Category Archives: BC Politics

Is the Law Catching Up to BC’s Police Chiefs?

The Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner and the Registrar of Lobbyists are hot on their association’s trail. But a former BC police chief and solicitor general doubts they’ll ever be caught.

There’s one thing the police tell you never to do when they want to question you, right? Run. Running makes you look even more suspicious. So why do British Columbia’s chiefs of police keep running from me? Fortunately, I’ve gained some high-profile help in this now year-long chase. Read the rest at Focus online.

How will we re-democratize government?

Greater Victoria candidates in the BC provincial election speak out on how to correct growing democratic deficits.

 

For years we at Focus have been observing an erosion of democratic processes and participatory public engagement at all levels of government. In our opinion, this is worsening government decision-making with respect to many of the challenges we’re facing as a society. And we know we’re not alone.

On the streets, mass movements like Occupy and Idle No More have placed visions for participatory governance high on their agendas, while in our houses of government our elected politicians have been struggling with their own disempowerment: Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s heavy-handed omnibus-bill antics have raised the ire of elected representatives of the majority of Canadians to little avail; and hardly a month has gone by this year where a disgruntled, departing BC Liberal hasn’t (finally) complained publicly about Gordon Campbell’s years of centralized, iron rule. Many of us have ideas for what needs to change that could fill a book, but with an election coming it seemed like a good time to ask candidates what they think.

So we decided to ask provincial election candidates in five Greater Victoria ridings to respond to these two questions: First, which erosions of democratic or participatory principles and processes have you observed that you think are the worst, and what negative impacts have you seen? Second, what do you propose to do, or feel should be done, to help re-invigorate our democracy with respect to the issues you raise in your first answer?

We encouraged them to reply personally, rather than with pre-packaged party platform statements. Some candidates commented on many issues and overlapped with each other, while others chose to focus on just one or two key issues. Space constraints limit us to publishing only selected excerpts from their written replies to highlight some of the key themes that emerged. We suggest contacting your area candidate directly for more details on his or her thoughts on these topics. As of press time, several candidates had not responded; some parties had not yet nominated a candidate in the ridings included in our survey.

 

Strengthen MLA responsibilities to constituents

Susan Low: Public engagement has become one of many hoops for officials to jump through before legislation is passed, instead of being the way most legislation is started and shaped. The process of civic engagement is being relegated to a mere formality…The negative impact is that people can feel cynicism, and public participation in democracy is evaporating as a result…I propose to increase the public’s access to their elected representatives by having bi-monthly townhall meetings in provincial ridings, and regular times when MLAs commit to being in their office to meet with anyone who comes in… MLAs should report on how they have listened to their constituents, and how that has influenced their voting or actions in government.

Lana Popham: I think one of the main jobs of an MLA is to be an active listener—to constantly gather feedback and input from people about what matters to them and what they want done about it…My community office has organized over two dozen public events, including several large public meetings where hundreds of residents came together to engage with ideas such as sustainability and the benefits of buying local…I organized a community event to discuss solutions [to the high accident rate at Pat Bay Highway & Sayward Road], inviting the public and key staff from the Ministry of Transportation. A proposal for safety improvements was developed and I held another public meeting to share those ideas and gather feedback…The improvements have already started…

Jane Sterk: I plan to have citizens’ advisory groups—seniors, students, business, ethnic and faith-based, transition towns. I want to convene citizens’ assemblies to discuss issues of public policy—amalgamation, budgeting, police, etc. I plan to host annual or semi-annual days where we get large numbers of people together to discuss local issues that need provincial support.

 

Hold sittings of the legislature

Rob Fleming: For me, the hallmark of democratic erosion during the BC Liberal decade is how moribund the legislature has become. The current government started off with some good ideas—two regular fall and spring scheduled sittings, fixed election dates, Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform—but for most of their mandate, the legislature has barely met. They’ve made a mockery of their own reform. We’ve had fall sessions cancelled entirely more often than not. This eliminates the daily accountability of question period, and jams debate on the budget and legislation into an impossibly compressed time-frame. To enforce this, the BC Liberals now use “closure”—ending debate by decree—on a routine basis. It’s an arrogant way to run government. And it diminishes the role of an MLA as a legislator by giving too much power to the premier and cabinet. We’re seeing in BC and federally a creeping “presidentialism,” where the legislature is increasingly sidelined while the premier’s and prime minister’s office run things unchecked…I’m confident we can make the legislature work a lot better. First, we need to have the Assembly meet regularly. That’s an easy but important fix for accountability and scrutiny of government.

 

Allow free votes in the legislature

Andrew Weaver: In a parliamentary democracy, such as the one we have in British Columbia, MLAs are elected to represent their constituents in government. As such, one would expect them to be allowed to vote freely on many issues, including private members’ bills brought in by independents and opposition parties. But the party whip system of the NDP and Liberals in BC has meant that this has not occurred. Instead, most individual MLAs are told how to vote and hence end up ensuring that party interests are put ahead of the interests of the MLA’s constituents. I support the democratic reform agenda put forward by Independent MLAs Bob Simpson, Vicki Huntington, and John van Dongen. One of the items on their agenda was to seek ways to “Relax party discipline so that MLAs can cast free votes in the legislature on non-confidence matters, without fear of repercussions.” In fact, this is fundamentally why I chose to run with the Green Party of BC, as free voting on non-confidence matters is already central to party policy.

 

Resuscitate the legislature’s committees

Parliamentary committees have been so underutilized in recent years, many British Columbians probably don’t even remember what they are. The BC government’s website explains that committees are made up of small, representative groups of MLAs who can travel around the province soliciting input and holding hearings on issues, which they can then summarize into reports and recommendations to the whole legislature.

Carole James: There are currently standing committees of the legislature in a range of topic areas, such as education, First Nations, and health. These committees have members from both government and opposition…They rarely meet. I believe these committees could be better used, taking topic areas out to the public for real public engagement.

Rob Fleming: As the NDP’s environment critic, I’m always pointing out that the Legislature’s Standing Committee on the Environment hasn’t met since 1996! At a time when BC needs a well-informed public to understand the climate change and energy challenges and policy choices we face, this just makes no sense. We need a robust committee system that addresses the big issues out there. And this will give MLAs more opportunities to work across party lines while providing a key avenue for the public to influence government.

Andrew Weaver: The Legislative Committee structure needs to be reinvigorated. The last time the Standing Committee on Education met was in 2006 when they developed a report outlining a strategy for adult literacy…As far as I can tell, the Select Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs has not met since 2001. Policy needs to be debated openly and needs to be informed through input from diverse stakeholders, such as those who would present to standing committees.

 

Empower independent offices

Jessica Van der Veen: The Liberal government has weakened our environmental assessment process…and undermined key government watchdogs such as the Auditor General and the BC Utilities Commission. Two specific negative outcomes are: the giveaway of forest lands at Jordan River, despite the findings of the Auditor General; and the privatizing of rivers and streams for private power projects, despite the finding of the BC Utilities Commission that these projects are “not in the public interest.” We need to strengthen environmental assessments and fully include the public…[and we] need to give government watchdogs the power they need to do their jobs.

 

Reform campaign financing

Rob Fleming: The BC Liberals get more than 75 percent of their funds from corporate donations and a very small percent from actual people who can vote…I’m all for getting big money out of politics by putting in place limits on donations from corporations and unions like we see federally and in Manitoba. This will put the average voter at the centre of politics again. Campaign finance reform would reduce cynicism about politicians being in someone’s pocket and increase voter participation.

Jane Sterk: [The Green Party would] eliminate corporate and union donations to restrict donations to British Columbian [citizens], and limit the size of donations. We would also lower the amount of money that could be spent on campaigns.

Branko Mustafovic: How can we expect that a politician will be unbiased, when they literally owe those who made substantial contributions to their campaign to have their needs heard loud and clear? There’s only one way to be 100 percent sure no elected politicians will ever dangle from the strings pulled by special-interest groups who helped put them there. The ultimate solution is for government to provide an identical amount to each eligible candidate to spend on their campaign, with that amount being the maximum they may spend. That’s truly democratic.

 

Engage disenfranchised and cynical voters

According to Elections BC, about 75 percent of eligible BC voters are registered, while in 21 districts that number falls to fewer than half of eligible voters.

Jane Sterk: The fixed election date is in the spring, which disenfranchises students…We no longer enumerate house to house. “Registered” voters are now identified by driver’s licence and filed tax returns. This disenfranchises people who don’t drive and those who don’t pay taxes.

Rob Fleming: Reversing the decline in voter participation won’t be accomplished overnight. But we have to make voting opportunities easier so that low-participation groups, like young people, get on the voters list…I like Adrian Dix’s idea to begin voter registration earlier, at age 16, in order to be enumerated by their 18th birthday…We also have to change the tone of how politics is conducted. BC has a reputation for “politics as a blood sport” and this is reflected in statements by politicians and the media. It seems to me that this may be the biggest contributor to disenfranchising voters and turning them off what government and public service in elected office ought to be about.

Carole James: We have seen the government using public money for partisan advertising, creating cynicism in politics and the political system, which leads to lower voter turnout and involvement…The NDP has introduced legislation that would result in the Auditor General reviewing all government advertising to build back trust in the process of the use of public dollars.

 

Implement electoral reform

Jane Sterk: Should I be elected premier…[I would] instruct Elections BC to prepare a plan to implement a system of proportional representation for the 2017 election. To avoid debate about which system to adopt, I would mandate use of the Single Transferable Vote (STV), which was recommended by the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform and accepted in 2005 by 58 percent of BC voters. To prepare for use of this system, I would include a requirement that Elections BC find a structure for STV that would address the concerns from the large and rural ridings. I would also require that Elections BC conduct a process of [educating the public about STV].

Ombudsperson Pans Incapability Assessments

Even when you already know them, sometimes it’s shocking to hear facts confirmed. In February, BC Ombudsperson Kim Carter released her 186-page investigation into BC’s processes for determining people to be “incapable” of controlling their own legal or financial affairs, “No Longer Your Decision.” Focus has reported extensively on the arbitrary, draconian, often self-serving ways by which citizens are being stripped of these basic rights by long-term care providers, health authorities, and the public guardian. Carter concluded the process has indeed been “failing to meet the requirements of a fair and reasonable procedure.”

Indeed, on nearly every key issue, the Ombudsperson’s findings disturbingly reflected many people’s worst experiences and reinforced the worst fears of the rest of us. For starters, there’s no definition of “incapability,” even though authorities are using the concept daily to take away people’s rights to make their own decisions. BC law, Carter clarified, “does not define what it means for an adult to be incapable or establish any criteria or test for this determination. Neither the Public Guardian and Trustee nor the health authorities have defined what incapable means.”

As for the assessment process through which authorities can declare you to be incapable, that’s a free-for-all, too. BC law “does not set out a process to be followed…does not require that an assessment or opinion from a physician be obtained…does [not] establish any standards for such an assessment…does not require that the [assessor] knows the adult and has examined the adult recently…” And to top it off, most health authority staff admitted to Carter that they had no special training in conducting incapability assessments, and the health authorities admitted they provide no such training.

Carter further found that there are no requirements for health care providers or the public guardian to even notify you or your family that your incapability is being assessed, let alone to explain their reasons for concluding you’re incapable or give you any opportunity to respond.

Carter recommended that the Ministry of Justice at least create steps allowing you to legally challenge a health authority’s or public guardian’s conclusion that you are incapable. The BC Justice Ministry promised only to “review” this final recommendation; however, most of the Ombudsperson’s recommendations on the other issues were accepted by government and will supposedly be in force by July 1, 2014. Carter wrote that she was “cautiously optimistic.”

Lobbyist Registrar Investigating BC Police Chiefs

I recently investigated two sister groups, the BC Association of Municipal Chiefs of Police and the BC Association of Chiefs of Police. I found that both groups are playing a shellgame with the law: On the one hand, they’re claiming they are “private groups” whose activities are not subject to BC’s freedom of information laws covering public bodies. On the other hand, they are operating these “private groups” out of their police departments using police staff and public police resources. (Read the article to see how much more complicated and dubious their shellgames become when I try to obtain even basic documentation about their groups.) And even though they spend a lot of time meeting with politicians and bureaucrats and helping craft legislation and lobby for laws, they also think they don’t need to be legally registered as a lobby group because they’re just doing all this as part of their normal day to day policing duties.

At the end of that article, I explained that I had submitted complaints to both the Lobbyist Registry and the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner, arguing that these police chief groups were either public bodies subject to laws covering public bodies, or private groups subject to laws covering private groups — they could not escape being either. One way or another, I argued, our police chiefs have to be subject to at least some laws of transparency and accountability like the rest of our society.

The OIPC is investigating. And now, in a recent email to me, the Lobbyist Registrar has deemed these concerns to be valid enough to warrant an investigation as well. Here is the full text of the email from the Lobbyist Registrar:

Dear Rob Wipond:

This is to acknowledge receipt of your complaint under the BC Lobbyists Registration Act (“LRA”) that the Association of Chiefs of Police may be engaging in activities that qualify as lobbying and have not registered as required by the LRA.

I attach for your reference our policy in respect of complaints.

Requesting the Registrar Conduct an Investigation

7.1 Where a person requests the Registrar to conduct an investigation to establish whether there is or has been compliance with this Act, the requester will be expected to provide the registrar with the name and address of the subject of the allegation and a description of the facts that are alleged to constitute a violation of the LRA.
7.2 If no investigation is commenced as a result of the request, and the request for investigation has not otherwise been made public, the identity of the requester will be kept confidential.
7.3 If an investigation is commenced as a result of the request, the identity of the person requesting the investigation may be disclosed to the person under investigation, to the extent that it is necessary to conduct the investigation and adhere to the principles of procedural fairness.
7.4 Despite paragraph 8.3, the registrar may direct that the identity of the person requesting the investigation, and any information disclosed by that person, be kept confidential to the exclusion of any other person including the person directly affected, on terms the registrar considers necessary, if the registrar believes that direction is necessary to ensure the proper administration of the Act, including the protecting that person from physical or other harm.
7.5 A person who requests an investigation has no rights to notice or information during the investigation, and has no greater procedural rights in an investigation or subsequent hearing than any member of the public.

Please be advised that we have not disclosed your identity to the Association of Chiefs of Police, however, given the public nature of this complaint, it is not our intention to keep your identity secret, unless you can provide reasons otherwise.

In response to your complaint, we have commenced an investigation under section 7.1 of the LRA, which states that if it is considered necessary to establish whether there is or has been compliance by any person with the LRA or the regulations, the Registrar may conduct an investigation.  You will be notified of our findings in respect of your complaint.
Yours truly,
Mary Carlson
Deputy Registrar of Lobbyists for British Columbia
Website www.lobbyistsregistrar.bc.ca

Are BC Police Chiefs Evading the Law?

At the same time as their associations channel public resources into private political lobbying, they claim immunity from BC’s laws governing public access to their records.

They’re the two most prominent and influential policing organizations in British Columbia, appearing frequently in public promoting their strong positions on criminal justice reform, use of tasers, drug laws, or expanding police powers. But little else is widely known about the BC Association of Chiefs of Police (BCACP) and its smaller sister, the BC Association of Municipal Chiefs of Police (BCAMCP).

I became more aware of these associations in July, after the BC Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner launched an investigation into the Victoria Police Department’s use of automatic licence plate recognition in the wake of Focus’ investigations (see “Hidden Surveillance” Feb 2012). Extensive media coverage ensued, and the BC Ministry of Justice issued a statement in which they assured the public that they “recently wrote a letter to the BC Association of Chiefs of Police” to re-emphasize the program’s proper “terms of use.” I’d been investigating the RCMP and VicPD’s licence plate tracking system for 18 months, and had never come across this group—and now suddenly I learn that they are the ones actually in charge of it? Read more at Focus online.