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.