Friday, June 03, 2011

Maybe we just don't need MLAs any more

Do we really need MLAs?
They're nice enough people. But as the legislative session ended Thursday after just 24 sitting days, I wondered if we need to pay 85 people salaries starting at $100,000 a year to fill the seats in the red-carpeted chamber.
At least as it operates now.
It's not as if they changed anything in the 24 days. The government introduced its budget. The Liberal MLAs voted for every element of it; the NDP voted against.
There was debate on spending, but because the session was so short MLAs were reviewing and approving about $2.5 billion in spending a day. People spend more time choosing a new sofa.
Bills were passed, but the debates and votes were largely irrelevant. Once the governing party introduced the legislation, passage was a done deal.
There were some excellent private members' bills - legislation advanced by MLAs without official government support. But they went nowhere, as is the norm.
The opposition got the chance to raise issues in question period, which is 30 minutes each day. But maybe there's a cheaper, better way to accomplish that. Issues were raised in other debates, but who reads Hansard?
Really, the elected MLAs could have stayed home. A few performers could have read the expected lines from both sides of the house, MLAs could have given their proxies to the party leaders and nothing would be much different.
MLAs do other work, of course. But constituents' issues could he handled by a competent manager in each riding. And I am unconvinced that the views of a backbench member often have a great role in shaping party policy.
And if MLAs hadn't shown up, they would have been spared the embarrassment of thumping their desks on cue and shouting insults - or watching as their peers shouted - across the floor.
In fact, do we even need candidates to stand for election in 85 ridings, if their role is peripheral? Perhaps it would be more efficient to just let people vote for the parties in each riding, and give the leaders chits for each one they win. They could then use those to cast votes in the legislature.
Since the 2009 election, the legislature has sat for less than 120 days. That's not an indication that there is much pressing work to do.
It might seem radical to suggest MLAs' time in the legislature is largely irrelevant.
But Liberal House leader Rich Coleman apparently shares the view.
The New Democrats had suggested spending another two weeks to deal properly with the budget and the legislation.
But Coleman said no, the government would use closure to end debate on any outstanding business and force bills and budget through the legislature.
He could offer no reason for shutting down the legislature. It's not as if MLAs are exhausted after 24 days, or have somewhere else pressing to be.
Coleman is not out on some partisan limb here. The New Democrat governments of the 1990s showed no more respect for MLAs and the legislature. (Though they did have the legislature in session about 76 days a year, much more than the Liberals have done since 2001.)
I'm overstating the case. Debate can be useful and even, on occasion, bring improvements to bills. MLAs get a chance to raise issues of concern to constituents, or propose legislation. (Independent MLA Bob Simpson had several useful proposals.)
But those are the exceptions.
It's not supposed to be like this. Traditionally, voters would elect MLAs. Those who won the most seats would chose someone to be premier. The premier would owe allegiance to MLAs, who would have the support of voters. We've turned the relationship upside down. And as MLAs' roles have shrunk, the pay scale has risen.
Party leaders have little interest in giving up power. That means MLAs have to find some way to demand it - more Independent MLAs would be a start - or voters have to reward a party committed to real change.
Footnote: It was interesting to see the attention focused on the way Simpson and fellow Independent Vicki Huntington voted on the HST changes. (They both supported them, without saying they supported the tax.) Presumably, their votes mattered because they were the only two MLAs actually using their own judgment on the issue.

Only dead sex workers get our support

From Jody Paterson's column:

"So we’ve got an inquiry into a B.C. mass murder headed up by a man tainted by his political connections, presiding over a process that shuts out almost everyone on the side of the victims.
"Yup, that sounds like a solid way to get at the truth about the Robert Pickton case.
"Only sex workers could draw straws this short. Then again, only sex workers would be left to go missing and murdered on our streets for so long in the first place. It’s baffling and heartbreaking, this misery we sustain in the name of 'morality.'"

It's worth reading the rest here.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Clark betrays participants in missing women's inquiry

Christy Clark faced a serious issue in her first question period as premier.
Her response was empty. Attorney General Barry Penner was a more capable government spokesman.
The issue is the missing and murdered women's inquiry.
Commissioner Wally Oppal, a former Liberal attorney general, had to decide who had a right to participate in the inquiry - to question witnesses and play an active role.
Oppal ruled 13 groups had a legitimate interest. They included families of the women killed by Robert Pickton, a coalition of sex-worker groups, several aboriginal organizations and some agencies who worked with the Downtown Eastside people who were Pickton's prey.
And he said that to play their proper role, they would need public funding to help with legal costs.
The government rejected Oppal's recommendation. The families of the missing women would get funding for a shared lawyer. No one else would get public money.
Except, of course, police. They will have a battery of publicly funded lawyers to look after their interests when the botched investigation is examined. Crown prosecutors will have taxpayer-funded lawyers. So will the government and any politicians who might be called as witnesses or even referred to during the inquiry.
But the organizations supporting prostitutes, whose concerns about missing women were ignored, they're shut out. First Nations who want to ask questions to see if racism played in the role in the lack of urgency when women began disappearing, they're on their own.
Oppal said he had only recommended funding for those who had a role to play in getting answers and had "satisfied me that they would not be able to participate fully without financial support."
The government decided to exclude those groups from full participation. Police and politicians would have a battalion of lawyers to protect their interests. Natives, poor women, the disadvantaged - they would have no one.
And it made the decision despite having provided funding for groups with standing at the inquiry into the death of Frank Paul, who died after being left in an alley by Vancouver police.
The NDP basically repeated a single question - would Clark and the government accept Oppal's judgment and fund some legal costs for all parties that should be part of the inquiry.
Clark expressed sympathy. She did a bizarre little riff about families first and the HST rate reduction and B.C. Ferries fares and ICBC, although what that had to do with murdered women was unclear.
But she never addressed the questions or Oppal's recommendations or the issue.
MLA Carole James noted the inquiry would not have been called without the efforts of some of the groups.
Clark responded that "the government said at the time that they would support an inquiry when the legal proceedings were complete. The government kept their promise."
That's not true. The Liberal government consistently refused to commit to an inquiry even when police called for one.
And she maintained the groups could participate even if they didn't have lawyers to represent them at the inquiry. Oppal disagrees.
And if Clark is serious, she could prove it by announcing no public funds will be spent on lawyers for politicians, police and prosecutors. But she won't.
Penner at least addressed the issue. It would cost too much to pay for the legal representation. There were parts of the inquiry where people who didn't have lawyers could be heard.
But he also failed to address the fact that insiders - police and prosecutors and politicians past and present - have unlimited public funding for legal representation.
The outsiders get nothing.
Inquiries do become costly as legal fees mount. But why not impose limits on all involved, while providing equitable funding?
Instead, the government decided that the powerful would have all the funding needed to protect their interests at the inquiry. The powerless could watch from the spectators' gallery.
And Clark never really defended the decision, or even showed that she understood its significance.
Footnote: One aspect of the question period was welcome. Because of the serious topic, MLAs on both sides refrained from the normal shouted insults, rants and cheap theatrics that degrade the legislature.
Sadly, some journalists seemed disappointed by the lack of rudeness and stupidity.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Mangling the facts on 'social entrepreneurs'

I was intrigued when MLA Gordon Hogg stood up in the legislature to talk about "social entrepreneurs."

"Some of the world's leaders in social innovation live right here in British Columbia. The Lower Mainland was recently called by the Ottawa Citizen: 'The Silicon Valley of social innovation in Canada,'" Hogg said.

That would be a useful article to get a better handle on the government's push for social entrepreneurship, I thought.

Except the Ottawa Citizen never said any such thing.

The closest thing was a quote from Axiom News — a website paid by clients to share positive news. "Vancouver was praised as 'the social Silicon Valley' and other glowing accolades as the city played host to the first Canadian Social Innovation and Social Finance tour," said a report on the website.

Members' statements are written in advance; Hogg gets an extra $15,000 on top of the base $100,000 for the parliamentary secretary job; it seems reasonable to assume they would be accurate.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

ICBC and the politicians

From Craig McInnes in the Sun:

"On the flip side, the government also gets to decide what to do when ICBC is deemed to have collected more cash than it needs to meet claims. The B.C. government chose to take for itself $778 million over three years that was collected from motorists in premiums that were subsequently judged to be excessive.

In Manitoba, when the Public Utilities Board found recently that the public insurance company had over-estimated the amount it needed to charge to cover claims, it ordered the money to be returned to the people who paid it rather than be turned over to the government.

The refunds averaged $450 per customer, or about 45 per cent of the previous year's premiums."

You can and should read the rest here.