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.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Anglicisation in Montreal - An Issue for Paranoid Non-Residents

The election autopsy of the massive heart attack the Parti Quebecois suffered on Monday has been duly performed by national and provincial media outlets in Quebec, Canada, and I will refer the reader to these rather than repeat all the reasons the most incoherent, bizarre, ridiculous campaign a modern North American incumbent government has ever run caused it to implode. This obviously gave someone like me great pleasure to witness, and you only need to read my last entry to find out why. But just before...just before the door hits the PQ's arse on its way out, I would like to remind it of one glaring, gaping hole in, if I may call it that, for the future of the province. One that it has not been taken to task on by said media outlets. It has to do with the city I live in, Montreal.

The PQ and its sympathizers and sycophants across Quebec media often issue stern warnings of the “problem” in Montreal. That there is an “anglicisation” of the island, that job postings in North America's twentieth-largest city and the only French-speaking one of these often require bilingualism, that some retail and shop employees in the downtown have taken to an annoying greeting habit of saying “Bonjour-Hi” and that drastic measures must be taken to halt these tendencies at all costs. Never mind the fact that the Liberal party of Dr. Philippe Couillard, who outgoing Premier Pauline Marois accused of “refusing to defend our language and culture”, took 21 out of 28 seats on the island and the several of the ones on the Western half by upwards of 75-80% of the vote – the actual residents of this island cannot assess the hazards of the situation and need the munificent PQ to do it for them.

But even if I do find the “Bonjour-Hi” thing a little annoying personally, it's not something that is going to change my day one way or another. I do, however, take offense to a government being paid with our tax dollars using its resources and energy to try and regulate or legislate around this. Defeated Montreal-area PQ cabinet minister Diane De Courcy intended to do just that when she referred to this situation as being “inacceptable” and that it was necessary to take measures. No need to mention facts like that Montreal has lost hundreds of thousands of its native English speakers to other North American cities over the years, that the drop in French speaking households is not due to French people giving up speaking French but rather their decamping to the surrounding suburbs, many of whose populations have doubled, tripled, quadrupled and are almost entirely French speaking, and that most abstract yet most damning truth – a language that has to be forced upon and legislated into a milieu has by that point equal or lesser chances of surviving than if you just left it alone and didn't make people associate it with restrictions and bureaucrats. In other words, if people in government offices and tax dollars are keeping a language alive, (“Hello, Gaelic!”) it's already too late.

The PQ supporters and the people who leave comments on the online version of Le Devoir are mistaken in their belief that downtown Montreal represents some kind of English beachhead (cancer) that will spread to the entire province. I have been in many parts of Quebec and nothing could be further from the truth. In any case it is futile to try and convince this crowd; they will label me as the angry resident English speaker and just accuse me of playing to type, and I will leave that role to the Gazette who so reliably fulfills it. I will instead attempt frame this in a broader, more global context to give the Bonjour-Hi in downtown Montreal English fearers some perspective.

Montreal's weaknesses are numerous and on display for all its residents to see, but it's strengths – educated workforce, cosmopolitan destination, diverse human capital, low cost of living - lead to achievements that the PQ is only too anxious to appropriate as its own. Witness Mme Marois rushing with her local MNAs (all high profile cabinet ministers) to hand out subsidies and tax breaks so they can do photo-op announcements with local high-tech knowledge industry players like Ubisoft, or boast about attracting a large investment for a plant and hiring commitment in high-end manufacturing from a massive multinational like Siemens. This is because she prioritizes, in her words, “secteurs de pointe”, or cutting edge industries: those high-value, high-paying jobs that every politician wants to attract for obvious reasons. High-profile Montreal minister Jean-Francois Lisee, meanwhile, gushed effusively on his blog about traveling in India and China and seeing the great work “nos entrepreneurs” as in, Quebec businesspeople, were doing over there. It was nice of him to point that out, but I don't even want to know what it cost the taxpayer for him to be able to do that.

The point is that it is now clear that PQ was talking out of both sides of its mouth: dumping on English, Jews, Muslims, and Sikhs in the rural areas to score votes while presenting itself as an innovative, leading-edge, clean-tech superstar in Montreal. Obviously it was a huge miscalculation in that the people the latter appeals to would be too disgusted by the former to swallow it. And even several areas “en region” (Quebec parlance for “outside Montreal”) surprised the media, which unfairly paints it as being a uniformly white, insular, french, racist bloc, by kicking out PQ incumbents, showing that tolerance for stupidity is at comfortably low levels all across this beautiful province. More importantly, it shows a clear mismatch between “values” the PQ espouses on behalf of the population and one of its ambitions.

The ambition is for Montreal to be the North American equivalent of Berlin, Amsterdam, Stockholm. These are medium-sized cities with non-English speaking majorities, value-added sectors, and an undeniable cool factor, which is so prevelant in residents that they are kind of intimidating, at least to go live in. Montreal would love to be considered in the same class as these cities; if it is, the PQ no doubt considers itself the chief architect of that fact. The parallels with Berlin in particular – long periods of decline, economic stratification between east and west, low rents that persist up until today, vibrant arts sector (although Berlin, the epicentre of Europe and ground zero of World War II and the third biggest economy in the world's split, is obviously much more hardcore and heavyweight in all of these respects) – are striking. Yet do German politicians fret about the creative types flocking to Berlin from all over the worlds' inability to speak German? Do they dream up schemes to force non-German speaking individuals to run their two-employee tech startup in German, then make them apply for an exception through a byzantine bureaucracy to be able to put up a job posting requiring English fluency? How about a cafe owner being allowed to fire his minimum-wage, immigrant employee for not taking a turban or hijab off?

Germany was the birthplace of nazism, and no doubt continues to count adherents to extreme-right wing fascist ideology among its population today. Such movements exist as well in the other cities I mentioned, Stockholm and Amsterdam, as well as all over Europe; in Greece and Hungary – poorer, less developed economies - they are gaining dangerous amounts of traction. Yet in none of these places are these groups, which would support such proposals as I described above, anywhere close to the levers of power. Here in Quebec, these were ideas put forth by various members of the PQ government that was in power up until three days ago. This is, I suspect, one of the factors precisely preventing the ambition of Quebec's economic capital, Montreal, becoming a global, innovative, creative, plus-value city, from being realized.

I do not want to give the impression that PQ has been a neo-nazi party from the get-go or anything. But the party of national legends like Rene Levesque and Lucien Bouchard – erudite, logical, intellectually forceful men – has fallen hard and has fallen far to be recruiting crackpot candidates who write about kosher and halal food as secret tax conspiracies to line the pockets of rabbis and imams, or trots out 89 year old former celebrities to talk about fantasies of muslim men and McGill students forming cabals to take over her apartment building's swimming pool. In the newspapers, pequistes are defending themselves saying they have been unjustly compared to putin, stalin, hitler, et al. I will grant them that those comparisons are unfair, if anybody indeed made them. They are clearly, however, at least as loopy as some of the talking heads on Fox News.

If pequistes were serious about wanting a country that would include this jewel of an economic capital, maybe they can make a case based on economics, governance, or efficiencies. If they think they will continue to dream about it on the pillars of language, culture and identity, their decline will only be further cemented. And no place in Quebec is more illustrative of this gap than that dynamic, edgy, modern city the PQ wish they swept and instead got almost shut out of, Montreal.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Quebec Separation Debate - Deal or No Deal


We have entered a period in the last two months where the political climate in Quebec has become polarized.  It is unfortunate because you read the National Post and the Globe and Mail and then go read Le Devoir and it becomes clear that the two camps which Pauline and company have been so generous to re-divide Quebec and Canadian society into profoundly misunderstand each other and do not trust or respect one another.  To English Canadian and Quebec federalists, separatism is an irrational, ridiculous, and needless destructive pursuit, driven by anxiety about identity that amounts to tribalism.  To francophone Quebec separatists, English Canada is an entity that doesn't care about them, doesn't know anything about them, doesn't care to know anything about their society, language and culture except to retain jurisdiction over these domains and, eventually, impose its English language on them and assimilate them.  I used to sympathize with these folks a lot more until I came and actually lived here.

The following truths I have noted are not to rub dirt in the face of Quebec nationalists if they lose their bid to form a country (which I hope they do) but to add my bit of resistance as a Quebec resident to what I see as an illegitimate attempt by the Parti Québécois to usurp the province's identity in its entirety and monopolize the meaning and the direction of that identity.  To put it bluntly, I live here, raise my kids here, and pay taxes here and I am not a fucking guest of the PQ.  They are not keepers of the holy see, some inner sanctum heart of hearts of sacred Quebec nationalist ideology, which is what they reveal to perceive themselves as when they say they need a majority for a charter, a third referendum, independence etc.  Of course they don't like to talk about these last two subjects during campaign, and have been trying to change the channel for the past weeks, because this subject reveals them for the extraordinary hypocrites that they are. But that's the risk you take when you add a celebrity billionaire candidate like Pierre Karl Péladeau to your roster to bolster your economic credentials.  CEOs aren't used to the scripts and filters which rob the political discourse of its substance, and he spoke with none on that fateful Sunday when he announced his candidacy.

Because I will be accused of English Canadian bias (because being an English Canadian makes me have zero credibility as far as the Mahatma high priests of Quebec culture are concerned), I will argue reasons I have against separation, (and therefore against a PQ government, as the election of one will create uncertainty and anxiety on that subject, if not advance it) as coldly and rationally as possible, without provoking the emotion and anger that almost always poisons this debate.

#1 - Numbers.  I can understand if you are a francophone Quebecer and speaking English has never really been your thing or, you can speak English perfectly but for some obtuse ideological reasons prefer not to, why you would want to form your own country to not be restrained by the Canadian constitution in linguistic rights, legislation banning hijabs, etc, in other words, things which mean nothing to you that you are forced to respect.  It would feel unfair and limiting to have alien or foreign forces dictating what you can and cannot do, preventing you from emulating France, that declining bankrupt country that doesn't give a shit about you  (This is an over-generalization of the PQ electroate - I estimate we can further break it down to be about 1/3rd urban, educated bien-pensants like I just described, led by the opinionated minister Jean-Francois Lisée, and 2/3rds rural/blue-collar/welfare, led by Péladeau's trash tabloids and trash TV).

The demographic I just described, three thirds combined, God Bless their secular charter, numbers by my estimate approximately 25-30%  of the Quebec population.  That is too big of a number to write off, which is why we are still dealing with this bullshit as a country thirty, forty, fifty, one hundred and fifty years later (Quebec nationalism can be traced back to, well, all the way back to 1763 when French and English soldiers were at war over the territory.  Thing is, it's also been part of Canada for the same amount of time).  There is another 8-10% of the population which feels little or no attachment to Canada as well, while perhaps not being as overtly hostile toward it; as such, sovereignty consistently polls in the 40% range.  Not bad, but sure nothing to make a country with.  And for those who think the 1995 referendum was stolen I ask, how do you propose to unite a society on such a divisive issue?  Is 51% an acceptable majority to create a new country?  Practical reality tells me its not.

And if francophones were an oppressed majority (80% of the population), yet 60% of the population favours staying in Canada, do the math.  That's right. Even half the francophones do not want to leave.  This places the sovereigntist forces in a very tenuous position as far as creating a country is concerned.  They don't have, and have never had, the numbers.  But mythology is more powerful than facts.  Their cries of "fifty plus one" which is the magic number that is all they think they need to get their "country", ignores what happens to the millions of Quebecers rights and freedoms guaranteed by their Canadian citizenship that they choose not to revoke.  It is also very arrogant and parochial of them to claim to speak for all francophones, and shows an enormous sense of entitlement.  Can 8 million people really be forced into something only 3.2 million want on a good day and none of whom out of that can even explain coherently how it would work? (Listen to the leader's stumbling about no borders, Canadian dollar, Canadian passports.  Why the hell do you want a country then?).

#2 - Distribution

The four biggest cities in Quebec are Montreal (1.8 million), Quebec City (760,000), Laval (400,000) and Gatineau (315,000), making up approximately 41% of the province's entire population and generating (by my estimate) at least 65-70% of its GDP.  Probably more.  The Parti Québécois would have zero chance of convincing majorities to vote for independence in any of these cities.

Why not?  All except Quebec city include sizeable anglophone communities, but at an official 8% of the province's population, this should hardly matter.  Quebec City remains a primarily French and deeply conservative city, but as the seat of the provincial government, counts tens if not hundreds of thousands of active and retiree provincial civil servants amongst its population.  Yet even this city struggles to embrace the PQ.  Although PQ supporters are spread across the province, including within these centres, it is worth considering why they are unable to obtain a plurality of votes within a first past the post electoral system.

I believe it is partly due to the nature of the voters and partly to the nature of these communities.  Montreal and Laval, are home to hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world, and are receiving the vast majority of the 55,000 immigrants who arrive in Quebec each year.  They are also home to hundreds of multinational companies, corporate head offices, and nationally (as in Canada) important public institutions and infrastructures which put together obviously employ a great deal of the population.  As much as this must exasperate the PQ, economic and livelihood considerations (job security, real estate values, state of local infrastructures) are likely to trump language and culture in these centres, as well as the desire to remain the choice international destinations for capital, tourism, and cosmopolitan lifestyles in North America's most underrated country, Canada.  Of course the PQ believes that this situation is all their doing and they therefore are entitled to monopolize it for their own ends but go ahead, try again with your charter and referendum and get embarrassed even worse than you were last time.   Cities populated by "citizens of the world" do not vote for paranoiacs who think they are going to save their culture by legislating discrimination against linguistic and religious minorities.

Why can't the PQ get a toehold in Quebec's industrial/technological/franco heartland that stretches from Quebec City's southern suburbs to the Beauce region and Thetford Mines? Beats me.  These are the only areas of the province where the federal conservatives have deputies.  Small business, low taxes, and individual freedoms are popular political themes among residents, if you listen to the local talk radio or read Maxime Bernier's blog.  To its credit, this province is diverse and is not in its entirety the eco-socialist nightmare its detractors in Western Canada think it is.  And that's a good thing for those of who live here and shudder at the thought of Bernard Drainville trying to impose his "values" on us for a second term.

#3 - Hypocrisy

Speaking of Mr Drainville, maybe he can tell us where he'd be getting a paycheque in his new republic of Quebec if (we can only pray to Allah, his nemesis) he ever loses his seat in the National Assembly.  Oh, I guess it would be a pension from CBC where he used to work which is a federal crown corporation and...deposited into his bank account at a Canadian financial institution (Sorry Bernard, even the Caisse Populaire's holdings in the rest of Canada are vast and growing).  I think most Quebeckers and Canadians can only dream of railing against a country's existence while collecting a fat-ass paycheque from it.  And there are several people at ICI Radio-Canada in a similar situation.  Which leads us to ask, how many honest to god Quebec entrepreneurs, captains of industry, job creators, and owners of companies that actually pay people (not government subsidized cultural industries) have made passionate sorties in favour of separatism other than the Peladeau family.  Right.  Zero.  I know it's cool to attack the rich here and nobody wants to thank business for this economy whose fruits we all enjoy but seriously.  I want all the social democrats to remember that their cultural heroes all live on the public dime to the tunes of multiple six figures and yes, that public dime comes from all of Canada's environmentally unsustainable, resource-based, capitalist economy.   Not saying that like it's a good thing but it's a true thing that should lead to some soul-searching for quite a few people. 

#4 - Division

The PQ strategy is to be so elitist, so disconnected, so morally repugnant as individuals and as a party that non-Quebecois de souche will leave in anger and disgust as these idiots refuse to confront economic and demographic realities and bankrupt this place by creating new social programs when existing ones are not even solvent and pass laws as draconian as requiring businesses to request exceptions, special permits to advertise the need for bilingual employees.  You morons its 2014.  Why don't you go to a country of similar size like Hungary or Sweden and tell me if legislators waste their time on such pointless bullshit?  You will not divide us and make us flee - reasonable people - normal, honest, interesting Quebec people see your stupidity for what it is and will stand up to your bullying until it stops.  Because losing to you idiots would be the most pathetic thing in the world.  It would make us even bigger losers than you.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Fear and Loathing at Canada Post

How does a nation protect a venerable ancient institution like its postal service?  How do you square the fact that the post still has an important role, albeit not one as central as it had in the past, in today's society, while recognizing that the service as it currently exists is not as relevant today and its lack of profitability creates a situation of taxpayer-subsidized busywork?  I don't have a specific answer to this question, but I do know that the party its answering falls to, the Canadian government, is making just about the worst job possible of it.  Through their actions, they are ensuring that the service Canadians expect steadily declines, which creates antipathy toward postal workers and Canada Post, and in turn gives the government licence to ignore postal workers and their concerns (who sends mail any more anyway? Ha ha ha), which then further demoralizes postal workers, which in turn lowers the service level even more.  This is the negative feedback loop dynamic Canada has been stuck in with its postal service for almost three years, and the radical changes coming into effect right now (30% stamp price increase, no more home delivery) is sure to add fuel to the raging junk mail fire.  This is not an issue the government has any interest in engaging with, for the simple reason that it contains no political benefit for them, and their formal position on the changes in the postal landscape so far has been callous dismissal.  The website of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, on the other hand, features plenty of ideas, petitions, demands, righteous indignation, and frustration, but Lisa Raitt (or whichever pylon minister is responsible for this file now) has been content so far to ignore any and all of this noise and just keep that back to work legislation at the ready.  How do we get a file that has been allowed to corrode to this point out of the ditch?

One thing is certain, things have not been the same since the strike.  The "essential service" or "minimum service" or whatever was in effect during the first year the fight dragged on between the government and the union was erratic, unreliable, and anything but punctual.  This may be anecdotal based on my experience, but it has mostly continued despite a "deal" being reached in June 2012.  The Post was a well-oiled machine before that strike.  Now the mail is often late, missing, or arriving in bunches after several days of nothing.  A birthday card I sent did not arrive on time because of a feud over the condition of the recipient's front steps.  A document my wife urgently needed (because the party who she needs to send it to needs an "original". Such parties are one of the roadblocks to society's universal conversion to PDFs.  More on that later) has arrived today 5 business days after its postmark.  So much for that 1-2 business days inter-provincial turnaround promised on mailboxes.  I don't blame the postal workers for this.  Nobody wants to work for an employer that clearly views them as an inconvenience, and despite the "arms-length" nature of Crown Corporations, there is little doubt in anybody's mind about where the buck stops with these hybrid entities - the Federal Government.  So when your employer tells you that they expect you to deliver mail to a million more addresses in five years, with 7,000 less employees, and find 5 billion dollars in profit to boot to plug that hole in your pension plan, how do you feel about your job?

Yes, the government deserves full marks for kicking Canada Post employees in the balls, and delivering mail not an easy or pleasant job by any stretch of the imagination.  But we must acknowledge that it is unnecessary in 2014 - if not outright absurd -  to send a document down a rabbit hole of complex journeys by truck, train, plane, and foot, through distribution centres, and to have complete trust in this system to deliver that document, with no mechanism to get that document back or to even know where it is, wait several days AND pay 63 cents PLUS your time to locate a mailbox to physically walk to and drop it in.  Or, I could scan said document right here where I'm sitting right now, email it, and have it to that other person instantly.  And if they claim they never got it, guess what? It's right here in my sent with date and time stamped to prove it.   Yes e-commerce is not "zero footprint" and servers eat up a ton of energy but being that one of CUPW's arguments against the abolishing of home delivery is an "increase in emissions", I think it stands to reason that the electronic process I described above is exponentially simpler, easier, more convenient and lower impact than the manual one.

These decisions are not made by Canadians following tortured reasoning and arguments, they are made on the basis of choice.  What is easier? And the answer can be found in mail volumes, which are declining precipitously every year.  And before I get called out as merciless, efficiency-seeking, ruthless modernizer, let me tell CUPW and its members that I am one of the deranged weirdos who still sends physical letters to his friends.  Yes, I am a purist who believes there is innate value in the medium of the letter which is lost in electronic communication.  But guess what?  Me and some other romanticists are not going to keep a multi-billion dollar postal operation afloat, so we need to look at our options here.  And the options are all unpleasant.  The post has to make some hard choices.

Back in the 1990s, when the Post was swimming in red ink like it is now, a less tough choice was made.  A network of brick and mortar post offices, where unionized employees were paid high salaries and benefits to essentially do retail/clerical work (sell stamps and envelopes, process money orders and money transfers, send packages) were shuttered.  Now your trip to the "post office" is likely to be to inside a grocery store, convenience store, or pharmacy, and where the "postal" employees work for that grocery store, convenience store, or pharmacy.  As such they receive the market wage for this kind of work, e.g., close to minimum wage, because if Shoppers or IGA or Deepak's Convenience pays $25 an hour to man a cash register, guess what happens to them? Out of business. 

The Union hates this, of course.  They have a mandate to protect their workers' interest whatever the cost, and if that means saying that their workers have "expertise" at selling stamps in protest to the end of their retail monopoly, they will say it.  The example above illustrates why they act this way: when there is no threat of going out of business, in simple terms when you are allowed to keep operating even though your liabilities exceed your assets because you are owned by the government, you don't care about whether your service is profitable or whether people even use it.  All that matters is you make your workers appear like suffering victims as much as possible, like they couldn't have possibly been expected to save a dime of those great wages they earned yesterday.  They will need higher wages tomorrow regardless.  Even unionized private sector workers do not have this sense of entitlement - just ask workers at GM, Chrysler, and Loblaws, to name three, whose union leaders would ask for the moon with the routine belligerence until market conditions caused their members to actually accept pay cuts to keep their jobs.

I mention this because there are still a number of said non-retail "post offices" (real brick and mortar ones, like the 1950s), in rural areas.  These of course are the ones the CUPW is fighting tooth and nail to keep open on its website.

Of course, this is where the issue gets murky and we have once again problems stemming from a business being run by the government.  The government derives a lot of its support from rural areas, and is loathe to pose any gesture which might annoy them now.  People in such areas tend to look on big city folk and their ways with suspicion, and do not want any downtown urban custom like buying  stamps in a shoppers drug mart imposed upon them.

Another demographic it was widely believed the government courts heavily is seniors.  Apparently not, with the two opposition parties as well as provincial and municipal politicians rushing to the barricades to cast themselves as tireless defenders of seniors' right to home delivery.  But I think the government is shrewdly playing its cards here - they are taking the calculated risk that committed senior conservative voters will not ditch them over this.  And if a few do, well, that's the cost of doing business.  Just look at how they threw veterans (another supposed core constituency) under the bus.

All these battles over optics, fought in a climate of delay, denial, ignorance, and apathy do the post and the population it serves no favours.  There is a simple way to get it back on track.

-Urban delivery on its own, believe it or not, is still profitable.  It's the staggering distance, low density, and wide open space of rural routes that make them chronic money losers.

-The Urban operations should be spun off into a private entity with the option to look at options like banking and other services to diversify their revenues as letter inevitably decline further.  They can also expand on the already profitable and growing package delivery business.

-Meanwhile, sick banks, the pension liability and the money losing rural service need to be absorbed into the general government revenue as a huge, painful, one-time charge.  It's going to hurt but it's the right thing to do for everyone who's already been promised the moon.  Meanwhile, new hires need to be hired on a much more flexible, cost-effective compensation system.

Will we get that? Not with this government, who would rather brag about a fake surplus than deal with a real financial problem the country has.  They will ensure that postal workers' working conditions further deteriorate, that the use of the post declines further with its reliability, and the liability transferred to future taxpayers will be even greater for something they are ensuring will be much less significant in Canadian every day life.  The Post Office is a government mandated and provided service, which is something the current government fears and loathes.  Another term, and they will ensure that it is something most Canadians do, too.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

The Lifecycle of a Middle Class Voter

Let's see how the beaten, downtrodden, sorry-assed middle class canadian has been left for dead by Stephen Harper.

Average middle class Canadian is 41,4 years old, about the same as their champion Mr. Trudeau.  After 15 years and a few switches in jobs, they (husband and wife) are clinging to (insert redundant white collar admin or blue collar assembly line job here).  They have a company RRSP at work but they never read the brochure because they understood their paycheque would be lower and anyway, they don't like talking about that stuff.  They worry about their future and saving for their kids, aged 8 and 10, education.  They haven't put any money aside for this but do pay for cellphones for them.  Other than 15,000 invested in a tax free savings account earning 1%, they have no assets, but they do have two car loans, a line of credit at 30 grand, and they don't always manage to pay the credit card in full but some months they do which is better than some people they know.  Their house is in what was a treeless new development 50 km from the city 10 years ago but today is a community with a mall, they bought it for 195,000 and someone told their neighbour his is now worth almost 400k.  They are proud of this and of working hard and managing their debt, but things don't seem to be getting any easier.  Husband has had two layoffs in last 5 years and thankfully just got called back 9 months ago.  The youngest needed therapy which was expensive.  The family has it all you know big screen TVs, lawnmowers, snowblowers, sun wing vacations in the dominican every year but is still "struggling" and just can't seem to get ahead.

Welcome to the world of joe six-pack, the average Canadian voter assiduously courted by all three parties.  None however is more shamelessly pandering to this demographic than the new Liberals under Justin Trudeau. The Liberals and Conservatives (who will boast to you with a smile that their "big data" figured this all out - I could have saved them a lot of money and told them to just stand around any Canadian kitchen during a party, or drive around any major city, or read any newspaper any day of the week to see/hear/read live examples of where Canada's at) look at this demographic as a treasure trove of voters - an electoral gold mine.  Why? The strivers, the people who "play by the rules to get ahead" are the most profitable group to go after.  Old people, as much as they are portrayed as this captive audience, are not as dumb as we think they are.  Mostly they are set in their ways.  So they do vote, yes, but they do not swing very much and their political leanings are anything but monolithic.

Young people and rich people also have a pretty good idea of who they want to vote for, especially if they are educated (and they majority of them are).  This also puts them at great risk for seeing politics for the waste of time and energy that it is and freeing up their minds to focus on more important, productive things.  So the prize, the low hanging fruit if you will, is our downtrodden, beseiged, "middle-class".

So when we look at the average middle class voter we see that he/she is 1)financially illiterate 2)in debt up to their eyeballs 3)dependent on an unstable livelihood 4)experiencing no material shortcomings despite all this.  Now, I would like someone to explain to me how this person is somebody I am supposed to feel sorry for, or how they are suffering by any stretch of the imagination. 

The middle class people like Trudeau lionize, either because they really know nothing about economics or they just want power or both, have nobody but themselves to blame for the consequences of their behaviour.  They are living beyond their means, make no sacrifices, are over-leveraged, and do not take advantage of GREAT GOVERNMENT PROGRAMS that ALREADY EXIST for the purpose of building wealth and are FREE like TFSAs, RRSPs, and RESPs, nevermind tax deductible leverage interest and dividends and capital gains tax rates.  Before one more idiot bores me to death about how the 1% stole all the money, I would like to remind him that there is no net worth requirement and no minimum amount to take advantage of all these things I just mentioned, but only rich people do it.  Plenty of average folk could be on their way to the 1% if they grew a pair and took some risk (no such thing as a free lunch), another concept that is just not understood at all by the masses, and plenty more average folk make six figure salaries but save jack squat, thereby placing themselves in the boat with the same economic mobility as minimum age earners.

I guess its more expedient politically to tell people how they got fucked over even if its a lie than give them some useful information on how they can improve their lot in life (Live within your means - save for tomorrow - shun mass consumerism - don't become beholden to one volatile source of income that owes you nothing beyond your next paycheque).  If you earn good money today save it because who knows if those skills will be in demand tomorrow.  The world changes fast now.  Just remember if the middle class is struggling its due to their own poor-decision making and ignorance and that it their fault, not Stephen Harper's.  Nice opening convention Trudeau you're a nice guy but still pretty much full of shit as far as your political ideas are concerned.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Keeping families in the city - The failure of command control politics

Richard Bergeron, frowner in chief of the Projet Montreal municipal political party, put some of his customary righteous indignation on display in reaction to new Montreal mayor Denis Coderre's first budget.  As he had to maximize the efficiency of the one sentence sound bite offered to him by the Metro commuter newspaper for comment, he said something to the effect of "same old, same old...nothing to keep families in Montreal."

You see, Mr Bergeron has a "cause-celebre" of keeping families in the city.  It appears that he loses sleep at night over the 20,000 people who decamp to the city's surrounding suburbs every year, although a large part of that number surely includes departures for Toronto and Alberta.  Sure enough, Projet Montreal was at it again this week, their chief complaint about the federal budget being the absence of measures to retain families on the island of Montreal.  What is this single-minded dogged obsession to force people to inhabit Canada's second most populous city? Since the amount of quote space afforded to an opposition municipal party in the media is bite-sized in the attention deficit-ridden era we live in, I looked on Projet Montreal's website to find out.

I will give the party credit.  In the total vision-free political landscape of Canada, where every party is eager to use "pocketbook populism" and a "consumer-friendly agenda" to seduce "hard-working middle class Canadian families", we have a substance-free political discourse that is a race to the bottom of the quality ideas barrel.  Our country owns the podium, all right - in pathetic political posturing.  This is giving us a political system that is totally useless for the purposes of advancement, development, innovation, and democracy (James Moore's baseless wireless rhetoric vs. Tom Mulcair's ATM fees cap vs. Andrea Horwath/Denis Coderre's steadfast inflexible opposition to road tolls - which shameless panderer do you like/trust the most?)  In Projet Montreal we have a party not the least bit scared to engage in substantive policy making - too bad it is based on wacky demagoguery and hare-brained logic.

Example one would be the party's flagship policy of building a streetcar to run through downtown.  Even though the metro in Montreal only covers the middle third of the island, leaving the eastern and western thirds car dependent and transit-starved, these people want to build through a streetcar in an area (the middle third) through which RIGHT NOW I can take two different subway lines and hundreds of different buses.  This will reduce traffic and car dependency, in their minds.  Installing an additional transit option in the 10km radius of the province that already has the most comprehensive transit coverage will make it harder to drive through than it already is, it will also waste billions and cause untold construction disturbance and irritation.  That will do a lot to reduce the perception of Projet Montreal as urban elitists in the eastern and western thirds of the islands who will remain transitless under their plan.

Even funnier is the suburban flight issue - the 3-5 billion increase in GDP on the North and South shores the last 20 years is treated as something that was "stolen" from Montreal, as if Montreal's economic activity has a lifetime, ironclad no movement clause.  Unlike the evil suburbs, conniving to steal jobs and families from Montreal, individual families who make the decision to leave the island are described more sympathetically on the site "quittant souvent a regret", meaning they are saying: "You know, I love the city so much but...I don't know.  This brand new house on a forty foot lot vs. my drafty 800 sq foot apartment beside an overpass in a hundred year old long Montreal.  Thanks for the memories."  Cities vs. suburbs is a trade-off anywhere and families know, or should know, what they are signing up for: Long commutes, which place additional financial and emotional stress on them, higher taxes, boring, soulless cookie cutter developments (Hey kids! Want to go to Smartcentres this weekend?) and isolation.  Urban life has its own set of irritants and as adults we can be trusted to navigate these choices and make our own decisions.  There is obviously nothing you can do to force people to stay anywhere.

Projet doesn't say that.  What they do say is that the city should be giving people additional interest-free loans for 20 years to be able to afford apartments in the city.  Yes, let's put ourselves on the hook for hundreds of millions so that we can keep an optimal number of people in the city, which has been arbitrarily decided by these phd know-it-alls of the party.  The city is the city with its character and its shortcomings and no cash-strapped idealist municipal government is going to change that.  First of all, the cost of living is not that high here compared to North American cities of similar sizes.  Second, people leave because they are done with urban life - snow removal crews honking horns outside your window at 7 am, bums begging for change in the metro, hearing your neighbours fight/fuck under your slanted floor, driving around for 20 minutes looking for a parking spot, parking tickets.  People live the urban life because they consciously choose the urban life, and the same goes for suburban.  Nothing is lamer then seeing the politicians in this party frown all the time because they're so angry not everyone agrees that they know what's best for everyone.

By the time these idiots ever got their rent to own scheme off the ground, the tide will have turned on suburbia anyway.  In some ways, it already has.  Suburbs were unstoppable when developments were closer to the city and gas was 17 cents.  Now were getting to our third and fourth rings of sprawl.  Several generations into it, the appeal starts to wear off.  Yes the 249k townhomes may still sell like hotcakes but take away some jobs and the cheap money that fuels that and look at what happens to those places.  People have started to realize the enormous cost of commuting alone and families are moving back into the cities (which in many cases, alas, is driving prices up).

The way cities in North America have developed post-war has them essentially going two ways.  Either the city centers become choice living destinations and utterly unaffordable (see Vancouver, Toronto, New York, San Francisco), with rent and real estate prices serving as much more effective deterrents to the poor than any suburban ordinance that seeks to keep out "riff raff" ever could.  Poor people are literally banned from the city of Toronto now despite no law or policy ever having been promulgated to this effect.  On the flip side of the coin you have places like Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, Memphis, and the South Side of Chicago whose downtowns are so burnt-out that you can often buy a nice sturdy four-bedroom middle class house for less than fifty grand.  These once prosperous urban areas suffered from the decline of manufacturing, white flight, and so many decades of crime and poverty that entrepreneurs are now willing to come into the city, buy up houses, and start businesses and projects.  Will it lead to full-scale revitalization? Probably not, and no Canadian city should aspire to go down the paths of these cities either.

The point is that a city's future is decided by the free market first, and a host of intangible uncontrollable factors second.  I lived in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, whose major employer basically changed every decade throughout the twentieth century.  Politicians became incensed when questioned about the future of Blackberry when I lived there - what a difference a year and a half makes.  It is in every politician's interest to talk to his or her district/city/region/province/country's residents as if they were the salt of the earth and every bit entitled and more to any economic well-being they are benefiting/have benefited from but reality is much more complex.  Projet seems to want to drill down into this complex reality and find solutions but they come up with a bunch of hokey, impractical, downtown-centred lameness.

It smacks of a phoenomenon I will term urban romanticism which Christopher Hume in the star is probably the foremost practitioner of: the city should be essentially treated like a museum.  Every old building should be refurbished and sparkling, shiny street cars should zip down the car-free, tree-lined streets, universities, hospitals, cultural institutions, and government offices, should be connected by a comprehensive grid of walkable trails, nature, and bullet trains.  Employment should only be in high-value, cutting edge sectors like non-profits, tech, and video game manufacturing.  Vulgarities like malls and fast food joints should be avoided at all costs.

This sterilized, phd vision of the city is as quixotic as it is humourless and uninspiring.  Montreal, with its low real estate prices and cheap rents from political instability, diversified street level commerces, and high concentration of educational facilities with quite a few big companies headquartered here, is a nice city whose nature has moderated the extreme impacts of desirability (making downtown impossible to afford) and radioactivity (making real estate in the city worth pennies on the dollar).  It's worth preserving this balancing act, despite the constant moroseness of local pundits and politicos.  Yes its not perfect and people will continue to leave for a variety of reasons - but do you want to live anywhere forever ? Projet needs to chill the fuck out and remember that people will choose to live in any number of places based on their circumstances, their life stage, where they are from, what they are looking for, and where the things that matter to them (work, family, interests) happen to be.  People are not cattle to be herded in pens.  You don't lure them into staying here or anywhere with idiotic pipedreams financed by their own tax dollars.