because I say so

Freelance writer and former talk show host's op/ed, rants and commentary on Canadian federal politics, BC provincial politics, education and occasional miscellaneous.

Name:
Location: Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

I'm a freelance writer, actor and former talk show host. Published work has appeared in Maclean's, The Vancouver Sun, The Province, The Victoria Times Colonist and others. I previously wrote a Canadian Politics column for Suite101.com.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Desperate times call for desperate (debate) measures

I'm sorry, you'll do what?

I didn't quite do an all-out spit-take (I could never match the prowess of the late, great John Ritter on that front anyway) but I did nearly leap forward into the car in front of me.

Paul Martin announced (well, "announced" usually implies some sort of organized, well prepared policy initiative but nonetheless) that if re-elected, he would pass a bill prohibiting the federal use of Section 33 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the so-called notwithstanding clause.

Talk about constitutional reform from the hip.

In twelve years of office, the Liberals have never, ever, expressed concern about the federal government's legal ability to make use of Section 33 to override a judicial decision made by the Supreme Court should the need arise. True, they've never used it but until now they gave no indication they wanted to eliminate their ability to make use of it.

Indeed, a bit of history is merited. It was the federal Liberals under the leadership of Pierre Trudeau who not only championed the Charter of Rights and Freedoms but included Section 33 at the behest of provincial premiers who refused to sign on to the deal without it (hmmm.... another case of Liberal political expediency? We'll do whatever it takes to get the votes we need?).

Conspiracy theorists may point to the fact that much of the Charter was penned by Martin's arch-nemesis Jean Chretien, then the Justice Minister, as yet another poke from Martin at his constant internecine rival and in ordinary circumstances I wouldn't put that sort of political shallowness beyond l'homme de LaSalle-Emard.

But last night's anti-notwithstanding position reeks of something else: sheer, unadulterated, pathetic desperation.

Notwithstanding the fact the notwithstanding clause could be abused by a Conservative (or Liberal or NDP or Marijuana Party) government, an act that would place limits on any section of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the single most powerful document in all of Canadian jurisprudence, needs not to be done without serious disciplined, research into the constitutional impact of such an amendment (which, by the way, could just as easily be un-amended by the next government).

Not to be drawn into a constitutional debate but Section 33 protects the Canadian people from extra-judicial decisions by an unrepresentative, unaccountable Supreme Court (appointed with no checks or balances by the Prime Minister). Its use is rare and should only ever be contemplated in the most serious of cases.

Mr. Martin's position isn't based on serious debate (there has been none to date, at least no publicly). The Prime Minister's attack on the notwithstanding clause was nothing more than a feeble minded, desperate attempt to draw Stephen Harper into the same-sex marriage debate, despite Mr. Harper's pledge never to use Section 33 on that issue.

It was a shameful display of political gamesmanship. You don't amend the constitution because you're behind in the polls. You amend the constitution because it's the right thing to do; and when you can show us you've done your homework on this one, Prime Minister, then we can talk.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Wishing me a Happy New Parliamentary New Year

My Parliamentary Wishes
by David Russell

What will it take, for goodness' sake?

The final week of the old year marked yet another milestone for the continually scandal-plagued federal Liberal party as the RCMP launched an investigation into the actions of the federal finance department after allegations someone in the ministry may have leaked information to certain privileged - read, Liberal-friendly - investors about pending decisions regarding income trusts.

Ask Martha Stewart what usually happens to people who get trading information ahead of the rest of the public.

And still, the Canadian public responds with in its usual manner: ho-hum.

And Ralph Goodale, federal Finance Minister, not only refuses to resign while his ministry is the target of a criminal investigation - which, by the way, used to be the expectation in the parliamentary system at even the whiff of misconduct - for several days he was so deep into Saskatchewan campaigning he could not be reached for comment.

One wonders to what group of Luddites the minister was reaching out and if they even knew an election was forthcoming. Half the population within the vast majority of Canada that is reachable by telephone and television are not even aware a campaign has begun. On what cave door must he have been knocking?

Were it that this was the only example, as opposed to but one example, of potential Liberal misconduct the public could be forgiven for being so forgiving. But it isn't. The litany of Liberal misconduct in its twelve years in office is surely unparalleled in Canadian governance history.

There's no need to bring up the Gomery inquiry and sponsorship scandal: that's been covered ad infinitum to the point most people simply do not want to hear about it any longer.

But let's recall the myriad other times in this past dozen years our current government has badly bunged up their attempts at running programs: the Human Resources Development Canada scandal; the L'Affair Grand Mere with former Prime Minister Chr├ętien involved in questionable dealings with the Business Development Bank of Canada and personal properties in which he held ownership shares; the Canadian Gun Registry program, a $2 million program that at last count had reached costs well in excess of a billion dollars. Is there anyone left in the country that really believes this is a government capable of running the country competently and without dipping its party hands into the taxpayers' cookie jar?

Finally, some signs on the horizon may indicate the public is finally seeing the light. A recent Ipsos-Reid poll actually shows the Conservatives pulling slightly ahead of the Liberals. Both parties remain within the margin of error and I'm the first to confess that I always doubt the validity of election polling anyway, but it does at least give some hope that Canadians may actually be thinking about what we expect from government for a change.

In an ideal world, the parliament on January 24th will look like this: the Conservatives will form the government, at least a minority; the New Democrats, who frequently have conceived many of the best social policies, are Her Majesty's Official Opposition, providing some balance to the Conservatives' fiscal conservativeness; and the Liberals spend some well deserved time mired in third place reflecting on what a government ought to be.

Wishful thinking to be sure, but a New Year's resolution I'd be happy to help the country keep.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Local candidates awake early to face the press

On Wednesday, 28 December, Fleetwood-Port Kells candidates made the trek from their suburban Surrey riding to the suburban Burnaby studios of Global Television for a substandard interview on the network's morning news show.

In a departure from the show's usual endless loop of the previous night's newscasts, the Morning News jumped into the election fray by inviting the three main party candidates from the riding in Canada's fastest growing community in for a face-to-face debate of the issues in this electoral contest.

And what a debate it was.

Notwithstanding the lame, softball salvos lobbed by sportscaster-inexplicably-turned-anchor-Steve Darling, whose off-script abilities make Jessica Simpson sound like Susan Sontag, the candidates were about as moving as an episode of How I Met Your Mother.'

If getting jazzed by lackluster campaigns and uninspiring party leaders is difficult to do, it's darned near impossible at the local level. The candidates by rights ought to have been thrilled by the chance to address constituents on the also inexplicably highest rated newscast in the province. In other words, they could address not only their own ridings' electorate, they potentially could reach potential voters on behalf of their parties throughout British Columbia.

All three looked as though they were facing a splenectomy rather than a golden campaign opportunity.

Brenda Locke, who as a single term MLA for the officially not related provincial Liberal Party would appear to have the most experience of the lot. But she seemed hopelessly unable to stray even for a moment from the carefully scripted Liberal election message, which may be learned behaviour from her days working with Premier Gordon Campbell.

Worse was Nina Grewal, the Conservative candidate who has served briefly in parliament since the Martin minority government was elected in the spring of 2004. Her responses, when they were coherent at all, were all of the 'Paul Martin did this or didn't do that' variety. If she was aware of Conservative policy it didn't show. Grewal, whose husband represented a neighbouring riding until a scandal over wire tapping, tape doctoring, floor crossing and, well, just about everything he ever said or did in office caused him to abandon the nomination this time around, seemed singularly the least able of the three to articulate a point of view. That the two could represent ridings clearly one of them doesn't live in - unless their means to maintaining a healthy marriage is by not living together - is a symptom of a gigantic flaw in rules for representing a riding and a topic for another write.

Barry Bell, candidate for the New Democrats was at least the most articulate in his ability to say almost nothing.

Of course, this sad little display only goes to highlight the growing disconnect between local voters and their candidates. If we can't count on local candidates to have a single independent thought of their own, how or why would anyone get excited about voting, let alone getting involved at the local level?

It highlights the sheep-like nature of the elected representative, who, in our system, simply brays the party line.

It's not a hopeful sign for local democracy.

Friday, November 18, 2005

A fifteen percent boost in public cynicism

It's difficult to believe the optics.

Party apparati so experienced as the members of the B.C. Liberal Party and B.C. New Democratic Party should surely have seen the potential for backlash from so callous a move as to vote themselves a pay raise averaging fifteen percent ( http://www.canada.com/vancouver/theprovince/news/story.html?id=ad0bd573-2c2c-4f69-bdd0-0bc1bceedb0a ).


The vote was even unanimous, showing that among seventy-nine members of the legislature, not one lone voice of conscience or political savvy was to be heard calling out from the wilderness.

To be fair, it's difficult to conceive of any good time to vote oneself a raise. As faith in governance has continued to deteriorate over the years it can hardly be a surprise that the public would view any increase in remuneration in a poor light.

It also doesn't help that the body responsible for determining and approving the raise is the body itself: in terms of oversight having the hand in the cookie jar responsible for keeping account of the cookies hardly seems prudent. And that may well be a large part of the problem with pay for our MLA's: they may well deserve a raise.

I cringe even at the thought but the reality is, which of us doesn't want to earn better pay for the work that we're doing? And if we're going to value the role of the MLA ought we not to make the job attractive enough in compensation as to draw top people to the role?

Which may indicate that some sort of impartial body is required to determine when or if members of the legislature are due for a raise. While finding anyone in British Columbia independent or objective enough for such a job would be challenging, surely the public couldn't be any more distrustful than it currently is of politicians feeding themselves from the public trough.

One can only hope this is a harbinger of good things to come in the future. Public sector workers - many if not most of whom have suffered wage freezes or worse, wage rollbacks under this government - can at least take solace in the notion that it will be that much more difficult for the government to hold the line on small wage increases for its workers after so generously rewarding itself.

At least one can hope.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Convergence - never thought it'd hit me

There's no media but one media
by David Russell


It has finally arrived directly on my doorstep: convergence.

A creature of habit I have long found it near to impossible to give up my Vancouver Sun (http://www.vancouversun.com). After nearly twenty years of daily reading I've continued my subscription, despite what I view to be a continuing decline in the quality of just about every aspect of the publication: from journalistic and writing quality to grammar and proofreading. But in short, I still like to read the paper over breakfast and it's what was available.

True, for a while I wanted a wider perspective and actually had dual subscriptions to the Sun and National Post. And to be fair, in its early days, The Post had far reaching news bureaus, one of the best design layouts of any Canadian daily and some outstanding writers, despite how often I may have disagreed with them.

It wasn't long, however, before I found that not only was the same material being covered in both papers, very often the exact same copy was carried. And as more and more of the stellar scribes at The Post jumped ship, it became even less likely I would want to read the same piece by the same writer in my two dailies.

Thus, one of them had to go.

In deference to my wife, who likes more local coverage than The Post can provide - and whose distaste for then part owner Conrad Black was even greater than mine - The Sun became the staple of our daily diet. It wasn't long, however, before my need for a greater national and international focus led me to subscribe to the Globe and Mail, where many of said favourite writers ended up (Blatchford, Taber, et al.) and where one could safely presume the copy being devoured - particularly the weekend edition, awash with such fine columnists as Rex Murphy, Heather Malick and Doug Saunders - would be free of the same prose posed by the CanWest company.

Or so one thought.

While the two companies may be competitors who loathe to share resources with one another, both the Globe and CanWest seek ways to fill space with inexpensive reporting. Thus, a weekend ago I took in a piece in the Globe and Mail, only to find the exact same story a couple of hours later in the "seriously west coast" weekend Sun.

Not the same topic, you understand: the same story. By the same writer. Word for word.

Both papers ran a Canadian Press story detailing the quirky life of chief Ottawa Peace Tower bell-ringer Gordon Slater, not exactly an earth-shattering news story worthy of a double read.

Certainly neither The Globe nor The Vancouver Sun have any way of knowing what CP or other wire service stories its competitors may choose to run on any given day. And it wouldn't be fair to suggest any sort of story sharing practices going on between these ostensive competitors the way papers inside CanWest's organization do (The Halifax Daily News, The Guardian in Charlottetown, and The Edomonton Journal all ran the story the same day as well).

But it highlights once again the shortcuts and diminishing resources papers are dedicating to their final product. Canadian Press, as a service covering stories all over Canada - its network of stringers is second to none in this country - is a useful tool to ensure papers can cover news even should they be unwilling or unable to fund a reporter to the centre of the action.

But this "story" came from Ottawa which, last I heard, was a centre of significant national importance whose population of journalists is second in number only to politicians and their hangers-on.

In this age of increasing electronic, citizen-journalism mainstream media bemoans as a potential threat to its revenues, the big boys are going to need to do much better than running full-page feature fluff in dailies across the nation.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Tape-gate: someone had to say it

Anyone else have tears on their democratic pillows?

Just in case you thought even a shred of dignity remained in the Canadian parliament, the players have sunk to unbelievable new lows in their never-ending quest to lower Canadians' expectations of, while simultaneously raising their contempt of our political system.

I refer, of course, to Gurmant Grewal (http://www.gurmantgrewal.ca/), Member of Parliament for Surrey-Newton/North Delta and self appointed James Bond of the House of Commons.

In case you've been living in a closet for the past two weeks - and you may have to make room for many others who are tired of the banana republic Canada is fast on the path to becoming to join you - here's the skinny on Mr. Grewal's recent contributions to political discourse in our nation's capital:

i) having not found a reason to be in front of the national media since revelations he had hired one of Canada's most insane political quacks to run his constituency office (http://www.thenownewspaper.com/issues04/052204/news/052204nn1.html) MP Grewal alleges he received invitations from the federal Liberal party to support the budget vote, or cross the floor, in exchange for a cabinet position in a Liberal government, a 'get out of ethics hot water free' card and a senate seat for his wife (who represents and, one assumes, lives in a separate riding than her husband but nonetheless enters the Liberals' bribery thoughts)

ii) having been tempted not a whit by such dastardly, Gritty behaviour, Mr. Grewal considers it his parliamentary and civic duty to meet with Health Minister Ujjal Dosanjh (http://www.ujjaldosanjh.ca/) and Prime Minister Paul Martin's Chief of Staff Tim Murphy (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tim_Murphy) to try to trap the offending bribers on tape, in order to prove to Canadians just what dastardly people they are.

iii) the tapes being unclear, garbled to the point as to make it impossible to decipher anyone's motives, offers, etc., Mr. Grewal turns over the tapes to the media, but not before, numerous independent audio experts confirm, the tape has been edited with several portions missing

iv) notwithstanding the stupidity and astounding lack of ethics inherent in his taping acts, Mr. Grewal allegedly approaches passengers at the Vancouver International Airport to transport a package for him to Ottawa.

v) unable to cope with the stress his actions have placed him under, Mr. Grewal approaches Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper who, inexplicably, without consultation of any medical personnel, grants Mr. Grewal paid stress leave.

Need I say more about the sorry state of parliament?

Quite simply, no one comes out smelling good of this stench. The Liberals, if any of the allegations are true - and given the recent defection of Belinda Stronach to the Grits in exchange for a promise of a cabinet position it's hardly possible for the Liberals to deny the possibility of the proposed transaction - are demonstrating yet again that politics is based on power, not principle.

The Tories, on the other hand, are looking like rejects from a Clousseau School of Subterfuge. So unconvincing are Mr. Grewal's tapes, half his own caucus won't support his version of events on the recod, let only the rest of the public. Recent polls (http://www.decima.com/en/pdf/news_releases/050526E.pdf) indicate that far from the release of the tapes pushing support away from the Liberals, the general public is even more distrustful of the Tories than before.

Quite a convincing play, Mr. Grewal.

But far apart from the damage done to the individuals or even the parties involved, the unbelievable sullying of the already terrible opinion held by most Canadians about our federal political system is almost enough to bring tears to the eyes. That is, it would be if most people hadn't already become so jaded and completely apathetic about Canadian democracy as to not even register emotion.

It should have citizens reaching for their pitchforks, bayonettes and horses. Far be it from me to advocate open revolution - I'm not terribly brave and would surely be among the last ones to run towards a battle - the absolute corruption, power mongering and complete disregard for democratic principles in Ottawa's corridors of power are akin to the "Intolerable Acts" that had the Thirteen Colonies throwing off the chains of British Colonial rule in the eighteenth century.

In short, we shouldn't be mad: we should be fuming, raging, fit to be tied and ready for action. It turns out, parliament is only a few steps removed from the schoolyard, where 'he said-she said' passes for debate and responsibilities for actions taken are obfuscated by trivial name-calling and changing of the subject. Did Mr. Dosanjh really stand up in the House of Commons, the leading legislative body of our land, and ask if Peter Mackay had rented a dog for news spot?

When the federal budget has yet to be passed and countless other issues awaiting resolution, how can any government or party leader permit this kind of ridiculous game playing in the House?

But, as usual, government business will carry on (or it won't and we won't notice)and Canadians will continue to elect the same old people, demand little in the way of integrity and accept the type of corruption, maniuplation and deception with a shrug.

It's a crying shame.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Ottawa - the other world of whacky politics

Enough has been said for the time being about the provincial election results in British Columbia. For that matter, enough has been said about the "almost" election in Ottawa but I'm going to say a few things more, beginning with this gem:

Thank God for Ottawa!

British Columbia has heretofore been the place Canadians could and did look to when seeking examples of all that's wrong with the contemporary political system: dysfunction, polarization, electoral disproportionality, etc., etc. But in the past two weeks Ottawa has freed the Left Coast from its holding of the theatre of the absurd politics crown. The federal capital is now about as nuts a democracy in action as any you're likely to see around the world.

No doubt, Paul Martin and his gang would - were they to stumble upon this post - point their cronied fingers at the Conservatives and assert Mr. Harper's antics as the principal reason for the demise of political discourse in the nation's capital (were it that something resembling intelligent political discourse has been occurring in Ottawa in recent memory). Just as likely the Harper crowd would continue to shout about the Liberals lacking the "moral authority" (whatever that means) to govern.

Jack Layton and the NDP are too busy holding open the sacks for the money being shoveled off the back of the Treasury truck to say much of anything.

Yes, it's true; the Gomery inquiry shows that the Liberals have been less than forthright stewards of the people's money (shocked! you say). But this is Canada: this is not a nation that fights elections over single issues. We can be as angry as we want at the federal sponsorship program and its managers' ineptitude and outright corruption but that alone will not spell the undoing of the governing power. At least not as long as the alternative has Stephen Harper driving the U-Haul from Stornoway to 24 Sussex.

Belinda Stronach's crossing to the Liberals - as crass an example of political opportunism as that was, and it was - only goes to show even further that the Conservatives aren't ready yet to win the trust of the Canadian people. Ms. Stronach was a senior member of the party for Heaven's sake and she couldn't bring herself to stick around. That she showed such an extraordinary lack of principle as to defect to the wholly inept Liberals rather than resigning and sitting as an independent in protest is the subject for another day, but it certainly does nothing to reduce the view of Ottawa as the repository of the insane asylum inmates that have been bounced from all the closed-down mental health facilities of BC.

Follow Ms. Stronach's defection with allegations from Conservative Gurmant Grewal of quid pro quo job offers from the Liberals in exchange for votes - complete with secretly taped "evidence" to support his claim - and you've got the making of a B movie on political intrigue, more likely a C+ movie at best. This coming from the man already under investigation for his alleged practice of requiring potential visa applicants to post $100,000 bonds in exchange for his assistance. Isn't that what his $130,000, taxpayer-funded salary is for?

No, we don't need an election in Canada. We need a padlock to pen up the political inmates in the House where they can be treated and protected from one another. And most importantly, the public can be protected from them. If the treatment works and they learn to behave, we'll let them face the electorate in due course.