Thursday, May 22, 2008

Campbell betrays principles with election gag law

It’s a bit much to hear Gordon Campbell claim the Liberals’ election gag law is needed to reduce the influence of big money in politics.
Campbell opposes any limits on political contributions. A forest company is free to give $1 million to the Liberals.
But under the proposed law, citizens who wanted to make forest policy an issue ina riding would be limited to spending $3,000 on advertising in the five months leading up to next May’s election.
And Campbell passionately, even ferociously, denounced a 1995 effort by the NDP to bring in a similar law limiting third-party advertising during an election campaign. (That is, advertising by anyone except political parties and candidates.)
“A gag order on third-party interests is simply wrong,” Campbell said . “This government has a record of restricting freedom of speech and this is simply another example of that record.”
What’s different? Then, the New Democrats’ gag law was aimed at preventing business groups from buying ads questioning their record during the imminent election campaign. (It was overturned by the courts and repealed by the Liberals.)
Now, the Liberal gag law is aimed at silencing unions or other critics in the same way.
There are differences. The NDP bill limited spending to $5,000, but only covered the election campaign period.
The Liberals’ gag law covers the five months before an election. It limits third parties to spending $150,000 across the province, or $3,000 in any individual riding.
Campbell pointed to those differences while trying to defend his flip-flop. But his opposition in 1995 wasn’t about the amounts. The Liberals opposed silencing citizens on principle.
In fact, some sort of third-party spending limits do make sense. Otherwise, a group or organization with big money could have an inordinate influence on an election campaign. Once they establish that influence, they could also have a lot of influence over the political party they backed. Otherwise, perhaps the money wouldn’t be there next time.
The trick is to get the balance right, setting limits that allow effective free speech while ensuring that elections aren’t decided by those able to spend the most.
The Liberal bill doesn’t come close to meeting that test. The $150,000 limit on advertising — $30,000 a month — isn’t enough to raise an issue across the province. The political parties are allowed to spend $6.6 million each during the same period.
And the riding limit is worse. There is no way a group can raise an issue effectively on a $3,000 ad budget. Individual candidates are allowed to spend 45 times that much to reach voters with their messages.
Whether it’s citizens concerned about the release of land from tree farm licences, or aquaculture companies worried that their practices are being unfairly criticized, the $3,000 limit denies them the right to raise their concerns in a local campaign.
That’s one of the things that’s striking about the Liberals’ bill. The opposition is strong from left, right and most points in between. B.C. unions launched an ad campaign against the bill — a pretty good one, featuring pictures of people with their mouths taped closed and the headline, “Gordon Campbell wants you to just shut up.”
But business leaders — like Phil Hochstein, of the association representing non-union construction associations — also oppose the bill. So do the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and other groups.
Across Canada, there has been a movement to limit the influence of big political donors. The federal government, as one example, has banned union and business donations and limited individual contributions.
Campbell doesn’t want any limits. If Teck Cominco wants to give $118,000 to the Liberals, as it did last year, that’s OK, as long as the donation is reported.
But he does want to limit the public’s right to raise issues in an election campaign, and is prepared to force the bill through the legislature without debate.
Footnote: Are the Liberals worried about the next election? As well as the gag law, the same bill includes measures that will deny homeless people and those without photo identification from voting. Elections BC says there’s no voting fraud problem; it wants to encourage more voters. The bill looks like a crude attempt to protect Liberal candidates in close ridings by denying the poor the chance to vote.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Public sold a phony story on Taser safety, use

Two things have jumped out from the provincial inquiry into Taser use.
First, the public has been misled at best, lied to at worst, about the safety of Tasers and the way they would be used.
And second, that civilian oversight of police is a myth in B.C. Government's claims that it sets policy on Taser use and most other police activities are empty.
I was an advocate for Tasers after a pilot project here in Victoria in 1999. They were pitched as a great tool that could make things safer for police and public.
At the end of a six-month trial, one of the officers enthusiastically talked cited examples from the nine times the Taser was used zap someone.
One case involved a naked, crazed man coming at officers with a long metal spike and deer antlers. If the Taser hadn't been available, he might have been shot.
Another involved a deranged man determined to leap up the window in his 12th-floor apartment. Police tasered him in the nick of time. (The officer who provided the examples and pushed to have the weapon approved received stock options from Taser International two years later for his work on a holster design.)
The police convinced me the weapon offered a safer alternative than other options in some cases. The claims were always about taking down armed attackers or dealing at a safe distance with suicidal or dangerous people, something not possible with pepper spray.
More importantly, they convinced then attorney general Ujjal Dosanjh.
But Dosanjh told the inquiry this month he was misled about the way police would use Tasers.
Kevin Begg, assistant deputy minister in the Solicitor General's Ministry, referred to "slippage" in Taser use. Instead of taking the time to de-escalate a situation, police are just zapping people who don't co-operate.
Begg isn't an armchair quarterback; he was an RCMP officer for 23 years. And he too was an initial supporter, describing the Taser as "a very valuable alternative to shooting someone with a firearm" when the pilot project was launched.
But that's now how the Taser has been used. The provincial inquiry was ordered after the death of Robert Dzienkanski at Vancouver's airport. Video evidence showed police made no effort to defuse the situation.
Earlier this month police zapped an 82-year-old man, who needs oxygen just to walk, as he lay in a Kamloops hospital bed. He was delusional because he couldn't catch his breath and refused to drop a knife with a three-inch blade.
But he wasn't enough of a danger to prevent an RCMP officer from approaching close enough to press the Taser against his stomach and zap him three times.
And Vancouver's transit police have tasered people, including fare evaders, for being "non-compliant."
That policy, changed last week, highlights the underlying problem.
As the death toll mounted, B.C.'s Police Complaints Commissioner did a review of Taser use and recommended clear limits. People had to be "actively resisting" officers before they could be hit with the electric charge.
The Solicitor General's Ministry claimed the new policy was in place. But all it did was send a one-page letter to police chiefs. As the transit police confirmed, the policy was widely and blatantly ignored. (Transit police even ignored a call to testify at the public inquiry until Solicitor General John van Dongen ordered the force to appear.)
Anyway, the policy is irrelevant for most British Columbians. About 70 per cent of them are policed by some 8,000 RCMP officers. The force does not accept any civilian oversight and refuses to allow the provincial government to set policies.
The Taser is still a potentially valuable tool. But seven people have died in B.C. after being the weapon was used on them; more than 300 in North America.
Police continue to insist there is no risk, and use it accordingly. Many continue to reject the notion of civilian control or oversight.
It's a dangerous combination.
Footnote: Taser International continues to insist the only risk from using the weapon is that the victim might fall and be injured and tells police to use it on that basis. This week, two cardiologists told the inquiry the stun guns could "almost certainly" cause heart attacks.