Monday, June 29, 2009

 

A PAUSE THAT REFRESHES

We pause for a day this week to mark the birth of our nation on July first, 1867! The break comes as "A Mari Usque Ad Mare", governments at all levels shovel out the cash to boost the so-called economic stimulus programs.

Why some wags even wonder out loud how doling-out tens of thousands of dollars for free concerts at Ottawa jazz and blues festivals can possibly be helpful to the economy...Pshaw! The Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure, responsible for the stimulus programs, John Baird, is the Capital Region's rep in Cabinet.

And...truth be told, apparently sometimes (Just some times mind you), "politics are a factor when supporting businesses." The revelation, refreshing as it is, has a New Brunswick Cabinet Minister in hot-water, and wishing he'd said something else. The candid comment is attributed to, Victor Boudreau, Minister for Business New Brunswick; who, no doubt pressured by journalists, conceded a few days ago that politics sometimes plays a role in deciding which financially troubled business to help-out.

Down east, New Brunswick's provincial government has made several dubious loans and loan guarantees to help stave-off Armageddon in some northern communities. In the wake of spectacular failures, the government of Premier Shawn Graham is being criticized, in particular for a $40-million loan to Fraser Papers, a company now in bankruptcy. (See - "Farewell To The Industrial Revolution", June 22/09)

In the government's defence, Minister Boudreau, says the process of providing loans and loan guarantees to companies is not taken lightly. He claims that forensic accountants pore over business plans to ensure that the investment is viable and has a good chance of success...But: extenuating circumstances are also considered and might result in... "political considerations overriding financial advice". The Minister says more than 85% of New Brunswick's government investments are repaid successfully.

On the eve of our national celebrations, the Minister's candor is refreshing and should be cause for others to pause, ponder and follow. Doubtless Sir John A. Macdonald would have wanted it that way.

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Friday, June 26, 2009

 

FEARING THE "GREAT WHITE" MELTDOWN

When the American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in Niagara Falls about ten days ago she raised with her Canadian counterpart, Lawrence Cannon, the spectre of "Arctic Sovereignty". (see: "Another Banana Republic" June 14/09) Canada controls the Northwest Passage, but the Americans call it an international waterway.

In a wide ranging interview with the Canadian Press recently, our new Chief of Maritime Staff has echoed the call of recent Prime-Ministers, including Stephen Harper, that the Canadian Navy is the best hope to patrol the Arctic waters..."It's about sovereignty; it's about jurisdiction," Vice-Admiral Dean McFadden told C.P.

But, according to the President of the University of the Arctic, Lars Kullerud, the talk of, and the additional military activity in the Arctic Ocean, is just bull..."It's hype to talk of a 'cold' war", he says. The University of the Arctic is an international cooperative network of universities, colleges and research institutes involving eight different countries, including Canada.

Still, a cornerstone of our Government's "Northern Strategy" is to build 6 Arctic patrol ships (to be delivered in 2014). The Russians are increasingly aggressive in flying patrol bombers ever closer to Canada, and last year sent a nuclear submarine across the Arctic to the Pacific Ocean. Norway recently bought 48 Lockheed-Martin F-35 jet planes for "exploration". And...apropos Secretary of State Clinton: A secret U.S. Navy project is building "quieter" nuclear submarines.

Since the dawn of man, the area around the Arctic Ocean has been too remote, too cold and too dark to be of any interest. A warming trend and thaw of the ice linked with climate change have stirred-up oil and gas exploration and mining; as well as created new potential shipping routes and fishing grounds.

All perfectly valid and legitimate reasons it seems for the six countries that surround the Arctic Ocean to seek their share. Still though, as Mrs. Clinton echoed in her Niagara Falls comments, the Arctic nations are promising to avoid a new "Cold War" and cooperate rather on the challenges brought-on by the melting icecap. University President Kullerrud told Reuters: "The Arctic area would be of interest in 50 or 100 years - not now."

I am somehow not quite reassured by his optimism...still though. I hope he's right.

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Monday, June 22, 2009

 

FAREWELL TO THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION

These days one does not have to look very far afield for evidence of the devastating effects of the end of North America's shinning 20th Century industrial age.

It is not just about the headline making spectacular failures of the giant industries that surround the Great Lakes: The vast steel mill complexes; the auto-parts and automobile assembly sector, and the too many manufacturers of products too numerous and varied to enumerate.

The demise of the industrial age hasn't been good to the town of my birth, Edmundston, New Brunswick; like so many single industry communities far removed from the major trading outlets of the vast urban areas of North America...And: The emergence of the "age of information" surrounding the dawn of this 21st Century really doesn't seem to offer any viable foreseeable solutions.

Growing-up in Edmundston at the mid-point of the last century our bilingual community revelled in the optimism of the post World War II economic boom. It was from the vast timber resources of western New Brunswick that the plywood constructed fabled "Warbirds" credited with saving England at the "Battle of Britain" had been assembled. The "Fraser Companies": Its giant mills straddling both sides of the International Border between New Brunswick and the State of Maine dominated the skyline; and the pollution from its coal fired furnaces (also trucked across the International Border); dominated the air we all ingested.

Fraser's endless timber resources, its pulp products for the newspaper industry, and most importantly the thousands of tons of quality "catalogue paper", produced for "Sears & Roebuck" and "Spiegel's" of Chicago meant that the Canadian National Railway's "transcontinental line" through Edmundston (the city's second largest industry) was kept operational and busy twenty-four hours a day. Just across the border in the wilderness of the State of Maine, "Loring Air Force Base", developed as a part of President Dwight Eisenhower's "military industrial complex" - fueled by the Cold War with the USSR - brought thousands of military servicemen into the area. Strategically, "Loring AFB" was the closest over the North-Pole point for atomic bomb carrying aeroplanes to reach the USSR from American soil - Thus the U.S. Air Force made sure it was the largest, best equipped "Strategic Air Command" facility in the world.

Loring Air Force Base is long gone. So is the Canadian National Railway. CN's three story brick train station and yard control centre is now a cheap looking out-of- place office building. It has also been a long time since the "pulse of daily life" in northwestern New Brunswick has been governed by the steam whistles of the Fraser mills on either sides of the international frontier between Canada and the USA...or for that matter by the "bells" of the massive Roman-Catholic "Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception" on top of the hill half a block away from the house where I was born.

Late last week, Fraser Papers filed for "bankruptcy protection" with both Canadian and American regulators. Just like so many larger manufacturers, Chrysler and General-Motors included; the financiers, managers and about 3,700 employees hope that a leaner productive and profitable "Fraser's" will emerge from restructuring. The likelihood though is for just more shattered dreams for the folks of my little hometown. The memories it seems may be all that are left for the pages of history.

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Wednesday, June 17, 2009

 

EROSION OF CONFIDENCE

There was never going to be an election this summer. I said so a week ago...days before the last 48 hours of media-spun nail biting drama erupted on Parliament Hill. (See: "Iso-Dopes" June 10)

I am passionate about politics. It, and a passion for journalism, I owe to my mother. A typical stay at home 1950's housewife, she had never even entered a grocery store by herself when my father died suddenly in 1954, leaving her with two sons, no job or job prospects, a mortgage and car payments.

She dusted herself-off; became one of the country's first female Canada Customs Border Officers; and on those long shifts at the International border between Northern New Brunswick and Northern Maine developed a passion for the political issues she read (And subsequently discussed with me) from the office's French and English language newspapers. Enough digression.

In the bi-partisan agreement to form a 6 member panel on changes to the Employment Insurance Program reached with the Prime Minister; the Liberal Leader, Michael Ignatieff, has concluded that he has obtained the significant concession he sought to call-off the threat of a summer election. But, at what cost? Surely the drummed-up threat of a mid-summer election was hollow at its very best. No one, let alone an intelligent and articulate politician like Mr. Ignatieff wanted to trigger, and be blamed for, what with certainty would have been the most unpopular election in modern Canadian history. So what gives?

Although rare, it happens from time to time, somewhat like cream rising over the milk of platitudes; that an intellectual, a thinker, a visionary rises to shake-up the humdrum of a country's political existence. Even fewer such candidates actually make the transition to reaching a role of historic leadership. I don't know whether Mr.Ignatieff has that potential. Certainly, barring the Conservative Party "attack ads", he seems to show a level of statesmanship; the background and the aptitudes that could qualify him. The greatest danger to his success is in playing badly at the "game" of politics. On that score, I suspect that he's been getting bad advice.

I share the opinion of a timely editorial published in the "Montreal Gazette" that this week's election "dare" shows poor political acumen and that, unlike in the Tory "attack ads", this time the damage is of the Liberal Leader's own making: "Many Canadians have never liked Stephen Harper, others have been disappointed by him. So Canadians are eager to like Michael Ignatieff, but with his grandstanding about forcing a summer election, the Liberal Leader has put himself in a bad light and he seems to keep wanting to make it worse."

With this current crisis of confidence ended (yet again) - Words of wisdom that each politician should contemplate over the summer hiatus. More particularly the Leader of the Liberals, as he and his entourage contemplate their actions and re-actions heading into the fall of 2009. Canada's future and what is at stake for each of us are just too important to be reduced to a game of political checkmate as if on a Chess Board of toy soldiers and little matter.

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Sunday, June 14, 2009

 

ANOTHER "BANANA" REPUBLIC?

Bet you thought American colonialism vanished at the Iraqi border? It's a rhetorical question...but, here's a new twist - It seems the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, the wide ranging security perimeter the United-States unilaterally imposed on June first, really only applies to Canada and to Mexico.

As only about 20% of Americans have valid passports and few plan to get them; They'll stay home. But - America's own internal complementary domestic security initiative known as "Real ID" which was meant to apply "in country" as the adjunct to W.H.T.I. is being repealed and replaced on the say-so of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. It is quite simple really: The 50 States have refused to pay for it. It seems the State Governors showed the backbone Canada did not, stood-up to Washington, and are forcing the Obama Administration to retreat on this keystone recommendation of the 9/11 Commission. It helps of course that Napolitano, when she was Arizona's Governor, said the legislation was "not worth the cost" and had signed a state law opting Arizona out of the plan. I sure wish we Canadians and the Mexicans had the same options. Eighteen of the 19 September 11, 2001 hijackers, (It bears repeating: None of whom came from Canada) carried fraudulent "State" identification documents which readily eased their movements within the USA.

The Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative is one more example of the "big dog" from down south wagging its Canadian "tail". We are just as powerless over its implementation as over the measures of February's U.S. Economic Recovery Legislation which dictate that the steel and manufactured goods bought with Federal Funds must be made in the United-States. President Obama, his Homeland Secretary, and just this weekend, his Secretary-Of-State, Hillary Clinton, talk a good game - talk is cheap - And Stephen Harper's counter-offensives about "protectionist behaviour" on the ultra-right "Fox News Network" aren't going to matter dick-all.

Yikes! If one rather believes Hillary Clinton, I fear yet more initiatives down this slippery slope. Subjects she touched-on during her three-hour "feel good" romp with Lawrence Cannon across Niagara's "Rainbow Bridge" on Saturday included: Arctic Sovereignty, the Boundary Waters Treaty, and the 1972 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. Until Canada starts showing the same backbone against measures which verge on threats of renewed American imperialism, as somehow the State Governors seem to do, we may be destined to being the 51st State...or worse just another subservient Banana Republic of the 19th Century. Ouch!

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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

 

ISO-DOPES!

The Prime Minister travels to the home of Toyota Canada, Cambridge, Ontario to deliver the country's second quarterly report card on our economic performance.

Cynics will complain that it's a move designed to switch the spotlight off the $50-billion man, the Minister of Finance, Jim Flaherty and the tumult of the House of Commons. Plus Mr. Harper will take credit for about 2700 of Federal Government stimulus funded projects being injected into Ontario's failing economy. By doing so away from the rhetoric of Ottawa's Parliament Chambers, Mr. Harper can in effect challenge the opposition..."here's what we've done - Could you do any better?" and fear few (if any) immediate political reprisals.

Since the late January federal budget and the commitment to these regular economic updates, the Liberals have claimed that the Harper Government has been "on probation" with the ever present threat of a snap election hanging over the heads of the governing Tories. Goodness! The threat of a pending summer election is virtually non-existent. It is rather much more likely that the House of Commons will rise in summer recess on Friday next, June 19th, on the eve of the St. Jean-Baptiste festivities in Quebec. And, politicians will kick-off their ever endless round of summer picnics and barbecues to gauge the pulse and the mood of the electorate.

Over the last ten days or so, that has probably been as good a reason as any for Mr. Harper not to fire his hapless Minister of Natural Resources, Lisa Raitt, who has been serving as the national lightening-rod for all of the country's ills and frustrations. Bring it on! Misplaced confidential documents; questionable expenditures when she chaired the Toronto Harbour Commission; sexy cancer and tearful apologies; disparaging remarks about Cabinet colleagues; the Isotope fiasco at Chalk River; clearly incompetent staffers...Why Mrs. Raitt is the "gift that keeps on giving" when it comes to keeping the focus off the dismal record of accomplishments of both our Government and the current session of Parliament.

Canadians generally will put up with the bullshit when Parliamentarians are seen to be competent. At the end of next week though the current session of the House of Commons will end without elegance, perhaps a tiny whimper, and a complete lack of focus on the realities for which we send our politicians to Ottawa in the first place.

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Sunday, June 7, 2009

 

SECRET...OR NOT (SO) SECRET!

There is a debate amongst journalists in this country over whether the "secret" documents left behind at CTV's Ottawa News Bureau were indeed "state secrets"...and the implications for journalistic integrity to hold-on to them for 6 days if indeed they were.

One thing is clear - They weren't "secret" enough in the mind of the Prime-Minister to cost the Minister of Natural Resources her job as had, for instance the secret NATO documents left behind at Julie Couillard's condo by Maxime Bernier...almost a year to the day.

Writing for the Sun Newspapers this weekend, Columnist Greg Weston suggests that it's easy enough for a Federal Government obsessed with confidentiality, and a Prime-Minister obsessed with control, to stamp "Secret" on pretty much any document it wants to keep away from prying eyes - Journalists and opposition politicians included..."Truth is no one got excited about a breach of official secrets because there were none in the documents"...So says Weston.

The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council publicly chastised CTV-News recently after a full review of the broadcast of a television interview, three false starts and all, of former Liberal Leader Stephane Dion, with its Halifax anchor, Steve Murphy, during the fall 2008 Federal Election campaign. The interview was re-broadcast ad nauseum on "Mike Duffy Live" for which the CBSC also blasted CTV.

While I may subscribe to Greg Weston's interpretation about the value of the documents left behind at CTV by the Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt; I am having difficulty understanding why they were held-on to by the News Bureau for 6 days while it prepared a news story based on their content. It seems to me (As the CBSC seemed to raise in the Dion matter) to call into question CTV's journalistic integrity perhaps verging on an abuse of our journalistic freedoms...well at least it seems un-Canadian.

Regardless of the value, authenticity or worth of the documents; a year ago when in Maxime Bernier's case, Julie Couillard brought with her "his secret documents" to a TVA French language interview in Montreal, authorities there didn't hesitate...and sure as hell didn't read or copy the contents...they called the department of Foreign Affairs who sent the RCMP to retrieve the briefing book. To me it seems that is the "only" way to behave...I fault CTV for doing less (much less) with the documents left behind at their studio by Minister Raitt.

The documents may not have been so secret after all...they didn't hold Canada's nuclear bomb formula (as if we had one!)...but leaving them behind, and CTV's disclosure cost at least one departmental insider her job.

Somewhat like an acrobat walking the tight-rope, there are dangers inherent with stretching the limits of broadcast freedoms and calling into question one's journalistic integrity - Sometimes either the rope snaps, or the acrobat slips off.

To say the least: Either way I'll be making sure to hang-on to my wallet and credit cards if ever I am invited into CTV's Ottawa bureau. They're not so secret either, but I wouldn't want them in someone else's hands for 6 days without getting called.

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Thursday, June 4, 2009

 

WHEN "CORPORATE" MEMORY FAILS

It has been 11 years since I left the CBC. Through much of the nineties my work at the Corporate headquarters meant that I had a close relationship with the national broadcaster's Board of Directors. Though less frequently, I still receive phone inquiries from former colleagues about whether I remember such and such a Corporate decision, why it was taken at the time, and the debate that preceeded it.

An institution's "memory" is frequently the first victim of budget cuts, downsizing, departures and re-organizations; leaving those behind to debate old decisions, revisit issues previously resolved, and commit new - old errors.

No: It isn't another round of misplaced "secret" cabinet documents nor the current "deja-vu" of the Isotopes fiasco that make me reflect on these concerns... Though had my career been in politics; maybe!

It's been rather the bargain basement auction of Rideau Hall memorabilia. Plus, an unknown amount of misplaced gold at the Mint. And, apparently the "systematic" failure of disclosure deadlines at the good ole' CBC that are causing me pain.

Since published reports of the sale by internet auction of so-called "surplus" items from the Rideau Hall collection, several former employees of the Governor-General's residence have come forward with their own institutional memories. The most startling comes from Richard Legrand: For 35 years "maitre d'" to the Queen's representative in Canada. Mr. Legrand confirms that three sterling silver flower baskets sold last week for $532 to an auction buyer in Luskville, Quebec - Were in fact "on loan" for Buckingham Palace and wedding gifts to the Queen's grandparents in 1892. In the first place...they weren't ours to sell. Second...experts have estimated each is worth at least $10,000. The Government is trying to get them back. Good luck with that!

As for the Royal Canadian Mint - It seems they're missing a "pile" of Gold, silver, platinum and other precious metals. No one seems to know why, where, or how? The mint's 101 year-old international reputation is at stake. But, it can't reconcile the value of the precious metals it has on its books and the actual stockpile of gold, platinum, and silver it has in its vaults. "Qu'el conundrum!" Auditors, third party experts and Mint brainiacks have been burning the midnight oil to probe whether it's a massive undetected theft or really sloppy book-keeping. A decision will be made soon on whether the RCMP needs to be called-in. Sounds like a case for Inspector Clousseau doesn't it?

In the early years of my association with the CBC's Corporate Secretariat, it had a staff of 14 people. On my departure in December 1997, two were left. Crown Corporations, including the CBC were forced under the umbrella of the Federal Government's "access to information" legislation 10 years later in 2007. One additional Secretariat staff person was added to handle that task. In a case heard in Federal Court this week it has been obvious that A) the CBC was not up to the task...But B) Either some people had been lying in wait for years to get to the CBC's intimate secrets, or they take particular pleasure in filing frivolous requests to bog down the bureaucracy.

I suppose it doesn't matter which...Mother Corp. felt the wrath of lawyers for the complainant...David Statham, the Ottawa resident who overwhelmed the CBC by filing 283 individual requests, some of which took 18 months to handle. A lawyer for the Office of the Federal Information Commissioner told the Court some government departments are now taking 3 to 5 years to provide information requested under the legislation. Note to Mr. Statham and to the Federal Court - The CBC's mandate is to make radio and television programs. It's been damn good at doing that since 1936 / Everything else at the Mother Corp. is just silly "housekeeping"!

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Tuesday, June 2, 2009

 

O'BRIEN'S NEW TWIST

In a rarely used courtroom manoeuvre, lawyers representing Ottawa's Mayor, Larry O'Brien, have obtained an adjournment of proceedings while the Judge considers whether to allow a motion calling for a "directed verdict in favour of Mr. O'Brien".

So unusual is such a motion that Ontario's Associate Chief Justice of Superior Court, Douglas Cunningham, who is hearing this case allowed that he has never had to deal with one before. Essentially, the argument from the defence is that even if the Crown can prove the Mayor offered to arrange a National Parole Board appointment for his rival, Terry Kilrea, in 2006...there was no harm done.

Larry O'Brien who was elected Ottawa Mayor in October 2006 has been charged with a couple of counts relating to influence peddling to get his main rival at the time to step down from the race for the city's top job. The move to thwart the proceedings and direct a not guilty verdict follows conclusion of the Crown's case during the past two days. One of the mayor's Lawyers, David Paciocco, a Law Professor at the University of Ottawa, says the defence is preparing to argue that the only advantage for Mr. O'Brien in Kilrea dropping-out of the 2006 election was an "ephemeral political gain"...and merely a game which politicians of every stripe and at every level play all the time.

As noted on this "post" before: It seems to confirm that in trying to convince Kilrea to abandon the Mayoralty race, Candidate O'Brien was merely following the decades' old standard operating procedure in Ottawa where those pretending to have influence are usually peddling lies.

The trial is now scheduled to resume on Monday, June 8 as the Judge considers allowing the motion to go forward and taking arguments from both sides on the appropriateness of a declaration of "not guilty" without taking any evidence from O'Brien's defenders. The Mayor and his political staff at City Hall are on unpaid leaves of absence while this legal process makes its way through the court system.

And...it is becoming increasingly clear in the interim that matters at the city's administration have been evolving just fine in Mr. O'Brien's absence. For instance some have blamed his intransigence for a crippling labour dispute last winter that idled the transit system for two months and sucked the wind out of the Christmas sales business for thousands of merchants. Since the Mayor stepped down for his trial, the City and the Union representing the OC Transpo drivers have agreed to resolve all future disputes through binding arbitration; thereby forever ending the threat of another strike. Had such an agreement been in place last December, there would have been no walkout.

If in the event that a motion of a "directed verdict" succeeds and confirms that political shenanigans are in effect not a crime...Mr. O'Brien will nonetheless face another verdict in the "Court of Public Opinion" when he comes up for re-election in October of 2010.

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