Thursday, November 22, 2007

NDP's affirmative action plan troubling, but worth a try

My first reaction to the NDP's plan to push women and minority candidates into more ridings was negative.
It is undemocratic. Holding seats open for women means men are barred from running. The party members in the riding lose the right to pick the best candidate.
New Democrats backed quotas and affirmative action at their convention last weekend. The party decided to take a new approach to picking candidates for the 2009 election.
Incumbents are safe. Male or female, they can run again without worry. But for the seats held by Liberals, 30 per cent of the NDP candidates must be women. Another 10 per cent must be from other underrepresented groups - gays or people with different coloured skins.
The Liberals have 46 of 79 seats in the legislature; that means the NDP has to nominate women or minorities in about 20 of those ridings.
The party hopes that will happen without coercion or orders from above. Ridings that nominate the desired candidates will get extra campaign funding as an incentive.
But if that doesn't work, the party executive will step in and appoint candidates, whatever the local members think.
The push to elect women goes farther.
In any riding held by the NDP, if the current MLA decides not to run, a woman must be nominated. The aim is to ensure women run where there is a real chance of winning, not as sacrificial lambs or tokens.
So if Corky Evans decides not to run in Nelson-Creston in 2009, no men need apply to represent the riding. It's set aside for a woman.
It's not really fair. Imagine you've worked away for 30 years, and you really are ready to represent a riding in the legislature. You know the people and the issues and they trust you. And now you can't get nominated because you're a man.
Times Colonist cartoonist Adrian Raeside captured the problem, depicting Winston Churchill being rejected as a candidate by NDP leader Carole James.
On the other hand, a letter to the editor wondered how many leaders who could have been more effective than Churchill never were elected, because women were effectively barred from politics.
It's been at least 25 years now that we've been fretting about the lack of women in politics, which remains the preserve of white, middle-class guys.
But in 2005, the share of legislature seats held by women fell, ass it did in the 2001 election. In fact, women's share of seats is is lower todday than it was in 1986.
That should strike you as a problem. Women make up half the population - why do they hold less than one-quarter of the seats?
We all lose as a result. If you're looking for a great read, pick up James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds. The central thesis is that if you bring together people with diverse backgrounds - a plumber, a teacher, an engineer, a hockey player, a painter - and ask them to solve a problem, they'll do well. Diversity, used effectively, is hugely valuable.
It makes sense. Verbally quick, smart, ambitious men - the core group of politicians today - have one way to approach a problem, based on their life experience and what's worked so far.
A woman likely, almost certainly, brings a different life experience. That diversity makes for a better decision.
The bigger question, sadly, is why a woman would want to be an MLA. If you're in opposition, you're flailing around on the margins. If you're in government, you're silenced for the good of the team.
And success in the legislature is defined by how loud you can shout and how cutting your comments are. Both tend to be guy things.
Even getting there requires some affluent buddies to throw in some money and a team to sign up members. Many women have access to neither.
All in, I'm OK with the New Democrats' affirmative action plan.
Not thrilled. It's not democratic.
But then neither is our current system for picking candidates, with mass sign-ups and instant party members.
Really, what have we got to lose by trying something different?
Footnote: The measure was hotly debated at the NDP convention and the party is likely hoping most of its incumbents will run again in 2009. The greatest potential for internal conflict will be over the nomination for winnable ridings.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Taser scandal destroying public trust in police, government

The decision to call a public inquiry into Robert Dziekanski's Taser death might not have come quickly enough for my young friend Spencer.
Solicitor General John Les flip-flopped Monday. Five weeks after Dziekanski's death - and after repeatedly rejecting calls for an independent review - Les caved and announced a public inquiry.
But it might to be too late. Spencer is almost 11, quite smart and aware. On the way to watch a weekend hockey game, he was talking about the video showing four RCMP officers approaching the immigrant, Tasering him, kneeling on him. And Dziekanski dying.
And for Spencer, it was clear. They killed the guy and it didn't have to happen.
That's a bad thing for kids to think about the police.
It must be tough for all the other officers, who are just trying to make things better, I offered. Trying to be positive and all, and because it's true.
By his silence, I knew Spencer wasn't convinced.
And I can't blame him. At that point not a single question about Dziekanksi's death had been raised by anyone in the police or government. The four officers were on the job. Premier Gordon Campbell and Les said they were ready to wait for the RCMP internal investigation and an inquest.
They had no concerns about Taser use in the province.
In fact, the RCMP presented a false story about what happened. A spokesman said the officers had used gestures in an effort to calm Dziekansi. They tried to talk to him, but he was throwing chairs in a crowded area, the spokesman said. The first jolt from the Taser barely had an effect, the spokesman said.
And the RCMP attempted to withhold the video a young Victoria man, Paul Pritchard, had made of the whole affair. Only after Pritchard went to court was the evidence revealed.
It showed the officers making no effort to defuse the situation before repeatedly zapping Dziekanski and jumping on him
The RCMP denies any effort to mislead. "We were giving the information we knew at the time," said spokesman Cpl. Dale Carr, "That's not a lie."
Who cares where the false information came from? The RCMP story about what happened was untrue and covered up damaging facts.
And except for the video, and Pritchard's determination to see it released, that would likely have been the end of the affair.
Les didn't see any need for action. Campbell said he wasn't forming any judgments until all the investigations were concluded - a matter of years. There were no worries about Taser use, although six British Columbians have died after being shot.
For Spencer, and the kids at his elementary school, it looked pretty clear. The police could do what they wanted. Watch the video.
On Monday, Les reversed himself and announced a public inquiry. It will look at Taser use, the actions of the RCMP and the Canadian Border Services and the way people are treated at Vancouver International Airport. (On Tuesday, Campbell refused repeatedly to express confidence in Les.)
The inquiry was overdue. The RCMP is investigating itself, but the force's credibility is gone. There will be an inquest, but those are slow and limited. The federal government promised a review, but really, who expects anything there.
The official police position is that Tasers have never killed anyone. But 18 Canadians have died minutes after being Tasered in the last five years.
In 2005, the Police Complaints Commissioner ordered a review of Taser use. The result was a package of useful recommendations around training, protocols and monitoring.
But the provincial response was largely token. The RCMP, for example, still isn't providing basic information on Taser use to the province's use of force co-ordinator, despite the 2005 recommendation. The government can't see how many officers have received the recommended training in Taser use and excited delirium.
Spencer will be watching what happens next.
Footnote: What did happen with the Police Complaints Commissioner report? Not much. There is a provincial use of force co-ordinator and the government sent out a letter in 2005 telling police about the new guidelines. But there was no follow-up or monitoring. Some forces used the Taser much more frequently after the report; others, like Victoria's, cut back. The government checked out.