Category Archives: BC Politics

Our Mental Health System Needs More Honesty, Respect

When it comes to solving the problems in our mental health system, too many people are losing touch with reality. And I’m not referring to the patients.Consider­ the recommendations from the recent coroner’s inquest into the police shooting of Saanich’s Majencio Camaso. The jury suggested police should obtain more training in handling unstable people, and mental health emergency response teams should become more omnipresent.

Sounds good. Except it’s assumed that, if only people undergoing psychological crises are safely picked up, there’s somewhere to take them where they’ll receive effective help.

What city are those jurors living in?

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When Our Politicians Disdain Us

I felt like Winston Smith when I found what I was seeking in the newspaper archives. I hung on like to a ring buoy holding me above a tidal wave of lies. And I swore that this election, I would support truth.

In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Smith unearths a tattered article that survived the mass destruction of historical records. It confirms his memory is correct and the all-powerful governing Party is lying. It gives him back sanity, and strength.

Thankfully, Winston’s world is imaginary. Nevertheless, I’m still holding on to what I uncovered.

Last election, Gordon Campbell and numerous Liberal ministers-in-waiting really did unequivocally and repeatedly state there was absolutely no chance they’d sell BC Hydro or BC Rail, reduce healthcare funding, or bring in major public service cuts. Significant promises, which arguably tipped the election 10% from squeaker to landslide.

If I was a Liberal MLA, I’d feel embarrassed. Humiliated. I’d have resigned my riding long ago, showering in apologies. Wouldn’t you?

But broken promises and outright lying have become common features of modern governments. Many politicians act like the general public is merely a voting lapdog who needs to be tossed a pretty-coloured, fake bone every four years. Almost regardless of political persuasion, our governments are becoming increasingly disdainful towards us. Daily, they’ll dupe the media, reject public input, ignore experts, deny obvious truths, circumvent laws, and concentrate power in their own hands. Overall, they’re becoming more fascistic. And we keep eating it up.

This isn’t Nazi Germany, Zimbabwe or even Guántanamo Bay, but those are extremes. Essentially, authoritarianism is heightened centralization of government power, and BC has markedly moved in that direction this decade.

Consider the current government. The BC Liberals delivered crippling cuts to public services and social security, re-wrote fundamental laws from child labour to elder care, privatized countless assets, erased union contracts, dismantled regional health bodies, let tuitions skyrocket, lowered the minimum wage, expunged the Forest Practices Code, undermined legal aid, and caused many courts, schools, parks, and shelter and hospital beds to close around the province, all while extensively restructuring every ministry. It was as if their project were “Operation Shock and Awe Everybody Into Submission”. Environmental protection deregulation? “Many [bills] were passed in a matter of days with no consultation and very little legislative debate,” wrote West Coast Environmental Law. BC Hydro sell-off? Legislation was “rammed” through in a week “with absolutely no public consultation,” stated BC Citizens for Public Power. Closures and privatizations in parks? The government was “refusing to conduct broad public consultation” protested Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. Labour Code and Employment Standards re-writes? “This one-month timeline suggests that the Government is not interested in real dialogue,” argued the BC Teachers’ Federation. Even two Liberal MLAs publicly complained about being steamrolled!

This government has also exhibited a characteristically tyrannical approach to law: Create ways to rule above the law. The Liberals’ Delivery Improvement Act, for instance, allows them to ignore many legal contracts. Their Significant Projects Streamlining Act allows ministers to overrule virtually any laws constraining “significant” developments.

Notably, many MLAs publicly denied the Streamlining Act allows ministers to ignore parks boundaries, bypass municipal land use regulations, or legalize illegal effluents, but the Act transparently contradicts them. Dictatorial decision-makers are typically immune in this way to rational argument or even self-evident truth. Organizations representing hundreds of scientists publicly protested their ignoring scientific facts in numerous decisions, e.g. government-appointed fish farming experts made recommendations, and the government largely did the opposite. The Liberals deny they’re selling BC Hydro or expanding gambling, even as they’re doing both.  Privately, I asked my MLA why they’d instituted certain heartrending cutbacks. He pleaded that they simply didn’t have enough money. Then why give billions in tax breaks to the wealthiest 20%? He explained that this was an investment. Witness his mind’s version of logical math: Giving money to the rich stimulates the economy, but giving money to the poor is a devastating cost drain.

Worse, modern authoritarians are learning ways to ensure their dubious achievements outlive petty elections. Our Liberal government, for example, proudly claims they abolished over 173,000 “burdensome” regulations in health, safety, building standards and other fields. Some were undoubtedly out-of-date. But while deleting hundreds of pieces of legislation per day, how much thoughtful weighing of the public interest could have been going on? And the years of stakeholder consultations that went into creating many of those will never be gotten back. Just like we’ll probably never get back BC Rail, BC Ferries, MSP administration or any other privatized assets, all of which are now ticking time bombs, soon to ignite cost explosions beneath our feet.

This isn’t partisan; the Liberals’ term has been unprecedented in degree but not nature. Such authoritarianism has developed under the NDP, Social Credit and governments around North America. So why are we voting for these people? Even if we like some of their aims, how can we support disdain for the public, and for truth? Wouldn’t any candidates genuinely willing to discuss issues be better?

Winston Smith’s world was too dangerous for him to speak out. If this were truly a wholly fascist state, probably we couldn’t publicly criticize like this. But if BC were truly democratic, neither would our government be able to simply ignore widespread public criticisms.

Either way, we know Winston would cherish our opportunity to support truth at the ballot box.

*

Originally published in Focus, April 2005.

 

Panhandling, Misguided Moralizing and the Bank of Canada

On a downtown streetcorner, a piercing voice disrupted my chat with friends. Across the road, a thin, unkempt woman berated a cabbie for refusing her a free ride, and demanded money from people. We quietly condemned the woman’s rude aggressiveness. But as the taxi departed, we stared aghast as the woman collapsed to the concrete, sobbing violently. In the same instant, one of my friends realized he knew her, and dashed over. It turned out the woman was homeless and had minutes earlier been raped. She was shattered and in shock, and had hoped the passing taxi could take her to the hospital.

My friend called an ambulance. I pondered how, habitually, in the absence of facts and understanding about others, we moralize.

I recalled this when reading a recent editorial in a local newspaper defending BC’s new Safe Streets Act outlawing “aggressive” panhandling. As the writer assailed the unemployed with phrases about “government largesse”, “honest day’s work”, “sucking at the public trough”, and “preying on people’s compassion”, it became obvious our culture’s moralistic reactions against panhandling have become so habitual they’re now hackneyed clichés. Meanwhile, these automatic judgments reflect a complete lack of understanding of basic economic facts.

The diatribes typically go like this: Hey, I was poor once. And I’ve worked hard–damn hard–to get where I am. I’m proud of what I’ve achieved, and I resent people who’re trying to get a free ride. Sure, some deserve compassion–like that elderly, learning-disabled schizophrenic with multiple sclerosis. But many don’t deserve sympathy. The drinkers, addicts, and fakers. And I have proof many are lazy no-goods exploiting passers-by and our overly-generous welfare system.

Then, following several under-investigated examples of panhandlers declining a menial two-hour job, or apparently discussing spending their lucrative earnings on high-end consumer products, the lectures inevitably conclude, “Panhandler, get a job!”

This entire hyper-moralistic argument, however, ignores a simple fact. Governments and central banks in most major economies today work hard to maintain high unemployment rates. Many able, willing people cannot get jobs.

For example, recently the Bank of Canada, our economy’s pilot ship, raised interest rates to slow the economy by making it harder to borrow. Canadian Press explained, “A jump in job-creation last month pushed unemployment down… and built the case for the Bank of Canada to increase interest rates.”

That’s right–a mere 0.1% drop in unemployment prompted immediate action to slow the economy. The logic: When there are plenty of unemployed people struggling to get by, that keeps unions weak and wage demands throughout society low. This, in turn, helps keep prices down, and inflation minimized. This benefits those with substantial monetary assets, like banks, investors, and well-to-do people, by protecting the value of savings from being eroded by inflation. It’s less evidently beneficial to the unemployed and working poor.

This isn’t a wacky, communist interpretation of the policy. It’s the policy. An economy’s “Natural Rate of Unemployment”, explains BMO Financial Group in their website economics glossary, is “the rate of joblessness that is consistent with stable inflation.” The Bank of Canada’s mandate is to maintain “low and stable inflation” of 1-3% annually; reducing unemployment isn’t mentioned. To the contrary, as an executive from the similarly-mandated U.S. Federal Reserve once explained frankly to a group of businesspeople, “pushing unemployment below [the Natural Rate of Unemployment] would cause inflation to rise and thereby run afoul of… stable prices, which is our only objective[.]”

Essentially, whenever panhandlers get jobs, our central bank’s mission is to quickly create new panhandlers to replace them. Even if everyone was impeccably-qualified and eager to work, 7-10% of us would still be unemployed, and another 10-20% underemployed, because this “Natural Rate of Unemployment” is what’s currently considered optimal for Canada’s economy. Maintaining uncomfortable, widespread poverty is a vital anti-inflationary measure.

Far from being “natural”, though, the accepted unemployment rate is a creature of political expediency. Economists vehemently disagree about which inflation or unemployment rates are truly necessary or preponderantly beneficial. So the question becomes, how much pressure is the government under to reduce unemployment or, conversely, lower inflation? And what political sympathies steer the arms-length central bank?

It’s time we focused public attention on these economic facts, instead of on imagined moral failings of the poor. Perhaps we need a guaranteed livable income, slightly higher inflation, reduced work hours, more job-sharing. With mechanization, maybe the work ethic is passé; some “laziness” may even be a noble trait and social asset. After all, is the workaholic chewing through resources to produce throwaway products and pollution truly more worthy of respect than the person who just hangs out at the beach? Which is less destructive? Indeed, it’s ironic any professional politician or writer imagines his embittered, uninformed attacks on panhandlers benefit society more than the panhandlers who actually hold our whole economic system together.

Fortunately, few lawyers believe our latest moralistic assault, the Safe Streets Act, will stand in court. One reason is, the Act has basically made it illegal to plead for assistance in an emergency. Now, if you’re freezing or starving–or have just been raped and need money to get to a hospital–you’ll be breaking the law if you plead for help near an ATM or bus stop, or are persistent. Is that the kind of community we’re working to create?

I, for one, am hitting the beach to reflect on that question.

 

Rob Wipond is always trying to scrounge up other work because he thinks panhandling looks like a very tough job. Originally published in Focus, January 2004.