Tuesday, May 30, 2006

You’re going to Torment! (as are we all)

Do you ever turn on the closed captioning feature on your TV? I often do, and it’s fascinating. For instance, on South Park, sometimes Kenny’s muffled dialogue is translated into clear English in the captions. On Law & Order, the clanging sound that signals the transition to the next scene is described as "[echoing bang]". Often there is helpful additional information, such as the way in which a line of dialogue is delivered, for example, "sarcastically" or "mockingly."

When MuchMoreMusic aired the movie Training Day a few months ago, the many expletives in the dialogue were bleeped out, yet in the closed captions they were spelled out to the letter (mostly the letter “F”).

Which is all by way of lead-in to my main point, which is that sometimes the words in the caption do not match the words that were spoken, and hilarity occasionally ensues (well, for me, anyway). On last night’s premiere of Canadian Idol, one of the judges informed a lucky auditioner that they had earned a gold ticket, declaring “You’re going to Toronto!” Unfortunately, this was translated in the closed caption as “You’re going to Torment!” Sigh. And taking all of us who can’t resist the Idol shows with them.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Take back our public services redux

Today’s illegal transit strike in Toronto is a classic example of what a public sector union that delivers a monopoly service is prepared to do, when it decides that it doesn’t like a decision made by officials acting on behalf of the public who supposedly own the service. (To add insult to injury, union officials reportedly went into hiding earlier today, to evade service of a cease-and-desist order obtained by the city early this morning.)

Listening to radio and TV today, I heard the usual entreaties that the TTC should be declared an essential service, or the workers should all be fired a la Reagan and the air traffic controllers, etc. (though Reagan always insisted that he did not fire them -- they abandoned their jobs). These are understandable reactions, but anything that leaves union control intact merely scratches the surface of the problem -- the problem being that the public lost control of its “public” services by allowing them to be unionized.

Time again to revisit my op-ed from last fall, about why unions should not be permitted in the public sector.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

McGuinty daring the gods on Sorbara reappointment

For a comment on Dalton McGuinty’s puttanesca-speed restoration of Greg Sorbara to the Ontario cabinet, I highly recommend today’s Toronto Sun editorial, which neatly contrasts the Guinster’s disinterest in the five-week-old Caledonia blockade, with the four-man cabinet shuffle completed in less than one business day – and before the ink was dry on Friday’s court ruling expunging Greg Sorbara’s name from RCMP warrants executed at the Sorbara family business last October:

If only Premier Dalton McGuinty had been in as big a hurry to resolve the native land claim dispute in Caledonia as he was to rush Greg Sorbara back into his cabinet yesterday.

Perhaps local natives and townspeople would not have been at each other's throats on Monday after five weeks of increasing anger and frustration on both sides. But no one in Caledonia is as important to McGuinty as Sorbara, his right-hand man and most important political ally.

When innocent citizens have their lives disrupted due in large part to government inaction, which is what happened in Caledonia until this week's crisis, politicians like McGuinty lecture them about staying calm and being patient -- ad nauseam.

But when one of their own is caught in a situation they perceive to be unjust, which is how McGuinty regarded the circumstances Sorbara found himself in, well, then, they just can't act fast enough ... Can they?

Perhaps McGuinty was encouraged by yesterday’s editorial in the Ottawa Citizen, which concluded that “From the perspective of the law, Mr. Sorbara is as clean as wind-driven snow. At present, there is no legal reason why Mr. Sorbara should not be in cabinet.”

The Citizen’s editorial writers make a serviceable argument, but they miss the point. The standard they offer is a narrow, legalistic standard, not an ethical standard. An ethical standard was set by former premier Mike Harris, under whose regime several ministers stepped aside, before any direct wrongdoing had been proven (and as I recall, in all cases there was no wrongdoing proven). As opposition leader, McGuinty paid lip service to a similar standard, when he said that any minister under a cloud should step aside.

McGuinty failed the first test of that standard in early 2004, when it became public that Royal Group was being investigated by the RCMP, Ontario Securities Commission and Revenue Canada. Sorbara had known about the investigations for two months, but didn’t bother telling McGuinty. McGuinty refused to ask Sorbara to step aside. And McGuinty discarded the standard entirely when he refused to ask erstwhile transportation minister Harinder Takhar to step down earlier this year, even after he became the first cabinet minister in Ontario to be reprimanded by the Integrity Commissioner.

As an aside, it is odd that Takhar has been handed the newly-chiselled portfolio of Small Business (though in fairness, Joe Cordiano was probabably paying it little attention, what with his puttan-esque pursuit of automakers). One of Takhar’s main defences to his conduct with regard to his family company, the Chalmers Group, was that he was a mere investor, and had little to do with the day to day conduct of the business:

"I don’t go there very often…I only go there when I have to see my wife or when I have to have lunch with her. I never went there before. I was never actively involved in the business, ever."
--Christina Blizzard, Toronto Sun, June 12, 2005 (as quoted on page 2 of Commissioner Osborne’s report)

And how to describe McGuinty’s ethical standard today? Straight out of "Hogan’s Heroes":

"I'm not sure who among us here is under investigation for what. We just don't know those kinds of things," he [McGuinty] told reporters. (Toronto Star, today)

Contrast this with McGuinty’s conduct as opposition leader, when one of his MPPs, Claudette Boyer, was alleged to have been involved in the cover-up of a vehicle accident in 1999. At the time, McGuinty claimed that he had tried to find out whether she was being investigated. Today, when deciding who will oversee an $80-billion budget and manage over $100 billion in public debt, it’s “I see no-thing, I know no-thing!”

Both the Sun and the Star noted that it would have been prudent for McGuinty to at least wait out the 30-day appeal period that follows Friday’s ruling before returning Sorbara to cabinet. I guess McGuinty didn’t relish the prospect of four weeks of whining from Sorbara.

By moving before the appeal period is up, and ignoring the fact that Royal Group is still the subject of investigations by the RCMP, Ontario Securities Commission and Revenue Canada – not to mention a class-action lawsuit by the Canadian Commercial Workers Industry Pension Plan – McGuinty is gambling that there will be no major eruptions on this file before the general election of October 2007.

Sorbara’s court challenge of the RCMP’s warrants, and his public comments on the matter have no doubt ticked off RCMP investigators. Personally, I wouldn’t bet on 18 months of quiet.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha

"Her [Hillary Clinton’s] national appeal and national strength is not based upon her relationship with Bill Clinton, but her extraordinary stature and success as a U.S. senator," said Robert Zimmerman, a Democratic donor and supporter of the couple.

That’s the money quote from today’s front-page New York Times story about the Clintons’ marriage – a quote that also reveals the entire motivation for the piece.

The story quotes other Clinton pals, such as Leon Panetta and Donna Brazile, which suggests that the Clintons okayed their interviews.

Of course, one would like to believe that this sort of stuff won't wash with the public, but these world-class grifters have gotten away with a lot (e.g. Bill's recent announcment of a multi-million-dollar advance to write a book -- about public service!), so you can't blame them for trying.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Victory for Sorbara, dilemma for McGuinty

Erstwhile Ontario finance minister Greg Sorbara has succeeded in having his name struck from the RCMP search warrants that resulted in his resignation from the Ontario cabinet last October. From the Canadian Press story:

Ontario Superior Court Justice Ian Nordheimer's ruling quashed parts of the search warrants that included Sorbara's name. The rest of the warrants stand.

Sorbara stepped down as finance minister after his name surfaced during an RCMP criminal investigation into allegations of fraud by Royal Group Technologies (TSX:RYG).

Sorbara had been a board member and part of the audit committee at Royal Group until he became finance minister in October 2003.

In his ruling, Nordheimer said police acted too quickly and without enough information to add Sorbara's name to the warrants, which included several other former top executives at the company.

"I am left with the nagging concern that the application for a search warrant, at least as it related to the applicant (Sorbara) was very much premature," Nordheimer wrote in his ruling.

Premier Dalton McGuinty, however, has yet to indicate whether he will put Sorbara back into cabinet now that – in Sorbara’s mind, anyhow -- Sorbara has been cleared. No doubt Sorbara is of the view that getting back the keys to both his government car and the Ontario treasury are his due.

More than any single individual, Sorbara is responsible for installing McGuinty in the second-floor corner office at the Pink Palace. In the late 90s, Sorbara was comfortably retired from politics and active in business. But watching McGuinty blow the 1999 election lured him back to politics: he ran for party president in the fall of ‘99, raised money, found candidates, set up the campaign team and, at McGuinty’s urging, ran for the Vaughan-King-Aurora seat left empty by Al Palladini’s untimely death in 2001.

Word has it that, prior to his resignation, Sorbara’s sign-off was required on all government initiatives. The PCs took to calling him “the Real Premier” and had T-shirts made to that effect (one of which is proudly owned by Sorbara himself).

All of this is no doubt why McGuinty expended political capital by refusing to remove Sorbara from cabinet when news of the investigations into Royal Group first broke in early 2004 – when Sorbara’s story on Royal was that he had done a good job and any criticisms were unjustified (more on this later). This was in contrast to McGuinty’s assertion while opposition leader that ministers under any cloud should step aside.

But when Sorbara’s name appeared on search warrants in the fall of 2005, McGuinty had no choice but to ask him to step aside. Sorbara’s news conference in the lobby of the Frost building was the first time I have ever seen him publicly rattled.

Whether McGuinty sincerely wishes to put Sorbara back into cabinet or not, I have no clue. But politically, the move has more downsides than upsides.

While the absence of Sorbara has had little apparent impact on the McGuinty regime, putting Sorbara back in the cabinet means exposing him to questions about the investigations and his past statements.

In the days after his resignation, Sorbara gave media interviews in which he described himself as a “passive participant” in his family’s real estate and development business. This despite the fact that the Sorbara Group’s website described the firm as having “an experienced management team combined with the personal hands-on approach of the principals Edward Sorbara, Joseph Sorbara and Gregory Sorbara.”

And according to the Globe and Mail this past March, Sorbara swore in court documents that his older brothers, Edward and Joseph, made it clear "that I ought not to contemplate becoming involved in the management and direction of 'their' business."

Also in the days after his resignation, he claimed that, although he was an independent director at Royal Group and a member of the audit committee, the board never examined any deals below a certain dollar figure (I believe it was $60 million), and that figure excluded the deals Royal Group did with the Sorbara Group.

He also told the Star’s Richard Brennan that he knew there were governance problems at Royal Group and, though he tried valiantly to fix them, met with little success. Sorbara told 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.

Though Sorbara may have succeeded in convincing a judge that his latest version of what went on at the Sorbara Group and Royal Group is the truth, once back in cabinet he may be called upon to explain his glaring inconsistencies on (a) whether he was a successful developer or the Gary Ewing of the Sorbara family, and (b) whether he was a competent independent director of Royal Group, or a failed corporate governance reformer.

And while Sorbara may have succeeded in having his name removed from some court documents, they remain on others, namely a class action lawsuit brought against Sorbara and several other former and current Royal Group officials by Canadian Commercial Workers Industry Pension Plan. Though admittedly, this lawsuit stems from the conduct alleged in the criminal investigation. Perhaps Sorbara will try to bootstrap today’s ruling into getting his name removed from the civil suit.

Then there’s the matter of Sorbara’s alleged leaking to local politicians of the McGuinty government’s biggest ticket item in its March budget: building the Spadina subway extension. Sorbara denied being the source, but several news articles resulted, mentioning Sorbara Group land holdings along the subway route.

Sorbara is also notorious for having an arrogant streak that may reflect poorly on a government facing a by-election in Parkdale-High Park and 18 months away from a general election, intent on branding itself as “on the side of” average folks. Most average folks are not in a position to hire $500-per-hour lawyers to amend search warrants in a police investigation still in its early stages.

And then there’s the problem of moving aside current finance minister Dwight “Spanky” Duncan, who appears very comfortable in the finance spot. Bringing Sorbara back means demoting at least one cabinet member. And those who may not be interested in running again in 2007 – names such as Gerry Phillips spring to mind – may not be any more willing to give up their car and driver than Sorbara was.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Still no ideas from Belinda, while Brison cribs from Clement

It is one year to the day since the sleek HMS Stronach made her maiden crossing in the House of Commons, finding a comfortable berth alongside the Martin JuggerNot. How were these unsinkables to know that a paunchy iceberg by the name of Stephen Harper lay just a few knots ahead?

Enough bad metaphors. It has also been nearly six weeks since Stronach announced she would not be seeking the Liberal leadership, offering the risible rationales that (a) the riding-weighted selection process was unfair, and (b) she could only speak her mind on policy and party renewal as a backbencher, not a leadership candidate:

Stronach also told CTV that she was interested in, "pushing the envelope for ideas that will bring about greater renewal of the party."

The MP for Newmarket-Aurora told reporters that she could have launched a strong bid for the leadership, but she is more interested in being "free to express my views."

"I think I'm less restricted as a member of Parliament to speak about renewal from the grassroots up," she said.
--CTV.ca, April 6, 2006

Well, perhaps it’s not fair to hold Stronach accountable after only six weeks. But look over here! Another erstwhile Conservative, Scott Brison, has come forward with a new idea! Well, sort of new: no one’s proposed it for at least two years.

Today, openly gay and really openly bilingual Liberal MP Scott Brison unveiled the first whiz-bang idea of the Liberal leadership. Yes, the man whose last leadership campaign (for the PCs in 2003) featured a light bulb as its logo, is hoping to capture the imagination of Liberals and soon-to-be Liberals with an idea last seen in Tony Clement’s bids for the Ontario PC leadership in 2002, and for the Conservative leadership in 2004:

The first $25,000 in annual earnings by young adults would be made tax free under a proposal floated today by Liberal leadership candidate Scott Brison.

The tax break would apply to a person's first 12 years of full-time work, thus helping young Canadians pay off student loans and start families, Brison told a Bay Street lunch crowd of 1,000 people at the National Club.
--www.TheStar.com (sorry no link, the Star's links never seem to translate into my blog)

When then-Ontario health minister Tony Clement ran on the idea in 2002, it was called JumpStart 250 – 250 referring to the notion that the first $250,000 in income earned by 18-year-olds would be tax-free. He resurrected the idea in his bid to lead the new Conservative party in 2004.

As someone once said, a week is a lifetime in politics. And a year? Consider that a year ago, Stronach and Brison were considered two of the brightest lights in Ottawa and two huge losses for the Conservatives – losses for which Harper was blamed. Brison was offering spirited defences of the sponsorship scandal in Question Period.

Now Stronach is squinting into the fluorescent lighting cast on those whose achievements never matched their hype (though the Star's political blog reports that she has been named head of the Liberal women's caucus). Brison is stealing ideas from Tony Clement, and both are struggling to master French.

But, as we should all remind ourselves, Stronach and Brison have not been the first to undergo reversals of political fortune. They will surely not be the last.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Harper is playing chess while the opposition plays checkers

That's the conclusion I draw when I see that the Prime Minister has quickly dropped his plans for a new commission to oversee all public appointments, mere hours after the government operations committee rejected his nominee to head the commission.

Rookie NDP MP (and former Buzz Hargrove grenade-catcher) Peggy Nash offered the rationale that former EnCana Corp head Gwyn Morgan’s previous comments on multiculturalism and the roots of gang violence rendered him unsuitable for the role. From the Canadian Press story:

"(The) opposition this morning voted down the government's key efforts to clean up the appointments process," said Harper spokeswoman Carolyn Stewart Olsen.

"It is now clear that we will not be able to make progress on this issue in a minority Parliament.

"The NDP and the Bloc will have to explain why they co-operated with a party that doesn't want to clean up the government appointments process to snub one of Canada's most respected business leaders."

Olsen said the government will campaign again on accountability in the next election and try to set up the appointments committee in its next mandate.

She added that Harper will invite Morgan soon to serve the country in another role.

"Recent riots in France and Australia are timely and troubling examples," [Morgan] said [in a February speech]. "It seems as if `multiculturalism' in these countries has created `subcultures' bearing little relation to the mainstream culture and values of the country."

Last year, Morgan linked Canada's gang-violence problem to immigration from places such as Jamaica and Indochina — "where culture is dominated by violence and lawlessness."

The government was obviously ready and waiting for the opposition's short-sighted tactic. And the NDP have just handed the Harper government the first plank in its next election platform.

Will Nash learn from her mistake? Too early to tell. Did her former boss Buzz Hargrove ever learn from his?

Addendum: I was remiss in not mentioning the other recent case of chess-playing by the Harper regime: calling for a snap debate and vote on extending the Afghanistan deployment past February 2007.

Yes, there is a sound logistical argument for having a vote now: it is impractical to wait until the fall or winter for the forces to learn whether that mission will be continuing or not. But there are also good political reasons for doing it now.

First, having the vote now means the issue will have been decided at least at year (we hope) in advance of the election. Second, it catches the Liberals leaderless and in the midst of a leadership contest in which several candidates have already been unable to resist backing away from the Martin government’s decision to commit to a more aggressive and dangerous mission in Afghanistan. (For the Liberals who are despairing over what to do tonight, here’s a wacky idea: how about a free vote?)

It is less than a year since a Liberal government made the decision to commit to the current mission in Afghanistan. Now we have several of their MPs and leadership candidates publicly questioning a deployment they voted for mere months ago.

If the vote fails and the mission has to end in 2007, it will be clear that it was because of lack of support from the Liberals and NDP – not the Conservatives.

Pre-election periods – and this one began on January 24th – are all about defining who you are. When a party has taken two or more different stands on an overseas deployment within a 12-month period, the public is wont to say “I don’t know where these people stand or who they are.” But they’ll know who the Conservatives are: the party that supported the troops, supported the mission, and held a vote in Parliament – like they promised.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Is “Draft Belinda” censoring comments?

Demonstrating the same brand of message discipline that has gotten Belinda Stronach through a leadership campaign, two elections, a floor-crossing and an aborted leadership bid (by the way, we're still waiting for those bold ideas that Stronach said she could only put forth from the sidelines), the "Draft Belinda" blog appears to have a general ban on any comment that falls outside the realm of Belinda worship.

Yesterday I couldn’t resist posting a comment along these lines on the blog, set up by someone calling himself “Jon”:

“Jon, get back to the Magna assembly line!”

And I posted under under my own blogger identity. So far, however, the comment has not appeared, though comments made after that point in time have – all throwing bouquets of encouragement to Stronach, some anonymously. (Now why would anyone not want the world to know that they're someone who thinks Stronach would make a great PM? Oh, yeah.)

I noticed that at Canadian Jedi, several commenters mentioned they had also posted comments at Draft Belinda. Theirs have not been published either.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Paul Martin’s forgotten foray into Ontario politics

Such a fuss – especially at the Toronto Star – over Stephen Harper’s perceived failure to show sufficient deference to Premier Pinocchio (or, as my former boss used to call him, “s***head”). And the nerve of Harper – appearing at the Ontario PCs’ major fundraising dinner to endorse John Tory!

The opposition and some media outlets are playing along, forgetting that McGuinty has no lessons in courtesy to teach anyone, having himself walked out of a recent premiers’ meeting a day early.

Liberal leadership candidates – glad for the opportunity to talk about something other than their party’s record and the Conservatives’ lead in Quebec – are happily piling on. When I hear erstwhile New Democrat Bob Rae – the highlight of whose political career was moving the non-confidence motions that brought down the Clark and Miller governments – accuse Harper of “injecting a totally partisan approach to the entire enterprise of being prime minister” . . . Well, I don’t whether to laugh or cry.

Anyhow, as is often the case, the current brouhaha is in dire need of some context, other than reporters’ top-of-head claims that Harper’s conduct is unprecedented. While the details may be, the substance is not.

Andrew Spencer of Calgary helpfully supplied some context in a letter published in the Star yesterday, noting that “On Jan. 18, going into the final days before the election, Dalton McGuinty told reporters: “I continue to believe that Prime Minister Paul Martin is the best choice for the people of Ontario." He also actively campaigned for his brother, David McGuinty, a Liberal candidate for the federal riding of Ottawa South.”

Here’s another example. In September of 2003, Liberal backbencher Paul Martin was the Prime Minister in waiting, his elevation to leader of the Liberal party the following November a mere formality.

With no portfolio and no leadership foes left to crush, Martin was free to insert himself in the Ontario election Premier Ernie Eves had called for October 2, 2003. He did so by making a highly publicized visit to the riding of St. Paul’s to endorse Liberal MPP Michael Bryant. I don’t have access to any databases at the moment to confirm the details, but I recall Martin endorsing Bryant with the phrase “this is my team” (meaning all Liberals and therefore the Ontario Liberals).

Eves was a sitting premier, and Martin was, for all intents and purposes, a prime minister elect. Yet Martin’s campaigning, as I recall, did not inspire any public whinging from Eves, even though as finance ministers, Martin and Eves had enjoyed a cordial relationship. And Bryant had defeated Eves’ “life partner” – former Harris cabinet minister Isabel Bassett – in St. Paul’s in the 1999 general election.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

McGuinty’s rent control: a $1 M house for under $1,500 a month

Shortly after the McGuinty government’s election in October 2003, the Toronto Star reported that “Dalton McGuinty has embarked on the ultimate urban challenge: finding an affordable house in downtown Toronto.”

In January, 2004, some vague details about the house – purchased by the Ontario Liberal party for McGuinty – were released to the Star’s Ian Urquhart:

The party bought a house for McGuinty in the tony Yonge-Summerhill area of mid-town Toronto. The price was in the high six figures.

That's beyond McGuinty's price range, even with his salary of $152,835 a year.

So McGuinty will rent the house from the party for an amount equivalent to the housing allowance for out-of-town MPPs, or about $1,460 a month - well below the market rate for the area.
--Toronto Star, January 31, 2004

The article also noted that “It is not unusual for political parties in Ontario to subsidize housing costs for their leaders. When Mike Harris was Conservative leader his party helped defray the cost of his $4,000-a-month waterfront condo.” An article in the Ottawa Citizen earlier that month reported that the PC party was paying $7,000 monthly to rent a house for former premier Ernie Eves, in the Cedarvale area of Toronto.

Two years later, the actual price the Liberal party paid for the house and mortgage details have not, to my knowledge, been publicly revealed. Hence, the public has no idea how much housing subsidy McGuinty is receiving from the party.

Below are the deed, mortgage and assessment documents for the house. I have whited out any information that might identify the property address. (I apologize for the poor resolution -- I was trying to keep the files to a manageable size.)

The purchase price was $995,000. Scotiabank’s commercial banking group has a $1,000,000 mortgage on the property.

As the Star reported, McGuinty is paying only $1,460 monthly to occupy the house, far less than its carrying costs.

To give you an idea of the costs, a $1-million dollar mortgage at 5% with a 25-year amortization period would require a monthly payment of $5,845.90.

The 2006 assessment for the house is $1,050.000. At this year’s mill rate, plus the 3% increase approved by council, that means an annual tax bill of $9,806.42.

Add in $300 a month for utilities and insurance (a modest estimate) and you get monthly costs of $6,963.10 (this does not include maintenance or repairs).

Minus McGuinty’s monthly contribution of $1,460, that’s $5,503.10 every month out of party coffers.

Deed, mortgage and property assessment documents for the house purchased for McGuinty by the Ontario Liberal Party

Joan's note: Again, sorry for the resolution.

Conservatives continue to rake it in

Seemingly lost in all the Budget news yesterday was the release of the political parties’ first quarter financial returns by Elections Canada.

Through the first three months of 2006, the Conservative party continued to lead in fundraising, raking in $5,371,354 in donations from 37,391 donors. Average donation: $143.65.

This was four times what the Liberals raised. The Martin JuggerNot took in just $1,328,515.12 from 6,493 donors, for an average donation of $204.61.

The NDP raised nearly as much as the Liberals, taking in $1,113,563.26 from 12,850 donors – an average donation of $86.66.