Monday, October 31, 2005

A Definitive Take on the Plame Affair . . .

. . . will not be found on this blog. I don’t know whether Valerie Plame was a covert CIA operative when Robert Novak revealed her identity in 2003.

I don’t know why the CIA though it was a good idea to send her WASP husband – a former ambassador to Gabon and acting ambassador to Iraq prior to the first Gulf War – to Niger to try and confirm reports that Saddam Hussein had tried to buy uranium for his nuclear program. (But if Nick and Nora Charles are the CIA’s template for secret agents, it explains a lot about the quality of their intelligence in recent years.)

I don’t know if Bush administration officials leaked her identity, or were merely trying to discredit her husband’s criticisms of the Iraq War and blowing her “cover” her was unintentional.

All I can say for sure at this point is that anybody who puts out a book with this cover is someone whose conceit is beyond satire.

Star Digging Into Sorbara/Royal Group

The Toronto Star has been doing some digging into the Sorbara/Royal Group affair, the result being several stories in the Saturday Star. On page A8, Kevin Donovan – who usually works on big investigative stories – reports that Sorbara increased his holdings in Royal Group Technologies shares over his 10 years as an independent director. (N.B. I cannot link to these stories; you have to go to the Star’s website and search for “Sorbara”)

This fact casts doubt on Sorbara’s most recent spin on his years at Royal, which was that he had serious concerns “from Day 1” over the freedom Royal Group’s management had from board oversight. As I noted on October 17, Sorbara’s original spin in March, 2004 – when the RCMP, OSC and Canada Customs investigations into Royal first became public – was that he “wasn’t aware of any problems” when he was being vetted for cabinet in the fall of 2003.

Saturday’s Star has two more stories on Royal Group in the business section, one of which notes that Scotiabank, banker for Royal Group and the St. Kitts resort being built by Royal founder Vic De Zen, conducted an internal review to ensure the bank wasn’t being used for money laundering. A Scotiabank memo seen by the Star notes that the accounts for the resort and a Royal subsidiary were frozen in September and October 2003. Sorbara was a Royal Group director until October 2003. Was he ignorant of the frozen accounts, or did he know and simply choose not to tell McGuinty’s cabinet vetting team?

The article ends with a bizarre quote from the contractor for the St. Kitts resort, saying he never saw anyone putting cash into any of the containers of Royal Group building products that were shipped to St. Kitts. Even if there weren’t actual bags of money leaving Royal, that doesn’t mean something improper didn’t happen. If Royal was selling its products to De Zen’s resort below cost or at an unjustified discount, then that might constitute a fraud on its shareholders.

In Praise of Crafty Bureaucrats at TEDCO and the CBC

Most conservatives bear a permanent grudge against bureaucrats, the gatekeepers and caretakers of Big Government at all levels. Tales of incompetence, waste and all the other stuff that goes on when handling other people’s money regularly feeds this grudge. Recently, however, I have been impressed by two examples of some pretty crafty moves on the part of a couple of public servants.

Exhibit A is, admittedly, a friend of mine, a guy by the name of Jeff Steiner. In recent years Jeff has been toiling as President of Toronto Economic Development Corporation (TEDCO). TEDCO is the City of Toronto’s economic development arm. TEDCO also owns much of the undeveloped (or, more accurately, underdeveloped) land on Toronto’s waterfront east of Yonge Street.

TEDCO has been in the news lately because of its ownership of lands in a strip of waterfront from Jarvis to Parliament Street, the redevelopment of which is being overseen by the Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corporation (controlled by the city, the province and the federal government).

It has also made news because of the competition to build a new mega film studio on TEDCO property in Toronto’s Port Lands. The winner was Toronto Film Studios Inc., owned by The Rose Corporation, which won a 99-year lease and the right to build a studio on TEDCO lands.

Part of the agreement with TEDCO includes a five-year “non-competition” agreement, the gist of which is that TEDCO pledges that it will not allow any competing film studio to build on city-owned lands in the area for as much as five years. There has been some sniping in the media from losing bidders calling it a “sweetheart” deal. My guess is they would have tried to negotiate a similar condition had they won, but, more importantly, can you believe that somebody in government has finally figured out how to use the fact that they are the government to leverage private development?

As Steiner told the Toronto Star, “We had open international tryouts that local competitors could have applied for,” TEDCO chief executive Jeffrey Steiner said in response. “To have someone win this competition and then allow competitors to open across the street would be ludicrous.”

If governments are going to do these kinds of deals where they leverage their property ownership and rezoning capability to get economic development – including new jobs and remediation of old industrial lands – then they should use whatever levers are at their disposal to get what they can out of the private sector. A five-year non-compete arrangement – which applies only to city-owned lands in the area– seems a reasonable concession to ensuring the studio actually gets up and running and creating economic activity.

What would the public and media say if, three years from now, the studio’s half-empty, it’s not paying its property taxes, it’s laying people off, etc., and the public finds out that competing studios on neighbouring city-owned land are prospering? They’d say, “Why would the city be so stupid as to lease land to competitors?” Thanks to Steiner’s foresight, this scenario will hopefully never come to pass.

Exhibit B is CBC President Bob Rabinovitch. Rabinovitch is they guy who now joins Brian Mulroney and Stephen Harper on CBC employees’ permanent shit list. His sin? Ordering the lockout of CBC workers in August, pre-empting the media guild’s strike like Don Cherry pre-empting Peter Mansbridge in springtime.

Rabinovitch appeared at Parliament’s Canadian Heritage committee last Thursday and was called to account for having the audacity to lock out CBC workers before they could strike. Rabinovitch’s testimony would suggest that he is a student of Seinfeld, in particular the episode in which George acquires the upper hand in his relationship by “breaking up” with the girlfriend he deems insufficiently attached to him ("Yes: I am breaking up with you.”).

Rabinovitch explained to MPs that he believed the union was going to strike just as the CBC was about to launch its fall season, which strike might continue into a possible fall election (i.e. at a time that would cause the most damage to the Corp and give workers the greatest leverage at the negotiating table). As reported in The Toronto Star:

“Our evaluation was that the union would wait until early October, once the corporation had spent its main promotional budget launching its seasons,” [Rabinovitch] told the mainly hostile MPs on Parliament’s Canadian heritage committee yesterday.

“With pent-up demand for hockey and the possibility of a fall election adding pressure, it would strike at the moment when the damage to our audience would be greatest.”

Though Rabinovitch regretted the lockout, telling the committee “It has left damage to employee relations that will take time to heal,” and “It deprived Canadians of services they rely on,” he added “People have asked whether the lockout was worth it, and my answer is yes.”

Kudos to Rabinovitch for showing moxie uncharacteristic of a civil servant: taking a bold course of action, and then defending it publicly with honesty and candour.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Music Industry Reaps what it Sows

Today Statistics Canada reports that “The Canadian sound recording industry experienced its worst financial performance in six years in 2003 in the wake of bleak sales, declining new releases and a huge drop in profits.”

The report from Statistics Canada’s The Daily goes on to say:

Between 1998 and 2000, music sales in Canada fell 3.4%. But in the subsequent three-year period between 2000 and 2003, they fell at a much faster pace of 17.7%.

This overall decline in sales raises questions about factors such as illegal file downloads and swapping song files. Other possible factors in the decline include competition for the consumer's entertainment dollar from an array of media, ranging from computer games to movies to cell phones.

I usually make an effort to watch music awards shows, because it is an excellent opportunity to see who can really sing and who is a product of sampling and other digital trickery. (Have you noticed that there seem to be more and more awards shows, but less and less talent? But I digress.)

In recent years, many of these shows have included a brief segment in which some fifty-ish industry exec comes on stage in a brand new tux and lectures the viewing audience on the evils of downloading and how it is the same as “stealing,” because music is intellectual property, and the record labels have to pay all the folks who played on the record, and if there are no record sales and legitimate downloads then there’ll eventually be no rock and roll, fer Jim Morrison’s sake!

Unfortunately, rock and roll spent its first three decades dumping on the concepts of work, intellectual property and getting paid. They eliminated the concept of the single (which I remember being able to purchase at Sam the Record Man and other outlets for around a buck in the 70s), replacing it with an album containing two or three singles padded with seven or eight lesser numbers. Then they’re genuinely surprised – surprised! – when kids steal and swap only the songs they want to hear.

In his tribute to nihilism “Imagine,” John Lennon wrote “imagine no possessions.” Well, the kids are just making like Uncle John taught them, while over there Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono bicker over whose name should appear first in the song writing credit on Lennon/McCartney compositions.

In recent years so many artists have “sold out” it’s hard to keep track. The Rolling Stones allowed “Satisfaction” to be used in a Snickers commercial and “Start me Up” to promote a new version of Microsoft’s Windows software. Paul McCartney is shilling for investment firm Fidelity, while another commercial for the same firm features Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.”

To this has been added the phenomenon of established artists cannibalizing themselves and others, releasing covers of other people’s hits and/or “unplugged” albums (e.g. Alanis Morissette releasing an acoustic version of Jagged Little Pill – pre-released only in Starbucks outlets).

Rod Stewart is now on, I believe, his third album of the “American Songbook” (correction: his fourth) What a waste of talent, but in the man’s defence, he does have a lot of kids and ex-partners to support. Michael McDonald has now done two albums of Motown songs (I’ll cop to having the first one – which I love). Bette Midler has done an album of Rosemary Clooney hits and is now releasing one consisting of Peggy Lee’s hits.

Some guy named Kanye West is the hottest thing in hip-hop these days. I don’t follow that genre, but every video of West’s that I have seen is based on some riff or beat stolen from somebody’s else’s song. This is the cutting edge of music?

Finally, there is the promotion of performers with little or no talent (Hello Britney, Jessica and Lindsay!). Did anyone see Ashley Simpson on the season premiere of Saturday Night Live? She has no talent. None. It was embarrassing to watch someone with even less shame than talent, which I guess is a prerequisite for the preteen music market these days. I would say that Lorne Michaels should be ashamed of himself, but that would be redundant.

As the owner of very few albums, and someone who’s never downloaded or owned an MP3 player, I’m admittedly not an expert on this field. I’d be interested in hearing what other music fans have to say about why record sales are in decline.

Davenport Dinner with Monte Solberg -- only $50!

The Davenport Conservative Association (of which I am past president) is hosting a fundraiser with guest speaker MP Monte Solberg. Monte is one of the sharpest MPs in the caucus, with a great sense of humour, demonstrated regularly in his entertaining blog .

Thursday, November 3, 7:30 p.m.
Dundas Banquet Hall
1352 Dundas Street West, Toronto
(north side, between Dufferin and Dovercourt)

Guest: Monte Solberg, Conservative MP for Medicine Hat

$50 per person, $500 per table of 10

Tickets: Contact candidate Theresa Rodrigues: 416-537-2601 ext. 316 after 5:30 or during the day through reception ext. 0

Friday, October 21, 2005

Video of the Year (or at least the week)

Ryan Malcolm has got nothing on these guys . . . (Note: video link)

The best part is the third guy in the background working at his computer, oblivious to the history that is being made behind him.

The Dog that Didn’t Bark

The McGuinty government was embarrassed yesterday when the opposition Tories revealed the expense details of then-energy minister Dwight Duncan’s trip to Brussels last September. Duncan and four aides travelled business-class, had a $789.15 lunch that included six $70 steaks, a ministerial aide expensed candy, a soft drink, a magazine and a bag of almonds (each costing less than $10) – you get the picture.

In question period, Dalton McGuinty defended the expenses on the grounds that they had all been reviewed and approved by the province’s integrity commissioner. Though not in attendance at question period, Dwight Duncan (now finance minister) appeared for a scrum later in the afternoon, explaining that (1) “It’s expensive to host those kind of meals . . . but given the number of people, I wouldn’t say it was out of line” and (2) the pop and candy weren’t for him: “It was neither myself nor a member of my political staff that expensed it, nor did we authorize it, nor was I aware of it.”

The Tories’ news release entitled “$60 for Rebates, $70 for Energy Minister’s Steak” ended with this kick in the goolies for Duncan:

“Yesterday we learned that Tory ministers and their assistants will go to the ends of the earth and back, as long as they can charge the taxpayers for it...While families were opening skyrocketing hydro bills, [they were] eating expensive steaks and making us pay for it. [Ontarians] want a government that will work for them and give them open and accountable government with real integrity. They want the leadership that Dalton McGuinty and the Ontario Liberal Party can provide.”
--Dwight Duncan, Ontario Hansard, October 10, 2002

All the high-carb, high-fat details appeared today in Toronto papers the Sun, Globe and Mail and National Post, but not a word of it made The Toronto Star. Contrast this with the Star’s treatment of the expense scandals of Ernie Eves’ cabinet ministers Cam Jackson and Chris Stockwell, and the expenses of the Harris ministry:

Tory minister repays $7,600 for hotels, food ; Jackson told by Premier’s office to review expenses; [Ontario Edition]
Richard Brennan. Toronto Star. Toronto, Ont.: Oct 2, 2002. p. A.07

Minister quits over expenses ; Jackson attacked by Liberals over $103,722 tab; [Ontario Edition]
Richard Brennan. Toronto Star. Toronto, Ont.: Oct 3, 2002. p. A.07

Eves to review tourism minister’s tab ; Jackson called ‘gluttonous’ by Liberal MPP; [Ontario Edition]
Richard Brennan. Toronto Star. Toronto, Ont.: Oct 3, 2002. p. A.07

Inappropriate expenses must be repaid: Premier ; Jackson’s spending as tourism minister to be scrutinized; [Ontario Edition]
Richard Brennan and Caroline Mallan. Toronto Star. Toronto, Ont.: Oct 4, 2002. p. A.06

Expense accounts detail a life of luxury ; Jackson patronized pricey steakhouses, lavish four-star hotels on taxpayer dollars; [Ontario Edition]
Betsy Powell. Toronto Star. Toronto, Ont.: Oct 4, 2002. p. A.07

Eves’ expense receipts withheld by ministry ; Liberals furious at ‘cover up’ as big-spending minister fired; [Ontario Edition]
Richard Brennan. Toronto Star. Toronto, Ont.: Oct 4, 2002. p. A.01

Former Eves staff pay back expenses ; It’s an ‘admission of guilt,’ says Liberal MPP; [Ontario Edition]
Richard Brennan and Caroline Mallan. Toronto Star. Toronto, Ont.: Oct 5, 2002. p. A.01

Liberals grill Eves over his spending; [Ontario Edition]
Richard Brennan and Caroline Mallan. Toronto Star. Toronto, Ont.: Oct 8, 2002. p. A.01

Eves says public should get yearly look at expenses; [Ontario Edition]
Richard Brennan. Toronto Star. Toronto, Ont.: Oct 9, 2002. p. A.19

Tory ministers and assistants spent $2 million over six years ; Mike Harris billed $70,876 in personal expenses: Papers; [Ontario Edition]
Richard Brennan. Toronto Star. Toronto, Ont.: Oct 10, 2002. p. A.27

Defiant MPP insists he did nothing wrong ; Cam Jackson says he was fully open about details of expenses; [Ontario Edition]
Richard Brennan. Toronto Star. Toronto, Ont.: Oct 16, 2002. p. A.07

Around this point the Tories finally dug up some dirt on one of the Liberals’ lead attack dogs, Windsor MPP Sandra Pupatello, but when a Tory MPP incorrectly alleged that Pupatello had overspent her global budget every year, the Star did a story slapping the Tories’ wrists and helping Pupatello portray herself as a victim of “intimidation”:

Critic of Tory expenses used government courier for friend ; Liberal MPP defends shipping boxes to England; [Ontario Edition]
Theresa Boyle. Toronto Star. Toronto, Ont.: Oct 10, 2002. p. A.01

Liberal claims ‘intimidation’ ; Tories admit ‘inaccurate’ charges levelled; [Ontario Edition]
Theresa Boyle. Toronto Star. Toronto, Ont.: Oct 11, 2002. p. A.07

Because of all the noise, the Tories decided in December 2002 to “strategically” release all ministers’ and staff expenses going back to their taking office in 1995. (Full disclosure: as a political staffer for transportation minister Al Palladini from 1995-1997, I was taken out by my boss with other political staff to several lunches and dinners.) Eves then announced that all the inappropriate expenses from previous years would be repaid , and that there would be new standards for expenses (e.g. no booze on the taxpayer’s dime).

From candy bars to fancy dinners: Tories lift lid on 7 years of expenses ; Reports fill more than 12,000 pages Liberals blast mass release of papers; [Ontario Edition]
Richard Brennan, Theresa Boyle and Caroline Mallan. Toronto Star. Toronto, Ont.: Dec 4, 2002. p. A.06

Smarties, cocktails expensed by Tories ; 12,000 pages of documents yield unusual receipts Seven years of spending from ministers and staff; [Ontario Edition]
Richard Brennan and Theresa Boyle. Toronto Star. Toronto, Ont.: Dec 5, 2002. p. A.04

Queen’s Park staff ate out often: Papers ; Itemized receipts include meals, gifts Tory spending chronicled in reports; [Ontario Edition]
Richard Brennan. Toronto Star. Toronto, Ont.: Dec 7, 2002. p. A.14

Maps, short cab rides top ministry expenses ; Flaherty, staff billed taxpayer New documents outline costs; [Ontario Edition]
Richard Brennan. Toronto Star. Toronto, Ont.: Dec 8, 2002. p. A.16

Political payback hits $55,000 ; MPPs, cabinet ministers reimburse taxpayers for expenses New rules clamp down on bills for booze, trips, meals, gifts; [Ontario Edition]
Richard Brennan. Toronto Star. Toronto, Ont.: Feb 1, 2003. p. A.04

Then in the late spring of 2003 there was an eruption over energy minister Chris Stockwell’s visit to Europe in which he combined government business with a family vacation. (Maybe energy ministers should be barred from going to Europe).

The focus of the opposition’s ire was that part of the trip was expensed through Ontario Power Generation and not the energy ministry. The furor intensified when Stockwell revealed that his riding association subsidized $25,000 of the cost of the trip, to allow Stockwell’s family to accompany him.

Stockwell: ‘I’m not quitting’ ; Defends expenses from European trip Says opposition at ‘reptilian’ levels; [Ontario Edition]
Richard Brennan. Toronto Star. Toronto, Ont.: Jun 6, 2003. p. A.03

Stockwell’s fate in official hands ; Integrity watchdog analyzing spending ‘We ... go by whatever he rules,’ says Eves; [Ontario Edition]
Caroline Mallan and Robert Benzie. Toronto Star. Toronto, Ont.: Jun 14, 2003. p. A.30

Stockwell quits cabinet ; Steps down pending integrity commissioner’s report Eves did not ask for minister’s resignation, Tories say; [Ontario Edition]
Robert Benzie. Toronto Star. Toronto, Ont.: Jun 17, 2003. p. A.01

Later that summer, the integrity commissioner cleared Cam Jackson’s expenses that had prompted his resignation the previous year.

Jackson’s expenses deemed reasonable; Integrity czar ‘satisfied’ by MPP’s claims Clears way for Eves to reinstate former minister; [ONT Edition]
Robert Benzie. Toronto Star. Toronto, Ont.: Aug 30, 2003. p. A.04

There was no time to reinstate Jackson, however, as the election was called a few days later.

John Kerry Didn't Look this Good with a Face Full of Botox

Democrats hoping to use Tom DeLay's mug shot in their ads and brochures next year have sadly been foiled. Now they can only hope for indictments of Messrs. Rove and/or Libby.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Sorbara’s Plea: Incompetent but Innocent

Recently-resigned Ontario finance minister Greg Sorbara has begun to fight back against RCMP fraud allegations related to his tenure as an independent director and chair of the audit committee of Royal Group Technologies.

In an interview with Richard Brennan of The Toronto Star, Sorbara presented his main line of defence against the allegations that Royal Group shareholders were defrauded when Royal Group purchased property in Brampton from a Sorbara family company. Sorbara tells Brennan that he was concerned “from Day 1” he began serving on the board in 1994 that “we [the board] had no capacity to reverse the decisions of management.” Sorbara says he tried to assert the board’s oversight over management, but he was unsuccessful. For ten years, attending four board meetings a year and an unspecified number of audit committee meetings, he was unsuccessful.

This spin is somewhat at odds with what Sorbara told the Star in March last year, shortly after RCMP, Ontario Securities Commission and Canada Customs investigations into Royal Group became public:

Finance Minister Greg Sorbara says he did not alert a cabinet vetting team that his time as a director at a Woodbridge firm might come back to embarrass the government because he didn’t foresee any problems.

“Absolutely not, because I wasn’t aware of any (problems),” Sorbara told reporters.
--Toronto Star, March 4, 2004
Sorbara did not think McGuinty’s cabinet vetting crew needed to know about his frustrations at Royal before he was given the keys to Ontario’s treasury. Now he is telling the same media outlet that he had concerns about Royal Group management “from Day 1.”

Going back further, to when Sorbara was appointed to cabinet, he told the National Post:

I am quite satisfied with the work I did as a director,” he said. “In the main, the criticism has not been justified, and my duties there were just one of many responsibilities I’ve had over the past few years. I know the board of Royal Group is going through a transformation, in terms of corporate governance, and one of the things I now give up is the opportunity to see that work through.”
--National Post, October 24, 2003

But to Brennan last week he said:

“My energy on the board was to try and force management to try and realize that, as a public company, the responsibilities were dramatically different and that there were shareholders all over the world that had to be accounted to. That was every board meeting and they were ... like four a year. Every board meeting we would push a little, but really unsuccessfully.”

In this latest interview Sorbara admits what some in the financial press had been saying for years: that Royal Group Founder Vic de Zen continued to run Royal Group as his personal fiefdom even after Royal Group became publicly traded and hence partly owned by the working stiffs who contribute to the Canada Pension Plan and Ontario Teachers Pension Plan (N.B. Royal Group's symbol is "RYG". CPP holdings are under "Mutual Fund Ownership" and Teachers’ holdings are under “Institutional Ownership” on the MSN site). When the OSC notified Royal Group of its investigation in December, 2003, the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) Pension Plan held about 750,000 shares, but no longer owns any shares.

Sorbara claims to Brennan that he tried to persuade de Zen to relinquish some power:

“I started to apply pressure at the board, including urging that Vic De Zen either step down as the chair or step down as the president but not hold both positions. I urged him to give up his multiple voting shares. That would have been in probably 2002,” he [Sorbara] said.
Sorbara’s concerns did not seem to be reflected in senior executive compensation for the subsequent year, however:

Shareholders of Royal Group blasted the company’s board this year for approving a pay package for Vic De Zen, chairman and chief executive, that more than doubled to $6.1-million.
The compensation included $500,000 in salary for fiscal 2002, plus a $5.6-million bonus, compared with $2.2-million the year before.

Douglas Dunsmuir, company president, was paid $358,000 in salary and a $3.2-million bonus, also double what he received in 2001.

The company’s share price declined 43% over that time, as sales growth failed to meet internal targets, edging up to $1.9-billion from $1.7-billion.
--National Post, October 24, 2003

Little wonder, then, that Canadian Business magazine named Royal Group’s board the 4th-worst corporate board in August 2003.

As for the sale of two Brampton properties from a Sorbara family company to Royal Group, which transaction was named in the RCMP search warrant executed at The Sorbara Group last week, Sorbara says his brother Ed told him the two companies were talking but Sorbara kept out of it because of the potential for conflict of interest. The article does not delve into whether or not Sorbara, as a Royal insider, understood that the potential conflict should have been disclosed to Royal.

Time will tell what the RCMP and OSC find lacking in Sorbara’s conduct – if anything. In the meantime, Sorbara is girding himself for a battle, Brennan reports, lining up the talents of Julian Porter, one of Canada’s leading libel lawyers, and Frank Marrocco, former Treasurer of the Law Society of Upper Canada (the Treasurer is the top position at the LSUC).

The choice of Porter is interesting. Porter was the lawyer Dalton McGuinty chose to defend him in a libel suit by Tony Clement stemming from McGuinty calling Clement “corrupt” in 1999 around the same time McGuinty was facing his post-election leadership review. Though McGuinty initially pledged to pay his legal fees out of his own pocket, he later quietly had Porter paid by the Legislature’s liability insurers. A lawyer of Porter’s experience and stature likely bills at least $500 an hour. Yet Porter ended up getting much of his Statement of Defence struck out by a judge. About 18 months after the suit was launched, McGuinty finally apologized to Clement – which is what Clement would have settled for in the first place.

The shock of the allegations seems to have caused Sorbara to undergo a bit of a crack-up. On October 11, the night he announced his resignation, Sorbara protested, “I intend to get to the bottom of this. A terrible mistake has been made and I want to know what’s up with it” (Toronto Star, October 12).

On Thursday he said, to a question from the Star’s Richard Brennan, “One of my first emotions this morning was, I just got a sense of the extent of the pain that people who are falsely accused and falsely convicted feel, and it’s not a nice feeling” (scrum, October 13, 2005). Sorbara counts himself with the likes of David Milgard, Donald Marshall and Guy-Paul Morin, who, I believe, actually woke up in prison every morning for a number of years, not in Sorbara’s house in Richmond Hill.

And now we have this interview, in which Sorbara indulges in a bit of Nixonesque paranoia, asking, “Why is this happening? Who is behind this?”

Sorbara offers a clue as to why it is happening: “The fact that I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth is a reality and I think I have become a little bit more of a political target for that basis.” Now where was Sorbara when his party’s first attempt to brand PC leader John Tory – at the leadership vote, no less – was by calling him “Richie Rich”?

The Liberals had eight people toiling in a small room on the sixth floor of the Crowne Plaza Toronto Don Valley. Their strategy was to mock Tory’s blueblood upbringing by distributing silver spoons engraved with “John Tory IV,” vintage Richie Rich comic books and blue loot bags full of other satirical trinkets.
--Toronto Star, September 20, 2004
My late sister had an expression for occasions such as Greg Sorbara pleading, “don’t hate me because I’m rich.” I apologize for the vulgarity but it is apt: “My ass bleeds.”

Sorbara’s minor meltdown is understandable on one level, however. Since his return to public life as Ontario Liberal party president in 1999, he has gone from success to success. He took an impoverished party with a pencil-necked leader that had just been thrashed electorally by one of the most provocative governments in Ontario history. He raised money, found candidates, built the election team and, more than any other individual – including McGuinty – was responsible for its 2003 majority victory.

Through the McGuinty Liberals’ first two years in power, through the 50-plus broken promises and other growing pains, Sorbara never seemed to lose his composure, until the paranoid rantings that began the night of his resignation.

Remember that Sorbara’s last public embarrassment was 13 years ago, when he finished third in the 1992 Liberal leadership race. As an opposition MPP he could retreat into the backbenches unnoticed. Sorbara actually retreated even farther, announcing in 1994 that he would not run again and that he wanted to get involved in his family business:

Liberal sources say the political wounds Sorbara, 47, suffered during the leadership race were slow to heal and that he found himself bored with the marginal role he was given afterward, as critic for urban affairs.

Sorbara said in a statement that he wants to get involved in his family’s extensive business interests.
--Toronto Star, June 18, 1994

But this situation is different. Sorbara was the number two minister in the country’s largest province and there is no hiding. Hence his deer-in-the-headlights look as he walked into a scrum with reporters in a Legislature hallway the day after he resigned.

The Brennan interview and his hiring of two high-powered lawyers suggest that Sorbara is going to mount a pro-active and aggressive defence of his actions, or inactions, as the case may be. And there lies the nub of a problem. For Sorbara to prove that he had nothing to do with this land deal or the other matters for which Royal Group is being investigated requires him to prove that not only was he ignorant of the details of transactions of the family business from which he drew an income (see below), he also failed to assert oversight over a corporation that was handling the pension money of teachers, Ontario public sector workers and CPP contributors. How will that reflect on the McGuinty Liberals during the two-year countdown to the next election?

Friday, October 14, 2005

Greg Sorbara: “successful businessman” or Gary Ewing?

Recently-resigned Ontario finance minister Greg Sorbara is reputedly well liked by Queen’s Park reporters and public servants for his gregariousness and good humour. He has always struck me, however, as one of those people whose arrogance is rooted in a belief that through his superior intellect he can fool enough of the people enough of the time, to coin a phrase. If one starts from that premise, then his string of successes since returning to public life in 1999 would tend to support this picture.

This arrogance would also explain his recent protestations – in the shadow of an RCMP search warrant accusing him of defrauding Royal Group Technologies shareholders in a land deal with The Sorbara Group – that he had no active role in his family’s land development business in the years prior to his return to politics as president of the Ontario Liberal party in 1999. This is what he told the Toronto Star in a story published today:
He told the Star he is a “passive participant” in the company, which his father divided between his children. He said his major income in that time period was from the company but he was doing other things, such as running a baseball franchise in St. Catharines.

Not to be fooled, however, the Star questions Sorbara’s claim:
However, the Sorbara Group’s website says Greg Sorbara has a prominent role in the company. The company states the firm has “an experienced management team combined with the personal hands-on approach of the principals Edward Sorbara, Joseph Sorbara and Gregory Sorbara.” In other forums (such as a Liberal Party of Ontario website) Greg is described as a “principal” of the Sorbara company.
When Sorbara was running in a 2001 by-election necessitated by the sudden death of Vaughan-King-Aurora MPP Al Palladini, here’s how his campaign literature described him to prospective voters:

Sorbara’s experience as a successful businessman, his long-standing commitment to protecting our environment, his proven ability to fight to ensure families get their fair share of funding for health care and public education – all make Greg Sorbara the best candidate to represent Vaughan-King Aurora.
Sorbara’s experience in business has taught him that we must make strategic investments in our future.
So Sorbara now claims that he was just fibbing to voters. He was not in fact a “successful businessman,” but the Gary Ewing of the Sorbara family, whose only business experience was running a minor-league baseball team, and his two generous brothers allowed him to draw a large income from the company in exchange for staying out of their hair.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Was Endorsing McGuinty a Bad Career Move for Malcolm?

One of Dalton McGuinty's lucky days during the 2003 election was September 19, when he appeared on Michael Landsberg's TSN show "Off the Record" with Ryan Malcolm, a waiter from Kingston who had days before been voted the first Canadian Idol.

Arriving at the studio for the taping, Malcolm was asked by reporters whom he intended to vote for in the October 2 election. "At this point, I'd have to say Dalton McGuinty. I'm a very Liberal kind of guy."

McGuinty was happy to accept the endorsement: "I'm honoured," he said. "I'm here to congratulate him. He's done a great job for Ontario and put the country on the map in a very positive way."

Two years later, McGuinty has been labelled a serial promise breaker, and on the eve of his second Throne Speech lost most of his government's brain power, thanks to the resignation of Greg Sorbara under an ethics cloud. And where is Ryan Malcolm? Rehearsing for the chorus of Ross Petty's latest Christmas kiddie show, a second album deal having thus far failed to materialize.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

More Deep Thoughts from CBC Staff

Part of me wishes the CBC lockout would last ‘til Christmas, given the barn door it has opened into the attitudes of CBC workers. You cannot make up stuff like this letter from Toronto CBC employee John Corcelli that appeared in Friday’s Toronto Star:

My vision for the CBC begins with a structural change at the top – an elected board of directors. The first board, perhaps with nine people, would be elected by members of the staff and management of the CBC.

Once in place, the board would elect a new president whose term should be no more than three years. The board, with the support of the federal government, Canadians and other interested parties, would draft a new mandate. I would like to see one that is transparent, equal and progressive.
Now, before you get too alarmed that Mr. Corcelli is envisioning a workers’ paradise unaccountable to the suckers who supply it almost $1 billion dollars annually, read on . . .

The mandate would be released to the public [emphasis added] and then the work would begin to create a new CBC. The end of this lockout marks an opportunity for us to do better.
How kind of him to let the public see the CBC’s worker-penned manifesto (workers would comprise the majority of the voters electing the new board) before he sends us the bill. And people say the CBC is indifferent to the general public.

Friday, October 07, 2005

McGuinty Condemns Surplus Allocation Concept he Ran on in 1999

The Toronto Star reports today that Premiers Dalton McGuinty and Jean Charest are peeved that the Martin government is planning to introduce surplus allocation legislation under which “the federal government would divvy up future surpluses by spending one-third of them on reducing the $499 billion debt, one-third on tax relief and one-third on new government spending.”

The Star quotes McGuinty: “I think it’s bad public policy to paint yourself into that corner and to give up any flexibility that you might need in this world where the only constant appears to be change,” the Ontario premier said. “The other reason I’m not supportive of that policy is because it does not address our $23-billion gap in Ontario.”

Yet in his platform for the 1999 provincial election, McGuinty pledged a rather similar surplus allocation formula:

once the budget is balanced, the fiscal dividend would be split three ways:

· 55 per cent for our priorities, primarily health care and education;
· 25 per cent in tax relief aimed at lower and middle-income Ontarians, to help them start to catch up;
· 20 per cent for debt reduction and a rainy day fund, to ensure health care and education are protected in good times and bad.
--20/20 Plan – A Clear Vision for Ontario’s Future, p. 14

As for the $23-billion gap, my empathy for McGuinty is somewhat dimmed by the fact that in opposition, Mike Harris repeatedly asked McGuinty to stand up for Ontario in demanding back the health dollars Paul Martin had cut. McGuinty usually didn’t.

Burn, Hedy, Burn

Andrew Coyne, whose return to blogging is eagerly anticipated by many, has a bang-on column in the National Post today (print edition or subscriber-only on their website) about Svend Robinson’s contemplated return to politics, and other cases of politicians parsing their own ethics, including David Dingwall, PQ contender Andre Boisclair and Dalton McGuinty.

As a Harris Tory, I look back wistfully on his government, under which cabinet ministers actually stepped aside when they were under investigation or committed improprieties. McGuinty promised the same standard, but the cases of Greg Sorbara, Joe Cordiano and Harinder Takhar soon proved him a promise breaker on yet another score.

Returning to Svend: I’m no fan, but if he takes down Hedy Fry I might burn a cross on my own lawn.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

I knew shelling out would get me back in . . .

I have the privilege of making an appearance on Mark Steyn's not-to-be missed Mark's Mailbox, having finally paid for the daily affirmation provided by his website by buying one of his books.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Public Policy Forum Piles on Harper

The Public Policy Forum, according to its website, “was founded in 1987 to provide a neutral venue where the private sector and the public sector could meet to learn from one another.” Its blurb goes on to say that “the PPF does not sit in judgement of what government does, but looks at how public policy is developed and how the public service is managed.”

Unfortunately, this purported detachment does not apply to what opposition leaders do, hence PPF Vice President (and former Joe Clark chief of staff) Graham Fox’s lengthy indictment of Stephen Harper in today‘s Toronto Star, which appears in Policy Options, a publication of the Institute for Research on Public Policy.

Fox runs through a long and rather stale list of Harper’s failings as leader, as seen through the prism of this spring’s events when the AdScam testimony broke and the Martin government faced confidence votes on its budget. Briefly, these failings are:

· Relying on a small cadre of advisers to the exclusion of all others
· Failing to broaden the base of the new party
· Failing to adapt his strategy to changing circumstances
· Continuing to oppose same-sex marriage, after Canadians have “moved on”
· Blaming others and shutting out different views
· Centralizing party power in the leader’s office

The only original observation I found was Fox’s claim that, according to William Johnson’s recent bio of Harper, Harper is “fundamentally a social conservative.” Is that what Johnson said? I haven’t read the book yet (hoping to get it next week for my birthday), but took a quick look at a library copy and note the following passages:

From a lengthy discussion of Harper’s March 1989 memo to Reform leader Preston Manning, which details much of Harper’s thinking:

While recognizing that the Reform Party should stand for conservative social values, Harper also warned against any departure from moderation, any partiality for “ultra-conservative values” such as nativism and excessive religious fervour. “A modern party of the Right cannot pander either to these minorities or to resentments of them.” (p. 122)

And from page 363:

His (Harper’s) stance for years had been that moral issues should not be a matter of party policy, but each MP should be free to follow his or her conscience and the wishes of the constituents.

Add to these the common knowledge that Harper is a social libertarian and has described himself as such from time to time. So where does Fox derive his conclusion that Harper is a so-con?

The screed ends with the conclusion that Harper “has to decide whether he wants to lead a social conservative movement or a brokerage party. If he opts for the former, he must do so with the clear understanding that he will not form a government . . .” If he wants to lead a “brokerage party”, Harper must “recognize the need for the party to broaden its base and make the kind of policy compromises inherent in that shift.” Since those compromises were basically made at the party’s Montreal policy convention in March, it seems that the only policy compromise Fox is talking about is same-sex marriage.

Same-sex marriage is a challenging issue to deal with, and I would argue that Harper and his MPs have addressed it with more honesty and integrity than Paul Martin has. But what should Harper and conservative MPs say to the vast majority of their supporters who oppose changing the definition of marriage? “Don’t bother us with your deeply-held views on a fundamental social institution! Can’t you see we’re trying to get our hands on the keys to the government limos here?!”

I don’t think that Harper is thrilled about having to continue the debate over same-sex marriage into the next election (where I don’t think it will be a major issue nationally), but should the rise to power consist primarily of jettisoning every issue that may slow or divert one’s progress? Perhaps Fox sees debating contentious policies as a burden. That’s a strange view for someone working for a think tank.

Despite the layers of Saran Wrap supplied by the imprimaturs of the Public Policy Forum and the Institute for Research on Public Policy, Fox’s piece has the smell of a hit ordered by PC malcontents who wanted Harper as leader even less than they wanted merger. Lo and behold, the forum’s staff includes Joe Clark old-timers Jodi White (she’s the President) and Bill Neville (“Senior Advisor to the President” – I am not making this up). Perhaps Fox thinks it is their advice that Harper should have sought on managing minority government situations.

A sidebar: Fox raises the canard of how gay couples that wed pursuant to the various lower court decisions would be “un-married” if new federal legislation were passed. Answer: they wouldn’t. Their situation would be analogous to a house that is built under zoning rules that have been superseded by rules that would not allow the same house to be built today. The existing house does not have to be torn down, as it is a “legal non-conforming use.” As for the married gays, they would eventually die or get divorced.