Saturday, December 15, 2007

What's the government hiding in the Basi-Virk case?

The always interesting PacificGazette takes a look at the government's effort to keep secret documents the lawyers in the Basi-Virk trial say are needed to defend their clients.
The government is apparently choosing to invoke lawyer-client privilege to keep documents from the court. Like any client, it could choose to waive the privilege and release the information.
The Gazeteer offers a good summary and links here.

Liberals reverse child rep budget cut blunder

Score another one for democracy and Vaughn Palmer.
The Liberals made a big blunder earlier this month, practically and politically. Government MLAs on the legislative finance committee cut the budget request of the Representative for Children and Youth, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond.
After about 45 minutes of unfocused questioning, the Liberal MLAs decided to cut the proposed budget of the representative by 11 per cent. They didn't say where the office should reduce spending or offer any rationale. Turpel-Lafond had told them the cuts would make it impossible to do critical elements of her job, like investigating children's deaths,
But the Liberals went ahead. The New Democrats on the committee, who wanted to provide the full amount requested, were outvoted.
Why? The other officers of the legislature - the ombudsman, auditor general and the rest - had received their full requests. Why chop the representative?
Given the lack of any answers that made sense, it was hard not to notice that days before Turpel-Lafond had reported critically on the government's lack of progress on implementing the Hughes report. She found there had been no action on key recommendations designed to improve things in the troubled ministry of children and families.
The budget cut looked much like payback, petty, vindictive - and self-destructive.
The Liberal attack was led by MLAs Randy Hawes and Ian Black. It showed a remarkable lack of common sense or awareness of just what a mess the government has made of most areas affecting the lives of children and families over the last six years.
Hawes has tried to defend the cuts to the budget. He says there wasn't enough detail to satisfy him that the extra money Turpel-Lafond was seeking, so he pushed for a lower budget.
Fair enough, on some level. But 45 minutes of questions followed by a closed-door decision to cut funding doesn't seem like a serious attempt to find out about any concerns.
And if Hawes and his fellow Liberals didn't have enough information to approve the budget, the certainly didn't have enough to cut it, either.
The representative was looking for more money - an increase from $4.8 million to $6.6 million.
But that was no surprise. The office was created as a result of Ted Hughes report on the many problems in the government's support for vulnerable children and families. The agency started with a rough budget set up by managers in the attorney generals ministry, before there were any real plans or staff.
The government acknowledged the guess at funding. A year ago, the Liberal chair of the same committee assured Turpel-Lafond that money wouldn't stand in the way of working on a better future for B.C. children.
"As the budget moves forward, if you have any requests, if something isn't working, if you find that it wasn't enough or there have been changes, as a committee, we are mandated to be here for you," said Blair Lekstrom, then the committee chairman.
But the six Liberal MLAs on the committee didn't agree. The committee chopped $700,000 from the budget.
Hawes hadn't complained about a lavish $560,000 reno at the ministry of children and families. He and the other Liberals voted for a 29-per-cent raise and expensive pension plan for themselves. Then they got all careful when the advocate for children came looking for money.
The public reaction was quick and negative. Vaughn Palmer of the Vancouver Sun, one of Canada's best political columnists, is insightful but usually judicious in assessing politicians' performance. This time he called the Liberals on the committee "nitwits."
And Friday, the committee called special meeting to take another look at the budget. The premier's office had read the clippings.
You, and Palmer, helped convince the Liberals that it was a mistake. They could not get away with cutting the money for independent oversight in this area. They restored all the money they had cut.
In all, it's probably been useful. Turpel-Lafond need to establish her independence, She's done that by facing down the government on budget cuts.
Footnote: Liberal MLA Bill Bennett chairs the committee. I'm not sure if he deserves blame for letting the cuts go ahead or credit for working out solution after meetings with Premier Gordon Campbell. A pre-election cabinet shuffle is likely in June; Bennett, dumped over an abusive e-mail he sent, would be a good addition.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

We all helped Pickton kill those women

Robert Pickton had it right. If you're going to kill somebody, pick someone whose death won't much matter, at least to the people who do.
Like addicted women, working in the low end of the sex trade. When they disappear, hardly anyone notices, outside of a few family members.
The missing women's case showed that Vancouver police didn't even care much as they heard the stories - more and more - of women who just vanished. It just didn't rate as serious.
That's largely our fault. When the street sex trade gets too visible, or moves to close to our neighbourhoods or places we go, we're unhappy.
Understandably. The trade brings drugs and cars and noisy fights. Who wants to explain what's happening down the block to a curious six-year-old?
But for at least two decades, our unhappiness has never led us actually to demand a change in the way the trade works. We just want the police to push the street sex trade somewhere else.
After that has happened a half-dozen times, the women end up in the worst possible places, for them. In Vancouver, the Downtown Eastside, a place almost extraterrestrial in its weirdness. In Victoria, a light industrial area that's largely deserted at night. Around the province, the sex trade ends up where there's not much help for the women if something goes wrong.
So they get beat up, or raped - or just vanish, like they were never there. We don't care about that, once they're out of sight. Not enough to do anything, anyway.
And Robert Pickton - and too many others - figure that out. We don't expect the sex trade to stop, really. In fact, in Canada, we've made it legal.
But in one of these cruel and ridiculous perversions, we've fixed the rules so that people who try and work in the legal business face massive risks. Prostitution is legal. But talking to clients about what the arrangement isn't. Living off the avails - or providing a safe workplace, to look at it another way - is also illegal.
Most people selling sex find ways around the problems, sort of. Escort agencies and massage parlours provide a place to work. Independents operate from apartments.
But at any time, about 10 per cent to 20 per cent of the business is done on the street. The women are generally addicted and struggling to live. The work is low-paying and very risky.
And sometimes, deadly. And the risk is largely because of the law, which forces them to work in the most dangerous places.
A lot of people have professed to be troubled by the Pickton trial. Newspapers have nervously warned that their coverage might be upsetting.
But not all that upsetting. Not so upsetting that we would actually change anything so that more women don't die.
The reality is that nothing is different today. The work is as dangerous. Another Robert Pickton could be out there, probably is out there.
It's a cliché to point out how much more we cared about the missing women when they were dead than when they're alive.
But it's also truly telling. The Pickton trial cost about $45 million. The investigation into the crimes - including the huge effort at the farm - cost about $70 million. The total is $115 million and rising.
Imagine what could have been done for the 500 street level prostitutes across B.C. - that's a guess - with that money. That's $115 million that could have been spent on addiction services or housing or support - or the early intervention that made have a difference in the lives of the people who ended up on the street.
Yet we can't even be bothered to change the laws so the worst dangers of the sex trade are reduced.
Robert Pickton murdered the six women. His sentence will likely keep him off the streets.
But we helped him kill them. And we've done nothing to change the grim reality that more women will die in the same way.
Footnote: The debate has begun on whether the Crown should press ahead and try Pickton on the other 20 murder charges he faces. There seems little point. The families will get few answers; Pickton, 58, is unlikely ever to be released from custody; and the $30 million could be better spent on the living.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Norman Spector on the lobbyist disease

Norman Spector offers an inside and insightful look at the lessons we should learn from the Schreiber-Mulroney affair (and from the Basi-Virk affair as well, I'd say). The column is in The Globe and Mail today or here today.