Monthly Archives: August 2014

All the news that’s fit to ignore

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If I were a newspaper editor with my pick of front-page stories, which would I choose to run above the fold?

Would it be the one about Burger King gobbling up Tim Hortons for a cool $12.5 billion? Or would it be the one about humanity possibly facing extinction in a century or so thanks entirely to manmade global warming?

At the Globe and Mail, at any rate, the answer is a no-brainer (as it is, I’d guess, at just about every other daily news organ in the world). Donuts and burgers trump the apocalypse every time.

And so it was, Tuesday, when the Globe ran its insider’s look-see at the deal between Timmy’s and 3G Capital Group, the Brazilian private equity fund that bought Burger King for $4.1 billion in 2010, on Page One.

Meanwhile, casually floating amid the news of less apparent import on Page Nine was an Associated Press story about the final draft report of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – a report which makes dire predictions of  “severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems.”

You might have reasonably expected a followup in the front section’s middle two-page spread, normally reserved for in-depth analyses of subjects and topics in the news. But, no. There, too, Tim’s had dibs.

“You may have heard that Tim Hortons is becoming part of a newly-formed global company headquartered in Canada,” the advertising copy cheerly chirped. “Among other things, this will help us grow and expand our brand around the world. What remains the same is our focus on top quality, fresh products, value, great service and investment in community. . .That focus on our guests and community will never change.”

Neither, alas, will mankind’s preternatural ability to miss the forest for the trees.

A multi-billion-dollar corporate merger happens every couple of years, or so. But the end of the world as we know it? Come on people, that’s a once-in-a-lifetime event. One would think it deserves a little more respect than it gets in the mainstream media and popular press.

“The UN report tells us once again what we know with a greater degree of certainty: that climate change is real, it is caused by us, and it is already causing substantial damage to us and our environment,” Michael Mann, a climatologist at Pennsylvania State University told the Associated Press. “If there is one take-home point of this report, it is this: We have to act now.”

Or not.

Consider what John Christy has to say. He, too, is a climate scientist, though unlike most of his peers, he’s no catastrophe junkie. The University of Alabama academic told the AP, “Humans are clever. We shall adapt to whatever happens.”

Not surprisingly, Dr. Christy is not altogether beloved by his peers. In a recent New York Times piece, Kerry Emanuel, a professor of atmospheric science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology equated his colleague’s sanguinity about the future to courting disaster. “It’s kind of like telling a little girl who’s trying to run across a busy street to catch a school bus to go for it, knowing there’s a substantial chance that she’ll be killed,” he said. “She might make it. But it’s a big gamble to take.”

But Dr. Christy’s “relax, don’t worry attitude” has made him the darling of certain Republican members of congress, conspiracy theorists and populist nincompoops who equate education with elitism (except, presumably, when he’s in the room).

And because he appears to rationally demur at the current, standard model of anthropogenic atmospheric warming, his views invariably find their way into the type of news copy that all-too-valiantly strives to be “objective” and “balanced”. (Although, really, if 99 experts on a subject say a thing is about to happen and one says it’s not, does lending both sides equal credence serve the interests of objectivity and balance)?

It hardly matters, because if a thing hasn’t happened, it’s not front-page news. And if there is even the slightest question or debate about its likelihood of ever occurring, it is, at best, Page Nine material.

Now, a story about one fast food giant gobbling up another. . .well, that’s real. Heck, you can almost taste the relevance, can’t you?

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Meet the planes, trains and automobile campaigners

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Having temporarily exhausted their rhetoric, for and against, shale gas development, New Brunswick’s front-running political pugilists are, by way of a break between rounds, tucking into an issue about which they can both agree. Sort of.

As Conservative Leader David Alward announced his intention to craft a comprehensive port strategy for Saint John and Belledune, Liberal Leader Brian Gallant introduced an ambitious, $900-million, six-year program to refurbish roads, highways and other “strategic infrastructure” across the province.

“One of the best ways to (create jobs). . .is through stimulus in the short term, like making strategic investments in our roads and bridges,” Mr. Gallant said this week. “We have a comprehensive plan to create jobs in the near term, medium term and long term.”

He keeps saying that and he may even believe it. Still, infrastructure spending is that least sexy of all campaign issues; that it invariably comes with what seems like a staggering price tag usually spells disaster for the candidate who embraces it.

True to form, Mr. Alward and NDP Leader Dominic Cardy were ready at the pounce.

“We don’t have any money,” Mr. Cardy said simply, when asked for his opinion. “You can’t keep talking about spending billions of dollars we don’t have. . .$88,000 is the preliminary costing we got on this particular announcement. This is the worst of old-style politics. They was we create jobs is by educating workers, not hiring people onto the government payroll.”

Not to be outdone for timely displays of righteous indignation, Mr. Alward said, “Every cent that he (Mr. Gallant) is talking about investing going forward and increasing means money is going to have to be borrowed because the revenues are not there. Wheat he is doing is saddling taxpayers today, New Brunswickers today, but very importantly, he’s saddling future generations with huge debt that is not sustainable.”

Should Mr. Gallant prevail next month, and ride gloriously into Fredericton, it will, indeed, be fascinating to watch the young premier make good on his spending promises, given the province’s $500-million annual deficit and $12-billion debt. Maybe he can pull it off without waving any red flags at international bond-rating agencies.

All the same, the voter is always best served when he or she is in possession of real numbers, if only estimates, to consider.

What, in contrast, are we to make of Mr. Alward’s plan to get strategic with the province’s ports? Apparently, the Tory leader insists, it will “help unlock New Brunswick’s export potential and capitalize on our capacity to be able to say yes to natural gas development.”

How much is not important, because, as the Saint John Telegraph-Journal reported yesterday, “Alward said there’s no specific cost to developing a strategy.”

That’s convenient considering there’s also no specific reason why the province’s seaports, which fall under the jurisdiction of the federal government, would undertake a planning exercise of this complexity without Ottawa’s explicit support, both moral and monetary.

On the other hand, apart from the funding piece (always the Achilles heel in these matters), Mr. Gallant’s scheme, if given a chance, might actually produce tangible benefits. Moncton-based economic development consultant David Campbell has actually costed out the investment and calculated the return.

According to the T-J article, “The Liberals say an analysis conducted for them by Jupia Consultants indicates that spending $150 million per year on infrastructure would create and sustain 1,702 full-time jobs over six years and return $13 million in tax revenue to the province, annually.”

Moreover, “the annual spending is expected to generate $92.6 million worth of direct and indirect GDP through the supply chain in New Brunswick and $113.5 million with induced economic impacts. That would include $69.7 million worth of direct and indirect labour income and $78.5 million worth of labour income, including induced effects.”

In the end, the Liberals’ plan to get people back to work – preparing the province for that fine, sunny day when its booming economy will require superior infrastructure – may be too costly. It may even be unworkable.

But at least here’s a bottom line, instead of the usual empty rhetoric, to scrutinize.

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Leaders must read the writing on the wall

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Like creating jobs and ending poverty, no issue is more liable to elicit a chorus of unanimity from otherwise divergent political voices than building a literate workforce.

The question that customarily divides campaigners along traditional party lines during an election cycle is: How?

Specifically, in New Brunswick’s case, how do do we improve adult literacy levels (56 per cent of people in this province can’t read well enough to function competently on a daily basis), and burnish language, numeracy and problem-solving skills among anglophone and francophone children here (they come in last among their peers across Canada, according to one well-respected Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development study)?

Conservative Leader and reigning premier David Alward seems to think the challenge requires superior multi-tasking abilities: “Certainly, the work we have begun on inclusion and ensuring that every child has an opportunity to learn to their fullest extent,” he told the Saint-John Telegraph last week on his way to never quite finishing his thought, let alone sentence. “The work as well to ensure we have healthy bodies through increased physical activity.”

He’s right, to the extent that a lazy, unfit frame more often houses a similarly afflicted mind, unsuited to and ill-equipped for learning.

But New Democrat Leader Dominic Cardy is more in line with current pedagogical thinking when he suggests a simple, elegant fix. “If we create a universally accessible, affordable high-quality early childhood education system, linking existing private infrastructure in schools and centres with government-supported ones where necessary, that is going to unleash a huge amount of economic,” he told the T-J.

How much economic potential ECE manages to unleash in jurisdictions where it is systematically introduced and integrated with later grades in the public school system is a matter of some debate.

Still, the results of one recent study, published last fall, of 693 Ontario kids in Grade One indicated that those who had participated in two years of full-day kindergarten (FDK) in that province were much better equipped to thrive in school than those who had not.

The research, undertaken by Queen’s and MacMaster universities concluded, “Overall, students in FDK are better prepared to enter Grade 1 and to be more successful in school. In every area, students improved their readiness for Grade 1 and accelerated their development. Comparisons of children with two years of FDK instruction and children with no FDK instruction showed that FDK reduced risks in social competence development from 10.5 per cent to 5.8 per cent; in language and cognitive development from 15.8 per cent to 4.3 per cent; (and) in communication skills and general knowledge development from 10.5 per cent to 5.8 per cent.”

In fact, in recent years, the efficacious effects of early child education on literacy, numeracy and problem-solving has been rigorously studied all over the world. And the findings all lead to the same conclusion: It works.

Last October, the Solutions Network of the United Nations issued a report that recommended that  “all girls and boys complete affordable and high-quality early childhood development programs, and primary and secondary education to prepare them for the challenges of modern life and decent livelihoods (and that) all youth and adults have access to continuous lifelong learning to acquire functional literacy, numeracy, and skills to earn a living through decent employment or self-employment.”

At virtually the same time, The Economist appealed to the world’s governments to demonstrate some timely common sense: “Investment in the young should focus on early education. Pre-school is a crucial first step to improving the lot of disadvantaged children, and America is an international laggard. According to the OECD, it ranks only 28th out of 38 leading economies in the proportion of four-year-olds in education.”

Can New Brunswick afford a universal, integrated, accessible system of early childhood education in an age of massive, structural public deficits and debt? It is, admittedly, an enormously tough sell only because it defies any short-term rationale.

But if we don’t start thinking in the long term, and demand that our political leaders follow suit, our fiscal and economic perdition will become permanent features of our society – a society where illiteracy and innumeracy run rampant among the increasingly ignorant majority. 

The ‘Martinizing’ of Brian Gallant

One of Brian Gallant’s greatest strengths is his youth, which also happens to be one of his greatest weaknesses.

That may explain why the 32-year-old Grit leader, who looks at times like he just graduated from junior high school, has rolled out one of his party’s grand, old men to sanctify an economic plan that would both cut and add about $300 million a year to the New Brunswick budget.

There he was at a Liberal pre-campaign announcement in Fredericton last week,

in all his ruddy-faced septuagenarian glory, Canada’s 34th Prime Minister the Right Honourable Paul Martin, who served for about 10 minutes (politically speaking) in the breaking years of the century.

Rising to the podium, he recalled his tenure as the nation’s finance minister in the early 1990s. “I had a very short-term target which I had to do because Canada was in very tough shape at that time and I was very worried that there was going to be an international financial crisis,” he said.

Referring to his youthful fellow traveller, Mr. Martin added, “He (Mr. Gallant) doesn’t have to do it all in two to three years, but what he does have to do is set very clear targets that are going to give everyone confidence that he will achieve them.”

Of course, confidence in political leadership – now at what must be an all-time low in just about every corner of the country – depends on the lucidity of the political purpose. And Mr. Gallant’s fiscal and economic agendas, while promising in many ways,  are still obscured by crowd-pleasing rhetoric, shy on details.

The Liberal leader says that should he become the next premier of New Brunswick, he will launch a thorough program review with the objective of finding at least $250 million a year in spending cuts. The haircut would occur in the second year of his term.

“We must get our fiscal house in order if we are strategically invest to create jobs and make life more affordable for New Brunswickers,” he said at the announcement.

Meanwhile, the aspiring chief elected officer has rolled out a plan to spend $300 million “targeted,” as one newspaper report explained last week, “at supporting job creation as part of a plan to begin paying down the province’s debt.”

As usual, the Tories made them do it.

“The Alward government has made its focus cut, cut, cut and cut, and that approach simply hasn’t worked,” Mr. Gallant said. “Their across-the-board cuts have recklessly depressed job creation, dropping government revenues and leaving us with a persistent $500-million deficit.”

In contrast, the Liberal plan would spend money to generate new jobs, which would, in turn, generate new tax revenue to fight the province’s pernicious $12-billion debt. Or, as Mr. Gallant stipulates, “We believe we must make strategic investments to create jobs and make life more affordable for New Brunswickers. We will lay out a plan that strikes a sensible balance between strategic investments and fiscal responsibility.”

To which a weary voter, wise in the ways political wiggle room, might respond: “What exactly is this plan of yours, Mr. Gallant? Any time now; we’re all ears.”

The problem with a phrase like “strategic investments” is that it doesn’t mean anything to most people. Like “productivity enhancements” and “continuous improvement” it whips past the brain pans of even the smartest voters.

I sort of get what Mr. Gallant is reaching for, but that’s only because I spent a few years as a political operative playing hardball with Darth Vader.

If he means that New Brunswick’s economy is the key to solving the province’s fiscal problems (no kidding, right Sherlock?) and that, as such, the economy must become more creative, diversified and technologically savvy to become more durable  and shock proof then he’s dead right.

He’s also right about the Tories’ one-horse-campaign. In reviving the economy, the province ought not to be the sum of its shale gas deposits. That’s not, well, strategically wise. 

Still, for now, stop talking about strategy.

New Brunswickers have 30 days to make up their minds (if they haven’t already) about whom they’ll tolerate in elected office.

The youthful and grizzled, alike, want to know what, precisely, are the tactics involved in the job creation juggernauts of this and, indeed, all political parties in this province.

Water, water everywhere and not a drop to protect

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It seems that the Alward government is bound and determined to pitch itself over the gunnels of the ship of state and drown contentedly in the political equivalent of Davy Jones’s locker.

For the second time in as many weeks, the ruling Tories (for now) are having to answer tough and humiliating questions related to their administration of shale gas development in the province.

The first controversy, indirectly but not tangentially related to water, involved its decision to proceed with an RCMP investigation of Calgary-based Windsor Energy in 2011. The Province claimed in a public statement that the exploration company had violated the Oil and Natural Gas Act by failing to obtain permission from the Town of Sussex before conducting seismic testing within its municipal borders.

The Mounties said the allegation was baseless and refused to lay charges. Emails obtained by this newspaper organization this month confirmed that a lawyer working for Communications New Brunswick at the time strongly urged the Department of a Natural Resources to back off days before government officials ultimately ignored the advice and decided to go public with its probe.

Guess who’s suing whom for libel, and to the tune of 100-million bucks? Hint: The grin on the face of Windsor’s CEO has achieved Cheshire Cat-like dimensions, of late.

It’s all priceless, given that the central worry among those who oppose tight oil and gas plays in the province is the degree to which the key extraction technology, hydraulic fracturing, might poison the water tables of largely rural communities, which still depend on wells.

To wit: If legislators don’t understand the scope of their own regulations, how can they be trusted to protect the public’s drinking water?

Now, the very same lawyer, Charles Murray, who told the government it didn’t have a legal leg to stand on three years ago, has issued a stinging indictment of the Province’s waterway protection policies. This time, though, he’s not a consulting factotum; he’s New Brunswick’s ombudsman.

Payback really is, well, a bummer.

According to Telegraph-Journal legislative reporter Chris Morris, in a piece this week, “Charles Murray states in the report of his investigation into a complaint filed last year by the Nashwaak Watershed Association that the existing regulation governing waterway classifications ‘is in some respects worse than having no regulation at all.’”

He continued: “Over 12 years have passed, and the Clean Water Act has been amended, yet (the water classification) regulation exists primarily as a mirage, misleading observers to their detriment. The history of this file leads us to conclude that the Legislative Assembly must take a more direct interest if it wishes the province of New Brunswick to have an effective Water Classification Program rather than an illusory one. . .(This is) like a smoke detector without batteries. It provides no protection.”

In its absurdly lame defence, the T-J reports, the provincial Department of the Environment (which is, by every observable standard, merely a bedroom community of the Department of Natural Resources), stipulates that it has “initiated a process to develop a provincial water strategy. This will include a public engagement component, and will include discussion concerning the existing Water Classification Regulation, and whether it is the right tool to achieve our water management objectives.”

It must be joking. What water management objectives? For more than a decade, we now know, the Province has had a law on the books that its various governments – both Tory and Grit – have repeatedly refused to parse, let alone enforce.

And not just any law. It deals with water, people. . .water! Ninety-per-cent of the stuff comprises our human body weight. If we stop drinking good, old H20, we die within seven days. No other consideration in economic development – especially of natural resources – occupies a position of primacy more than does this.

Indeed, it’s bewildering – in fact, it boggles the mind – that this government expects to create a shale-gas industry, expand mining and forestry operations across the province, track in a pipeline from the west whilst winning the hearts and minds of New Brunswickers for its intentions without a sound, responsible water protection regime.

Perhaps this government is weary of public office.

Perhaps it does, in fact, prefer to commit suicide by droning and then, finally, by drowning.

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The lowly pursuits of the high-born politicos among us

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The dissimilitude to truth of this, our current federal government, is breathtaking, and getting harder to inhale with each day that passes.

Officialdom’s single-minded focus on evil-doers, luridly lurking behind every corner on every Main Street in Canada, its purpose to punish those who might occasionally harbour an opinion that differs from the ‘Centre’s’, its thorough, rabid hatred of opposition members of parliament, its utter disregard for what’s on most people’s minds in this country might spell disaster for democracy in this country.

Fortunately, democracy is just a bit stronger than the powerful few – who purport to uphold it – actually appreciate. For one thing, there is humour in everything the body politic is forced to embrace these days.

Consider, by way of example, the latest in a long line of mail-box stuffers, courtesy of my Conservative MP Robert Goguen.

A few months ago, at my doorstep, his confederates dumped a screed that promised to stick up for disabled people, especially the blind. To prove the good fellow’s communitarian intentions, the flyer portrayed all the stranded, standard talking points and one other ingredient: Braille, the tactile reading system the visually impaired use to comprehend the world of words.

Except, of course, in this instance, the Braille elements were not raised bumps a blind person might read; they were flat design elements on a page that even the marvelously sighted could hardly discern on a page of such braggadocio that even Gene Simmons of Kiss fame would blush when contemplating the cataracts 45 years of stage makeup bestows.

Now, my constituency buddies and I welcome this from Mr. Goguen:

“Our Conservative Government is focused on delivering on the priorities of hard-working Canadian families. . .Since coming to office, we have lowered taxes for all, created the Universal Child Care Benefit and the children’s fitness and arts tax credits, and protected the health and safety of families and communities.”

Really?

Actually, this federal government has lowered taxes on the very rich disproportionately to decreases for the middle class.

It has cut funding to the very poor in tandem with its abrogation of any responsibility for skills training and development for the marginally and seasonably employed.

Its employment insurance policies have virtually insured a permanent underclass in every region of the country, except Alberta.

As for the Universal Child Care Benefit, that was a Depression-era innovation that only found purchase in the 1960s. There isn’t much more novel or useful in this program, here today, than there was 75 years ago.

Then, we are faced with this almost incomprehensible statement (written in such tiny type you’d swear the good member of parliament is downright embarrassed to have his name associated with elder care):

“Our Conservative government believes that Canadians should be confident that their interests are well protected by the regulatory framework of our financial system. From the banning of unsolicited credit card cheques, to introducing new rules for credit card companies, our Government has taken strong action to protect hard-working Canadian families. More recently, in response to consumer raised concerns regarding unclear terms and unfair fees, we introduced new pre-paid product regulations to make information for consumers regarding these products clear and simple.”

Uh-huh. And how, pray tell, is that working out for all of us?

This is a government that also wonders what are our top priorities.

Is it, for example, “eliminating geographic price discrimination”, or is it “lowering wireless costs”?

Is it “unbundling cable channels” or is it ending ‘pay-to-pay’ billing policies”?

After all, “who is on track to support Canadian families”? 

Are you a Green, a Grit, a Tory, a Socialist, an “undecided”? Are you a patriot, a malcontent, a rebel, a conformist, a (gasp!) Liberal?

Stand and deliver to Caesar what Caesar demands you “stay-at home parent”, you “senior”, you “veteran”, you “parent of child under 18”, you “working Canadian.”

Of course, we will, in all the required mechanisms of our disassociations from each other: Apart, angry and what power always seeks. . .vulnerable believers.

Shale gas lawsuit puts government credibility on the line

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The New Brunswick government ritually boasts it maintains the toughest, most circumspect regulatory standards for shale gas in North America. But that’s faint comfort if those responsible for enforcing them don’t actually know what they say.

No doubt to the grim satisfaction of opponents of the controversial drilling technique – who have always mistrusted officialdom’s supreme confidence in the structural integrity of its knowledge bank – a glaring case in point now plays out on the front pages of provincial newspapers.

According to Legislative reporter Adam Huras, documents obtained by Brunswick News show that the Department of Natural Resources was advised that an exploration company complied with the law (when it undertook seismic testing within the borders of the municipality of Sussex) before government officials issued a press release that stated precisely the opposite.

That announcement, on behalf of then-Natural Resources Minister Bruce Northrup, on November 9, 2011, read, in part: “I wish to inform the public that a complaint has been filed by the Department of Natural Resources with the RCMP alleging Windsor Energy Inc. of Calgary, Alta., violated the Oil and Natural Gas Act by directing a contracted company to conduct geophysical exploration within the boundaries of the Town of Sussex.

“Under regulation 86-191 of the Oil and Natural Gas Act, a municipality’s written permission is required before geophysical activity can be conducted inside the boundaries of an incorporated municipality.”

The epistle then concluded on a note of supreme sanctimony: “New Brunswickers can be assured that all companies exploring for or developing oil and natural gas reserves in our province are expected to observe our laws and that we will ensure these laws are upheld. The rules we have in place and those now being developed to strengthen our regulatory framework are intended to protect our people and our environment, and must be respected.”

Regrettably – if only for the government – it appears that Windsor violated no laws; that it was obligated to obtain permission to test from either the town (which it did not consult) or the Province (which it did), but not necessarily both.

Certainly, the company’s CEO, Khalid Amin, is sure Windsor did nothing wrong. Now, he’s suing the provincial government for $100 million alleging that Mr. Northrup’s comments in the November press release and the follow-up RCMP investigation (which produced no charges, naturally) were libelous.

There is much to ponder in all of this, starting with the investigative reporter’s credo: Who knew what, when?

The chain of correspondence at the end of October, 2011, clearly shows one Charles Murray, a lawyer attached to Communications New Brunswick, strongly advising Natural Resources to cool its jets: “It would perhaps have been good form or or polite of them (Windsor) to obtain the permission of both (the town and the Province). . .It was not, however, required under the provisions of the regulations. . .Given that, I am not at all in favour of the minister stating that Windsor violated the province’s Oil and Natural Gas Act.”

You can’t get any more categorical than that. So, then, why did government officials ignore the advice in its entirety? Did they believe they had a steadier grip on the relevant legislation than did the attorney they presumably paid to advise them on the one thing about which lawyers know more than anybody: the law?

According to Mr. Huras’s report, the emails he obtained “also show that government staff asked the RCMP not to publicly reveal the reason why the investigation into Windsor’s seismic work in the Sussex area would not result in charges.”

That’s predictable. Stupid, but predictable.

In situations like these, the only reason why the cops would not pursue charges  is that they believe the subject of their investigation committed no infraction.

In this case, expunging a talking point from a communications strategy isn’t going to prevent anyone from coming to that conclusion, or that the provincial government’s ham-handed stick-handling of the whole affair undermines public confidence in its ability to administer and regulate the shale gas industry in New Brunswick.

After all, why is the original, offending statement – the one over which Mr. Amin is suing the Province – still posted to the Department of Natural Resources’ website, still out there in the public domain in all its taunting glory?

Forget about this government knowing what its own regulations say.

Does it even know what it’s doing?

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Crunching the numbers that don’t add up

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Perhaps it was in the air over at Statistics Canada, but an embarrassing misadventure underestimating jobs growth in the country this summer seems oddly appropriate for an agency that’s missing 20 per cent of its staff and $30 million of its budget.

Still, that was one doozy of a blunder.

Earlier this month, the federal numbers-crunching organization reported that the Canadian economy created a mere 200 positions in July, far fewer than economists had been expecting. Then, just last week, officials issued a statement confirming that the actual number was 42,000:   

“An error has been detected in the processing of the August 8 Labour Force Survey release. This error impacts only the July 2014 estimates. The source of the error has been identified.”

What’s more, “Statistics Canada takes this matter very seriously and is immediately launching a review of the data verification processes in place. This does not affect other statistical programs. A report on the results of the review will be published on the Statistics Canada website as soon as it is available.”

It’s not then end of the world, of course. But the mistake caught many economists by surprise, given the agency’s well-earned, international billing for accuracy and verisimilitude.

“I struggle to think of a comparable foul-up anywhere in the world,” wrote Derek Holt, vice-president of Scotiabank Economics, in a memo to the investment community. “The revisions are broad sweeping and affected every major measure in a highly significant manner. Theories regarding how one single factor could be responsible for the revisions went straight out the window as StatsCan pointed to a systems error that affected everything.”

In an interview with the Globe and Mail, he added, “I think they (StatsCan) are still among the elite statistical agencies in the world. There’s no doubting that this was an uncharacteristic but rather large mistake. . .on this particular one that unfortunately blemishes what is otherwise a pretty solid reputation.”

Jim Stanford, an economist with Unifor, the largest private-sector union in Canada, goes further.

“I can’t say whether the funding cutbacks and the siege atmosphere that is evident at Statistics Canada contributed to this particular mistake, but they certainly have contributed to Statistics Canada tarnished reputation,” he told the Globe. “You’ve had a government now for eight years that’s often hostile to what I would call fact-based policy discussion and I do believe that has diminished Statistics Canada’s standing.”

He has a point.

In 2010, when the federal government announced it was scrapping the mandatory long-form census in favour of a “voluntary” household survey, editorials across Canada screeched their opprobrium. The nation’s two top statisticians, Munir Sheikh and Phil Cross, actually resigned their posts at StatsCan in diaphanously concealed protest.

In a news release, Mr. Sheikh wrote that while he could not “reveal and comment on (the) advice” he gave the government “because this information is protected under the law,” he wanted to “take this opportunity to comment on a technical statistical issue which has become the subject of media discussion. This relates to the question of whether a voluntary survey can become a substitute for a mandatory census. . .It can not.”

Indeed, last summer Robert Gerst, a partner in charge of operational excellence and research and statistical methods at Calgary-based Converge Consulting Group Inc., had choice words for the federal government’s evident preference for voodoo science over rigorous research.

“Take the first data releases from the national household survey of Statistics Canada,” he wrote in a commentary for the Waterloo Region Record. “The quality of the results has come under criticism because the voluntary survey replaced the compulsory long-form census questionnaire. In effect, this replaced a random sample with a non-random sample. Non-random samples have their place, but making conclusions about the population isn’t one of them.

Naturally, then, “no conclusions about the Canadian population can be drawn from the national household survey.”

The monthly Labour Force Survey is not the same type of beast. Given the rigorous process on which it depends, it should be virtually immune to errors.

That it is not is a troubling sign that, thanks to limited resources and battered morale, mistakes might well become a statistically meaningful trend at Canada’s numbers-crunching agency.

The prodigal pothead returns

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Stoners say the darnedest things. Take Marc Emery, for example. He’s Canada’s “Prince of Pot”, just released from a four-and-a-half-year long American hoosegow, courtesy of the state of Mississippi.

“Everywhere I go there have been well-wishers, even people who I don’t think agree with marijuana legalization think that maybe it’s a bit rough to have someone go away for five years over seeds,” the activist, who was sent up the river for running a mail-order marijuana seed company, told a reporter for the Toronto Sun last week.

Still, that was mild in comparison to other things he has said. Just ask Margaret Wente, the Globe and Mail’s delightfully irascible current affairs columnist. In one of her commentaries last week, she wrote, “Despite the public adulation, Mr. Emery is among the most obnoxious jerks in Canadian public life,” she wrote. “And I say this as someone who thinks it’s past time to relax the laws on weed.

“He’s a relentless self-promoter who’s compared himself to Gandhi and Martin Luther King. He insists that the persecution of people who smoke pot is the moral equivalent of the persecution of the Jews.

“In his most despicable, he called Irwin Cotler, the former federal justice minister, a ‘Nazi-Jew’ for allowing the United States to extradite him. Mr. Cotler is a Liberal who campaigns passionately against anti-Semitism.”

Well, gee, Peggy, why not try saying what’s on your mind for a change?

Methinks, however, her larger point is that because Mr. Emery is so objectionable  (at least to her), his support for legalizing pot undermines the principle, itself. This is a neat trick of tortured logic that some of us in the screed-making game make from time to time (me included).

Much has changed since Mr. Emery went to prison. Colorado and Washington has legalized marijuana for recreational use. President Barack Obama has openly joked about his yputhful adventures with weed, apparently to no ill effect on his standing in public opinion pools, which, in any case, couldn’t get much worse. And federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau is calling to make the stuff legit.

And why not? Actual experts on this subject generally reject the proposition that the billions of dollars governments in Canada and the United States have spent fighting the so-called drug war over the past 30-or-more years have been worthy investments.

According to the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy last year, its “researchers reviewed two decades of global drug surveillance data, finding that the supply of major illegal drugs has increased, as measured through a decline in the price, while there has been a corresponding general increase in the purity of illegal drugs.”

This moved the Centre’s Scientific Chair Dr. Evan Wood (a co-author of the study) to state: “These findings add to the growing body of evidence that the war on drugs has failed. We should look to implement policies that place community health and safety at the forefront of our efforts, and consider drug use a public health issue rather than a criminal justice issue. With the recognition that efforts to reduce drug supply are unlikely to be successful, there is a clear need to scale up addiction treatment and other strategies that can effectively reduce drug-related harm.”

In fact, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former President of Brazil and Chair of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, agreed when he stated: “In response to a study like this, policymakers often say ‘drugs are harmful so they must be kept illegal’. What they fail to consider is, as this and other research suggests, that drugs are more harmful – to society, individuals, and the taxpayer – precisely because they are illegal. Some European countries have taken steps to decriminalize various drugs, and these types of policies should be explored in Latin and North America as well.”

Already, a sizable chunk of Canadians support decriminalizing pot, if not actually legalizing it.

All of which is to say that Mr. Emery can yak on about anything that fancies him. That’s what a man on a mission (a.k.a. media hound) does, stoned or not. It won’t affect  the ultimate outcome.

On this issue, if with few others, the momentum of the age is with common sense.

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Liberal jobs plan is much ado about nothing

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An economic development agency by any other name would smell just as. . .what? Musty? Stale? Rank? Surely, the appropriate adjective is not “sweet”.

Our history with such creatures of bureaucratic imagining in New Brunswick is not stellar. At worst, these government units have functioned as rubber stamps for multi-million-dollar adventures in politically motivated corporate welfare. (Can you spell A-t-c-o-n)?

More often, too often, they’ve served as repositories of senior civil servants, grandfathering out of their jobs en route to comparatively fat pensions, picking up, during their final periods of service to the taxpayers who pay their salaries, handy tips for reinventing themselves as private-sector consultants. For them, perhaps, “entrepreneurship” never smelled sweeter.

So when Liberal Leader Brian Gallant insists that what the province needs now is more of the same, but, of course, completely different, one is inclined hold one’s nose before stooping to sniff that particular flower.

Still, he’s adamant. According to a report this week in the Telegraph-Journal, “Gallant said (his) proposed Opportunities NB differs from the current Invest NB because it would report to government through its board of private sector members rather than through the civil service. He added that the new Crown corporation will target ‘high-growth sectors’.”

In the interests of explication, he said, “right now, Invest NB has six vaguely defined sectors that they are trying to prioritize. We think we have to pick a few and become really good at it.”

Quick question: When are “six sectors” not “a few”?

Dunno, but the T-J reports that this political hopeful thinks that information and communication technology will be one of his priorities. Guess what? That’s also one of Premier David Alward’s cherished sectors, and has been since his election in 2010.

So, then, one is forced to ask, again, how does the proposed Opportunities NB differ substantially from the existing Invest NB, apart from the name?

Is it in the composition of the board, itself? Will its private-sector members enjoy carte blanche to pursue investment opportunities to their logical conclusion, without interference from government bureaucrats – as has, from time to time, the Greater Halifax Partnership?

Or will it more likely become another sounding board for official government policy (meaning courtly inaction) full of sound and fury, signifying nothing?

Stranger still, are Grit plans to take over job creation in the province. The second shoe that drops in Mr. Gallant’s grand scheme to reinvent New Brunswick’s labour market finds purchase in this excerpt from the T-J piece: “Under the proposed economic model, the Liberals would. . .decentralize the role of job creation to other departments. The Liberals would also create a board, headed by Liberal Leader Brian Gallant, to co-ordinate economic development initiatives across government.”

What’s more, the presumptive premier would then lord over the new jobs board like a latter-day Solomon issuing edicts to a body that “would be made up of all ministers and deputy ministers of the principal economic departments and chairpersons and CEOs of all economic Crown Corporations.”

Indeed, “the board would set government policy on jobs, establish targets for job creation, and hold government agencies and personnel accountable for meeting job creation objectives.”

So much for “decentralizing the role of job creation to other departments.” So much for an independent, private-sector board at the new Opportunities NB.

It all seems so gravely familiar, musty, stale and rank.

Mr. Gallant began his campaign to become the next premier of New Brunswick bravely and boldly, if a little naively, by emphasizing, in his platform, the primacy of education and sensibly administered health care. He rightly admonished the current Progressive Conservative government for failing on both accounts.

Now, he retreats behind the window-dressing of policies that will not, in fact, enhance economic capacity in this province, but only add public sector costs to the growing deficit and debt without any clear promise of return on investment.

He has, in effect, forgotten his Shakespeare.

In New Brunswick, the central conundrum is, as it was for the fictional Prince of Denmark, to be or not to be; that is the question.

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