Monday, October 31, 2005

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.


Joe Clark said...

Are you willing to defend Rabinovitch knowing, as he surely must have, that the union's strike mandate ended September 6 and they could not have carried out the strike he claims the lockout averted?

Just asking. Facts and all that.

Joan Tintor said...

Ah yes, the union's spin that they could not have staged a strike in October because their strike mandate expired on September 6.

Unfortunately this rests on the assumption that, had a contract not been reached by September 6, the union would have allowed its strike mandate to expire and continued working and negotiating without a strike threat. Sorry, that's not plausible.

Thanks for your comments, Joe. By the way, voting for you in the 1998 leadership was one of the biggest mistakes in my life!

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