Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Paying companies not to cut down trees

If you want to understand how tricky - and important - climate change agreements are, take a look at forests.

At meetings like the Copenhagen summit, governments and industry are working hard to build advantage into any agreements.

The big picture is that annual emissions limits of some kind will likely be set.

And a cap and trade system will let people make money if they find ways to cut production of greenhouse gases.

A B.C. pulp mill, for example, might now be producing 150,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year burning oil and gas.

Switching to wood waste as fuel for much of the year could reduce that by 100,000 tonnes. Under a cap-and-trade system, the company could then sell those credits to another company - perhaps an oilsands developer - that wanted to exceed its cap.

Europe already has a carbon market. Based on prices there - about $18 a tonne - the pulp company could sell the credits today for $1.8 million. . (All the numbers are based on real-world examples.)

It's an incentive to find ways to cut greenhouse gas emissions. As caps are reduced, the credits will be more valuable. B.C.'s carbon tax is based on a value of $15 tonne now, doubling in the next three years.

Cutting down trees generates a lot of greenhouse gases. Trees, as big plants, take in carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. The carbon dioxide is stored in the wood.

So a giant coastal red cedar represents a big carbon sink. The trees can live 1,400 years. That's long time to be sequestering carbon.

Here's where it gets complicated and interesting. An old red cedar could weigh 1,000 tonnes. If you were about to cut down the tree, you could - depending on the carbon rules - get paid $18,000 a year to put the chainsaw away.

Imagine thousands of square kilometres of coastal forest and the carbon credits to be sold from private land, First Nations territory and Crown land.

With the right rules, there is big money to be made and a chance for B.C. to increase emissions from other sources because of its forests.

But negotiating the right rules - part of the Copenhagen process - is tricky.

If the tree falls down and rots, or is burned in a forest fire, all that carbon is eventually released. Global warming means forests are degrading more quickly - so quickly Canada doesn't want forest emissions to be counted under a cap and trade system.

There are a lot of questions. Should B.C. be able to claim credits for not cutting trees in existing? If a company chooses not to log 100 acres of woodland, how are carbon credits determined?

Should companies that produce lumber, which continues to hold carbon, claim a partial credit? What's the greenhouse-gas reduction value of replanting trees to absorb carbon over the next few centuries?

Those questions will be sorted out over the next few years by negotiators in expensive suits. Billions of dollars rest on the outcomes.

And a lot of jobs. The forest industry has struggled for at least a decade. Now companies could have a financial incentive not to log.

The theory is that other areas of the economy will benefit and grow. But the company selling the carbon credits could invest the money anywhere. The buyers could be in another province or U.S. state.

The stakes are remarkably high. And the potential for building in ways to game the system is huge.

Despite all that, cap and trade is an important part of any effort to reduce emissions. The system will encourage innovation and allow flexibility for companies or countries that face challenges in meeting the targets necessary to greenhouse gas reductions. (A carbon tax, like British Columbia's, achieves some of the same goals although with a narrower focus.)

But defining, winning agreement on and managing an effective, equitable system is going to be a big challenge.

Footnote: B.C. was the only province to increase industrial greenhouse gas emissions in 2008. One exception was the pulp and paper industries, as mills took down time because of poor markets. Once the cap and trade system is in place, the chance to sell credits will be another incentive to reduce operations when times are tough.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Back again, with the same old resolution

It’s been 10 years since we welcomed a new millennium. I said goodbye to the 20th century in a high school gym rented for a big party of extended family and friends. The midnight song — my choice — was Great Big Sea’s defiant version of R.E.M.’s It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

Of course, every year, every day, can be the end of the world as we know it. A few dozen people can, probably to their own amazement, succeed in a wild plan to fly planes into skyscrapers. A few hundred business guys can attract trillions of dollars into investment vehicles that make no sense, and then stand back when it all collapses.

And one person close to you can soar, or fall. Really, that’s the end of the world as we know it. The 9/11 attacks led to two destructive wars, hundreds of thousands of lost lives and a huge erosion of freedom. The financial collapse cost people their jobs, their savings and their homes.

But when most of us look back over the decade, those things don’t defines it for us.

Ten years ago, my partner and I had three teenagers at home. All three are launched, wonderful people making their way in the world, which is of course a challenge in its own right. I could ask for nothing more from the decade.

We had one grandchild, Paxton. Now we have four — Zachary and Gage and Owen — and Kaleb and Spencer are part of the extended crew. Together they have had way more impact than the 9/11 terror. 

Back in that last century, everyone had different jobs. We didn’t have an RV. We’ve logged thousands of miles since, with children and grandchildren and by ourselves

We had four parents. Now we have three. That’s a gap in everyone’s lives that won’t go away.

And we’re all quite a bit older, kids, grandkids, parents and my partner and me. Ten years will do that.

I’m troubled by 9/11 and its consequences. Sad that Americans have not yet rebuilt the towers. Angry that destructive financial frauds shattered so many lives. Discouraged by politicians who  too often act in ways unworthy of the people who elected them.

But really, the last 10 years are defined by how things went for the people who I know.

Newspapers are big on end-of-year stories. Partly, that’s because we need to fill a lot of pages between Christmas and New Year’s and generally not much is happening. So we write about newsmakers and memorable events. We hope you will share the idea that these things matter to your life.

They should matter, of course. Other people’s children are being killed in Afghanistan while mine are doing wonderfully on two continents. They have been sent there because the MPs who represent us judge the sacrifice worth making. But would they send their children? I’d urge mine not to go.

Really, the biggest stories of 2009 aren’t about politicians or generals or CEOs.

The new baby, the lost family member, the sickness, the recovery. The wedding, the separation, the happy night of food and laughter. The people who matter to us.

I hope people will keep paying attention to the big public issues in the New Year.

But even more, I hope they will pay attention to the people in their lives. Everything starts with paying attention. Noticing a child who seems sad, or a parent who is worried, or a friend who is struggling. Hearing a small sad story and realizing you can change the ending with a little money or time or a kind word.

And of course, paying attention to how you feel — what makes you happy, angry, peaceful. Once you start doing that, you can think about changing yourself and the world around you to make it a better place. It starts, I think, in the quiet of your own home. And what better time than now, when family and friends tend to be at hand and strangers a little more open.

This year, make a resolution to pay attention, to people and places and the way the light strikes the trees and the music sounds in the evening air. Everything can start with those simple acts.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Ton Anh Nguyen and the war on drugs

Ton Anh Nguyen is 56, sickly, poor, a drug user and a criminal. In 2007, undercover Vancouver police officers approached him and asked if he had crack or cocaine for sale. Nguyen went to another man, got what might have been drugs, gave them to the undercover officer and was given $10.
Nguyen was charged with trafficking. He was convicted after a jury trial. The Crown asked for nine months in jail; his lawyer asked for a conditional sentence which would see him serve the term in the community.
Justice Ian Pitfield disagreed. The entire reasons for sentencing are worth a read, but I've pasted the highlights below. The comments on the failure of enforcement efforts and the option of legalization and regulation of narcotics are worth debate.

"This case, to my mind, reflects the futility and waste associated with the pursuit of low level street traffickers such as Mr. Nguyen. This is an individual who had no drug or anything he could represent as a drug on his person at the time he was first approached by police. He left to approach somebody on the street curb who he must have known and who possessed the substance or something that could be represented to be the substance. Nguyen had no cash, no drug paraphernalia, and nothing to indicate any connection with the drug trade on his person when he was actually arrested. Four or five officers were involved in the operation.
"The supply and sale of controlled substances continues unabated in the Downtown Eastside and will undoubtedly continue as long as there are illegal products for which there is a market, or for which, because of the substantial profit, suppliers will create a market if none exists. Costly law enforcement appears to have been totally ineffective at forestalling the trafficking of narcotics in the Downtown Eastside. One is left to wonder whether, as is sometimes and more frequently suggested, legalization and regulation of narcotics would provide a better means of control.
" I am not persuaded that Nguyen is going to benefit in any way, shape, or form from a custodial sentence in the range of 9 months as the Crown suggests. Nor, in his circumstances, is that term going to deter him in the future. He will gain little in the way of skills in the period of time he will actually be incarcerated. He is already a drain on the public purse. I am left to ponder whether there is anything that is going to assist this individual in terms of rehabilitation or anything that will encourage him to pursue a reasonable and responsible lifestyle in the future.
" I am likewise persuaded that the imposition of a conditional sentence order would be equally futile. I have no confidence whatsoever that Mr. Nguyen will be bound by the terms of a conditional sentence order. I fully expect that given his record in the past and his life circumstances, it is only a matter of time before he would be back before the court facing an allegation that he had breached a condition.
"Mr. Nguyen’s offence cannot be excused given the current state of the law, but it is a situation which, in my judgment, is well-suited to a suspended sentence. The purpose of suspending sentence is to let the accused know that no sentence has been passed and, in the event that he breaches any of the conditions that I am about to impose, he will be called back before the court likely to be sentenced to a period of incarceration, whether conditionally or otherwise remains to be seen."

Monday, December 21, 2009

Empty words on family violence

One of the good ways to judge politician-speak is to transpose the comments into real life.
Last Friday, an inquest jury made 14 recommendations on domestic violence after hearing evidence of stumbles and inefficiencies leading up to a mass murder-suicide in the capital region. Peter Lee killed his six-year-old son, the boy’s mother, her parents and then himself. He was free on bail – despite police pleas that he be held – after crashing his car in what she said was an attempt to kill her. He had a history of violence and had violated bail conditions. She told police he would kill her.
The recommendations weren’t surprising. The killings happened more than two years ago and the inquest has been conducted in fits and starts as government-paid lawyers fought to suppress evidence the jury sought.
Solicitor General Kash Heed was charged with delivering the government’s reponse.
Here’s what he said
"We are committed to dealing with domestic violence in the province of British Columbia. On the surface, from a lot of those recommendations, those are things that we will look at, those are things that we will determine when and if we can put them in place."
So imagine you’ve just a home inspection after a fire and the report set out 14 things that needed to be done to keep your family safe.
And your clever 12-year-old reads the report, and in a worried way, asks mum and dad what they are going to do.
"We are committed to dealing with fire risk in our home,” dad says. “On the surface, from a lot of those recommendations, those are things that we will look at, those are things that we will determine when and if we can put them in place."
How well would your child sleep that night?
How well should victims of family violence be sleeping in B.C.?
The Times Colonist has an editorial on the response today.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Ben Stewart stumbles on another privacy breach, this time linked to U.S. Homeland Security

So is poor Ben Stewart being kept in the dark by others in government, or is he keeping the public in the dark.
Stewart is the minister for citizen services and responsible for, among other things, the protection of the personal information every British Columbian has to share with government.
This week, the Times Colonist revealed another security breach.
They asked Stewart about it Thursday and he revealed little.
Someone in the Housing Ministry appeared to have sent sensitve personal information to an outside using government e-mail, he told reporter Rob Shaw.
"They were e-mailing files inappropriately from the office to another person," Stewart said. "We don't exactly know who this other individual is, but it's believed they could be in the United States."
"At least three" British Columbians have been sent letters warning their confidential information was compromised.
The Times Colonist report ended with a note inviting those who had received the letters or others with information to call the reporter. (The first story is here.)
And within 24 hours, the government revealed Stewart's version was, to put it kindly, incomplete.
On Friday, the government said the employee is accused of e-mailing the personal data to a U.S. border guard in Washington State - that is, an agent of the far-reaching Homeland Security apparatus. The government also believes the B.C. government employee and Homeland Security guard had a personal relationship. (The second story is here.)
So what the explanation for Stewart's public claim that the government didn't know who received the information, only that "it's believed they could be in the United States."
Since the next day the next day the government revealed it knew who the information had gone into and the person's job.
Was Stewart kept in the dark about the breach, which was discovered in September?
Or did he decide not to be open and accountable with the public?
Not just with the public.
The government identified the breach in September. It didn't notify the people at risk until November. And it didn't advise Privacy Commissioner David Loukidelis, the legislative officer charged with investigating such incidents, until this month.
What's in the files? The Housing Ministry handles rent assistance for thousands of British Columbians; income assistance and disability benefits for thousands more. It runs gambling, so has files on lottery distributors, casino employees and crime investigations.
And now a U.S. border guard and perhaps Homeland Security have some of the same information.
There is another question for Stewart. The government knew about this beach at the same time he was offering misleading and incomplete answers about another privacy breach uncovered by Shaw and reporter Lindsay Kines that affected 1,400 British Columbians.
The government had known about that breach, and the risk of identity theft and fraud, since April - before the election.
But the information was kept secret, even from the people at risk, until November.
Stewart initially said he had learned of the breach two weeks earlier, leaving the impression the government had learned at the same time.
Only when the RCMP contradicted the claim did he provide more complete information.
Open and accountable government?
Or catch us if you can?

Friday, December 18, 2009

Haida, B.C. hope to cash in on carbon credits

From Copenhagen to Haida Gwaii, climate change is in the news and bringing big economic shifts.
The B.C. government has just signed "reconciliation protocols" with the Haida and six coastal First Nations.
They agreements are like treaties-lite, an effort to bring some certainty to development and economic benefits to the communities. The big obstacles to treaties - land, cash, finality - are left to be negotiated later. It?s a reasonable approach.
It was striking that both protocols included commitments on "carbon-offset sharing" between the province and First Nations. Agreements are supposed to be in place within 10 months.
You can draw a pretty direct line from the coastal communities to the Copenhagen climate summit, where there is support for a cap-and-trade system on emissions.
That's where B.C. and First Nations figure there is money to be made. Cap and trade is a big part of the provincial government's bid to reduce greenhouse gases by one-third by 2020.
It might sound a little, well, tedious.
But it's likely going to cost you money, so why not pay attention?
The goal is to let the market drive innovations that reduce greenhouse gases.
But it starts with government setting all the rules.
It's straightforward in theory. The government, or a group of governments, would set greenhouse-gas emission caps for economic sectors and individual companies. The caps would be reduced each year in line with overall reduction targets for the country or province.
So Paul's Homegrown Tomato Greenhouse might start with a government-allocated cap of 2,500 tonnes of carbon-dioxide emissions a year, based on the natural gas and electricity to keep the tomatoes cozy.
But I might decide to install heat-retaining curtains for use at night and on really cloudy days. They could reduce my use of gas and cut emissions by 500 tonnes.
Under the cap-and-trade system, I could then sell my unused emission allowance to some other business that needed to exceed its cap by the same amount. We'd negotiate a price and all would be well.
Companies that wanted to produce more greenhouse gases - perhaps to expand their businesses - could. They would have just have to buy the offsets from someone reducing emissions.
Overall, greenhouses gas production would fall as caps were reduced. Companies would be encouraged to invest in greater efficiency and new processes, because they could sell their emission allowances to others.
As the caps got lower, the market value of emission allowances would climb and the incentive to cut greenhouse gas production would increase.
In the real world, it all gets much messier. In setting caps, governments can provide big advantages or big penalties to specific sectors and companies.
And calculating and verifying emission reductions is tricky. If Paul's Tomatoes are tasteless and I'm going out of business anyway, closing the greenhouse and selling the emission credits to an oilsands company that wants to produce more greenhouse gases isn't really reducing greenhouse gases.
It's even trickier when it comes to the kind of forest carbon offsets envisioned in the recent deals with First Nations. Plants, as we learned in Grade 9, take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen. Trees store the carbon in the wood. If they burn or rot, the carbon dioxide is released.
If you cut them down and make two by fours, the timber still stores carbon. But sawmill waste, stumps and branches all release carbon dioxide.
So if the province and the Haida decide not to log forests, they reduce emissions. Under cap and trade, they can sell the allowance to the highest bidder.
But the calculations are complex. They depend on how efficient the harvest and replanting would have been and the age of the forest, even how fast replacement trees would have grown.
We are entering a new world and the rules - which bring big financial benefits and penalties - are being written on the fly.
I'll look at more at the forest potential in a future column.
Footnote: B.C. is already experimenting with carbon credits and the greenhouse example is based on a real project. The curtains cut emissions by 500 tonnes. The Pacific Carbon Trust, a new Crown corporation paid something like $12,000 to the company. It then resold the credits to government and a couple of businesses that want to offset their carbon emissions.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Will a committee tame 'Wild West' municipal campaigns?

It would be pretty easy to take over a mid-sized town in B.C.
Not in an uprising. Just by writing cheques.
Municipal election campaigns are, as Community Minister Bill Bennett said recently, "a bit of the Wild West."
There are no limits on political donations or spending. Third parties can spend as much as they like to influence the election without even revealing their identities.
The potential for corruption is so great that it's almost inevitable.
Say you're a developer keen on a lucrative rezoning or the extension of services to property you own. Or you're a public sector union president, worried about wage cuts or layoffs in the next round of contract negotiations.
You notice that hardly anyone votes - just under 20 per cent of those eligible in Kelowna in the last municipal election, for example.
You recognize that name recognition is important when voters aren't paying much attention to issues and campaigns. That's why incumbents have a huge advantage.
You realize that for a relatively modest sum, you could ensure the election of councillors and a mayor who would see things your way.
And everything you do will be completely legal. No wonder money from special interests have started to play a larger and larger role in municipal elections, from Vancouver to much smaller communities.
In part because of pressure from the Union of B.C. Municipalities, Premier Gordon Campbell government promised to do something about it back on Oct. 2.
A task force would look at all aspects of municipal elections, he said, from campaign financing to changing the current three-year cycle.
The project has been slow in starting. The government says the UBCM needed extra time to decide on its representatives.
But now Bennett and UBCM president Harry Nyce, the co-chairs, have been joined by two UBCM vice-presidents - Quesnel Mayor Mary Sjostrom and Surrey Coun. Barbara Steele.
Liberal MLAs Douglas Horne of Coquitlam and Donna Barnett of the Cariboo-Chilicotin riding. Barnett is a former mayor of the District of 100 Mile House.
You will notice something about the MLAs on the task force. They are all Liberal.
Bennett says the idea of including New Democrats or independent MLA Vicki Huntington never came up and they didn't ask to be involved during the planning stages. And the premier did say in October that government MLAs would be on the task force.
Steele, one of the UBCM reps, is also a Liberal. She ran for the party in 2005.
That creates an interesting problem for the task force, at least in terms of public perception.
Municipal politicians are looking for reforms that include limits on both campaign spending and donations. A survey of 38 B.C. mayors done earlier this year found 82 per cent supported both measures.
The notion that people or organizations with the biggest bank accounts shouldn't be able to determine the outcome of elections has been pretty widely accepted. The federal government, Manitoba and Quebec have all banned union and corporate donations and limited personal donations. Ontario allows donations from companies and unions, but limits them to $15,500 a year, or twice that much in an election year.
But Gordon Campbell has ignored a series of recommendations and insisted that no limits on donations are needed in B.C. There are spending limits.
His theory is that as long as donations must be reported, the public can be alert for any signs of special treatment for big donors.
It's a lame argument. The donation reports come out long after an election. Few people will pore through hundreds of reports. And even if there was favoritism for big donors, how would they know given the large number of decisions quietly made by government?
That puts the Liberal-dominated task force in a tough spot. Any call for donation limits will contradict the boss's insistence they aren't needed.
The group is going to be looking for public input. The output will be what's interesting.
Footnote: The task force has its work cut out. The report and recommendations are due by May 30, because the government would like any changes to the rules for municipal elections to be in place for the 2011 vote. That will require legislative changes.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

'Innovative' deal with developer needs better process (Note: The column is better than that terrible headline)

The new release from Housing Minister Rich Coleman was headlined "Innovative $32M affordable housing announced for Victoria."
Innovative it is. Affordable is relative; the project will offer condos and apartments at a 10-per-cent discount on market rates. That's not enough to make the housing affordable for many people, when one-bedroom condos will still sell for $350,000.
And the structure of the deal raises several questions.
Here are the basics.
Developer Rick Ilich, through Townline Victoria, bought the block in downtown Victoria that includes the historic Hudsons's Bay store, which has a great exterior façade.
The plan is for a renovation of the beautiful old building that preserves the exterior while creating striking condos. Ilich also planned two other buildings on the block, replacing a parkade.
All in, it was to be worth some $300 million.
Then came the recession and progress slowed. A neighboring project ran into trouble and Townline bought that property as well.
And now the provincial government has effectively taken over as developer of one of the three buildings on the Bay block.
It's kind of a private-public partnership in reverse. The risk transfer is to taxpayers, not the private partner.
According to the government's news release, Townline will sell the portion of the property to the government, and eventually a non-profit operator of the building, for 80 per cent of the market price - $4 million. (Ilich said the sale price was 80 per cent of the company's costs in the land, incurred before the economic collapse.)
The provincial government will become the developer of the 13-storey tower.
It will borrow $32 million and hire a company to do the construction.
The news release said "TL Housing Solutions Ltd., an experienced developer of non-market housing, will develop the site."
TL Housing does have several projects on the go. It's the developer for a 51-unit rental project on Wilson Street in Vic West being funded by B.C. Housing and the city of Victoria. The company was formed to focus on those kinds of opportunities. The company offers to "be the interface at the municipal, provincial and federal political levels. We can uncover access to density bonuses, civic contributions, BC Housing funding programs and subsidies, as well as CMHC sponsored project funding and favorable loan rates."
It's a clever business model.
But in the interests of openness, the news release might have noted that TL Housing is also a Ilich company, with Rick IIich's wife Lauren as the president.
Not that there is anything wrong with that.
In this kind of unorthodox deal, though, transparency is essential. The benefits, costs and risks being assumed by all parties need to be clear.
And the fact that the developer selling the land is also benefiting from a $32-million untendered construction contract should have been acknowledged.
The provincial government plans to get the $32 million back. It hopes to sell 40 units as condos and take in $15 million, or an average $375,000 per unit.
And once it selects a non-profit owner/operator for the rental portion of the building, the remaining $17 million in debt will be transferred to the agency. The operator will use the income from the 80 rental units to make the mortgage payments and manage the building.
On top of the provincial funding, the City of Victoria is making an $800,000 contribution to the rental portion of the project, or $10,000 per unit. The rents are also to be 10 per cent below market level, a small but useful discount.
It looks to be a good deal. A developer gets help on a big project when times are challenging. The city reduces the risk that a key chunk of downtown will sit vacant longer than necessary. The shortage of rental housing is eased.
And creative approaches from government and business are welcome.
But a better public process is needed in these kinds of deals. Ordinarily, a public project would go to tender so taxpayers would know they were getting the best deal.
And by taking on the risk of selling condos to recover its money, the government is moving into an area where it has little expertise or experience. If they don't sell, or sell at a discount, taxpayers are on the hook.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

'Gladiators' drown out the decent in politics

Tom Flanagan, the Calgary professor who has been mentor and campaign manager to Stephen Harper, has just shed some light on why people don't vote.
Flanagan, in a column for the Globe and Mail, offered his thoughts on political attack ads and campaigns. Harper and the Conservatives have been criticized for sleazy attacks sent to households at taxpayers' expense.
Flanagan said today's voters are OK with sleazy. Only attacks that are "completely false" will backfire, he wrote. (Mostly false is fine.)
"Votes can stomach factoids, ambiguity, half-truths and statements ripped out of context," Flanagan said, "but they rebel against demonstrably false accusations."
It's fair to say Flanagan speaks for the Conservatives and a lot of political operatives.
But does he speak for you, as a voter? Can you "stomach factoids, ambiguity, half-truths and statements ripped out of context?"
The thought that those we elect and their handlers think half-truths are good enough is depressing. Why vote for such people?
Flanagan also said the public - that is you - are OK if politicians slander each other with half-lies.
But attacking people like Afghan torture whistle-blower Richard Colvin with the same sleazy tactics won't work, he said. That had been a Conservative error, Flanagan judged.
What sensible person would run for office, knowing that the ground rules would mean they would be seen as a legitimate target for dishonest attacks - and be expected to sling dishonest muck at others?
And what sort of Parliament or legislature do we end up when those who accept dishonest character assassination as part of the game stand for election?
Flanagan offered his explanation for why non-politicians are off-limits for the sleazier attacks.
"Canadians see politicians as gladiators who dish it out and take in equal measure, but who should not pound on non-combatants," he wrote.
Gladiators? Carole James, Kevin Falcon, Gary Lunn, Keith Martin? I can't imagine what kind of gladiators they are supposed to be, but the crowds at Rome's Coliseum would not likely have been much amused by the sight of men in suits shouting rubbish at each other. Bring on the lions.
Sadly, I fear many successful politicians - and those who labour to make them so - do see themselves as gladiators, striding boldly into question period or a media scrum to vanquish their foes.
Those who are cleverest and loudest at turning half-truths into sound bites are celebrated and promoted.
Real gladiators are supposed to have swords and spears and nets. And real politicians are supposed to be thinking about making life better for the people they represent, not focusing on scoring political points against the other guys.
Maybe Flanagan is right. But I've found people are looking for better from those they elect to represent them. Which might explain why half the eligible voters didn't participate in this year's provincial election.
Flanagan?s column came a few days before the Times Colonists Rob Shaw did several stories on the just-concluded legislative session, including interviews with rookie MLAs.
They were all still enthusiastic. But there were notes of discouragement. NDP MLA Lana Popham talked about the "out of control" catcalls and heckling in question period. Vicki Huntington, elected as an independent in Delta South, had worked on Parliament Hill, where all-party committees of MPs help shape legislation.
But not in B.C., she soon learned. Legislative committees meet when the party in power wants them to. And that is hardly ever.
The legislative committee on education, despite a tonne of issues worth considering, hasn't met in more three years. "I think that's a terrible waste of the intellectual capacity of the house," Huntington noted.
It is a waste. The breadth of experience and skills and local knowledge among the 85 MLAs is extraordinary. There are mill workers and doctors and business owners and social workers.
Together, they could bring perspective to the province's problems and opportunities. Instead, Tom Flanagan suggests, they are taught to be gladiators, comfortable with insults and abuse based on half-truths.
Why would MLAs and MPs accept that role?
Footnote: Not all politicians indulge in distortion and character assassination, of course. But the saner voices tend to be drowned out in the roars of abuse or targeted by the dishonest press releases from the other side.

Friday, December 04, 2009

What might the Liberals be afraid of?

Municipal election finance reform shouldn't be a big deal.
B.C. has the most lax campaign finance rules for municipal elections in Canada. Basically, anything goes. There are no contribution limits, or spending limits. A developer or public sector union could effectively place its loyalists on council by spending enough money to them elected.
It's a system open to abuse. And it certainly undermines public confidence.
Premier Gordon Campbell promised reform, a joint task force of MLAs and UBCM reps to look at campaign financing and spending.
And Friday afternoon, a favoured time for such announcements, the government sent out a news release
The task force will have six members - three from the UBCM and three MLAs. The MLAs are all Liberals and one of the three UBCM reps ran unsuccessfully for the party.
No public interest representatives. No NDP MLAs, or independent Vicki Huntington.
The fix appears to be in. Campbell has rejected any limits on corporate and union donations to provincial parties.
Any recommendations on limits for municipal donations would be embarassing. Stacking the committee reduces the risk.

Police spying demands explanation, oversight

Police spying on citizens should creep you out.
Not surveillance done as part of ongoing investigations or court-ordered searches or wiretaps. Those are justified.
But that's not what Victoria police Chief Jamie Graham described to the Vancouver International Security Conference this week.
That sounded much more like police spying on citizens just because they could.
Graham was a keynote speaker at the conference, which attracted paying customers looking for insights on security trends. Perhaps he didn't expect his remarks to become public.
He spoke about the Victoria police department's $220,000 effort to provide security for the start of the Olympic torch relay.
And Graham offered the delegates some inside information. The protesters weren't so clever, he said.
"You knew that the protesters weren't that organized when on the ferry on the way over, they rented a bus, they all came on a bus - and there was a cop driving," he said. His comments were reported by Bob Mackin of 24 hours, a Vancouver daily newspaper.
So, based on what Graham told the conference, police secretly found out what bus company a group from the Lower Mainland was going to use.
Then they approached the company and convinced the manager to pull the regular driver and let an undercover officer drive. (It would be interesting to hear what officers told the company about the person chartering the bus.)
And then the officer drove the bus, keeping watch on the passengers in the rearview mirror, presumably eavesdropping and making notes on peoples' names and what they said.
These aren't terrorists. They hadn't done anything wrong. (And there were no arrests at the protests that day.) No court had approved surveillance.
They were Canadian citizens on a bus going to a legitimate public protest. Some opposed Olympic spending. Others thought issues like health care were being ignored.
And the state was spying on them.
So what, some say. Let the police do what they think best to preserve order.
We've seen countries where the state does what it thinks best to keep order - like East Germany or China.
Of course, we don't expect police and security forces would go so far in Canada.
But those charged with keeping order make that the priority.
And without laws, accountability and oversight, it is inevitable they will trade individual rights for collective security.
The issues can be complicated. I see nothing wrong with undercover police walking with protesters in a public place. I hope officers are monitoring groups planning crimes, even infiltrating them.
And I'm deeply concerned if they are spying on citizens, and compiling reports and files, simply because people exercise their right to express their views. Choosing to come to a protest shouldn't make you a police target.
This isn't benign. The people who rented the bus have been publicly branded as dangerous.
More significantly, everyone who attended the protest now must wonder if they were spied on by police officers driving the bus or joining the march. They must wonder if their names are on a list in a government file.
And, perhaps, next time they will just stay home.
Graham is refusing to answer questions. It's unclear if this was a Victoria police operation, approved by the police board, or done by some other agency.
There has been no explanation of the intelligence justifying placing an officer behind the wheel of the bus.
Part of the problem is that Graham's comments and subsequent silence indicate he doesn't consider this to be a serious issue.
At the least, you would hope such an operation would receive serious consideration before it went ahead.
Since 9/11, rights have often been sacrificed in pursuit of security. That's alarming.
To see them reduced still more, casually, to protect the image of the Olympics, is frightening.
Footnote: The exercise also raises questions about prudent spending of taxpayers' money on Games-related security. Did it really make sense to have a police officer, on overtime, work extra shifts to drive a bus? How can the public have confidence that the $1 billion in Games security spending will actually be justified?

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Big chance for Chinese tourism arrives

The announcement today that China has granted Canada approved destination status is a big deal for B.C.
Without approved destination status, Chinese travellers faced big problems in coming here. In a 2005 BC Business piece on tourism and China, I put it this way.

"For all the lurching toward modernization, China is still a controlled society. Citizens can only travel to countries the government approves of, ostensibly to prevent Chinese travellers from being taken advantage of.
But it’s also a handy way to ensure those citizens return home when the holiday ends. If a country wins that approval and stays on good terms with the Chinese government, the result is Approved Destination Status. It’s a big deal. Chinese travellers face a long road littered with mandatory forms and routine refusals to visit non-ADS countries. And group tours – the foundation of any country’s burgeoning outbound tourism industry – simply don’t happen without ADS."

Read more: http://www.bcbusinessonline.ca/bcb/top-stories/2005/07/01/great-leap-forward#ixzz0YgGImvUS permission to visit Canad

Privacy violation scandal widens; govenment's silence deepens

The Times Colonist continues to lead on the serious privacy breach that saw confidential information on 1,400 people discovered in an employees home.
The employee, the newspaper reports today was hired despite recent convictions for theft and passing counterfeit money.
The employee was allowed to stay on the job for five months after the government was told about the risk. The people weren't told for seven months that they were at risk of identity theft.
And Citizens' Services Minister Ben Stewart won't provide any information - including the date he was told of the breach.
The newspaper dealt with some of those issues in an editorial.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

B.C. worst for child poverty, again

The annual report card on child poverty was released last week. For the sixth straight year, B.C. had the highest proportion of poor children in the country.
The report, based on StatsCan's 2007 numbers, found 19 per cent of children in B.C. are living in poverty - about 156,000 boys and girls.
Nationally, the proportion was 15 per cent. If B.C. could just achieve the Canadian average, 30,000 children would be lifted out of poverty.
You could have a long, pointless debate about how poverty is measured. There are flaws in any approach.
But the report card, compiled in this province by First Call, uses the same measurement across Canada. And B.C. consistently has the highest number of kids living in poor homes.
Children's Minister Mary Polak, to her credit, didn't try to challenge the numbers.
She said that while B.C. might have the highest rate in Canada, progress was being made. The child poverty rate was the lowest in 20 years, Polak told the legislature.
That's true, barely. In 2002, according to the First Call report released six years ago, the child poverty rate in B.C. was 19.6 per cent and 167,000 children were living in poverty. So in six years of economic growth, B.C. has been able to reduce the proportion of poor children by less than one percentage point.
And since other provinces have been making greater strides, it has stayed in last place.
The NDP was pushing, again, for a plan to reduce child poverty. Six other provinces have them, with targets, timelines, actions and accountability.
But the Liberal government refuses to take the step. (Earlier this year, Premier Gordon Campbell refused Children's Representative Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond's request for a joint meeting with NDP leader Carole James to talk about a non-partisan effort to reduce child poverty.)
James raised the issue in her speech to the NDP convention the weekend. It could fit nicely with the approach the party needs to take to turn its current lead in opinion polls into a victory in 2013.
New Democrats have been fretting since the May election, concerned they blew an opportunity for victory and worried about avoiding the same fate the next time. (The convention rates a separate column.)
Child poverty is a good issue for the party, and not because helping poor children reflects traditional NDP values around social change.
The real opportunity lies in stressing not compassion, but competence and the long-term pragmatic benefits in addressing child poverty and other such issues.
The economic benefits of reducing child poverty are clear. Poor children do less well in school and in work. They have greater lifetime health and social problems. Addressing the issue saves money.
And the Liberals' lack of a plan reflects badly not only on their interest in helping poor children, but their competence.
Having a plan, with actions and timelines and targets, is an essential tool for management and accountability. Without one, the government is at risk of unco-ordinated, costly and ultimately ineffectual efforts.
With one, and commitment, quick progress could be made.
Income assistance rates for families, for example, currently leave families deep in poverty. A single parent with two children, for example, receives about $16,000 a year. After even modest rent - say $750 a month - a family of three has less than $150 a week for everything else, from food to bus passes to kids clothes.
Simply increasing the rates would lift 30,000 children out of poverty.
Those are the kinds of measures that would be part of a plan - if the government would adopt one. In an ideal world, the plan would include a realistic estimate not just of the costs, but also of the future savings and economic benefits.
The moral case is strong too, of course. If this was the best place on Earth, it wouldn't have the highest child poverty rate in Canada.
Footnote: Many people argue that adults should suffer for poor choices. But few people would suggest that children should live in poverty because of an accident of birth in a province with the ability and resources to make an immediate difference in their lives.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Press Pass on the government's big privacy breach

The Times Colonist runs a Sunday column called Press Pass, compiled mainly by the newspaper's press gallery reporters- currently Lindsay Kines and Rob Shaw - and legislative columnist Les Leyne. The reporters have broken all the stories on the government's bungled response to a major privacy breach.
On Sunday, Press Pass added this background.

"SUGGESTED READING: With all the hoopla around those missing government files, perhaps it's worth brushing up on the fundamentals. What's supposed to happen when government learns of a major privacy breach?

According to the Key Steps in Responding to Privacy Breaches guide, written by the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner in June 2008, there are four key steps. Let's contrast them with what happened in this case:

1. Contain the breach and notify privacy/security officials.

If, by that, you mean don't tell the senior bosses or ministers until the Public Affairs Bureau hears about it seven months later, then done and done.

2. Evaluate the risk of the breach.

Let's see. Employee under criminal investigation for fraud has swiped sensitive personal information that could be used for fraud ... we'll go with "high" risk.

3. Notify people "as soon as possible" to warn them their privacy has been compromised.

In this case, wait more than half a year before writing letters to the wrong people.

4. Prevent a future reoccurrence by investigating the cause of the breach.

Or, repeatedly claim ignorance about when you found out or what you knew and bolt from the legislature to enjoy a four-month winter break.

When should you follow these four steps? According to the guide: Immediately.

Maybe someone in government should read this thing."

Friday, November 27, 2009

Minister looks clued out on privacy breach

Poor Ben Stewart. Up until the last days of the legislative session, most people didn’t even know he was in cabinet.
Now he’s a symbol of bungling.
Stewart, Westside-Kelowna MLA, is the minister of citizens’ services. He’s responsible, among other things, for the protection of the huge amounts of personal information citizens share — often involuntarily — with government.
And right now, it appears he isn’t doing a good job.
This all starts back in April, which is the root of the government’s problem.
The RCMP commercial crime squad got a search warrant for a government employee’s home. They were working with ICBC’s special investigation unit, which handles cases of fraudulent drivers’ licences and identity cards.
In the home, they found government files on 1,400 British Columbians that the employee had taken home from work. Names, addresses, birth dates, social insurance numbers, health numbers and information on income. As Privacy Commissioner David Loukidelis noted, the kind of information that makes it easy for criminals to get fake credit cards or commit identity frauds.
The RCMP notified the government right away (before, it’s worth noting, the election).
Up to this point, the only concern was whether safeguards were adequate. A minister can’t be held accountable if an employee steps out of bounds.
But from then on, the government acted incompetently.
It wasn’t until this month — seven months after being notified that peoples’ privacy had been breached and that they were vulnerable to fraud — that the government sent letters notifying the people that they should be on guard. (That was bungled too; some letters were misaddressed and sent to the wrong people, adding a second privacy breach.)
It was also not until this month that the employee was fired.
And the government never did voluntarily reveal the breach. Reporters from the Times Colonist learned of the letters and broke the story.
Even then, Stewart was less than open and, in fact, misleading. He said he had learned of the breach about two weeks earlier, omitting the fact the government had known since May.
And he said the RCMP discovered the files as part of an “unrelated investigation.”
But an investigation into fraud hardly seems unrelated to a trove of confidential information.
Stewart also failed to reveal that a second employee had been fired in connection with the breach. The Times Colonist reporters uncovered that fact as well. Stewart would not say what job the person had, but she apparently worked in the Public Service Agency — the lead human resources service for 30,000 government employees.
Stewart continued to flounder. He couldn’t, or wouldn’t, provide basic information about the events to reporters or in response to MLAs’ questions.
And while he said he had ordered a complete investigation weeks ago, on Thursday he said there were still no terms of reference for the review. That is simply not competent management.
It was an apt way for the Liberals to finish a difficult legislative session.
It raises three questions.
Why did the government wait seven months to notify 1,400 people their privacy had been compromised and they were at risk of credit fraud and identity theft? (The RCMP checked about 10 per cent of the files and concluded no fraud had yet taken place; but the information could have been sold or passed on long before then.)
Why was Stewart kept in the dark for seven months?
And why do ministers put up with this? Stewart is no dolt. He founded and grew Quails’ Gate Winery and has an impressive resumé, but he’s been left looking like a bungler.
One clue lies in how Stewart was advised, belatedly, of the breach. It wasn’t his deputy, or security officials. It was the Public Affairs Bureau staff, the governments’ PR arm, which finally told the minister. No one is saying how long the PAB staffers had the information.
It’s part of a pattern. Take the wildly inaccurate pre-election budget deficit and the broken promise on the HST. Look back on a session where cabinet ministers refused to answer basic questions about everything from health care to Olympic tickets.
When spin triumphs over openness and substance, bad things ultimately happen.
Perhaps Stewart, and other ministers, will decide it’s time to change course.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Stewart should take responsibility and resign

So, when Citizens' Services Minister Ben Stewart learned — seven months late — that a government employee already being investigated for fraud had been caught with confidential information on 1,400 British Columbians from ministry files, who tells him?
Not his deputy, or officials responsible for privacy or from the ministry involved.
A Public Affairs Bureau staffer brought the minister up to date. How long did the branch responsible for the government's messaging know? That's still a secret.
Rob Shaw and Lindsay Kines from the Times Colonist have been reporting on the issue.
The newspaper argues in an editorial today that Stewart should resign.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Torture inquiry needed to get at truth

The federal Conservatives have crossed into a shameful place.
Career diplomat Richard Colvin came forward, at personal cost, to give evidence that Afghans detained by Canadian Forces and turned over to their own government were tortured.
The Conservatives' response was to attack him personally, rather than deal with the serious allegations.
Colvin is an unlikely whistleblower. He was the second most senior Canadian diplomat in Afghanistan, working there for 18 months as an intelligence officer. He was promoted to a similar post in Canada's Washington embassy. The man that Colvin replaced in Afghanistan was killed by a suicide bomber.
Based on his work in the country, Colvin concluded that Canada was handing over prisoners to the Afghan security forces knowing that they would almost certainly be tortured. He raised the threat of torture repeatedly with senior officials in government and the military.
That's the testimony he gave before the Commons Committee on Justice and Human Rights.
Colvin could be wrong. There might be good reasons to reject his assessment.
But the reaction of Conservative MPs was surreal. They rejected the need for an inquiry to get the facts.
And they attacked Colvin, claiming he was gullible, a dim dupe who didn't really have any idea about how to do his job, who was helping the Taliban and undermining Canada's troops. The MPs had no evidence to support their attacks and no firsthand knowledge of the situation on the ground in Afghanistan.
That did not stop them from denouncing Colvin and rejecting his testimony.
Defence Minister Peter MacKay set the depressingly low tone. "Hearsay," he complained. Anyone Canadian Forces picked up and handed over to Afgahn security forces could only be Taliban, and thus expected to lie about being tortured.
For MacKay, torture does not happen unless a Canadian diplomat is watching. Anyone who suggests otherwise is at worst an enemy sympathizer, at best a stupid dupe.
The premise is ridiculous. Afghan police aren't going to invite spectators to torture.
Worse, it has come out that MacKay and the government knew people were likely being tortured. Even in the last year, the government stopped transferring prisoners to Afghan authorities on three occasions because of concerns about torture and abuse.
Colvin's evidence suggests that for years - and indeed before the Conservatives were elected - Canadian forces were handing over prisoners knowing that, at least, they might be tortured.
Some people writing letters to the editor have suggested that it shouldn't matter if the people Canada's soldiers apprehend are tortured. They are probably guilty of something, the writers' suggest, and it's not our problem if they are beaten, face electric shocks or their families' lives are threatened.
Morally weak, I'd argue.
And pragmatically, a position with two very bad implications for Canadians.
First, there's the matter of war crimes. Torture, and handing people over to be tortured, are the kind of things that can land people in a courtroom in The Hague, answering for crimes against humanity.
Second, there is the increased risk for all Canadians - military, aid workers and diplomats - in Afghanistan. We are striving to win the support and trust of average Afghan citizens, considering it critical to progress.
If we hand over a son to be tortured - a person who has not been convicted of anything - then a family, or a village, become our enemies. Our soldiers are in greater danger.
Colvin said he had reported his concerns about torture as widely as he could, despite efforts to suppress them. His warnings began in May 2006 and continued for 18 months.
Through that period, former defence minister Gordon O'Connor, current Defence Minister Peter MacKay and Prime Minister Stephen Harper insisted that they were confident none of the prisoners captured by Canadians were being tortured.
Canadians need to know if that was true. If information was being suppressed, they need to know why, and by whom.
And given the government's response to Colvin, only a public inquiry will provide the answers.
Footnote: Harper skipped question period on Monday, the first chance opposition MPs would have had to question him on Colvin's schedule. He gave priority to a photo op with Canada's lacrosse team.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Salmon farm class-action suit survives a B.C. challenge

It's tough to keep up with all the action on the salmon farm issue, but the proposed class-action suit by the Kwicksutaineuk/Ah-Kwa-Mish First Nation is worth watching.
The First Nation is asserting fishing rights in the Broughton Archipelago. And it's arguing the provincial government is hurting the interests of members by allowing salmon farms, which it says hurt wild salmon stocks.
There is a long way to go before the court approves the class action suit, let alone delivers a judgment on the issue.
But the province lost a preliminary bid to have the suit tossed in a B.C. Supreme Court ruling here.
The judgment notes the supporting materials for the bid to certify a class action include an affadavit from Fred Whoriskey, who will provide evidence for the First Nation.
The name might be familiar. In 2007, the government appointed Bill Smart, the special prosecutor in the Glen Clark case, to act as a special prosecutor on a file involving allegations that sea lice from salmon farms were damaging wild stocks. Smart concluded the farms were likely damaging wild stocks. He recommended against proceeding because it was unclear if their actions were against the law. His key expert was, yes, Fred Whoriskey. You can read more in these two columns from 2007.

By the by, I highly recommended the Recent Judgments section of the B.C. Superior Courts website. Judgments from the B.C. Supreme Court of Appeal are posted almost daily. Browsing them offers a direct view of the justice system - you'll marvel at how much of the courts' time is taken with divorces and insurance claims - and a lot of useful bits of information. (I learned, for example, that a paramedic injured in a crash estimated his continuing income, with overtime, would have been over $100,000 a year.)
You'll also be impressed, I think, with how sensible the judgments are in criminal cases.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Hebei Lion, and why you should worry, at least a bit, about tanker traffic

A proposed pipeline to get oil from the tar sands to Kitimat and then into ships that would sail off to China has sparked a new debate about tanker traffic along B.C.'s coast.
There would be a lot of construction jobs, a small number of permanent employees in Kitimat and a boost in Canada's exports.
The risk is that something would go wrong and there would be an oil spill.
Proponents say that won't happen. But on Thursday night, the winds were howling in the Strait of Georgia. The bulk carrier Hebei Lion was anchored off Mayne Island, but the gusts pushed it onto a reef. It was a serious environmental threat.
That was Wednesday night. Have you heard about the grounding of the ship, which is as long as two-and-a-half football fields?
I didn't until today - Saturday afternoon. And then, only thanks to the Washington State environment ministry, (or the department of ecology, it's called).
It issued a news release.

"Ecology was notified by the British Columbia Ministry of Environment, and monitored the incident because it posed a significant risk of a large black oil spill," the Washington government told the public.
“Damage to fuel tanks on a cargo ship that size could have oiled the islands on both sides of the border,” said Dale Jensen, manager of Ecology's Spill Prevention, Preparedness and Response Program. “A major spill also could have forced a closure to vessel traffic. Given the profound environmental and economic risks we're relieved and pleased at the outcome. We mobilized staff and were prepared to deploy response systems as needed.
"State Sen. Kevin Ranker, who represents the 40th District, including his San Juan Island home, said, “This incident once again highlights the importance of having a strong spill prevention and response system in place, not only for Puget Sound but also for large transboundary spills that can have potentially devastating effects on our environment and economy.”

So the B.C. Environment Ministry told Washington State, but provided no information to British Columbians.
The DFO, as far as I can tell, provided no public information.
The Gullf Islands Driftwood had the story by Thursday afternoon.
But 72 hours after an incident that "could have oiled the islands on both sides of the border," according to the government of Washington State, only a small number of British Columbians knew about the grounding. Governments were silent.
The argument for tanker traffic relies heavily on the effectiveness and accountability of governments in protecting the public interest.
But only Washington seemed to think this important enough to tell the public about. The B.C. and Canadian governments didn't think you needed to know.

A late addition: For more on the grounding, check out the posts here.

The need for an Afghan detainee inquiry

I'll write about this in the next day or two, but, for now, I recommend Norman Spector's brief, useful comments here.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The sad story of the passengers' bill of rights

This is a story about a proposed airline passenger’s bill of rights. It suggests, most of all, that those at the top of government aren’t serving the public. They’re catering to the needs of powerful special interests.
The story starts in 2008. Liberal MP Gerry Byrne prepared a motion calling on the government to introduce an airline passenger’s bill of rights. Travellers would be guaranteed remedies for lost bags, unreasonable delays or overbooked flights. The model was similar to protection in Europe.
Politically, it’s a winner. Most people fortunate enough to be able to fly have had bad experiences. Sometimes, the airline has responded admirably. But sometimes, not.
MPs from all parties professed to support the idea, including then transport minister Lawrence Cannon.
But behind the scenes, his office was pleading with the airlines to launch a lobby campaign to defeat the motion, according to documents obtained by Canwest News Service.
While Cannon was promising to bring in a travellers’ bill of rights, a key political staffer in his office was telling the airlines the Conservatives really wanted it killed.
Lobby the Liberals and the Bloc Québécois, Paul Fitzgerald e-mailed the airlines. “I don’t want us to be forced into regulating passenger protection issues.”
It’s creepily dishonest. The minister is pretending to stand up for passengers while his staff is rallying the industry to kill protection.
The government could legitimately oppose such consumer protection. The airlines argued safety would be compromised. Pilots might take off in dangerous conditions if they feared their employer would have to compensate passengers for delays.
More realistically — I hope, as a passenger who relies on those pilots — the Conservatives could argue that protection is not needed because market forces ensure airlines don’t abuse customers, because they would lose business.
But that’s not what happened. The minister claimed the protection was necessary and he supported the measures.
It gets worse.
The motion passed in Parliament with the support of all parties, and the government set about drafting the protection.
Canwest News Service filed a freedom of information request for files on the process. Usually, documents are censored to the point of uselessness. This time, apparently by mistake, the full documents were released.
They showed the minister’s office — despite concerns from non-political Transport Department staff — let the airlines play a major role in drafting the measures. Company executives reviewed several drafts of Flight Rights Canada, as the initiative came to be called. They proposed changes and approved the final version.
The airline bosses even got to approve Cannon’s speech launching the program in advance.
It was sensible to involve the airlines in the process. They can provide useful information on the effects of any passenger protection.
But the government didn’t seek input from consumer associations or the travel industry or groups that could speak for business travellers. They catered to the industry, not the public.
The department staff also told the minister there was no money to let travellers know about their rights.
But he went ahead and read the industry-approved announcement, promising an information campaign that has never happened.
The government has spent a total of $3,640 to let airline passengers across Canada know about their rights.
So, to recap, MPs decided airline passengers needed some basic protection if flights were cancelled without good reason or their bags vanished.
The government pretended to go along, while working behind the scenes with the airlines to try and sabotage the initiative. Their loyalty was to the big corporations.
The minister’s office was attentive to the needs of the airline companies. The public interest was a problem to be managed, not a priority.
This isn’t a Liberal-Conservative thing. I have no confidence that the cozy relationships between the powerful depend on party labels. Mostly, it’s a sad example of how little the interests of voters really matter to those in power.
Footnote: The government’s failure to respect the 2008 motion brought a new private member’s bill from Manitoba NDP MP Jim Maloway to provide travellers with protection modelled on the European Union’s consumer protection for passengers. The Conservatives oppose the protection.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Barry Penner is awesome

No, that's not my political commentary. I do think he's a good MLA who works hard and wants to do a good job.
But over at barrypennerisawesome.com the creators have dedicated a whole website to "Chronicling the adventures of B.C.'s most awesome MLA."
It's clever fun.
(And thanks to Brenton Walters for posting about the site dedicated to the Chilliwack MLA and environment minister.)

MLA Norm Letnick shows how it's done

I certainly think Liberal MLA Norm Letnick is right about the risks of the government's ill-advised bill that would let police use force to take people to shelters in bad weather, for reasons set out here.
But, in explaining to Sean Holman why he voting against the legislation, Letnick also showed how MLAs can take advantange of Gordon Campbell's promise to allow free votes to use their own judgment and represent the people who elected them.
You can see Letnick's explanation at publiceyeonline.com.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Minister for welfare, housing and horse racing

Rich Coleman might be great at juggling priorities, but I'd argue a ministry dealing with housing issues - from condo concerns to homelessness to affordability - and income assistance and job training should focus on those priorities.
Tossing gambling and liquor sales into the mix just because the minister is interested doesn't make good management sense.
(Sean Holman has interesting additional information here.)

For Immediate Release
November 17, 2009

Ministry of Housing and Social Development


VANCOUVER – The new B.C. Horse Racing Industry Management Committee will help to revitalize and restore financial strength to the province’s horse racing industry, Housing and Social Development Minister Rich Coleman announced today.
“Across North America, the horse racing industry is confronted with competing entertainment attractions that necessitate new, innovative approaches to this sector,” said Coleman. “Here in B.C., the Province is working with leading industry and business experts to help horse racing thrive, with a strong, coherent new management approach that includes centralized financial planning.”

Ontario makes Campbell look bad on HST

It was a dramatic tale of two different approaches to governing this week.
In Ontario, the government introduced HST legislation Monday, setting out the details of the new tax which will take effect July 1, as it will here.
The plans include other big tax cuts and a promise that the total government tax take will fall by $7.7 billion over the next four. Families will get a $1,000 rebate to cover the added costs. Seminars are already underway around the province for businesses.
In B.C., the legislation won't be introduced until next spring. The government acknowledges families will face higher taxes, with much smaller offsetting reductions.
And poor Finance Minister Colin Hansen couldn't even say Monday whether school districts would get funding to cover some $40 million in extra costs because of the harmonized sales tax.
Two governments, heading in the same direction, but in very different ways.
Both know voters will find the new tax tough to swallow. Only Ontario is making much of an effort to win them over.
You could argue that the Liberal government in Ontario is buying support with other tax cuts. This week, it announced HST exemptions for fast food under $4 and newspapers. But seminars on the new tax for small business, in their communities, are simply good, competent government. Clear rules well in advance of implementation help everyone.
The Campbell government is looking inept, or indifferent, in comparison.
That's not good. The Liberals promised, in writing, not to introduce the HST during the May election campaign - and then did just that. Hansen's claim the tax was "not even on the radar" during the campaign makes the decision to introduce it a few weeks later look reckless and ill-considered.
Here's the primer on the HST. It's a new tax that will combine the seven-per-cent provincial sales tax and the five-per-cent GST. For many items, adult clothing for example, there is no net change.
But the GST applies to more things than the provincial sales tax. Provincial governments introduced exemptions, like no PST on bicycles to promote health. Services, like cable or child care, attracted GST but not the provincial tax.
Under the harmonized tax, the GST rules take precedence. A lot more things will be taxed.
The GST also lets businesses deduct the sales tax they pay for inputs. Treating the PST the same way will save B.C. businesses about $1.9 billion. Individuals and families will pay more to offset the business tax break.
The theory is that companies will pass the benefits on in lower prices and B.C. will be more attractive for businesses investors because of lower tax costs.
The provincial government has not been forthcoming with information on what it means for families.
But TD Economics, the analytical arm of the big bank, has released a special report on the tax that offers a useful starting point.
Individuals and families will pay more, the report concludes, as "The tax burden will shift from businesses to consumers."
The TD Economics analysis estimates about 20 per cent of British Columbians' expenditures will now face an additional seven-per-cent tax.
An average household will pay an extra $840 in taxes. But the analysis also projects that businesses will pass on some of the savings from reduced taxes to consumers. That will cut the actual net increase in costs to $400.
The TD Economics report favours the harmonized tax. It's more efficient, it says, and will help Canadian businesses compete for domestic and international markets, the report said.
And the B.C. government continues to cite to the need to offer tax breaks to the forest industry and other big businesses.
But as the legislature finance committee found in its budget consultations, the public isn't buying it. The HST remains unpopular; most submissions said it should not be introduced.
Ontario's government faces the same backlash. But it's doing much more to inform people and try to win them over.
Footnote: The TD Economics' report says the tax will add about 0.7 per cent to the rate of inflation to the province, as the costs of consumer goods and services rise.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Rich, Geoff here - can we talk liquor policy?

Rich Coleman and Geoff Plant spent five years in opposition battling the NDP, and four more years in cabinet as the solicitor general and attorney general respectively.
And now a big private liquor store owner has hired Plant to lobby Coleman for changes that would boost the company's profits.
Plant is a lawyer and smart. Perhaps he would be in demand for such jobs based on his experience and those qualities alone.
But if I were a smaller liquor company, or a community group concerned about increasingly wide open alcohol sales, I'd wonder if Plant also had better access and influence than most to Coleman, after the two spent nine years working together.
And whether that meant I needed to hire someone else - another insider - to make sure I had the ear of the powerful.
You can read it more at publiceyeonline.com, where Sean Holman had the story first. (He does that quite a lot.)

Thursday, November 12, 2009

More fizzle than boom from Games benefits so far

Unless things change significantly, the economic benefits of the Winter Games are looking pretty thin.
Take jobs, one of the big selling points.
According to an economic study done for government by
PriceWaterhouseCoopers, having the Games created about 18,400 person years of employment from 2003 to the end of last year.
That sounds dramatic, but spread over six years it's about 3,000 additional jobs at any given time.
Nothing to sneer at, but with about 2.2 million people employed in the province, not that significant either.
Especially when at least some increased employment would have resulted if the money spent on the Games went for other projects or was left in taxpayers' pockets.
The report on increased economic activity from the Games tells a similar story. The report found that the Games had meant an extra $685 million to $890 million in economic activity over the six-year period.
Take the midpoint, and that's about $130 million a year.
Given that the provincial GDP is about $150 billion, that's less than one-tenth of one per cent.
You could argue that these results aren't surprising. They're consistent with a forecast of Games benefits done for the government in 2002.
But they're a far cry from the rosy picture painted by politicians talking about the dramatic economic benefits from next year's festivities.
And in one area - possibly the most important for British Columbians outside Greater Vancouver and Whistler - the forecast got it badly wrong.
The 2002 report predicted increased tourism revenues during the period of $40 to $600 million between 2003 and 2008.
Based on the midpoint, that would have translated into some 6,500 person-years of increased employment
The PriceWaterhouseCoopers report found there was no increase in tourism as a result of the Olympics. The expectation that increased awareness would lead to more visitors to the province was wrong. The report estimates the Games have likely meant about 10 additional jobs in the tourism sector each year.
That should be a particular concern to communities outside the immediate Games area. Vancouver, Richmond, Surrey and Whistler all end up with guaranteed Games legacies - buildings and infrastructure. Much of the spending by Games organizers, from salaries to supplies, also benefited those communities. And realistically, the promised potential future investment is likely to provide the greatest boost to those areas.
The rest of the province has fared less well. Leaving aside nice but hardly essential items like Spirit Squares, the Games so far have represented a transfer of tax dollars to the Lower Mainland.
Tourism gains should have broader benefits. The theory is that travellers, newly aware of B.C.'s charms because of the Games, would likely venture beyond the Lower Mainland.
According to the 2002 report, the biggest tourism gains are still ahead. It set out several scenarios, but the mid-range forecast projected about $2.9 billion in increased tourism because of the Games between 2008 and 2014.
The failure to achieve the increase forecast for the initial period raises doubts about those numbers.
It's especially troubling that the failure might be partly self-inflicted. The PWC report notes the 2002 projections envisioned that "a co-ordinated and effective marketing plan would be in place" before the Games. It wasn't.
The government had warnings about the problem. In 2003, the auditor general noted a well-planned, well-funded marketing effort was needed to seize the potential benefits from the Games.
In a follow-up report in 2006, the auditor general noted that hasn't happened. "The marketing effort to date has been delayed and unco-ordinated, with no central agency taking the lead," the report warned.
The confusion continues. Tourism Minister Kevin Krueger eliminated Tourism B.C., the highly regarded industry marketing agency, without warning of consultation in August.
The big opportunities for tourism promotion are coming in the next three or four months.
For British Columbians outside Greater Vancouver, benefits from the Games depend on how well the job is handled.
Footnote: It's important to note that the benefits, except for tourism, are much as projected in the 2002 report. Which raises questions about the level of scrutiny and analysis brought to the report by journalists and politicians and policy groups. The pro-Games rhetoric drowned out the few cautionary voices.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The bigger problem at B.C. Ferries

It's understandable that the comptroller general's findings about overly rich executive and board pay and sloppy governance at B.C. Ferries grabbed headlines.
But the report raised a much more serious problem. The new structure for ferry service the Liberal government set up in 2003 failed to provide any criteria for considering the public interest, in terms of travellers, ferry dependent communities or the economic impacts of soaring fares.
The Times Colonist set out the problems clearly in this editorial.
Will the government act? One bad sign is that the comptroller general's recommendations included having the Ferry Commission regulate reservation fees, currently outside its mandate. The commissioner has been seeking that small change since 2004,. noting that the fees - $17.50 and a $12-million revenue stream for the corporation - are part of the fare structure.
In nine years, the government hasn't responded to that basic request.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

UVic hits the media motherlode

The University of Victoria has a superb communications department, consistently providing interesting and useful leads for journalists and great at finding an expert in almost any area.
But this release is inspired. The interest in anything Twilight is extraordinary. TIming is excellent. And the issues are important.
This is really good work.


TWILIGHT SERIES SENDS WRONG MESSAGE TO GIRLS: According to UVic political science professor Janni Aragon, the Twilight vampire movies and books don’t provide a healthy portrayal of the interaction between the sexes. That is just one of the points she makes when she uses the series as a teaching tool in her gender and politics class at UVic.
“Bella Swan is a human teenager, moody, sardonic and clumsy which plays into how Edward Cullen interacts with her—he’s protective, condescending and behaves like a stalker,” says Aragon. “He watches her while she’s sleeping even though he hasn’t been invited to do so. He talks down to her, which plays into the myth that in a relationship boys are all knowing and girls are supposed to follow and listen to them.”
Aragon remarks that in the beginning of the series, Bella doesn't have a very strong sense of self. She leans on Edward, falls apart when he leaves. “He has bigger burdens to carry, since he’s a vampire and she is a mere mortal teen,” says Aragon. “He is in charge—and takes care of Bella, who continues to be the damsel in distress.
“In New Moon, Bella suffers a horrible depression when Edward abandons her. She has visions and starts being reckless which sends a message to young women that when your boyfriend leaves, the expectation is for you to be out of control. In real life, not every woman does that—some of us just consume a couple of tubs of Häagen-Dazs and we’re over it.”
Aragon says she also has issues on how the Stephanie Meyer books and films address Indigenous people. For example, the vampires refer to them as mongrels or dogs.
The Twilight Saga: New Moon, the second movie in the Twilight series, is scheduled to open on November 20, 2009.

Why I'm glad an MLA is bashing the Charter of Rights

On one hand, MLA Pat Pimm's preference for getting rid of the Charter or Rights is alarming. It suggests that he's a lot more comfortable with government intrusions into the private lives of citizens than he should be.
But it is refreshing to have a new MLA who isn't sticking to a script crafted by communication staff. Pimm is, so far, apparently willing to say what he thinks, even if it's not in line with party policy.
Pimm is a Liberal, newly elected in Peace River North to replace Senator Richard Neufeld.
And in one of his first speeches, during debate on a bill to deny welfare to people facing outstanding arrest warrants, he took aim at the Charter.
"I just don't think it's a good document whatsoever myself," Pimm said in the legislature. "For 99 per cent of the people out there, that document doesn't even need to exist, first off. It's only about one per cent or two per cent of the people that it's even developed for, and it's to keep the lawyers and the judges and everybody working to support the system." (Thanks to the Lower Langdale Tattler, an irregular publication of NDP MLA Nicholas Simons, for reporting Pimm's comments.)
What the Charter does is set out the basic rights of Canadians. We can say what we think and follow our religious beliefs without government intrusion. Basic principles of justice have to be followed if the state wants to interfere with our lives.
Police can, for example, search our homes, but only if they have a good reason.
Pimm's position appears to be that decent citizens don't need their rights protected. Governments know best about what must be done for the greater good.
That's too trusting. The world is celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a reminder that governments can't always be counted in to respect the rights of citizens.
It is troubling when a drug dealer avoids trial because a police search violated his rights.
But that's the trade we make for enshrining the rule of law and our own freedom from government messing in our lives.
Still. Pimm was speaking his mind. A lot of his constituents would likely share his views. That's good for an MLA. And not all that common.
MLAs and cabinet ministers, especially in government, tend to avoid saying anything.
Consider the example recently offered by Ida Chong, junior minister for healthy living. Two health officials in Alberta have been fired because the Calgary Flames jumped the queue for H1N1 flu vaccinations.
So Chong was asked whether the Vancouver Canucks would get special access to flu shots, ahead of vulnerable members of the public.
The answer should be easy. No, the vaccine would be provided based on health needs. A vulnerable five-year-old or pregnant woman would be protected before an incredibly fit professional hockey player.
But Chong instead, offered this response. "I believe that what is important is that those who need access to this vaccine to mitigate the possible spread will be looked at by our health experts," she said.
It was an easy question. On principle, should the survival of a child come before the playoff chances and profitability of hockey team?
And Chong is no fool. But politicians are told to say nothing. And they do, even when it makes them look ridiculous.
All in all, I'm rooting for Pimm. The voters sent him down to the legislature to speak for them, based on his experience in business, community sports and municipal government. They know him. He's wrong on the importance of the Charter, but at least he is saying what he thinks.
Imagine 85 MLAs, from all across the province, with different individual skills and experience and perspectives, debating and listening and learning from each other and really shaping government policy. Still committed to core party principles, but not blindly.
That's how our government is supposed to work. Our representatives, making decisions based on their best judgments about what is good for the people they represent.
Instead, MLAs sign up for their teams and do what they're told.
Footnote: You can judge the level of MLAs' independence. The legislature sessions are televised, though they're off this week. Question period, about 1:50 p.m., offers a chance to assess their efforts and let them know what you think.

Friday, November 06, 2009

The Berlin Wall and Prague's haunting ghosts

The 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall's end comes two years after my only visit to the former Soviet bloc.
It's not Berlin that comes first to mind. It's Prague, and the Museum of Communism. The museum is small, up a broad staircase on the second floor of a grand old building. A McDonalds is next door.
I went alone, on a bright spring day. Inside, the rooms were gloomy. The artifacts of 41 years of totalitarian communist rule were grim.
They showed how governments could easily construct a false reality, where enemies threaten and only a strong state can keep citizens safe.
But what brought tears to my eyes me were the video displays and writings in which Czechs looking back on the Prague spring of 1968. For eight months, under a reform government, change seemed possible.
Then the Soviet tanks rolled in.
For several months, people fought back, at great cost. Until the hopes were destroyed and they gave up.
The occupation lasted another 21 years, until it collapsed after the Berlin Wall came down on Nov. 9, 1989.
What was so sad?
The crushed hopes, for certain. The museum's black and white films showed protesters flooding into Prague's streets to demand freedom and democracy, defying police and army and censorship.
The fearlessness, too, and the obvious belief that an army of citizens could triumph over an army of guns and tanks.
But sadder than all that were the doubts and regrets. It was in the people's eyes as they talked about the collapse of the democracy movement.
What if, they must have wondered, we had fought a little longer, accepted more deaths, pushed back a little harder? Could that form of oppression been thrown off 20 years earlier?
There is no harder question.
Walking through the museum, I wondered how deep the scars still must be. No one who lived through the period could have escaped them.
The people who saw injustice and oppression lived with the questions about what they, and didn't do, to resist and whether they shied away from a just and important struggle. Each person had to decide if he was sensible, or scared.
A lot of people chose sensible. Some informed on neighbours or worked hard to support the Communist state. They too must have wondered about their choices.
Berlin was certainly haunting - the memorials to those killed trying to cross the wall, the preserved subway stations, closed for more than 40 years because they would have allowed East Berliners to simply step off the train and walk up into West Germany.
But the little museum in Prague was terribly sad and raised very hard questions, at least for me.
There was no character flaw in the Czech and Slovakian people or the East Germans or any of the other people who spend so long under Soviet oppression. They were not, except for their circumstances, much different from us.
As a child of the Cold War, the power of fear is easily understandable. When the warning sirens went, usually by accident, children in my Toronto suburb paused to see if the Russian a-bombs were about to fall. I pondered whether there were local targets worthy of a nuclear missile and calculated the odds that a Russian bomb aimed at Buffalo would miss land in my subdivision.
And as thousands of people gather in Berlin to celebrate the wall's fall, I wonder about the reality our states are constructing today.
Most Czech citizens, I expect, accepted the world their governments created, deferred to authority, made the best of their lives. As we do.
That is not, for a second, to compare the Soviet bloc governments and our own.
But as I emerged into the sun and walked Prague's beautiful streets, through the squares where thousands gathered, I felt both sadness and admiration. When tested, they had risked much in a bid for freedom.
Footnote: Equally haunting is a monument in Wenceslas Square in Prague, a curling cross set into on the ground. In January 1969, Jan Palach, a 20-year-old Czech history student, set himself on fire to protest the Soviet invasion that crushed the Prague Spring and brought 20 more years of winter.