Portland Hotel Society? Pah! Chump Change!

BC New Democratic Party MLA, Jenny Kwan has received some very negative attention because she benefitted from fraudulent spending by her husband, an executive of the non-profit Portland Hotel Society (PHS).

I think I understand the sense of entitlement that lead PHS executives to pay themselves such ample salaries and to treat themselves to such lavish benefits – which they billed to the Nonprofit above and beyond their salary. Make no mistake. I don’t condone it, but I understand it.

It comes from the world of big business. Political types are wooed by multinational corporations, and wealthy benefactors. And when they are, they get to see some luxury – luxury most of us don’t ever get to see.

The big business executive world is one of first class flights and golf lunches. Some big corps carry leases of suites at stadiums like Air Canada Centre (to name one). Ever wonder what one of these costs? Well don’t. ACC doesn’t post their lease rates online, because we mere mortals, on seeing the price of these things, would curl up and die.

And if you’ve never been to an event at one of these suites, let me tell you what you’re missing. The drinks are plentiful, and paid for from an expense account. Drinks for everyone (all 24 people, depending on the suite). Anything goes! My favourite part of the experience is the trays of sandwiches with the crusts cut off. And not just canned tuna: there’s smoked salmon! Yum! The food and drinks alone can easily rack up a bill of $1000 plus.  Quite often you’ll see family members milling about at these box parties. Such is the world of the corporate executive.

For these top execs, what the PHS execs treated themselves to would just be the normal cost of doing business – chump change. It would not be at all unheard-of for an exec to fly his family somewhere to meet for a wee holiday. It really wouldn’t be much of a problem at all. Just upgrade from a small suite to a larger suite, a bit more room service, oh and while we’re at it, an upgrade to first class. It’s covered by the expense account.

And the spouse says something like, “Wow! Are you sure? It sounds like a lot of money.” And the spouse is told, “Don’t worry about it. It’s all covered.” And the spouse believes. Why not?

It is a bit shocking, of course, because the industry of PHS is helping the very poor people from big city streets. It’s pretty hard to marry the ideal of support for the poor with lavish behaviour of the providers. We’re kind of expecting to see the Sisters of Charity walking about there in humble servitude.

But the PHS execs didn’t create poverty, and they are no more responsible for it than anyone. They are no more hypocritical than someone who earns a big salary in private enterprise while tossing a few bucks to the United Way, or his church charity.

It’s easy for the public to imagine how the salaries of the PHS executives takes money directly from the people they are helping, but it’s not exactly clear just how much they should earn. And it’s not absurd to argue that the money made by a bank executive could go to the poor (or at least to reduce our mortgage rates).

Similarly, the commissions of high profile real estate moguls could go to provide low income housing (or at least provide the client with a little more equity). And hell, if I went without cable, or a car, or a family vacation to Disneyland or a meal at a restaurant, I could give more to the poor.

Every cent that anyone spends on himself is money that the poor don’t get. There’s lots of hypocrisy to go around!

Furthermore, the guy who howls, “I paid for this in my taxes!” is missing the point. The taxpayer pays for a lot of things. He pays for for the mining exec’s golf game in the cost of his metal car, the oil exec’s lunch when he fuels it up, and for the bank exec’s skybox in the interest on his payment plan.

As I said at the beginning of this post, I don’t condone what the PHS executives did. Whatever feeling of entitlement they have, they have no business charging expenses to the Nonprofit. They, like everyone, need to live within their means. For this reason, their dismissal (which should be without severance packages) is completely understandable.

But I object to the moral high horse that so many people have aspired to sit on. BC MLA, Jenny Kwan is taking a public flogging just for having been married to one of these guys. She dared to be the spouse that was included in family trips that, unbeknownst to her, had been charged to the Nonprofit.

And she voluntarily paid the money back once the audit found out that her husband had fraudulently billed the money.

A Prada sport coat starts at $2500. Big business is the Prada set. Jenny Kwan’s $35,000 is really not much money in that world. This is the world that the PHS execs saw and wanted to be a part of – felt they were entitled to be a part of.

I don’t know Kwan. It could well be that she is a terrible, terrible person – a self interested Machiavellian who eats kittens for breakfast and drinks the milkshake of suckers like me. If there were a shred of evidence, I’d be asking for her head too.


Corruption threatens our democracy and our health

A likely reason that young people are no longer engaging in politics (voting) or participating in societal initiatives (getting their children vaccinated) is that they don’t know whom they can trust. Will a vote for Candidate A be a vote for someone corrupt? Is my child’s Guardasil vaccination in her best interest, or is there some kind of profit motive behind it? Certainly, there is reason to doubt the interests of “Big Pharma”. Meanwhile, the prevailing ideology of government these days is to not get involved. Laissez-faire! Let the market work out all of these things. Powerful lobbyists are seeing to that.

One of the defining phenomena of my lifetime has been the exposure of corruption among the powerful.

Corporations have been outed for their machiavellian manipulation of politics, for their sleazy marketing techniques, and for their abject disregard for any kind of law, including health and safety regulations and anti-trust laws. The leaders of big banks have paid themselves obscene salaries and bonuses while their employees struggle month to month.

Politicians have been outed over and over for corruption. One of my earliest memories of politics is when I was a little kid and Nixon’s men bugged the Democratic convention at Watergate.

With all this corruption, and all of the cross purposes in government, it is hard to know whom to believe. Again and again, conspiracy theories and cynical doubts turn out to be well-founded. Our own shiny Canadian democracy is besmirched with omnibus bills, robo-call scandals, sponsorship scandals, conflict-of-interest scandals, overspending scandals. These extend from the grassroots to the prime ministers themselves. Wasn’t the Airbus scandal attributed to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney? And the Shawnigate scandal — Wasn’t Prime Minister Chretien deeply involved in that? And now Prime Minister Harper is mired in the PMO Senate Bailout scandal.

Even the defining moment of our generation – the Trade Tower bombing in the U.S., is surrounded by controversy and doubt.

And then there are the attack ads, especially from the right wing parties like the BC Liberals and the Conservative Party of Canada, dragging everyone into the mud.

I can certainly see why a young person growing up amidst this depravity would be disinclined to vote. And I can see how a bit of misinformation could ignite doubt about the validity and safety of mass health initiatives like inoculations.

The core principles of our democracy, written in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, is under attack as governments keep passing laws that violate the Charter. These threaten the finances, privacy and mobility of ordinary Canadians.

A recent measles outbreak in BC lurks in the shadows and threatens to become a deadly epidemic as schools re-open after spring break next week. The spread of measles is absolutely preventable, but the level of distrust that has been cultivated has militated against responsible citizenship.

The more the corruption goes on, the more we become a threat to ourselves.

Rape culture is hard to deny.

I recently listened to an edition of “Q” on CBC radio, in which the question, “Do we live in a rape culture” was posed to two “experts” for debate. The interview was a disaster as one of the “experts”, Heather MacDonald of the Manhattan Institute, hijacked the interview and used it as a forum to express her theory that rape is at least partly the fault of women who irresponsibly drink to excess. Too bad – not only for the fact that such shockingly wrongheaded propaganda could be given voice on public radio, but also for the fact that a chance for a good debate about culture failed to happen.

To see evidence of rape culture, we need look no further than popular motion pictures from my lifetime (I’m 49 years old).

Recently I re-watched the 1980s film, “Tootsie”. In the film, Michael Dorsey, unable to find work as an actor, dresses in drag so he can be cast in a female role on a soap opera. In one scene, a male actor, believing Michael is a woman, follows him home from the soap opera set, tries to woo him by singing to him from the street, and once invited up to the room for one drink, tries to force himself on Michael, not knowing that he is actually “going for it” with another man.

In the 80s there would have been few people who didn’t think this scene to be hilarious, due to the awkward case of mistaken identity, but in order to laugh, the audience had to accept that the only thing that made the scene unusual (and therefore funny) was the irony in the fact that the philandering character was trying so hard to get it on with a heterosexual man, not taking no for an answer. Otherwise, of course one would have expected this sort of thing between a man and a woman.

In light of 25 or so years of social enlightenment largely due to the feminist movement, one can now understand that the scene really depicts stalking and sexual assault that is all too common, and that certainly was (if it isn’t now) culturally accepted when the film was made. The smitten tried to rape his colleague, and we just laughed. It is quite uncomfortable to watch that scene now.

Similarly, many films eroticize sex assault. “The Postman Always Rings Twice” famously does so. In many films, the lead male kisses the lead female without her consent, and the audience watches as she progresses from surprised resistance to seduced capitulation (or at least curiosity). Obviously, she desired him all along and could no longer hold out. In such scenes we attribute to the woman (and by extension to all women) a latent sexuality that defies her intellect, and must be awakened in her against her initial reticence. These scenes certainly showed men and boys a perverse version of reality. The thinking goes, “If I just plant a good one on her, she’ll be mine.”

Interestingly, it was pointed out to me just this Christmas how “rapey” the song “Baby It’s Cold Outside” is (“What’s in this drink?”). And I confess, I didn’t want to hear this about a song that I thought was rather romantic.

We have fetishized the female body and mythologized female sexuality to the point where the knee-jerk reaction of young male students at University of Ottawa who are angry at their student president is to imagine her in rape scenes; or to the point where young UBC freshman participate glibly in rape chants just to “blow off steam”. Ask any man my age, and he’ll look both ways to see who’s listening before he tells you that such misogyny is not surprising.

We may not like the term “rape culture” because we don’t want to believe that “rape” is a defining feature of who we are as a people, but we certainly live in a culture that has not only failed to prevent rape, but has enabled it.

We need to face this fact, but it’s tough because to do so is to admit that most of us share at least a little blame in this phenomenon. Most of us know better now, so we need to put the past behind us, re-educate ourselves, and do better in the future, but we can’t put our heads in the sand and deny that our culture has problems.

Has government ever run interference on your freedom of information request?

Transparency in government is critical to democracy. A government elected by the people should be forthright in providing the people with information under the “Freedom of Information Act.” The public must have access to both data that is used to create policy, and data that is used to evaluate policy (feedback data). Governments must be held accountable for their policy.

Now we hear that the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association (FIPA) is accusing the government of purposely mislabelling important documents as “transitory” so that they can have them shredded. This is a scandal that should have opposition MLAs howling.

I am concerned when I hear that data has been suppressed by gatekeepers of information. So I’m creating some data of my own. If you have ever been thwarted in a freedom of information request, please make a brief comment on this blog, describing your story. I will collate  these stories, and build a case for more government transparency.

Below are stories that have been submitted.

Each of them features prominently the trouble that authors had trying to get information from the BC Government. When you read the stories, you begin to smell something “rotten in the state of Denmark”:

The third is a news report about three federal staffers who have allegedly run interference.

Vancouver Island Freight by Rail

Did the BC Liberals fake LNG numbers before last year’s election?

“The Information Commissioner of Canada has found evidence of ‘systemic interference’ with information requests by three Conservative staff members and suggests bringing in the police” – Story from April 12, 2014.

Context for Understanding the Current Bargaining Stalemate with BCTF

On Tuesday, March 4, 2014 an Op Ed was posted in the Creston Valley Advance newspaper. It was written by Melanie Joy, past Chair of BC Public School Employers Association (BCPSEA), the negotiating body for the government in teacher talks.

The editorial refutes Education Minister Fassbender’s claim that during contract negotiations in 2012, the government had been trying in good faith to achieve a contract settlement with the BC Teachers Federation (BCTF).

The sequence of events at that time was as follows:

Talks had not gone well in 2011-12. The government had come to the table proposing egregious cuts without a single improvement of any kind for teachers. After an escalating work-to-rule campaign by the teachers, culminating in a three day walkout, the government created back-to-work legislation (Bill 22), forcing teachers to end their job action and to accept the government’s own chosen mediator to hash out a contract. The teachers claimed that Bill 22 violated their constitutional right to bargain for a contract. Eventually a one year truce was signed, in which the teachers got no pay increase or help with class sizes.

After the one-year contract was concluded, BCPSEA and the BCTF began bargaining for the next contract. In January of 2013, the two parties agreed to a groundbreaking bargaining framework that included a provision for a facilitator – an unheard-of concession for a union to agree to.

By all reports, bargaining was going well – much better than it had before Bill 22. The talks at the table were far more conciliatory, and both the government and the teachers had hopes for labour peace. This may have been due to the fact that the government was currently in an election campaign, and was staying at arm’s length from the process in order to avoid negative attention.

Then in June of 2013, after the incumbent Liberals won the election, Education Minister Fassbender quite suddenly fired BCPSEA’s board and hired its own chosen bargaining representatives. All of the work that the parties had done was for naught. And as far as the government was concerned, the parties were back to square one.

Now, a year later, the BC Supreme Court has finally ruled on the teacher’s case against Bill 22. The Court found that it was illegal, much of it being a rehashing of a previous illegal legislation from ten years prior. Although it had been publicized as a cooling off legislation, it was far more. Embedded in the Bill were all kinds of new education policy that went far beyond the “business-as-usual” ethic of a cooling-off bill.

By introducing the legislation, the government had avoided having to negotiate with the BCTF. The Court decreed that as the Government had made no attempt to address the repercussions of the a ten year-old legislation that the Court struck down in 2011, or to bargain in good faith with teachers in 2011-12, working conditions were to be restored to the same levels as they were in 2002. The matter is now under appeal.

In her editorial, Joy refers to the Court’s judgment, and confirms the Court finding that the government had not wanted a negotiated settlement; moreover government had resented the one year agreement that the BCTF eventually signed on to. She writes:

     “Although the negotiated agreement met the (government’s) monetary mandate, government representatives informed us of their dissatisfaction with the agreement, including the lost opportunity*, now identified in the recent judgment, to “impose concessions which advance education initiatives” through legislation triggered by the failure of collective bargaining.”

     On March 6, 2014, in the midst of continued contract talks, the BCTF  announced that its members are heavily in favour (89%) of job action if advances can’t be made in bargaining. Minister Fassbender went on the radio discussing the results of the BCTF strike vote with Radio host, Shane Woodford. When Woodford asked the Minister about the letter from Melanie Joy, the Minister denied her claim.

It is fascinating that even though what Joy writes is confirmed by the Supreme Court ruling, Minister Fassbender continues to deny that the government bargained in bad faith. He still avers that the government has always sought, and still seeks, a negotiated settlement with the BCTF – an assertion that the courts, and his own bargainers have roundly refuted.

The truth is that the government, having won a new majority in the last election, has forced the bargaining process to regress, firing its arms-length bargaining body, and putting in its own people, stripping previous concessions off the bargaining table, and citing inaccurate talking points in the media, the latest being that the teachers have not made a proposal. This is simply not true. The teachers made comprehensive bargaining demands, including compensation demands, in March 2013.

As I write this, Minister Fassbender is on CBC radio denying that the BCTF has introduced a comprehensive bargaining package. He has lost all credibility.

*The “lost opportunity” recognized in the court judgment, refers to the government’s initial failure in its attempt to provoke a full scale walkout by teachers. Court testimony revealed that the government had hoped that goading teachers into a strike would allow it to vilify teachers, and to improve its own PR by ordering an end to the strike. This can be read in the Court document. It was ruled by the Court to be bad faith bargaining.