Friday, May 04, 2007

How dirty do we want politics to be?

Premier Gordon Campbell is likely waiting to see what you think about political "dirty tricks."
I'm curious too.
The trial of Dave Basi and Bob Virk on corruption charges could be a turning point, when we either accept that the normal standards of honesty and decency don't apply to politics or start demanding_better.
The trial has pushed the issue into our faces. Defence lawyers allege that Basi's role as a senior aide to then finance minister Gary Collins included what most of us would call political dirty tricks.
They say he was in charge of lining up people to call radio call-in shows under fake names. If the premier or a Liberal was on, they asked easy questions. If it was a New Democrat - or even Bill Vander Zalm - they tried their best to make the enemy look bad.
When then North Vancouver mayor Barb Sharp, an opponent of the B.C. Rail deal, was to be on a radio call-in show, the defence alleges, Basi asked Collins if it was OK to line up a caller to "rip her a new (deleted, but you know)." According to the wiretap evidence cited by the lawyers, Collins said sure.
The lawyers also say Basi did some of the work as part of his government job and also had "media monitoring" contracts with the B.C. Liberal Party to fund the efforts.
Senior people in the premier's office - including Gordon Campbell - knew and approved, the lawyers allege. _
And it went beyond call-ins. They say Basi paid a man $100 to heckle a Victoria demonstration against salmon farms, while pretending he was just a concerned citizen.
All these are just allegations. Campbell is refusing to answer questions because the case is before the courts.
But it's hard to see how long he can avoid the basic issues - does he approve of such activities, are they taking place now and if so, are government staff involved?
They're important questions for everyone in politics, from all parties, and not just in terms of this case.
The trial has given us a chance to set some clear ethical or moral limits for political activity.
Take a basic issue like call-in shows. Former Socred Rafe Mair says in a column for The Tyee that as far back as 1975 his campaign workers were pressed into service to jam the lines when he appeared on a show, lying and asking soft questions - and blocking callers with real questions. Many people in politics have similar anecdotes.
But is it right to run that kind of operation? Is it acceptable to lie in the interests of getting elected? (And if it is, what else that would normally be considered wrong is allowed in politics?)
And does it matter who tells the lie? Is it more serious when a government staffer, on taxpayers' money, phones in and lies than when a volunteer does?
It's kind of awful even to reread the last few paragraphs. The fact that we're debating whether dishonesty and deviousness are OK in politics shows a sickness.
Campbell is on record, sort of, as being opposed to lying in the cause of politics. In 2005, a newly hired senior adviser in the premier's office called Campbell on a TV call-in show, used a false name and lobbed a softball question. People recognized his voice and he resigned.
Campbell said that was appropriate, but offered only a weak condemnation. "It's always good to say who you are," he said. "Clearly it was a mistake. He's done the right thing."
That answer, tepid as it was, creates some potential problems for the government. The defence is alleging - and remember, nothing is proven - that Campbell and his senior staff knew about Basi's phone games.
Politics has too often become a game. Laws are obeyed, but rules don't matter and ethics are for the squeamish.
And that attitude too is on trial in Vancouver.
Footnote: The trial is raising other ethical questions. Defence lawyers revealed that former Quesnel mayor Steve Wallace, an opponent of CN's bid to buy BC Rail, accepted $1,000 from the lobbyist for OmniTRAX, a rival bidder. Wallace says the money covered his travel costs for fact-finding community visits.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The outrageous MLA pay plan and class in B.C.

The MLA pay issue is a reminder that we still have a class system in British Columbia.
Not like England, or course, where your accent and school define your place in the world.
But your reaction to a recommendation that MLAs get a 30-per-cent raise and the premier a 50-per-cent raise - retroactive, no less - is not a bad class litmus test.
If you think the idea makes sense, you are likely in the comfortable class.
If you are amazed that some people who sought a job two years ago now figure it's reasonable to boost their base pay from $76,100 to $98,000 and the premier's pay from $121,100 to $186,000, then you're in the struggling class.
Not struggling to survive, in most cases. But nervous about being able to pay all the bills at the end of the month if something big goes wrong with the family car.
Those people are going to find it hard to imagine that the current base income of $76,100 isn't enough for a good life. (Especially since 75 per cent of MLAs get extra pay for heading up a committee, a cabinet post or other roles.)
Remember, the average full-time wage in B.C. is about $38,500. A typical MLA already makes twice that much. The raise would mean they would be paid more than 90 per cent of the people they represent.
But a lot of other people - the comfortable - can see how $76,100 isn't enough for all the sacrifices involved in a politician's life. That includes a fair portion of the journalists reporting on the issue, who are paid in the same range. If it's worth that much to have someone write about MLAs, surely they deserve a little more for actually doing the work.
The politicians thought so. In 2005, they secretly hatched a plan to sneak through a 15-per-cent raise. The public went wild, NDP Leader Carole James reneged on the deal and the plan was abandoned.
This time, Premier Gordon Campbell tried a different approach, appointing an independent panel to look at the whole issue of politicians' compensation.
Class is an issue here as well. There's nothing wrong with the panel, which included a senior lawyer who specializes in _helping employers with labour issues, a former B.C. _Supreme Court justice back in private practice and a University of British _Columbia business professor
But I'd be surprised if any of the three had income under $150,000. For them, $76,100 - even the $121,100 paid the premier - is going to look inadequate as they consider the cuts they would have to make to live on that income.
The premier would have been wise to include some typical British Columbians on the panel.
The pay is only a part of the boost in compensation the panel recommended. MLAs already have a pension plan, with taxpayers contributing about $6,900 year going into into their RRSPs. Not great, but not bad.
The panel proposes a generous plan that would cost taxpayers at least $35,000 per year for each MLA. Since most British Columbians don't have any pension plan, they will be cranky about paying taxes to fund a lavish MLA plan.
Politicians do deserve a raise, from my admitted perspective in the comfortable class.
Many of them take a pay cut to serve. Most sacrifice years when they could be laying the groundwork for their futures, choosing instead a job with no security. The hours are long and there's a lot of slogging. And, based on all I've seen, they're in it to make their communities better places for people to live.
But the proposed raises and pension increases are outrageous. Someone working at minimum wage - unchanged for six years, unlike MLAs' pay, which increases each year - makes $15,600 in a year.
The proposal would see MLAs paid as much for seven or eight weeks' on the job as a minimum wage worker earns in a year.
The NDP has already rejected the recommendations. It's hard to see the Liberals pressing ahead.
Footnote: The best course now would be for Campbell to scrap the report, except for a recommendation for a long-term disability plan for MLAs who become sick or injured on the job. (That's needed, but politicians will be asked why they aren't content with the provincial disability benefit - $11,000 a year - that they consider adequate for the rest of us.)
A new, representative panel could be set up and report next year, with any changes to take effect after the 2009 election.

Dobell hits back, but questions continue

Ken Dobell came to Victoria this week in a bid to end questions about possible real or perceived conflicts of interest in his two roles - as a special adviser to Premier Gordon Campbell and a consultant and registered lobbyist for the City of Vancouver.
The NDP has been all over the issue since the legislature resumed sitting after the Easter break. Some of their questions have been fair; some have over-reached. The government has done a consistently poor job of answering.
Dobell, who retired as the province's top bureaucrat in 2005, held what he billed as his first press conference in 37 years in the public sector to take on the critics. By the end, a fair-minded observer might still be left with questions.
Dobell has a good reputation. And part of his argument can be boiled down to the claim that he's a person of integrity who has taken steps to avoid any conflicts. He sees no conflicts, so they don't exist.
As Dobell prepared to meet the press, the premier's office handed out a memo from Campbell's deputy minister, Jessica McDonald, offering a similar argument.
McDonald said Dobell told her and the Vancouver city manager about the risk of a perceived conflict of interest as he was being paid both to advise the premier and help Vancouver get provincial support for a major arts project and social housing initiative.
She decided there was no conflict.
In the case of the effort to develop a multi-million-dollar cultural precinct, because of "the significant alignment of interests between the province and the city on this important joint project."
And in the case of the social housing initiative, because "his disclosure enabled me to be aware that his views on this file emanated from his work advising the city and could be respected as such."
McDonald's memo, written last Friday, would be helpful to anyone conducting an impartial review of the issues.
But it's not likely to satisfy people who are concerned about potential conflicts.
It's good that McDonald was aware that Dobell's comments on housing "emanated from his work advising the city and could be respected as such." But what about others in government who read or heard Dobell's thoughts, directly or indirectly, on the housing in initiative? Were they all aware that he was speaking as a consultant to the city on the issue and not as an adviser to the premier?
McDonald's note also says she dealt with the issue last October, six months after Dobell started work for the city.
There are also questions worth asking about the cultural precinct project. Dobell said when Vancouver hired him, at $250 an hour, the city manager told him that Campbell and Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan had talked and both wanted him to work on it.
But should the premier really be in discussions that reach the conclusion that the best way to move the project forward was for the city to hire a consultant who has been his close associate for more than two decades?
Dobell also tried to deal with concerns that there was a risk of conflict in his simultaneous roles as paid advisor to the premier - with a desk in the government's Vancouver offices - and lobbyist for the city.
Simple, Dobell said. He's not a lobbyist, he's a "content consultant."
But Dobell did officially sign up as a lobbyist on the government's registry, saying he intended to try and win support from Campbell, Housing Minister Rich Coleman and Tourism Minister Stan Hagen on behalf of Vancouver. (Dobell didn't register until months after he reported started lobbying work, an apparent violation of the act now being investigated.)
He was simply following advice from the city's lawyers, Dobell said this week.
The government has created this problem. It should be doing a better job both of answering legitimate questions and considering how to avoid such issue in future.
Footnote: Aboriginal Affairs Minister Mike de Jong has been handling all the questions for the Liberals, for the most part relying on indignation and bluster. But hopes the issue would just go away appeared less likely Tuesday as the NDP asked questions about other people who had moved from senior public sector posts to related work.