Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Do you know where your laws are?
May 16, 2008

By the end of May, hundreds of new and amended laws will take effect in B.C., almost none of which have been given any public scrutiny.
In a scant three months, the provincial government has hustled 18 bills into law. At least another six are expected to be passed by the time the legislature recesses for the summer at the end of this month.
The bills affect hundreds of regulations from dozens of acts. The proposed Wills, Estates and Succession Act, for instance, has 276 regulations. The Public Health Act has 161. The Miscellaneous Amendments Act incorporates changes to 29 other acts.
Unless you’ve got considerably more time than me for a self-directed, regulation-by-regulation comparison of the changes, you and I remain equally in the dark as to what they are, the impact they’ll have or the rationale behind them.
Many are little more than housekeeping, of course, and others are welcome news. It’s great to hear of new laws protecting military reservists’ jobs back home when they’re sent to war.
But a number of curiosities and concerns are hidden under the mountain of words as well. Whether or not the bills ultimately make it through in the waning days of this legislative session, surely British Columbians at least deserve the chance to mull things over before new laws are brought into effect.
For instance, how was it decided that if a person dies within five days of a spouse who died first, that in fact it’s as if the second death happened first in terms of sorting out whose will takes precedent? (That bill has since been scrapped.) What will it mean to be required to launch an additional claim on behalf of government from this point on when we sue someone who has injured us? Is it good that the B.C. Society for the Prevention of Animals will be effectively immune from lawsuits?
Those were just a few of the questions to cross my mind during the briefest of perusals of the 43 bills on the docket right now (http://www.leg.bc.ca/38th4th/votes/progress-of-bills.htm). What might be revealed by a truly thorough review?
Certainly some of the proposed changes to the Election Act ought to give us pause, as they’ll disenfranchise an estimated five per cent of potential voters - some 170,000 people. The revised act prevents people from voting unless they have a home address and the government-issued, photo ID to prove it.
Obviously, those changes will be felt disproportionately by poor people: those living on the streets; people who can’t afford ID; people who change residences frequently.
I doubt the government deliberately set out to disenfranchise this group of people, and was more likely just seeking a cheap and easy way to cut down on the outdated information and numerous wrong addresses on B.C.’s official voters’ list.
But New Democrat MLA Rob Fleming rightly notes that unintended or not, the fact that people will be disenfranchised can hardly come as a surprise to the province given all the heated debate on the same point that preceded a similar bill at the federal level that became law last year. (That law is now being challenged in court.)
What particularly offends me is the government’s attempt in the media to portray the residency changes as a response to concerns raised by Elections BC. Read the 2006-07 annual report of Elections BC and you’ll see the lie of that.
The agency in fact recommended that more effort be made to register voters, given that almost half of eligible British Columbians don’t vote. In the 2005 election, Elections BC staff visited 125 shelters in the province specifically to sign up homeless voters.
You could make an argument that requiring voters to have ID listing their current address is necessary to prevent fraud. But as the Elections BC annual report also points out, there’s no fraud going on.
The agency combed through the 1.7 million votes cast in the 2005 provincial election and deemed 44 of them worthy of more investigation. But all they found when they took a deeper look were confused elderly people, mistakes by Elections BC staff, and a few folks who were too sick to know they’d made a mistake.
“Election BC’s conclusion is that there was no intention to vote fraudulently,” concluded the report.
The essence of a society is contained in its laws, and nothing is more important than getting those laws right. Governments simply can’t be allowed to define new law without our oversight and involvement.
Time to speak up, folks. Write to Premier Gordon Campbell at premier@gov.bc.ca; Attorney General Wally Oppal through his assistant at gail.c.dawson@gov.bc.ca; and to your local MLA (http://www.leg.bc.ca/Mla/3-1-1.htm). Exercise your democratic rights before they’re gone for good.

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