Monthly Archives: May 2013

Rob Ford is ready for his close-up (again)

Trouble the water in Toronto

Trouble the water in Toronto

Now that Rob Ford is more popular than U.S. President Barack Obama and singing sensation Lady Gaga combined (at least according to Google searches), does Hollywood figure in the future of the world’s most famous mayor?

CTV reports, “In the wake of reported allegations he was seen on a drug video, Rob Ford searches on Google have surpassed some of the most popular figures in the world. In fact, on May 17, the day after Gawker and the Toronto Star reported on the alleged video featuring the mayor of Canada’s biggest city, Ford got more Google searches than (both Mr. Obama and Ms. Gaga) – that’s worldwide. Our Google Trends graph, which plots Google search terms based on search performance, shows the search term fluctuating in popularity from Jennifer Lawrence to Jay-Z levels ever since. Before the scandal, the mayor was about as popular on Google as Prime Minister Stephen Harper.”

And why not? The saga in Hog Town, where Mr. Ford reigns like King Lear – isolatedly and erratically – is made for the movies. Hell, this stuff even writes itself.

We may imagine the opening scene, in which the rotund, office-bound monarch ruminates on his life and the events that have brought him to this sorry state of affairs. He has just narrowly avoided a group of women who had arrived at City Hall with a birthday cake (he turned 44 on May 28), before entreating him to resign.

Then follows the flashbacks.

A happy and contented childhood attending Scarlett Heights Collegiate, playing football, horsing around with chums in the quasi-affluent Toronto borough of Etobicoke.

Vain attempts to keep up with his older brothers, Randy and Doug, whose extra-curricular activities may, or may not, have involved ritual dalliances with certain controlled substances late into the night and wee hours of the morning.

Ambitious dreams of becoming a professional football player; sitting out a season of university play on the bench; leaving Carleton after his freshman year; returning home to Toronto to join his Dad’s label- and tag-making business; hating it.

Then, in classic cinematic fashion, comes local politics to his rescue.

Three terms as a city councillor, during which he distinguished himself as an outspoken, if not always sensitive or even astute, observer of social values. And the gaffes. . .oh, the famous gaffes.

“If we wiped out the perks for council members, we’d save $100 million easy. . .all this office budget stuff is self-promotion to benefit yourself. Why should the taxpayers have to pay for it? It boggles my mind?”

His constituents loved him, the way Louisianians loved their populist firebrand Huey Long early in the last century. Mr. Ford’s big mouth could do no wrong, even when it uttered nonsense.

“We just need to get rid of these life-long politicians that just give out money to special interest groups and don’t serve the community. I’m really teed off. We need to get a new council or this city is going to go down the drain.”

And this: “If you are not doing needles and you are not gay, you wouldn’t get AIDS probably, that’s bottom line. Those are the facts.”

And this: “What I compare bike lanes to is swimming with the sharks. Roads are built for buses, cars, and trucks, not for people on bikes. My heart bleeds for them when I hear someone gets killed, but it’s their own fault at the end of the day.”

And, of course, this: “Those Oriental people work like dogs. They work their hearts out. They are workers non-stop. They sleep beside their machines. That’s why they’re successful in life.”

Then, in one dreadful moment, comes the Toronto Star and its allegations of a video that shows the mayor smoking what appears to be a crack pipe. And the great unravelling begins.

The accusations. The recriminations. The firings. The quittings. A city in turmoil. Reputations in tatters.

Still, at the end, there is that quieting denouement of all great, filmic melodramas – the silver lining, if you will.

We see a smile develop on Mr. Ford’s face. There is that birthday cake in the downstairs lobby, after all. It would be a shame to let it go to waste.

Fin. Fade to black.

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Foaming at the mouth over lickspittles

Poor Ms. Maj. Her eyes are shut wide open

Poor Ms. Maj. Her eyes are shut wide open

It is rare that a member of the Senate of Canada affords so exquisite an opportunity to drink deeply the rich elixir that is the English language. So let us compliment Marjory LeBreton, the federal Government’s chief representative in the Upper Chamber, for her recent, and truly marvelous, display of verbal pyrotechnics.

To be perfectly clear, here’s exactly what she said in a speech last week: “We moved at the first opportunity to make the Senate more open, accountable and transparent. It was determined from September 2010 onward, Senators expenses would be publicly reported on a quarterly basis. Had that not taken place – no one would have been any the wiser. Things would have carried on in the old Liberal way –nudge, nudge, wink, wink!”

Indeed, she said, “The reality. . .is that we are facing this crisis because we flung open the door and revealed what was going on and now rather than being credited for doing so, we are paying the price for taking this important and necessary step.”

Alas, she added, “I am not surprised. I am a Conservative and I know more than most that around this town, populated by Liberal elites and their media lickspittles, tut-tutting about our government and yearning for the good old days, that we are never given the benefit of doubt and are rarely given credit for all the good work that we do.”

Lickspittle. What a most excellent word; a true mouthful of antiquated bile and embalmed moral authority.

“A useful functionary, not infrequently found editing a newspaper,” is how the 19th century American writer Ambroise Bierce defined the “lickspittle” in his masterwork of humour, The Devil’s Dictionary. Such a cad, he wrote, “is closely allied to the blackmailer by the tie of occasional identity; for in truth the lickspittle is only the blackmailer under another aspect, although the latter is frequently found as an independent species. Lickspittling is more detestable than blackmailing, precisely as the business of a confidence man is more detestable than that of a highway robber; and the parallel maintains itself throughout, for whereas few robbers will cheat, every sneak will plunder if he dare.”

Modern definitions, found in online dictionaries, include, “a fawning underling; a toady; a flattering or servile person” and “a contemptible person.”

Lickspittle’s closest synonym is, perhaps, “sycophant” from the Latin “sycophanta”. According to a Wiktionary entry it denotes “one who uses compliments  to gain self-serving favor or advantage from another; one who seeks to gain through the powerful and influential.” A lickspittle, therefore, is also an “ass-kisser, brown-noser, suck-up, yes man, parasite, flunky” or “lackey.”

Sadly, this detestable creature can be found in nearly all walks of life, doing the  loathsome bidding of their profane superiors in every country of the world. During the Nixon, Reagan, Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, you could have papered the walls of the Oval Office with them. These days, you can observe them at the IRS, targeting conservative groups seeking tax exemptions.

And while Ms. LeBreton may be justified in vilifying the “media lickspittles” in her midst, sometimes it works the other way around.

“The president and chief executive officer of The Associated Press. . .called the government’s secret seizure of two months of reporters’ phone records unconstitutional,” The Washington Times reported earlier this month. Gary Pruitt. . .said the move already has had a chilling effect on journalism. (He) told CBS’ ‘Face the Nation’ that the government has no business monitoring the AP’s newsgathering activities. ‘If they restrict that apparatus. . .the people of the United States will only know what the government wants them to know, and that’s not what the framers of the Constitution had in mind when they wrote the First Amendment,’ he said.”

In fact, about the only institution, public or private, that remains utterly devoid of lickspittles is a certain branch of the Canadian Parliament, where 105 unelected members, appointed by the Governor General on the “advice” of the prime minister exercise only the soundest judgement, free of influence, in the lofty interest of the citizens they represent.

Isn’t that true, Ms. LeBreton? What, pray tell, is your word for them?

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Je me souviens. . .the late, great jobs swindle

St. Paul's wasn't built in a day; the jobs were crap!

St. Paul’s wasn’t built in a day; the jobs were crap!

Few jobs are uniformly good. But some are unrelentingly awful, and you remember them as you would a bully’s fist.

I remember the wretched May of 1981 when, at the untempered age of 20, I sold encyclopedias door-to-door in poor trailer parks that ringed the outskirts of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. I remember the unemployed residents, drunk and foul in their singlets. I remember the doorless freezers, rusting in gravel drives. I remember the feral dogs chained (if I were lucky) to iron bars driven into cracked and broken lawns.

I remember the infamous summer of 1982 when the only jobs recession-ravaged Halifax offered a young, university-bound father of an infant daughter were dish washer at a greasy spoon on the failing thoroughfare of Spring Garden Road and box boy at a woman’s garment store in a crumbling strip mall in the city’s dying west end.

I remember the middle-aged matrons who managed these establishments reeking of unrequited desire and cheap perfume. I remember the weekly pay packets, rattling with just enough loose change to pay for the bus rides home and 36 hours (again, if I were lucky) worth of groceries.

All of which flooded back to me the other week when, while researching a piece on youth employment in Canada and the United States, I happened upon an item penned in 2002 for my favorite parodic organ of news and opinion, The Onion.

“In a keynote address at the National Economic Summit, (former) President Bush issued a bold challenge to the nation’s business leaders Monday, calling on them to create 500,000 shitty jobs by next year,” the squib began. ‘So long as unemployment continues to rise, this recession will continue, as well,’ said Bush, speaking before nearly 400 of the nation’s top CEOs. ‘That is why I am turning to you to create thousands of new shit jobs. Whether it is a night-shift toilet-cleaning position at an airport or a fry-cook post. . .it’s up to you to help provide every hard-working American with a demeaning, go-nowhere job.’”

To be any good at all, satire demands verisimilitude, and this is good satire. More’s the pity; for in the intervening years, conditions have, if anything, worsened, especially for young people.

As the The Huffington Post reported earlier this year, “In 2000, the United States had the lowest non-employment rate for 25- to 34-year-olds among countries with large, wealthy economies. By 2011, America had one of the highest youth non-employment rates compared to its peers, according to a New York Times op-ed by David Leonhardt, the paper’s Washington bureau chief. . .As unemployment soared during the Great Recession, young people – with and without college degrees – were forced to compete with more experienced candidates suddenly out of a job for very few openings. The result: Nearly half of the nation’s unemployed are under the age of 34, according to a report last month from public policy organization Demos.”

Moreover, Huff Post declared, “It doesn’t seem like things will get better for America’s young people any time soon. Demos found that the U.S. economy will have to create more than 4 million jobs before young adults will be employed at levels similar to those before the recession. In addition, 16.1 percent of Americans ages 18 to 29 were out of work in April, according to Generation Opportunity, a nonpartisan youth advocacy group.”

And this doesn’t begin to touch the gathering “truly-bad-job” phenomenon, which Canadian writer and filmmaker Jim Munroe dissects to marvelous effect in his 2011  mockumentary, “Ghosts With Shit Jobs”. In it, he chronicles the daily, working lives of a band of young professionals as they struggle to survive a dystopian future following the economic collapse of the western world and the concurrent ascent of China.

His cast of characters, variously, assemble android babies for affluent Asians, operate as human “spammers” pushing corporate products and brands in the otherwise polite company of restaurants and call centers, and function as virtual-reality repairmen ridding cyberspace of plethora copyright infringements and expired slogans.

It’s damn funny stuff. It is, that is, until you realize the filmmaker is not kidding, and it’s no joke.

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Fear and trembling in Canuckistan

The political process as we know it in Canada

The political process as we know it in Canada

Citizens of the world are united in at least one important respect: They’re feeling a might poorly these days, and they’re not at all sure what, if anything, can shake them from their malaise.

That, at least, is what we may conclude from a new Ipsos Global Advisory entitled, “The Economic Pulse of the World (May 2013),” in which “citizens in 24 countries assess the current state of their country’s economy for a total global perspective.”

The key findings, gleaned from interviews with 18,331 individuals between the ages of 16 and 64, suggest that, averaged overall, only 36 per cent think their “current national economic situation” is good. Most think it stinks. We Canadians are generally more positive (thank you Messrs. Harper, Flaherty and Carney). But, as Ipsos points out, even our confidence is showing some fissures of late.

In a section headlined, “Canada Cause of Growth Deterioration in North America”, the research firm states, “Also concerning is economic sentiment in Canada. The country has traditionally performed as the rock holding up North American sentiment, while the United States has struggled to recover from the 2009/2010 crash. However, assessments in Canada have dropped six points to 59% saying the economy is ‘good’, reflecting the largest drop in the country since September 2011.”

Of course, that’s still far better than many. “A considerable margin continues to exist at the top of the global ratings between global leader Saudi Arabia (80%) and the rest of the pack although this is closing compared to last month,” Ipsos reports. “Following Saudi Arabia is Sweden (70%), Germany (67%), India (66%), China (64%), and Australia (62%). Only a handful of those in Spain (3%) rate their national economies as ‘good’, followed by Italy (4%), France (5%), Hungary (7%) and Great Britain (13%).”

Accounting for Canada’s precipitous slide this month is a little like sifting through the leaves at the bottom of a teacup. After all, according to a report by TD Economics in April, “The Canadian economy beat expectations in February, growing 0.3%, following an upwardly revised 0.3% gain in January. Canadian economic growth has now accelerated to a 1.7% pace year-on-year. That is still sub-par, but a far cry better than its 1% clip at the end of 2012.”

Moreover, the bank states, “The Canadian labour market created 12,500 net jobs in April, a small bounce back from (March’s) 54,500 net loss. The trend pace of job creation moved back into positive territory as the 3-month moving average rose from -8,600 to 2,900 in the month while the 6-month moving average stayed steady at

12,400. The unemployment rate remained steady at 7.2%”

My theory about the mini-crisis in confidence here has more to do the the “weighted average” of bad news related to matters of a decidedly non-economic nature. With apologies to the Bard, consider these rough winds, ripped from the daily news, that do shake the darling buds of May in the late, Great White North:

“Senator Mike Duffy said Thursday he wants a ‘full and open inquiry’ to answer the many questions Canadians have about the spending scandal that prompted him to leave the Conservative caucus and now has the RCMP asking the Senate for more details about spending rules,” reported the CBC on Friday.

For something completely different, also from the CBC, “Members of Rob Ford’s executive committee say they are prepared to take over the day-to-day running of the city if the Toronto mayor is no longer able to perform his duties, amid a scandal involving allegations he was caught on video smoking crack cocaine.”

If these aren’t enough to send you screaming over to grandma’s house, then how about this from the Montreal Gazette: “Exploding cars, intimidating phone calls and clandestine meetings in the dead of night. The Charbonneau Commission was presented with a dark and unflattering portrait of the city of Laval on Thursday, with two witnesses describing their involvement in a well-organized system of collusion in the municipality that was both profitable and dangerous.”

A rotten economy? We should be so lucky.

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How (not) to breed a culture of innovation

Think about tech at least once in your freakin' life!

Think about tech at least once in your freakin’ life!

Once again, a major Canadian think tank concludes that the nation’s private sector is not spending enough of research and development, on science and technology. Once again, the news runs buried in the tech sections of the day’s print organs, all but guaranteeing the predictable reader response of “so what.”

For decades – at least since the early 1980s – experts have warned that unless industry picks up the pace of innovation, the consequences for Canada’s productivity and competitiveness in the global economy will be dire. But what, exactly, does that mean and why should anyone outside the pearly gates of academe give a fig?

Not long ago, the Conference Board of Canada took a shot at answering the question. In a report entitled “How Canada Performs”, the organization had this to say about the country’s low ranking, compared to other economies, on innovation:

“Overall, countries that are more innovative are passing Canada on measures such as income per capita, productivity, and the quality of social programs. It is also critical to environmental protection, a high-performing education system, a well-functioning system of health promotion and health care, and an inclusive society. Without innovation, all these systems stagnate and Canada’s performance deteriorates relative to that of its peers.”

What’s more, the Board said, “With new key players – such as China, India, and Brazil – in the global economy, Canadian businesses must move up the value chain and specialize in knowledge-intensive, high-value-added goods and services. Although Canada has some leading companies that compete handily against global peers, its economy is not as innovative as its size would otherwise suggest.”

Now, the Science, Technology and Innovation Council (STIC) – a creature of the current federal government – adds its voice to the chorus. “Canada’s gross domestic expenditures on R&D (GERD) declined from their peak in 2008 and, when measured in relation to gross domestic product (GDP), since 2001,” it reports. “In contrast, the GERD and GERD intensity of most other countries have been increasing. Canada’s declining GERD intensity has pushed its rank down from 16th position in 2006 to 17th in 2008 and to 23rd in 2011 (among 41 economies). . .The more recent declines in the country’s total R&D funding efforts are attributable predominantly to private sector funding of R&D.”

The Council also notes, somewhat cheerfully that “Canadians understand that, if we want to create jobs and opportunity in a competitive world and address the key societal challenges that confront us in the 21st century, STI must be an integral part of the national agenda.”

But here’s the thing: I’m not at all sure Canadians do – understand, that is. If they did, then this conversation, which feels like a toothache, would be over. So would the chimerical debate, in government circles, about funding hard, “blue sky” science at the “expense” of applied, commercially viable research. Notice where these discussions almost never occur: Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark, The Netherlands, and, yes, even the United States.

That’s because these nations, unlike Canada, have recognized the truth of their circumstances, which is, both simple and elegant: If you want an innovative culture, you have to breed a culture of innovation. And silos of self-interest won’t help you accomplish the task. All segments of society – government, industry, higher education – must pull in the same direction if we’re going to get anywhere.

Or, as the STIC observes, “The responsibility is shared: all participants in our STI ecosystem have a role to play in driving enhanced performance and lifting Canada into the ranks of the world’s leading innovative economies. It is not just about investing more, but about investing more strategically and coherently, focusing our resources and efforts, learning from the experience of global STI leaders and improving agility to seize emerging opportunities. That is how Canada will truly be able to ‘run with the best.’”

It’s also how you convince average Canadians, who may not often read the tech sections of their newspapers, that their material well being – their wages and standards of living – depends directly on the quantity and quality of the innovations they enlist in the service of their respective futures.

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Driven by their distractions

The political process as we know it in Canada

The political process as we know it in Canada

Political commentators are, as a rule, enormously fond of the sound of their own voices, especially when handed the opportunity to contextualize a galloping controversy. I should know. I can’t count the number of times I’ve used the word “distraction” to describe some office holder’s goof-up.

But, I’m beginning to think we who observe-cum-scribble for a living are coming perilously close to spraining our backs for all the bending over we do in our attempt to perceive the bigger pictures in public life.

Yesterday, my esteemed colleague Jeffrey Simpson, the Globe and Mail’s national affairs columnist, deployed the word, “distraction” twice in one paragraph. “For a government already adrift at midterm, the Nigel Wright-Mike Duffy affair, coupled with the resignation from caucus of another Conservative senator, Pamela Wallin, represents an unwelcome distraction,” he wrote. “It’s doubtful that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s speech to his caucus on Tuesday – in which he declared himself ‘very upset‘ – will quickly end the distraction.”

In this, he may only have parroted Mr. Duffy, himself, who had characterized his contretemps as a “significant distraction” to his Tory caucus colleagues, before resigning to sit as an Independent.

Still, I’m left wondering: From what, exactly, is all this stuff a distraction? A good government? A sound economy? A functioning Senate? A ribbon-cutting ceremony somewhere near Nowhereville, New Brunswick?

Why can’t we see Senategate for what it is? To wit: A damn good news story that cuts to the heart of democracy in Canada, demanding all the remorseless attention to detail for which the Cosa Nostra of our craft is famous.

I might pose the same question to members of Hog Town’s Ford Nation whenever they cluck disapprovingly at the Toronto Star’s coverage of their man, Mayor Rob, whose talent for landing himself in hot water is downright promethean.

How the burgermeister of Canada’s biggest city manages to survive his days and nights at the cutting edge of contention is one of the great mysteries of the modern age. But survive he does, despite headlines that would reduce most in his position to a quivering pool of gelatin.

“Five days after two media outlets published reports on a video that appears to show him smoking crack cocaine, Mayor Rob Ford again offered no explanation on Tuesday,” reported this week. “He did not say whether he has smoked crack while in office. He did not say whether he used an anti-gay slur. Despite an expression of concern from the premier and renewed pleas from council allies, he did not say anything at all.”

Meanwhile, American late-night TV was having a ball at hizzoner’s expense. “Both Jimmy Kimmel and The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart discussed the controversy at the tops of their shows,” observed. “Jay Leno also mentioned Ford on Monday’s Tonight Show, joking that if the allegations are true, he’d still be qualified to be the mayor of Washington, D.C.”

In her commentary, Star columnist Heather Mallick noted, “There have been 42 low points in Ford’s mayoralty. . .from sexist and racist slurs, to drunken arguments in public, to a chaotic home life, to repeated court hearings on alleged financial wrongdoing, to, oh dozens more, a relentless sordid drip. I’m worried that unless he resigns, he’s going to punch a baby in the face or run himself over. I’m waiting for spontaneous Ford combustion, right there on the sidewalk.”

None of this, it’s safe to say, is a “distraction” from the business of running a major metropolitan area. In fact, in a palpable sense, it is the business of running a major metropolitan area. At least, it is lately.

The comportment of one’s mayor – or Senator – speaks volumes about the condition of one’s public institutions. It also points a fat finger at the electorate who, either directly or indirectly, play a role in selecting those for high public office.

By suggesting otherwise, well. . .the only thing from which we distract ourselves is the truth of our frequently flawed systems of government.

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The Red-faced Chamber needs reform

They’ve been falling like pins on a bowling lane – not one after another, but all at once, concussed by the sheer force of the public opprobrium against them. First Messrs. Brazeau and Harb, then Mr. Duffy and, finally, Ms. Wallin. May is the month of their reckoning and, at some basic level, of the Canadian Senate itself.

Expense claims make superb political scandals. Who doesn’t believe that public officials are always just one chit away from defrauding the noble, long-suffering taxpayer? Who doesn’t suspect that for every misdeed uncovered in the nation’s chambers of power, dozens more go undetected?

The burden of reality, though, is complexity. Nothing in Ottawa is ever as it seems, and while the tangled webs Senators Patrick Brazeau, Mac Harb, Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin have spun for themselves seem identical, they are not.

Last week, Mr. Brazeau told CBC Radio’s “The House” that he received prior, written approval from the Senate to rack up nearly $50,000 in living costs, a sum which that august body demands he return. His colleague, Mr. Harb, is on the hook for $100,000, a claim he has hired a lawyer to defend.

Meanwhile, Ms. Wallin has quit the Conservative caucus and has no intention of returning until an external reviewer finishes examining $320,000 in travel expenses she has incurred since 2010. In a statement, she said, “Given that (the audit process) continues, I have decided to recuse myself. . .and I will have no further comment” until, presumably, she is either cleared or found culpably responsible for the tab.

And then there is Mr. Duffy – poor, dear Mr. Duffy. He is paying a heavy premium in the court of public opinion for the $90,000 gift he received from the prime minister’s (now former) chief of staff to cover his expense debt to the Senate. The move has both baffled and outraged Canadians, who complain, with some justification, that a member of the Upper Chamber ought to pay his own bills, just like anybody else.

In fact, it’s the variety of these alleged lapses in judgement (as much as their concurrence) that speak most convincingly to the real problem an increasing number of Canadians perceive about the Senate: its institutional ossification.

Here is a body so unfamiliar with the concepts of accountability and transparency that it has no way to influence the comportment of its members without erecting what amounts to a police dragnet.

This observation lets no individual off the hook; nor should it. Mr. Duffy’s behavior  (or what we know of it) seems particularly egregious. Amid the thunder and lightening of popular outrage, no one has yet seen fit to point out that ethical wounds cannot always be healed by legal triage. Notwithstanding the generosity of a friend lately in a high place, the $90,000 Mr. Duffy improperly billed the Senate is still his burden to bear until he, alone, assumes responsibility for the debt. Otherwise, he skates free to spend his unencumbered net worth on whatever he likes. In whose conception of plain dealing is this even remotely fair?

Still, the larger issue is the Senate, itself – a 19th century institution purportedly doing 21st century work. Its members serve at the pleasure of those who appointed them, not always in the interests of the electorate or even the regions they are, by convention, supposed to represent. Its rules of residency are baroque. Its internal review procedures are inconsistent and oftentimes incomprehensible.

It is possible to remove a senator, but as a CTV report noted in February, it isn’t easy. Quoting from the Constitution Act, the news source identified five reasons for turfing a member, including: “If he is adjudged Bankrupt or Insolvent, or applies for the Benefit of any Law relating to Insolvent Debtors, or becomes a public Defaulter.”

Bankruptcy? Really?

All of which only guarantees that the inarguably good work the Senate performs (despite itself) remains shackled both to its fossilized past and current scandals.

There can be only one, sensible reckoning for Canada’s Upper Chamber: reform.

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How B.C.’s pollsters got it right

Seeing the forest for the trees in public opinion research

Seeing the forest for the trees in public opinion research

Public opinion pollsters are, to many, nothing more than contemporary augerers, gauging the effects of political rhetoric to predict which way the wind will blow on election day – something akin to reading a dead muskrat’s guts to divine the moment of Julius Caesar’s murder on the steps of the Theatre of Pompey.

No segment of society, it is safe to say, maintains a more disingenuous relationship with survey masters than the Fourth Estate. Journalists would be lost without the Nik Nanoses, Angus Reids and George Gallups of the world. We hang on their every word, dutifully parrot their findings and usually concur with their conclusions.

Then, when they turn out to be wrong (as they often do), we abandon them faster than a tourist does a passenger cruise infected with stomach flu. “If the B.C. election induced even a smidgen of humility into practitioners of our craft,” wrote the Globe and Mail’s national affairs columnist Jeffrey Simpson last week, “and made them less reliant on suspect polls and got them to stop yammering about polls (which the general public doesn’t much care about anyway), it will have served a useful purpose.”

Perhaps, but the general public does, in fact, care about polls, because we make them care about polls, especially the “suspect” ones. And if the B.C. election does serve a useful purpose, it will be the degree to which it nurtures a finer appreciation of the role polls play in the peaceful transition of democratic power.

Or, at least that’s John Wright’s and Kyle Braid’s hope. They are, respectively, senior vice president and vice president of Ipsos Reid Public Affairs, which bills itself as “Canada’s market intelligence leader, the country’s leading provider of public opinion research.” In an unprecedented examination of “what happened and why” in British Columbia last week – when the provincial Liberals defied every prediction and marched to victory over the NDP – the pollsters declare:

“In Canada, polls cannot be released on Election Day so it often leaves people guessing at what happened and produces lots of finger pointing. In the United States and other jurisdictions, polls that interview voters are harbingers of the outcome but most importantly help explain why things have turned out the way they have.”

In fact, they say, they nailed the results at the last minute, but because they weren’t allowed to release their election day findings, no one, apart from themselves, was the wiser.

“In British Columbia, we interviewed 1,400 voters on Election Day and, as you’ll see, the numbers virtually matched the real outcome in terms of voter preference,” they write. “But it also tells a story as to why this happened right down to the last minute. The reality is that one in 10 (11%) BC voters decided in the voting booth on election day to mark their ballot for their candidate – and with one of the lowest turnouts in provincial voting ever (52%) it was motivated voters, Liberals, who bested the NDP in the voting booth. . .This was a hand-to-hand combat campaign and it deserved close scrutiny to the final ballot – and that’s why we did what we did by doing this special poll but because of the rules we couldn’t release it.”

The bottom line: “After an event like this – which in Canadian politics has been few and far between – there are lots of people who say that the ‘polls got it wrong’ when in fact it’s voters who upset their own applecart based on everything they’ve seen, read or heard.”

In other words, B.C.’s pollsters got it right to the final moments when the public revolted against what they read about their voting intentions in the media.

The question, of course, is: If Ipsos Reid had been permitted to publish the results of exit polls on voting day, would that have changed the outcome of the election? A better question, perhaps, is: Does it matter?

The final prerogative of citizenship in a democracy defies prediction. A voter, after all, is still permitted to change his mind.

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Sending out an S.O.S. to the universe

Beware the birdbrains in your backyard

Beware the birdbrains in your backyard

Now that Sarnia-born astronaut Chris Hadfield is, again, just another terrestrial, he might wonder whether he left his orbiting observation deck just a tad prematurely.

Canadians are looking up – way up – these days for proof of intelligent life in the universe, having not found even a shred of it on Earth.

According Chris Rutkowski and Geoff Dittman of Winnipeg’s Ufology Research, almost twice as many people claimed to have seen something they could not explain in the night sky in 2012 than in 2008 (the previous record year).

As for UFO sightings, Mr. Rutkowski told CTV last week, “We thought that they had plateaued or peaked a few years ago, when there were about 1,000 cases reported in Canada. But last year they jumped 100 per cent: 2,000 reports in Canada alone. . .Now whether we’re looking at a physical phenomenon or perhaps a sociological or a psychological phenomenon, the fact is that people are seeing things. . .“The truth is out there, but unfortunately we’re stuck down here.”

We sure are, and “stuck” is the word.

Let us scan the leads of the world’s news, lo these past few days.

“The revelation that Stephen Harper’s top aide gave Senator Mike Duffy more than $90,000 to cover repayment of improper expense claims has dragged the Prime Minister and his office into the controversy over Senate accountability,” the Globe and Mail helpfully informed on Friday. “The Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, Mary Dawson, said Wednesday that her office will review PMO chief of staff Nigel Wright’s decision to bail out Mr. Duffy.”

Meanwhile, ABC News reported last Thursday, “The U.S. justice department has admitted to secretly seizing phone records from the Associated Press in its attempt to track down the source of a leak. It is suspected the raid relates to the AP’s reporting on a foiled Al Qaeda plan to detonate a bomb on a plane heading to the United States last year. The AP says the justice department seized the records of more than 20 home, mobile and office phone lines this year without notice.”

Then, there’s the IRS, whose honcho, the Guardian noted, U.S. President Barack Obama “fired. . .on Wednesday in an effort to bring a speedy end to a scandal over the targeting of Tea Party organisations and other conservative groups for special scrutiny.

Obama, speaking at the White House, described the conduct of the employees at the Internal Revenue Service office in Cincinnati, Ohio, as ‘inexcusable’.

“The president said the Treasury secretary, Jack Lew, had demanded the resignation of the acting commissioner of the IRS, Steven Miller, in the light of criticism in an inspector general’s report (which) found that ineffective management at the IRS had allowed agents. . .to target conservative groups inappropriately for more than 18 months. Officials had picked out groups with the words Tea Party or Patriots in their titles and subjected their requests for tax-exempt status to extra scrutiny.”

Now, as CBS reported on Thursday, “The White House release of some 100 pages of emails and notes about the deadly attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, last year has failed to satisfy congressional Republicans, who are demanding more information. . .Republicans have accused the Obama administration of misleading the American people about the circumstances of the attack, playing down a terrorist strike that would reflect poorly on President Obama in the heat of a presidential race. Mr. Obama has dismissed charges of a cover-up and suggested on Monday that the criticism was politically motivated.”

Finally, the U.S. Treasury is broke, as is most of continental Europe and a fair number of Canadian provinces. Household debt is at an all-time high as the gap between the rich and the poor inexorably widens.

And this lately in from the lunatic fringe: “Throughout the years it has become a duty of each Flat Earth Society member, to meet the common round earther in the open, avowed, and unyielding rebellion; to declare that his reign of error and confusion is over; and that henceforth, like a falling dynasty, he must shrink and disappear, leaving the throne and the kingdom of science and philosophy to those awakening intellects whose numbers are constantly increasing, and whose march is rapid and irresistible.”

Under the circumstances who in his or her right mind wouldn’t want to make the stars his or her destination?

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Hey buddy, can you spare a dime?


Dear Nigel:

It’s been some time since last we chatted, and it occurs to me that I never did thank you for your gift of last Christmas, which was both timely and deeply appreciated. As we are both men of a certain social standing and responsibility, we understand how the pressures of high office can occasionally undermine our material means. It is grand to know that one can count on one’s friends when circumstances prevail overly on one’s pocket book. Great Aunt Mabel’s sudden demise (the unfortunate result of one too many rum toddies during Hogmanay) was a devastating blow to all of us. Your generous offer to cover the costs of her interment was a great relief. Again, we thank you!

On another matter entirely, you’ll be pleased to know that the renovations to our summer residence in Castle, New Brunswick, are proceeding nicely. The wife, Minnie, and I are enormously proud of the 1,500 square feet of new, outdoor living space, which replaces the old baby barn and outhouse. We can’t decide what we like most about it: the uniflame, gas firebowl with teak surrounds or the Buddha-themed, granite water feature. Minnie simply can’t tear herself away from the Rattan sofa chair.(It’s mildew-resistant, don’t you know). In any case, thanks to your thoughtful munificence, we’ve managed to steer clear of the bank. What a relief! Arguing loan terms can be such a bore.

Oh, before I forget, I should mention that our girl Tabitha is having a marvelous time on her European grand tour, visiting all of the Old World capitals. Meanwhile, young Chad is learning how to parasail (his fondest dream) during his sojourn at the reef islands of Vanuatu. Needless to say, they are most grateful for their “Uncle” Nigel’s support and they send their love.

Now, down to business. . .I may have mentioned to you my desire to write a book. For years, I have been deeply concerned about the state of the Maritime economy and the increasing gulf between the haves and the have-nots. When I travel around this region – the times I manage to extricate myself from my heavy workload in Ottawa – I am shocked by the lack of opportunity here. Recently, somebody (I can’t remember who) told me that the population is aging and that more and more people are actually leaving to get work elsewhere. Did you know that?

Well, that’s certainly a wake-up call and I think something should be done about it. Specifically, I think I should do something about it. After all, I am a member of this great country’s upper chamber. What’s more, I am a journalist by training and a story teller by temperament. (I once gave a speech, scheduled for half-an-hour, that ran on for 75 minutes; by the end, the audience could not recommend me too highly).

Nigel, here’s what I’m proposing. . .I will roll up my sleeves and get down to the nitty gritty of what makes this region tick. Why do some people seem to have it all and why do some. . .well, don’t? Why is there so much unfairness out there? Who’s to blame? What’s the solution?

I’ve considered throwing my support behind Maritime Union, but for the life of me I can’t figure out where the capital city should go. So, maybe that’s a non-starter. At the very least, however, I can leverage the not unappreciable respect my station in life affords me to get the urgent conversation going. I even have a working title: “A Tough Love Letter from Fat City.” Catchy – don’t you think?

At any rate, such a project will take time and, of course, money – about $90,000, in fact. And that, dear friend, brings me to you. I know you won’t let me down. After all, men like us. . .well, we’ve got to stick together.

Your enduring chum,

Senator Alejandro Brucellosis, Esq.

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