IN THE NEWS ~ It's not all fun and Games; While politicians enjoy some perks at the 2010 Olympics, they also have responsibilities
January 15th, 2010 - 4:00am
Doug Ward a nd Jonathan Fow Lie
It's not all fun and Games; While politicians enjoy some perks at the 2010 Olympics, they also have responsibilities
James Moore watched Canada's women's hockey team snag gold at the Turin Olympics on TV while sitting in an Ottawa delicatessen, at midnight, munching a smoked meat sandwich. People in the room were transfixed. "I remember there was this Mom and this little girl, a young girl who played hockey. She was just going bananas. It was a great, very cool moment."
The gold-medal scene stuck in Moore's memory -- and it's a safe bet the Conservative MP from B.C. will have even more memorable Olympic moments watching the 2010 Winter Games -- moments more likely to be accompanied with canapes and high-end Canadian wine than deli food.
Moore, now Minister of Canadian Heritage and the federal minister responsible for the Olympics, is handling the end game of Ottawa's long-running Olympic file. He'll be a Very Important Person during Vancouver's two-week-long Olympic epiphany, schmoozing at high-level receptions with other VIPs in town (Obama, Putin, Schwarzenegger are definite maybes, along with assorted Euro-royalty), meeting with government officials from countries hosting the next Winter and Summer Olympics and being available on a daily basis for international media.
Moore also has one of five no-questions-asked passes to all Olympic events given by the International Olympic Committee to the federal government. The MP from Port Moody-Coquitlam-Port Coquitlam has access to choice seats -- if he wants them -- at virtually every Olympic event in Vancouver and Whistler. The other four federal government passes are going to Governor-General Michaelle Jean, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Liberal opposition leader Michael Ignatieff and Minister of State for Sport Gary Lunn.
"I'm looking forward to being at Whistler Village, at the medal ceremonies themselves, standing at the side of the hill, watching the Super-G, taking it all in, standing in a parka, just having the overall Olympic experience," said Moore, who played organized hockey until he was 18, but now only has time to play politics.
While the Olympics are about sport, they are also about the marketing of the host city and nation to the world. The Harper government has invested $1.2 billion into the 2010 Games -- including the torch relay, the Cultural Olympiad, security, the Canadian pavilion -- and it's determined to use the massive media exposure provided by the Games to sell Vancouver and Canada.
The other federal minister with the special IOC pass, Canadian sports minister Lunn, grew up in Trail, skiing at nearby Red Mountain, where Nancy Greene Raine also learned to rip. Lunn competed in ski races as a youth and, like any other young kid, dreamt of going to the Olympics. Now he's living that dream as a member of the exclusive IOC Family.
"Everybody dreams about being an athlete," said Lunn. "But it wasn't too many years ago that I never thought of myself as a MP let alone minister of sport during the Olympics. How cool is that?"
Lunn said he'll be attending as many Olympic events as possible -- some of them briefly -- meeting with athletes, Olympic dignitaries and sports officials from other countries. "I can tell you what I won't be doing -- I won't be sleeping. I'll be going about 18 hours a day."
International Trade Minister Stockwell Day has tickets for the Canada-U. S. hockey game on Feb. 21. But the MP from Okanagan-Coquihalla intends to be a player at the Olympics as much as a spectator. He'll be attending a series of business events, including breakfast roundtables with Canadian and foreign investors, plus hosting the Global Business Leaders Day at the Terminal City Club.
The process that led to the Vancouver 2010 Olympics began under the Liberals in Ottawa and the New Democrats in Victoria. Those parties are now in opposition and their political rivals -- the federal Conservatives and provincial B.C. Liberals -- are now the ones carrying the Olympic torch on its final lap and enjoying the perks that come with being in power during the games.
Vancouver Centre Liberal MP Hedy Fry said she was a strong supporter of her city's Olympic bid when the her party held sway in Ottawa and formed government under Jean Chretien -- and resents not being invited to any official Olympic functions even though several venues, including GM Place, are in her riding. "I'm disappointed that I haven't heard a single thing from this government, no invitation."
But Fry isn't bitter. "I'm not crying foul," said the Vancouver MP, who bought a $380 ticket for a women's hockey game from a friend. "I will be waving the flag and celebrating because this is the fruition of a long-term dream for all of us."
Fry's complaints are a reminder that the Olympics inevitably become grist for the political mill of the host country.
The Harper government cited the Olympics as one reason for the closure of Parliament -- a recalibration of its economic plan being the other. The Tories said it is only logical to have a two-week parliamentary truce during the Olympic period. The Liberal party slammed prorogation as a politically opportunistic way to avoid scrutiny and argued that other national governments in Olympic host countries have continued sitting during the Olympics or only shut down for a shorter period of time than the Tories' prorogation period.
Two recent polls show the popularity of the Conservatives and Harper has declined since prorogation was invoked.
The Conservatives have been careful that any political advantage they might gain from the Olympics isn't undermined by any appearance of ministers and MPs slurping at the Olympic trough at the taxpayer's expense. The Canadian Heritage Department spent $447,000 for nearly 2,000 Olympics and Paralympic tickets for parliamentarians and officials in various departments and agencies. But no MPs, senators or federal government employees can receive tickets without paying for them -- and not from their office expense accounts.
Moore and Lunn will pay out of their own pockets to attend all of their Olympic events. "We don't feel the taxpayer should be paying our way to watch the games," Lunn said.
This no-freebie rule doesn't go far enough for the Liberals and New Democrats, who refused the Conservatives' offer to jump the queue for tickets. "I don't think we should have any special consideration for tickets," said Libby Davies, NDP MP for Vancouver East. "The Liberals decided that we would be like ordinary Canadians and line up for tickets like everybody else," said Joyce Murray, Liberal MP, for Vancouver-Quadra.
Moore dismissed the opposition's no-thanks stance on tickets as "cheap and easy politics."
Murray, the Liberals' critic for the Olympics and amateur sport, intends to be in the cheering section. She has purchased $1,500 worth of tickets online, including tickets to qualifying rounds of curling and women's hockey, and intends to give some of them to visiting Liberal MPs from other parts of the country.
But her real passion is for the Paralympics. She's hosting a round table on how to get more disabled people involved in elite competitive sports.
"I want to capitalize on the interest in the 2010 Olympics to put the spotlight on the Olympics. It takes courage and determination to progress to becoming a Paralympian and I'd like the public to have a sense of who these folks are and provide support for them."
You'd be hard-pressed to find a bigger Olympic booster among politicians than John Weston, the MP for West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky. Weston, a recreational skier and fitness buff, is a fan of Olympic sports. He's purchased tickets for snows-port events being staged in his riding at venues on Cypress Mountain and Whistler, including men's Super-G ski racing, men's freestyle aerials and men's bobsleigh.
Weston is among those politicians who view the Olympics as an economic game-changer. He's brought his political staff in Ottawa to West Vancouver to handle what he expects to be a spike in constituency business.
"The fact that parliament is not sitting gives us a chance to roll up our sleeves and work extra hard here in the constituency," said Weston.
"I'll be working with business people, athletes and people from overseas who want to know how they can participate in my riding."
He's hosting a town-hall discussion with Senator Nancy Greene Raine and Lunn on how to ensure the Olympics produce a "lasting, positive impact" on the North Shore and the Squamish-Whistler corridor.
Davies is Weston's polar opposite when it comes to jumping on the Olympic bandwagon. She is less interested in the athletic competitions than she is in using the Olympics to highlight social inequality. She's joined the 2010 Homelessness Hunger Strike Relay and is currently completing a week-long, liquid-only fast to raise awareness about homelessness.
"I'm not anti-Olympics but I'm not interested in attending the events," said Davies. The New Democrat intends to spend her time monitoring the impact of the Olympics on the Downtown Eastside. "I want to make sure the homeless and drug users are not harassed."
Davies' NDP colleague, Peter Julian of Burnaby-New Westminster, wants to attend Olympic events but is put off by the price of tickets. "I find they are not very affordable for anyone who is not a very wealthy person," said Julian. He is also worried about cost over-runs. "My greatest concern is the cost that we will continue to pay."
For many of British Columbia's provincial politicians, the Olympics will mean nights couch surfing with friends or relatives, and days bouncing between events.
"Luckily enough for me, my brother lives in North Vancouver," Forests and Range Minister Pat Bell declared this week. "So I'm going to be couch surfing at his house," added the MLA from Prince George-Mackenzie.
"Everybody is talking to anyone they know in Vancouver who might have a spare place," said New Democratic Party leader Carole James. "People have been great about providing an opportunity for a place to stay, because everybody knows how crazy it will be," she added.
James and her NDP caucus long ago decided they will not take any free Olympic tickets, so her event schedule will be limited to preliminary curling and a set of nosebleeds at the closing ceremonies -tickets she said she bought in the third round of the public process.
"We've said [to NDP MLAs], 'if it's a ticketed event, you should have to apply for the tickets,'" she said. "You should do the process as I did, which is to go on and wait your turn and keep your fingers crossed," she added.
James said while not at the two official events, she wants to take part in free public events, like the O Zone planned for Richmond. "I'm looking forward to the excitement," she said. "The best part for me will be the public events."
For Liberal MLA Norm Letnick, the coming Games will be a chance at redemption.
Letnick lived in Montreal during the 1976 Olympics, and Banff during the 1988 Games, though now wishes he did more to soak up the atmosphere and excitement.
"You should partake in it as much as you can. In my case I was 19 in Montreal and I was actually on training courses during the Olympics, so I didn't get to be at any of the events," said Letnick. "What I would suggest to people is find a way of participating, any way they want to whether it's an event during the Games or a Paralympics event," he added.
Letnick said he's hoping to be in Vancouver for about a week, and has offered to put his French language skills to good use if it would be of help.
Letnick added he's booked a community hall in his riding for the gold medal hockey game, and is joining with neighbouring MLAs to collect a crowd for the free event.
Kathy Corrigan, NDP critic for the Olympics, said she is excited for the Games, and feels she can enjoy the festivities without compromising her role as her party's designated watchdog. "I see my role as critic is to make sure that taxpayer dollars are well spent, that the whole process is open and transparent and that after the Games we have a good accounting of how the money was spent," she said.
"I don't see any problem with balancing the roles," she added. "I think it's great that people are excited."
The Burnaby-Deer Lake MLA added she will be on the other side of the couch-surfing equation -hosting her brother who is coming from Australia.
While many MLAs will have few if any official roles during the Games, many will be called upon to help with the heavy lifting of selling B.C. to the world.
Bell is one of those, as he will be working in his capacity of forest minister to spread the message about B.C. wood to anyone willing to listen.
"We want to break down barriers that the international community believes exists right now around the use of B.C. wood products," said Bell.
"There's a lot of misinformation out there around things like legal wood and wood being sustainably harvested," he added.
The province plans to hold a handful of theme days during the Olympics, where a variety of presentations will be on display to showcase elements of what B.C. has been doing.
February 23 will be forestry day, and Bell said he's raring to go. He said there will be official presentations, meetings with industry representatives and as live demonstrations, assuming security teams will allow clearance for the necessary heavy machinery.
While many B.C. politicians will be looking forward during the Games, some too will be looking back and recalling the early days of the Olympic bid.
NDP health critic Adrian Dix is now the MLA for Vancouver-Kingsway, but once served as chief of staff to former premier Glen Clark.
In a recent interview, Dix recalled the moment when the Vancouver/Whistler team beat out Quebec City and Calgary in its bid to become Canada's nominee for hosting the 2010 Winter Olympics.
Dix had urged Clark to take the stage for the announcement, even though neither of them knew how things would turn out. "It was one of those things where Glen noted to me -- as he could in his laconic way -- as he was going up there, he said: 'You know, I don't think the other premiers are on the stage,'" Dix recalled.
"It's true they [the other premiers] were much more cautious," he said.