Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Who will replace Michaëlle Jean?

Not that I matter much, or anyone else -- the choice is entirely Steve's, after all.

But my choice for Governor General ...

Oh what the heck, William Shatner!!!

Happy Canada Day, everyone!!!

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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Waiting for the shoe to drop (a Big Six failure, that is)

I have mentioned several times here, and I am still amazed, that we Canadians still seem to be so darn complacent about the "safety" of our financial institutions.   While there are statutory limits to how much risk can be carried against a bank or trust company's capital the fact is that the Big Six and the Mouvement Desjardins still do have major investment and insurance arms as well as trust companies under their wings.

While they are technically separately incorporated from the banks which own them (and in the case of the trusts and mortgage companies, are also separate members of deposit insurance, allowing Canadians to increase their protected deposits sometimes by a factor of up to five) there is really no longer any such thing as the "four pillars" -- the idea that banks, trusts, brokerage houses and insurance companies neither truck nor trade with each other, aren't allowed to go into business together, are not even allowed to acknowledge that the others even exist.

And of course, there is no protection from those who have their savings stolen by scam artists.

We've seen how some investment houses in the states, really "investment banks" have had to, during the economic crisis, reincorporate as a "regular" bank taking commercial and retail deposits so the US government will cover their customer's assets in case of disaster (to avoid a repeat of the Bear Stearns debacle).   With some really clever paperwork, our banks here could do the same to cover their brokerage houses' customers.

We haven't had a major failure here since 1996 at the federal level, although at the provincial level there seems to be a credit union that is seized about once every six months.

However, in the last few years, we've become quite heavily invested in the States, as our banks have picked up bargains -- either smaller banks willing to sell, or "failed" (really seized) banks for pennies on the dollar.   A new customer base, new local markets.   The benefit -- the new customers have access to a much wider branch and dealer network.   The downside -- far greater risk in case too many people default.

It's just a matter of time.   Our banks may be "safer" but they are not one hundred percent safe any more than "safer sex" does not equate with one hundred percent safe sex (i.e. abstinence).   It will happen sooner than we think.   And while deposit insurance will ensure the vast majority of deposits are safe, there could also be a panic run by those few but many who do not understand the concept of insurance nor want to.

Maybe then the idea of a supertax or a transactions tax will then make sense.   Of course, it will also mean even less competition as six go down to five or even four.   Then Harper, or whoever is in power, will have to explain how our system is safe or competitive.

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Monday, June 28, 2010

What were they expecting? Kumbaya?

While I cannot condone violence in any way, one say to say that this past weekend's events were unavoidable and indeed entirely predictable.   Surely "Steve" should have known that there's something wrong when a summit which should be an intimate gathering of leaders and their closest advisors turns instead into a massive mostly "white guys in suits potlatch" with 600 delegates from each of the 19 countries involved plus the European Union.    At our expense.   And of course, the fact several reporters were roughed up by the police, and one even claims she was raped while under arrest in Toronto's temporary gulag (I heard this on the radio earlier but haven't seen a link yet).

Set aside the fact Mainland China, Saudi Arabia and Russia aren't even democracies (and shouldn't even be allowed into the group).

Or the fact that over the weekend, while the world's eyes were on Toronto, another three banks failed in the United States.

Or that around the world, 72,000 children died from easily preventable childhood diseases.

Or that the 18 "other" countries did not, or will not, insist that the United States finally give up its sole and absolute veto over the IMF and the World Bank.

And to think I was in a church yesterday, at the invitation of some "friends" and the minister actually appeared (from my view) to condone the police actions.

What kind of country are we living in, when due process doesn't mean anything anymore ... where habeas corpus is seen as an impediment, an inconvenience?

Oh, and the real insult -- the President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, says he can do next year's event in his home country for about €80 million, or USD 100 million; about a tenth of what we paid.

Next time we have our turn, let's just have it on a military base, say Cold Lake.    Easier to secure, and  way less expensive.   Not to mention, far fewer civil rights violations will happen.

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Saturday, June 26, 2010

More proof Hamilton just doesn't get it

Wind energy seems to be the way a lot of governments want to go -- and while it is clean there are still quite a lot of questions, such as those raised by my fellow bloggers at Wind Concerns Ontario. But aside from the environmental concerns is that on the business side of the equation as well as on the local level.   Many municipalities have rightly raised about the push towards one kind of generation at the expense of others, while others in their determination to promote production shoot themselves in the foot in not creating the kind of space in which such businesses can flourish.

Take Hamilton which has lost another an "incubator" business, this time to Toronto.   The company, Cleanfield Energy, also makes solar panels and power inverters in addition to turbines.The reason for the move:   Our excessively high commercial property tax rate, high water rates and what is perceived as a generally nasty attitude by city officials.   And there's that other thing:   Hamilton is still seen as Steel City and is sneered at compared to more well known places like The Big Smoke.

Okay, the recognition factor, I get.   But the tax system is something I do not.   Just because provincial rules prevent "bonusing" (that is, companies such as start ups can't get preferential treatment) does not mean that the local rules can't be relaxed for all.   Companies consistently complain about payroll taxes, but property and other levies also act as a hindrance to being able to hire people.   It's little wonder why companies like Consolidated Glass, Otis Elevator and Siemens have quit Hamilton.   Now look at all the little companies that have for the same reason.   It's amazing BMW stays in town, and that's only because of the very popular Mini.

At the rate things are going, we may just have to pave over the brownfields -- with soil, grass and trees.   But then again, that would make Hamilton a lot cooler temperature wise, which would cut down energy costs for everyone -- and reduce the need to have to build all the turbines and solar panels so many are complaining about.    And there's that mistake downtown that should never have been built at all -- Jackson Square.   Imagine if the area bounded by King, Bay, York and James had been an urban park instead.   Jack high rates for parking and the mall closes at 5:30 pm on Monday to Wednesday while all the other malls are open until 9 pm with free parking.   Perhaps the absentee landlords in Montréal don't know the by-law extending early week hours was passed -- twenty-five years ago!!!!!  

No wonder downtown is a ghost town most nights.   Wow.   City Hall never ceases to screw things up.

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Friday, June 25, 2010

Special police powers = (you fill in the blank)

I'd kind of expect this kind of thing from Harper.   But Pointy Head McGuinty?   An executive order, passed quietly and without any legislative debate, giving police special powers during the G-20?   It's not of course the War Measures Act, but if it looks like an armed camp and feels like one, chances are it is.

I still for the life of me can't figure out why last year's gathering in Pittsburgh only cost about $30 million in security and this year's edition is a billion -- and it's not just the mid-course change in venue.   And there are still security breaches happening.

UPDATE (3:20 PM EDT, 1920 GMT):   Thanks to Scott Tribe for linking to this post.

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Thursday, June 24, 2010

Black, Skilling get huge break (maybe Blago too)

I have always said that everyone -- even the most powerful and hated -- should get a fair trial.   So today's news is quite interesting.   And it involves a subject I have brought up before -- the Baron of Crossharbour.

In two major decisions today, the US Supreme Court has said a very contentious law -- the so called "honest services" provision of a law regarding wire and mail fraud -- was misinterpreted by the trial courts that convicted Conrad Black, Jeffrey Skilling and their cohorts at Hollinger and Enron respectively.    For Black, three of his four convictions were quashed and the fourth has been remanded back to Chicago for re- sentencing.   For Skilling, he might either get a re-sentencing hearing or even a new trial.

The law -- twenty-eight words added in 1988 to 18 U.S.C. §1346 -- says: "For the purposes of this chapter, the term, scheme or artifice to defraud includes a scheme or artifice to deprive another of the intangible right of honest services."

Writing for the court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that properly constructed the law was only supposed to deter bribery or kickbacks.   To go any broader would make the law too vague and therefore unconstitutional.   In Black's case, it should be clear, neither bribery or kickbacking was alleged, only that his conduct led to Hollinger's shareholders being deprived of fair value for their stocks.

In Skilling's case, the court ruled for him 9-0 on the main constitutional question (with three -- Scalia, Thomas and Kennedy JJ. -- voting to strike down the law all together) but also against him 6-3 (in a separate vote) on his claim that the extensive pre-trial publicity surrounding the collapse of Enron prejudiced his right to a fair trial (interestingly Stevens, Breyer and Sotomayor JJ. said he could not have possibly have gotten a fair trial in Houston and at the very least the venue should have been moved from Houston, Texas, the scene of the alleged crime).   Black's case was simpler, and the vote was also 9-0 in his favour (with the same three conservative justices voting to strike down).

In a third, unrelated case, the court also ruled in favour of an Alaska state legislator named Bruce Weyhrauch who claimed that the "honest services" law was misapplied when he failed to disclose a conflict of interest -- namely that he did not say he solicited business from a company with business before the legislature.   The court said simply that the federal law could not be applied if no state case calling him out on any alleged corruption had been filed or prosecuted.

This may or may not be good news for disgraced former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich who stands accused of selling President Obama's vacant Senate seat.   The feds already hedged their bets and amended their charges on the presumption that today's court ruling might go the way it did (Blago also has filed a "void for vagueness" claim) but if Rod is grasping at straws he got a huge lifeline.   At best, the honest services charges could get tossed but he still faces serious charges ... although possibly now with less jail time if convicted.

What does it all mean for Black?    Well, obviously, Conrad just might get a reduced sentence, even time served.   It's going to be very interesting to see what Judge Amy St. Eve does when this matter is returned to her docket probably sometime in August.   Back at the original sentencing, as I wrote, she was clearly exasperated and even upset that the Lord had, in her view, put so much on the line.    And many people are still waiting for an adequate explanation of what he was doing when he and / or his colleagues "borrowed" files from his Toronto office and was caught on tape doing so.   What was he taking?   What needed to be copied?   Was there anything shred?

Upon remand, Judge St. Eve has to ask Black these and other very tough questions.   If he is entitled to a lesser sentence he needs to prove it.  The scales of justice may have tipped in his favour today, but it's up to him to pull it all the way.

Far as I'm concerned, though, he still hasn't offered the major proof of all -- an explanation as to why he's entitled to get back the Canadian citizenship he forsake.   He should go to the back of the line and apply for landed status then wait three years, just like every other immigrant.

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Did the earth move? (June 23 '10 5.0 earthquake on ON-QC border)

I'm in Hamilton, and I didn't  although a lot of people here did ... but the USGS got reports of the earth moving from as far away as Nebraska and Texas!   And this isn't exactly earthquake country either, although there are several fault lines that we have to be worried about ...

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Rudd out

It's not often that a prime minister is forced out by his own party for reasons other than his or her choosing.   They're usually forced out ... such as when Margaret Thatcher "voluntarily" resigned as the "leader of the free world" twenty years ago (remember the poll tax)?

Today, facing almost certain defeat at a leadership review just months before an election, Australia's Kevin Rudd threw in the towel, and the new PM is Julia Gillard, originally from Wales and the first female to hold Oz's highest office.

Hard to believe that it was just three years ago Rudd won a landslide victory.   He kept his promise to withdraw troops out of Iraq, and two years ago he offered a much belated apology to the "stolen generations" of the country's Aboriginal populace.

Why his sudden fall?   Let's see ... he pretty much abandoned his environmental promises.    He didn't go near far enough to reverse the anti-union legislation of his precessor John Howard.   His stimulus package, consisting largely of rebate cheques to those who only had to prove they paid taxes during the year, was a joke.   A home insulation retrofit program went way over budget -- a two and a half billion dollar boondoggle it was -- and at least four installers were killed by heat stroke or electrocution before the plug was finally pulled.   Oh yes ... all the troops pulled out of Iraq were merely redeployed to the equally unpopular war in Afghanistan.

No wonder Labour thought they had to clean the slate fast.   But an otherwise unopposed candidate?   That could be trouble.

I can't imagine what lessons there are for Canada ... I only note that if he right-wing ruling party seems to schlep from one scandal to another without batting an eye, and the latest public opinion poll suggests that over half of solid Conservative voters would rather stay at home than vote for their second choice if they had one, then the left has to figure out a way to make the PTFE stick.

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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Another "unfunded mandate": Truth in sentencing

My beef today is about unfunded mandates. This is a common complant in the States, that the feds will impose new programs on the state governments, or transfer costs to businesses or consumers without providing adequate funding as an offset.   This has been an issue with poorer states who have no plausible or meaningful way of enforcing federal clean air and water regulations.   Or with business owners who have had to make their facilities wheelchair accesible without getting any tax credits (of course, they should).

It was also a big beef in the early days our social safety net was created in Canada, that the feds would not fund medicare, social assistance etc. or not do so to make the programs sustainable.

But unfunded mandates also apply to state obligations like prisons. Unlike the US which has separate federal and state correctional facilities, here in Canada the system is integrated. Those sentenced to terms up to two years less one day wind up in a provincial or territorial correctional institute while those doing two years or more become the responsibility of the federal government.

To alieviate overcrowding the rule up until now has been that one can get two days credit for each one day of pre-sentencing custody. Now, however, it's going down to one. Fair enough -- but two problems arise. One, there has been no really trustworthy costing from the feds as to how much this would cost. And second, the Conservaties appear to not want to adequately fund the increased costs provinces will face, especially as we get out of recession.

Things have gotten so bad with overcrowding in the United States, especially with the misguided "war on drugs" that has seen the prison population surge by a factor of five over the last thirty years that many courts now issue consent decrees saying if jails cross over a certain threshold they have to release some prisoners. Will that happen in Canada? I suspect it will.

Too, many states are on the verge of bankruptcy because of these policies. And it's not just drugs. Many prosecutors are now ignoring mandatory minimums and are very willing to cut plea deals to ensure their states stay in compliance. Many of the same are also not seeking the death penalty anymore because of the explosive costs there. True, we abolished capital punishment decades ago but where a life sentence unless otherwise tarriffed usually means seven years in jail followed by parole for life we're asking for major, major trouble.

We should be tough on crime as well as on its causes. But if we are going to get tough on both, then we need to make sure it's funded properly. Otherwise, it's just a counterproductive exercise. And I think it will wind up costing way more than the $2 billion over five years the Cons claim it will be, or the $5 billion the province say it actually is. And that's just to build new jails.   Then you have to feed prisoners as well as try to reduce the chance of recividism with all sorts of programs -- and the current political climate is to allow inmates to rot and not get a chance to improve their lives or turn them around.
This is trouble waiting to happen.   Simple as that.   The general trend in violent crime has trended downwards over time.   It will go up gradually unless the money is coughed up.

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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

UK coalition wastes no time in axe-cutting and revenue raising

What would Jesus -- excuse me, Stephen Harper -- do?

In an attempt to get Britain's tattered finances back on track, the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition today announced some pretty tough austerity measures that even by Canadian standards are quite draconian.   The sales tax has been raised to a mind-boggling 20% (up from 17.5%), and the government is vowing to cut public service spending by 25%.   In addition, child benefits have been frozen, and seniors' pensions de-indexed to be raised only to a maximum of 2.5% per year -- but oddly enough sin taxes are also being held where they are.   Capital gains taxes are up, though not as much as some Cons had feared; and in an interesting bit to the surfing community, a proposed tax on landlines to speed up the rollout of 100% broadband is being scrapped.   Finally, there will be a banks profit "super-tax."

At least this coalition has a definite target to balance the budget which is no later than FY 2016.   Can we expect to see such a promise from PMS?   Let's see.   Slowing down the rate of growth in "net debt" as Slim Jim calls it just doesn't cut it.

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Hamilton's boondoggle (?)

So the city fathers and mothers here in Hamilton are finally going to let us residents see what over $70 million in renovations bought for the city hall built just fifty years ago.   And it's worth keeping in mind that after all that money was spent, several city departments will still be scattered around downtown and other parts of this sprawlling megacity.

Obviously, the artwork needed to be saved, but wouldn't it have been less expensive just to have built a whole new civic centre from scratch, one that would have had all the employees in it too?   Sure, the "new" old hall is plugged into the community co-energy project that Sheila Copps made sure the federal building was not connected to (even though the plant was right across the street!) and other things have been done to make the hall as close to net zero-emissions as possible -- but you knew this project was doomed when several "wow" factors had to be cut and the marble cladding (part of the reason city hall originally got a heritage designation) was replaced by cement.

The only thing redeeming about this is that it was "under budget."   I could think of a number of ways $72 million could be better spent, especially in a city with chronic unemployment.

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Monday, June 21, 2010

A conservative news channel for Canada? I thought we already had one (CTV News) ...

... but if Quebecor, the parent company of Page Three Girl masters Sun Media, wants to bring entertainment masquerading as news to Canada, so be it.   Just let us have the choice of whether or not we want to subscribe.   And please, include it in the comedy package, not news and information.

It's just that we are already too saturated with information as it is.   And besides, we really can't call it consumer choice when only three or four media conglomerates provide all the choices.    There is no effective firewall between print and broadcast outlets anymore.   What we need is to break up the oligopolies and allow more players into the game.   This would mean more innovative programming, more informative news, and most importantly a broader variety of voices -- to lessen the chance Canadians are brainwashed from either the left or the right.

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Saturday, June 19, 2010



That's the simple one title of Judge Thomas Braidwood's report into the death of Robert Dziekanski by electro-shocking from four Mounties.   There's no question this would have happened with any party in charge of the executive, but I believe we can expect more of this the longer we have leaders of any stripe with a shoot first, ask questions later mentality -- rather than with respect for those who come to Canada, especially immigrants who just want to start a new chapter in their life.

BC's Premier has referred this matter to a special prosecutor.  I hope it's not a Crown from outside the province but rather a respected defence attorney who can look at the findings as well as the facts with an open mind so as to better able to determine whether the four cops involved should face charges.

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Friday, June 18, 2010

No answers for Air India 182

We're twenty-five years removed from one of the worst acts of terrorism ever and, despite a much delayed investigation into the Air India 182 bombing and a 3000 page report that was released yesterday by retired Supreme Court of Canada Associate Justice John C. Major, we still don't know whodunit.    What we do know is that there were major and massive clues that something was going to go down, there were several informants who told the police something was up, and nothing was done to follow-up.

Worse still, the fact that most of the victims were South Asian and not white is a big reason why it took so long to even begin the criminal investigation, let alone this judicial inquiry.    There is no doubt that racism and an attempt to appease business interests in India was the reason those who did it got away with it.

The next time someone takes flying lessons but doesn't want to learn take offs and landings, or if someone flies first class but doesn't want the drinks or gourmet meals, or if someone fires off a "practice bomb," would it hurt so much to look into it.

The skies aren't so friendly any more, are they?   We spend all this money on security and do not feel any safer.    And the worst part is, there were several opportunities in three different Canadian cities to stop this disaster before it happened -- the day it happened.

UPDATE (1:56 PM EDT, 1756 GMT):  Yes, it was 25 years ago, not 15.   Too much on my mind this weekend.

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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Mandatory drug testing, now

This week's news that the University of Waterloo suspended their entire football team after nine tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs reeks of "collective guilt," which is banned under the principles of international law, is rather troubling.   I can understand the reasoning (that if some players were doping then others knew about it but did nothing to stop it) but it's also wrong to give the truly innocent the same punishment as the guilty.

The CIS claims they have major funding problems which have avoided random drug testing (up until now, they only tested at the regional bowl games and the Vanier Cup, which gives players plenty of opportunity to cheat early in the season as well as the off-season).   Too, there's also pressure not to test too much since major league sports don't test as vigorously as the international organizations that govern the same sports elsewhere.

This isn't a matter for collective bargaining or for economy.   A cheater is a cheater.   If it means more government funding to ensure such tests, fine.

Also, the players unions in the big leagues as well as in NASCAR must understand that just because they're jocks that entitles them to a lesser sentence than what amateurs would get.    It's a matter of right and wrong.   If it means busting the anti-trust exemption under which the leagues operate, fine; but it must be done.   It's the world anti-doping code, period, and it must be imposed too at the collegiate and high-school levels.    A two year suspension for a first offence may not deter those who are determined to cheat no matter what but it will make those who are hoping to get a scholarship or advance further really think.

But strict enforcement, including random tests anytime and anywhere around the planet, will ensure the innocent will be able to continue to play as they have the right to.  They, after all, have nothing to fear from a false positive -- they will be better able to prove their lack of guilt then a guilty athlete will to prove they were "framed."

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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

No honour in this killing, no justice in this sentence

So the cold-hearted father and brother of Aqsa Parvez pleaded out to murder two and will likely get ten years each.    That is completely unacceptable, certainly for an honour killing which by strict definition should be a hate crime under Canadian law.   The cowards should each be required to serve twenty years each -- and then deported.    As I wrote over a year and a half ago on this, honour killings "in the name of Islam" -- or any religion for that matter -- are as un-Canadian as it gets; not to mention that it also goes against the religion that the men claim to practice.

Go ahead, Osama, declare a fatwa against me.   See if I care.   Like I matter in the grand scheme of things.   Despite what you may think, women on the other hand do matter a great deal.   You wouldn't be here if it wasn't for one, after all.

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MPs finally open up but it's not enough

Why is it that it takes the people to make MPs realize they represent the people and not themselves?    Finally some common sense from them and the Auditor General will be allowed to look at some of the expense accounts at least.   But it never should have come to this.

The next logical step is to require all sitting MPs and Senators to release their income tax forms.   That way, any and all conflicts of interest will be known -- especially important for the Red Chamber where most of the hacks do it as a part time job and see no problem with, say, voting on defence and security issues when they themselves sit on the boards of materiel contractors.

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Court to Stelco's owners: Pay up

The Federal Court of Canada issued a very interesting ruling yesterday that, if upheld, could be either a victory for workers or could drag this country into a double-dip recession.   The court ruled that US Steel violated its legal obligations when it purchased Stelco a few years ago, including minimum employment and production quotas.   The union, which had amici status in the case -- a rare case where the socialists sided with the Conservative government -- is claiming victory and insisting that US Steel either pay up, or be forced to sell Stelco.   The government, for its part, wants any loan guarantees it offered to be paid back as well as a substantial fine imposed.

Here's where it gets rather complicated in my mind, though.   The Americans were the only ones who came anything close to having the money to buy a company for pennies on the dollar while promising to uphold pension obligations.   The shut-down of the plants may have been "illegal," but if no one was buying durable goods such as vehicles and appliances during the recent downturn then where was the steel going to go?

It's not like the stuff is stockpiled anymore, steel manufacturers like any other major business runs on a "just in time system" -- there are specific schedules for the initial "heats" that create the slabs, then the coils get trucked from one processing line to another before being ready to ship out, and in the vast majority of cases the steel is custom made to a customer's specific tolerances.

One can empathize with the concept that the workers should have been paid to stay home -- actually, I would agree with that.   But in the case of Hamilton, we're not next to a power plant or dam with excess electricity waiting to be sold.    It might work with aluminum, where in several cases the smelting company figured it was cheaper to pay the workers to stay at home and sell the excess power rather than keeping the plant running at full tilt.

Also, the whole issue of pensions continues to bedevil a lot of companies in both the private and public sectors.   Many have moved from defined benefit plans (where a pension is guaranteed based on years of service -- assuming the plan remains solvent) to defined contribution plans (where, as the name suggests, contributions are fixed or adjusted each year based on inflation, but there is no guarantee what the payout will be at the back end).   If I understand the present situation, those who were in prior to the takeover continue to get the benefit of the defined benefit plan but new hires since then are put into the less generous plan.

Regardless of how this is sorted out, I strongly support a pension guarantee plan that would act as a form of deposit insurance similar to what banks have to ensure that workers get what they are entitled to.   And I do agree with the idea of increasing payment premiums into the CPP and RRQ.   Some provinces, as I understand it, are balking at the idea and are even threatening to withdraw.   Fine -- but if they continue to charge the lower premiums, then that will be the end of reciprocity which ensures that a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian and gets the same benefits at the end no matter how many times he or she had to move to have a job (and pay the required payroll tax).

The fact is, the warning signs were there that a major crisis was bound to happen.    The new owners of the company should have known this.   If they were going to jump in, they should have committed to a guaranteed percentage of employment in North America (as was the case in the early 1980s when Chrysler got loan guarantees from Canada) rather than any absolute numbers.   But a promise is a promise ... what is owed is owed and should be paid up.

What that will mean for any other potential investors looking at Canada?   It may scare the heck out of them unless they get a huge insurance policy to cover the worst case scenario.   Which means ordinary Joe and Jane Blows also will pay higher premiums for their puny auto and habitation policies.

In the end, no one wins.   The government and the union may have won a victory in principle, but what does it really mean in the long run if a company based outside of Canada can just ignore the ruling?   Sure the assets can be seized ... but then no one gets paid anything if the sale is for pennies on the pennies from the previous sale round.

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Monday, June 14, 2010

What about us?

Well may we complain about foreign wrongs being committed against nature -- think the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, whaling carried on with impunity by Japan and Iceland and so forth.    But what about our oil sands which are leaving massive tailings ponds and posing greater stress on what is left of river systems out West?   The asbestos mines in Québec?   And our own "humane" seal hunt?

Seeing the latest propaganda ad put forward by the oil producers defending the tar sands (as thick as peanut butter -- uh, yeah) and saying they've found a way to "reduce" greenhouse gases by 25 percent is really putting a spin on a disgraceful process.   How about a zero emission target, replanting several trees for every one cut down, and trying to cap over the tailings?   The powers that be figured out how to cover the slag in Sydney and that was leftovers from the steel making process.   Why can't the insanity be stopped before it really is too late?   (Oh, yeah -- the idea of a sales tax is verboten in any talk in Alberta.)

And the seal hunt.   As empathetic as I am towards the fishermen down east, killing seals for anything other than legitimate resource management is inhumane plain and simple.   We need to set an example for the world, rather than being the world leader.   In fact, if we were first to stop sealing, then perhaps we could lead the moral fight against whaling.

It's time to clean up our act.   Start actually practicing sustainable development for a change.   Drill baby drill just doesn't cut it anymore, no matter what we are drilling -- or whacking.

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Saturday, June 12, 2010

Want a team? Start attending the minor league games!

It seems to happen every other year, and lately every year.   Someone thinks that now is time for Hamilton to get an NHL team and expectations run high -- only to be let down when new owners are found who commit to keeping a target team where they are.    And inevitably, the local mainstream press claims Gary Bettman "hates Hamilton."

The question that the press should ask is, do Hamiltonians hate Hamilton?   Or do they like it enough to care?

We have a minor league team, which is affiliated with the Montréal Canadiens.   For now -- the rumours that it may move to Laval to be closer to the "home team" is not an unrealistic prospect.    Why?   The absolutely lousy attendance for home games.    Maybe a couple thousand for home games, four thousand if we're lucky for the playoffs.   They actually had to install a curtain system to close off the upper deck -- it only opens up if they manage to get over 10,000 which they haven't done since the Dogs won the AAA championship three years ago.   Ask fans of the Habs if they'd like to see their developmental team closer afield, they'd jump -- especially now the subway's been extended to Laval.

You look at smaller cities, like Wilkes-Barre and Scranton; maybe a 110,000 between the two cities but they always manage to pack in 15,000 plus for every minor league home game.   Rochester, 220,000 -- same thing.    And Milwaukee, which has about twenty percent more people than Hamilton's half million -- same thing.

If I was a team owner looking to relocate, and even if the indemnity issues could be resolved, there's no way I'd even consider Hamilton.    If no one can be mustered to attend the second tier there's no way they'll be prompted to attend a first-tier league.    Heck, we couldn't even be bothered with Single A baseball.

The other thing -- and this is the big thing -- is the corporate boxes.   Copps was designed to be jacked up to add a third deck if it ever was necessary, but to put in a whole bunch of box seats to replace the current second deck would cost a fortune and in any case, many businesses have left Hamilton for more tax-friendly jurisdictions like Kitchener and London both of which are well outside the "exclusive zones" claimed by Toronto and Buffalo.   It'd be more cost effective to build a new arena with a guaranteed fan base.   And the boxes, too -- there's only enough demand for maybe a dozen or so boxes in Hamilton.   Fifty or sixty at least in K or L.

I know -- what about the time all those people put down deposits for "season tickets" a few years back?    Three years time down, they wouldn't commit.   Trust me. It's just Hamilton's defeatist nature.    We can't even agree on where a new stadium for the Cats will be -- and the deadline to pick a site is July 15th.   Most other cities, knowing the 2015 deadline for the Pan-Am Games, would have had the shovels in the ground the day after the host city (in this case, Toronto) got the bid.   So what makes us think we're "entitled" to an NHL team?    We haven't shown we earn it.   That's why Bettman keeps giving us a pass.

If Hamilton wants to be serious about getting an NHL team -- thinking that's going to be the city's Jerusalem of Gold -- then the fans have to come in and regularly.

Not only that the city has to become much more business friendly.   When the local BMW dealership points out they pay as much in property taxes as the sister dealership in Oakville with three times the floor space, that tells you a lot about our priorities and the fact we refuse to accept the steel industry operates just fine with a fifth of the workforce of twenty-five years ago.

This will have to mean new tax powers and the right to make certain by-laws that don't need to be reviewed by the Ontario Municipal Board -- similar to the autonomy that Toronto got a couple years back.   People might flip over having to pay more for a vehicle sticker or on land transfers, but we can't rely solely on residential property taxes anymore which are high enough as it is not to mention the business rate.   And why are we so afraid of a lodging tax for hotels and motels, or dramatically increasing fines for moving violations?   That's how American cities pay for their stadia.

We can do this.   We have to stop thinking inside the box -- but we need to do the legwork first.   A team just won't drop in just because we say we "deserve one."   Everything we've done to date, points to the opposite.

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Friday, June 11, 2010

It's always the ball, not the players kicking it

So the XIXth World Cup of Soccer begins today in South Africa.   Games will be held at two stadia in Johannesburg, the host city, and in eight other cities around the country.

One subject that keeps coming up, as it does at every soccer championship -- whether it's the worlds, the continental playoffs or the Olympics -- is the design of the ball.    We're 40 years removed from the famous Telstar, the truncated icosahedron or "bucky-ball" shaped sphere, deliberately designed so it would be visible to television viewers as the 1970 championships were the first to be broadcast via satellite.   Today's game balls are designed to withstand a whole bunch of elements as well as elevations -- the game sites this year are anywhere from sea level to over a mile above.

This year's edition, called the Jabulani or "jubliee" is a synthetic marvel that is driving players crazy.    They say it's going places it shouldn't -- in other words, the ball bends before the players have a chance to bend it the way they want it to go.

It's not like they didn't know this was coming.   There may be an argument that Adidas, the manufacturer, should have released it a few months before it was to give the 32 qualifiers a chance to get more practice with it; but these are the same players who don't mind cussing in so many different languages that the refs this year have had to take extra lessons so they can have the red card handy.

Just play ball, for heaven's sake.   Fans want to see action, not petulant players.

This year's lineup of teams could create more surprises than usual.   For what it's worth, I'm currently residing out of the Little Portugal section of Hamilton ... it's going to be a madhouse every time they win a game.   But I don't mind the lack of sleep.   Not that I've been getting much lately anyway.

Game on.   Like my dad's fond of saying, the ball is round.

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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Would left-wing provincial parties become orphans in a merger

One possible issue with any potential left-wing that has to be resolved is what is to be done with the provincial wings of the Liberals and the NDs.   With the Grits, the provincial Liberal parties in BC, Alberta and in La Belle long ago seceded from the federal party; in the other provinces and the Yukon the link is still there although federal and jurisdictional trends don't always coalesce.  This technicality allows one to be a federal Liberal but have a completely different affiliation at the provincial level.

With the NDs however, a member of the federal party is also automatically a member of the provincial party.   To quit a provincial party is also to quit the federal party -- which several former NDs, including former Premiers Ujjal Dosanjh of BC and Bob Rae of Ontario had to do.

Since parties also have closed caucuses to select candidates for office and not open primaries, one also does not have to declare one's affiliation at election time as is the case in the States.   This also allows for a form "crossing the benches" to vote in different elections.

I mention this because when the federal Cons merged (ha!  It was a takeover!) they declared they would only compete in federal politics.   This ostensiably was to save resources to fight against the Liberals but it also left the provincial right-wing parties as "orphans."   Some PC provincial parties are still quite progressive, some others are much in line with the old Reform Party, and others are just a mash-bash coalition of those opposed to virtually anything else (think the Yukon Party and the Saskatchewan Party).   And it's hard to tell if there's any coordination or even contact between provincial conservatives in the different provinces.

Something to think about ... because in deciding who gets a contribution for elections (and for many it's after tax income if they don't earn enough income to qualify for the very generous subsidy at tax time) one has to figure out who's who and what's what.

Pretty easy to do in the States or in the UK where in both countries parties also compete at all levels -- including the local level.   Here in Canada ... things are complicated enough.   One would hope that some kind of linkage could be found -- but anyone who follows provincial politics closely anywhere in Canada would know that while there may be common ground on many issues at the federal level between the Libs and NDs there almost never is any at the provincial level.

The tie that binds or the bind that ties?   I wonder.

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If no merger, then Iggy; if merger, then no Iggy

So there's no confusion about what I wrote in my last two posts, let me be absolutely clear.    Right now the talk of a "unite the left" movement is just talk in the backrooms and on the webpages of my colleagues and me.

But if this is all just talk, then as long as the Liberal Party remains as it is, then I support Michael Ignatieff as its leader -- one hundred percent -- until he decides it's time to leave.   But if the Liberals and the NDP do merge in some form, then I think Ignatieff would be way too much of a liability and would have to go.

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What could unite the left? The billion dollar lake

Yesterday's denials by The Thinker and The Car Dealer seemed to put the kibosh on the idea of a progressive merger in Canada.    I was thinking about this overnight and was going to write about it until I saw Mike Watkins' post on the subject today.   As I have suspected, some of the push may be coming from the centre-right who feel they no longer have a home in Canadian politics.

I wasn't surprised by the name Joe Clark -- he sounded off about this as early as 2004 -- but I wasn't expecting the name of Judge Roy McMurtry.   If he was Bill Davis' "brain" during the era of the Big Blue Machine then one has to ask if the uncrowned king of Brampton also now has misgivings about the "unite the right" project which was really a unite the Kingdom Now believers project.

I have to admit I'm also surprised by two names from the left -- Roy Romanow and Edward Broadbent, both warriors of the NDP and both highly regarded by people from all political stripes.   On the other hand I suspect they see the tea-leaves as well.   Harper and his minions may be unstoppable unless something major gives away.

The key hang-up? According to the affidavit of Warren Kinsella, the talks indicated that for the Liberals to even consider the idea the NDP would have to "renounce socialism." This would be a bitter pill to swallow to say the least. Consider the debate in the British Labour Party in the 1990s when Tony Blair pushed to revise the contentious Clause IV which as originally written called for common ownership -- often a shorthand for socialism. The present clause says, to an effect, that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts and that people should work towards the common good where many and not few share in the wealth -- but explicitly also says the party remains democratic socialist.

The NDs were formed by a merger of the old CCF and the Canadian Labour Congress and the union movement retains a certain percentage of seats at national conventions -- something they'd be loathe to give up, even a small portion of it. The CCF in its turn never apologized for being socialist -- and with titans such as Tommy Douglas demonstrated how certain businesses could be nationalized while those that didn't have to be could compete in a business-friendly atmosphere.

Will the Liberals cave in and accept that they accept some of the tenets of socialism -- which in reality they have in practice if not on paper? At this stage I don't think so. But something is going to have to give. Despite Steve Harper's snark a unite the left concept must scare him. No way that one plus one would equal two as was the case with the unite the right project.

But the numbers might add up to more -- not a hundred percent but maybe somewhat more than what it was for the Cons.

One fact is if an alliance or a merger of some sort can be made -- and along with it came the much needed reform of proportional representation -- then it would still allow for other parties to compete for seats.    We'd still have a Green Party, in fact I'd suggest they'd get a lot stronger if there were clearly identifiable left and right major parties and could be the new potential balance of power.

So would other smaller parties gain strength on both the left and the right.   There is always the risk of a real whack job managing to get seats even with a quota of, say, five percent or more to get in (consider the neo-facist Front Nationale in France or the Freedom Party in Austria).

The other fact that remains is that the idea of a merger is dead with Ignatieff as leader of a united party.    One has to think outside the box for a new leader.   Someone with real world business experience but also someone that, with persuasion, can charm the working class -- those inside unions and those outside.

It could be Belinda Stronach -- which would be the ultimate slap in the face to Harper, since Stronach not only helped merged the right but once even promised to abide to a two term limit as PM and to work as head of government for free.    The optics of her defection to the Liberals back in 2005 were pretty bad.  But what an election that would be -- the policy wonk vs the heiress to a dynasty.

It could be anyone, it doesn't have to be her.   But it'd sure as heck would be fun if it was.

In the meantime, all the Liberals and NDP need to do for now to begin the momentum is to constantly utter three words -- the phrase that no less than Preston Manning coined:   Billion Dollar Boondoggle.    Over and over again.   Every day.   And file so many Freedom of Information requests and report the results in the House during Question Period that it drives Team Harper crazy.   The more fiscal irresponsibility that is demontrated the more that something like that is bound to stick in the craw of Canadians, as did Adgate.   And when people are angry enough they respond by voting.

Harper may be thinking he proved the scientifically impossible, that one can square the circle; but two can play the game and it's not a one time affair -- in other words what goes around, comes around.

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Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Could a Liberal - NDP merger work? Maybe

If this is true, then it could be quite the earthquake in terms of politics.   CBC News claimed last night that the Liberals and the New Democrats are in talks not to have an informal or formal coalition (where one or the other would implicitly or explicitly agree not to run candidates to ensure the "other" party won -- like the Liberal-SDP "Alliance" in the UK during the 1980s) but in fact to merge the two parties together.

One suggested name for such a combined party would be the Liberal Democrats, like the UK party that emerged when the Libs and most of the SDP merged in 1988 (one notable dissenter was Lord David Owen who continues to sit in the House of Lords as a "Social Democrat").

It's a very interesting concept and one that should be pursued.    As someone who has voted across the political spectrum over the years, I think it could be made to work ... but this isn't a case of parties that are somewhat similar in philosophies.   On some social and economic issues the Libs and the NDs are actually far apart.    And the question would be whether it was a true marriage of equals or whether, as was the case when the right "united", that one party simply subsumed another and with it also destroyed the more progressive elements of political thought within the whole.

For this to really work, however, both Iggy and Jack would have to go ... and I just don't mean resign their leaderships but quit politics all together.    Someone new would have to be found that could truly unite a combined party as well as successfully referee the gaps that remained -- and knowing how to restrain social conservatives as well as outright socialists while protecting their right to speak freely both in the House and its committees and the media.   In other words, no more stage management or thought control as exists in the current PMO.

Also, perhaps, a more imaginative yet concise name could be thought of.   While Liberal Democrats in the UK and the Free Democrats in Germany (more like progressive conservative in practice) are certainly centrist in their setup, the phrase "liberal democrat" in most other countries really means conservative as in Japan -- or even neo-facist as is the case with the Russian variant.    Such an association if wrongly pegged could doom a merger from the start unless controlled very quickly.   Think the Conservatives, who as the Canadian Alliance had as its official name "Conservative-Reform Alliance Party" until the acronym CRAP become so ridiculed that the godfathers quickly had to change it to the even less appealing RCAP -- you can fill in those initials as you please.

One surefire way to ensure victory for a merged party would be to pledge a national referendum on proportional representation and the way it should be set up -- something we know the Conservatives will never want to implement or suggest.    They are quite content to see a situation where they continue to win a disproportionate number of seats and even see situations like in Saskatchewan where the NDs won more popular votes than the Liberals in 2008 yet the NDs were shut out of Parliament while a solitary Liberal (Ralph Goodale) was re-elected.   This would be a bitter pill to swallow for most Grits who have banked on multiple victories in the past thanks to first-past-the-post but can no longer rely on this as the Cons have managed to triangulate and consolidate their power base.   But in the present context, it is a pill that must be swallowed.    Canada needs to join the rest of the free world that recognizes the principle of one person and one vote and that every vote does count.

Oh the possibilities ... but if such a merger is to be done, time is not the merger's friend.     It must be done thoughtfully but done quickly as well.

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Irish women wrongly told they miscarried

Imagine you're a woman who's gotten pregnant and later told you've had a miscarriage -- only to find out after a D and C that in fact your unborn child was still healthy and viable.   Apparently that's what's happened in Ireland at at least one hospital -- over and over again -- and perhaps many more health care facilities.   While Ireland is one of the few countries in Europe to outlaw abortions in its constitution (theoretically at least, perhaps about 6000 procedures still happen there every year) it has, unlike some truly draconian countries, attempted to provide realistic alternatives for women.

And the official ban certainly hasn't stopped Irish women from travelling to the UK where of course the procedure is legal (and about 10,000 do so annually despite denials from the British NHS that it's that high).

But as providers of front line health care, hospitals owe it to their patients to be truthful.   If this ultrasound or sonogram was malfunctioning then the hospital should have told their patients the truth.   If a woman received a "life saving" abortion for the wrong reasons, then it would be just as wrong as forcing a woman to become pregnant against her will several times over (as was the case in Ceauşescu's Romania).   Heads need to roll in this one -- professionally, that is.    It's despicable to say the least.

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Tuesday, June 8, 2010

It's down but it's not out -- the Euro, that is

While many in the markets may be writing off the Euro as a failed experiment in folly, EU leaders don't appear to be of the same mind.   In fact, they announced today that Estonia will join the unified currency on January 1, 2011.   It seems to have figured out how to keep its debt-to-GDP ratio at a ridiculously low level (under 10%) and run negative inflation while things in the so-called PIIGS continue to spiral out of control.

Maybe some countries know something that leaders on this side of the pond can't figure out.   It's called PAYGO -- paying with available funds instead of borrowing them -- in other words fiscal responsibility.

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Water's for fighting (Central Canada edition)

It's the smallest of the five North American Great Lakes and the fourteenth largest in the world.   Lake Ontario, which provides drinking water for millions in Ontario and New York State and cooling fluid for the eons of businesses that have set up shop along both sides of the lake.     Point of fact, Lake Ontario is just one of the two hundred fifty thousand lakes that are completely or partly in Ontario.

And yet we now learn of yet another element in the billion dollar boondoggle that is the G-8 / G-20 coming to Southern Ontario.    A fake lake resembling one in the Muskoka region, set up just 500 metres from a real inland sea.

If someone actually manages to break into the red zone, like the Aussie comedy group Chaser's War on Everything did back at the 2007 APEC Summit in Sydney (a summit which cost $350 million and involved 21 countries and actually impelled Australia, the only democracy in the world without a constitutional bill of rights, to pass specific criminal laws just for the summit which of course proved unenforceable), then Harper and Co will look like real idiots.

But considering the fact that because of the relatively mild winter the Northeast had this year, Lake Ontario is nearly a metre below where it should be this time of year -- as measured by the NOAA, the official weather service in the States -- hoarding a huge amount water into what is a temporary tank is just plain irresponsible, especially when shippers have had to lighten their loads at considerable cost and that Toronto and other cities may well impose water restrictions over and above the "odd / even" rule (odd numbered houses can only water lawns and wash cars on odd days, even on even).

I've mentioned before in this space that out west the battle over water rights between mines and tar sands operations on one side, farmers and aboriginals on the other (normally rivals, but allies on this issue) has led to a saying, that "whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting."   Drought is something that, unlike out West, is relatively rare in Ontario (about every 10-15 years) but is increasing as climate patterns change.   We in the cities, especially close to big bodies of water, think it's impossible to have a drought but tell that to farmers just a few kilometres inland.   You can't irrigate everything and when you can it's expensive to pipe water inland -- water rates tend to be double or even triple what we pay in the cities.

And when there are really bad forest fire seasons, and the winter we had is a portent that we'll have one this year, less water means it'll take longer to put out the fires and there'll be less trees to harvest by the forestry companies and their employees meaning more economic woes for the economically disparate North.   Oh, right, they vote NDP so Harper figures, who gives a crap about them.

And it's not like, contrary to what the government claims, that a lot of media don't know what's "up North" and they need a replica.   They damn well know what the Muskokas (north of Toronto) and the Kawarthas (to the east) are.   They would because of their constant hounding of celebrities who spend their summers there, most notably Goldie Hawn and her common-law husband Kurt Russell.

In this day and age, I wonder at times if we even need summits anymore.   We do have video-conferencing.   Used to cost about $120 per minute per site but is now basically free thanks to the proliferation of broadband around the world.   And environmentally friendly too -- no planes, no wasted food piles not destined for food banks, no photo ops.

Even when we do, is such a huge amount of money needed?    Unlike the US, Canada does not have a law that prohibits posse comitatus.   The principle that active and reserve military, air force and naval troops can double as law enforcement officers when needed is still very much alive here.

The troops at Base Borden near Barrie, an hour drive's north, as well at smaller bases in and around the GTA, could have been called up -- they would be working on their current salaries and with way less overhead.   Law abiding people would feel safe, and when the meeting was over the troops would go back to base, no questions asked.

Something like that would cost, say, a few million.   Not the billion we've already been asked to spend and which no doubt will be fifty to one hundred percent more when the final bill is tallied -- if Harper ever allows it to be tallied, that is.

And the Conservatives said they are fiscally responsible.


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Monday, June 7, 2010

There are control freaks, and then there is ... PMS

Impolitical pretty much covers (and so I'll defer you to her) what I think of today's Canadian Press story about just how determined the Con government is to shape its message and how it's now gotten the non-partisan public service onside.   I've heard of control freaks but PMS merits his own dictionary entry on the subject.

To be honest, some Liberal PMs like Trudeau and Chrétien were masterful at shaping their image -- but this move to making a proposal on how to set up a media encounter of any kind makes me ask why anyone would want to work for the public service when their job is to serve the public, not whatever denomination and /or political stripe of the incumbent PM happens to be in play.   And what happened to the public servant whose job it was to provide non-partisan and honest advice to the executive and not being forced to shape the message with a pre-determined answer.

Even the British PMO doesn't have this much power -- several agencies are clearly out of Cabinet control and deliberately so.

Rather than have elections, let's call them what they've really become, which are presentations for who gets to be omnipotent and omnipresent dictator.

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Saturday, June 5, 2010

The real story behind the "professional allowance" debate

The whole thing about drug stores in Ontario crying foul over the province's proposal to end the professional allowances (i.e. kickbacks, there really is no other word for them other than payola) seems to revolve around the argument that services to patients -- um, customers -- will be hurt if the government doesn't come up with enough money to compensate for what will be lost, roughly $750 million per year.    And the whole idea behind eliminating such allowances was to reduce consumer costs and especially for the government which pays a substantial portion of drugs used by seniors and those on social assistance.

The drug stores might have a prima facie argument except for a few things.    For one, when the announcement was made by the province's health minister, Deb Matthews, the largest drug store chain by far in Canada responded by cutting back store hours.    In seven stores.   All in Matthews' London area district.   Coincidence?   If it was, then I have a bridge in Brooklyn I'd like to sell you.

For another drug stores here, like in the United States, do not resemble true health services sales outfits as they do overpriced supermarkets and beauty boutiques.   Since the stores in Ontario have not been able to sell tobacco for years (except in "smoke shops" with a separate entrance) they've had to make do by peddling cosmetics.    Nearly every such store I've been in lately forces the customer through the salon and a tabloid magazine rack before I can even get to the glorified convenience store -- let alone the actual pharmacy counter or the post office, either or both my usual destinations.   I don't begrudge trying to make a buck, but what do most people go into a drug store for?   Drugs, or to buy stamps or send a parcel.    The most important units are in the least convenient locations.    I don't care what they teach in marketing classes, but this is not smart marketing.

The huge profit margins they make from selling groceries and the like should more than make up for any perceived losses from losing the scratch my back money.   And then some.

In defence of the stores, I do have to admit if the government's approach is an overkill reaction to some unscrupulous pharmacists -- a small minority from the whole of the profession -- who figured out how to sell some drugs several times over and bill the Ontario Drug Benefit Plan for such sales even though the drug was only sold once.    If such is the case, then go after the druggists and the drug companies that facilitate what is blatant fraud and don't punish the whole class.   The government sought legal action more than a year ago against the crooks and there's still no resolution from what I've been able to find from my web searches ... but in the same period, the allowances paid jumped from $680 million to $750 million.   That's 10.3%, way above the inflation rate which had been flat or even negative during that time.

The pharmacists say they'd drop their campaign if the government was willing to cough up about $260 million, more than double what they're offering.   The druggists also have suggested the dispensing fee, currently $6.11 ($2 for indigents) and which has been frozen there since 1999, should reflect the actual costs -- which they claim is currently around $11.25 and should be increased in future years to the rate of inflation.    As a comparison, the current co-pay for prescriptions in England where there is universal coverage for all patients regardless of income is £7.20 (about CAD 10.96 at current rates -- the co-pay is lower or nil in the other UK countries).

I could accept that as long as there's a phase in period -- going from $6.11 to $11.25 in one swoop would be too much of a shock for too many.

But let's have some honesty on both sides for a change.    The government should be truthful about why they're doing this and use their time to prosecute those who actually defraud the system.    And it would be nice to see Ontario move towards a universal drug plan like British Columbia and Québec have -- the money from the premium we pay on our income taxes every year must be going somewhere so why not something as primary as the drugs we need?

From the drug stores' side, they need to be honest about what they've been doing to this point and where they are going forward.    Don't unilaterally punish patients or blame the government for all their problems.   And sell drugs and ancillary appliances as your primary business, not your sideline.   As the British pharmacist told Michael Moore in SiCKO! he didn't spend years of training in chemistry just so he could be selling groceries.   That means making the drug counter convenient to get to, not going through an increasingly annoying obstacle course.

In the end, everyone can benefit and businesses can still make a profit.    But not at the expense of holding patients hostage.     In general, I think the McGuinty government is right although their approach leans a bit towards using a sledge hammer to swat a fly.

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Friday, June 4, 2010

So she didn't take a vow of poverty but ...

When I read this one this morning I thought ... she's getting how much for a pension?    And she wants more?

Eleanor Clitheroe -- um, make that the Reverend Eleanor Clitheroe, for she's now an Anglican priest -- is in the Ontario Court of Appeal, claiming the provincial legislature violated her rights when it changed the conditions of pensions and other benefits for employees at the fairly new but quickly embattled Hydro One, Ontario's power transmission grid system.   Claims she, she and other employees signed on to get credit for two or even three years of benefits for every one of service.

The difference?   Well, the province concedes she's entitled to get over $25,600 per month.   But Rev. Clitheroe says she should be getting roughly another $8000 per month.   Keep in mind, the average Hydro One employee can expect a pension of about $33,000 per year.    And the average pensioner in Canada gets about $14,000 per year.

Keep in mind, the average Anglican Church of Canada priest makes somewhere between 50k and 60k.

And when pension rules were originally drafted, the intent was that it would be retirement income.   If someone on a pension got another job the pension would either be forfeited or otherwise deferred to prevent double dipping.  Of course the rules proved unenforceable -- think for example the thousands of Air Force pilots who do their twenty years then head straight to the commercial airline industry and start collecting a salary while collecting a half or greater pension and getting all the health, mortgage and other entitlements a veteran not dishonourably discharged can get.

As far as double dipping in general for public officers -- I think that the rules were meant to ensure a public servant who later gets elected to Parliament or a legislature doesn't collect a pension while collecting the legislative salary to prevent the image of a conflict of interest.   When someone leaves the private sector to go public or vice versa, as said in the last paragraph, it's far less certain.

So here's the deal:   She collects $300k in pension over and above her current salary in a different job, and she wants that upped to around $400k give or take.   Look, if the contract was changed without her consent, and even a legislative veto doesn't count here, then yeah, she's entitled to the money.    But the image of a minister collecting a six digit income before his or her stipend and who isn't a televangelist is quite poor to say the least.   Forget those who are on TV and preach a life of simplicity while they live high off the hog of their parishoners' contributions, tax free.

In this day and age a vow of poverty is quite unrealistic ... but many of us also remember the cloud under which Clitheroe left her Hydro One job some years ago, fair or not.    To be honest, I remember attending the annual stockholder meeting at Dofasco before it was acquired by Luxembourg-based Arcelor Mittal and for some reason Clitheroe (who sat on Dofasco's board -- probably because the company was far and away the province's biggest power consumer) was giving off a negative vibe even though she didn't speak a word (far that I recall).

If she pledged that if she wins the difference it would be donated to charity it might help.    But the idea of someone getting five times a salary as a pension and wanting even more ... it just doesn't seem right.   Fact is, she could arrange things so she could be tax-free for the rest of her life, something most pensioners and most Canadians in general could never hope for.

I thought something was wrong when a former parish priest (Catholic) I was acquainted with drove around town in a Jaguar ™.    Turns out it's not against the "rules."    And yet we're expected to pray, pay and obey while they life high off the hog.    In this case, the taxpayers.

Just seems to go against some basic principles of what should be fair ... but this wouldn't be the first.   Some reporters go into the cleric life and double dip and no one seems to complain about that.

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Thursday, June 3, 2010

More about the military ... click, click

To follow up on my post the other day about the "scandal" hitting the Canadian military -- okay, I get it folks.   Sexual harassment and preferential treatment are always big issues in any place of employ, certainly in a theatre of war.   That being said, I listened yesterday to CBC Radio One's The Current with a bit of disgust about how far the armed services go to bury an all too common truth.   Sex happens.

I think it was Scott Taylor, the editor of Esprit de Corps magazine and a technical consultant to the hit radio soap opera Afghanada which in part deals with battlefield "relations" who noted on the show that Canada had the highest rate of STD occurrences during the Korean War -- a matter of pride with those who fought at the time.   But when the Canadian War Museum wanted to make note of this fact, there were protests from veterans' groups who said that this "besmirched" the reputation of those who fought, and the reference was removed -- another cave-in by the CWM which also sanitized references to Bomber Command and the possibility that the "dehousing" air raid campaign was far too excessive.

Another reporter -- Matthew LePlante of the Salt Lake Tribune -- said his reportage on Iraq got almost no comment until he got to the issue of battlefield sex -- and the Pentagon only then went ballistic and tried to censor him, without too much success of course.

Let's face it -- where there's the opportunity, men will leer at their female counterparts' "racks".   Women will try to see if the bulge on the man they're targeting is larger than normal.   And at mess halls, those of the opposite sex -- and even the same sex -- will try to sit as close as possible as the rules allow or can be possibly bent.   It's human nature, and no military code of justice will stop that.

If this is a simple matter of friendly "relations" it's hard to see how it's going to get much traction among the court of opinion of civilians.  It may be a crime under military law, certainly -- and courts martial operate with a much lesser burden of proof than civilian courts.    If this was put forward as an administrative case in the "public service" no jury in the world would convict unless the sex was coerced or happened as an expectation of continued employment or promotion -- known as quid pro quo harassment.   If that happened here, then there's no question in my mind -- the general should be turfed out of the forces all together.

It's where it creates a "hostile work environment" that it becomes less certain.    In such cases where there is proof, of course, it should be dealt with just as firmly as a qpq.     But the "reasonable person" standard -- that is, if a reasonable person looking inside would view it as harassment if it happened to him or her -- is extremely subjective.    Especially so, I think, in the military court system where JAG is both prosecutor and judge.

The only other possibility I can think of is that the guy had an affair with someone other than his wife.   Just plain stupidity -- and whatever consequences derive from that should be dealt with where it properly belongs, in family court.   Just the image of an unfaithful starred officer should be enough to end his career.

Of course, we need to let the process take its course -- but civilian police are blabbermouths compared to the extremely secretive JAG.   We need some more light on this.   Open disclosure of the facts need not affect the General's right to a fair trial.

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Welcome to the 1990s


Finally, Southcentral Ontario is getting a smart card for the various local and inter-city transit systems -- called "Presto" (how imaginative).   No more having to get multiple passes and tickets to go from one county to the next or on the GO.   Thing is ... New York City has had a smart card system since -- wait for it -- 1994.  Hong Kong (the Octopus), since 1997.   London (the Oyster), since least 2004.  

Why are we always the last to get these things?   Okay, they're making upgrades to the train station in Hamilton's downtown and buses are slowly having the readers installed for the rollout this fall.   But really ... why the wait?

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Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Is this the last we'll hear of Mulroney? Don't bet on it

Any shred of credibility Brian Mulroney had left went out the window yesterday with the release of the final report from Judge Jeffrey Oliphant.   Namely, Mulroney broke his own ethics guidelines when he took at least $225,000 in $1000 bills from an arms dealer -- Karlheinz Schreiber, the said dealer and now doing eight years in a German jail for tax evasion, insists it was $300,000 -- but the worst part of it all is that Judge Oliphant had to admit there are no controls currently in place that would prevent a similar incident from occurring in the future.    And we know the hot water at least two of Mulroney's successors got into afterwards.

I'll leave it to others to decide if Mulroney committed something more than what he called a lapse in  judgment.   But it only leads to more cynicism about the whole system and lower voter participation -- except by those driven to vote, which as it turns out is the current power base that Mulroney fought so hard against during his time in office.  Remember, he was a Progressive Conservative and supported the welfare state that the religious right wants so much to dismantle.

I happen to  think  that if we had proportional representation, there might have been more checks in place to ensure that any MP and certainly a current or former Prime Minister would not have been able to do something like this.   And even that aside, let's get real.   If you were offered an envelope of M notes, wouldn't you ask questions?   Was Mulroney's affairs so out of whack that he had to get himself into this mess?   It's sad in a way -- likeable fellow, kind of guy you'd want to share a drink with (even though he doesn't drink) but this is the kind of thing you'd expect in a third world country.

Not a "clean" country like CA-NA-DA.

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