Friday, March 19, 2010

Taking a break

Time for a little change of pace. Blogging will be highly intermittent to non-existent for a while until we return to our regularly scheduled programming.

Moving past the politics of blind division

I admit to being a bit critical of government.
Crabby, you might even say.
I like to think I’m offering useful information and constructive perspective, but not everyone is going to see it that way.
Which is fine. As it’s fine to challenge my arguments or offer an alternate view of the issues. I was charmed by the headline last year on a letter to the editor responding to a column last year — “If Willcocks likes it, it must be bad.”
But it’s puzzling and frustrating when some readers think that a critical look at the policies or actions of the party in power means a writer must support another political party.
And it’s worrisome. It speaks of polarized, mindless divisions and the politics of contempt. People don’t talk about policies. They pick teams. Hell’s Angels versus Bandidos, Leafs versus Canucks.
Policies don’t matter, only loyalties.
I have done this kind of work in five provinces. The attitude toward politics varied widely. In New Brunswick, political loyalty brought direct benefits like a government job (which was at risk if the other party won next time). In Alberta, people united behind a dominant governing regime.
But in B.C., we pick sides. If you criticize the NDP position on the carbon tax, then you are expected to support the Liberal position on minimum wage. If you criticize the Liberals for not having a plan to reduce child poverty, then you must think the NDP is right on private power.
That makes no logical sense. On election day, voters have to choose between candidates and parties. But, except for the hardcore partisans and loyalists, between elections molst of us can worry about policies.
We can be free to praise the party in power for good actions and carp at it for failures.
When we don’t, public discourse is cheapened, reduced to slogans and posturing. It demeans us as thinking, caring people.
And to the extent that people buy into the need to pick sides, we lose the benefit of their intelligence and experience.
The Liberals, for example, are keen to expand private power production for export. There are risks of higher electricity rates for residents as a result.
It’s complex and we would benefit from a discussion. But if people feel compelled to support or oppose it on some party basis, there is no critical discussion of the benefits and costs.
It’s troubling for a columnist. Between elections, the opposition doesn’t much matter. The party in power sets the budget and brings in the policy changes and deals with the problems and opportunities. So you write generally about how it is doing. The opposition criticizes, but sets out few clear policies.
And mostly I write about things that could be done better.
That’s a compliment to readers and our political system. It’s based on the belief that journalism provides information and perspective to people.
That they then weigh all the information and use their good judgment and experience to form their opinions and act on them. And that politicians respond to the public. Otherwise, what’s the point of writing this stuff, or reading it?
It can be negative. Probably a few more columns about successes would be good. But with a couple of columns a week, it seems important to write about a problem that could be fixed or examine an issue that matters.
And it can seem partisan. When the New Democrats were in government and I was writing about their truly dismal performance, I was characterized as a Liberal supporter. Now the topics involve Liberal stumbles – often, sadly, in the same areas – and I’m seen as a shill for the NDP.
Writing about things that the party in power could and should do better by shouldn’t be seen as support for the opposition.
Public policy matters. To reduce it to us versus them undermines democracy and creates more stupid, destructive politics.
Footnote: For the record, I think I have voted for Liberal, Conservative and NDP candidates in federal and provincial elections, depending on the candidates and the policies and issues of the day.

'Rural' tax break for Whistler chalet owner; not for PG renter

There's a certain late-1990s NDP quality in the budget's $200 tax break for "northern and rural homeowners."
By any rational economic or public policy test, the move makes no sense.
The government is collecting $80 million from all taxpayers and then redistributing the money to some people, without any consideration of need or public benefit.
Poor people, who have it really tough, will pay taxes that will be redistributed to multimillionaires who need no help at all.
But the ploy scores political points and spins well - both important to the NDP government of the late-'90s and, apparently, the Campbell government.
Finance Minister Colin Hansen said the tax credit - an add-on to the homeowner grant - would provide "breathing room" for people in communities hit hardest by the economic downturn.
It does no such thing.
The government decided to give $200 to every homeowner living outside the Lower Mainland and Victoria. (More specifically, outside the Greater Vancouver, Fraser Valley and Capital Regional Districts.)
About 70 per cent of British Columbians live in those three excluded areas. No matter how tough time are for their families, no money for them. They're paying taxes to help other people.
Which, given competent government, could be OK. We accept the notion that those who are doing well will help those who aren't.
We grumble. We certainly worry about waste. But when government can show that our taxes help a sick person get care or a child get a fair chance at life, most of us are willing to write the cheques.
But not so much if we're giving money to people who are already financially better we off than we are.
Which is what the government is doing.
Kelowna is, according to the government, a northern or rural community. People who own houses there will get the $200 from other taxpayers.
The unemployment rate in Kelowna is about six per cent.
In Prince George, unemployment is 12.9 per cent, more than twice the level in Kelowna.
Kelowna's population includes many people who are doing just fine, to their credit. But why would we send money to someone doing well? Especially when the money was being, in part, from people who were doing very poorly, while still paying taxes?
A laid-off forest worker in Sooke won't get the grant because he lives in the CRD; instead, he will pay taxes in part so a person living in a $2-million house in Whistler will get the $200 as a "rural and northern resident."
And the grants only go to homeowners. That would be fine if the goal was to provide a little extra income to people who owned homes.
But Hansen said it was to all help provide "breathing room" for all people in hardhit communities. A lot of the people suffering through this recession are renters, many of them in the middle-income brackets. They get nothing; in fact a portion of their taxes will go to providing a $200 cheque to the neighbour on the next block with a mortgage-free houses.
There is a vaguely sensible public policy buried deeply beneath all the political calculations. The recession's impact has fallen particularly heavily on people in specific communities. And within the community, the blows have fallen hardest on a specific group. People who were really poor before the recession still are; people who were relatively comfortable have some cushion.
But people working for modest wages, with narrow skills and living from pay cheque to pay cheque, have had a tough time. You could argue for targeted aid in some form.
Just tossing out $80 million and hoping for the best doesn't really qualify as targeted aid.
The money could fund career training each year for 8,000 people displaced from their jobs by the recession. It could increase income assistance benefits for families for a time after they employment insurance benefits expired.
There are lots of options. Instead, a single mom working for $14 an hour is going to pay taxes to provide $200 to a millionaire vineyard owner in Oliver.
Footnote: The rural and northern homeowners grant was part of the Liberal government's pre-election budget last year, the one that projected a deficit of $495 million, one-fifth the size of the real shortfall. Despite other cuts, the program is going ahead next year.

Cut steals communication from the disabled

Many of us fear being trapped in our bodies in old age, unable to communicate.
For some people, that's a reality long before they're old.
An amazing initiative has been changing that reality — and people's lives. But now the provincial government has eliminated its modest support for the program.
Giving the gift of communication to people with disabilities isn't a priority.
The name is a little dull - Communication Assistance for Youth and Adults, or CAYA.
But the work is astonishing. It combines advanced technology, therapy and ingenuity. The results are life changing.
Imagine being 29, and suffering from a spinal cord injury or illness that meant you couldn't speak or sign or communicate. When doctors asked about pain, you couldn't answer. You couldn't ask for something you badly wanted or tell someone how much you cared.
CAYA changes that. The speech pathologists work with clients to find the best way to communicate. The tech people identify the best communication device. There's training and support.
Imagine that gift for you or someone you care about.
The CAYA website has some wonderful client stories. People freed from the prison of their bodies to work and share life. You should read them. It's heartening and humbling to see the enthusiastic embrace of life from people dealing with such big challenges.
Like Melissa Yaretz of Sicamous. She's 19. She has struggled to survive physically. But she was an academic star in high school, thanks to advanced communications technology.
"Without a communication system there would have been no grades and no proof that I am all that I am." Yaretz wrote. "I would have just sat in the back of the room looking cute. Cute only works for so long. Without communication, to the rest of the world I am just a woman in a wheelchair with a severe disability, who is dependent for everything."
Or Andrea Paterson of Abbotsford. Her Lightwriter voice communication device gives her a voice and allowed her to move into a group home.
"I use my Lightwriter to help the staff at my new group home know what I like to do, to eat, or how I am feeling," Paterson says. "Once when I was sick I wrote 'I want to go home.' I love to have fun and to tease the staff and the Lightwriter helps me do that. I love it here!"
Government revenues are down and costs must be balanced against benefits.
But cutting a small amount of funding that produced huge changes in people's lives betrays the values most of us live by.
Since 1989, SET - Special Education Technology B.C. - has been working to help school-age children communicate. In 2005, CAYA was created to extend the effort to adults, with government support.
Two years ago, then education minister Shirley Bond and income assistance minister Claude Richmond announced a $500,000 grant for CAYA. "Our government wants every British Columbian to achieve their very best, both in school and in life," said Bond.
"I know that CAYA will continue to make a tremendous difference in the lives of those with severe communication disabilities," Richmond said.
But now the government has eliminated funding. A disabled person with a chance of employment or a volunteer role can apply to CAYA, which will dip into the money it has left to help.
Otherwise, disabled people are apparently not worth the money it would take to allow them to communicate.
Rich Coleman, the minister responsible, said government recognizes the program's effectiveness and how lives have been changed.
"However, the economic downturn has placed significant pressure on our programs and we are no longer able to provide funding to the CAYA project," Coleman wrote. (MLAs, beyond having forgone a one-per-cent wage increase, haven't cut their wages or benefits.)
Last word to Melissa Yaretz.
"What about Love? I too desire love from life and all that it can mean. How can someone love me if they don't know me? How can they know me if they don't understand me? To be able to communicate all my thoughts and feelings allows others to know all of me inside and out. As I desire an equal place in life, I also desire the same of love."
Sorry, the government says. Too expensive. Go away.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

It would save lives, but photo radar is not returning

Photo radar saves lives and reduces injuries and health care costs.
It's simple. Drivers pay more attention to speed limits if they're worried about tickets. And when they obey the posted speed limits, fewer people are maimed and killed.
There is no real debate about those basic facts. The global research and the evidence from B.C. are overwhelming.
That doesn't mean people must support photo radar. They can argue the money spent on the equipment could produce greater safety improvements if it was used in some other way.
Or they can maintain that some laws shouldn't really be enforced too rigorously, though it's hard to see the logic of that position. Or that photo radar is unfair in some unspecified way.
But the reality is that B.C. politicians have decided it's not worth getting yelled at over an unpopular measure, even if better law enforcement would save lives. That's why the NDP and Liberals both reject the return of photo radar and run like scared cats when the issue comes up.
Mostly. NDP MLA John Horgan did a radio interview in Victoria and said he personally supports photo radar because it saves lives.
Which prompted a quick response from the Liberal caucus communications people (whose salary you pay).
"NDP wants to resurrect failed photo radar plan," the title said.
The staffers crafted imaginary quotes for Solicitor General Kash Heed. Photo radar was a "total failure" in B.C., they imagined Heed saying. "Only the NDP would want to resurrect a plan to use police as tax collectors rather than having them on the street fighting crime and targeting problem drivers."
Crash deaths fell 15 per cent in 2008 compared with 2007, the release noted. Other policing efforts have worked to make the roads safer.
But that's not really true. Photo radar caught speeders in B.C. for six years. The average number of people who died in crashes was 408.
In the six previous years, the toll had averaged 534.
In the same period after photo radar was eliminated, the average number of people killed in crashes was 439.
So despite the new measures, the lives of 30 more families each year were shattered. Many were victims of someone else's speeding, in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Thousands more people were injured. The costs to us all were huge, from health care to higher insurance rates.
A study that looked at the first year of photo radar in the province found a "dramatic reduction" in speed at deployment sites. "The analysis found a 25-per-cent reduction in daytime unsafe-speed-related collisions, an 11-per-cent reduction in daytime traffic collision victims carried by ambulances and a 17-per-cent reduction in daytime traffic collision fatalities," the report said.
Another review analyzed data from 26 photo radar studies around the world. Crashes were reduced by between 14 per cent and 72 per cent. Fatalities by 40 to 46 per cent.
There's lots of support for photo radar. The RCMP and ICBC and Surrey council all sought photo radar for the Patullo Bridge.
And a 2007 poll for the Canada Safety Council found 75 per cent of British Columbians supported photo radar on the highways - and 90 per cent in school zones.
Politically, it's still poison. The NDP photo-radar was tainted by the government's unpopularity. The program was wasteful, with a police officer in each van. And people felt the predatory locations were chosen to boost revenue.
But there are effective alternatives. Boxes for photo radar - or speed cameras - could be mounted on traffic lights or utility poles at high-risk areas. Cameras could be rotated from location to location. Speeders would be caught and more people would drive closer to the speed limit.
Lives would be saved, hospital costs reduced and insurance rates kept lower - and families protected from tragedy.
Perhaps police officers watching for traffic offenders would be even more effective. But the government is not likely to hire a lot more of them.
Or, sadly, to bring back photo radar.
Footnote: Give credit to Horgan for a straight answer. Many MLAs - not all - would have responded to a question about an issue like photo radar with blather, determinedly saying nothing. Honesty and straight talk are refreshing.