Rob Ford and the media game

Posted May 26th, 2013 in Canada by Adrian MacNair

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Toronto Mayor Rob Ford faces media in Toronto in December. Photo: The Canadian Press/Chris Young

A few people have asked me for my opinion on the Rob Ford story from the perspective of a working journalist. I wish I could. I’m a community news reporter so I don’t have an inkling of how the mainstream media world works other than some assumptions based on what I know about the business model.

Christie Blatchford made some good points about journalists moving the goal posts on the Rob Ford story. There’s no corroborating evidence to support printing allegations of Rob Ford’s crack cocaine use, and those that exist are conjecture and hearsay. Indeed, much like the allegations of Ford’s alcohol abuse, one is left wondering whether the “informants may have many and diverse motives other than a pristine dedication to the truth.”

But what is the media to do about such a story? Ignore it? It raises the dilemma as to whether something is newsworthy merely because everybody is gossiping about it. In an older world where the print media was the preeminent source of accurate daily information, one might be able to ignore such a thing. But in a wired world where traditional print media now compete with online American news sites like Gawker, how can they pretend it’s not happening?

Let’s be clear about something. Rob Ford has brought much of the vindictive nature of the beast upon himself. Regardless of who started the war with the Toronto Star, the National Post’s Johnathan Kay described it perfectly as a “blood feud” in which neither side can back down without losing face.

Under such a climate, in which a member of the government is openly at war with the free press, there can be no expectation of honour. What began as a war with Ford and the Star has certainly led to this media witch hunt of his family. Is it ethical? Surely not. But is it predictable? I’d say so.

Although I don’t know much about the mainstream media, I do cover civic politics. And we learn to play the game, the same as the politicians. We discuss the issues with a certain level of understanding that what’s off the record is off for a good reason and that nothing that’s going to be quoted is going to be malicious.

The government is a well of information from which reporters have to draw on constantly. It makes no sense to poison that well. If one reporter does then we all suffer, because if the politician refuses to speak to the media then we can’t do our jobs. And if that politician is making a special effort to actually block our attempt to do our jobs, it becomes something personal.

In that situation, I can see why the Toronto media, the Star in particular, decided to attack. And going to war with what is arguably the largest media company in Canada doesn’t seem to me to be a very smart idea. But I digress.

I can certainly imagine that if I, as a civic reporter, were put in a position where the politicians refused to “play the game” then the gloves would have to come off. The stuff you don’t print because you’re respectful and civil and want to maintain a working relationship doesn’t matter anymore. It’s a free-for-all and the ethical lines become irrelevant.

That’s not to say that I’m defending the Toronto Star or the rest of the media for attacking the Ford family. In reality I think much of it is based on a series of forced moves, like in a chess game in which both sides must make certain decisions or else face defeat. Both sides have much for which to be ashamed. There are no innocents in this game.

But what of the attack on Ford’s family by the Globe and Mail? Well, that’s another kettle of fish. At this point we’ve gone well beyond the point of no return, with an investigative feature story on the brother of a man who may or may not have smoked crack in a video tape that may or may not even exist.

Do I believe Doug Ford was a drug dealer when he was a kid? It’s hard not to believe it, given the numerous sources the reporters spoke to. As a journalist, it’s impossible to imagine that the story wasn’t rigorously researched and combed over by a phalanx of lawyers and editors. You don’t print defamatory material wily nily.

I have significant discomfort with the fact all of the people in the story making allegations are protected of revealing their identity. It makes sense that they wouldn’t want retribution for “snitching” on a powerful family, but in that case why snitch at all? It’s not like Doug Ford is being arraigned on 25-year-old drug charges.

The question here is its relevance. Does it matter? I’m no lawyer, but a court of law would likely throw it out. If Rob Ford is on trial in the court of public opinion for smoking crack, then whether his brother dealt hashish prior to 1986 really stretches the tenuous limits of what we’re supposed to imagine this means.

But look, what it actually means is simple. It’s a smear job against the Ford family that implicates everybody in the seedy underworld of drug trafficking, making it more plausible that the current Mayor of Toronto smoked a crack pipe and stupidly allowed himself to be filmed doing it.

Doug Ford dealing drugs as a kid is only interesting right now because of his brother’s alleged involvement in smoking crack. Printing it outside of this context is certainly interesting from a gossipy perspective, but would be barely newsworthy. What this tells you is that the media are going over the Ford family with a fine toothed comb looking for any news advantage over their competitors. I have no doubt the Globe and Mail raked in some serious money on this edition.

So, what has Rob Ford done in light of the allegations of his brother’s seedy past? He’s called the media a bunch of maggots. Sigh. Thus further inflaming the war and continuing the blood feud. At the risk of repetition, it’s a mistake to pretend there are innocents in this chess game. The fact is that the media aren’t going anywhere. They’re going to continue to make life for the Fords difficult until they begin playing ball.

There are people who might think I’m defending the media’s actions or saying the Fords have no right to defend themselves. No. That’s not what I’m saying. If you want an example of how best to handle the media, Stephen Harper has been doing it expertly for years.

Harper is no friend of the media. From what I know of those who cover federal politics, he’s very selective, secretive, and careful about who gets to talk to him and when. Communications under the Harper government have been centralized so it minimizes the chances of embarrassing scandals.

But Harper is no fool. He knows exactly how to play the game. He uses the media to communicate exactly what he wants to say and doesn’t say a word more. If he’s pressed on hard questions he merely brings the topic back to the central point: his point. When pushed in another direction, he deftly brings it back with a simple phrase. “Let me be clear….” “We’ve said all along…” “This government has done x, y, and z…”

He doesn’t run and hide, or throw tantrums and call the media maggots… to their faces. Rather, he rises above to meet the challenge, and uses the system to his benefit. For that reason he’s not just a survivor as a conservative politician, he thrives in it. He is a grandmaster on this chess board. Now if only somebody could teach the Fords how to play.

Time to de-fund the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

Posted November 11th, 2012 in Canada by Adrian MacNair

De-fund the CBC. It’s such a conservative thing to say, isn’t it? De-funding the CBC has been a polarizing topic between the left and the right for years. But I’m not approaching this issue from a left or right viewpoint. I’m approaching it from a value-for-investment viewpoint.

In the year 2012, is there any reason we need a state-funded multimedia broadcaster? With literally a world full of movies, TV shows, videos, music, and news content at our Internet fingertips, is there any reason to have to pay $1 billion a year for a Canadian company to provide all of it? The answer is painfully obvious. Of course we don’t.

Why on Earth would anyone want to keep the public broadcaster? Is it for its “Canadian content?” Well, that hardly makes sense. I could perhaps see an argument back when the CBC was putting out original content like “This Hour has Seven Days,” but that ship has sailed.

What other media organization could ignore its base so steadfastly and remain in business? Most people have realized the CBC mainly regurgitates American programming, has limited local news, and simply turn the channel. Worse still, despite the exorbitant cost of running the CBC, it has some of the longest commercials of any network.

“Friends” of the CBC say it’s important to save Canadian content programming. But, what are they talking about? What CBC shows are made in Canada today? And who, pray tell, watches these shows?

It’s almost as though the CBC proponents have buried their head in the sands of 1956, and refuse to acknowledge the rest of the world has moved on to the instant gratification of the Internet. Protect Canadian content? From what? Unless the CBC has the powers to block the Internet, the war was lost years ago with video on demand. The CBC today is sort of like a government-funded Blockbuster Video.

The argument that the CBC has to be government funded because it gives Canadian television actors and movie producers an opportunity they wouldn’t ordinarily get doesn’t really cut muster in 2012. It’s easier to produce an Indie film and debut it on YouTube than to waste your time running it past a CBC executive.

Look, I get it. I understand why people feel protective, and even patriotic of the CBC. I grew up with the same shows as everybody else, remember the same things. Back in the ’80s when nobody could get a TV channel to work at the cottage, we could play the Stanley Cup Finals between the Edmonton Oilers and the New York Islanders with rabbit ears pointed just the right way toward Toronto.

My dad used to listen to Peter Gzowski and CBC Radio One’s As it Happens. One of the strongest memories of my father is coming home from school and hearing the familiar refrain over that black transistor radio while he was doing the dishes or cooking dinner.

Back when there were two or three stations on TV, it made sense to have the CBC. What did one watch on the boob tube? Well, whatever was on the CBC, of course. What else would one watch? A movie on Betamax?

But look, it’s not the ’80s anymore. There are thousands and thousands of TV channels in every country of the world I can watch immediately at the click of a mouse button. There are tens of thousands of movies I can download whenever I want. There are millions of websites I can view at the slightest whim. The state-funded CBC providing Canadian-made content or not has no relevance in any of those decisions.

It’s not about hating or liking the CBC. If you like the CBC so much, make it a not-for-profit public broadcaster and donate to it like TVO (although the public Ontario broadcaster does receive provincial funding). It’s not like I’m lobbying to get Canadians to pay for movies and TV shows that I like. Why force me to spend tax dollars on something I don’t need?

I don’t want to give the impression the CBC is a complete asset loss. Although I don’t find much of the programming very interesting, I do like The Passionate Eye, and I listen to the radio now and then on the way in to work. I don’t like the radio too much, since much like the TV it gets killed by the private sector for local news.

The journalists and other people working for the CBC are skilled and valuable people who do great work. As a company with long history, it attracts some prime talent, and competitors like CTV, Sun News Network, and others would be lying through their teeth if they said they wouldn’t love to have a bunch of CBC employees defect.

There’s clearly value within the CBC and in the shows it produces. I just don’t think that with the operating losses the company posts it’s really providing a value to taxpayers that commensurate with our investment. It’s time to de-fund the CBC and let it sink or swim, or else sell it to the private sector.

That’s not a left or rightwing statement. It’s just something anybody with common sense should be willing to accept in 2012. It’s just time to move on.

Universal medicare aint so universal

Posted November 8th, 2012 in Canada by Adrian MacNair

Nothing bothers me more than Canadians spouting off about how great our health care system is and how lucky we are not to be Americans. This is usually followed by some horror story about some Flint, Michigan worker who got laid off, lost his extended health benefits, became grievously ill, and kicked off in some decrepit public health care hospital corridor of the Bubonic plague.

Yeah, but reality is slightly less exaggerated. According to OECD data, the United States pays about twice than Canada as a portion of GDP for health care, which means that the dollars invested do not necessarily translate to better care. Even if we only look at the public medicare of Americans, they still spend more than Canada as a percent of GDP and also as an expenditure per capita.

Despite the high spending of medicare in Canada, there are fewer physicians per capita than in most other OECD countries, with just 2.4 physicians per 1,000 population in 2010, well below the OECD average of 3.1. The number of hospital beds for curative care in Canada was 1.7 per 1,000 population in 2009, half of the  OECD average.

Comparative rankings with other countries could go on and on, but it all adds up to the same result. Canada doesn’t have the best health care in the world, not by a long shot, and it’s certainly not free and “universal.”

Despite the Canada Health Act, residents in British Columbia pay a progressively rated health care premium, essentially an extra health tax, which amounts to $1,600 at the highest end for a family of three or more. British Columbians who make more than $30,000 a year, which is a gross income pay cheque of only $625 a week or $235 below the provincial average, will pay a monthly health premium of $133 come January, 2013.

About half of Canadian provincial expenditures are related to health care spending, with projections of $17.3 billion in B.C. by 2014-15. With a population of 4.6 million, the math means the province is spending $3,760 on every man, woman and child. The question is, are you getting your $3,760 worth?

I’d argue I’m not. I’ve seen a doctor a handful of times in the past 20 years, and I’ve gone over half a decade at a time without seeking medical treatment or care. Where does the money all go? Presumably to somebody else.

I suppose the argument goes that you don’t care about health care until you need it, but you’re grateful when you do. Again, not in my experience. The rare times I’ve needed health care have been due to tendon injuries from sports activity. For whatever reason, the government doesn’t see fit to spend money on physiotherapy.

I injured my tendon two months ago and saw a doctor today for a referral to a clinic that offers physiotherapy. It isn’t covered by all those health care taxes I give each and every day to the federal and provincial governments. So, the question is, why am I paying for something I can never take advantage of?

Think of universal medicare as a kind of gym membership for which you pay a monthly fee. Sure, it’s great if you take advantage of that membership frequently. But if you don’t ever go, then the membership is utterly useless to you. You can’t opt out of the gym membership since the government forces you to pay, and yet when you actually try and use the membership, they tell you to go and workout at another gym that costs you more money.

But what about extended health benefits through work? Don’t you, like every civilized person in Canada, have that? Yeah, and like everyone else, my extended health benefits pays a whopping 80 percent per treatment up to $300 a year for physiotherapy. Which means at $55 a session I can go to physio six times before I’m paying for the whole thing myself.

The B.C. government is spending $3,760 on my behalf every year. Where’s my friggin’ $3,760 worth of physiotherapy?

On journalism and plagiarism

Posted October 2nd, 2012 in Canada by Adrian MacNair

Margaret Wente, a journalist and columnist with the Globe and Mail, has recently become embroiled in the sort of scandal that is the worst nightmare for any person who picks up a pen for a living. To be called a plagiarist is a grave insult, impugning not only the skill of the writer, but his or her very honour.

The allegations of plagiarism brought forward by Carol Wainio, a professor at the University of Ottawa, revolve around a series of quote-lifting and reworded passages from other published sources without proper attribution. Wainio seems to have painstakingly and categorically documented numerous columns between 2009 to 2012 that partially or wholly plagiarized sources without informing readers of the origins.

More worrying still, Wente appears to have tried to rework the wording to make it sound like her own thoughts and ideas. In essence, much of it was carefully pilfered from obscure columns and slightly altered to avoid detection. It’s one thing to grab a paragraph from somewhere and plunk it in a story, forgetting to provide attribution. It’s another to change something slightly and call it your own creation.

The consequences have not been light. Aside from the harm to her reputation, Wente was censured by the Globe and Mail for not meeting journalistic standards, and was suspended by the CBC for the same reasons. Unlike other discovered plagiarists, however, she continues to make a living writing today.

The recent credibility hit taken by Wente has sullied a 25 year career in newspapers and given her reputation a good dragging through the mud. And although she seems to have brought it on herself, particularly with regards to her passive-aggressive apology, I sympathize a little with her predicament.

That’s because I’ve been close several times to doing that which she’s been accused. In the frantic rush to gather information together, organize it, work it into a story or article, sometimes it’s easy to forget what parts of the writing were copied with the intention of providing attribution, and what parts were conceived by yourself.

This isn’t to excuse Wente’s behaviour, but an explanation that such things are humanly possible because humans are fallible. I recall one incident in particular where I either read something or copied something from an independent journalist, Sean Holman, and reprinted it on my blog without attribution. Although I meant to provide a link to his blog, which usually suffices, I just forgot.

Holman soon contacted me, and although he didn’t accuse me of plagiarism, he implied I was operating unethically. Of course, as a blogger I’m not professionally obligated to provide attribution for anything, but he made his point. I felt bad. It was a mistake.

That doesn’t mean Wente made a similar accident, and she deserves to be held to a higher standard based on her occupation. I’m only suggesting that it’s certainly possible her actions weren’t malicious.

A number of people have said the journalistic community piled on Wente only because she’s a bit of a right-of-centre columnist, and that the feeding frenzy was typical of the media’s propensity to attack another member of the media only when it’s obvious the community as a whole sanctions the attack.

I think that’s a fair comment. Journalists aren’t very introspective, at least as far as the standards of our industry goes. Although we do have journalism awards and a press council, we’re not formally accredited. Anyone can be a journalist if a news organization is willing to pay them. With such a low, or nonexistent, barrier for entry, should we be surprised there are no hard and fast rules holding us to professional account?

And because of this invisible barrier, we’re left to our own devices to decide who’s doing a good or a bad job. Which is why barring any formal action from the Globe and Mail or a journalistic standards council, it’s left up to the people in the profession to censure Wente for her oversights and carelessness.

By the same token, because the rules are such a grey area, we’re reluctant to lash out against others in the profession. It’s less a matter of the “media party” and more a matter of keeping your head down, lest you speak out of turn.

The fact Carole Wainio found out Wente’s plagiarism is both laudatory and disturbing. Praiseworthy, that she did such indepth research to find out Wente’s transgressions against journalism. Alarming, to think somebody might be spending hours each and every day poring over my own work with the same fine comb. Not because I’m afraid of being “found out” but it’s a reminder we’re very much under the public eye. And nobody’s perfect.

But what about the editor? Isn’t it his or her job to provide oversight and fact-checking on articles to avoid such embarrassment? Why can a blogger find something when the newspaper can’t? Well, welcome to the new media.

I think that in an era of increasingly difficult deadlines, limited time and resources, plagiarism might even get worse. The pressure to convert hastily gathered information to instantaneous news has never been greater, and as salaries decline, and more duties are piled on inexperienced journalists, there’s nowhere for the industry to go but down.

People want information, but they don’t want to pay for the sort of oversight and quality control they expect. Some of the best journalism being done today is still the long form, slowly researched, feature writing, freelance kind, not subject to being rushed or risked.

The rest of us are copy editing our own stories because the editors were let go, just like the photographers. The industry is steadily condensing the many jobs of journalism into one, with fewer eyes to provide oversight, and less time to invest in that redundancy. It’s not just plagiarism that becomes an issue when that happens, but the product as a whole.

Canada’s favourite poster child for terrorism comes home

Posted October 1st, 2012 in Canada by Adrian MacNair

Papa Khadr knew this day would come. The young terror apprentice, Omar, son of Ahmed Said, is back in Canada, the country of his birth. And just like his immigrant father planned, Canadians are tripping over themselves to absolve him of his crimes.

Ahmed Said was nothing if not perceptive in his examination of our country’s rights and freedoms. The Egyptian-born terrorist picked Canada as a base of operations knowing it afforded not only excellent consular services, but it came with all the attendant privileges of the sort of society radical Islam wishes to destroy.

Ironic, aint it?

Critics of Guantanamo Bay have long cited Omar Khadr as the last western prisoner holed up in Cuba. This fact was pointed out ceaselessly and tirelessly by those critics, perhaps as some sort of shaming attempt. It’s consistent with the moral relativism of the left, in that they lobbied for his release because as a westerner he is born into a privilege that exceeds the lowborn scum of the non-western world.

Ironic, aint it?

Ahmed Said Khadr was fully cognizant of our western moral relativism and disinterest in the Muslim world. There are injustices in Canada when a Muslim isn’t allowed to wear her burka to a soccer game, but whether or not a 9-year-old girl is married to a senior citizen in Pakistan is really none of our business. So, getting Omar Khadr released from Guantanamo Bay is a matter of imperative. The Yemeni-born radical… not so much.

Much has been written about Ahmed Said’s progeny, most of it lamenting his status as Canada’s little “child soldier.” The first of his kind, really. Never before in the history of Canadian civilization (and I’ll admit, we don’t have a very long history) has a person under the age of 18 imprisoned by a foreign military in a foreign country ever been referred to as a child soldier.

The main reason it’s a first is because such a designation is, technically speaking, idiotic. Little Omar, as daddy dearest desired, was raised in the western cradle of decadence, with colour televisions, co-ed classrooms, and Black History Month. The kid was likely literally taught what a real child soldier is in school.

The reason children in Africa are referred to as child soldiers is because most of them were born, raised, and died in civil war. Militias in wartorn regions of the continent would wander into villages, rape the women, slaughter the men, take sex slaves from the little girls, and recruits from the little boys.

These new recruits, some no older than six or seven, would be given assault rifles and told to shoot their friends in the head. Maybe their parents. They were physically and sexually tortured. They were psychologically brainwashed every second of every day. Failure to comply with any demand would result in a bullet to the skull. Unmarked grave if they were lucky.

Does Omar Khadr sound like a child soldier? This western-born and raised, western-educated boy who can be seen smiling in photographs in Canada with his siblings? Am I expected to believe growing up in Scarborough is like growing up in South Sudan?

We’ve established Omar Khadr isn’t a child soldier. So, what is he? Well, technically speaking he was an enemy combatant, fighting alongside an Islamic militia force known to be allied to a global terrorist organization. I think the most accurate description would be that he was a terrorist apprentice.

But more importantly, is he responsible for his crimes? Did he possess the moral maturity to distinguish that what he was doing was morally wrong? I would argue that, taking into account his age, upbringing, and family associations, it’s likely he was aware that what he was doing was wrong, but only according to the laws of the infidels.

In his mind he likely believed he was doing good. Despite his exposure to western philosophy, morals, and culture, Omar’s father brainwashed his children to believe that their aims served a higher religious and political purpose that justified their actions.

In the same way that a young person raised in Nazi Germany was brainwashed to believe the Jews were a degenerate race deserving extinction, Omar Khadr was raised to believe the western world was a blight on the earth. And although some part of him probably sensed that what he was doing was wrong on some level, his filial obligations led him to believe his path was righteous. Because there is no greater role model for a son than his father.

Ahmed Said, bloodthirsty lunatic that he was, raised a family in Canada, knowing full well that his children would be able to carry out his dangerous work with the safety net of a Canadian passport. And he was right. Omar Khadr wasn’t some Pakistani or Afghan who will rot in Gitmo, unnamed and unknown, for the rest of his days.

So, now that Omar Khadr is home, now what? Well, it’s time to have the now-grown man psychologically assessed. Does he realize what he was doing was wrong? Does he have any remorse? Regrets? Does he renounce radical Islam? Is he a danger to Canadian society?

The fact some people, like the Toronto Star editorial board, want him immediately released without those questions asked, is frankly appalling. Let me state that again. It’s appalling.

Do I think Omar Khadr is a threat to Canada anymore? Actually, I sincerely doubt it. His father is dead. He’s been isolated and alienated from al Qaeda for more than a decade now. His brothers, who were also involved with al Qaeda in some capacity while their father was still alive, have disappeared into quiet obscurity. Were Omar released into Canadian society, I believe he’d also slip into the same obscurity, not unlike Karla Homolka.

But there’s one reason he wouldn’t disappear altogether. The Canadian left view Omar as some kind of martyr, a victim of western neoimperialist aggression against the Muslim world. Their deranged desire to elevate Omar to that of a Maher Arar, or worse, a Nelson Mandela, is a real danger.

Look, we can debate endlessly on how long a sentence a 15-year-old deserves for participation in war crimes, or what responsibility he bears for that participation. But what’s really important here isn’t what’s good for Omar. It’s what’s good for Canada. We need to establish that he’s not a threat now, or in any foreseeable future.

The best way to smooth that road would be for him to come out publicly and tell Canadians he’s not a danger and that he’s changed. But he won’t. For the same reason he’s never really expressed any remorse or culpability, I don’t think Omar Khadr really believes he did anything wrong. Who knows? Maybe he still believes his father did the right thing raising him the way he did. His notorious family certainly hasn’t apologized.

The sordid Khadr saga is an object lesson in the worst case scenario of failed multiculturalism and divided nationalities. It’s also an object lesson in our vulnerability to those who use our generous rights and freedoms with the manipulative intent to do great evil.

I pray we’ve learned something from all this.

DND cutting jobs in order to create them again?

Posted September 10th, 2012 in Canada by Adrian MacNair

Is the government trimming the fat off the public sector? Or just looking to switch the workforce to the private sector? A new article from the Ottawa Citizen suggests the Defence Department would pay a private firm $100 million over the five years to provide the same services as workers who are currently scheduled to receive pink slips.

The contract, slated to run from 2013 to 2018, covers management services, maintenance and repair and janitorial services for army installations in western Canada, including 10 training areas and 17 armouries. And that has the unions representing the laid off workers royally pissed off.

According to the article, more than 1,500 DND workers across the country have been given layoff notices or indications their job is being considered for the chopping block. The military wants the new contract in place for the first day of fiscal 2013 in April.

But there are a few things we don’t really know from this article. How much are these replacement workers going to cost in wages and benefits? Is this a backdoor way of busting the union and the associative costly benefits and pensions that come with it? If so, maybe the problem isn’t the jobs but the affordability of the benefits package.

We’d really need to know how much money the defence department is saving by firing unionized workers and going to the private sector for what appears to be fairly routine services. I mean, if saving a few million dollars on janitorial services allows the defence department to maintain core services under an austerity budget, it’s probably a good idea.

We also need to know more about the math on this one. Are the feds spending $100 million on 1,500 replacement workers (or $13,333 per worker per year) or will there be fewer replacements for the jobs lost?

I am curious, however, as to whether these replacement contracts will follow suit in the other 19,200 public servant jobs being axed by the feds. Are the Conservatives really trimming the bloated public sector, bursting at a record 400,000 workers under the Harper government, or merely changing out the unionized workers for cheaper ones on the side?

As contracted workers the feds could create the illusion of cutting the fat, while really only changing the manpower perspective. They would still essentially work a public service job but wouldn’t be reflected in public service statistics. And who knows, maybe the contract would allow these workers to split time with several clients.

I don’t really have a problem with busting the unions to balance the books. That’s a fiscally smart idea, especially in a post-subprime meltdown world where governments can’t afford to pay golden pensions and banked sick days. Well, not for people who aren’t ex-members of parliament, anyway.

But I don’t like the sneaky idea of doing it under the guide of austerity. Let’s call a spade a spade. If the feds are busting the unions to save money, not cutting jobs, then so be it. Own it, and defend it. But it sounds to me like this is being done on the sly, and in bad faith, if they’re telling public workers one thing and doing another behind their backs.

Last word on Just Visiting

Posted September 9th, 2012 in Canada by Adrian MacNair

The news that former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff is headed back to a part-time teaching gig at Harvard University has been received in some circles as conclusive proof the Conservative attack campaign was deadly accurate. In the lead up to the 2011 federal election, the Conservative war machine ran a series of clever advertisements featuring the same recurring slogan titled “Just Visiting.”

Today, the whole “he didn’t come back for you” slogan seems accurate in hindsight, since Ignatieff barely waited a year before he vacated the country again. Turning a potential strength into a weakness, the Conservatives convinced Canadians that rather than being a worldly intellectual bringing a wealth of experience to the table, he was an aloof and out-of-touch academic, whose interests were different from ordinary Canadians.

Like all things in life, the truth isn’t so black and white. Ignatieff was neither fit nor unfit to be prime minister, nor was he strictly “Just Visiting.” I don’t think the man ever really pretended to be anything other than what he is, and so in that sense I don’t think the Conservative campaign was strictly accurate by insinuating his underlying motives were completely selfish.

Indeed, I think the man wore his ambitions plainly, and his reasons for returning to Canada were self-evident. He was recruited from the ranks of academia by the Liberal party with a bold promise: that he would soon become the next prime minister of Canada. It’s only sensible that a man trades up in life, and Ignatieff traded the world he knew and loved at Harvard for a chance at greatness.

His naked ambitions were part of why the Just Visiting campaign worked so well. Certainly, he didn’t come back to Canada for us alone, since no man is motivated solely by altruism. Nor was Ignatieff ever likely to change his nature, whether he’d been elected to the office of the prime minister or not. He will always be a scholar and a teacher at heart, a world traveller, and yes, a Canadian.

We’re not all born to grow up, live in, and die in the same city, in the same country, doing the same job our entire lives. Part of the reason the Just Visiting campaign was so nasty was that it suggested Ignatieff was somehow less Canadian for not being like the rest of us.

“I want to take my responsibility as a leader and as a politician,” he said on his resignation night. “If I was unable to connect with people, then that is my responsibility.”

But the truth is that running for the top job in Canada requires a man to connect with the average Canadian voter, as Ignatieff freely admits he was unable to do, just as his predecessor in Quebec. And while I don’t think it makes Ignatieff any less Canadian to live largely abroad for 35 years, it may not make him the right candidate to represent the voice of Canadians. And that, in the end, was the most truthful aspect of Just Visiting.

Some suggest it was a missed opportunity for the Liberals. A man who seemed to understand the need for a strong military, intervention against terror regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, and one who argued in favour of the importance of the oil sands to the federal treasury, even against his own “Green Shift” base.

I went to listen to an Ignatieff speech at the University of British Columbia back in January, 2010. He had this to say to a group of protesters who interrupted him:

“One of the key things about politics, one of the key things about Canada, is that we can’t pick and choose which facts we like. The Tar Sands are a fact of our national lives. We have one of the largest proven carbon oil reserves in the world. The question is, what do we do to make it sustainable?”

The problem is that Ignatieff never really seemed to excel outside of his comfort zone in academia. While he participated in tours of universities and high schools, he was reticent to join the lunch box crowds at Tim Hortons. And when he tried, that was when he came across as being insincere.

Now that he’s returning to Harvard, does that mean he was Just Visiting all along? I don’t think he came here solely for his own self-aggrandizement, no. Nor do I think he wanted to become a career politician, slipping back into obscurity like Stephane Dion (who is, by the way, still collecting a pay cheque for representing the people of Saint-Laurent—Cartierville).

And a part of me can’t begrudge a man for going back to doing what he loves. After all, isn’t that the truly great thing about being Canadian?

Office of Religious Freedom is a terrible waste of money

Posted September 8th, 2012 in Canada by Adrian MacNair

I’m not really sure who came up with this idea but I can’t really see it accomplishing anything beyond wasting tax dollars. Not only is the idea of secular government wiggling its way into religious matters a slippery problem, it’s ultimately unenforceable within its mandate in Foreign Affairs.

Are there religious minorities who are persecuted in other countries? Of course. I sympathize with Stephen Harper’s sympathies about a Pakistani Christian who was murdered for his religious beliefs. But we’re not the world police, and Pakistan isn’t exactly in our jurisdiction.

The concept is noble in certain respects. Asking other countries to respect religious diversity is something that should be emphasized by every diplomat and ambassador. But if we’re going to criticize the Muslim world for religious intolerance we’d better get ready to get our ducks in a row elsewhere.

Are we going to criticize France for religious intolerance of Muslims? What about Serbians? Does the office include censuring countries who are intolerant of pagan views and aboriginals? The Roma and gypsies? The Wiccans? You see the can of worms this is opening.

And further, what does this “office” hope to achieve? I’m unconvinced that the government needs to grow, again, especially under a Conservative mandate. We should be axing “offices” and ministries, not finding ways to create more.

The bottom line: How much is this all going to cost the Canadian taxpayer? The budget is apparently $5 million, which is fairly piddly in the grand scheme of things. But it’s got to annoy people, especially when we’re supposed to still be within the whole austerity bubble. Last time I looked we’re still recovering from the last economic collapse.

I can’t see how an Office of Religious Freedom will be able to operate within a diplomatic framework without pissing off other countries. Every single country has minorities, with each minority group possessing religious beliefs. How will this $5 million be allocated to monitor all these countries?

Speaking of which, will Canada have the “chutzpah” to criticize its largest allies and trading partners for their own role in religious intolerance? I can’t imagine the Office of Religious Freedom having much to say about Israel and Palestine. Nor China with the Falun Gong and Tibetans. I’m assuming we’re going to have nary a word bad to say about China.

With our new grand, noble Office of Religious Freedom, does this mean we’ll finally start accepting more refugees from Afghanistan persecuted by the Taliban? What about the Tamils in Sri Lanka? Won’t this open up the floodgates for refugee claims?

I can’t help but think this office sounds an awful lot like some feel-good but ineffective human rights commission created by the government to create the illusion of control over a chaotic issue. The Office of Religious Freedom isn’t going to do anything to change the inherent ethnic tensions throughout the world.

What’s new, pussycat

Posted September 6th, 2012 in Canada by Adrian MacNair

Photo: Adrian MacNair, Aug. 13, 2012.

 

Boy, this blog is dead. I mean, really dead. I’ve seen more life in a Liberal leadership race. Budda-boom-tsssh.

What can I say? I have no desire to blog anymore. Blog about what? Politics? Bah. Life? Too busy living it.

The irony is that while I was writing three to four blog entries a night two years ago I kept getting compliments about how I must be some kind of father of the year to work, blog, and spend time with the kids.

Truth is, I really needed a mental escape for my brain after working construction all day, so I had to make the sacrifice somewhere.

I worked, blogged, but not much time for the kids. Since I started writing for a living the mental escape has taken care of itself, and now I’ve replaced blogging with the kids. It’s far more rewarding.

(For those who can manage the work, blogging, and kids for real, kudos. Incredible accomplishment. Seriously.)

So, what’s new? Not much. I worked as a journalist in Mission for 14 months and since Aug. 7 I’ve been in Tsawwassen. Life is pretty good. Work is pretty good.

Being a community journalist is fun, for the most part. I get to report on things going on in town, meet interesting people, write important stories for the community, and take photographs of people enjoying life. It’s a far cry from the fame of having a National Post blog byline, but it has its perks.

I’m assuming some people think I’ve stopped writing about politics because journalism school shaped me into some kind of liberal GroupThinker and now I’m afraid to rock the boat. It’s been suggested by more than a few people on Twitter. As Homer Simpson would say, “close, but you’re way off.”

Actually, I don’t think I’ve really changed. I’m still a social liberal, fiscal conservative. I just don’t trust politicians or politics anymore. It’s hard to care who promises what, since nobody ever delivers, whether they want to or not. And the more complicated the politics, the more impossible the delivery.

Municipal politics actually interests me a great deal more than it did before I got into journalism because it’s still, relatively speaking, a form of public service. Councillors and mayors generally make low wages, work long hours, and make decisions for the community that positively, one hopes, the residents.

But once you get into provincial and federal politics, fugeddaboudit. Your local provincial parliamentarian might try and get you something from your provincial capitol, but usually he or she is towing the party line and trying to spin bad news. Once in a while your riding gets thrown a bone, but that’s only if it happens to belong to the ruling party.

And federal politics is a joke. We’re getting 30 more seats in the House of Commons? How about 30 more empty suits? What does your local Member of Parliament do for you, other than bloc-vote with his party and live in Ottawa? Uh, gimme a break. I’d have more luck joining a volunteer organization than asking Ottawa to care about my neighbourhood 5,000 kilometres away.

So, I don’t really care much about politics anymore. Conservatives, Liberals, NDP… Tic, tac, toe. No.

Actually, I don’t care much for democracy, either. That bastion of western civilization, our most treasured export, isn’t really incredible or anything. As Churchill said, “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others.”

Basically, politicians are elected by a third of half the eligible voters who bother to show up, who represent half the population. Tyranny of the majority? Try tyranny of the vast minority.

Another problem is that my vote is equal to everyone else’s. Even the people who picked the first name alphabetically, or chose the party without knowing the candidate, or decided on the name that sounded most close to their own ethnicity, or picked the name their granny had. Great, that’s real grassroots democracy for you. I like the colour blue: I’m voting Conservative.

But whatever, I’m over it. Still, it irritates me when I get accused on Twitter of media bias. Sometimes I think people with media derangement syndrome (defined as a person who despises reporters, regardless of where they work and what they do) all believe we work at the CBC.

The truth is I don’t have time for media bias. I’m so busy doing a job that used to be done by three or four people in my dad’s era that all I can do is paddle to keep afloat. Work days are a series of phone calls, interviews, picture-taking, newspaper layout, photoshop, and skipped lunches.

I don’t really know how it works at the CBC or the large newspapers with hundreds of people. Maybe they have the time and energy to organize a careful campaign of subliminal liberal messaging. I sure don’t.

I think part of this recent insurgence of media hatred is fuelled by the Sun News Network, actually. Like everybody else, I welcomed media diversity when SNN showed up. I thought having an editorially conservative viewpoint with a stated goal of raising the journalistic bar as being a good thing.

That hasn’t happened. Although SNN and it’s Quebecor journalists do a decent job at news gathering, the editorial is pretty much a failure. It operates by character assassination, polarization, and strawman theories. If I truly believed the counterpoint to the CBC’s failure to conduct responsible journalism was SNN’s failure to conduct responsible journalism, I’d advise firemen to put out fires with more fire.

The whole “media party” thing has dragged the lot of us through the mud, regardless of how responsible we are at our jobs. SNN is composed of an “us versus them” mentality, whereby the gospel truth is delivered unto you by a single source, and the rest of us tell nothing but lies.

That’s not to say there aren’t a lot of liberal reporters. There are. I’ve met a bunch of them. I’ve also met conservative reporters. But it doesn’t matter. At the end of day, the only thing that really matters is whether your story was accurate and factual, clearly impartial, and presented responsibly. If so, you can be a communist and report on conservative politics.

It’s not like SNN is irredeemable. David Akin seemed to hint the other day that the National Post started off the same way. Rattling cages and flinging feces at first, before it settled down and became a decent, responsible source of information with an editorial clearly holding itself at arm’s length from the news. So, there’s hope for the TV channel.

I guess saying that journalism hasn’t changed me isn’t a completely true statement. I’ve come to realize how hard it can be. When you’re blogging, all you have to do is present whatever side of the coin you want. You can make a statement and refuse to back it up with information.

You can’t do that in journalism. And if you do, you won’t hold your job for very long. Which is a good thing for the integrity of the industry, such as it is.

Christy Clark versus the ROC on pipeline

Posted July 25th, 2012 in Canada by Adrian MacNair



The media is afire today with pundits bashing Premier Christy Clark’s demands for a royalty share of the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline to insure against the considerable environmental liability of a pipeline spill. Her position has been characterized as alternately unconstitutional, purely political, and disingenuous, mainly by people who don’t live in this province. Indeed, Ontarians and Albertans are uniformly vituperative in their assessment of her selfish money grab, or “just another extortion attempt.” Which is easy to say from Yonge Street.

Let’s look at the facts, shall we? Legally, Christy Clark and the B.C. government can’t stop the pipeline, since it’s a federal energy concern. B.C. won’t have to lay down the pipeline either, nor maintain it, nor does it lay claim to the product flowing through it. It’s also, technically, about interprovincial trade, and imposing what some pundits call “extortion” is tantamount to a trade tariff with Alberta, which runs counter to the constitutional benefits of confederation. Fair enough.

But look, it’s more than cynical to just say this is a political move to appease the environmentalist vote in B.C. That’s silly. The BC NDP are almost certainly guaranteed to win the next election, so if this is political posturing then it’s merely rearranging deck chairs on Titanic. Is it at all possible that right-leaning British Columbians such as, oh I don’t know, me, for instance, might not like the idea of a pipeline running across pristine northern wilderness under some nebulous mitigation plan cropped together by the oil and gas industry?

According to research in an application filed by Enbridge, 8.2 per cent of the Northern Gateway’s projected $81 billion tax revenue would flow to B.C. over a 30-year period. That equates to $6.7 billion for B.C., while Ottawa is expected to receive $36 billion and Alberta would earn $32 billion. So, in a sense, it’s true B.C. is taking the greatest risk for a relatively small reward.

And who would pay for an oil spill anyway? That hasn’t been articulated well by anyone. In the past, governments have assured citizens that the oil and gas industry will pay for catastrophic accidents, but how often is that truly the case? Whether or not such accidents are rare, it needs to be properly explained what the risk poses from an environmental and economic standpoint, and who will be responsible in that event.

That’s not to mention the possibility of environmental catastrophe caused by the very people opposed to the pipeline itself. A series of pipeline bombings near Dawson Creek that targeted Encana between 2008 and 2009 is not out of the question for the many environmental radicals opposed to the entire project.

And raw bitumen running through a pipeline across B.C. backcountry isn’t exactly the same things as Ontario auto parts being shipping to Alberta, is it? The risk of environmental catastrophe doesn’t play into the transactions of 99.9 per cent of interprovincial trade transactions. So it’s a little disingenuous of others to suggest B.C. is going against its constitutional obligations.

Suggesting Clark’s move is purely political doesn’t detract from the possibility she’s representing the a view of her constituency here. Do British Columbians want the pipeline? Good question.

A January poll by Ipsos suggests 52 per cent of people in the province aren’t familiar with the project at all. Familiarity and support rise among those residents in the northern territory where the pipeline would be going, 61 per cent, and 55 per cent, respectively. Nearly half of respondents (48 per cent) said they support the project, with 32 per cent opposed.

So, there’s certainly arguable demand for the project among residents here. The question is whether the province can be compensated well enough for the risk it’s bearing. If asking for a share in the royalties is impudent, then let’s hammer out the mitigation plan and guarantees we won’t be left holding the bag waiting for the cheque to arrive.

There’s also a big timing issue. The NDP will likely kill the project outright, so Alberta had better spend more time catching flies with honey than vinegar. In about 10 months the NDP will likely come into the seat of power, and any agreements not in place by then will be swiftly demolished. If the ROC thinks Clark is being obtuse now, just wait and see what Adrian Dix and the full weight of his environmentalist vote would have to say about it.

It’s been popular to bash Christy Clark today, but take a step back, take a deep breath and look at it from our point of view.