Tuesday, March 31, 2009
GATHER YE IN LONDON
It is somewhat unlikely the same thing would happen to our Prime Minister, Stephen Harper. Expectations here are low and the Conservative Government's track record not much better. In half a dozen years and three elections later, Mr. Harper's Conservatives have failed to win majority Parliaments. The polish has worn off on the razzle-dazzle promises of our unshakable economy from last fall's election campaign.
Since Parliament's return in late January, Canada's media in fact complains that the Prime Minister has pretty much avoided facing the scrutiny of the Ottawa Press Gallery. Instead, he has chosen on a couple of occasions to speak with more friendly regional news reporters on both coasts and in southwestern Ontario.
In preparation for this week's Summit of the G-20 gathering in London, Mr. Harper chose to do the rounds of American media outlets; Fox News and CNN, where the general sense is that Canada's economy is faring better than the messy situation in the United-States. Generally the Canadian economy is doing better than that of many other countries wrestling with the demons of of our out-of-control world recession.
Clearly that is the "high road" Mr. Harper wants to convey travelling to Europe this week to join the other 19 world economies at the G-20 Summit. Lest I digress: Canada had a brief moment in the sun as the fourth quarter of 2008 concluded on December 31 last year. Soaring commodity prices helped place our country among a very short, four country world elite list of net-creditor nations: Japan, Germany, China and for a brief 3 or so months late last year: Canada.
IF YOU BLINKED...YOU MISSED IT. But, on December 31, 2008 Canada's international assets were worth $1.493-trillion. Our international liabilities were $1.479.5-trillion. The spiralling deficit of the January 27th Federal Budget which comes into force tomorrow on April fools' day has now however wiped-out our $13.5-billion in net world assets.
Still though it was nice whilst it lasted. It is a positive Mr.Harper can take with confidence and pride to the G-20 Summit. The Chief Economist at TD Bank Financial Group Don Drummond, quoted recently says even if Canada has lost this brief achievement..."we should still celebrate that we're nowhere near the national indebtedness we were in the 1990's."
In the glow of the irony shown under that light; I am thinking political historians may amend the legacy of former Prime-Minister Paul Martin. While political scientists may someday debate a "what-if" scenario. Both, because of Mr. Martin's role As Finance Minister through the budget wrenching exercises of the 1990's...as well as for his foresight in creating the G-20 in the first place.
Labels: Canadian Economy
Friday, March 27, 2009
DEATH BY A THOUSAND CUTS
The CBC: The Mother Corp., created in 1936 by a Conservative Government, was gripped with a serious dilemma. Facing the growing popularity of television, 'AM' Radio was undergoing a radical makeover. The emergence of Top 40 formatted radio stations catering to the young, hip, population bubble of my generation: The "Boomers".
CBC Radio remained pretty much stuck with its block-programmed broadcast schedule which first brought it to prominence during World War II. When men like the late Lorne Greene, The Voice of Doom, had read stale dispatches from the European front.
The CBC's Board of Directors realised that the radio service would die as audiences frittered away to listen to the "Motown Sound" on their just invented battery powered transistor radios. The medium had become mobile. Doubtless in a rare stroke of genius, (Painfully not seen since) the Corporation's Directors called upon two of their own young visionary radio producers: Doug Ward and Peter Meggs to develop the framework which would rescue the middle aged Mother Corp. out of its menopausal doldrums.
To those of us who were around then, and the thousands of CBC Radio craftspeople who have followed in its footsteps: The "Ward-Meggs Report" is legendary. Forty years later, still it remains the template for the information based non-commercial mixed national, regional, local format of CBC Radio One stations. Most of those are the top choice of listeners in their respective communities, broadcasting iconic all-Canadian programs: "As It Happens", the "World At Six", "Information Morning", "Radio Noon" and the dozens of others. Each: A direct result of the "Ward-Meggs Report."
After an entire career spent at the CBC, I yearn for the visionaries of my era to rescue our dear "Mother" from the death of a thousand cuts it now faces. In my chagrin, I hold responsible the managers and the Board Members of the present generation for their failure to call on the talent, vision, ideas and ideals of the hundreds of individuals who labour within the CBC, and whose jobs the Board has now jeopardized.
The CBC's financial dilemma; the fragmentation of television audiences, and the broken-down model for conventional broadcasting should have come as no surprise to the Corporation's managers. As for the Board of Directors, it has wasted almost 20 years of corporate practices, opportunities and memory during which workable solutions should, could and would have been crafted from within. The Board failed the CBC's wonderful craftspeople and the people of Canada because it provided no direction, no motivation, no support and no venue for the solutions to bubble-up from within its own educated, insightful program makers.
The cost-cutting measures now being implemented will strip the CBC of its soul. Sadly nothing was learned from the lay-offs, the cuts the "repositioning" which followed the obviously failed budget decisions of previous Directors in 1990 and 1995. Then, successive Federal Governments (Mulroney's and Chretien's) hammered the Corporation to get its spiralling costs under-control.
In the ensuing period the CBC wasted a 20 year window of opportunity to plan and develop an essential, perhaps unconventional framework for what should, could, and would still be Canada's dominant cultural institution. Fooled once in 1990, fooled twice in 1995, is there any wonder this time many Canadians just shrug and wish for what could have been?
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
SMITTEN WITH PETER
Yep! Like her predecessors Belinda Stronach and Condoleezza Rice yet another powerful woman of politics appears to have fallen for our bachelor Minister of National Defence, Peter MacKay. Sources in Washington note that Congresswoman Tauscher, is about to be nominated as President Obama's handpicked choice for Under-Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security.
At the weekend European defence conference where Representative Tauscher was quoted; Minister MacKay appeared to back-off from his bid for a top political defence job, Secretary-General of the NATO alliance. Many agree that much like Marlon Brando in the 1954 blockbuster "On The Waterfront"; Mr. MacKay..."could have been a contender". But, it now seems the Americans will side with France, The United-Kingdom, Germany and other European NATO partners to name Denmark's Prime-Minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, to head the North Atlantic Treaty Organization when its General Assembly convenes late next week.
The move by the U.S. is a political tactic to bolster European support for President Obama's plans for prosecuting the Afghan War and is hardly reflective of official Washington's opinion on Peter MacKay. But: It effectively derails his bid for the post of Secretary-General.
In Ottawa some believe that the Defence Minister was seeking NATO's top job to both bolster his international profile while putting distance between him and the Prime-Minister, Stephen Harper. It's been expected that Mr. MacKay will go after the Leadership of the Conservative Party either by eventually challenging the P.M., or in the more likely event that Mr. Harper steps down should the Conservatives' national status not improve in the next Federal election. Mr. Harper has so far twice failed in bids to win majority elections. Current polls and the ascendancy of Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff suggest a no less difficult election for the Conservatives when the Government is defeated in the House of Commons.
There's a cadre of "Red Tory" former Progressive-Conservatives anxious to work with MacKay as the party leadership candidate to wrestle-down the grip of the Reform/Alliance Alberta right-wing, or at least keep the party from moving into the camp of the Ontario Mike Harris "Common Sense" revolutionaries like Finance Minister, Jim Flaherty. That list likely includes the P.C.'s "Grey Eminence" the former Prime-Minister, Brian Mulroney. MacKay's father Elmer, and Barbara McDougall, both of whom served in Mulroney's Cabinet; and seasoned backroom organizers, Senators Hugh Segal and Lowell Murray.
Mr. MacKay's bid to lead NATO may be dead. But judging from the comments of Representative Ellen Tauscher who serves on several powerful Congressional Committees, including the Armed Services Committee, it seems the Defence Minister is indeed being noticed in all of the correct Washington political circles.
Labels: Conservative Pary
Sunday, March 22, 2009
NIGHTMARE IN TECHNICOLOR
Small, medium and large communities from St.Stephen, New Brunswick in the east, to the "Peace Arch" border crossing south of Vancouver are about to be economically devastated by the one-size fits-all affects of the "Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative" when it kicks-in on June the first.
Depending on whose numbers one believes...the Prime-Minister, who says 75% of Canadians are document ready...or Passport Canada's claim that the actual number is closer to 54%: It is our 300-million plus American neighbours who are not ready. Will not be ready...and their lack of preparedness is about to reek havoc across the Canadian border.
As of the first of June, it is not only Canadians who require Passports to enter the USA by land. Americans returning to their home country from Canada and Mexico will need a Passport to re-enter their own country. Prime-Minister Stephen Harper told a southwestern Ontario audience a few days ago that Canadians are ready for the new initiative. For the most part figures available through Passport Canada seem to confirm our willingness to comply. From 18 to 20-thousand Canadian Passports are being issued monthly. That demand has been pretty much steady since 2007.
Figures available from the United-States though are far less comforting. At most, 23% of U.S. citizens have a valid passport. A growth of less than 4% since the terms of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiatives were made public several years ago. Businesses from restaurants through the local Wal-Mart store in small Canadian communities such as my hometown, Edmundston, New Brunswick, through Cornwall,Ontario and many others scattered along our mutual 5000 kilometers of border depend on the daily traffic flow between the two nations. It risks grinding to a halt on June first.
As much as 60% of the tourists flowing into Niagara Falls come from the United-States, including half of the day-trip travellers to Casino Niagara. In the already economically stressed Windsor area, fully 80% of the multi-million dollar daily gambling business at Casino Windsor travels across the American border via the Ambassador Bridge or the Detroit/Windsor tunnel. From the sublime to the ridiculous: The clubhouse of the Tobique Valley Golf course in Perth-Andover, New Brunswick is in one country. Its parking lot, across the border in the other country. The same also holds true in Quebec's eastern townships where not only farms and golf courses are divided, but a couple of towns are actually split in half by the International Border.
Critics of Mr. Harper's comments that Canada is ready say he is..."dreaming in technicolor" if he believes that at this most difficult economic time in a century the affect on cross-border trade of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative will not devastate the battered economy. Unprepared and unaware Americans are about to stop piling into their cars and do a sharp U-turn at the border just as Canada desperately need to boost its summer tourism business.
Thursday, March 19, 2009
"ZOOM" - YOUR BANKRUPT!
Just like last year, climate change has made for yet another cold, snowy, miserable winter from coast, to coast, to coast. Last week, a spokesman for Canada's other airline - Westjet - touted the company's southern destination packages for keeping aircraft full through our crashing economy and the waning dismal winter months.
Unlike some of its sun destination competitors, "Westjet" has obviously been immune to the cut-throat competition from tour operators who claim their rivals will go to any lenghts to choke them out of business.
Something rare in the highly volatile razor-close competitive "sun destination" industry: Southern Ontario based "Sunwing Vacations" has publicly accused its rival: Montreal based "Air Transat" of exploiting the economic downturn to justify irrational and predatory behaviour.
Look! Given the relatively short season: The winter southern travel vacation business is an enormously competitive industry. Canada's aviation graveyard is littered with failed operators - Wardair, Canjet, Zoom, Sunflight and countless others.
Montreal's "Air Transat" is one of the world's largest air charter carriers with operations in Europe under the Thomas Cook Travel banner, as well as in many other destinations from the southern U.S, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean region as well as elsewhere. In this faltering economy "Air Transat" has posted three consecutive quarterly losses, including a shortfall of almost $12-million in the first quarter of its current fiscal year.
"Transat's" critics claim the company is obsessed with maintaining a leadership position in sun destination charters - "at all costs" - and uses predatory practices to choke-off its competitors. "Sunwing's" public complaints bring to mind another operator, "Air Maestro" which flamed-out in March 2007 in a failed "head-to-head" battle against "Transat" for the lucrative Quebec City, lower St.Lawrence River Valley winter escape business.
"Maestro's" President, Michel Mordret, had been a Transat Vice-President who took-on his former boss, Air Transat's President, Jean-Marc Eustache, in a winner take-all struggle for the hearts and minds of vacationers in the under-serviced greater Quebec City area vacation business. "Air Mastro's" fourteen destinations service barely made it out of the gate before the rival slashed prices and was subsequently blamed for driving the up-start out of business. When it abruptly collapsed under an $8-million debt, on March 7, 2007; "Air Maestro" left a total of 1,645 stranded Canadians at airports all over the Caribbean and south Florida.
Yes! It has been a cold, snowy, miserably bad winter. Fortunately "spring" breaks-out this week. Though sun destination travellers should still beware of travel deals south that could leave them hopelessly stranded at strange destinations if/when the economy claims another tour operator's struggling business.
Thursday, March 12, 2009
DO AS I SAY...
There may have been elements of a "buy American" mentality in the recent budget deliberations down south of the border, but obviously the fear of protectionism stops at the New Brunswick border.
Canada's steel producers are in a precarious holding pattern. Our shipbuilding industry is on its death bed. Each man, woman and child in the province of New Brunswick has just invested about one-hundred dollars U.S. into the well being of the Gulf of Mexico northern Florida community of Panama City.
The town, infamous for the annual "spring break" rituals of America's college crowd, is home to the Eastern Ship Building Group of companies. The good folks of Canada's "picture province" have just placed an order of about $70-million U.S. with Eastern Ship Building to construct an 82 car / 100 passenger ferry to service New Brunswick's off shore Bay of Fundy island of Grand Manaan.
Year round the island's only physical contact with the outside world is through a ferry system operated by the New Brunswick Department of Transportation. This new American built maid of the Fundy mist is scheduled to enter into service in 2011.
The island's recent history has been raucous. Some say it's a haven for drug smugglers and pushers. There have been incidents of vigilantism after locals blamed the RCMP for dragging its investigative feet. The new year-round ferry is expected to bolster tourism and improve the community's access to the majority of essential goods, services and products which must be shipped-in from the mainland.
Though certainly Premier Shawn Graham's Liberal Government has unleashed a hornets nest of vocal critics of the Transportation Department's choice of an American contractor to deliver the new ferry. The province claims there were a total of five bids from four different companies for this contract. It is known that the two lowest acceptable offers were from non-Canadian competitors with the least expensive coming from Florida's Eastern Ship Building.
Doubtless the Americans will build a fine ship for the good people of Grand Manaan. But, after another long miserable winter in eastern Canada, I'll bet some New Brunswickers wish that a day or two on Panama City's beaches was included with their seventy million dollar transportation deal.
Labels: Canadian Economy
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
MAD RUSH ON INFRASTRUCTURE PRJECTS
Obviously there is much merit to getting the billions of dollars earmarked for existing infrastructure repairs and massive new endeavours to get underway within an appropriate time frame. After all they are meant to bring our ailing economy back off of life-support.
Certainly the Conservative Members of Parliament are "good to go". I noted a news story just a few days ago that the Government's M.P.'s have already fanned-out across their ridings with promises of funding for more than 500 so-called "shovel-ready" infrastructure improvements.
In the rush, it seems to me that we may be missing a last chance to explore new visions. Across North America since the Second World War, timid economies have been brought back to life with massive infusions of infrastructure cash. To some degree thank God for the current "great" downturn because our crumbling highways, bridges, sewer systems, and public transportation systems are once again being saved from crumbling into one massive pile of broken concrete.
There are thousands of kilometers of roads, highways and streets more than half-a century old...in the case of some sewer and water systems more than a century old...We are in pretty bad shape but we assume these systems are always going to be functioning for us. For instance Montreal's system of elevated highways built for Expo 67 and the 1976 Olympics is crumbling. Inter-provincial highways, including Ontario's famed "400" series roads, carry more than four times the number of vehicles they were designed for. More and more of those vehicles are heavy trucks which pound the highways and bridges far harder than vehicles of the past.
The infrastructure stimulus cash will help. But, it is unwise to think that money is all that is needed. That is what's wrong with our current rush to get the "shovel ready" projects off the design tables. In Ottawa the city is looking for an infusion of billions of dollars to build a rail system under the downtown core. What started-out as a proposal for a light-rail transit system has mushroomed into a full fledged subway system which the city can ill afford. And, there are absolutely no plans to rebuild, let alone maintain, the system once it starts to crumble (as surely it will) in 30 or so years. That is just one example.
Solutions to the problems of the national infrastructure system which we are about to rebuild and expand in a mad dash to kick-start the economy require new ideas about how we design, build, finance and maintain the country's transportation backbone.
Planners, engineers, designers and the politicians they work for need to re-examine all of their assumptions. Perhaps build good, rather than perfect. And...find new sources of revenue. The government's stimulus initiatives are designed to repair, improve and build infrastructure facilities that will last another 30 to 50 years: But what happens then?
Labels: Canadian Economy
Thursday, March 5, 2009
WHEN THE WHINING ENDS...
In English Canada the two major private broadcasters, Global and CTV, have been tossing their flotsam and jetsam overboard in a desperate attempt to save...as they call it: their core broadcasting operations. Just a minute here! If the "E-Entertainment" stations were such a drain on company resources, why did Canwest/Global acquire them in the first place? Ditto for CTV's billion dollar plus purchase of the CHUM group stations including "A" channel stations and the CITY-TV franchises just a couple of years ago. Now it's alleged they've never made money. Good grief!
The problem is that the our Federal regulator simply rolled-over and played dead when the private networks wanted to get their greedy hands on the dozens of cable delivered specialty channels controlled by the conventional stations they acquired in the heady days of take no prisoners profit making...and, which they are now apparantly overly anxious to dump overboard.
Frankly there is plenty of blame to share over the broken model of our conventional, over the air, television broadcasting system. Just in the last month or so it has left hundreds of crafts people, journalists and technicians jobless. And; the prospects are of hundreds more to come including perhaps as many as one thousand across the various services of the public broadcaster: CBC/Radio-Canada.
The over-the-air broadcasters are pissed that the CRTC denied their applications to force cable and satellite providers to pay to carry their programs as they do the specialty channel operators. Their arguments though conveniently ignored the fact that those same over-the-air broadcasters, primarily CTV and Global are also amongst the largest holders of those very same specialty digital channels licenses. Furthermore it is their own greed fueled by ruthless cut-throat out-biding competition which left Canwest/Global swimming...nay, drowning in more than $3-billion in debt, and its major rival: CTV, among other things holding the bag on a $150-million deal for the rights to the 2010 Vancouver winter Olympics, and the 2112 summer games. A bid which was at least $50-million more than it's only rival in the process: The CBC/Radio-Canada.
The Canadian Radio, Television and Telecommunications Commission's (CRTC) complicity in these matters is historic and long-standing. It really began when in the course of the last twenty or so years it allowed locally owned and operated network affiliate stations in a number of Canadian communities, large and small, to be swallowed-up by the networks themselves. And, there began the downward spiral, followed by the current whining over the "broken model". Frankly folks...why don't you just suck it in!
For instance Ottawa's "A" TV station has been decimated just this week. Stripped of the local news operation. The fall-out sends a clear message to the CRTC which is based in the National Capital Region. What its owners CTV don't say though is that it removes an aggressive news operation which has been a thorn in the side of its moribund CTV Ottawa (CJOH-TV) station from the "git-go". One stone - two hits: thirty or forty people jobless.
Yep. The model is broken. Let they who broke it, fix it!
Sunday, March 1, 2009
VEIL OF SECRECY
In just two weeks it will be four months since the December 14th kidnapping of the three men on the outskirts of the capital of Niger, Niamey. Most of the insight and reporting on this sordid affair has come from sources well outside of Canada. Bloggers in New York and Europe...and in more official fashion from Agence France Presse.
For unfathomable reasons Canada's mainstream media has been uncharacteristically timid and silent about much of this story. Reports which have surfaced in the homeland have generally been lifted from the French news agency, or repeats of information published by enterprising Internet bloggers. It is almost shameful.
Official Ottawa, even more so than the United-Nations organization, has cloaked the entire matter under some secretive veil on the premise of limiting harm to delicate negotiations for the safe release of the diplomats and the driver. The level of secrecy in fact makes it difficult to know the extent of negotiations, delicate or otherwise. Although the amount of reporting on these kidnappings elsewhere in the world is respectful and subdued, there has been enough of it to conclude that neither negotiations, nor the well-being of the diplomats (To what degree they are well) has been harmed by foreign journalists and bloggers trying their best to uncover details of a difficult story.
Robert Fowler is both former Canadian Ambassador to the United-Nations, and former Deputy-Minister at National Defence. His travelling companion, Louis Guay, is a distinguished diplomat. I just can't imagine that if U.S. diplomats of such reputation, say Andrew Young or John Negroponte, had vanished, the American media would be towing the submissive and docile line which appears to be influencing our reportage.
It's been hardly a week since Parliament's Information Commissioner slammed the Government and the Federal bureaucracy over a near conspiracy to make this perhaps the least transparent government in decades. In tabling the report, Commissioner Robert Marleau although polite, laid a great deal of the blame at the Prime-Minister's doorstep.
With respect to knowing the truth about the disappearance of Ambassadors Fowler and Guay and their U.N. driver, it seems that Canada's national media is marching in lockstep with the messaging which is crafted at the highest levels of our national government. And:-That is a shame!
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