Friday, June 13, 2008

Carbon taxes and making the most of your $100

The province’s cautious carbon tax is starting to look insignificant as gas prices spike.
But the $100 rebate cheques designed to help sell the tax are still going to be dropping into mailboxes all across the province. And there’s the chance to do something extraordinary with that money.
Say even one-quarter of the people in the Okanagan decide to pass the windfall on – to a church, or the United Way, or an organization working with the homeless or disadvantaged kids. That’s $9.5 million – the equivalent of seven years’ worth of United Way fundraising in Kelowna and Penticton.
First, let’s consider the carbon tax. You’ll start paying it on fuel July 1, with the most obvious change an extra 2.4 cents tax per litre of gasoline.
Back in February, when the Liberals introduced the tax in the budget, it was a little controversial.
Not just because it would climb to 7.2 cents a litre by 2012. Rural communities and industry worried about the immediate impact, on gas and heating oil and the costs of transportation.
Gas prices were about $1.09 then in Victoria. The extra 2.4 cents seemed significant.
Now they’re $1.49 – a 37-per-cent increase in four months. The 2.4 cents doesn’t seem like such a problem.
The politics of carbon taxes have got quite weird. The NDP voted against the Liberals’ tax, claiming the party supports carbon taxes, just not this one.
The position doesn’t make much sense and seems politically risky. Voters who care about climate change and don’t like the Liberals are now going to have to think seriously about voting Green.
Meanwhile, federal Liberal leader Stephane Dion is proposing a tax like Campbell’s. The Conservatives have launched some silly attack ads calling it a tax grab, which they must know is baloney. (The ads aren’t helpful to the provincial Liberals, Premier Gordon Campbell acknowledges.)
The Harper crew look pretty hypocritical. The federal government collects GST on gas. The price increases of the last four months alone have meant an extra two cents a litre in sales taxes. That’s not far off a carbon tax.
And remember that in the run-up to the 2004 federal election, Stephen Harper pledged to lift the GST on any gas price above 85 cents a litre.
Ultimately, it seems simple. If you accept that carbon emissions are causing global warming and the problem is serious, then higher fuel prices encouraging conservation, efficiency and new energy sources make sense. They change behaviour.
The trick is to bring in the tax in an equitable way. On that basis, the Liberals’ plan still makes sense.
What’s looking a little less sound is their promise that other tax cuts would offset the carbon tax. It probably would have made more sense to devote the new revenue to efforts to reduce greenhouse gases.
The $100 rebate – a bribe to make people feel better about the carbon tax - makes less sense. It will go to everyone in the province, even babies. The tenuous connection is that it will somehow allow you to buy a more efficient car or insulate your basement, so you can avoid paying the carbon tax.
More likely, the rebates will be seen as a windfall by a lot of people.
And that creates an extraordinary opportunity for British Columbians. The government is sending out about $440 million in rebates (and spending $10 million to do it).
For many people, that money is badly needed and already spent.
But for a lot of us, the cheques offer a great chance to make a difference in our communities — to take a serious look at which agencies or organizations are making a difference, and pass the money on. The donation could be to organizations working on climate change, or with the homeless, or helping children.
SWhat a difference we can make, together.
Footnote: It’s not just the money. It’s a tough slog for non-profits, a constant search for money to provide the services. When a $100 cheque comes in the mail, it’s a vote of confidence, And most will welcome some questions about how they plan to use the money before you pass your rebate along.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

BC Rail prosecution a travesty

The BC Rail corruption trial grows more surreal - and more remote from justice as most us understand it - with each passing month. And there have been a lot of them - 53 months since the raid on the legislature.

The Crown is fighting to keep the defence lawyers from hearing the evidence of informant. The B.C. Supreme Court justice hearing the case ruled the defence lawyers had a right to be present; the Crown prosecutor has challenged the ruling in the B.C. Appeal Court and has vowed to continue to the Supreme Court of Canada. (Money is no object, when taxpayers are signing the cheques.)

The case has long past the point at which it is bringing the entire justice system into disrepute, with much of the responsibility falling on the prosecutors.

Bill Tieleman - as always - has excellent updates on the latest hearings.

Tribunal wrong place to take hate-speech claims

The hysteria greeting a B.C. Human Rights Tribunal hearing on charges that Maclean's magazine incited
hatred against Muslims is kind of creepy.
The critics of the process are right; it is a threat to free speech. And the issues are important.
But the rhetoric and the casting of the case as the last battleground in defence of Western civilization has been
over the top. By time the hearing concluded, the public battering of the Muslim complainants started to look a lot
like a one-sided schoolyard brawl.
The case goes back to 2006, when Maclean's printed excerpts from Mark Steyn's book America Alone.
Steyn is a clever, provocative U.S.-based right-wing writer who courts controversy and recognizes its marketing
The magazine made the piece a cover story, but it was pretty much ignored.
Steyn's piece argued that demography is dooming North America and Europe. The world's Muslims have larger
families and a much younger population, while the West is aging. They would end up taking over by dint of
numbers and unity.
He cited dubious examples of the looming takeover. Somehow an assault on a bus in Antwerp by three young
Moroccan men became a symbol of Muslim advances.
It didn't convince me, but Steyn's argument was certainly legitimate commentary, raising relevant issues.
The Canadian Islamic Congress didn't think so. It tried to persuade Maclean's to run a rebuttal of equal length. The
magazine said no.
So the congress, through individuals, filed complaints with the federal, Ontario and B.C. human rights tribunals.
Ontario's commission wouldn't hear the complaint, though it criticized Maclean's for not allowing a full response;
the federal process is still ahead; and the B.C. tribunal has heard the evidence and is considering its decision.
Human rights bodies, with the power to hear complaints and make judgments, are important. We've agreed that
individuals have rights, including the right to an equal chance in life. Discrimination based on race or religion or
sexual orientation or colour violates those individual rights.
People need a way to defend themselves against discrimination. The human rights tribunals were created to
provide an accessible process, one that offered a chance to reach settlements but still had the power to impose
judgments. The process is less formal than the courts.
The B.C. tribunal tends to make the news with unusual cases. But is serves an important role in protecting people
from acts of discrimination.
And that is one critical factor that is different about the Maclean's hearing. There are no acts of discrimination to
The complaint is levelled under a section of the B.C. Human Rights Code that makes it an offence to say or write
something that is likely to expose a person or group to "hatred or contempt."
It's not an appropriate role for the human rights tribunal. The process - as demonstrated in the Maclean's hearing
- is too informal. The code doesn't distinguish between hate-filled rants and political or cultural argument. And the
offence can be highly subjective and based on feelings, not actions.
It is the wrong way to make any decision limiting the right to free speech.
Minorities have a legitimate need for protection from writings or statements that incite hatred against them.
That protection is already provided by the Criminal Code, which makes it an offence to incite hatred against any
group "where such incitement is likely to lead to a breach of the peace." That is a critical distinction.
The Criminal Code also sets out acceptable defences, including protection for statements made as part of an
honest debate on a matter of public significance. Again, a critical distinction.
And the criminal process ensures a rigorous and consistent approach to deciding the issue.
The Maclean's case has highlighted the major flaws in the current approach to these types of cases under human
rights' laws. The solution should be to remove these offences from the code and allow tribunals to focus on acts
of discrimination.
Footnote: Don't expect any action from the provincial government on the issue. Human rights legislation is
politically charged, with any changes watched closely by minority communities for signs protection is being
eroded. Governments are loathe to make changes that could cost them votes.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Corky Evans on life in politics

The Times Colonist had a nice editorial on the announcement that Corky Evans is retiring from provincial politics.

The Arrow Lakes News offered an interesting Q&A interview to mark the occasion.

I can't forget that Evans was part of the train wreck of an NDP government of the late 1990s; that's not a great resume item.

But he did bring a consistent view that government's role is to help make life better for the people who live in the province, not to just stand back and hope for the best.

And, as this earlier column from the Times Colonist shows, Evans is one of the best speakers in the legislature.