Archive for December, 2011

2011 Year End Rant – Part 1

December 4, 2011

Some current events seen through an idiosyncratic lens.

At last, Canadian politics has become more interesting. Aside from discussing use of the F word on a Canadian MP’s tweet and a helicopter ride by a cabinet minister, attention is now on the death of the Liberal party as forecast by Peter Newman, suicide of the NDP party as practiced by its members, arrogance of the Conservatives by applying closure on legislative debate flowing from their election promises, and then there is the Canadian economy, government contracting, public broadcasting, the environment – ever the environment, polygamy, Canada-US relations and immigration amongst other topics. My take on some of these are outlined below:

Controlling spending

1. The contract for the new RCAF jets is of such value and complexity that the average voter has no way to assess it. Whatever happens, the planes won’t be in use for several years. Meanwhile what can the RCAF and the government do? They can continue to use the existing fighters with mounting maintenance costs and safety considerations, which are seldom discussed. They can rent planes from other air forces if such a market exists – it does for transport planes and helicopters. They can rely on the US military to act on Canada’s behalf, which it has done in many areas of defense since WWII, freeing us to buy other things. They can scrap the contract and buy a large number of drones which appear to be the weapon of choice for other military forces. The jet purchase would involve a capital expenditure with the planes being used for several decades, not an operating expenditure like the annual salaries of civil servants. It is like buying a house not the weekly groceries; the two get confused in public debate. The financial implications differ for capital and operating expenditures

2. At the other end of the spending spectrum is a case which the public can understand but does not want to. The federally funded NCC spent $5.4 million on 7 Skateway cabins (an average of $770,000 each) for use on the Rideau Canal in winter. Each year, the cabins have to be lifted on and off the canal. They should last for years….taxpayers hope. No one I have mentioned this to is surprised, as I am, about the cost of these cabins which is more than the cost of a new house and land in a respectable Ottawa subdivision, where too the house is expected to last for a number of years. I agree it would not be moved twice each year. I would expect the cost of the cabins would include the design, the materials, the cost of assembly plus a reasonable profit for the architects and Fuller Construction which had the contract. There may have been a tendering process and Fuller was the lowest bid. If so, who were the other bidders….I don’t expect to learn their actual bids, but I would like to know the rough breakdown of costs and profit for the purchased cabins and am asking the NCC for this. This would be a good project for engineering students to assess and comment on.

3. In contrast to the fighter aircraft, the Skateway cabins contract is one I can deconstruct. Often the smaller the amount of money involved, the easier it is to understand how government (and other) revenues are spent. One example of the greatest demands for accountability relates to the finances of my cottage association, where 80% of annual revenues of $6000 are spent maintaining the roads, and questions are raised about the balance spent on postage, stationery and refreshments for the annual meeting. As treasurer of a condo corporation with a slightly larger budget, I have to be prepared to answer detailed questions about how money is collected, banked and spent. It is a feature (weakness?) of democracy that many of the sums involved in government expenditures are too large for individual voters to understand, but at least they should try and investigative journalists could assist.

Funding native reserves

4. Debate on the appalling living conditions on native reserves in Canada is an urgent topic for parliamentary and public debate. But the critics are raging hypocrites to place all the blame on the present government and pretend they knew nothing about it before. Since migrating to Canada in 1955, and well before that, the living conditions, health and education of native Canadians have been a disgrace and one that federal and provincial political parties of all stripes bear responsibility, as do Canadian citizens including most academics for closing their eyes, noses and ears to it. Each year Canada gives $5.2bn as foreign aid, and $7.3bn to Indian and Northern Affairs. If we cannot improve conditions at home for a small native population, what possible use is there for sprinkling over $5bn abroad on several billion people. Perhaps the aid funds should be directed to our own native people with more attention on how it is spent.

5. To watch the Leader of the Liberal Party and former NDP Premier of Ontario getting red in the face with feigned anger and abhorrence about conditions in the Northern Ontario reserve of Attawapiskat strikes me as pathetic, unless he can explain what he did on his watch in the 1990s, aside from the unforgettable “Rae Days.” One aspect of this tragedy is the report that a chunk of the Reserve’s education budget was used to buy a Zamboni (as reported by CTV’s Robert Fife). The native reserve issue is incredibly important, the treatment of it in the political arena is farce. Where is the Canadian equivalent to Jon Stewart who for 22 minutes on 15 days a month highlights the hypocrisy and untruths of American political and business leaders. The Comedy Channel provides some of the best TV news reporting, not the news channels. Would that Rick Mercer was more forceful in his shows. How is it that some of the best Canadian comedians work now and in the past in the US on shows like Saturday Night Live? Stewart has three Canadian and one British actor appearing on his show which contains some of the most penetrating political commentary in the US…. and sometimes involves Canada such as on the asbestos issue in Quebec. Money and the producers for the public and private broadcasters may have something to do with this Canadian deficiency. Luckily viewers can increasingly escape the broadcast networks by watching programs via the Internet. Traditional TV watching and programs are dying; the opportunities for program content suppliers, writers and performers are increasing; viewers will be the beneficiaries.

Public broadcasting

6. That raises the case of public broadcasting. TVO, in the case of Ontario, does an excellent job on news and commentary for both the province and the country. There are success stories in public broadcasting. Sadly for English language television the CBC is not one of them. In the UK (BBC) and Australia (ABC) public broadcasting is different, with no commercial funding and total reliance on the government – overseas the BBC does collect advertising revenues. The CBC relies about 25% on advertising revenues with the remainder (about $1 bn annually) supplied by the federal government. For the 25%, the CBC competes with private broadcasters, which is the main reason for continuing disputes within the industry. The funding structure was, in my view, a mistake, made in the early days of federal public broadcasting and has lead to these frictions. A former CBC president now recognizes this and supports the removal of advertising from CBC television, but then goes on to argue that this would mean the government would have to increase the CBC’s budget to make up for the loss. Whoa – that suggestion assumes that the CBC should carry on with its existing range of programming or enlarge it. The facts suggest otherwise. More programming is being watched on Internet TV giving audiences more options which will likely reduce further the audiences for traditional network television (public and private), including either the need for public broadcasters or for as much programming as public broadcasters now provide. One of the less publicized aspects of CBC television is that its audience share has been declining so that the increased subsides are being paid while audiences are shrinking. It is also revealing to check the program schedule of your CBC network affiliate especially for prime time. CBOT Ch 8 Ottawa showed Dec. 1, 2011 in prime time (7pm to 10.30pm) five programs, Coronation Street, Jeopardy, The Nature of Things – Walking the Green Tiger, Love Hate and Propaganda – The Cold War, and the CBC News. The first two are foreign produced entertainment programs, the next two may be of general public interest but could be available elsewhere on the dial or internet, and only the fifth conforms most closely to Canadian content. Combine the limited Canadian content on the CBC with declining audiences and the case for increased government funding is hard to justify. Reduced funding would be. The case for Radio Canada French language television, and radio in both languages, may be different, but audience and program data will show similar trends making it hard to justify increased funding if viewing became commercial free.

Polygamy and the environment

7. It could be argued that polygamy is an environmental issue since it generates congestion and perhaps increased population and pollution. That aside, I really have nothing useful to say at this time about such a large topic as the environment, except to wonder whether Canada would have ever experienced economic growth and development if, for environmental reasons, it had not been able to produce hydro energy in Ontario, Quebec, and BC, the St Lawrence Seaway for shipping from the Atlantic to the Great Lakes, and the mining and forestry industries throughout the country including the coal industry, and pipelines to carry oil and gas from source to markets.

8. On polygamy, it was bound to be approved because it is already de facto practiced by some groups aside from the sect of Mormons, living in appropriately named Bountiful BC. Other religions encourage several wives in their native lands, and it is naïve to imagine the practice does not continue when they move abroad. The horrendous murder trial in Kingston Ontario involves an accused man with de facto two wives, although one is called auntie. In November a Canadian court ruled that a man can have more than one wife as long as it is a common law cohabitation wife and not a multiple marriage wife. It now seems there is criminal polygamy and legal polygamy……go figure. Not much discussion here of polygamy of one woman and many men, but perhaps there is another term for that. The next issue for debate will be the entitlements from the state which different unions can claim.

And now for something completely different

9. Some accuse me of only ranting about dire issues. I have four grandchildren. They are part of the future and do remarkable things. One scored a hatrick at ringette recently, and one likes to jump on a bungee trampoline to extreme heights. For my own health, I will mention the other two in a future posting. Gumbo is forever a loyal companion.