement  has never visited the Vancouver safe-injection site to see how it works. He did travel to Sweden and Denmark this summer to look at drug policies in those two countries,  including a meeting with a Swedish lobby group promoting tougher drug policies. Vancouver’s experiment has attracted world attention; Clement should have visited before making his decision.