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Jeremy Roberts: Jeremy Clarkson’s battle against red tape is entertaining and instructive

Commentary

Jeremy Clarkson, the British television host and provocateur, could hardly be confused with being an embodiment of “the little guy”. Wealthy, brash, and often courting controversy, Clarkson can, at times, seem just the opposite. But in his latest season of Clarkson’s Farm, he manages to lend his spotlight to those without one and teaches us some valuable lessons along the way.

Season two of the hit show landed this past month with a mixture of praise and condemnation. Clarkson, the titular host, is of course fighting for his career after making some rash remarks about the Duke & Duchess of Sussex. Separating a critical review of the show from this broader context is difficult, but I’ll endeavour to do so here.

I admit myself a fervent fan of the show. The first season, which featured the eponymous Clarkson as he set about to learn how to farm his 1000-acre property, was one of the best pieces of television I have seen in years. Entertaining, educational, and endlessly endearing, the first eight episodes took viewers through the ins and outs of farming. The authenticity of the characters shone through as locals around the village of rural Chadlington sought to show Clarkson how they lived. Last fall, during a visit to the U.K., I took a drive out to the farm to see for myself. It’s easy to see why these folks have chosen to make this pristine land their home. 

Without giving away too many spoilers, this second season takes a different approach. While the first season pitched Clarkson & co against Mother Nature and his own inexperience, the villain of this season is very clear: government regulation. 

Over the course of several episodes, Clarkson does battle with his local council on regulations involving conservation, protected species, property rights, and more. The team struggle to determine how to survive in an agricultural landscape covered in red tape and necessitating a complex web of subsidy programs to stay afloat. NIMBYism runs amok through the show.  

The consequence of this: Clarkson and other local farmers are prevented from trying to make a living. 

In one story arc, Clarkson and other local farmers try to launch a locally sourced farm restaurant. Selling meat and produce through the restaurant would deliver a much higher return on investment versus selling it in the regulated market. Local council blocks his application, worrying that an influx of customers to his property would adversely impact conservation goals (amongst other reasons). Economic development and diversification don’t figure into the regulatory calculus.

When he seeks to appeal the decision, he is faced with a £500M legal bill, which would have obliterated the profit potential. 

Now, it must be said that this is, of course, a dramatization. I have no doubt that the production team has taken editorial liberty to emphasize these challenges. Moreover, Clarkson’s bombast plays a role in antagonizing decision-makers.

But the fact remains: this most recent season is a fantastic case study in how government regulations can become totally separated from the reality on the ground. It becomes clear throughout the show that regulators and councillors have no concept of how some of their decisions and rules are impacting the locals. 

In another scene, local farmers complain that antiquated rules protecting the badger population are causing dangerous outbreaks of bovine tuberculosis. According to the farmers, despite a rebound in the badger population, they are barred from doing anything about them. Many are forced to stand by and watch as their herds are decimated by this disease. 

What struck me the most watching this was how helpless the locals felt in the face of these obstacles. Many seem to be simply resigned to their fate. A beef farmer who lost half of her herd explains the situation to Clarkson and seems to sorrowfully accept the situation. The challenges they are facing are so significant that they simply don’t have the time to engage in complex lobbying. Clarkson says that the situation is “soul-crushing” for many of them.

Jeremy weaponizes his media profile and Amazon budget to make their case. Without casting judgements on whether his arguments are sound, he is at least able to make a compelling case for change.

But what about these farmers who can’t? What about those who don’t have money or time to spare? 

We have a tendency in government to place an undue amount of weight on the views of stakeholders who have a presence. But shows like this remind us about how important it is to get the perspective of “the little guy”.  It isn’t always easy to do so.

We can’t hire camera crews to follow locals around every time we consider new regulations or legislation. 

For me, a big part of the solution here is emphasizing the role of the local representative. A strong local representative should have a good finger on the pulse of their local constituencies. It is incumbent on them to ensure that the voices of those “little guys” are given due weight in the halls of power. Many representatives forget this function, giving more weight to larger actors. 

In Clarkson’s Farm, it appears the local councillors have forgotten this function. They may face consequences when they next face voters. But in the meantime, I hope that the broader lesson of this season is absorbed. Decisions have consequences and when you ignore the views of those affected because you don’t take the time to seek out their views, you can miss the common-sense consequences.

If you haven’t tuned in yet, check it out. I promise you’ll be entertained, and you’ll probably learn something too.

Blair Gibbs: Violent crime is a symptom of our worsening drug crisis

Commentary

Last month on a Sunday afternoon in Vancouver’s city centre a man was stabbed to death outside Starbucks in front of his partner and three-year-old child. In America, this might have been a shooting, and it might not have made the news, but in Canada, crimes like this still generate shock.  

As more details emerge about this case, it is likely to give local residents renewed concern that Vancouver has a developing violent crime problem, and the source is not much of a mystery.

The corner of Granville Street and West Pender where the attack occurred is steps from the city’s main shopping mall. The area is always full of shoppers, SFU students, and local office workers, and the Starbucks was recently renovated to become a flagship “Reserve” store. 

However, it is only a few hundred metres from the city’s Downtown East Side, which is notorious for its encampments, stolen property, open drug markets, and lack of policing. This zone—neighbourhood being the wrong word to describe a geography where people sleep on the sidewalk and have no ownership—has been a hub for drug users and the crime they attract and generate for decades.  

Its boundaries used to be clearly delineated, comprising about five square blocks north of Chinatown and east of the Gastown district on East Hastings and Main. Residents and clued-up tourists have learned to avoid going to this area even in daytime, and until recently, Vancouver’s voters and their elected representatives tolerated the degradation because it seemed contained, if not quite out of sight.  

Now the problems of the Downtown East Side are becoming too hard for Vancouver residents to ignore. Aggressive begging outside subway stations. Drug paraphernalia littering the sidewalk. Homeless drug users smoking crack pipes at lunchtime outside Microsoft’s new head office.The NPA swept the board in last year’s municipal elections in Vancouver largely on the back of public concern about crime and the surge in property thefts impacting neighbourhoods further out like Kitsilano and Kerrisdale.

The truth that no one seems willing to articulate here is that the Downtown East Side was a social experiment driven by an unaccountable collection of publicly funded harm reduction advocates and their academic outriders that has become nothing short of a national disgrace.  

It would be hard to imagine any European city allowing such entrenched poverty, despair, and lawlessness to develop just a few blocks from an international tourist hub. However, this urban health disaster zone is the symptom of a broader policy failure that needs to be called out.  

Drug addiction is a wicked social problem that blights many North American cities—but it is not a new one. Canada’s current opioid addiction crisis has been unfolding for more than two decades and Vancouver is the epicentre.  

Way back in 2000, the City of Vancouver published its “four-pillar” strategy to address drug addiction which was then killing hundreds of people every year in the province. This marked the official turn towards “harm reduction” as the guiding philosophy. But deaths kept increasing and by 2016, there were 994 drug toxicity deaths in British Columbia, leading to the unprecedented declaration of a public health emergency.  

Extra resources were pledged, and existing policies like supervised consumption sites, needle exchanges, and other “harm reduction” approaches reinforced. Fast forward five years and deaths had more than doubled again, to 2,306. Last year’s total saw only a modest decline.  

For all that time, British Columbia has claimed to be the province offering real policy leadership on drugs—but the record is abysmal and the excuses are running out. In just the last week, the city had its worst ever day of drug overdoses with 45 in one day.

As we show in new research for the Stanford Network on Addiction Policy published this month, the toll in terms of human potential has been catastrophic. In Canada overall, in 2020 and 2021, opioids caused nearly half as many deaths (13,815) as COVID-19 over the same period (29,985) and were responsible for five times the number of lost life years.  

In B.C., our research shows that the profile of users who die skews older and more male, with many overdoses affecting men in their late forties and fifties; possibly a sign that B.C. is experiencing an inward migration of drug users attracted to the services there, and also the free supply of potent opioids.  

British Columbia now has a death rate twice the national average, and one as high as the worst affected parts of the U.S., the country that Canadians like to think must be doing worse with their aggressive policing, tough sentencing, and lack of health-care access.

If this was any other area of policy, such as educational attainment, or cancer survival rates, this level of deterioration would be cause for a huge reckoning, public petitions, and a major policy rethink. Instead, B.C.’s new premier has been largely silent on the issue, and he has to deal with a media and health-care elite who seem to want to double down on “harm reduction” and dismiss any other approach as retrograde and discriminatory.

Let’s be clear: the harm reduction agenda was sold as a compassionate pivot away from a failed “war on drugs,” but this more progressive approach, while respecting the individual rights of drug users (to live in squalor and to poison themselves), has not cut the death rate and could actually be stoking the drug addiction crisis it claims to be addressing.  

If it has mitigated some of the risks of contaminated supply, that seems to have been outweighed by an ongoing influx of illicit and more toxic drugs, pulling in more desperate addicts who can get easy access to diverted product in the laissez-faire climate that B.C. has created.

Now the health-care lobby and harm-reduction ideologues have shifted their focus to “safe supply” —a policy that has no good evidence base. Such a model is short-sighted, as it presupposes that demand can only be channeled to less contaminated products, rather than suppressed, and it is naïve because it is based on the notion that addicted users do not divert their own supply for profit, or use illicit drugs on top of the “safe” supply they can freely access.  

Enforcement is meant to protect communities and also to stop addicted users from being exploited by drug dealers and organized crime. In fact, enforcement was one of the Vancouver strategy’s four pillars, but it seems to have all but disappeared. Charge rates in B.C. are down and criminal cases for serious drug crime have dropped by 50 percent across Canada over the last decade.  

And the province is now going even further, with decriminalization of drug possession in B.C. now taking the cops even further away from any role in responding to this crisis, other than helping ambulance crews pick up the pieces of the latest overdose or mugging.  

As death rates have climbed, the crime and wider social impact of the addiction crisis have started to generate mainstream political attention, with the federal Tories explicitly rejecting “safe supply” as adopted in B.C. and endorsing the Alberta government’s focus on recovery as the system-wide goal of addiction policy. 

Most people can see that we are clearly not winning this battle with the tactics adopted to date. And it should not take the senseless random murder of a father in front of his family to start the long overdue debate we need about how to fix Vancouver’s crime and drug problem.    

Sadly it won’t happen unless politicians and the media are brave enough to question the disastrous status quo they have been told to bless as progressive for two decades. This cocktail of west coast libertarianism and Dutch-style social welfarism turns out to be potent. But as Professor Keith Humphreys has said, “It can’t be compassionate if it doesn’t work.”