Friday, June 14, 2013

Why it's bad when ministerial assistants are transformed into chiefs of staff

Useful editorial in the Times Colonist today on the big increases in salary scales for political staffers in the Christy Clark government.
Noteworthy, for example, that salaries for ministerial assistants - sorry, deputy chiefs of staff, as they are now called - have increased 53 per cent since 2003, while the average British Columbian has seen a 28-per-cent wage increase. (The premier’s pay is up 60 per cent.) The top pay for minister's aides is now $102,000.
The grandiose new job title is alarming in itself. Ministerial assistants - usually one or two per minister - are support staff. The main responsibility is making the minister look good and keeping him or her on top of the ministry. The principal qualification is effective service to the party in power - active Young Liberals and New Democrats, keen campaign workers and volunteers. A few have broader work experience, but not many.
The Liberal government, for example, just gave one of the new chief of staff jobs to the party’s defeated candidate in North Island. His resume lists no work experience beyond a co-op stint in a paper mill.
‘Chief of staff’ also suggests some considerable responsibility.
But the chief of staff for Teresa Wat, minister of international trade, the Asia-Pacific strategy and multiculturalism, supervises one administrative support person. He's a Young Liberal with a work history as a government political appointee. (Nothing wrong with that, of course, for partisans of any party. Politics can be a career choice.)
It’s just a title, some might say. 
But if a ministerial assistant calls a business, or government employees, they assume he or she is seeking information or action on behalf of the minister, but that they are dealing with an assistant. If necessary, they will ask to hear directly from the minister.
But a chief of staff - even if there is only one staff - sounds rather grander. Maybe people won’t ask. And the people with the new titles can’t help but have an inflated sense of their own importance.
When Alberta MP Brent Rathgeber quit the federal Conservative caucus this month, he complained political staff in Stephen Harper’s office ran roughshod over MPs, telling them what questions to ask in committees and what to say and to vote “like trained seals.” Those are the federal equivalents to the new provincial chiefs of staff. And his complaints suggests the risk in elevating the power of political staff.
In my past days in the Press Gallery, we joked with ministerial assistants about their roles as ‘dog walkers,’ accompanying the minister to the caucus and legislative chamber each day, file in hand and earnest expression firmly in place, as if even the one-minute walk from the office could not be wasted. (We also joked that some ministers simply couldn’t find the caucus room without help.)
Practically, it’s an important political job. Ministerial assistants keep the minister informed and briefed, help decide who gets access and schedule the days.  They are valuable.
But the elevation of ministerial assistants to chiefs of staff implicitly redefines their roles and increases their authority. And increasing one person’s authority inevitably means diminishing someone else’s - in this case, likely the people actually elected to govern.

Taking on a culture of violence with street art in Tegucigalpa

I came across the Mona Lisa with a pink gun on a wall near a Tegucigalpa hotel on a previous visit.
The work is part of a series by a Honduran artist who uses the name Urban Maeztro. The prints mixed classic art images with the weapons that are part of life for many Hondurans.
Street art can be dangerous work here. Authorities don’t like it, as in most cities, but they express they’re disapproval more forcefully. And gangs aren’t sure if Urban Maeztro is mocking them.
It’s not going to end violence. But anything that challenges the status quo is a good thing.
You can read more about Urban Maeztro and his work here

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Canadian government and the Honduran drug business

You can draw a straight line from the Canadian government’s stupid and cynical drug policies to crime here in Honduras.
Canada and the U.S. continue to follow a drug policy that has failed every test since Prohibition in the 1920s. The governments spend billions in a futile effort to block the supply of drugs and lock up users and dealers. 
It has never worked. Over the 42 years since Richard Nixon declared the “war on drugs,” nothing has changed. Drug use and drug-related crime haven’t been reduced.
The beneficiaries are criminals. Gangs make big money because drugs are illegal and widely desired. The risks are worth the huge rewards. It’s simply a question of market forces.
Honduras has become a big trans-shipment point for cocaine bound from South America to the insatiable North American and European markets. Planes land on strips carved in the jungle, boats race to dark beaches. They even use submarines.
The U.S. state department estimates 80 per cent of cocaine bound for American consumers passes through Honduras. Maybe 130 tonnes, or $80 billion in street value. 
In a desperately poor country, the chance to be part of an $80-billion business is irresistible. At the low end, people can earn a month’s pay by carrying a backpack of cocaine over the hills and into Guatemala. At the upper end, there is big money to be made. A narco in a community about 40 kilometres from here has lives in a replica of the White House.
It’s not all bad. A woman told me a narcotrafficante was elected mayor in her hometown. He had money to fix things up, and muscle to discourage troublemakers. People were happy with his administration.
But an illegal drug trade always has fallout. Participants settle disputes with guns. They bribe police and governments to look the other way. Corruption become corrosive. 
The drug industry in Honduras thrives thanks to the policies of the Canadian and U.S. governments. 
That could be defensible if those policies were based on evidence and made sense.
But they aren’t.
The latest Canadian example is the government’s response to a Supreme Court ruling rejecting its effort to close Insite, the B.C. government’s supervised drug injection site in Vancouver.
The issue has travelled through the courts - the B.C. Supreme Court, the province’s appeal court and the Supreme of Court of Canada - since 2008.
The rulings have been consistent, and based on the evidence from supporters and opponents. The supervised injection site saves lives and reduces illness. People manage their addictions and some seek treatment. Public disorder is reduced and community life improved.
And opponents were not able to show any compelling pragmatic reasons not to allow the centre to operate. Significant benefits, including lives saved, and no good reason to close the site.
The Canadian government should have said we don’t like drug use in any form, but accept the evidence and ruling on supervised injection sites. Our polices will be based on what works.
Instead, it introduced new legislation governing supervised injection sites. The health minister has full discretion to say no, without appeal. Applicants must include letters of support from provincial cabinet ministers, municipalities and police forces and broad consultation.
The legislation is written to ensure the sites won't be approved, despite the toll in lost lives, health care costs and damaged communities.
If there was any doubt about the intent, the governing Conservatives erased it. Even as the health minister announced the new law, the Conservative party launched a website petition headlined “Keep heroin out of our backyards.” It warned “special interests” and opposition parties want safe injection sites across the country.
The governing party once again played cheap and sleazy politics with drug policy.
The results stretch across a hemisphere. Canadians are hurt, of course. But so are Hondurans. The continued allegiance to failed policies in Canada and the U.S. ensures a lucrative market and thriving illegal industry dedicated to meeting the demand. Decades of efforts have failed to change that equation.