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: 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."