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.

Why Nova Scotia Business Fears Government – Part 1

Businessman with Taped Mouth

Business in Nova Scotia is afraid. Yes, afraid to speak up on important issues of public policy in our province.

Why? Because there is legitimate concern their business might be shut out of what has evolved into our alternate economy. The economy of government expenditure. For some business, speaking out against it could be crippling.

It is a perverse, parochial and counterproductive outcome of our regional reliance on government.

Our economy has become so dependent on the decisions made by provincial bureaucrats and politicians that they now wield power over the private sector that is well beyond their wheelhouse of responsibility.

Companies that have been critical of government policy find themselves blacklisted, hobbled or punished.

What is the result? An important voice driving the direction of this province is effectively gagged.

I’m not talking about shriveling wall flowers here, these are successful business people who simply won’t speak out about stupid municipal and provincial decisions. Instead they talk in hushed tones at cocktail parties and plan workarounds.

For example, why is the development community not more vocal about the way the municipality has handled growth. Because there is a legitimate belief if they were to speak up, the result could be devastating for their bottom line. This wouldn’t happen through public process, these decisions affecting private business are be made deeper in government…by people we don’t vote for.

Joe Metledge, a socially conscious, responsible developer literally tip-toed through the St. Patrick’s-Alexandra fiasco like he was walking on egg shells. He was well within his rights to call out HRM and bitch slap them publicly. Instead, he sucked it up, took a deep breath and started to devise a strategy to make up for the cost of HRM’s ineptitude.

There are organizations built to offer a collective voice for private sector interests. Where are they?

When was the last time you heard a Chamber of Commerce lambaste the provincial government? Even when the NDP was imposing its ill-conceived first contract arbitration, the response was muted at best. And that effort might be the most memorable organized opposition by business to any government action in a very long time.

Cheer leading is great, but sometimes you just have to stand up and call bullshit.

Business people, with occasional inspiring exceptions, don’t want to rock the boat. They’re afraid of being locked out of opportunities stemming from the flow of public cash.

It’s wrong and it’s dangerous.

Entrepreneurs should be able to speak freely, publicly and loudly about the direction of this province…without fear of retribution.

At one time, business could contribute significantly to political parties through donations. This provided some leverage in the development of policy. The decision to do away with large donations by corporations and unions was the right one. We can all agree it’s wrong to allow influence of government to be bought.

On the other hand, the voice of the private sector mustn’t be gagged. What we are left with is an ethos in this province that the only things worthy of support emanate from the public sector.

The saviour of this province is not our government. It is our entrepreneurs, the start-ups, the small businesses looking to innovate and create wealth. They are the people, who will drive this province into prosperity…let’s hear them speak loudly and clearly without having to fear the wrath of some bitter bureaucrat or vengeful politician.

If you have a story, let me know.

Weekend addition

I’m normally not going to blog on the weekend but my hour-and-a-half drive with my son Angus today led me to post this.

Angus is in grade 8 and he is studying WWII in social studies. We spent the drive talking about the Canadian contribution to the war effort.

His late grandfather, Jack Morgan fought in the Battle of the Atlantic as a signal officer in the RCN and was an officer on a Bangor Class Minesweeper clearing mines ahead of the assault on Omaha Beach. His great-uncle, George Slipp, dropped with the Canadian Airborne on D-Day.

Our conversation came as the result of his viewing of the film, WWII in Colour, a remarkable collection of colourized footage. It’s not new, but is certainly worth exploring as it’s available on YouTube.

As anyone with children knows, YouTube is quickly becoming the default source of information and entertainment for kids born after 1995. His teacher’s use of this resource in class is a great example using the Internet to give valuable access to important teaching tools.

While on Maritime Morning, I spent a considerable amount of time talking about education in Nova Scotia and at times was critical of the efficacy of the curriculum. I have always believed our teachers in Nova Scotia need better tools online to prepare our kids.

Kudos to his Social Studies teacher at for recognizing this excellent resource which allows kids to explore important material at home.

When we got home we spent the better part of an hour watching the episode on the war in the Pacific and talking about its impact. It’s great quality time and beats the hell out of looking at Vines.

If you would like to check out The Second World War in Colour video below .

If you’d like to read more thoughtful exploration of education in Nova Scotia and beyond, please visit the blog of Paul Bennett at Schoolhouse Consulting.

The Canada…post Canada Post…post

What would Canada be like, post Canada Post? That fateful day when letter mail was delivered by someone other than Crown Corporation employees. Apocalyptic? zombie postman Hmm, no.

I admit, for some perverse reason, I like my Canada Post home delivery. I rifle through the the usual assortment of poorly designed, ineffective direct mail pieces, pizza flyers, credit card offerings, the odd subscription request from magazines I don’t want, bills and sometimes, rarely, a postcard or letter.

Receiving anything I actually want in the mail (a cheque) happens only once or twice a year. In truth, for the most part, anything I get in the mail is usually an annoyance or worse, something from a lawyer or CRA.

Canada Post announced yesterday they will now charge more for their “service” by jacking stamps up to a dollar…and whacking urban home delivery, something suburban and rural dwellers here in the Maritimes have come to accept. Nothing says “service” like forcing seniors out in -30 degree weather to collect hand-delivered recycling.

Mercifully, no longer is the Canadian public being extorted by our beloved mail service at Christmas time. Those old enough to remember a world without texting, will also fondly remember masses of posties milling around burn barrels every second November demanding wages and working condition normally reserved for tenured professors. This while grandmothers from Tofino to Bonavista fretted and fumed over packages and cards held in public sector purgatory. Not to speak of the UI cheques.

We haven’t seen much of that of late. Presumably because if Canada Post went on strike today, the impact would be mitigated. Bills would get paid online, UPS, FedEx, Purolator, Altimax, et al would pick up Grannie’s presents and direct deposit would handle the pay cheques and EI payments. It would be an irritant to business but there are effective alternatives and work-arounds available.

On the other hand, we might have to live without a “holiday” letter from an MPs defending the legislative requirements demanded of Canada Post to deliver it. Damn.

Interestingly, Canada Post CEO Deepak Chopra, ($450,000 to $500,000 per annum), also sits on the Conference Board of Canada, the think-tank credited for hatching the idea of pressing delete on urban delivery. Canada Post insists this notion came from inside the Corporation and they take complete ownership of the dollar stamp idea. Neither, however, seems to address sustainability or the bigger picture.

From yesterday’s announcement we can draw that Canada Post’s answers to diminishing customers and revenue are  a) a reduction in service and b) an increase in price. Interesting theory.

Perhaps instead of trying to figure out ways to create a lousier business that fewer people use, it might finally be time to accept the current model of the Royal Mail monopoly is as anachronistic as its 150 year-old predecessor…and the federal government needs to rewrite the law and open up letter carriage to full competition. The National Post‘s Andrew Coyne effectively makes the case.

The Chair of the Board of Canada Post, Marc Courtois, built a career in the field of financing, mergers and corporate acquisitions…maybe it’s time he could put that impressive CV to work. Crack open this stale institution, break it up and allow in the fresh air of market forces.

One of the possible positive outcomes? Santa’s Elves could concentrate on what they’re best at and letters to the North Pole won’t be returned for a misspelled address.

It should be noted, Santa is on Twitter.

What do you think?

By the way, I’d be interested to know if in the future, you’d like to hear an audio version of my blog with relevant interviews and such…let me know in the contact box below your thoughts on a podcast. Would you listen to it?

Don’t worry, I won’t do anything with your email address other than use it to reply to you.

Related articles

Hello?

Hey, welcome to my new blog. For the last couple of years I’ve been able to vent my spleen on issues on my radio program Maritime Morning. That all came to an end in November when Rogers traded me in for the NHL.

Today, while tooling around Halifax listening to Jian Ghomeshi, I heard a discussion that finally forced my hand to start blogging. It is one of those talk show topics that screams righteous indignation.

Allowing cell phone calls on flights. Possibly the worst idea…ever.

In what could become another great debate between common sense and personal entitlement, airlines will wrestle with the idea of allowing passengers to use their phones in the air. With any luck, the sensible airlines will follow the lead of Delta. Delta are explicit out of the gate. It’s not happening on their flights. Chalk one up for the Skyteam.

Delta are by no means luddites. They already offer in flight WiFi but they are drawing the line at people yammering about what’s for dinner or closing a business deal 18 inches from your ear.

People talking on their phones on buses, in restaurants or on street corners is one thing, people yacking on passenger aircraft are something else again. Once you are seated, it is the closest thing to bondage allowed in public.

It’s bad enough when you win the lottery and be seated next to the 315 pound sausage salesman or the pioneer mother and her colicky newborn, but air-rage would hit new thresholds if your seatmate was allowed to haul out the iPhone and spend 45 minutes jibbering his or her one sided conversation.

Flight attendants would have to be issued zap straps and handcuffs…if not tazers.

The US regulatory body, The Federal Communications Commission might be ready to permit cellphone calls in flight. In some circumstances this might be a good idea. For example, if a group of terrorist take control of the plane and threaten to crash it into an office building, passengers might be excused for dialing 911. Otherwise, if it’s really that important to let someone know when your plane is landing (information that is readily available online from most airports), send a text message.

The airlines experimented with phones on planes. Remember those clunky handsets that rarely worked, fitted into the seat backs? They were okay because it cost about 19 dollars a minute and most people’s conversations were limited to “Guess where I am?”. Those worked so well they lasted long enough for airlines to figure out how to install video screens.

If the FCC allows this, Transport Canada will most assuredly be in the sights of these service providers.

But, perhaps there’s not that much to be concerned about. In a free-market system the first airline to adopt a restriction on cellphone use policy will quickly grab market share away from the airlines who do allow inflight cell phone use.

It’s the right call to make.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.