Friday, February 13, 2009

BC Rail and the MLAs' secrets

Bill Tieleman continues to serve the public well by following and reporting on the B.C. Rail corruption case's slow progress through the courts.
In the latest update Tieleman reports the Liberal caucus had a lawyer in court this week to ensure documents relating to communication between MLAs wouldn't be disclosed to the defence under a Freedom of Information request.
Which seems odd. If the defence believes the documents are relevant, the court can order their production.
But then an awful lot is odd in this case. Pretty much everything, really.

Games and guns make for rough legislature week

Ah, the legislature is a wondrous and often appalling place.
MLAs have been back four days, in a special sitting to change the balanced law so deficits are OK for the next two years.
No one has really paid attention to that debate, because the outcome is guaranteed. The Liberal majority now supports deficits now; so does the NDP.
Question period, the daily half-hour in which opposition MLAs attempt to catch out cabinet ministers, has been the main attraction.
That's because the press gallery crew watch each day for stories, ready to scrum both sides in the hall once the "Bell ends question period," as the Speaker says every sitting day. (Blessedly, I add quietly on many of them.)
On Thursday, they saw Finance Minister Colin Hansen, usually more sensible and effective, ignore eight questions about Olympic costs completely.
Each time, he stood up and talked about how great the Games would be and how the New Democrats were just gloomy worrywarts. It was the start of the one-year countdown to the Games, he said. Lighten up.
Carole James and company were, of course, trying to embarrass the government.
But the questions seemed legitimate. B.C. Hydro told the utilities commission Games-related security could cost an extra $7 million next year. It asked for a rate increase to cover the cost.
Natural gas suppliers are seeking increases. TransLink is spending millions. How much is all this costing British Columbians?
Should B.C. Hydro, for example, be collecting the security costs from low-income seniors through higher power rates, or should the government be paying it as an Olympic cost? That would mean a more equitable sharing of the burden.
And why did B.C. Hydro and ICBC - both effectively monopolies - become Games sponsors and buy 3,800 tickets to events? How much will customers pay?
The amounts are small. Perhaps the average household will pay $3.50 extra in electricity costs. But the questions deserved some response.
The other big theme for the week was the out-of-control gang shootings in the Lower Mainland. A lot of muscled, tattooed guys who watched Scarface too many times are shooting each other and spraying bullets around.
Gordon Campbell had a rare stumble on the issue. As the latest shell casings were being picked up, he said the government had done a lot on gangs. The effort would be stepped up, but only by shifting officers and prosecutors from other priorities. There would be no increased spending to deal with gangs.
But people in the Lower Mainland - from Abbotsford in - are worried about the daytime shootouts in supermarket parking lots. The answer seemed dismissive.
Inside the legislature, Attorney General Wally Oppal answered questions by saying the New Democrats did a worse job of dealing with gang crime in the 1990s.
Apparently no one had told him that's probably one of the many reasons the voters booted the NDP government.
Politically, it's interesting. The Liberals are trying to be the real Olympic boosters while portraying James as anti-Games; the NDP want to be boosters, but with a worried eye on the costs.
Practically, the focus is wrong. The Games are coming and the money is spent. The goal should be to get the maximum benefit. There will be a significant economic contribution in 2010, a needed boost.
But the challenge is to attract tourists, investors and creative people. Then auditor general Wayne Strelioff, in a 2006 report, said there could be big benefits. He added a warning, quoting consultants who worked on the assessment. "These benefits will not materialize automatically," they said. "They must be earned by a focused, adequately funded and skillfully executed marketing program."
The challenge is now much greater because of the recession.
The Games are coming; it's time to focus on benefits. Or end up like Turin, the forgotten host of the 2006 Winter Games.
Footnote: Campbell addressed the gang issue Friday, promising 131 officers would be transferred to the organized crime squad and 10 additional prosecutors dedicated to the work. The government also plans to ban body armour and seek tougher sentences and bail conditions for gun crimes.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A campaign without embedded journalists

It's a tradition that news media send reporters and camera operators out on the road with the leaders' buses during election campaigns, paying the parties for the transport and picking up all the other costs.
But times are tough in the media world and the buses might be empty during the provincial campaign leading up to the May 12 election, according to Sean Holman and Vaughn Palmer.
That could be a good thing. The rolling photo ops tended to focus on the trivial and were awfully easy for the parties to manage.
Then again, the parties could decide to run the whole campaign in the Lower Mainland as an alternative, which hardly seems a step forward.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

WWE wrestlers should consider B.C. politics

The province's capital hit the media big time on the weekend.
A pro wrestler and pop culture figure named Chris Jericho got in a tussle as he tried to leave the local arena, and apparently decked a young woman. (She hit him first.) WWE fans were transfixed, especially as it all ended up on YouTube.
Then on Monday, MLAs arrived a week early, officially to hold an emergency legislative debate on repealing the balanced budget law. Gordon Campbell has accepted the need to run a deficit when times are tough.
Really, the opening of the legislature marks the beginning of the next phase in the election campaign that will end with a vote on May 12.
And that process has a lot in common with the World Wrestling Entertainment that provides a stage for Jericho.
And a big stage it is. A search on Google News revealed 1,402 stories about the altercation and its aftermath. The YouTube video had some 500,000 viewings by Tuesday morning.
The parking lot scuffle was, at least based on peoples' interest around North America, the biggest story out of Victoria in at least 15 years.
And within hours, it was being spun like a square dancer at the Williams Lake round-up.
Jericho, an interesting performer who slogged his way through a northern Manitoba wrestling circuit before hitting the bigs, was either a victim or a thug. Both worked for the wrestling fans, given his bad-guy ring persona. (He is an interesting guy - actor, writer, musician and professional celebrity.)
And spin is what we can expect over the next 12 weeks, as we count down to election day. Either party could hire Jericho and his advisers to guide their campaigns; the biggest differences between them and the parties' operatives are neck size and net worth. (The pro wrestling guys win on both counts.)
That's not really true, I admit. Almost all of the campaigners in the provincial election campaign are convinced they are offering a better path for the province's future. The wrestlers just want to make some money and stay in the public eye.
But the way the politics play out - the preening, the posturing and the over-the-top histrionics, the determination to divide the world into evil villains and white knights - has much in common with WWE wrestling. All that's missing are the steroids.
Our politicians don't slug spectators, for the most part. (Jean Chretien's attempted throttling of a critic being an exception.) But during question period, their feigned outrage and anger are every bit as rude, abusive and silly as the wrestlers' rants after every show.
It's too bad that what should be one of the more serious jobs in society has so much in common with a violent, sexist, cartoonish sports-entertainment-circus sideshow.
And it's mystifying. Out of 79 MLAs, there are bound to be a few whose emotional volume level is always set at 11. And you can expect a handful who actually think it's fun to shout insults at each other, like playground bullies except in dark suits.
But mostly, the people who become MLAs start with the idea of making things better in their communities. And by that, they don't mean making things better for their supporters, but for everyone.
Much of the time, they win the nominations in part because they have shown they can bring people together instead of dividing them. The NDP candidate might have attracted notice on the labour council, but she was also a good school trustee who worked well with parents and teachers. The Liberal candidate might have won praise as chamber of commerce head, but he's also respected for the great job he did rounding up volunteers to work on a new playground.
Then, for too many, something happens when they get elected. The next thing you know, they're standing up in the legislature and shouting about the other side's determination to destroy the province.
It's appalling behaviour in wrestlers; profoundly destructive in politicians.
Footnote: If you think I'm exaggerating, read the transcripts of question period, available on the government web site. (Click on Legislative Assembly on the main page, then Debates, then any afternoon session. Or for a grimmer view, tune in to the legislative broadcast around 1:50 p.m. most days.