Thursday, August 21, 2008

Harper’s drug flyers a dishonest abuse of tax dollars

The federal Conservatives seem set on confirming many people’s worst fears with their sleazy, dishonest and just plain stupid direct mail pieces to millions of Canada homes.
And at the same time, they’re playing fast and loose with taxpayers’ money, pretending that partisan promotional material is legitimate communication between MPs and the public.
You’ve seen them. The flyers are cheap looking single sheets, with a picture or two of Steven Harper and a headline on some issue. Then there’s a ballot, with an arrow aimed at Harper’s name.
And the flyer likely came to your mailbox from some Conservative MP you’ve never heard of in another province.
MPs can send mail at no cost; the government compensates Canada Post. The intent is to let them keep their constituents informed. (You can write MPs without putting stamps on the envelopes too.)
But these aren’t information pieces. And they’re not going to the people MPs represent. They’re political ads, masquerading as legitimate communications.
A lot of people voted for Harper’s party because they were sick of seeing these kinds of abuses. They wanted a moral, conservative government that respected the rules and the need to spend taxpayers’ money responsibly. They expected better.
And other people voted for them because recent Liberal governments appalled them. Some worried a Conservative government might impose an aggressive social conservative agenda, but decided to trust Harper.
And a flyer that has attracted a lot of attention has made a lot of them figure that was a mistake.
It has a picture on the outside of a syringe laying a playground, and a big headline: “Safe?”
Inside, there’s a jail door and more headlines: “Junkies and drug pushers don’t belong near children and families. They should be in rehab or behind bars.”
The Liberals let thugs and drug pushers write the rules, the flyer says. The Conservatives will “keep junkies in rehab and off the streets.”
It’s really offensive, perhaps mostly because the flyer assumes Canadians are both dumb and lacking in basic compassion. While many Canadians might be sick of dealing with the effects of addiction, they are not stupid.
The language in the flyers tells part of the story. A junkie is someone you sweep off the street, into the garbage. An addict, someone with a mental illness, they are people – someone’s son or daughter. And most of us – most of the time – see that.
And the wording of “keep junkies in rehab and off the streets” is plain dishonest on two levels.
No party – including the Conservatives – has called for compulsory detention and treatment for people with addictions.
It wouldn’t work, it raises a slew of rights issues and Canadians wouldn’t stand for government round ups of thousands of people in B.C. alone.
The capital region has 1,500 to 2,000 injection drug users, and thousands more with other addictions. Would a Harper majority government send squadrons out to drag them all off to rehab?
And where, exactly, would they go? There are about 100 residential spaces for the entire Vancouver Island. How would the Conservatives increase treatment capacity 40 or 50 times?
While the government is promising to lock up thousands of people, addicts who want to get clean today and seek help are being told there is no space for them and sent back to the streets.
And this all came as Health Minister Tony Clement accused the Canadian Medical Association members of unethical conduct because the organization supports safe injection sites. All the legitimate research shows the sites reduce sickness and death and connect users with other services, including treatment. There are no negative consequences.
But Clement doesn’t like the idea, so Canada’s doctors are accused of acting unethically.
There is a lot to be said for a true conservative party – one that respects individual rights and taxpayers’ money and approaches problems pragmatically.
Too bad Canada doesn’t have one.
Footnote: It’s odd, really. The Conservatives’ dishonest flyers might be appealing to a minority who already would likely vote for them. But in the process, there are scaring away the voters Harper needs to win a majority – moderate Canadians who just want competent, pragmatic government.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Campbell’s raises a poke in eye for public

There is no way in the world Gordon Campbell can justify the giant pay increases just handed to government senior managers.
Not that he bothered to try.
No owner of private business would throw his own money around so irresponsibly. A corporate exec who did would be grilled by the board.
About 150 people are eligible the big increases. Assistant deputy ministers are in line for retroactive raises of 22 per cent, in one jump. The new top rate of pay for the job is $195,000.
Deputy ministers - the chief operating officers of ministries - are in line for 35-per-cent raises, taking them to $299,215.
And the deputy minister to the premier, the top manager in government, gets a 43-per-cent raise in pay scale, from $240,000 to $348,600. That's a $108,600 raise, equivalent to seven years of full-time work at minimum wage.
Organizations sometimes have to pay big money to get the best talent. That's why some NHL team will end up paying Mats Sundin $8 million a year to play hockey.
And market forces could apply equally to the need to pay a big premium to attract the best scientists, doctors - or managers.
But well-managed organizations only spend the money when they have to.
The Campbell government has offered no argument that it needs to send salaries skyward to attract competent people. The only justification offered in the news release on the increases was a desire to make B.C.'s pay scale for top managers one of the highest of any government in Canada.
In fact, the government didn't issue the release until a Friday after the increases had already taken effect. Campbell was off in China, unable to explain or defend the huge pay hikes. The best other government reps could do was note that not all senior managers would necessarily get the raises.
There was apparently some sort of salary review, but the government hasn't released it.
These are not catch-up increases, needed because pay scales have been neglected.
Managers have been getting raises every year. And just two years ago, the government announced major increases and the promise that the pay scales would stand until 2010.
In that round of raises, the top pay for deputy ministers was increased by nine per cent and for assistant deputy ministers by 40 per cent.
So, since the 2005 election the government has handed senior managers pay scale increases of 50 per cent to 70 per cent.
But there has been no evidence of high turnover or difficulty filling these positions. While some of the jobs are demanding, the compensation - before these extraordinary increases - put them in the top one or two per cent of wage earners. And many of the jobs don't pose the kind of challenges that justify the pay scale.
And the incumbents all took the jobs knowing what the pay scales were and presumably considering it acceptable.
The cost of the increases is estimated at some $4 million a year.
But that's just the start. The government increased pay for MLAs by 29 per cent - and the premier by 54 per cent - last year. Defenders of the increase noted that elected representatives were falling behind the bureaucrats. This opens the door for more increases.
And everyone working in government, starting with managers one level below, can now make the argument that they too need increases for just the same reasons.
The raises, and the way they were introduced, show a remarkable disdain for the public. Campbell had to know that there would be anger and concern.
Yet he made no effort to explain, defend or justify the extraordinary windfall for those at the top of the public service period. There was no indication that government even felt a need to justify its actions.
It's a far cry from the political party that campaigned in 2001 on the need for accountability and responsibility in spending taxpayers' money.
Footnote: The whole affair should be discouraging for the NDP, which has made a questionable pledge to roll back the increases. It suggests the Liberals feel they can thumb their noses at the public and still win next May's election.