If You Don’t Vote, I’ll Shoot This Dog.

shootdogIn January 1973, National Lampoon ran the above picture on its cover with the caption, If You Don’t Buy This Magazine, We’ll Kill this Dog. It was powerful, dark and hilarious.

Most people feel this is the period when National Lampoon began to hit its creative apogee. It was a wildly popular cover and that issue of the magazine remains among the most coveted by collectors.

So what does this have to do with voting? Well, perhaps we just need to get a bit more creative to get people to the polls. No, I’m not suggesting threatening to shoot the dog. I’m suggesting a referendum on compulsory voting.

Yesterday, Corporate Research Associates released an interesting tidbit from their Atlantic Quarterly®  indicating over 60% of Atlantic Canadians are either mostly or completely opposed to mandatory voting, while 36% think it’s a good idea.

For most politicians, I figure that’s pretty much a deal breaker. If 6 in 10 people are against the idea…then so are they.

I say phooey.

The Australian model.

Many of us in Nova Scotia are only an ancestral conviction or two away from settling under the Southern Cross. Culturally and politically we and the Ozzies are not that far apart. Aside from being worried about ice storms rather than wild fires, most of us could share a beer and find our democratic values fall pretty closely in line*.

(*Although you will note Australians are markedly not nearly as warm to the Queen as we are, which I believe has something to do with all that 19th century penal colony exile and what not. For my money, exile certainly was a better option than the death sentences for cutting down trees or stealing rabbits doled out under The Bloody Code, but I digress.)  

In Australia, voting is compulsory.

After every election the Australian Electoral Commission, will send a letter to all apparent non-voters asking for a valid and sufficient reason for not voting or, in lieu of an acceptable excuse, to fork over a $20 fine.

If the voter can’t provide a good reason or doesn’t pony up the 20 bucks, then it goes to court. If found guilty, the voter gets $170 fine plus court costs and could even get a criminal record.

The Australians like to say about 95% of the people turn out…but 10% of people aren’t registered, and according to Wikipedia about 6% of the votes aren’t eligible so the real figure is probably closer to 81%.

Regardless, it’s certainly better than our record: Federal 2011 – 61%, Nova Scotia 2013 – 59%. This after Elections Nova Scotia bent over backwards to make voting easier. The only thing they didn’t do was show up at your house and hand you the ballot and a pen. Oh, wait a minute...they would do that if you asked them to.

There are lots of reasons given for not voting. People say they don’t have time, they’re not interested, they can’t support any of the parties because they’re all the same dirt bags…and so on and so on.

There’s a serious problem with that attitude. A considerable amount of blood and treasure has been expended on maintaining the right to vote. We just don’t seem to appreciate the fact.

The Australians on the other hand seem understand this principle. Maybe Mel Gibson was just more compelling in Gallipoli than Paul Gross was in Passchendale. Whatever, but by not allowing people to ignore their right and responsibility to vote, the Australians are honouring the sacrifices made by the people who died in the name of democracy and self-determination.. Those sacrifices were real and significant…and horrible.

Honouring those sacrifices should not be restricted to showing up and standing quietly for an hour at the cenotaph once a year. Voting isn’t just just a right, it is a primary responsibility of citizenship. Dammit. (Stomps foot)

Three years ago I had the privilege of attending a citizenship ceremony in Ottawa. If you ever want to be reminded of some of the values this country stands for and the rights and responsibilities given to each of us as Canadians, turn off Don Cherry and drop into a citizenship ceremony. It makes singing Oh Canada feel pretty good.

So…if our downward spiral into apathy toward voting continues, I suggest we give compulsory voting a shot. Even with 36% support as indicated in the CRA poll, the case can be made to draw up regulations similar to those in Australia.

If we are to take our electoral results as a baseline, in the recent NS election 56% of eligible voters cast ballots with the Liberals picking up a majority mandate to govern by receiving 45% of the popular vote. That’s only a total of about 25% of all eligible voters.

If, as indicated by the CRA poll, we have numbers that would extrapolate to 36% of eligible voters in agreement with the compulsory voting, it’s a slam dunk. Okay…maybe not good logic, but why not have a binding referendum? A direct vote, right here in the birthplace of parliamentary democracy in Canada.

Here’s the idea.

  • All eligible voters must register at least 90 days in advance of a provincial election. This has the added benefit of providing more accurate, current lists for Elections Nova Scotia.
  • If after a defined period following Election Day, Elections Nova Scotia does not receive confirmation of a ballot either cast or spoiled, a letter is sent to the responsible voter to provide a suitable explanation or pay, let’s say, a $50 fine.
  • If neither an explanation or the payment is received by ENS, the file is then forwarded to Service Nova Scotia for collection.
  • Until funds are received the voter is ineligible to receive government services such as motor vehicle registrations, marriage licences, birth certificates, deeds etc. (My guess is people would take the time to vote…just sayin’)
  • Proceeds from fines would be used to fund the once-an-election court process, Elections Nova Scotia expenses and/or streamlining of voting processes. In other words, those people who choose not to vote, for no good reason, would subsidize our elections.

So…let’s have the referendum

If voters disagree with the idea, they can show up and vote against it.

Oh the irony.  

The Anonymous Comment Section revisited

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This is not a new idea. In fact, I wrote this blog six years ago.

At the time I’d been thinking about putting an anonymous blog on the Internet, wrote this and then realized I was simply feeding into exactly what I was criticizing.

It felt hypocritical…and a little stupid.

I stumbled over this missive this morning. The piece originated from a particularly bad moment I had reading the comments section under a provincial political story in the Chronicle Herald.

The comments I read made me angry.

After three years hosting talk radio I think I now have a better appreciation for the value of public opinion. Everyday I enjoyed hearing people sound off on news stories. While I certainly didn’t agree with all our callers, I took the approach that everyone who called had the right to express their position provided they were reasonably respectful and didn’t  wander into territory that would threaten our broadcasting licence.

We also asked that people give their name. Just their first name, but we felt that would help people take some ownership of what they were saying. I also could challenge them if I felt their opinion was offside or particularly unfair.

This is what continues to irritate me about the anonymous comments section on newspaper and other publication’s websites. I truly feel it is in some ways responsible for the diminishing tone of public discourse.

Recently, the New Yorker ran this piece on The Psychology of Online Comments which makes the case that comments enrich the reader’s experience and allow us as readers to interact more deeply with the subject matter. Or do we just care more about what we think than what the writer thinks?

In any event, below is the blog I wrote some six years ago…and didn’t publish.

For the sake of transparency and context, at the time I was working as an organizer for the PC Party of Nova Scotia. I suppose I was a little sensitive at the time to the horse-whipping, deserved or not, Rodney MacDonald and the Tory government was taking at the hands of the CH and its “commenters”.

So my apologies in advance to my colleagues…I was feeling a little pissy. Oh and please excuse the Conrad Black-isms. I was hoping to sound smarter than I really am.

I’d be interested to know if you think anything has improved since then in the overall tone of the paper and the value of the anonymous comments section.

My son asked me tonight what I liked about grade five. He was sitting with his pencil poised to answer his “Question of the Week” for school and I must admit I was stumped.

Even with Jeff Foxworthy’s homage to new dimensions in torpidity “Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader”, I admit there was nothing I could remember about the fifth grade that stuck with me in any meaningful way. I’m hard pressed even to remember my fifth grade teacher. I’m sure they were another of the public education system’s finest. If you taught fifth grade in Tsawwassen, British Columbia in 1970, one of your students was clearly not paying attention. Fortunately we are probably paying your pension.

I bring up grade five, Jeff Foxworthy and the public education system in the same paragraph because I finally succumbed to reading the “comments” section in the Chronicle Herald.

The Herald, for the uninitiated, is arguably the most cynical, negative newspaper in Canada. Without any competition in the province, this curmudgeonly stain on the fourth estate spreads its message of economic and political doom and gloom from Meat Cove to Tusket without benefit of a single mainstream critical body to challenge its authority. Sad.

That’s not to say there aren’t a few bright lights glimmering through the sludge. Managing editor Dan Leger seems to maintain some sense of dignity about the profession and occasionally has a flash of brilliant prose. Marilla Stephenson appears aware of what is ACTUALLY happening (or at least she guesses better than most) and from time to time Stephen Maher manages to shine a light in an already illuminated crevice of Ottawa.

I would however like to take this opportunity to note that Pat Jollimore, the new editorial cartoonist can not sharpen the pencil of those who’ve shared that page. Given time he may develop but his ideas are sophomoric and rather stupid. It feels like they have hired a junior high student to write political editorials.

It isn’t so much the personnel of the paper that I take umbrage with, it’s the overall tone. Politics in Nova Scotia has been a horrid cesspool of influence peddling in years past and perhaps this “tone” is just an unjustifiably long hangover from a period when newspapers should’ve pulled down politician’s britches and given them a good caning just on principle. But for the love of God people, can we give the poor wretches who throw themselves at the mercy of the electorate a break for at least long enough to attract some decent talent.

Emboldened by a two year journalism degree the “enlightened” (those who would never immerse themselves in the dark side of the political arena) provide commentary or “reportage” on those who are struggling to manage our listless bureaucracy. They do so with with at least some level of civility.

Delve below the line in the “Comment” section and there lives an ignorance almost beyond comprehension. This is the hunting ground for the adult participants on Jeff Foxworthy’s show. Political nescience has penetrated into a deep, unexplored abyss.

These comment sections are “moderated” on the Herald website, presumably by some “moderator” whose job I would liken to licking cat food tins clean at the waste recycling plant. If the stuff that is published is the stuff that makes it through this filter, what mind numbing twaddle must be deleted.

Here’s a challenge I put forward to anyone who wants to make anonymous comment on political stories in the newspaper. Stop. Relax. Think for a moment. Think that your opinion about another individual may have consequence.

Let them ask themselves, “Would I if given the opportunity voice the same opinion face-to-face with the individual I’m criticising?

Let them ask themselves, “Do I know what the f*&k I’m talking about? Have I spent more than 10 seconds thinking about this issue or doing anything to make life better for the people around me by moving this issue forward?”

Let them ask themselves, “What am I doing to improve the life of those in my community in regard to this issue or is there something I can do other than prattling off like some benighted twit in the comment section underneath a story on the Chronicle Herald website?”

It’s good to know the Herald values the opinion of its readers, but someone should let the editors at the paper know that the value of those anonymous bits of catharsis is questionable at best.

Ten second blurbs from indignant partisans and putzes with an ax to grind adds little or nothing to the public debate.

Free speech is our beloved right in this country, but let’s not devalue it to the point that “free” means worthless.

Do you think anonymous comments sections have value?  

Nova Scotia’s Ashley Smith

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A tad inflammatory?

That was my response when I first heard Brenda Hardiman invoking the spectre of the Ashley Smith debacle with her daughter Nichele’s plight at the hands of the Department of Community Services and the RCMP.

Ashley Smith’s dreadful experience,of being sucked into the federal penal system and her ultimate death, stands as one of the great failures of the “system” to appropriately deal with mental health issues.

Now, after watching Nichele’s story begin its painful, slow spiral into absurdity, I’m not so sure Brenda isn’t understating this.

So why isn’t the newly minted Liberal Minister of Community Services Joanne Bernard speaking about this file?

I listened with interest this morning to hear the Minister talk to Don Connolly on CBC’s Information Morning. I was hoping the Minister might be questioned about the protocols in place to manage those coping with intellectual and cognitive disabilities who are being handcuffed and dragged out of residential care facilities and into the criminal justice system.

No such luck.

It’s not like the CBC newsroom was unaware of the story. Tom Murphy spoke with Brenda Hardiman on Friday’s Info Morning about the upcoming weekend demonstrations.

How about one question to the Minister responsible?

The focus of this interview with the Minister was the previous government using a little budgetary slight of hand to push 40 million dollars worth of spending into another calendar year. Yeah, it’s an interesting story, but it’s also two weeks old and it’s already been explained.   

The Nichele Benn story has been festering for nearly a year. Last March, (then) DCS Minister Denise Peterson-Rafuse promised she would be speaking with (then) Minister of Justice Ross Landry about Nichele Benn because she said changes were needed, there was a gap in the system…yada, yada, yada.

So after a weekend of demonstrations, television news coverage and a front page story on the Herald website…nothing from the Minister. No summarized briefing notes…no speaking points…zip.

The only reference to people with disabilities was a passing comment about Premier McNeil’s commitment to the ” Transformation of Services for Persons with Disabilities” and how they “are absolutely dedicated in moving forward with that road map”.

Awesome. It’s good to see that only 10 weeks into the job, Madam Minister has a handle on the BS boardroom jargon of government.

The Department of Community Services and the Department of Health and Wellness are responsible for providing care for people with disabilities in this province. There are a variety of institutional facilities and smaller care options to care for those who are in need.

The people who work there have a tough job. It really is God’s work. They require patience, compassion and ability. You can be sure finding the right balance between security and care is difficult.

If you’re not aware of Nichele Benn’s full story, you might like to read this Herald story. In short, Nichele is living with cerebral palsy, epilepsy and organic brain disorders. She has violent outbursts.

Last April on Maritime Morning I spoke with Brenda Hardimann about the difficulty she was having with placement of her daughter and the protocols used to deal with Nichele’s occasional outbursts.

We spoke on several other occasions last year as Brenda’s frustration with inaction from DCS continued to grow.

Nichele is now being warehoused in a Lower Sackville facility. Sunday, Nichele had to show up at the local RCMP detachment for fingerprinting. Criminalized. Just one more indignity, one more stupid chapter in this colossal failure of DCS to fix the problem.

Nichele’s story is not unique. Patients from the Forensic Unit in Burnside with histories of violence are transferred to mixed care facilities inadequately staffed to deal with the sort of potential outbursts one might reasonably expect. Staff receiving these patients have to hire temporary security guards. Not really a permanent solution.

Is the Benn case simply the frustration of staff who are not properly supported? If facing violence from a special needs patient, is calling the police the right strategy? Is that really the kind of care we want to offer people with special needs in this province?

As I mentioned in a earlier blog, the Brad Wall government in Saskatchewan is currently implementing a strategy to make that province the best place to live in Canada for people with disabilities. They are consulting with the people who use, administer and interact with the system, citizens and patients alike, to ask what changes are necessary. They are doing something other than drawing up a “road map” in a vacuum.

They are also separating social assistance and disability benefits as two distinctly different areas. Perhaps this is the most important change to note. It is a philosophical shift not just some bureaucratic tinkering.

We in Nova Scotia have a long way to go to become the best place to live in Canada for people with disabilities. We have work to do just to avoid being one of the worst.

The road map for people with disabilities in Nova Scotia should not lead to jail.

A piece of unsolicited advice for Madam Minister…look after the Nichele Benn file, then book a ticket to Regina. You can ask for Mark Docherty.

2014…a few odd thoughts on making Nova Scotia better

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As we head into another year, I thought I’d add a few ideas that have been clattering around in my head that just might make Nova Scotia a better place to live.

Some are old, some are new, some could be done tomorrow, others need either money and/or time to implement. I’d like to hear if you think these are things the new Liberal government could look at to improve our economy and the lives of the people in our province.

Finance Minister Diana Whalen must give a clear picture of the state of the provinces finances for those who don’t hold Masters degrees in public finance and accounting. While better than some previous efforts, the latest financial update proved once again that government officials and politicians struggle to communicate public finance, especially regarding the relationship to our debt. The Chronicle Herald’s Bob Howse did an admirable job of outlining this in his opinion piece last August. Surely to God with the battalion of communications staff the province has on the payroll, voters can be given better access and insight to the decision-making process than is now provided.

Nova Scotia should aim to be the best place to open a small business in Canada. According to the CFIB’s latest Nova Scotia Business Barometer®, twenty-five per cent of owners now say the state of their business is ‘bad’ versus only 35 percent who say it is ‘good’. There are a number of battles being waged in this province by small against government. This includes poorly thought changes to Workman’s Comp, an inability to streamline the apprenticeship process or get a handle on workplace safety issues.

High taxes and unnecessary red tape also create an environment that drives small business away. Attracting big employers to set up shop may make great headlines but small business remains the backbone of the provincial economy. Nova Scotia Business Development Program is a good start…promote it aggressively, create a better environment for entrepreneurs and then get the hell out-of-the-way.

Meaningful reductions in the size of the public spending cannot come soon enough. If this is done by eliminating revenue (read: lower taxes) and forcing balanced budgets, then so be it. The Harper government came under great criticism for its reduction of the GST by 2 points, eliminating billions in federal revenue. This left Finance Minister Jim Flaherty with the daunting challenge of balancing a budget without the additional windfall of consumption tax.One can argue the merits of the GST versus other forms of taxation, but in the end it meant there was less cash floating around Ottawa to spend.

Government spending in this province has grown from 6 billion to over 10 billion in the past ten years. Feel better served by government? Unless meaningful measures to restrict spending are enforced, the public sector will continue to balloon.

One small way to adjust this continued siphoning of money from the pockets of people is allowing Atlantic Lottery Corporation to grow a robust off-shore online gambling business and begin the reduction and replacement of localized gambling revenue. While it’s a voluntary tax, it is none-the-less emptying the pockets of Nova Scotians for little or no net benefit.

If we are indeed going to accept that government should profit from gambling, then let those gamblers come from other jurisdictions feed the beast. Constrict local gambling revenues, especially VLTs and allow offshore betting under the ALCs “Responsible Gambling” protocols.

Set defined timelines for the twinning of major highway arteries.The previous government’s efforts at de-politicizing the paving and highway infrastructure growth process was a step in the right direction. If plans are in the works, let the Minister responsible know what’s going on so they can answer direct questions about when work will begin on important arteries throughout the province. Then get the earth movers moving.

Set clear timelines and reporting structures for the creation of a universal medical information system in the province. It is perhaps the most critical piece of the puzzle to cut costs and create greater efficiency in the medicare system. Reducing the number of Health Authorities to cut unnecessary administrative cost is useful, but unless everyone gets on the same page with the transfer of information this restructuring will be a dogs breakfast.

The Department of Community Services requires a significant rethink. As the third largest cost behind Health and Education, Community Services delivers programming that is essential to those in need. Lumping disabilities in with social welfare blurs the line between providing a hand up to those temporarily in need and those who rely of government access to quality of life.

In Saskatchewan, the Brad Wall government has created a disabilities strategy which is actually consulting with those who live with cognitive, intellectual and physical disabilities. They are also separating disabilities initiatives from social welfare to make sure those with challenges are afforded proper housing, care and dignity.The Saskatchewan mantra is to be the best place to live in Canada for people living with disabilities. We should challenge that ideal.

On the really wacky side, what harm could there be in examining the establishment of a freeport or free economic zone in this province. Want to generate tourism traffic and local economic activity in a poor area? Want to attract multinational companies? Giving up a small part of tax revenue would be greatly offset by international traffic and spin-off benefits for surrounding communities. Who knows, maybe it could be in Freeport…mmm, maybe not.

So as we head into 2014, perhaps we can kick the can down the road toward a more prosperous and compassionate Nova Scotia.

What do you think?

2013…The parts that didn’t suck

I was interested to read Tim Bousquet’s column in The Coast looking back on 2013. It was called The Year of Suck. Every year, in the last week or two of December, journalists, publications, radio and TV and digital media outlets all take a little time to reflect on the last 365 days.

Maybe there is some merit in gathering all the events of the past year together and vomiting them out in one fell swoop, but beyond filling pages or airspace while people take some time off, I don’t see much benefit in the practice.

The historical timeline rolls on. There isn’t a start or finish date. It’s obviously a continuum, but thinking we can hit some sort of mythical reset button on January first, putting one year behind us and hoping for a better year ahead is a quaint convention. Hope i suppose that by comparing one 12 month sequence against another will allow us to reboot or respawn in a new life to take on the next calendar year.

There was a lot to be depressed about in 2013, but there were also a lot of good things that happened. This is not meant to be a comprehensive, or particularly insightful review, but I thought taking a moment to look back upon some of the more positive moments of the past year might be helpful…especially when most of these year-enders leave you with the feeling that the world is spiraling into hell in the proverbial hand basket.

So what was the good news?

2013 brought us, in no specific order, terrorism and the War in North-West Pakistan, the Northern Mali conflict, the Nigerian Sharia conflict, the Iraqi insurgency, terrorism in Kenya, the M23 rebellion in Congo, South Sudan internal conflict, the Sudanese nomadic conflicts, the Syrian civil war, the Central African Republic conflict, the Korean crisis, the Golan Heights clashes, the Gaza–Israel conflict, Insurgency in the North Caucasus, the Kurdish–Turkish conflict, the Al-Qaeda insurgency in Yemen, the Mexican Drug War, the South Thailand insurgency and some unrest in China. I’m sure i’v missed a few but the good news is none of these conflicts, insurgencies or wars include the geographic positioning of Canada.

So outside of CSIS identifying and averting a potential  Al-Qaeda attack, as residents of this planet we can consider ourselves among the blessed.

Yes there were plenty of things that irritated and vexed us as a population, but a $90,000 dollar scandal involving a corpulent Senator and a chief of staff really pales in comparison when the rest of the world is dealing with bombings, shootings, gang rapes, mass imprisonments, political murders, torture and a myriad of other seemingly sub-human activities.

It’s almost mind numbing to see the banality that leads newscasts and occupies our attention on the front pages.

So here, for those of us that would prefer to avert our eyes from all the ugliness of 2013 is a short list of some of the things which moved humanity slightly forward in the past year.

In January, to the surprise of absolutely nobody, the U.S. Senate approved a deal to avert general tax hikes and spending cuts otherwise known as the “fiscal cliff”, the imaginary precipice that we would all spill over, plunging the world into certain economic doom. By anybody’s measure, that’s a good thing.

Shortly thereafter Pakistani schoolgirl blogger Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the face by the Taliban, was discharged from hospital. She has gone on to be a powerful figure representing the rights of women in the region. In spite of the corruption of the Afghan government and the uncertainty around the withdrawal of military forces in the region, she remains a flicker of hope that there might be generational change in that country.

In the same frame of reference, police in India charge five men with the murder of a 23-year-old woman who was gang-raped on a bus in Delhi. As hard as it may be to believe, in the context of India, those charges actually represent progress. Before we get too self-righteous, we should also point out the Rehteah Parsons case was not our proudest moment as Canadians. The good news here is meaningful steps were taken in 2013 to address institutionalized ambivalence toward violence against women. We all have work to do.

Also early in the year the NHL and the NHLPA reach an agreement that ended the 2012–13 lockout averting the cancellation of the 2012–13 NHL season. Now we can continue to fork out billions of dollars every year to millionaires and billionaires so they can offer us some sense of national pride. The good news is, the Leafs don’t suck quite as much as they did…when they weren’t playing.

Also in science, in spite of the forecasts that have much of the eastern seaboard of the North America devastated by super-storms and rising sea levels, we dodged another bullet by having the quietest hurricane season in the last 50 years. It won’t do much to help David Suzuki raise money, but for the rest of us, it’s good news.

The near-Earth asteroid 99942 Apophis missed the Earth. European astronomers noted it’s bigger than previously thought. The good news, NASA effectively ruled out a 2036 Earth impact for the same asteroid. Again, some disappointing for the apocalypse predictors, but for the rest of the world we can breathe a little easier for another half-century or so.

Lance Armstrong was outed for doping. Clearly a good thing. The only problem this created was what to do with all those little yellow bracelets.

The Carnival Triumph, one of humanity’s great monuments to excess consumption, had a fire in the engine room. The fire was automatically extinguished, but it results in a loss of power and propulsion.  As cruise ship disasters go, not a big deal. Some folks were not able to lose any more money on the slots or watch bad stage renditions of Oklahoma!‎ or Cabaret. There were no casualties or injuries to passengers or crew…we’ll call that a draw.

It was also announced in 2013 that Boston Dynamics upgraded the prototype United States Army robot BigDog with an arm strong enough to hurl cinderblocks. If this is the way modern warfare is going we can all count our blessings.

On the religion front, Giving his first audience at the Vatican, Pope Francis tells journalists he wants “a poor Church, for the poor”. René Brülhart, director of the Vatican’s Financial Intelligence Authority had no comment on how the church might become “poorer”. The Economist estimates that the church spent about $171,600,000,000 in 2010. They could probably afford to cut a billion or two to become more “austere”.

Scientists in California announced they now have a 3D human printer which can replicate human tissue. Among those who are rumoured to have purchased one of the devices is the Toronto Star. According to sources should anything happen to Rob Ford, the Star will be able to replicate him to have something to continue to write about. Also in 2013, Rob Ford deposed the Dos Equis guy as The World’s Most Interesting Man.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional and in violation of the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution.  Same-sex marriage also became legal in England and Wales after the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill received Royal Assent. Another sign the developed world is stumbling slowly but steadily out of the 1950’s.

Again this year, nobody dies as the result of fallout from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant…meanwhile 129,000 people died from smoking-related causes in Japan. Not a single environmental group takes up smoking as a cause. Incidentally, Taiwan Power Company’s Jinshan Nuclear Power Plant has been leaking radioactive water for three years. There is however a rumour that “radiation” is slowly making its way across the Pacific Ocean and will impact the coast of British Columbia. While not a single death has been  attributed to Fukushima so far, 170,000 cases of skin cancer each year are linked to indoor tanning…we’re yet to see anybody dressed in a radiation suit outside Billy Bob’s Beach-o-Rama.

NASA also made a couple of interesting announcement through the year about goings on outside our solar system.  Voyager 1 space probe left the solar system becoming the first man-made object to reach interstellar space. At the same time Scientists with NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler mission announced the discovery of 833 new planet candidates bringing the total number of candidate worlds to 3,538. Of the 104 planets in the habitable zone, 10 of them are about the size of Earth. The good news is scientists believe there may a strong case to be made there is intelligent life in the universe, having all but given up hope of finding any on this planet.

So here’s to a fabulous 2014. The good news just keeps on coming.

Driving Home for Christmas

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There’s something special about driving home on Christmas Eve in Nova Scotia. Home may be where the heart is but the country roads of Nova Scotia bring wherever that may be more clearly into focus.

Today I spent an hour driving the highway from Chester through New Ross to Kentville. It’s Trunk 12 for those looking to find it on Google maps.

The same weather system that brought all the misery of powerless, cold, dark nights to much of Eastern Canada, kissed the trees with a coating of icy, glistening beauty stretching through 80 kilometers of winding country road.

The pavement was bare. I think I may have met three cars along the way. I turned the radio on to hear a few family greetings on the CBC and a bit of cheesy Christmas music, but for the most part the trip was accompanied only by the sound of my tires on wet pavement and the occasional slap of a windshield wiper to clear the accumulating mist.

It was glorious.

I’ve made the drive to Annapolis Valley dozens of times every year. But Christmas Eve is always a bit different. There was a small bag of parcels for my Mum and family tucked beside the 45 gallon oil barrel tied down in the back of the jeep.

She uses these barrels to burn important documents in her backyard. According to my Mum, empty 45 gallon oil barrels are gold in this part of the world. I guess in rural Nova Scotia, burning old credit card bills is a priority.

It didn’t really matter what was in the car, it was the mission of delivery that made the day.

I remember in 1985 I left at midnight after my radio show to make the hour and a half drive on the 101 from Halifax to Berwick. In the back seat was a monstrosity of a centerpiece for the family dinner table. It was comprised of three red candles, anthereum, roses, bird of paradise, pineapple and God know what else, assembled by one of the more flamboyant florists in the city. I think it was 6 feet long and at least 18 inches wide.

Squeezing it into the back of my car I couldn’t imagine a more spectacular delivery.

When I carried the floral arrangement to the farmhouse door at 1:30 in the morning the fire was still burning and the house smelled of all the best things of Christmas. I still, remember the look on my mothers face when she saw this arrangement that looked something between a tropical garden and some bizarre funeral arrangement being squeezed into the kitchen along with whatever other bags I had dragged with me.

It’s “fantastic” she said. Probably the only word that would be sufficiently ambiguous to graciously receive something of its magnitude.

Regardless of its tastelessness…or as I like to think…ahead of its time elegance, Mum carried it in and put it on the table. It spread from one end to the other, hanging over the ends of Mum’s formal dining room table. There might have been a little room for the place settings, but not much. (Remnants of the arrangement appeared for several subsequent Christmas dinners.)

The delivery really didn’t matter. The feeling of putting something in the car and taking it to an awaiting celebration is one of the great feelings in the world.

You leave behind whatever tripe has been creating anxiety in your life and look ahead to the joy in the eyes of the recipient of your thoughtful gifts. The peaceful meditation of driving, allowing the nostalgia of Christmas pasts wash over you, brings the spirit of Christmas into being.

I hope I always have that drive to make.  Alone, with my thoughts and my memories of Christmas past.

The great thing is, if all goes well, you can add a new memory…a laugh, a moment, even a bad floral arrangement to the repertoire of images that will make that Christmas Eve drive so special.

The good news is, Mum really liked her barrel, probably more than a tropical Christmas centerpiece.

Merry Christmas.

Rob Ford’s Icy Highwire Act

 

ice tight rope

Rob Ford may be creeping out on to an icy political high wire by not declaring a state of emergency in Toronto.

There is no doubt people are suffering in the city.

Crews are restoring power, but as of Monday night 200,000 people are still in the cold and the dark with their prospects for heat and light days away. Temperatures are dropping down to -15 tonight. The high on Tuesday won’t climb much above -10.

Premier Kathleen Wynne is keeping a ten foot barge pole firmly in place between her and Canada’s newsmaker of the year, preferring instead to deal with Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly.

Even in the midst of what could become a life and death situation for people in Toronto, is it possible this bizarre political drama is actually interfering with the most basic of needs, the security of citizens?

The anomaly here is once a state of emergency is declared, authority for dealing with the storm falls to the office of the Deputy Mayor, a result of actions taken by council last month to strip Ford of many of his powers.

It’s hard to say whether a state of emergency is actually warranted. Some reports say it’s the advice that’s been given to the mayor and he’s resisting, other reports say the call is actually made by the head of Toronto Hydro and is only enacted by the mayor afterward. Ford says so far, he won’t declare it.

If political advantage is rattling around in the back of Ford’s brain, he should let go of it…pronto. If maintaining power during this crisis and succeeding is gamble Ford is making to reclaim the favour of the folks who find themselves huddling beside unlit Christmas trees, it better be a sure thing.

Bolstering his hand are experts saying that declaring a state of emergency would not bring any meaningful resources to bear on the problem at hand. Hydro says they are restoring power as quickly as possible. This damn well  better be the undisputed truth.

Power utilities have a unique balancing act of their own during situations like this. Nova Scotians will recall the debacle around Hurricane Juan when Nova Scotia Power made predictions to have the power back on within a couple of days and then left people taking cold showers and barbecuing on their back decks for nearly two weeks.

Nova Scotia Power subsequently put in place much more realistic protocols for providing information to customers after they received the brunt of a hurricane of complaints.

The point being, how these emergencies are handled by the hard-working hydro crews is only partly responsible for how the public views the results. How well information gets out and what’s said obviously defines the public perception. Even in natural disaster people want to know who’s responsible for the response.

The Toronto Star predictably is first out of the gate to say Ford is somehow asleep at the switch. The real finger pointing will begin in earnest as this miserable thing drags into the week. In the toxic climate of Toronto politics, it will be cold.

If there is even a hint that politics could cause the heat, lights and transit to be out an hour longer than they should, Mayor Rob Ford, Deputy Mayor Kelly and Premier Wynne will all be getting more than just a cold shoulder from the public.

Because of the public safety stakes involved, for these leaders this could be a very icy tightrope indeed.

Your thoughts?

 

Graham Through the Looking Glass

walrus carpenter 2 Waited in a row

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes—and ships—and sealing-wax—
Of cabbages—and kings—
And why the sea is boiling hot—
And whether pigs have wings.”

– Alice Through the Looking Glass – Lewis Carrol

It wasn’t in iambic pentameter, but Graham Steele’s CBC commentary on an imaginary conversation between Nova Scotia Finance Minister Diana Whalen and staffers that took place ahead of the provincial financial update is hopefully as fictitious as Lewis Carroll’s writing..

The Walrus and Carpenter of Darrell Dexter and Rick Clarke were mercifully absent but Mr. Steele’s fiction was still somewhat discomforting.

In spite of our partisan leanings, I like Graham Steele. In radio interviews with him on matters of public finance, I’ve found him thoughtful and reasonably frank but this recent missive leaves me with a sense he’s…well, feeling a little bitter.

Perhaps if we read between the lines, we can surmise one of the reasons Steele decided to extricate himself from the NDP prior to the recent election. It might be a stretch, but it certainly feels revealing.

Political aides are the target of his piece, characterizing them as witless, meddling politicos leveraging their positions to steer public policy disingenuously away from the greater good and toward partisan advantage.

Communications personnel, if they are very good, advise well. However, we elect officials to weigh that advice. Politicians, at least theoretically, are there to reflect the wishes of their constituents and make sound, tough decisions based on their experience, knowledge and political savvy.

For Steele to insinuate that some communications flack in the Minister’s office is driving our fiscal agenda has the disturbing connotation that he saw that level of influence while he was at the helm of our provincial treasury.

If that is true, one might draw some insight into why he decided to bail out of public life and start writing for the CBC.

My experience as a federal political staffer was quite different. As an example, I remember a conversation I had with Stephen Harper while I was doing communications work when he was leader of the Official Opposition. This particular day I was creating what are known as 10 percenters. Those are the annoying bits of publicly funded, black and white ad mail you get from your MP outlining how great their party is doing in Parliament and asking you to tell them if you think their party is “going in the right direction”.

They are actually a vehicle for you to fill in your name, address, postal code and email to be entered into a database used for voter identification during an election. Your opinions on matters of public policy categorize you as either sympathetic or unsympathetic to the party’s position on some given issue. Oh yeah, and they want your opinion.

In a brief meeting with Harper, I suggested a couple of lines we might use on some issue or another. As someone who has spent the better part of my life in media and communications, I felt confident that I had come up with a catchy line that would capture our position on the policy in question. I had crafted some nifty quote that would be attributed to him, then the Leader of the Official Opposition.

He wasn’t impressed.

Instead Mr. Harper offered, “Jordi, if it comes out of my mouth, feel free to use it.” It’s one of the reason’s I’ve supported him as federal leader for the past decade.

I don’t always agree with the Stephen Harper on all policy nor political approach but I do have confidence what I am hearing on points of public policy emanates from his thinking, the thinking of cabinet and/or the senior bureaucracy, not that of some communications flack.

It may also explain why the job of Director of Communications at the PMO presents, unique.”challenges”.

Leader’s must lead. Love ’em or hate ’em, Ministers are responsible for their decisions. As Mr. Steele rightly states, the decisions being made are complex, need deep thought and should be made with the understanding there is a level of personal accountability.

Unfortunately, in his fictionalized piece, Steele provides the following narrative,

“Don’t worry,” says Aide One. “That’s not the way politics works. If you repeat something often enough, it’s like it becomes true. We’ll just repeat and repeat that it was the last government’s fault. Eventually people will believe it.”

“Yes, I suppose that is politics,” admits the minister.

Hmmm. Sounds surprisingly like a mantra repeated by the Dexter government from 2009 to 2013.

I’m not naive enough to think that partisan politics and political staffers don’t play a role in decisions, but to accept that a Finance Minister would feel it necessary to cave into an agenda created by those writing press releases or a Premier’s Office functionary is deeply concerning.

If this is in fact drawn from Mr. Steele’s experience as Minister of Finance, it’s no wonder he lost his taste for public life.  

It’s also no wonder why the NDP are no longer in power.

Your thoughts?

Pass the Salt: The politics of snow

snow2

“Now is the winter of our discontent.” – W. Shakespeare

While doing talk radio I came to understand the things that irritate the citizenry on a visceral level. Topping the list are garbage collection and snow removal. Two functions the city provides felt directly and immediately. Some of the most lively debates surrounded the transparency of garbage bags. Really.

Snow removal brings everyone together. If streets and sidewalks aren’t cleared quickly and efficiently a fury is unleashed usually reserved for animal abusers and able bodied people who park in handicap zones.

The question is, what is quickly? Politicians are keenly aware of the wrath of the citizenry when their driveway is plowed in, the bus stop is a snowbank, the sidewalk isn’t t cleared and salted and god forbid if the corner crossing isn’t open.

Lousy snow removal in a Canadian city is tantamount to treason. This is Canada dammit. Why don’t those idiots running the city know how to deal with a simple now storm?

Fact is, they do. Things are done much more quickly these days. Remember when cities were paralyzed for days by this stuff.

The problem is, as a population we just don’t have much patience anymore. We drum our fingers waiting for the 3 minute popcorn, grind our teeth because a YouTube video is buffering, bitch about being stuck in tracffic (for 5 or 10 minutes in HRM…talk to someone who drives the Gardiner daily) and when it comes to having our streets cleared, when that last flake is falling, the salt spreaders better be rolling up our street.

Yes there were some problems earlier this week. HRM has taken over snow removal on sidewalks. It was a crappy, snotty mess on the roads and the combination of melting and freezing caused alot of ice. Should they have been spreading salt, probably. Were they prepared for mother nature to act as a giant Zamboni, probably not. Shit happens.

My pal Tim Bousquet from the Coast fell and broke his wrist as the result of ice near Gottingen and North Street. His subsequent article, Sidewalks of Shame is a severe indictment of the ice removal efforts (His comment “Balance is bullshit” in a recent journalism piece by Neal Ozano brought to life). I sympathize with Tim, he’s from California.

Complaining about snow removal is not unique to Halifax. People across our great nation have similar stories to tell about incompetence in getting rid of snow at almost all levels of government. Only the feds seem to come away unscathed on this front as they have people working 24/7 to keep the skateway open on the Rideau Canal. And it’s still kind of bumpy in places.

Perhaps we believe that technology should be able to solve all the problems mother nature flings at us. Urban dewellers see the forces of nature as mere impediments to all the really important things in life, like the buses running on schedule, the street lights working, pizzas being delivered and yes…the immediate removal of all natural impediments to mobility.

Folks in the country seem to have a healthier respect for the forces of winter. Often, when there’s a bad snow storm, like the one I’m looking at out the window, they’ll wait until it ends and then assess what to do with the resultant mess. They realize the road might not get plowed for a while, they might not be able to use the sidewalk for a bit and it might be a good idea to hunker down. With Canaian winters, patience is a virtue.

As for the politicians, they will likely listen to the grumbling, roll their eyes and realize snow removal is unlikely to cause them any problem at the polls. People don’t vote on issues around snow removal or remember them much beyond the time the crocuses appear. It’s just something we put up with and will as long as we carry a Canadian passport.

When it comes to dealing with winter,  take a deep breath and realize, yes we live in Canada, sometimes it’s hard to get around in the winter and everyone is trying to cope with this the best they can.

Why our ancestors decided to settle in this climate, well that’s another question.

The Blacklist: Why NS Business fears government – Part 2

NO…NO…PLEASE DON’T!!!!

This is what I got back after asking to include a couple of paragraphs from a private email response to yesterday’s blog in today’s edition

It is from a well known figure in business circles in the province. They had written to share their concerns over a government practice responsible for hobbling our ability to attract young professionals. It’s an entirely legitimate concern which I will get to in a moment.

What is very revealing is the response. I made a quick call to talk to our friend who I will call “Cautious”. In my conversation with Cautious, we spoke about yesterday’s post in which I wrote about the attitude of bureaucrats and how they will, for all intents and purposes, blacklist people who are publicly critical of government departments or actions. If you are a medical needs supplier, an engineering firm, a lawyer or, for that matter, an asphalt spreader, if you complain publicly about how contracts are awarded or wrong-headed decisions, you and your RFP moves to the bottom of the pile.

What is even more insidious, is the practice of telling other entrepreneurs and business folks if they do business with you, they too can expect to have any potential government work applications moved into the file that gets emptied by cleaners at the end of the night.

The circles aren’t big in this province. Word gets around. Some bureaucrats are now de facto overlords of fiefdoms and the fealty of a grateful private sector supplier is granted in silence. This used to be the purview of elected officials, in Nova Scotia it’s now the realm of the public servants. The mantra to Cabinet Ministers, you’re here for a good time, we’re here for a long time.

Back to the observation of our friend Cautious. They write,

It is a regular occurrence that people retire in one level of government and move to another. What is not understood is that this has two effects: Firstly as they have a pension they artificially deflate the wage market. They drive wages down for everyone. Just ask anyone who does contract work. Secondly they take places that young people with families are applying to and can’t get.
If we want to make REAL and MEANINGFUL change it has to stop.

It is a legitimate concern and a matter of public policy. In other words, something that needs to be addressed through legislation. There are a multitude of examples of people departing the public service in this province, collecting their generous defined benefit pension plan and then moving into high paying executive level job or consultancy positions again fed by public money.

One example is Viki Harnish. Harnish retired after 36 years in the public service after working her way up to Deputy Minister of Finance ( eligible for a maximum salary of $184,000). In a little over a month she landed at the South Shore Health authority as Vice President of Corporate Services. She is this year pulling in a salary of $146,000. Add this to what I calculated is well north of $120,000 per year in pension and Ms. Harnish is happily depositing cheques from the government totaling close to a quarter of a million a year.

Harnish is a well educated, accomplished public administrator so there is little question she is qualified for the job. That’s not the point.

This is only an example. There are multitudes of these folks enjoying truly golden years while other potential contributors to our public service are either leaving or staying away.The problem here is systemic….and being exploited within the political/public service culture.

The problem as identified by our anonymous friend is this;

  • a) We need people in this province. Our population is shrinking and we need strategies to fix it. Recycling ex-bureaucrats into these quality positions is counter-productive.
  • b) With the tight circle of fiefdoms in the public service and its inordinate control over almost all aspects of our economy whether through financial or regulatory levers, too much decision making power is being restricted to too few individuals.

It also has the added benefit of retarding refreshment of the public service. The Harper government brought in federal legislation to prohibit ex-political staff to involve themselves in lobbying for 5 years.

It’s completely fair for business people to raise this issue.

But it’s a scary thing to speak up about if you’re in a business that gets government contracts…or knows somebody who gets government contracts.

And guess what? That’s just about all of us.

What do you think?

PS: I’m still trying to get things figured out on my blog and how comments are posted. I’m a noob at blogging and haven’t quite got the WordPress thing figured out completely…but I’m working on it. I have about 70 responses which I’ve received over the last couple of days so tomorrow I’ll cut and past some of them into a post with some comment from me. If you want to add something…just leave a reply. Thanks for all your input…you’re awesome.