Monthly Archives: February 2015

Wink, wink, nudge, nudge. . .it’s winter out there

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In late November of last year, when the mercury in Moncton peaked at 8 degrees (C), the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued this report: “The epic lake effect event will be remembered as one of the most significant winter events in Buffalo’s snowy history. 

“Over five feet of snow fell over areas just east of (that city), with mere inches a few miles away to the north. There were 13 fatalities with this storm, hundreds of major roof collapses and structural failures, thousands of stranded motorists, and scattered food and gas shortages due to impassable roads. 

“Numerous trees also gave way due to the weight of the snow, causing isolated power outages. While this storm was impressive on its own, a second lake effect event on Nov. 19-20 dropped another one-to-four feet of snow over nearly the same area and compounded rescue and recovery efforts. 

“Storm totals from the two (systems) peaked at nearly seven feet, with many areas buried under three-to-four feet of dense snowpack by the end of the event.”

All of which is to say: Thank the Almighty New Brunswick is not yet upstate New York, where nordic skis and snow shoes will most certainly influence Manhattan’s annual Fashion Week this spring (assuming, of course, there is a spring).

I thought I made myself perfectly clear to the universe a few weeks ago when I wrote about a warm, rainy, green Christmas and how eminently copacetic I was about that fine result.

Now, daily, I contend with snowmotion alerts from my worthy colleagues at this newspaper and others, such as this one, yesterday, from intrepid reporter Eric Lewis:

“Who is winning in New Brunswick’s Great Snow War of 2015? Winning or losing depends on your perspective, of course. Do you win if you have the most snow or the least? That’s up to each individual, but there’s no shortage of frustration in the province after four storms have blasted the province over the last nine days. . .And it’s not over yet. ‘We continue to see a path of storms coming up and down the East Coast of the United States and heading into the Maritimes,’ AccuWeather meteorologist Mark Paquette told the Times & Transcript Tuesday morning. ‘And there’s nothing that’s going to make this pattern change.’”

Oh marvellous. That’s just fine.

Am I the only sap in this now not ironically named Great White North who finds the glinting, gleeful reports of weather forecasters, at this time of the year, profoundly irritating?

“Gosh, Mike, do you know what’s hitting the Maritimes this week. . .again?”

“Why, no Darlene, dooooo tell.”

“Well, Mike, you better get your Canada Goose parka on and your no-name- brand mukluks velcroed up, because it’s gonna be messy.”

“Gee, Darlene, how messy is it gonna get?”

“Well, Mike, as near as we can tell, 400 centimeters of the white stuff is gonna get dumped on Moncton, New Brunswick, within 36 hours of constant, howling, door-busting, roof-collapsing precip.

“Ha, ha. . .that’s great, Darlene. . .So what should people do?
“Oh. . .I don’t know. . .maybe buy a shovel or kiss their arses goodbye?”

“Ha, ha. . .you’re such a caution, Darlene.”

“See you next week, Mike. . .I’ll be reporting on rope swings from sunny Bermuda. . .Now that’s something you don’t see every day.”

As it happens, over the past week, I’ve been frantically googling Bermuda almost every day. Here’s what the official weather website imparts:

“Cooler conditions and decreasing winds into Wednesday as high pressure builds in from the northwest. Another frontal boundary begins to move into the area late Thursday, bringing showers and strong winds, with some gusts near gale force early Friday.”

Except, of course, the highs there are 21 (C), and the lows are 13 (C).

Our higher temperatures are -21 (C). And the lows here are near absolute zero (on Pluto). And still, somehow, it snows.

Again, though, it could be worse.

At least, we’re not upstate New York.

Trust me, the only thing worse than Buffalo in the wintertime is. . .well, Buffalo in the summertime, or, come to think of it, any time.

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Move over RCMP. . .there’s a new kid in town

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As the Harper government openly discusses its efforts to transform this country’s civilian spy agency from a strictly intelligence-gathering organization to an effective police force – imbued with all the powers of search, seizure and, if necessary, apprehension – it steadfastly refuses to speak plainly about its plans for the nation’s fighting men and women in some of the world’s most dangerous places.

According to a report this week in the Globe and Mail, the federal government’s new “anti-terrorism legislation, which was unveiled Friday (January 30), would give CSIS (the Canadian Security Intelligence Service) the right to disrupt terrorist activity, such as by pulling suspected terrorists off planes or messing with their bank accounts. A judge would have to sign off on such actions ahead of time. The legislation would also make it easier to arrest people for promoting terrorism.”

This is a fair distance down the road from the agency’s embarkation point, articulated in the early 1980s and reiterated currently on the inveterate data-miner’s official website: “The Service’s role is to investigate threats, analyze information and produce intelligence. It then reports to, and advises, the Government of Canada to protect the country and its citizens. . .CSIS’ proactive role complements law enforcement agencies such as police forces, which investigate crime and collect evidence to support prosecutions in courts of law.”

Apparently, complementing law enforcement agencies is no longer enough. CSIS must now become one among that number.

Again, according to a Globe report, the new legislation would also, “criminalize the advocacy or promotion of terrorism (fair enough); lower the threshold for preventative arrest or detention of suspected extremists (uh-oh); relax the requirements necessary to prevent suspected jihadis from boarding a plane (hmmm); grant government departments explicit authority to share private information, including passport applications, or confidential commercial data, with law enforcement agencies (do tell); make it easier for authorities to track and monitor suspects.”

All of which raises natural questions about CSIS’s 30-year role coordinating and collaborating with actual cops.

Has it, or has it not, been doing its mandated job? And if the answer is, “no, it hasn’t”, then how much more success will it enjoy when its desk-bound intelligence analysts suddenly find themselves with upgraded badges?

“Good afternoon, ma’am, I’m agent Mulder. . .This is my partner, Scully. . .We’d like to ask you some questions.”

“No, Scully, I’m Mulder, you were Mulder last week (and besides she’s a he).”

“Sorry about that. . .Let’s start over.”

“Good afternoon, sir, I’m agent Scully. . .This is my partner, Mulder. . .We’d like to ask you some questions.”

And yet, even as Harpertown seeks to equip its spooks with new powers to reveal – and act on – the ‘truth’ about the alleged bad boys and girls in our midst, it has no compunction about withholding information about its own military actions abroad.

The recent deployment in Iraq, for example, was sold to Canadian citizens as a support operation to NATO. Not even Canada’s Chief of Defence, General Tom Lawson, is wagging that tail anymore. Speaking before a House of Commons’ committee last week, he stipulated that “we’re seeing an evolution of that mission.”

The evolution’s end being: directing drone strikes on Islamic militants, engaging directly in a shooting war with combatants and. . .well, comporting themselves in a way that not even the Americans are willing to embrace.

Or, as Stephen Chase of the Globe wrote last week, “The U.S. military says Canada’s military advisers are the only coalition forces it knows of that have engaged in firefights with Islamic State militants in Iraq and that American troops have not, to date, been authorized to direct air strikes from the ground as Canadians are doing.”

If this is the necessary work of our foreign force, so be it; but, then, why hide the policy behind weasel words, coarse deflection and transparent partisanship?

“This is really what we get from our opposition,” Mr. Harper told the Commons last week. “Every time we talk about security, they suggest that somehow, our freedoms are threatened. I think Canadians understand that their freedom and their security more often than not go hand and hand. Canadians expect us to do both, we are doing both, and we do not buy the argument that every time you protect Canadians, you take away their liberties.”

Sure, Father Canada, whatever you say.

After all, you will soon know what everyone in this vast, compromised democracy thinks and does.

The truth is out there.

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Is it in Gallant we trust. . .or just the “Life of Brian”? 

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It is not entirely clear to me what Premier Brian Gallant was thinking as he composed his first State of the Province address and chose, last week, to launch with a quote from the 13th-century Catholic friar, Francis of Assisi (a.k.a., Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone).

But if grabbing attention by conflating the secular woes of the current age in New Brunswick with those of pre-Renaissance Italy was his endgame, the Grit honcho may have been on to something – even if that something amounted to enduring irrelevance amongst the body politic.

“Start by doing what’s necessary, then do what’s possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible,” he began, parroting the buono parola of the late, great saint and animal lover (take care, Mr. Premier; moose fences could, again, become an election issue, fours years hence).

For those who subscribe to the power of magical thinking, it was a truly awesome  overture. For the rest of us who don’t, it was a truly brilliant distraction.

After all, in the other words of the original Franciscan monk, “It is not fitting, when one is in God’s service, to have a gloomy face or a chilling look,” because, presumably, “If God can work through me, he can work through anyone.”

Of course, if He does, then he has never looked better.

Standing before an elbows-to-elbows crowd of maybe 1,000 gawkers (read: citizens), the young premier was GQ-ready in composure and presentation. Reportedly, he even memorized his speech, so as to appear. . .well, authentic.

“Decisions are going to be made to put our finances in order,” he said. “We have tough choices before us. . .It can be made by 13 people in a cabinet room, or they can be made with 750,000 people working together.”

What’s more, he said, “We have to have the resolve to tackle these challenges once and for all, I can tell you that our government has the political will and has the resolve to take these challenges on.”

Yes, he said, “We need to get people out of our hospitals.”

Yes, he affirmed, “The (provincial government) program review is purely pragmatic.” (In other words, civil servants: no hard feelings).

And yes he declared, “We have to get away from the status quo. . .When we have our finances in order, we can focus on the kind of things we need to do to help make our province the best place to raise a family. If we want to achieve these. . .things, the status quo is not an option. . .To move forward, away from the status quo, we need to make some tough decisions.”

As for his reliance on St. Frank (no, not you McKenna), he said, “That quote (by F. Assisi) sums up what New Brunswick has to do, in my opinion. . .Do what’s necessary. Then do what’s possible. Then, suddenly, we are doing and accomplishing things we never thought possible. . .I think New Brunswickers are ready for tough choices.”

Does he now?

Faith, folks, is a many-splendored marvel.

It can move people to extraordinary feats and exemplary behaviour.

Or, it can persuade erstwhile able-minded individuals to abandon their reason to the big-rock candy mountain of redemption through sacrifice.

Even St. Francis might agree: the devil is in the details.

It’s not enough that the premier delivers homilies. That’s what election campaigns are for.

And the time has passed for a 750,000-member consultation team. If anything, we New Brunswickers have proven over the past 18 years that we really don’t play well together in our various sandboxes of privilege and entitlement.

The time now is for a true, bullet-by-bullet strategy to rescue the province from its dangerous fiscal morass, taking careful consideration of the long-term investments that actually contribute to sustained and durable prosperity (early and public-school education comes to mind).

We don’t need a preacher, delivering sermons as a trendy, Sunday-morning vicar might. We need a secular democrat possessed of a clear-eyed vision for the next 25 years of public administration.

In the end, he will not be remembered for his magical oratory. He might even be reviled by many who once believed in him.

As for the rest of us, let us judge him by the actions he took to rebuild this economy – not by his saintly words.

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Are government workers servants or syphons of prosperity?

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Do civil servants in Atlantic Canada earn too much money for what they do? Are too many of them routinely showing up at the public trough?

These are two, separate questions, and as provocative as they are, they tend to conflate in the hands of traditional, market-driven advocates who are convinced that small government – in the absence of no government, at all – represents the best of all possible worlds.

Almost no one, these days, talks about efficient government, a notion that once held a place of prominence in the thinking rooms and chat parlors of the early 1960s across North America – and, of course, never again.

But does efficient government mean fewer workers doing less work or a greater number of workers doing more important work?

The Halifax-based Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) is convinced that the regional economy will be improved by radically cutting its various civil services.

“In all four Atlantic provinces, the public sector workforce is significantly larger, relative to population, than the national average,” writes Ben Eisen, director of research, and Shaun Fantauzzo, policy analyst, at AIMS, in a recent commentrary.

“Furthermore, the gap in average compensation between public and private sector workers is larger in the region than in most other parts of the country. As governments across the region seek to identify strategies to control deficits and net debt, working gradually to reduce the public sector wage bill is one option that deserves careful attention.”

Additionally, they contend, “according to recent data from Statistics Canada, in 2013, the civilian public sector in Canada accounted for 18 per cent of all jobs nationally. By comparison, this figure is 23 per cent in Atlantic Canada, where all provinces exceed the national average on this metric. In Prince Edward Island, the figure is 23 per cent, in Nova Scotia it is 22 per cent and in New Brunswick it is 20 per cent. In Newfoundland and Labrador, 28 per cent of all jobs are found in the civilian public sector, the highest level in the country.”

To which an unaligned observer might wonder: So what?

Don’t these folks who work on the public dime also pay taxes, buy houses, enroll their kids in day-care programs, contribute to charities, underwrite the cost of their children’s university educations?

Are they not, in so many regards, just like the rest of us?

It’s not the salaries and benefits they earn, or even their numbers, that should concern us. It’s what they do with their time in the course of their daily duties. And that has everything to do with the frigid, disingenuous corporate culture they endure and to which they are too often inured.

Successive federal and Atlantic provincial governments have, in recent years, forced their bureaucracies to carry the water buckets of public opprobrium. After all, why not? Civil servants are easy targets, easily manipulated to do their political masters’ bidding on pain of various employment adjustment programs and other vile euphemisms for: “You’re fired and you have five minutes to clean out your desk.”

Now, we perceive in New Brunswick a wholly cynical move to buy public approval  by curtailing the legal bargaining powers of unions that represent civil servants.

Or, as the province’s duly appointed Czar of strategic review, Health Minister Victor Boudreau, told the Saint John Telegraph-Journal not long ago: “What happens in settling some of these wages is a bit of what they call a leap frog, where one province settles with a particular union. . .and then in the next province, their contract is up six months later, so they want to be two per cent higher than the province that just settled.”

Again, so what?

Should we not wheel this issue back to the central discussion where it belongs?

Which civil servants in Atlantic Canada earn too much money for what they do? Which ones arrive at the public trough with little or nothing to show for their slight effort to make an appearance?

The issue is not, ultimately, about big government versus small government.

It’s only about good government.

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