Saturday, December 22, 2007

Censored government reports on Basi-Virk raise questions

Bill Tieleman, who has done a fine job covering the Basi-Virk BC Rail corruption trial, writes on the results of an FOI request for the reports of the government staffer who has been monitoring the courtroom happenings. The results suggest Attorney General Wally Oppal mislead the legislature about what the staffer was doing.
And the censored reports raise questions about what the government is keeping from the public.
You can read it here.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Government's silence on sea lice and wild salmon a problem

Sea lice are quite creepy. They look like little tadpoles - maybe one-quarter of an inch long. And they attach themselves to salmon and other fish and suck their blood.
It's usually not a problem. A few lice don't hurt a fish.
But for several years, researchers have been finding that salmon farms changed things. The concentration of fish in a small area meant dense sea lice populations as well. And the lice didn't just stick around. If a migrating wild salmon passed through the area, it encountered much denser populations than in the rest of the ocean.
And too many sea lice - particularly on a three-inch young salmon - can kill. (It's not a B.C. problem. European fish farms have faced the same issue.)
The industry and government have denied the problem exists. The industry has tended to attack the researchers.
The province has ordered a few farms fallowed during migration periods. But it's pro-industry. The government has had an all-party legislative committee report on aquaculture for eight months now without responding in anyway to the recommendations.
But the evidence of the sea lice problem has been piling up. Last year, when an environmental group laid charges, the Attorney General's Ministry appointed a special prosecutor to decide whether they should go ahead. Bill Smart - the special prosecutor in the Glen Clark case - sought independent scientific advice. The fisheries expert, Frederick Whoriskey, concluded salmon farms were creating a sea lice problem that was killing pink salmon in the Broughton Archipelago. A single farm produces more than 50 million sea lice eggs a year, he found.
Smart concluded that sea lice from salmon farms were harming the wild fish. He decided not to go ahead with the prosecution because it wasn't clear that was against the law.
The industry went on the attack; the government ignored the independent prosector's report.
This month, a research study published in the journal Science found the sea lice from salmon farms in the area threaten wild pink salmon with extinction. Local pinks could be gone within four years, the researchers reported.
This was a peer-reviewed study; other scientists had to assess its legitimacy before it could be published.
Research can always be disputed. The provincially funded Pacific Salmon Forum says its research shows no connection between fish farms and sea lice on wild salmon.
But the findings published in Science can't sensibly be ignored. Risking the future of wild salmon stocks, given the evidence, would be reckless.
The question is whether the industry and the government will see it that way.
The industry's reaction so far has unfortunately been to deny a problem. Accepting the risk would open the door to potential solutions. The authors of the Science article note that relocating the fish farms to deeper waters or away from wild salmon migration routes would help.
The provincial government has seemed frozen. It handed the whole problem off to an all-party committee of MLAs, with an NDP majority, which held hearings. Its report was done in May.
Agriculture Minister Pat Bell said the government would have a new aquaculture policy by the fall. But so far, nothing.
The industry provides needed jobs in coastal communities and the farmed salmon fetches about $240 million a year. The economic impact is significant.
But opposition has moved beyond the environmental movement. A coalition of some 100 ecotourism businesses says the sea lice damage to wild salmon threatens their $1.4-billion industry. It bought a full-page ad in The Globe and Mail this fall to press the federal and provincial governments for action.
And the future of wild salmon is one those issues that goes beyond fishermen and coastal communities.
There are lots of factors in the vanishing salmon, from climate change to development to logging practices.
But sea lice are part of the problem, according to solid research. The government is going to face increasing pressure to deal with the issue.
Footnote: The legislative committee called for governments to help the industry to move to "closed containment" systems instead of mesh pens. But the salmon farmers say practical technology doesn't exist. The committee also offered common sense measures like removing environmental protection from the Agricuture Ministry, was is charged with promoting the industry.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Mulroney makes the case an inquiry is needed

I want an inquiry into the Mulroney-Schreiber scandal. It will cost a lot, say $75 million, and no one will likely be found guilty of anything.
But we need a light that can shine into the dark and sleazy world of lobbyists and pals and politicians in Ottawa. An inquiry might do that.
Brian Mulroney's testimony before the ethics committee was the last straw.
Sure, he succeeded in reminding everyone that Karlheinz Schreiber, the German businessmen who paid him with bundles of cash, has a tenuous grasp of the truth.
That was no surprise. Schreiber has shown he'll lie under oath if it's advantageous.
Schreiber had been distributing money and favours around Ottawa for years in an effort to get an arms plant built in Nova Scotia.
Mulroney testified he met with on June 23, 1993, while he was still prime minister. They didn't talk about future work, Mulroney said, "except to say that given my international background and contact he'd like to keep in touch and perhaps call on me again some day in the future."
Nine weeks later, while Mulroney was no longer prime minister was still an MP, he went off to meet with Schreiber in an airport hotel room.
According to Mulroney, Schreiber wanted him to lobby other countries to buy armoured vehicles from the same company that hoped to build a plant in Canada.
Schreiber says he was paying Mulroney to use his influence to clear the way for the Nova Scotia plant.
Both agree that Mulroney took an envelope of cash from Schreiber. There was no contract or written agreement or even a specific indication of what he was supposed to do. Just an envelope stuffed with $1,000 bills - $75,000 Mulroney says, while Schreiber says $100,000.
Mulroney's explanation was that Schreiber said he was an international businessman who dealt in cash.
But what kind of international businessman is that? Are we really to believe that Bill Gates and Richard Branson don't use cheques?
Mulroney says it was a mistake on his part.
But he repeated the mistake twice more, meeting Schreiber in hotel rooms in Montreal and New York over the next year and taking more envelopes full of cash.
Mulroney never deposited the money in a bank. He just kept in safe deposit boxes and "integrated" it into his requirements.
The former prime minister testified he lobbied world leaders on Schreiber's behalf, but there's no record of his activities or corroboration.
Mulroney also acknowledged that while he took the money in 1993 and 1994, he didn't report it to Revenue Canada until 1999, after Schreiber faced criminal charges.
His explanation didn't make much sense. He claimed the money was used only for his expenses; he took no money for his work. So it wasn't income.
But then once Schreiber got in trouble, Mulroney said he decided to declare it to Revenue Canada.
Mulroney also left questions about his 1996 testimony in his lawsuit against the federal government over allegations related to Air Canada's purchase of planes from Airbus. The government paid Mulroney $2.1 million to settle the suit, which he says all went to expenses related to it.
During that process, Mulroney testified under oath that he had met Schreiber "once or twice for coffee" after leaving office. He said the question he was asked only related to the Airbus affair, and he had no obligation to reveal the hotel room meetings to collect cash.
Who knows what to believe? And that's not even getting into Schreiber's other political donations, or his claim that he contributed money to the effort to oust Joe Clark, clearing the way for Mulroney.
Add the whole sordid mess to the corruption uncovered by the Gomery inquiry, and it is impossible to have confidence the federal government is not tainted.
An inquiry is the only way to restore public trust.
Footnote: Columnist Norman Spector had a front row seat as Mulroney's chief of staff. He wrote in The Globe and Mail that action needs to be taken to curb the influence of lobbyists who move back and forth between partisan activities and attempts to influence the politicians they support with time and money.