Thursday, May 08, 2008

Liberals walk into cover-up charges in deaths

It's rarely mistakes that get governments in trouble. It's the attempts to conceal them.
The Liberals are falling into that trap, fighting to keep important evidence from being heard at inquiries into two terrible deaths.
There's a grim inquest under way in Victoria, one touching on a lot of critical issues. A man broke stabbed to death his wife, young son, her parents and then himself.
The woman, Sunny Parks, had predicted the killings six weeks earlier, when Peter Lee crashed their vehicle into a utility pool in what she saw as an effort to kill or injure her. She had also recounted past abuse to police. She told them he always carried a knife.
But Crown prosecutors decided he should be released on bail. The police officers who had investigated disagreed. They thought Lee was dangerous.
But the prosecutors were unconvinced. Lee was released, with several conditions.
He didn't obey them. He violated orders not to call his wife and to stay away from her and the family home. Lee's bail supervisor warned she was having trouble tracking his movements.
So a bail review was scheduled. Neither Lee nor his lawyer showed. It lasted one minute. The Crown accepted an adjournment and a new hearing was set, for a week later. Lee knew bail might be revoked. And hours before the hearing, he went on a killing spree.
There were two chances for a different outcome. If prosecutors had argued that Lee should have been held in the first place. Or if they had argued that a warrant should be issued when he failed to appear for the second hearing.
There's no clear answer here. Locking up someone who might be innocent shouldn't be done lightly. Lee had no criminal record and owned a business. Jail would be a serious hardship.
A five-person jury is hearing the inquest evidence. The province sent a supervisor of Crown prosecutors to testify. She said the prosecutors did everything right - although police might have been at fault, she said. No policy changes were needed.
That was a little bit puzzling, given the five bodies.
Another Crown prosecutors manager frustrated the inquest by saying she couldn't answer many questions, because she wasn't involved in the actual decisions.
Lawyer Diane Turner, representing the B.C. Task Force on Family Violence at the inquest, described the first supervisor's testimony as "an insult the victims."
The jury and coroner Jeff Dolan decided they needed to hear from the prosecutors who made the decisions.
That seems reasonable. There are serious unanswered questions. Experts have testified the available information indicated Lee was a serious threat.
So why didn't the prosecutors act on that basis? Is their training in family violence adequate? Did a heavy workload influence the decision to let Lee be on the street? Were they worried that the local detention centre was already overcrowded? Did communication with police break down?
Fair questions, which only the prosecutors can answer. The coroner ordered the prosecutors to testify.
Then the provincial government stepped in. Prosecutors wouldn't be allowed to testify.
So even though Premier Gordon Campbell promised the inquest would answer all questions, it's now shut down indefinitely. The government is trying to get the coroner's order that the prosecutors testify overturned in B.C. Supreme Court.
It has linked the case with a similar battle at an inquiry into how Frank Paul was left by police to die in a Vancouver alley. The government is fighting the inquiry's order to hear from prosecutors in that case as well.
The questions are reasonable. Only the prosecutors can answer them.
And prosecutors have often testified at other inquiries. (In fact, Richard Peck, the lawyer the government has hired to argue prosecutors don't have to testify, demanded prosecutors be called when he was a defence lawyer in the Air India case.)
A family is dead. And the government is fighting to withhold evidence.
Footnote: The government is claiming that prosecutors - like judges - never have to account for any action or inaction. But judges are appointed; prosecutors are hired. Judges' decisions can be appealed all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada; there's no recourse or review of a prosecutor's decision.
Attorney General Wally Oppal says allowing them to testify would mean prosecutors would constantly have to second-guess their decisions. It's hard to what's so wrong with that; but the reality is that inquiries and inquests like these are extremely rare.
Among the victims are the two prosecutors being barred from testifying. The government's intransigence denies them the chance to talk about the efforts they made to reach the right decision.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Middle class losing ground in B.C.

Disturbing news in the latest StatsCan report on incomes in Canada.
The report, which used data from the 2006 census, found that people's perceptions were correct.
In Canada, and B.C., the rich have been getting richer and the poor have been getting poorer.
And in B.C., particularly, those in the middle have seen their incomes shrink since 1980.
Over 25 years, the real median income in B.C. fell 11.3 per cent, to $42,230. (The median income is the midpoint; half the people in the province earn more, half learn less.)
That's a big hit, for the middle class. Canadians have, for a couple of generations, believed that with hard work they could get ahead. That's not happening.
Even since 2000, average British Columbians have been losing ground. The real median income - adjusted for inflation - has fallen 3.4 per cent even as the government has celebrated its economic success.
What's most striking is how rarely this issue is even considered by government.
There's a great focus on overall economic growth - the rise in the gross domestic product each year. And governments track both job creation and employment statistics.
But they rarely - perhaps never - talk about targets that reflect not just the overall numbers, but the improvement or drop in the living standard of average people in the province.
Even Premier Gordon Campbell's response to the bad news from StatsCan fudged the issue.
Campbell noted "personal disposable income per capita in B.C. is up 17.2 per cent since 2000."
But again that's an aggregate number; the response ignores the way those increase are - or are not shared - among British Columbians.
The traditional view of government is that a rising tide lifts all boats. If the economy grows, everyone benefits.
But the StatsCan numbers show that's not true. That at the least, governments should be factoring income distribution into their plans.
There are lots of different ways to look at income numbers. The effects of taxes and transfers tend to reduce inequities slightly. And family incomes can rise even as individual incomes decline if two parents - and perhaps a child - can all find jobs in a good market.
But the fact remains the average British Columbian has a lower real income now than in 1980.
Some of the reasons seem obvious. Thousands of good jobs have vanished from the forest industry and fisheries. They were replaced with lower-paying work.
None of this is to suggest governments can guarantee wages. Some of the factors - the rise of foreign competitors for Canadian businesses, the decline of a forest industry that has cut down the best, most accessible timber - are largely beyond government's control.
Protecting mill jobs, for example, by requiring timber to be processed locally, might mean companies decide to shut down both logging and processing.
But government should at least be considering the effect of its decisions on individuals, not just on the broad economic impact. There's little evidence that is happening.
The federal and provincial governments have, for example, launched a radical expansion in programs to allow temporary foreign workers. Some 125,000 people from other countries have been accepted as short-term residents because employers say they can't find workers. About 36,000 were in B.C. in 2006.
The governments say without the workers, the economy would be hurt. But the reality is that they also depress wages in a market-based economy. Without them, some employers would pay more to attract the workers they need.
It might be a good program for the economy, but governments offer little evidence that they have given weight to the effect on average Canadians.
There is nothing inevitable about economic growth and the way in which the benefits flow. The results reflect the decisions government make.
And over the last several decades, those decisions have resulted in rising incomes for the rich, greater struggle for the poor and - in B.C, - lost ground for those in the middle.
Footnote: Campbell's response also noted, correctly, that tax cuts since 2001 have increased after-tax income for most British Columbians. But the benefits for a family of four with a household income of $90,000 are more than 50 per cent greater than the benefits to a family with an income of $30,000.