Thursday, November 28, 2013

Secret payments can be fatal: BC example proves Senate scandal may be politically deadly for Stephen Harper

Prime Minister Stephen Harper

Secret payments kill careers regardless of who's responsible, as one BC premier well knows.

Bill Tieleman's 24 Hours Vancouver / The Tyee column

Tuesday November 26, 2013

By Bill Tieleman

Deep Throat: "Follow the money."

Bob Woodward: "What do you mean? Where?" 
- All The President's Men, 1976
Big money is secretly paid to a dubious political figure. When publicly revealed, cover-up allegations cause more damage, ensnaring government staff in the leader's office. RCMP investigate the scandal and eventually, though uninvolved, the leader is forced to resign.
Is this the possible trajectory of Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2014?
Perhaps. But this storyline is about British Columbia politics in the 1990s.
While there are many important differences, some key elements of B.C.'s "Bingogate" bombshell bear a noteworthy resemblance to today's Senate scandal.
And if similarities continue, so will irresistible pressure on Harper to resign while the Conservative Party still has time to find a new leader before the 2015 election.
Anatomy of a secret payment
"Bingogate," which involved the Nanaimo Commonwealth Holding Society (NCHS), exploded in May 1992 when charities alleged the NCHS skimmed money from their bingo fundraising efforts and funnelled some to the NDP, as well as others.
In 1994 the NCHS pled guilty to misdirecting funds, but the scandal deepened after a forensic audit ordered by then B.C. premier Mike Harcourt was released.
Released in Oct. 1995 by accountant Ron Parks, the audit revealed that BC NDP's table officers had learned privately in 1993 the party had accepted a sum of money from the NCHS a decade earlier, and -- on lawyers' advice -- repaid $60,000 to sever all ties.
"The table officers had no evidence the money had originally come from diverted charity proceeds" and felt "return of the money would sever the one outstanding link between the party and the NCHS," the Parks Report noted, according to Harcourt in his 1996 book, A Measure Of Defiance.
"Party officials who made the repayment were imprudent in not advising me of their actions," Harcourt wrote. "I was not aware of the payment until Parks raised the matter in an interview with me in April 1995."
But despite Harcourt initiating the audit, the NDP was accused of trying to "cover up" its ties to the NCHS.
Harcourt had absolutely no involvement in the NCHS scandal or the repayment, but his senior staff was forced to deal with it for two years, taking away time and resources that could have been more productively spent on positive issues.
The audit exonerated Harcourt, but the damage had been done. On Nov. 15, 1995 Harcourt announced he would resign when a successor was chosen.
New BC NDP leader Glen Clark went on to accomplish an upset surprise victory over BC Liberal leader Gordon Campbell in the May 1996 election, in part because Harcourt's resignation left the party enough time to regroup.
Ignorance is no excuse
The Senate scandal is clearly different but features some similar ingredients: the secret payment of money -- to Senator Mike Duffy for improper housing expenses; the involvement of top Conservative officials -- who agreed to pay Duffy's debts until the sum became too large; the entanglement of top political aides -- leading Harper's ex-chief of staff Nigel Wright to personally pay Duffy and resign when it became public; and an RCMP investigation.
Harper claims to have no knowledge of the Duffy payment fiasco, and no one faces charges, but the stunning details continue to erode his credibility.
Will Harper, regardless of his personal situation, decide the Conservatives can't survive the 2015 election without a new leader? Or could Conservative MPs make that decision for him?
After all, both Liberal prime minister Jean Chretien and British Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher were forced out of office by their own parties, despite winning successive majority governments. Harper has won three times, but only one majority.
Mike Harcourt's unfortunate plight, like the Watergate scandal in the 1970s, showed that "follow the money" can prove politically fatal for leaders, regardless of their lack of involvement.


Monday, November 25, 2013

No gains, no losses - federal by-election results prove nothing for nobody, spin notwithstanding

Four federal seats went through by-elections and remained in the same parties' hands as before - so no matter how much spin anyone puts on it - hello Liberal Party activists - the results don't prove anything conclusive.

Yes, Liberals should be pleased that they made it a close race in Brandon-Souris for the first time since they actually won the riding in 1993 under Jean Chretien.  In a general election.  

But they didn't win a by-election despite the fact that voters can voice their displeasure safely with the government, where turnout is lower than regular elections and where resources can be poured in by the party in a one-time-only effort.

The New Democrats, who I support, have no reason to celebrate but also no reason to cry in their beer.  Two safe Liberal seats stayed safe.  Two safe Conservative seats stayed Tory, albeit one far less safe, albeit in a by-election.  Panic not required.

I'm sorry to see my former National Post columnist colleague Linda McQuaig not win Toronto Centre - but perhaps the future riding boundary realignment will mean better luck in 2015.  I hope so - she would be a brilliant addition to Parliament.

The Conservatives can't be unhappy either tonight.  Yes, some of them needed a defibrillator in Manitoba for awhile but by-elections are made for opposition parties to prosper, not for unpopular governments in the midst of politically life-threatening scandals to enjoy.

Yet the Conservatives survived unscathed.  Except perhaps on Twitter, the Tory-unfriendly social media mystery.

The Liberals should be modestly relieved.  Justin Trudeau neither walks on water nor swims with the fishes tonight.  

And now the main event resumes in the House of Commons and beyond.  Four by-elections, no change, game on.


Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Jack Munro, BC's Working Class Hero - An Appreciation

Bill Tieleman with Jack Munro at launch of No BC STV in March 2009

Jack Munro, Rest in Peace Brother 
Bill Tieleman's The Tyee column 

Monday November 18, 2013

"They hurt you at home and they hit you at school/ They hate you if you're clever and they despise a fool/ Till you're so crazy you can't follow their rules" 

- John Lennon, Working Class Hero
Jack Munro was a true working class hero.
I really didn't think so at first -- not as a young left-winger bitterly disappointed that British Columbia's Solidarity movement had backed away from a general strike in 1983 against unfair Social Credit legislation attacking unions, renters, women, teachers and students.
Munro, then IWA-Canada union president, went to premier Bill Bennett's Kelowna home on behalf of the B.C. Federation of Labour to sign a deal ending the confrontation. Like many, I held him responsible for giving in and giving up.
But back then I didn't know Jack. And he wasn't yet my friend.
Last Friday, Jack Munro passed away at 82, after battling cancer.   
He leaves behind a rich legacy of fighting for working people throughout his career, and tireless efforts to preserve B.C.'s labour history, too.
Classic Munro
Munro was literally larger than life -- six-foot-five and 265 pounds, with hands so big they were described as large as "hams," a huge, booming voice and a fondness for swearing regularly and impressively.
Born into poverty, his father died of tuberculosis when Munro was just 11, and his destitute mother was forced to move the family to a relief farm in the Depression.
He left high school in Grade 10 to work, a tough life that many others would never overcome. But Munro did, and found his calling in the labour movement, becoming a welder and millwright in a forest industry that was incredibly deadly for workers.
He eventually rose to become president of the International Woodworkers of America union in Canada in 1973.
To understand how tough it was to be a union activist in the 1950s and '60s, consider this story I heard Munro tell at his retirement dinner in 1992.
"One day, Syd Thompson and I went at night to knock at the door of a guy we wanted to join the IWA in a plant we were organizing. The guy opened the door with a loaded shotgun pointed at us and said: 'You've got three seconds to get off my property before I shoot you both.' We ran like hell and when we were down the road, Syd asked if I was scared. Scared? Syd, you couldn't drive a hatpin up my asshole with a fucking sledgehammer!"
It brought down the house. Classic Munro!
Vilified by some
Today's union members often forget how tough it was to be a labour activist in those days, facing constant threats from employers, police, the courts and even hostile workers.
Munro's life truly was about protecting workers and their unions.
That's why I later understood his reasons for ending the Solidarity job action before it became a general strike. Munro knew that the Social Credit government would win the fight eventually and then take revenge on unions in the worst possible ways -- which would hurt workers, not union leaders, the most, and for years to come.
The decision by union leaders to send Munro to Kelowna to negotiate with Bennett was unanimous -- as Allan Garr's book Tough Guy outlines: "They also knew that the [Solidarity] coalition would accuse them of selling out the community groups when the deal went down and figured Munro could take the heat."
Munro was vilified by many, even attacked in a poem by Tom Wayman, and lost his seat as a vice-president of the B.C. Federation of Labour in a convention vote that followed.
But he persevered, and anyone who doubted his union credentials was persuaded in 1986 when he led the IWA on the most expensive strike the province ever saw -- an 18-week shutdown over contracting out union jobs that cost the forest industry an estimated $2.5 billion.
The same year, Munro took the Canadian section out of the U.S.-based IWA, becoming IWA-Canada. He stepped out of the presidency in 1992 and -- again controversially -- became chair of the B.C. Forest Alliance, an industry-funded group defending logging practices against rising environmental protests.
Not only a labour hero
I first met Munro in 1992 when I started work at the B.C. Federation of Labour as research director and then communications director and assistant to president Ken Georgetti.
Contrary to my first impressions formed in the Solidarity days, Munro was far from the self-described "old-style, loud-mouthed trade union leader who pops off at the drop of a hat." He was thoughtful, smart, dedicated and to my surprise, quite humble.
One of his constant topics was the need for the New Democratic Party and public sector unions to recognize the importance of resource extraction industries to British Columbia's economy -- forestry, mining, oil and gas.
Without the jobs, taxes and revenues they produced, Munro pointed out, B.C. would simply not be able to afford the social programs the province needed, nor the public sector wages its unionized workers expected.
Munro's opinion never changed on that, and it remains highly relevant today, perhaps leading to the B.C. NDP's surprise election defeat this year after it changed direction mid-campaign to oppose the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion.
He also never limited himself to labour issues.
In 2005, veteran former government deputy minister Bob Plecas and I approached Munro with a request: would he join us and others in publicly opposing the Single Transferable Vote (STV) electoral system?
TV had been proposed by the B.C. Citizens Assembly, a brainchild of former B.C. Liberal premier Gordon Campbell, to replace the current first-past-the-post system.
I explained to Munro the problems we believed STV would cause if implemented, the chaos it would create by using multi-member constituencies of up to six MLAs instead of each riding having its own MLA, and that it was only used nationally by Malta and Ireland.
Munro looked at me in amazement and said: "Bill, that's just fucking goofy!" And so he joined NO BC STV, winning us credibility with both union members who knew Jack's past, and others who simply admired the no-nonsense, gruff style of Munro.
If Munro said STV was a bad idea, well goddamn it, it must be! He fit right in with NO BC STV, an eclectic group of prominent British Columbians that bridged the usual political divide of the province.
The group included former NDP cabinet ministers Anita Hagen and Anne Edwards, and ex-Social Credit ministers Bud Smith and Bruce Strachan, as well as two members of the Citizens' Assembly. We also convinced former premiers Bill Bennett and Dave Barrett to oppose STV, the first time they had publicly agreed on any major political issue.
A personal highlight for me was introducing Munro to Andrea Reimer, then-Green Party Vancouver School Board trustee and now Vancouver city councillor -- two people about as far apart as I could imagine in B.C.
Watching them exchange business cards and chat, I realized that this big tent coalition might be enough to stop the STV steamroller. And it did, just barely in 2005, when the pro-STV forces got 58 per cent of the vote in favour but fell short of the 60 per cent needed.
A last, great passion
Munro's last great passion was to promote the Labour Heritage Centre, dedicated to publicizing B.C.'s rich labour history.
Munro served as chair of the Labour Heritage Centre, which in 2010 completed its first project -- a series of educational panels on labour history both inside and on the exterior of the Vancouver Convention Centre.
One of the panels is about the On-to-Ottawa Trek, a protest sparked by unemployed workers that started in Vancouver and ended in Regina. The RCMP stopped 1,000 striking relief camp workers from continuing to the nation's capital.
On To Ottawa Trek plaque outside Vancouver Convention Centre
The Labour Heritage Centre also partners with WorkSafeBC to promote worker safety on the job with a series of films available on YouTube.
Colourful, controversial, charismatic: Jack Munro was all those things and more, but he would want most to be remembered for sticking up for the working person, fighting for union rights and demanding labour be respected by those in power.
"If I had to sum up what it is I've tried to accomplish, it is to make trade unions an accepted part of society," Munro wrote in his 1988 autobiography, Union Jack.
Jack Munro: Well done, brother.

NOTE: This is a special column written for The Tyee.  My 24 Hours Vancouver column today - Tuesday - is also about Jack Munro but a very different and shorter version.


Friday, November 15, 2013

Why I am supporting Jagrup Brar for BC NDP President

Jagrup Brar is a big man - with a big heart and a strong social conscience.

Jagrup Brar with Constance Barnes, left, Jean Swanson, right
I wrote the posting below back in January 2012 when Jagrup Brar was the only politician in BC to accept a challenge to live on social assistance for a month and tell British Columbians how hard that was.

I watched with growing admiration as Jagrup handled that difficult situation with dignity and respect for those who have to survive on the meagre social assistance funding not just for a month but indefinitely.

Jagrup's willingness to walk the talk, to stand up for those who need help but are often ignored by government, impressed me immensely.

And so I'm proud to endorse Jagrup Brar for BC NDP President.

Jagrup Brar with son Fateh, left, and daughter Noor, right.
But Jagrup is about much more than just fighting poverty.   

As a three-time elected MLA, Jagrup knows how provincial politics works inside and out.  

Jagrup knows how to work with a caucus and what role the party plays in supporting MLAs and the leader.

And as a sitting MLA defeated in the May provincial election, Jagrup is committed to modernizing the New Democratic Party and improving the next campaign in order to win.

I have great respect for the other declared candidate Craig Keating.

But Jagrup Brar is my choice and I know he will do an excellent job. 

ORIGINAL POSTING - January 4, 2012

The New Democrat  Member of the Legislative Assembly for Surrey-Fleetwood accepted the challenge from Raise The Rates to live on social assistance - welfare - for a month to highlight just how difficult it is for the 180,000 British Columbians who need help from government to survive but get very little.

Jagrup is walking the talk - and is the first MLA to do this since the late great Emery Barnes in 1986, when the rate was only $350 a month.

You can see and read more at the website for this challenge.

I was particularly moved to see how proud Jagrup's 12-year-old daughter Noor was in speaking to Global TV about her father's determination to do something good for those in need.

Jagrup has to get by on just $610 for a month - of which $375 is for shelter and $235 for support - but pretty obviously the shelter money isn't enough anywhere in Metro Vancouver, so the support money gets used for rent, not food, for most recipients.

Social assistance rates are never an easy issue for governments of all stripes - the current BC Liberal government has a terrible record - the worst child poverty rates in Canada for eight straight years.

But the previous NDP governments and Social Credit governments also were strongly criticized at times for their policies.

I wish Jagrup well in not only getting through one difficult month that others face every month for years, but in opening the eyes and hearts of British Columbians to find a solution that lets people in need get the help they deserve.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

BC NDP is far from doomed - just depressed - but lots of reasons to be optimistic

Former NDP Premier Dave Barrett and Bill Tieleman - April 2009
The party's not doomed, just depressed. But there's many a reason for good cheer.

Bill Tieleman's 24 Hours Vancouver / The Tyee column

Tuesday November 12, 2013

By Bill Tieleman

"Our worst foes are not belligerent circumstances, but wavering spirits."
- Helen Keller, blind and deaf author/activist
These can be seen as dark days for the B.C. New Democratic Party as its convention approaches this weekend. But the party is not doomed, just depressed.
There are good reasons for the latter:
• Losing the May provincial election that every pollster and pundit predicted it would win.
• Leader Adrian Dix forced to announce his resignation after one disastrous campaign, despite leading the polls for months before the election.
• A BC NDP election review report last week that faulted poor campaign strategy, the positive only approach, ineffective advertising, lack of swing riding polling, an inadequate database, a failed policy platform rollout, "major policy shifts mid-way" -- Kinder Morgan -- and an underwhelming ground game, to list just some of its conclusions.
• An emboldened BC Liberal government led by Premier Christy Clark that feels it can do no wrong after surviving a near-electoral death experience.
• And two of the NDP's most powerful icons silenced by declining health: the BC NDP's first premier, Dave Barrett, and former IWA-Canada union president Jack Munro.
This as BC Liberals threaten to pave over perhaps Barrett's proudest and most lasting achievement -- the Agricultural Land Reserve that protects diminishing farmland.
If the BC NDP is depressed, it's no wonder. But it's far from doomed.
Three years to battle a lightweight premier
The BC NDP needs simply to reverse the last election results in nine ridings to form a majority government in 2017.
Winning just nine seats from the BC Liberals would give the BC NDP 43, up from the 34 it won in May, enough to govern the province.
That would only take convincing a few thousand voters to change their choice -- or a few thousand of the 42 per cent who didn't bother voting in 2013 to cast an NDP ballot.
A new BC NDP leader will have three years to argue the case against a tired, visionless BC Liberal government that will have been in power for 16 straight years by 2017 -- well beyond most administrations' best before date.
Premier Clark has proven herself a charismatic campaigner, but her record of governance is bereft of accomplishments, and she faces huge financial challenges that likely mean serious cuts to healthcare, education and other public services.
The damning report of B.C.'s Child and Youth Representative Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond over government wasting $66 million that should have helped aboriginal children in need and Surrey Memorial Hospital's new emergency ward already overflowing are just two examples of trouble to come.
Clark's reputation as being a lightweight on policy has not been dispelled.
The BC Liberals also face extraordinarily difficult decisions ahead on the Enbridge Northern Gateway and Kinder Morgan expansion pipelines, which are fraught with peril.
Not so bad, comparatively
The BC NDP should look around Canada at other Opposition parties before whining about its own fate.
Wildrose Party leader Danielle Smith was also widely expected to become premier by most polls and observers, but lost in 2012 to Conservative Premier Alison Redford by a stunning 44-seat margin.
Wildrose would need 27 Conservatives seats to switch over for majority power.
Even further behind is the Saskatchewan NDP, taking only nine seats in the 2011 election, 40 behind the Saskatchewan Party of Premier Brad Wall.
Nova Scotia's first NDP government dropped to a miserable third place in last month's election, winning just seven seats out of 51.
And Newfoundland's Opposition Liberals took only six seats in 2011, putting them 31 seats behind the ruling Conservatives and just one ahead of the NDP.
All these Opposition parties have a far more difficult path to power than B.C.'s NDP -- and you can bet that each of their leaders would give their eye teeth to be in the position the new leader chosen next year will be.
Pick of the leaders
The BC NDP will likely have some substantive choices for leader in 2014.
Possible candidates range from veteran NDP MLA Mike Farnworth, who came second to Dix last time, to new MLA David Eby, who beat Premier Christy Clark herself in Vancouver-Point Grey, to federal NDP MPs Peter Julian, Fin Donnelly and Don Davies, with none yet declared and others considering -- because the chance to become B.C. premier is worth taking.
Needless to say, the challenge is significant. Modernize the New Democrat election machine; carefully balance jobs and the environment; recruit star candidates; deal with the threat the Green Party presents in some ridings; raise enough money to compete with a BC Liberal party reinvigorated with business donations, and much more.
But even the NDP presidency is seen as important enough to have two serious candidates running province-wide campaigns: three-time Surrey NDP MLA Jagrup Brar, who I have endorsed, and veteran North Vancouver city councillor Craig Keating -- both with strong support.
So party members at this week's convention should stop overstating the "belligerent circumstances" the NDP faces, and realize that their worst foes -- "wavering spirits" -- can easily be overcome.
After all, Premier Clark did it!


Thursday, November 07, 2013

Don't Treat Wounded Canadian Veterans Like the Enemy

Federal government pushes to stop lawsuit by ex-soldiers who want fair compensation for their disabilities 
My grandfather Bill Baseley and WW I medals
Bill Tieleman’s 24 Hours Vancouver / The Tyee column

Tuesday November 5, 2013

By Bill Tieleman

"The motivation here is money, saving money on the backs and blood of veterans that served Canada."
As Canadians prepare to honour the service and sacrifice of our armed forces, why is the federal Conservative government treating wounded veterans like the enemy?
With Remembrance Day approaching, some of our most severely injured soldiers face hardship and poverty because of changes made to their disability benefits.
It is astonishing that the Conservatives are trying to overturn a B.C. Supreme Court decision allowing a lawsuit from veterans wounded in Afghanistan seeking fair compensation for their disabilities.
Rather than let those veterans have their day in court and have a judge decide on the merits of their arguments, the government wants to stop the legal action in its tracks. It will "review" veterans' situations through a Parliamentary committee with a Conservative majority.
"I announced that the government of Canada will support a comprehensive review of the New Veterans Charter, including all enhancements, with a special focus placed on the most seriously injured, support for families and the delivery of programs by Veterans Affairs Canada. I call on parliamentarians to focus on how we can better assist veterans," Fantino said in early October.
But the government's legal stalling tactics could mean years before the case accusing it of violating the Charter of Rights is heard, says Don Sorochan, whose law firm is taking on the case without charge for the Equitas Society.
The Royal Canadian Legion calls the government's actions "reprehensible."
And it gets worse. The feds are also accused of discharging wounded soldiers from the military before they can qualify for a pension.
For a party and government that claim to be so pro-armed forces, it's a stunning contradiction.
'We're not going to stand for it': vet
The veterans went to court because legislation in 2006 changed lifetime financial support for those fully or partially disabled to a lump sum payment to a maximum of $250,000.
In an email sent yesterday, Veterans Affairs communications director Joshua Zanin said veterans can access other "extensive support" through the New Veterans Charter.
Zanin also pointed to Veterans Affairs' budget increasing to $3.5 billion today from $2.8 billion in 2005.
And in a government statement last month, Veterans Affairs explained its court action this way: "[The veterans'] argument could have a far broader impact than perhaps intended by the plaintiffs... If accepted, this principle could undermine democratic accountability as parliamentarians of the future could be prevented from changing important legislation, including the sort of changes that some veterans would like to see to the New Veterans Charter," it said.
But Legion president Gordon Moore is not happy with the Conservatives.
"They have that moral obligation on behalf of all Canadians. I believe they're trying to slip out, but as we all know there will be an election within [two years] and there's a lot of upset and angry people out there on how veterans are being treated," Moore said last month.
While all political parties initially supported the change to benefits, which included some improvements for retraining and education, it's been clear for years that many veterans face life in poverty. The New Democrats and Liberals now agree changes are needed.
Port Moody's Kevin Berry served in Afghanistan and says the lump sum payment is only equivalent to 10 years of disability pension.
"Disability benefits for veterans have been slashed 40 to 90 per cent since 2006 under the New Veterans Charter, and myself and many others have been grossly under-compensated, and we are not willing to accept it -- we're not going to stand for it," the 29-year-old Berry told Global TV.
Veterans Affairs Minister Julian Fantino says: "There exists a tangle of misinformation regarding how Canada treats its men and women who have served in uniform."
But that's not how wounded soldiers see it, and veterans ombudsman Guy Parent agrees.
"It is simply not acceptable to let veterans who have sacrificed the most for their country... live their lives with unmet financial needs," reads a report Parent released last month.
"Fifty-three per cent of veterans who are assessed to be totally and permanently incapacitated, and who are unable to engage in suitable gainful employment, are not awarded these benefits, which are designed to compensate severely and permanently impaired veterans for a lack of career opportunity and progression," the report states.
Discharged to save dollars?
Then there are accusations of soldiers being discharged early from the military to save pension money.
Corporal David Hawkins served in Afghanistan and suffered post-traumatic stress disorder, but was let go less than one year before he would be eligible for a full pension.
Hawkins said last week he begged not to be discharged but the Canadian Forces did so anyway, saying the reservist from London, Ontario was not deployable on a moment's notice due to his condition.
"If you don't meet the universality of service, you can no longer serve under the military, and basically they don't have any use for you," Hawkins told CTV, adding that the discharge is a "big life changer for me. I don't really know what else there is."
Defence Minister Rob Nicolson claims no soldier is discharged unwillingly, but other stories are surfacing.
To add further insult to injury, Veterans Affairs is cutting nearly 300 jobs, affecting front-line service.
My grandfather served in the First World War and lost a lung from a mustard gas attack.
Why should Canadian soldiers so gravely injured in active military service now be treated far worse than those who were hurt back in 1917?
It's shameful.