Thursday, December 30, 2010

So this is the New Year

I handle letters to the editor at work. Most are e-mailed, but some come by post or are dropped off.
I keep one of those stuck to my computer. It’s neatly printed on a small sheet of lined paper, ripped from a spiral notebook. The page got wet at some point - maybe the person was writing outside. Some of the words, written in black ink, smudged when the page was folded.
“What makes me happy,” it’s headed.
“Going out for walks along the ocean looking at the boats and fishing boats. Having a cup of coffee in a restaurant. Riding the bus when I have money for bus fare. Going shopping for food and clothes. Filling my fridge up with lots of food. Having money left over. Saving money for a rainy day.”
That was it. No name, or we might have used it as a letter.
I didn’t really think about why I kept the note. I just knew it was a message that I didn’t want to dump in the recycling bin and forget.
The list is charming, maybe a little heart-breaking, in its simplicity.
Charming because it has a kind of beautiful spareness. Walking by the ocean. A restaurant coffee. A chance to buy food and maybe have a few dollars left in case something goes wrong.
The list is not infected by overreaching ambitions; it just sets out ordinary pleasures.
That’s the heartbreaking part.
There must be a story behind the note of someone who often finds those pleasures out of reach. A restaurant coffee is impossible; there is no food in the fridge; pelting rain turns a walk beside the ocean into an ordeal.
But how can that be? The person who wrote the note - a woman, I’ve always thought - sounds like someone committed to making the best of life. Things might be rough, but she keeps on working at it.
So how can a society not make sure that the effort is rewarded with the small things that will make her happy?
There are limits, certainly, on what we can do. At current tax rates, the money to improve life for people with disabilities, unable to work, comes partly from minimum wage workers just getting by on tiny incomes.
But there are also moral limits to how wretched we can make their lives without diminishing ourselves.
There is a judgment here. You could provide an income equal to the average wage for those who can’t work because of a chronic illness, for example.
You could stick them in a poorhouse, spending just enough to keep them alive.
Or you could find some sensible point between the two extremes.
We haven’t done that. A mother who develops a disability that keeps her from working, raising a 13-year-old child, gets $570 a month for rent. Which, in Victoria, means a one-room apartment with a kitchen nook in a dodgy building.
There is an additional $796 a month for everything else - food, clothes, bus passes, phone, all the things a mom and 13-year-old girl need to get by.
The total annual income is less than $16,400 — $315 a week. That is one dismal life, for mother and child.
The note shows how the simplest pleasures can be out of reach.
I don’t think we’re that mean. B.C. voters didn’t say they thought tax cuts that caused suffering for thousands of their neighbours were a good or necessary idea.
Which leads, or lurches, to three wishes for the New Year.
Enjoy every cup of coffee in a warm restaurant, each day your fridge is well-stocked and every walk along the ocean.
Refuse to accept the diminished lives imposed on your fellow citizens, recognizing the shame it brings on us all. Demand better - and put your money and volunteer effort into making it so.
And consider how important it is to pay attention - really pay attention - to the people around you.
Your laughter, your praise, your concern, your love - those are the most precious gifts. And so easily given.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Sub, helicopter debacles bode ill for jet fighter deal

We often launch our kayaks on the Songhees reserve a few hundred metres from the shed where one of Canada’s hopeless submarines is being repaired.
Our kayaks, rentals bought at the end of a summer, were bargains.
The four used British submarines, in contrast, have been disasters.
The Defence Department confirmed just before Christmas that HMCS Victoria will stay in its custom-built shed in Esquimalt until sometime next year as repairs and refits drag on and on, and the bills mount.
The sorry history of the secondhand submarines should be a loud warning about the government’s $16-billion plan to buy new jet fighters.
The Defence Department and the government of the day celebrated the $891-million purchase of the submarines in 1998. Great boats, almost ready to go, strategically essential and a bargain for taxpayers, they said.
Victoria was delivered in 2000. The Defence Department said that after six months of maintenance in Halifax, it would be at sea keeping us safe from whatever submarines are supposed to keep us safe from.
The six months stretched into three years. Then Victoria sailed for CFB Esquimalt and, after a ceremonial welcome, was docked for 10 months to deal with new problems.
It sailed for a few months in 2004. Then a fire on Chicoutimi, another one of the subs, killed a crewman on its delivery voyage from England. Victoria was pulled from service for another seven months.
By May 2005, it was supposedly ready to sail again. But a few months later, Victoria was back into dry dock for what was supposed to be a two-year repair program.
More than five years later, it’s still sitting on land. The Defence Department has announced — and missed — a series of launch dates.
In the decade since Canada has had the ship, it has spent 115 days in service and 117 months undergoing repairs and refits, with the bills steadily mounting.
It’s like buying a used car and being able to drive it for three weeks in the first two years, with the rest of the time spent in the repair shop. And having the dealer keep telling you what a great purchase you made.
Only one of the other three submarines is in regular service. Chicoutimi has been in dry dock since the 2004 fire and is not expected to be ready until 2012.
You could argue the Defence Department just had bad luck with the submarines.
Except that it is part of a pattern of problem-plagued military purchases.
In November, auditor general Sheila Fraser slammed cost overruns and mismanagement in the purchase of two sets of helicopters.
Costs more than doubled, to $11 billion. The project to replace aging Sea King helicopters with CH-148 Cyclones is seven years behind schedule; the CH-147 Chinook program is five years behind schedule.
And, Fraser said, the contract award process for the Chinooks “was not fair, open and transparent” and the Defence Department deliberately downplayed the risks of overruns and delays.
Three big purchases, three big failures. Which, again, raises great concerns about the $16-billion plan to buy 65 F-35 jet fighters.
The costs have soared already, and no contract has yet been signed. The government and the Defence Department have struggled to justify committing to buy the jets from Lockheed Martin without a competitive bidding process. There are no guarantees of economic benefits for Canadian firms, usually part of such deals.
Fraser has warned of significant risks.
And critics suggest Canada doesn’t need the fighters to fulfill its military obligations.
The government has launched a big sales campaign to persuade Canadians that the jets are needed and the project will be properly managed. Trust us, the military and the Harper government ministers say.
But given the track record on military purchases, only a fool would trust a process that has stuck Canadians with inflated bills and left the forces without equipment for years as projects are delayed and delayed again.
Footnote: The other question I ponder, as I paddle past the submarine repair shed into Esquimalt Harbour, is how the government can claim the boats were urgently needed when we have managed perfectly well over the past decade without them.