Saturday, 20 December 2014

Lacking Credentials is Five Years Old!

Good evening,

I am, I think, a lot older and a lot wiser than I was when I started doing this, so hopefully the quality of the posts has improved over time, but some things have not changed:

Canada still has a broken political system and a dearth of political leadership.  Federal and provincial (municipal has been a little better) elected officials care more about prestige, appearances, and pissing contests that protect their own little fiefdoms than they do about doing the work they were elected to do.  Politicians prefer show-boating and photo-ops to hard work and substance, and as a result the country's political scene is a bubble, or an echo chamber as it were, that interests very few people.

The media landscape is as nasty and depressing as it was five years ago, with a few glimmers of light and some minor changes.  The Post has some smart people writing for it now who use their brains and are critical, after the emerging from the strident and partisan pro-Israel, pro-Conservative dreck machine it was under the Asper family.  The paper no doubt retains this bent but Paul Godfrey is a hands-off businessman, not a spoiled rich-kid ideologue.  The Globe has for the most part left the clutches of Bell but struggles to shrug off the midtown Toronto elitist bien-pensant current that permeates way too much of its content.  The Post has also taken over the Sun newspaper chain from Quebecor and will probably keep it the toilet paper that it always was.  Here in Montreal I have the treat of the same toilet paper en francais which is the Journal de Montreal, proud organ of the separatist opposition after years of inscrutable pandering to the lower classes with no discrenable political leanings, now that its owner is a PQ politician.  The Star meanwhile remains the concerned paternal figure it always has been, with some decent scoops. Jesse Brown's Canadaland has really lifted my mood.

The world remains a chaotic and unfair place. Wars rage, economies crash, commodities are volatile. Yet fortunes are made every day.  At the same time, Canada is home to more poverty and suffering than maybe we realize.  McMansions are as popular as ever, and so are food banks.  I'm more zen about the whole thing then I was five years ago because I have realized that with the passage of time, things have a way of more or less sorting themselves out.  But I'm not under any illusions that things are getting better. They've been getting better for me, but that doesn't give me license to be ignorant and give the old bootstraps speech, which seems to be our natural instinct as humans when we are fortunate, unfortunately.

My output has really dropped off the last two years.  I will take the easy way out and blame my kids.  I have maintained output nonetheless.  I am proud of this blog because over 50,000 people have looked at it and it remains a constant thing in my life which has otherwise changed profoundly in many ways.  2015 promises more, new, exciting changes: what, I cannot yet say, because I do not know.  But I am on the cusp of graduate studies (yes, credentials), and I feel like professionally I am starting to hit a stride which might finally take me somewhere interesting (notice I never talk about my day job on here).

I don't know if the blog will change in some way or migrate to a new platform - it probably could use an injection of pizzazz of some sort - but I do know that keeping this on life support has been worth it, because there is always something to talk about and anyone, even one person, who engages in the slightest with the challenges our country faces in a way they hadn't thought of before after coming here makes it all worthwhile.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year 2015 from Lacking Credentials.  Thank you for your patience while I try to think of a way to bestow the greatness I think this blog is destined for on it.

Happy Birthday Mom

Tuesday, 11 November 2014


So let's recap.  In less than three weeks, you've been fired from a multiple-six-figure gig at the CBC hosting the country's most popular radio show, had a thirty foot mural of yourself removed from the CBC lobby, been dropped by your publisher (Penguin), disowned by your former band mates (moxy fruvous), let go of by the artist whose career you had managed (lights), and been informed through the media that your participation in hosting the prestigious Canadian awards events for the Giller Prize (literature) the Polaris Prize (music) and Canada's Walk of Fame was no longer needed.  The nation has been transformed into a feeding frenzy of piranhas, articles about you and the cascading tide of revelations about your life sometimes occupying most or all of the top 5 most popular stories on the country's major news outlets.  A kicking ourselves in the collective ass is occurring in the Canadian nation, everyone wondering how we did not see, behind that velvety voice, behind that slick but just rough enough demeanour, lived a tyrant, an egomaniac, a serial abuser of the awesome power he had gained? The story morphed and unfurled in directions we never could have imagined, parliamentarians past and present coming forward with accounts of abuse in what has been, after all, always referred to somewhat creepily as an "old boys club".  Respected and hardened female columnists have come forward in their fifties and sixties with stories of rape from their youth that they never felt the need to share until now, making all those eyeballs privy to the trauma they have lived with alone, for all these years.  And because of all this your name, the one you were born with and will live with forever, will never mean the same thing to anyone in Canada again.

Is this just? Is this fair? Has anyone you can think of gone from untouchable to radioactive in this amount of time? You can ask Tom Flanagan about it, who reasonably mused once in a talk to university students that pedophiles might cause less damage to society if they were able to access artistic child porn that did not use real subjects.  An Idle No More member who took issue with Flanagan's position and comments on the unrelated issue of his movement put the comments up, out of context on Youtube, and smeared him as a child pornography supporter.  Tom eventually did get his job, his reputation, and his column in the globe back, but he wrote a book about what happens when the twitter mob gets ahold of their tweet-shaped pitchforks in the Internet age.  The "Court of Public Opinion"s migration to the interwebs means the judgement is more swift, reactionary, and emotional than ever, and while permissiveness and liberal attitudes prevail as consensus on matters of social conscience in our society, the crowd can turn vicious when the wrong emotional chord is struck or the wrong taboo is  dredged up.

I am not trying to be a contrarian here defending a radioactive former radio host.  He did, after all, bring this upon himself.  The truth of the matter is that he claimed when he tried to get in front of the story on his facebook page that these were "private matters" and that his "private life should remain private".  As I pained myself to point out earlier this year on this blog, in January, when the hapless French president's extra-conjugal trysts were the stuff of tabloid fodder, when you are an official or unofficial public figure, there are certain sacrifices you make.  Period.  If you refuse to make them, then you are guilty of having a strong sense of entitlement and therefore unfit for the office you hold. You don't have "rights like everybody else". You are a somebody, not a nobody.  And the last thing all the nobodies out there who look up to you need to see is your deviant, dangerous, degenerate behaviour which you've somehow rationalized to yourself is ok for a person in your position to be engaged in.

Woody Harrelson's character Marty Hart in the show True Detective summed it up best in one of the first episodes, ominously alluding to his former partner "When a man is a certain age...and he doesn't have a family..." You start to wonder, basically. Married, divorced, kids, common law, gay, asexual, whatever. Society is not that judgemental these days.  But you have to have some explanation. Trolling social media for girls 20 years your junior and using your celebrity status to star strike them the better to increase their vulnerability? Indefensible beyond all recognition.

Then again, so should be fraternizing with thugs, smoking crack, and showing up drunk at black tie events all over town.  The public is not rational.  It does not have a fair mind.  People write the most hateful and reprehensible things in the comments below articles, when they do not spread misinformation and lies.  The vitriol and incendiary behaviour pervades the portion of the public square that is online, as it ascends to the halls of power in the legislative chambers of all levels of government.  This is not the world one wants to broadcast and justify an affinity for "rough sex" into.

Court, jail, sentences, arguments, evidence, witnesses and yes, justice all still exist in 2014.  The legal matters and cases all grind their way slowly through that system through years and months, through appeals, precedent, jurisprudence, higher court rulings, overturned verdicts, more appeals, new laws, amended laws, repealed laws, and unenforced laws.  The "official" justice system exists alongside the "real" justice system, online where our thoughts and mores have been collectivized and where the judgements are swift, irreversible and merciless.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Worthless Rob Anders

Elections Canada has to review the electoral map every ten years to ensure that federal riding boundaries broadly reflect the distribution of population, but the government in power is required to propose the new ridings.  So to be fair, even though the Conservatives have been salivating for the last few years over the thirty or so new ridings that are being created, this is not a strictly partisan initiative of theirs.  Population growth has indeed occurred in suburban Vancouver and Ontario, and all over Alberta and Saskatchewan, so the electoral map has to be re-drawn to reflect that.  The Conservatives are lucky because these areas where the new seats are being created happen to be the areas where they are strongest.  I am sure they will take full credit for the correlation between population growth and their popularity, but sadly not everyone on Earth can live in McMansions and work in resource extraction as is their ardent wish.  That being said, the changes have already created the unintended consequence, and welcome development, of destroying the political career of one of the most odious people ever to sit in the house of commons.

It's complicated.  A sitting Member of Parliament is still required to be confirmed as the candidate to run for re-election as a member of his or her party by the local riding association of that party.  But as the sitting M.P. has the advantage of incumbency, they are rarely disturbed in this process.  This is due to the nature of our party leader-centred democracy; if the nominee has the support of the party brass, no one wants to see any messy nomination battles, and these get nipped in the bud when and if they ever occur, which is rarely.

Where it gets interesting is when new ridings get created, like right now.  The map is redrawn.  A new riding might comprise a large chunk of an M.P's existing territory, but it now contains new territory that previously belonged to another riding, just as it may have lost some territory to a new riding.  It no longer suffices for a sitting M.P. to say he is standing for re-election in his riding, because it no longer exists.  He must stand for nomination in the brand new riding just like any newcomer, even though he is a sitting M.P.

This brings us to the subject of today's column, Mr. Rob Anders.

Rob Anders has been the most cartoonishly outrageous member of the Conservative government in its nine years in power.  He was first elected to the House of Commons at the age of 25 in 1997, representing the Reform party and rounding out the so-called "Snack Pack" with Ezra Levant, Rahim Jaffer, and Jason Kenney.  Seventeen years later, while Ezra's an outrageous but rich pundit, and Jason a high-flying minister with leadership aspirations (Rahim flamed out due to a coked-out DUI), Rob has succeeded at collecting an MP's salary for 17 years for occasionally being offensive...and that's basically it.

Mr Anders' illustrious achievements as a legislator include calling Nelson Mandela a terrorist, comparing the 2008 Beijing Olympics to the 1936 Munich games, and suggesting that Tom Mulcair precipitated the death of Jack Layton, the better to ascend to the NDP leader position.  He is an evangelical fundamentalist conservative who has put in time with Focus on the Family and railed against gays and transgendered people, and who once told Canadian soldiers "When in doubt, pull the trigger."

If you haven't caught one of the many moments in the House of Commons where Rob is nodding off with his mouth wide open on CPAC, Canadian Veterans sure did when he nodded off during a Veterans Affairs committee meeting he was supposed to be chairing.  When they called him out for his unprofessionalism and disrespect, he replied that they were NDP supporters.  Despite his appeal in Calgary West, and his support from Conservative heavyweights like the Prime Minister and Jason Kenney, the local riding association was fed up with him, and attempted to contest his nomination in 2011.  He won again, and derided his opponents as "Liberals" and "Feminists" while doing so.  The narcoleptic zero earned the right to collect 165k a year of taxpayer money for four more years.

But this time, in 2014, the new riding of Calgary-Signal Hill was refused to Mr. Anders.  Former provincial cabinet minister Ron Liepert defeated him for the nomination to run for the Conservatives in next years election.  Even Rob himself couldn't stop Calgary from getting overrun by Liberals and Feminists this time.

Undeterred, Rob moved south of Calgary to Chestermere to try and win the nomination in the more sparsely populated, rural new riding of Bow River.  He was badly defeated and embarrassed by the locals, who saw and called his parachuting into the riding exactly for what it was.

Now we have a 2014 good news story, that a guy who once headed an  organization called Canadians Against Forced Unionism, but who has never himself worked a day in his life, a guy who will enjoy a full pension significantly higher than the median Canadian income just for sitting on his ass at home, will not be coming back to the House of Commons after the next federal election.  A guy who railed against unions and insulted the intelligence and good taste of all Canadians for 17 years ends up, like the worst pathetic example of the stereotype he mocked, moving to the next potential food source just to try and scam in some extra years on that generous government teat.  Mouthing off, falling asleep, and earning six figures was a pretty good living for seventeen years, but most people figure out at what point it becomes abuse of the public dime and they must be good at something else, anything, right?  Not Rob.  His lizard brain just told him to move where there are more rednecks.

Good Riddance Rob.  Lacking Credentials wishes you the best in your future endeavours.

Friday, 3 October 2014

American Exceptionalism

In response to the growing number of conflicts around the world, there is a feedback loop occurring between some people the North American media and many Republican politicians in the US.  It concerns the current US response (rhetoric with limited military actions) to the various crises and what the media people and politicians feel it should be (full-scale intervention).  Some of these conflicts have been festering for years or even decades.  Some of them are directly related to previous US foreign policy actions more than others.  Still others have just flared up in their latest incarnations in 2014.  But if there's one thing Ukraine, Gaza, Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Egypt all have in common, according to pundits and opportunistic politicians, it is that they have been miserably and utterly failed by President Obama and his refusal to intervene, militarily or otherwise, to save these nations from the dictators, militia, terrorists, and misery which have afflicted them all at various times.

Is there even a place to begin to explain what America's military resources could possible accomplish in six (6) different hornets' nests like these or what astronomical sums it would cost to bankroll? No, but if you are like any number of North American columnists (Charles Krauthammer is the most glaring example), you make a living mocking the President's "weakness", "indecisiveness", "lack of resolve", "naivete", and "complacency".  Apparently not planting the big fat index finger of the US military into the maps of any of the six conflict areas above is considered the reckless and dangerous way to proceed.  As bad as the bad guys are, there seems to be no acknowledgement of the limits of the power that can be projected or clear statement of what would be accomplished.  Just that enemy aggression is “unacceptable” and “cannot be tolerated”.

A US President once said "Walk Softly and carry a big stick", or at least this quote is attributed to one.  Meanwhile in the mid-2000s I do recall the term "Big Swingin' Dick" being used to describe the US President of the time's actions with respect to military and foreign policy.  And this incredibly crude and sexualized metaphor, so sadly typical of our era, nonetheless describes the expectation which seems to now permeate the logic of the Krauthammers et al of this world: that the President wields a sort of deathly phallus with which it his presidential duty to f&*( the world back into order.

We don't need to spill gobs of ink to question boots on the ground or drones in the sky in Libya, Egypt, or Syria.  3 trillion dollars and ten years of full blown US military occupation in Iraq gave the world ISIS.  Next door ISIS is fighting Bachar Al-Assad, and letting him deal with them actually seems like an efficient way to deal with him for all those he's massacred the last three years.  Ukraine (the Western half of it) desperately wants to escape from Russia's yoke, but the US and Europe are better off diversifying their gas activities and trade and maintaining their high standards of living than getting embroiled in a military dispute with a corrupt kleptocracy like Russia which seems to be getting crazy enough to pursue it.  It’s best to let Putin the chessmaster play by himself.

Every world power that has ever tried to engage Russia on its turf has ended up sorely regretting that error.  Russia, on the other hand, has never made it further west than Berlin and Prague, and never will.  Everyone on earth enamoured with Putin's own BSD posture (as an aside, has an anti-gay politician anywhere else polluted cyberspace with so many homoerotic images of themselves?) seems to forget that he controls a population one-tenth the size of China's or India's, and not even double Iran's. A population crippled with rampant alcoholism and other health problems beset by chronic out-migration and an abysmal birth rate.  This guy's pretension of world domination paid for by his country’s gas company are pure delusion and fantasy, and just because the amount of money he has siphoned out of Russia probably makes him the richest man in the world, we don't need to keep taking his increasingly bizarre course of action in which he behaves as if he was the most powerful man in the world seriously.

But why have these conflicts given rise to what seems to me to be such an abnornally high level of geopolitical discussion amongst everyday people? Why does everyone suddenly have an opinion about Ukraine, about Gaza, about ISIS.  I've even heard this past summer over beer and barbeque talk of ramping up to a third world war, and more passionate than usual ruminations about how f----- up everything is.  Is technological advancement to thank for our advanced geopolitical awareness?  Is it CBC and CTV's decision to talk about the stuff 24-7 rather than the usual mind-numbing summer politician barbeque crap?  One thing is certain, as we talk of these conflicts and their victims, the conversation inevitably turns to solutions, and as the conversation turns to solutions, it inevitably involves the US, the only entity anyone can think of that could ever conceivably have any resources or willingness to intervene.  How short our memories are.

Because you only need to recall the Iraqs, the Vietnams, the countless clumsy botched CIA hatchet jobs in South America of the last few decades to realize the United States deploying its military is usually followed by the words "quagmire" "imbroglio" "disaster" and "trillions".  It doesn't make you a pacifist to observe that none of these adventures, for all the time and money and lives lost, accomplished their stated objectives.  But the reasons we as a society leave room in the discourse to persist in this chimeric military posturing are twofold: #1) We have simultaneously projected the sentiments of guilt (Rwanda/Balkans - "We will never idly stand by and let this happen again.") and bravado ("WWII - If it wasn't for our ancestors we'd all be speaking German) onto our collective past, and so feel the need to expect military solutions to the world's problems, and,#2, we still believe in American Exceptionalism, that is to say that America has interests all over the world and has a duty to itself to project military might and intervene when necessary, because it is exceptional.  While it is true that America's military is indeed exceptional, this fundamentally self-absorbed, ego-driven mentality is repugnant to more than a few inside and outside America

It instead boils down to the hazy language of “interests”, which means we do not report conflict, strife, and death themselves but rather report them where America’s interests are at stake, in countries where it is convinced for one reason or another that it has skin in the game.  Egypt, Syria, Iran, and Iraq all are in the vicinity of Israel, which America subsidizes and considers it has a duty to protect, as well as Iraq, where $3 trillion plus has been just sunk trying to bring freedom and democracy to turn a formerly hostile dictatorship into a friendly oil-producer.  Because of the unintended consequence of sectarian bloodshed this has set off, that doesn’t look to be in the cards.  Ukraine, meanwhile, wants to join the loose military cooperation network known as NATO formed by the US, Canada, and most of Europe but has been thwarted by Russian speaking militias in its East who prefer ties to Moscow. Ideally for North America Moscow is the most isolated possible so it can stop its rooster behaviour and join the fold of Western democracy.  That’s a pipe dream at this point.

But returning to the idea of exceptionalism, if America is indeed exceptional and has a duty to project its military wherever threats are found, then there are two countries about whom we hear almost nothing, where internal conflicts have claimed thousands of lives, and who have no institutions or mechanisms to help them cast off the burdens of ethnic and religious hatred and warfare.  The countries I am referring to are South Sudan and the Central African Republic, two dirt poor countries which never make the CNN headlines and whose citizens are as much in danger as in any of the other places I’ve mentioned in this column.

South Sudan has been beset by internal strife since it became the world’s newest country in 2011, with tribal leaders vying for authority and internecine warfare displacing thousands, plus the usual resource related disputes.  In that type of environment you can be sure none of the riches from the oil are flowing to ordinary citizens who continue to experience abysmally low standards of living in addition to chronic insecurity.

The Central African Republic, meanwhile, or Centrafrique, is probably the most obscure country on Earth, a tiny, landlocked, undeveloped nation that was under the yoke of France for a long time, and here a genocide of the most toxic kind, Christian on Muslim violence, rages, yet there is no debate in the Canadian or any other parliament on how to address the situation.  The article by Neil MacDonald on cbc.cayesterday amply demonstrates this double standard, but he uses the Congo as an example, another lost and torn up place in Africa.

Since I started this article the debate on how to deal with ISIS has ramped up and several nations have committed troops and resources.  While the size of the territory controlled by ISIS is alarming and their shocking radicalism leads one to wish for their imminent destruction, they are surrounded by duplicitous countries (Turkey, Syria, Saudi Arabia) which can easily serve as conduits for their money, oil, and ideology, in both directions.

But it is not the traditional “American Exceptionalism” that will aim to bring down ISIS.  It is an American and the broader west’s “exception” that is made for all the places where real suffering and hell is going on, but for some reason is not acknowledged.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Prentice the Pipeline Saviour Will Get Nowhere

In the dying days of the fall 2011 Ontario provincial election campaign, Dalton McGuinty, the incumbent premier at the time, and his brain trust made a conscious and deliberate decision to cancel two gas-fired power plants in Mississauga and Oakville.  The government was gunning for its third majority victory, and in its electoral calculus the four suburban seats in play surrounding those plants were indispensable.  Residents of said ridings were said to be strenuously opposed to said plants, even the real Erin Brockovitch came to one of their meetings, but they generated little to no opposition outside of them.  Population growth in the GTA has demanded new energy sources, plain and simple; that is why the plants were under construction.  Somehow the executive call got made to cancel them, without any public debate, when they were already being built.  A camera was placed on the site as construction continued for weeks after the projects were officially cancelled, by the opposition PCs; presumably they gained little benefit from it as they lost the 2014 election by a landslide.

Today this has all been forgotten.  In fact, lawsuits have recently been served to two members of the provincial legislature by Mr. McGuinty for publicly insinuating that he was involved in the cover-up (only his chief of staff at the time is under investigation.  A good example of a chief of staff's relationship with his boss is the character Doug Stamper in the Netflix series House of Cards) and he is back in Toronto officially registering to lobby Queen's Park for Desire2Learn, a Kitchener-based tech company looking to make some hay in the school system.  Talk about a triumphant return after running away to Harvard to lay low for a few months talking to super-elite American students about, I don't know, how stupid and ignorant regular people are.  I mean a billion dollars.  Only in Ontario, people.  Martha Stewart went to jail for $40,000, Conrad Black for maybe $6 million.  Neither of them have materially suffered since being made examples of by the justice system, but for the man to face no consequences or reprisal for a massively stupid and costly decision he clearly had a hand in -  and if he didn't then who was in charge?? - reflects very poorly on my home province indeed.

Lord knows the province has enough on its plate - high structural and social costs, factories closing, a poorly executed green energy strategy it has backed away from - and a massive chasm opening up between soaring and unaffordable Toronto, where everyone wants to be, comfortable, civil-servant economy Ottawa, which is boring and does just fine, and a bunch of aging, declining, economically depressed buttholes, whose realities, John Chen's nascent turnaround of Blackberry notwithstanding, are neither experienced nor appreciated in the province's two major centres.  Kathleen Wynne has been given the thankless job of turning around what McGuinty couldn't with his auto-bailouts and green energy schemes - so far her bright idea is to impose a new pension scheme on the province because people in Ontario are too dumb to realize that a financed Cadillac Escalade today is the difference between Cheerios and Whiskas in your seventies.

Alberta's previous premier had different sorts of problems.

Alison Redford's $45,000 flight to Nelson Mandela's funeral was the domino that turned the country's national media, and probably the segment of the province's population that follows politics closely (lower than elsewhere - gotta go to work!) into a fearsome cyclone of piranhas that totally destroyed her political career.  The stuff was just too juicy, too caricatural, and too much like tabloid fodder, in the sense that it just kept coming, to ignore (Okay, there were no crack pipes or drunken stupors, but we HAVE to start talking about something else, people!). Empty seats surrounding her bought for privacy. A fleet of government aircraft with her daughter and her friends in tow. A secret private penthouse being constructed in a government building in Edmonton.  A chief of staff making more than Stephen Harper's and Barack Obama's chiefs of staff.  Alberta has an image and a reputation - straight-shooting, blue-collar, and goddamn it, small government, and this stuff just didn't jive. So she went and hid out in Palm Springs for a month (it shows you how high a regard the elites that govern us hold us when our country is full of big open space and they feel the need to lay low in the States) and now no longer sits in the Alberta legislature.

But Alberta has a different set of problems as a province,too, although they are significantly more enviable than Ontario's.  Population growth is explosive.  Unemployment is low, and there are worker shortages everywhere.  Average weekly wages are sky-high, and the province generated the lion's share of the whole country's economic growth in 2013.  Not only are there the obvious issues of building all that new infrastructure and ensuring the communities are developed in a smart way with long term planning and vision (neither of which is likely occurring at this time), there is that festering energy issue.

Crude from the oil sands trades at a discount to crude from the rest of the world for a bunch of arcane economic reasons that are not the focus of this column.  That issue is focused on by the business press because it is related to the main issue, which is that the oil from the bitumen that is strip mined in the tar sands cannot be brought to market fast enough, or at least not if anyone want to significantly expand oil sands production, which of course all of the companies operating there do.  That's the easy problem.  Then there is the more inconvenient matter of the oil sands being an incredibly capital-intensive, but especially a carbon emissions-intensive, enterprise, and a growing number of governmental and non-governmental actors on earth recognizing the danger and the folly in continuing to carry on incredibly carbon emissions-intensive work given what we know about climate change.  The posture of Alberta's provincial and Canada's federal government has ranged from the delusional (look, we're getting really serious about reducing emissions - ha ha ha) to the current position which seems to be something along the lines of everybody just f--- off already.

It's hopelessly stuck in the mud.  Governments in the US and BC where the three proposed pipelines need to go are considerably more hostile towards them than the Alberta government, mainly I suspect because these governments and their constituents do not derive their livelihoods from extracting bitumen.  The world is going to move away eventually from gas, from cars, from all that - it's only a question of by force or by choice, and there seems to be a groundswell gaining consensus that we can't just keep pretending this problem doesn't exist.  It must be incredibly painful in Alberta to come to grips with the fact that despite this oil wealth and a ten gallon Stetson full of bluster, you are not in control of this situation.

In comes Jim Prentice, who was chosen as Alison Redford's replacement.  A formal senior minister in Stephen Harper's government holding portfolios such as Industry and Environment, he left to be a bigwig at a major Canadian bank and was tapped as a negotiator for one of the pipeline companies as a large part of these proposed pipeline routes pass through aboriginal land claim snafus and things of that nature.  With typical pathetic Canadian adulation (minister, banker, executive - this guy's going to get the job done!), Prentice was acclaimed in the Globe and the Post for the last two days as the guy who's got what it takes to defend Canada's moneyed interests and make them OK to the world.  Somehow convincing the world's population that it needs the oil sands more than it needs to worry about the oil sand's environmental record and potential fallout, that hey, we really are cooking up some hare-brained schemes to store carbon in the ground, because we cannot just go on generating the carbon with impunity even though that is exactly what we are doing and exactly what we plan to keep on doing, that yes a few thousand natives living downstream have really high cancer rates but hey, look at all this money were making, and we are going to convince everybody to let the pipeline pass through now after years of bad-mouthing them as enviro-fascists and without paying them off.

Good luck Jim.  I'd lend you my magic wand but I think I leant it to Harry Potter to play Quidditch.  Today I predict you will be as stuck in the mud as Kathleen in a few months time, though I'm sure you're both very nice in real life.  And Scotland will separate from the U.K. tomorrow.

Because there's the reality we wish we were dealing with.  And the reality we are actually dealing with.  And in 2014, that just keeps getting messier and messier.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Canada - The CBC's Worst Enemy

Without the vital service of our public broadcaster, who will break expired dog-treat re-packaging scandals?

When the Conservative government finally won its elusive majority in May 2011, I was well-prepared for the possibility that the CBC, Canada’s national public broadcaster, would before long cease to exist.  In all honesty I had even expected it.  I had already been an observer of Canada’s media and political landscapes for a long time and it was not unreasonable to expect that the Conservative party, who was ideologically opposed to the idea of a public broadcaster, deeply suspicious of this public broadcaster’s political leanings, and now had carte blanche in Parliament, to finish the job successive governments had started by repeatedly weakening the CBC with budget cuts.  It was hard to imagine that a government which had already displayed a penchant for a high degree of control in a minority Parliament would accept the ongoing risk of being the subject of investigative reports and/or unfavourable editorial content by an organization whose purse strings it held with a majority in Parliament. The logic of much of the government’s “base” and even some of its own members would seem to dictate that if a demand for such content existed, it could surely be met by the private sector.  Some Conservative M.P.s have already mused publicly about the fairness of a national broadcaster that, in their mind, espouses “liberal” political views, and even the most disinterested observer would have had to concede that, from the point of view of a Conservative, their argument was not entirely without merit.  So, you could see where this was headed.
It was an emotional issue for me.  Although I did have my own critiques of the CBC and wouldn’t go as far as to publicly identify myself as a “friend of the public broadcaster”, I consider it vital.  Like many Canadians, my affinity for the CBC had been developed over many years through a patchwork of auditory and visual experiences, some of which were moments of national communion: the 1996 Olympics and Donovan Bailey, Mr. Dressup, Hockey Night in Canada, Sidney Crosby’s Golden Goal, Cross Country Checkup and Stuart McLean while driving in the car, to name a few.  Like all Canadians, I had never actually paid directly for or requested the service yet there it was, my whole life, appearing in the corner when I least expected it and providing information and entertainment.  In addition to this what I would term “average” level of exposure to the Corporation, I had actually studied the history that led up to the creation of the CBC.     As a major in Mass Communications at Carleton University in Ottawa, a large part of my first two years of university studies were spent learning about the origins of this institution and the regulatory regime behind it; that is to say, reading a lot of incredibly dull and arcane academic texts that I’m sure 95% of Canadians have never read or, if they have had the misfortune to read them, will never read again.  That John Aird’s commission recommended to Parliament in the 1930s a national public regulatory regime and broadcaster to give the nascent independent democratic nation-state of Canada a cultural industry and national cohesion that it did not have is not unimportant history; it just looks pretty inconsequential beside the Battle of Hastings, the Fall of the Roman Empire, or the invention of the automobile.  Would-be media types who thought they had signed up to learn how to work in media left the program in droves; international students paying two, three, or four times the Canadian tuition rate no doubt considered asking for their five-figure sums back.  I discovered a niche had been created in Canadian academia studying a version of history that posited the CBC as an integral achievement within Canada’s ongoing nation-building project: a narrative that is hardly accepted with unanimity by an increasingly indifferent Canadian population.
Therein lies the death spiral that undercuts any discussion about why the CBC matters: Canada is insignificant, at least culturally on a global scale, therefore our society is insignificant, therefore our stories and events are bound to be by and large insignificant, and the media through which these are diffused is therefore insignificant.  Canadians are nonetheless significant to themselves – (how could they not be?) and it is also significant that well-meaning and enlightened individuals saw the importance of equipping the nation with institutions that could respond to its specific needs and act as a bulwark against the exploding American TV, film, and radio industries. These were bound to overrun whatever we managed to establish here before it even got off the ground, yet in today’s grand scheme of things, it is uncertain what they achieved.  What legacy will these institutions have when their trajectory under the current regime is certainly leading towards death by a thousand cuts and American pop culture remains more popular than ever?  Who will shed tears in Canada for the CBC, the NFB, Telefilm Canada, et al, when they cease to exist, when there remains so little left to cut that it becomes patently absurd to do anything else but shutter operations?  Why would they when they remember that $1,000,0000,000 per year gave us, among other things, Republic of Doyle and Being Erica (full disclosure – never watched either – like, I suspect, most Canadians) while Canadians tuned into Mad Men and Game of Thrones in droves without the Canadian government spending a dime (I never watched those either lest I be suspected of personal bias.  I don’t have cable. I did love Breaking Bad and House of Cards).  The only sure thing it seems the money spent on producing Canadian TV shows will buy is the certainty that no one will watch them.
Talking about this subject seems to inevitably follow a defeatist and cynical line of self-derision which makes the discussion itself seem hopeless.  Yet this situation need not bring about despair, and what will improve it is a new regime which sees the value in producing public broadcasting, news, and content with public dollars.  It will only work when all pressure to generate ratings, buzz, and popularity is removed; only the absence of pressure will eventually generate risk-taking, and then hopefully, authenticity and watchability.  In Canada our public media institutions have been in crisis for a long time, simply because conversations start with their entire existence being called into question.  How can anything be successful with a sword of Damocles constantly hanging over its head.  It’s like bringing a ten-year old in the kitchen every week and saying “We’d really like you to go to a prestigious school and be a huge success junior…if we decide to keep feeding you”.  This manufactured crisis of our own making is the result of this practice we Canadians are constantly engaged in, and if anything is going to be salvaged from our public media institutions it must stop.
Canadian pundits often bemoan the mediocrity of the CBC when they discuss its fate often compare it to the public broadcasting regimes of European countries which are popular and well-liked.  These organizations have, unlike the CBC, a simple, straightforward mission entrusted to them:  government gives adequate funding, government takes its hands off, organization produces enjoyable content a sizeable part of the population likes, because it is generally good.  What the CBC deals with is: government provides less funding than it did last year, another round of layoffs and cuts are announced, high-flying executives in the network’s byzantine structure of bureaucracy and management make statements filled with corporate jargon about “synergies” and “efficiencies” and “exciting new partnerships”, that nobody but them will ever be excited about, and the public becomes just a little more indifferent than it was last year, as the network struggles to deal with persistently lower ratings and declining revenues, pressures which successful public broadcasters do not and should not have to deal with.  Finally, we have a slew of commentaries and articles in the mainstream media ridiculing the CBC, a lot of which ridicule it frankly deserves because of this incoherence and self-inflicted calamity, and here we are right back where we started.

There is a simple solution to the CBC’s never-ending troubles, one that does not involve any more round tables, royal commissions, pie-in-the-sky proposals or national hand-wringing.  Double its budget, get rid of all the dreck and reruns in its schedule, stop chasing ratings with shows nobody takes seriously anyway, and allow anybody to come in and pitch stuff like a private network does.  That last point will be hard to implement as it will require a culture change of that union-seniority/public servant/gatekeeper mentality but this is a life or death struggle here.  But a stable ,multi-year funding commitment needs to be restored, because what the government is doing is in fact a much savvier calculation than if they had just eliminated the CBC right away, which they could have.  They are forcing it to do more with less with each passing year, making it fall backward flailing its arms into the abyss of redundancy, ensuring that with the passage of time it will be so universally reviled by Canadians that there will be no pain when the last remaining round of budget cuts – the final one – is announced.  

Sunday, 4 May 2014

War on Telecoms - State-Sponsored Economic Terrorism

This is the Actor you get in Conservative propaganda commercials paid for with millions of your tax dollars

The Conservative government does no one any favours with its vindictive obsessions. When this government decides it has a strategic or tactical advantage to gain from a particular course of action, it will let nothing stand in its path to get there. Logic, reason, common sense, and most of all, the public interest which they were elected to defend are all secondary priorities for the Conservative government. This has not only weakened our political structures and significantly deteriorated political discourse in this country, it has created a dysfunctional business environment where investors, businesspeople, workers, and customers have their interests compromised because of some minister decided his ill-conceived whims could score some political points.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the government's ongoing war with the telecom industry. First of all, tell me if you know anyone who can figure out why a government whose top priorities are supposedly “jobs and the economy” has spent significant political capital demonizing and picking fights with one of Canada's only genuine homegrown sectors, whose three main players operate across several industries, employ tens of thousands of Canadians, and provide one of the countries biggest capital pools that can (and will, make no mistake) be deployed into innovators and disruptors of modern technology. On paper, it makes no sense; in the Conservative strategy lab, it is a bet on the pathetic “consumer-first” agenda which characterizes people not as citizens who live in a society but as consumers who should have as much money as consume. And since the big 3 telecom players operate in industries which have traditionally been heavily regulated, what a great way for the government to weasel in some nanny state, planned-economy intervention to score some political points with people who love to complain that services they signed up for are too expensive.

Think about it: Canadians for the most part accept the principle of inflation, and the prices of food, gas, and real estate are grudgingly accepted as needing to increase regularly, even as prices for other key items like cars and electronics have stayed flat or come down. But one area where Canadians really feel they pay too much, thanks to the outrageously rip-off bundles they sign up for, are telecom services. In a populace that turns out to vote in feeble numbers and for whom major political issues barely register, this was a chance for Conservatives to seize something relevant to the majority of Canadian people.

And although the fact that they have spent time and deployed taxpayer money and resources in their fight against the telecom sector merits plenty of criticism alone, the real bonehead moves are their actions against the sector themselves, which someday will serve as a textbook example of why government intervention in industry is almost always doomed to fail. The country has had three telecom empires evolve over its history which mirror that history and now form an oligopoly: First Bell telephone in Montreal, which was the country's original economic and industrial base, then Ted Rogers' big bet on fibre optic cable in Toronto, whose payoff rode that city's economic expansion to the stars, and finally Telus out west, whose brash young CEO charted a bold plan to fill a void and elbow market share away from the two establishment players out east and succeeded. It is perfectly logical that today, being the only companies in Canada with the cash flow and the wherewithal to run businesses and networks with their reaches, that these companies continue to dominate the sector.

This is where the Conservatives come in. Their strategists, in their eminent wisdom, having no doubt consulted countless phds in economics, decided that the optimum number of Canadian telecom companies that should exist should be four. If this logic strikes you as having been lifted straight out of the book of Mao or Putin, it's because it is. There is no evidence that a fourth carrier would result in “more choices, better service, and lower prices”, the talking points the government incessantly repeats in response to any criticism; indeed, one struggles to understand how a startup would achieve these three objectives without the scale of the big boys, but this is not about economics. It's about politics. And this is what it's like when two world's collide.

The government has leverage in this fight because it decides who can bid for new “spectrum” - basically, parts of the network which are not up yet that the government owns. It already reserved spectrum for new entrants in the past, and new entrants were born. They were all cheap, edgy, independent, and innovative – and by 2014, they were all owned the big three except one. Fido, Koodo, Chatr, Virgin, Public – they all belong to the big three now. And they all made prices come down when they came out and are all still way cheaper than signing up directly with the Big Three. So explain to me – why don't you think Canadians have choices? Because to have cheap cellphone service, you have to sign up with cheap cellphone companies that are owned by the main ones? If the price is right, do you really care who you're buying from?

We don't know what koodo, fido, virgin and public's hundreds of thousands of users think, because the government never asked any of them and doesn't actually acknowledge these companies exist –becauseit doesn't fit into their narrative of one david versus three goliaths. But the best drama, and the reason for this column, is the one remaining cheapo character, Mobilicity, who has not been allowed to merge or be bought out. Let's recap the facts – Mobilicity has been bankrupt since June 2013, and is desperate to sell to a willing buyer – Telus – to pay off its creditors. It's 160,000 subscribers will be able to continue the existing arrangement they have. Yet Industry Minister James Moore has been publicly and deliberately blocking this sale because...Canadians need more choices and better services. Which happen by a government forcing a bankrupt company to keep the lights on to suit its own ideoligical narrative?

Because clearly, there is no other buyer for mobilicity. The government already looked like fools for rolling out the red carpet for Verizon, an American behemoth bigger than our big 3 combined, only to have Verizon decide that Canada wasn't worth the BS and the headache. Then Mr Sawiris, the Egyptian billionaire who started Wind Mobile, took off when the government refused to let him purchase the Allstream division Manitoba Telecom Services was desperate to sell him. So we can't actually convince a huge multinational to take a risk here, so risky is our telecom sector to operate in, and one of the smaller regional telecom players our country does have has been hindered in its efforts to run its business because of more government interference and meddling.

If there was a real problem and Canadians were suffering from mental illness and malnutrition from the burdensomeness of their telecom bills, government intervention might be justified. But as usual, the real world is evolving light years faster than idiotic bureaucrats in Ottawa could ever bother to take notice of from their six-figure perches. Home phone service is decreasing every year as people realize they barely use it. Canada wide unlimited cellphone plans are available from all the majors' discount labels for under 45 bucks a month. Rip off internet service has been halved by smaller players like TekSavvy, Canac and Distributel, if you're just smart enough to use them. Phone service to anywhere in the world can be obtained for pennies now through MagicJack, or byjust using skype and google talk applications on any device. “Cord-cutting” is endemic – cable packages that used to make Rogers, Quebecor, and Cogeco solid blue chips with utilities-like profit predictability of profits are now threatened – not just by Netflix but by torrents, apple tv and the proliferation of sites offering free streaming of just about any tv show and live sports. Jail-broken phones are easily obtained as well now and telecom customer service operators can be spun for upgrades, new phones and extras all the time as their margins are constantly under pressure in this fiercely competitive industry.

It is clear that big telecom faces enough challenges to its established business model – I'm not paying them, and I may have bailed at the top of my Bell and Rogers investments – without a government fomenting anger against them and making arbitrary decisions that are in nobody's interests – not even consumers – but Conservative Pollsters. There is a time and place for government intervention. In 2008 the Conservatives blocked a takeover of MacDonald, Dettwiler & Associates – a top-flight, homegrown aerospace firm responsible for the Canadarm – from an American hostile bid looking to scoop up valuable assets in the bargain basement during the economic crisis. Canadian jobs, expertise, assets, and strategic information in an ultra-high value sector were protected from a predator looking to poach precious talent and resources and add no value. It would have been a shame had that decision been subjected to the free market. In this current example, however, we are witnessing nothing more than political oppotunism exploiting ignorance and apathy (nothing makes peoples' eyes glaze over like telecom regulations) causing real havoc and instability in a very important (it is, hate it all you want) sector of the Canadian economy.