Archive for February, 2009

Saint City News column: Let’s not build the Road to Hell through downtown St. Albert!


This column appeared in today’s edition of the Saint City News:

The Road to Hell, as the saying goes, is paved with good intentions.

So it should concern us that some fine people with the best of intentions are proposing to build the Road to Hell right through downtown St. Albert.

Nowadays, we know more about the Road to Hell than we used to. In addition to its destination, we know it has no parking, no noisy trucks and almost no human beings after 5:30 or so in the evening.

It may have a couple of unhealthy saplings – if vandals haven’t torn their branches off. And it’ll have graffiti, a lot of it pretty nasty. If it used to have thriving businesses, they’ll have given way to pawn shops, tattoo parlours, empty storefronts and worse.

If this sounds to you like an urban pedestrian mall in a North American city, you’ve been paying attention.

Urban pedestrian malls started cropping up all over this continent in the 1950s and 1960s as a way to revitalize deteriorating downtowns. Urban planners continued to believe in their restorative powers until the early 1990s. In all, more than 200 were built in Canada and the United States.

Almost every one was a disaster. They had the opposite effect to that intended. Like a neutron bomb, they destroyed human activity while leaving the real estate intact.

There are lots of theories about why this happens: lack of parking drives would-be customers to suburban malls with parking lots; absence of traffic (at first glance a plus) means no one’s around to keep an eye out for crime; pedestrians disappear, making it more dangerous. The result: viable businesses flee.

To quote Donovan Rypkema, a Washington, D.C., economic-development consultant, “Pedestrian malls are as close to a 100-per-cent urban design failure as there is.”

This is why cities all over North America that closed off business streets to create malls between the 1950s and the 1990s are now converting them back to normal streets – a day late and millions of taxpayer dollars short.

So it should concern us that when the Mayor’s Task Force on the future of St. Albert’s downtown reports later this year, it’s likely to recommend that St. Anne Street be closed and turned into some from of urban street mall.

That St. Anne is not lined with businesses should not comfort us. The same fundamental flaws with malls that wreck downtown business districts apply to the areas around government offices, public libraries, theatres and courthouses.

Indeed, one thing that distinguishes the few successful outdoor malls on this continent is that they are short, seldom more than a single block. St. Anne Street – from the Courthouse to Perron Street – is too long.

Nor should we be swayed by claims pedestrian squares work in Europe. Remember, those public squares were pedestrian areas first, built before there were cars; they’re zoned to allow businesses that attract pedestrians (pubs, restaurants, small grocery stores); and there’s decent public transport, so you can get to them without a car.

None of that applies here. Just blocking traffic and tossing up a couple of concrete pots full of shrubbery isn’t going to turn a major road into a “people place.”

Without normal traffic, public transit or thriving businesses, the area in front of St. Albert Place risks becoming a dead zone – especially at night. This will mean fewer visitors to the public library, fewer customers for remaining businesses and deterioration elsewhere downtown.

Downtown St. Albert needs nurturing and revitalization. Closing St. Anne Street to traffic is being considered by honourable and well-meaning people to achieve those goals. That doesn’t mean it’s a good idea, though.

St. Albert needs to say “No” to an idea that has failed almost everywhere it has been tried.

Concerned about the fire in the kitchen? Don’t worry! We’re going to paint the front room pink!

Old bridge over the Miramichi River. Needs replacing!

Great! The nation’s economy is in a shambles. Hundreds of thousands of jobs are evaporating nationwide. Overnight, our Alberta budget’s gone from multi-billion-dollar surplus to billion-dollar deficit – which is a little like going from chicken salad to the other stuff that comes from chickens. And what does our federal Conservative minority government offer us? They’re going to get tough on crime!

There are words for this, and one of them’s “distraction.”

We’ve discussed this before. Crime’s a problem, but it’s not the problem our federal government would like to fool us into thinking it is.

Indeed, Canadian crime rates have been declining dramatically. Last summer, Statistics Canada reported that the national crime rate in Canada declined a significant 7 per cent in 2007. Crime was down in most provinces, including Alberta. Most serious violent offences – including homicides, attempted murders, sexual assaults and robberies – were down too.

Over the past 15 years, the country’s crime rate has dropped more than 25 per cent! Who knows why? Maybe because a lot of our active criminals are almost as old and tired as I am.

Moreover, most of the “solutions” being proposed by this government won’t work, and may make the situation worse. As in most things (except crazy stuff like unbridled free expression), however, our Conservatives follow the U.S. lead – packed jails, brutal penalties and all. And if a homegrown solution actually shows promise of working – a gun registry, say – oh, they’re going to get rid of that.

But as long as we’re getting mad about crime, I guess, we won’t be getting mad about all that other stuff. So never mind all those boring old crime-rate statistics!

So whatever the reality, our (minority) Conservative masters in Ottawa have decided that “getting tough on crime” – even if it is completely counterproductive – is what their political base demands.

They also recognize that their core political supporters are uncomfortable with the idea of spending our way out of a recession – even if that is the prescription recommended by most mainstream economists of the right and left alike.

Nevertheless, even given all this, the non sequitur that came out of the mouth St. Albert Member of Parliament Brent Rathgeber last week was decidedly weird, if not outright bizarre.

I’m quoting from one of the local papers here: “Many Conservative supporters aren’t happy the federal government plans to run a deficit, Rathgeber said, including members of his own political board. ‘To compensate for that, the government has decided it’s going to move forward on its law and order agenda.’” (Emphasis added.)

Say what? Does Mr. Rathgeber, who is pretty obviously a fairly bright guy, think that St. Albert voters actually think like that? Or, more frighteningly still, do they?

Gee whiz, this is a bit like having your landlord tell you: “Because you’re so concerned about the fat fire blazing on the stovetop, I’m going to paint the front room pink!”

Uh, great. … I guess. D’ya think we could put the fire out anyway?

At times like these, I’m often prone to blame the journalist. I edited too many journalists’ stories over the years not to have faith that, given the opportunity, most reporters will get things spectacularly wrong. In this case, however, the young man who wrote the story is a serious fellow with a reputation for accuracy. And anyway, our Brent elaborated at such length that it could hardly be otherwise.

Actually, though, the more I think about this, I wonder if this isn’t an approach that has some merit. Maybe we can look forward to several interesting new initiatives from our “new” Conservative government along similar lines. (When did they stop calling themselves new?)

For example:

  • To discourage teens from smoking, we plan to ban the use of studded tires in Nunavut between March and September.
  • To make up for the decline of the B.C. salmon fishery, we’ll consider lowering the GST another half percentage point.
  • And since our base just isn’t happy about university biology teachers yakkety-yak-yakking about evolution all the time, we’re going to compensate them by building a new bridge over the Miramichi River!

Now that oughtta keep the Conservatives’ supporters quiet!

A reporter’s (sorry) tale: Question Period explained

A few days ago I discovered a blog called Hansurdity, which specializes in finding “the weird, banal, outrageous or simply hilarious” in Alberta’s Hansard, and other Hansards.

Hansard, named for one Thomas Curson Hansard, a London printer early in the 19th Century, is the generally accepted name of the printed transcripts of Parliamentary debates in legislatures like Alberta’s that are descended from the Mother of Parliaments in Westminster.

This put me in mind of the only time I was ever mentioned in Alberta’s Hansard, and thus the only time I was ever mentioned in the debates of the Alberta Legislature. My name was included in the record for May 7, 1991. (This, as it happened, was a rather nervous moment for me. Not only had I just been appointed the Calgary Herald’s new city hall bureau reporter, it was less than a week before the birth of my daughter Lily, who is now in Grade 12 at Bellrose Composite High School in St. Albert, Alberta. Enough personal details! – Ed.)

A few days before, I had come across what was then known in the journalistic trade as a “scoop.” To wit, it was pointed out to me by a Calgary city official in possession of a sharp wit and a sharper pencil that a big government announcement shortly before might not, in fact, have been what the government wanted it to appear to be. (Quel horreur!)

That is to say, the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, a fellow named Ray Speaker (not to be confused with Mr. [No First Name] Speaker, who also appears in this account) had announced with enormous fanfare that that the Conservative government of the day was pouring $15 million dollars into a project to build low-cost housing for Alberta’s inner-city homeless.

This was a good thing, to be sure. However, unmentioned in his announcement – though noticed by my sharp-eyed informant – was the fact that a very similar sum of $14 million had disappeared from the native rural housing programs budgeted by the same department.

This being back in the day when journalists were still able to report the news, this fact formed the basis of a newspaper story that played very well in the next day’s paper, thank you very much.

That, in turn, prompted Mr. Ed Ewasiuk, New Democrat MLA for the riding of Edmonton-Beverly, to ask a question of the minister in the House, which was duly recorded in Hansard. (I have taken the liberty of adding some emphasis to the Parliamentary record, for which I am sure readers will forgive me.)

Here is Hansard:

MR. EWASIUK: Thank you, Mr. Speaker. My questions are to the Minister of Municipal Affairs on housing as well. Yesterday the minister and his colleagues announced that they’ve finally started initiatives to provide housing in the inner cities, which of course are very necessary although, I submit, inadequate to meet the immediate needs of the homeless in Alberta.

Behind the cautious optimism of housing advocates is the serious concern that the commitment to housing is only a shell game. While the minister was able to find $15 million for inner-city housing, he did so by robbing $14 million from the rural and native housing programs of his department. My question to the minister is: how can the minister say that social housing is a priority for this government when it has cut from one needy group to help another?

MR. R. SPEAKER: Mr. Speaker, I can understand the question that the hon. member raises. One or two days ago I raised the fact that often my research in this Legislature when I sat on that side of the House was from the daily papers. Often I found even as a member of the opposition that that research was based on false information and I was misled in the House. We find that here again today. So when I’m here on this side of the House, I’m responsible to try and put some truth in the articles that often emanate from our learned colleagues that sit in the upper gallery. *

I want to make it very clear that the article that was written by Mr. David Climenhaga of the Calgary Herald has more than one inaccuracy, and it is my intent to address those by direct letter to that author. …

Thus endeth the passage from Hansard.

Now, Mr. (R.) Speaker sallied forth and quoted this quote in a firm voice with a confident look on his face. (I know that, because I saw him that night on TV.) And, I say to you, this is the way to do it if your intend is to stand up on your hind legs before the Court of Public Opinion, though behind the secure doors of the Legislature, and deny the perfidious piffle that pollutes the public prints. And if your facts too contain an inaccuracy or two, no matter! The record stands, straightened, by you, in Hansard. (And who is to challenge your version of events?)

It was a measure of the times, I suppose, that having the fidelity of my reporting assailed by a Conservative Minister of the Crown in the Legislature passed with barely a ripple at my place of work. Later, with the newspaper chain led by certain well-known gentlemen of a neoconservative bent, now found by American courts to be felons of a most odious sort, the consequences for a mere city hall reporter might have been more serious.

Nonetheless, I must tell you, in my journalistic days I prided myself on the accuracy of my reporting, and for this reason Mr. (R.) Speaker’s comment rather griped me, as it still rather does. Naturally, although I knew it would be humiliating, I was prepared to pen a groveling correction when my (multiple) errors were at last pointed out to me in Mr. Speaker’s letter.

But here’s the thing. I waited, and the letter never came!

About eight years ago, when a mere decade had passed from the date of my mention in the debates of the Legislature, I reached a conclusion: to wit, that I was never going to get my letter of correction, not because it had been misplaced and left to gather dust on a shelf in the Edmonton postal office, but because, in fact, my story wasn’t wrong.

Ah, but that truth, alas, is unlikely to ever be reported in the privileged pages of Hansard.

In a just a few more days, 18 years will have passed. My daughter will have attained her majority and be legally entitled to take strong drink in the province of Alberta. And I will still have not received my direct letter from the minister (whom we are informed has now happily returned, like Cincinnatus, to his farm at Enchant) addressing my story’s alleged multiple inaccuracies. (Sadly, Mr. Ewasiuk, for his part, has passed on to another plane, and a bench at Edmonton City Hall honours his memory.)

And so, as Time Magazine used to say at least until persuasively informed otherwise, Mr. David Climenhaga, late of the Calgary Herald, stands by his story!

* That is, the baying jackals of the press.

Saint City News column: While economy burns, PM fiddles and Iggy flops

This column appeared in yesterday’s edition of the Saint City News.

Michael Ignatieff wasn’t at the helm of the Good Ship Liberal more than a few days before he scuttled the idea of a coalition with the NDP and forced his caucus to vote to keep Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government afloat.

True, he let his six Newfoundland MPs – though no others – vote with their premier against their party and the government in a “one-time vote of protest.” The chattering classes swallowed this meaningless gesture as powerfully symbolic.

What twaddle! Does anyone with a real job and bills to pay feel anything but irritation when eggheads like Prof. Ignatieff come up with nonsense like this?

Thanks to the Governor General’s foolish decision in December to let Prime Minister Stephen Harper prorogue Parliament in the face of a credible non-confidence motion, we have fiddled into a new year while our fiscal house smoldered. Open flames have now broken out – 129,000 Canadians lost their jobs in January alone – and the Conservatives propose to fight the blaze with squirt guns, the better to conserve water.

Mr. Ignatieff, who could have brought down Mr. Harper and implemented effective measures to shore up Canada’s flagging economy, opted instead to complain the government’s economic stimulus plans don’t go far enough while claiming to put “this government on probation.”

He’s right about the first point – but where’s his credibility? As for probation, the phrase suggests he imagines New Democrats and the Bloc will automatically support him if he ever finds it convenient to pull the plug on the government. It ain’t necessarily so!

Having seen their deal with Mr. Ignatieff’s predecessor go up in smoke, the other opposition parties will likely find strategic reasons to back the government if the Liberals withdraw their support. Maybe they can cut a better deal for Canadians than Mr. Ignatieff’s.

With the threat of a non-confidence motion gone, we can expect the government to slip back into its bizarre pre-coalition lethargy about the economy. “We will not be blown off track every time there is some bad news,” the prime minister advised Canadians after hearing last week’s very bad news. His government clings to the dogma tax cuts for the rich and balanced books will solve the country’s problems.

So, fasten your seatbelts! Even here in Alberta, the winds of recession are blowing hard. Did anyone notice that nearly 6,000 of the jobs lost in January disappeared right here? We’re soon going to have to abandon our fool’s paradise and recognize the collapse of Ontario manufacturing will cripple our one-dimensional resource economy. Shaving another percentage off the GST isn’t going to help.

It should have been obvious that last summer’s super-high energy prices were a bubble. Now that the bubble has burst, it should also be obvious prices won’t stay low forever. Indeed, with no improvement in supply, when the credit crunch eases and petroleum demand returns, we may see prices zoom even higher. The answer to Canada’s current economic predicament lies in recognizing energy prices will eventually regain their balance, and spending wisely now in that reasonable expectation.

That means investing in infrastructure for the future, and the quality jobs that support it, not in tax cuts and dubious financial speculation. A federal government serious about restoring balance to our economy would also reintroduce reasonable regulation of business, fund more generous Employment Insurance measures to support the unemployed, and make it tough for corporations to needlessly lay off workers merely to pump up their bottom lines.

Of course, the chances of any of this happening in Ottawa with Mr. Harper and Mr. Ignatieff singing in harmony are slim to none.

It’s enough to make one nostalgic for Stephane Dion, our original nutty professor!

Tales from the Crypt: The British Columbia Resources Investment Corporation

Your blog author with Dave Barrett, who long ago when he was premier of British Columbia naughtily turned troubled businesses into Crown Corporations. Oh Horrors! Below, Friendly’s Castle.

In today’s New York Times, columnist Nicholas D. Kristof suggested solving America’s banking crisis through a two-step process that would involve, first, nationalizing troubled banks run by irresponsible bankers, and then “handing out shares to all American households.”

“President Bush used to talk about building an ‘ownership society.’” Kristof opined. “Well, giving shares in big banks to all American households would be a terrific way to do that. For many Americans, it would be the first time they directly owned stock — and, finally, something good could come from the banking Bust Bowl of 2009.”

Uh oh!

Mr. Kristof’s suggestion reminded me of something… Here, let me tell you a story: “Here we are in the castle … one little chair for one of you, and a bigger chair for two more to curl up in, and for someone who likes to rock, a rocking chair in the middle…”

+ + +

Once upon a time, not long ago in a land not so far away, there was briefly a social democratic government. In those days, there were economic storm clouds on the horizon. The place was called British Columbia. The time was the early 1970s. The government was called the NDP. And the problem was that some industrial enterprises were in trouble and if they failed, many, many jobs would be lost. Not so different from right now, come to think of it!

What to do? That’s what the social democratic government of Premier Dave Barrett asked. The answer, it was decided, was for the government to buy out the troubled enterprises and run them as Crown Corporations.

With our superior, scientific economic understanding, we know today that this should never, ever be done, or even considered. (Thanks to the research done by the Fraser Institute, which is a think tank, after all, and so always thinking about things, we know today that the private sector always does a better job than the public sector.) So what that NDP government did was a Very Bad Thing!

But, then, we didn’t know as much back then as we do now in our wonderful, globalized, marketized world. In those days, even Conservative governments, like Peter Lougheed’s right here in well-run Alberta, sometimes nationalized things, like airlines, to save jobs, or just to keep them close to home.

Fortunately, the B.C. NDP didn’t last very long. They were soon replaced by the rightful government of B.C., a political party that was in those days called the Social Credit Party, which was later know as the Liberal Party, but which was actually the same as the Progressive Conservative Party here in Alberta, which is also the same as the Conservative Party in Ottawa, which used to be known as the Conservative-Reform Alliance Party of Canada (CRAP-CAN), and which before that was known as the Reform Party, and before that as the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada. Get it?

Now, the Social Credit Party was led by a man called William Bennett. Bill Bennett was the son of a man who was also called William Bennett – always a good thing when it comes to sound government – who had also been the premier of B.C. Those Bennetts had a much superior understanding of the Economic Facts of Life than did the socialist NDP, so as soon as possible young Bill re-privatized those recently nationalized failing enterprises with which the NDP had done a Very Bad Thing.

Being a clever man, Premier Bennett did this in a clever way. He found a way that would help ordinary people become investors and appreciate the many benefits of our modern market capitalist system – just like Mr. Kristof suggests should now happen in the USA.

Mr. Bennett’s Social Crediters took all the enterprises mistakenly nationalized by the New Democrats, rolled them into one big resource company and called it the British Columbia Resources Investment Corporation, which they pronounced “brick,” and they gave five shares to every adult in the province, which, come to think of it, was kind of like “social credit.” (Don’t worry about this – just remember that “social credit” had nothing whatsoever to do with “Social Credit” in British Columbia.)

Where were we? Oh yes, BCRIC, solid as a brick…

Knowing that the private sector always does a better job than the public sector, the Social Credits put some Big Businessmen in charge of this enterprise. You know, the kind of guys who take risks, who understand how markets work, who maybe even have MBAs! You get the picture. I can’t say I can recall the names of these fellows, or what became of them, but never mind that. I’m sure they’re not in debtors’ prison, thank goodness. The first thing these Big Businessmen did was offer to sell even more shares to the public for $6 each so that they could raise even more money with which to take even more risks and create even more wealth and stimulate even more markets.

Perhaps thinking that the B.C. government’s involvement made BCRIC shares a little like Canada Savings Bonds, members of the public – mostly small investors without a great deal of sophistication about how markets work or who works the markets – gave their money to these Big Businessmen whose names escape me to invest and create wealth for them.

Alas, almost unbelievably, the Big Businessmen – despite the fact they had beautiful suits, great haircuts, Rolex watches, snazzy foreign cars and lots of MBAs working for them – made some very bad miscalculations! They sank some of the money – quite a bit of it, as a matter of fact – in North Sea oil at a time petroleum prices were going down, down, down. (Rather like right now.) They dropped more money down a mineshaft that turned out not to have a bottom. Whoops! Sorry, folks! Small investors who had put thousands of their hard-earned dollars into the Brick saw their investments drop like the company’s namesake. Before long, their thousands were worth only a few pennies.

By then, of course, the company, with its nearly worthless shares, wasn’t called BCRIC any more. It had a convenient new inoffensively corporate name: Westar Group Ltd. No need to remind folks that this was Mr. Bennett’s brainchild!

In 1997, Westar was re-re-privatized. This sounds odd, of course, because the creation of BCRIC had been the result of the privatization of some companies that were owned for a time by the people of B.C. But what this means – in the language of the business world – is that the shares were taken private. That is, Westar ceased to be a public corporation, subject to public reporting rules, and became the private property of another Big Businessman, well known to the Bennetts, who didn’t have to tell anyone anything about what the hell he did with any of his assets.

What this really means, I think, is that the wealth that had been put into BCRIC by small investors was privatized. At any rate, the Big Businessman, whose name also eludes me just now, being a Captain of Industry and all, must have figured he was getting a good deal when the “compulsory buy-out” of Westar’s investors and his takeover of its assets were worked out.

Small-fry investors had 10 years to cash in their considerably devalued chips. The buy-out officially ended on June 30, 2007. After that, the shares – which had once traded for as much as $9 each – had no value at all. None. Zip. Zero. Zilch. Nada.

But the money that had paid for them, well, that went somewhere, didn’t it? Later, North Sea oil was worth plenty for a spell, and the stuff in mines was too. Yes, eventually God got back to His heaven and all was right with the world!

+ + +

Now, my friends, seeing as we are on the edge of another precipice, not unlike the one we nearly fell over in the 1970s, this is what is called “a cautionary tale.”

But before I get to the cautionary part, let me declare my personal interest: My dear father, who died in Victoria, B.C., last May at the age of 91, was one of those small investors who bought BCRIC shares believing they were backed by the provincial government rather like the government of Canada backs Canada Savings Bonds.

I know this because, after his death, my sister opened his safe deposit box and found about $5,000 in BCRIC shares from that initial offering. They had never been cashed in during the 10-year buy-out period. We’ll never know why. Maybe Dad was embarrassed. Maybe he forgot. Maybe he never got around to it. Maybe it wasn’t worth the effort of a trip downtown.

Now you may believe it was foolish and naïve of people like my father to trust people like the Bennetts and the officials of the B.C. Government and the Big Businessmen they hired to run BCRIC. You may even feel that, under the circumstances, these ordinary folks deserved to be fleeced, for a fleecing it was. And perhaps they did. Sadly, they didn’t lack for company.

However, and this is the cautionary part: It’s the same people, with the same ideology, from the same political parties, and the same businesses who sold my dad those shares who are now telling you and me and all of us in the face of a worldwide recession that private is always better than public, that businessmen always know best, that we can’t afford public health care any more, and that the CPP needs to be replaced. Oh yes, and if we just give working folks a few shares of directly owned stock, we can build an “ownership society.”

And if you believe this? “This little chair will be waiting for one of you, and the rocking chair for another who likes to rock, and the big arm chair for another to curl up in…”

[CUE THE RECORDER.]

The worst throne speech ever? Certainly a bad one!

I am not an aficionado of throne speeches, so I don’t really know if today’s Speech from the Throne in Alberta Legislature was the worst throne speech ever written. But I can tell you this: It was a bad one.

It was boring, of course. But that’s not really a serious knock against a throne speech. They’re not all boring, but even at their best they tend not to be rip-roaring, bring-the-crowd-to-its-feet exercises in soaring rhetoric either.

Nor does it particularly matter that Lieutenant-Governor Norman Kwong’s delivery style falls a little south of that of, say, Barack Obama. Indeed, the low-key approach favoured by Alberta’s last several vice-regal personages, Mr. Kwong and Mrs. Hole included, sets exactly the right tone for a speech from the throne.

No, the first significant problem with this throne speech was that it failed to do what a throne speech is supposed to do, to wit (as my favorite textbook on the Canadian Constitution puts it): The speech (read by the Lieutenant-Governor but written for the Premier) “outlines the legislative program that the Government intends to propose to [the Legislature].”

With one notable exception, Bill 1, this throne speech had virtually nothing to say about the government’s legislative program, and what it did have to say was so general as to be meaningless.

Saying that you’ll do your very, very best to make sure everyone is very, very happy is not outlining a legislative program. Yet that is the tone much of this speech struck. “Our government will follow through on its commitment to make significant investments in hospitals, schools and other public infrastructure to strengthen our communities and help municipalities address growth pressures,” for example, is not a statement of a legislative program on infrastructure, it is a collection of platitudes, and not a particularly artful one at that!

Nor is saying that “a new Plan for Parks will be introduced this year to ensure the long-term sustainability of our natural landscapes, enhance recreational opportunities and help to improve the quality of life for Albertans.” So…? This plan will do what? Going on to say, “We want to ensure that Alberta’s parks inspire people to discover, enjoy and value the natural world,” explains nothing. Indeed, phrases like this can be taken as dark hints of sinsiter policies to come – privatization? park closures? reduced services? But who can really tell? It’s probably just feel-good advertising copy.

Sometimes, of course, the speech descended to low comedy. Saying that our government “will release and implement a comprehensive plan that will responsibly manage the economic, environmental, social and infrastructure impacts and opportunities of oil sands development” begs an obvious question: You mean, up to now, you’ve had no plan? It’s enough to bring to mind a certain notorious political advertisement said to be unpopular with Premier Ed Stelmach’s inner circle!

When this throne speech did actually announce something, in addition to being vague, it tended to be something that the government has already announced three or four times in its endless flow of cheerful, upbeat press releases. (Example: mental health programs for children.)

The principal problem of this throne speech, however, was that it simply failed to recognize reality.

The world is in dire economic straits. The Globe and Mail reported this morning that Alberta and British Columbia are now being hit the hardest among Canadian provinces by the world’s faltering economy. “The global recession is cutting through British Columbia and Alberta with such alarming force and speed that the two provinces are bracing for an economic downturn as powerful as the rise that until recently defined a new West,” the paper intoned. “Fresh economic data on housing starts and personal bankruptcies show B.C. and Alberta – once holdouts to the U.S. and Central Canadian slumps – leading the country in decline.” Yet this throne speech burbles along as if nothing has changed, and we can all party like it’s 2008.

Oh sure, there was ritual acknowledgement that Alberta is not immune to economic turmoil, but it sounds as if it were pasted in during a late rewrite yesterday afternoon. Then it trills along with bumph like the following: “…despite the volatile economic times, Albertans can face the future with confidence and optimism. We will do what we have always done: adapt, set goals for the future, and move forward in confident pursuit of those goals.” Oh, please!

This kind of thing is not just irritating, it’s frightening. It indicates that our government hasn’t thought much about the severity of the meltdown, and doesn’t have a clue what to do about it. Everything will be OK because … because … yeah, that’s it! because “tough times bring out the best in Albertans — we always pull together, and emerge from adversity even stronger than before.”

Well, that’s reassuring! I guess we can all go back to sleep now.

Perfesser Dave answers readers’ questions about how news is covered

Question: Tell me, Perfesser Dave, how is the newspaper business doing these days?

Perfesser Dave: Not very well, it seems. They keep laying off their reporters and their readers keep not noticing that anything’s different. You’d think this would be a good thing from their perspective, but it’s really not, because the last guy to actually buy a newspaper in Canada was also the last guy who wore a snap-brim hat as he drove to work. He was driving a Packard. He retired, but then his investments tanked because he took the advice he read on the business pages of the Globe and Mail and sank all his RRSPs in a company that made self-cleaning toilets. When it didn’t clean up, he had to go back to work and now he reads the Metro at the Tim Horton’s where he gets off the bus. The Metro is free. It comes from Sweden. We don’t know where the Metro gets its news.

Question: Wait! This doesn’t make any sense. Are you saying no one buys newspapers any more?

PD: Apparently not. All the newspapers that people paid for started putting out editions that people didn’t have to pay for to compete with all the other newspapers that people didn’t have to pay for. Now they can’t get people to pay for the newspapers they put out that you do have to pay for, so they all had to fire their reporters to keep their profit margins above 25 per cent. This makes the news make even less sense, since it was the reporters from the papers you did have to pay for that were writing all the news in the papers you don’t have to pay for. But because of the newspapers you don’t have to pay for, people don’t want to pay for newspapers at all any more. What’s worse is that people have also stopped reading the newspapers you do have to pay for, even when they pay for them, because they also don’t make any sense because they don’t have any reporters that are any good because they laid off all their reporters to pay for the newspapers you don’t have to pay for. This is what happens when you put Masters of Business Administration in charge of newspapers. Capische?

Question: No, I don’t capische. Give me an example!

PD: Sure. The Metro.

Question: No! I mean an example of news that doesn’t make any sense.

PD: Oh. OK. Here’s a story from this morning’s edition of the Guardian, a newspaper in England: The Obama administration sought to mend fences with Moscow today after years of drifting into hostility, offering to shelve the Pentagon’s contentious missile shield in central Europe and to work with the Russians on arms control and a host of other issues.

Question: What’s wrong with that? That makes sense. And it’s a good thing, too.

PD: You think so? Well, read this story from this morning’s edition of the New York Times, a newspaper in New York: The United States will pursue a missile defense plan that has angered the Kremlin, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. said Saturday, in a signal that the post-cold-war tensions that have flared recently between Washington and Moscow could continue into the new Obama administration.

Question: That doesn’t make any sense!

PD: Exactly!

Question: No, I mean, the story makes sense, but it’s the same story, and it’s completely different, and that doesn’t make any sense…

PD: And your point is…?

Question: I’m not sure what my point is. Anyway, I thought the advertisements were supposed to pay for the newspaper.

PD: There’s a recession on, dontcha know? Nobody’s buying ads.

Question: True enough. What did the Canadian papers have to say?

PD: About what?

Question: About Obama, Biden and the missiles?

PD: I don’t think they covered it.

Question: Why ever not?

PD: You’re not allowed to cover international stories in Canada unless you can get “the local angle.” It’s a law or something. And it’s the weekend, so they have no staff to get the local angle. Anyway, the guy who used to do the local angle was laid off.

Question: So how can Canadians find out whether or not President Obama’s dissing the Russians or sucking up to them?

PD: You have to read the New York Times or the Guardian.

Question: But their reports don’t make any sense. They sound like they were written about the same event on two different planets!

Some Other Guy: Sorry, Perfesser Dave had to go out. He’s gone to watch World Nude Day videos on Youtube, where everyone gets their news. Did you see that one of the plane crashing in the river?

Question: Has anyone seen my snap-brim hat? Hey! Give that back! That’s my Metro!

Corporations have responsibilities too in tough economic times

Governments and taxpayers alone should not be considered responsible for digging us out of the current worldwide financial crisis.

Arguments have been made here and elsewhere that Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach and Treasury Board President Lloyd Snelgrove were irresponsible when they commenced yapping about the possibility of public service layoffs and cutbacks at a time when governments should be doing everything in their power to encourage consumer confidence and normal economic activity.

Astonishingly, even former premier Ralph Klein, who first implemented the cuts that Unsteady Eddie proposed to imitate, joined the chorus of naysayers, telling the Calgary Herald on Feb. 3 that “I would spend on the provincial level, on infrastructure.”

This criticism is entirely justified, of course. But in times like these, private sector employers also have a responsibility to behave in ways that do not make the situation worse. That they are incapable of doing so is evidence that more and stricter regulation of corporate activity is a necessity.

We’re not merely talking about the venal and grossly irresponsible behaviour of the banks and other financial corporations that created the conditions that caused the present crisis. Obviously, a reasonable level of regulation would have prevented banksters and their ilk from taking advantage the deregulated market to create high-risk financial instruments and then sell them to suckers with dishonest pitches. Bringing to an end three decades of deregulatory idiocy in the financial sector by right-wing politicians throughout the West should be a high priority for governments everywhere.

However, also of concern should be the wrong-headed and ultimately self-defeating efforts by corporations to keep profit margins high by using the present economic crisis as an excuse to lay off employees. Cumulatively, of course, the effect of these layoffs is to reduce consumer confidence, further suppress sales and exacerbate the crisis.

Still, companies persist in this self-destructive manner because corporate capitalists are unwilling or simply unable to behave like grownups in a crisis. What else can we expect when the corporate sector has denigrated and sabotaged the notion of public service for 30 years with the active connivance of right-wing governments?

Layoffs at a time like this by profitable companies seeking to keep their return on investment above a certain percentage are akin to someone blocking the emergency exit to a burning aircraft with a suitcase full of money. The objective may seem sensible to the money’s owner, but ultimately the results can be fatal to everyone.

In such circumstances, it’s the responsibility of the flight crew to ensure that panicking or self-interested passengers behave responsibly. When we witness such behaviour in the corporate sector – as we are now seeing in the Alberta oilpatch and the highly profitable Canadian newspaper industry – it is the responsibility of governments to make irresponsible companies behave.

The answer here is both more regulation and higher corporate taxes to finance the ameliorative measures – such as more generous Employment Insurance programs – that are required because of corporate misbehaviour.

If our governments won’t even do this, we will all suffer. An argument could be made, one supposes, that we deserve the pain if we persist in electing corporate shills like Ed Stelmach, Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff. But still, the penalty seems rather severe given the nature of our “crime.”

Failing even this faint hope, the very least we could pray for is for some responsible business journalism. Business reporters could start by simply asking corporations that are laying off employees what their profits now are, and what they were before the financial meltdown began. There was a day in Canada when this was standard operating procedure among business reporters. Nowadays, though, not even major newspapers with professional business reporting staffs such as the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star, let alone broadcast meat-puppets and our pathetically inadequate Alberta daily press, seem to bother with these obvious questions.

But then, of course, how could we expect such a thing? They’ve laid off most of their reporters to pump up their profit margins.

Cubans love Chevrolets. General Motors is broke. So… how dumb are the Americans?

This beautiful Chevrolet sedan, of approximately the same vintage and condition as this blog’s author, is typical of the lovingly maintained American autos on Cuba’s streets and roads. For new cars, Cubans buy Peugeots.

HAVANA, Cuba

Charles Erwin Wilson, president of America’s largest auto manufacturer throughout World War II, was more than half right when he famously remarked, “What’s good for the country is good for General Motors, and vice versa.”

So, how dumb are the Americans?

Here in Cuba, a country of 11 million souls every one of whom appears to love Chevrolets, about the only new car you can buy nowadays is a Peugeot or a Suzuki. Meanwhile, the streets of this proud little island country are crammed with vintage Chevies like the models illustrated in this blog – not to mention more than a few Fords, Plymouths, Packards, Nash Ramblers and Willys Jeeps – lovingly maintained with bondo, duct tape and Russian knock-off parts. (The work of keeping them running, the Cubans boast, is done by “the world’s best mechanics.”)

This isn’t the doing of either the country’s Communist government or wily French and Japanese auto salesmen. Oh no, it’s the Americans who have been shooting themselves in both feet, year after year for nearly half a century, as they punish the Cubans for being so cheeky as to set too good an example to the Third World.

The punishment takes the form of an embargo – that is, an act of war. And with their war the Americans have hurt the Cubans, no question. The inhabitants of this beautiful island have had to learn to get by on a shoestring, with a little help from their Canadian and European friends – and the Russians, of course, who by the way are coming back. (Canada’s contribution, one is certain, comes much to the distress of Premier Harper and his fellow members of the American Party of Canada.) So, shoe leather, old cars, motorcycle sidecars, battered buses and even horse-drawn wagons are the order of the day for Cubans on the move.

One could argue, however, that the effects of the embargo have not been all bad. Despite their proximity to Florida, it has insulated the Cubans from many of the worst features of American cultural imperialism. And it has vastly strengthened the government of the Brothers Castro, allowing the Cubans to build among the world’s best medical and educational systems. These are arguably superior in many ways to their counterparts in the United States, which is no doubt why the Americans hate the Cuban government so. It makes one wonder what the Cubans might have achieved, though, without the cruel and stupid American embargo.

Nowadays, American taxpayers may be looking as shopworn and raggedy as the average Cuban, but even as their government bails out fabulously wealthy banksters to the tune of trillions of dollars, there’s no way most Americans have access to anything like Cuba’s excellent systems of public education and public health care.

But the American embargo has also hurt American businesses. Not so far away in Detroit, for example, the former Big Three automakers are wobbling on their last legs, reduced to begging for a bailout from the hard-pressed U.S. taxpayer.

So pathetic is their present state that they can’t even be called the Big Three any more! Toyota Motor Corp. (hometown Toyota City, Japan) is bigger than any of them by production volume, while General Motors, barely solvent, clings to the No. 2 spot by its fingernails. Volkswagen long ago bumped Ford to No. 4. And Chrysler, the Three in Big Three, is now a distant No. 12, well behind the likes of Honda, Renault, Fiat and, yes, Peugeot. (This is thanks in part, no doubt, to the French carmaker’s many Cuban sales.)

Journalists who cover the U.S. automakers have taken to calling them “the Detroit Three,” an indication of their straitened circumstances if ever there was one, as anyone who has ever visited that benighted Mid-Western city can attest. All three are so close to collapse that they can’t function without, in effect, state ownership. You know, like … er … Cuba.

Access to a market of 11 million people who love GM products, wear GM logos on their clothing and paste Chevrolet bowtie logos on their aging Ladas and Skodas might not save the Big Three, but it sure as hell couldn’t hurt! (Chrysler, it appears, has figured this out, and finds its way around the embargo with a modest flow of new Chinese-made Jeeps.)

Fully opening this market to American business would help the Canadian industrial heartland too. General Motors’ most productive and reliable auto-assembly plants are located in Ontario. Some are mothballed, and thousands of workers are on long-term layoffs, because of lack of demand for GM’s products. Moreover, this week GM is threatening to close the rest, to score a few meagre political points south of the border and bludgeon their unionized employees into concessions.

We have an expression in English to describe behaviour like the U.S. embargo of Cuba. It’s called “cutting off your nose to spite your face.” If the Americans are smart, they’ll stop. They have a new president who is manifestly smarter than the old one. I guess, one of these days, we’ll see how smart.

The Cubans, of course, should be careful what they wish for. They may find new Chevrolets and new friends aren’t quite as reliable as the old ones!

Click here for more photos of Cuban cars.

Beaverlodge hospital: Not a good issue for New Democrats?

The Alberta New Democrats are making a big deal out of the failure of the provincial government to build a new hospital in Beaverlodge, a community of 2,000 souls 43 kilometres west of Grande Prairie.

We’re not talking here about closing the 18-bed Beaverlodge hospital, mind you. We’re merely discussing the provincial Conservatives’ failure to build a bigger one – a 25-bed facility that may or may not have been promised by the governing party during the last election campaign.

This failure, according to the Grande Prairie Herald-Tribune, caused “a mixture of worry and frustration” in a town-hall meeting hosted by New Democrat Leader Brian Mason in the community’s Anglican church – named for St. Luke, who as it happens is the patron saint of physicians and surgeons.

Not surprisingly, the weight of local sentiment is in favour of a new hospital being built as soon as possible. Equally unsurprisingly, Mr. Mason’s New Democrats have jumped on this issue in the context of the uncertainty about the future of Alberta health insurance aroused by Health Minister Ron Liepert’s ridiculous creation of Alberta Health Services to run health care in the province, an effort that can be compared to the proverbial reshuffling of deck chairs aboard the Titanic.

From the Beaverlodge perspective, of course, a new hospital makes sense not just in terms of new jobs and money for local suppliers, but because over the long term it makes the closing of the town’s hospital less likely. So no one is going to blame the Beaverlodgers, or whatever they call themselves, for speaking up in defence of their own interests.

But is this the right issue for the NDP? I think not, for two reasons:

First, because not building a new hospital in Beaverlodge probably makes sense. Indeed, an argument could be made that the old hospital should be closed, replaced by an emergency clinic, with medical services operating out of the Queen Elizabeth II Hospital, a full-service facility only 43 kilometres away in Grande Prairie. Many of us in Alberta’s big cities think nothing of driving that far to work, to the airport, or for medical treatment.

Second, because sticking up for rural taxpayers – who can be depended upon to vote Conservative no matter what – is simply the wrong strategy for what is now and likely ever shall be a political party whose success depends on urban votes.

Rural voters in Alberta have a party that aggressively and effectively represents their interests regardless of circumstances or justification, and that is the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta. Moreover, with Premier Stelmach’s Putney-Swope-like ascent to the leadership of the Alberta PCs, the rural branch of that party is decisively in the tractor seat.

One could argue, indeed, that in the province’s unexpectedly straightened circumstances the decision not to proceed with the new Beaverlodge hospital both makes good economic sense and took some courage by the Conservatives.

Of course, it’s always acceptable to whack a governing party for a broken campaign promise. Moreover, the NDP’s effort to turn Beaverlodge into a cause celebre makes sense in the context of the current Alberta political paradigm, in which both Liberals and New Democrats pretend to be governments in waiting capable of electing a full slate of candidates and forming a government. In the case of the NDP, alas – and I say this as a supporter of most of the party’s policies – this is a fantasy.

The Liberals aren’t much better. I remember a few years ago sighing with despair as Nancy MacBeth opened her doomed election campaign with a news conference that emphasized the need to, among other half-baked ideas, shovel more cash into pampered rustic locales.

This kind of thing has the perverse effect of reinforcing the notion among urban voters that no Alberta political party gives a hang about urban issues or the right proper screwing the government gives to urban taxpayers in this province. No doubt this accounts in part for the lamentable voter turnout in Alberta’s cities. Our mayors speak up in a whisper, but many of them are constrained by a justified fear of our one-party state and not a few by bigger political ambitions within the existing political structure.

I am not suggesting that the NDP should launch an all-out attack on rural interests. But I am suggesting that it would make more sense for them to identify with and aggressively represent the interests of urban voters, who are the only people in this province who show any proclivity to vote NDP anyway. And they should do so even when those urban interests are in conflict with rural residents’ perceptions of what they need.

God knows, there are plenty of examples where the NDP could do this. Among them: the disgraceful condition of our cities’ streets, the lack of funds for basic infrastructure maintenance, the theft of urban education taxes to build barely-used Cadillac facilities in the sticks, the horrific lack of affordable housing in urban areas, the public safety issues associated with the plague of homelessness in our inner cities, the neglect of our pathetic public transportation systems while rural highways are heavily subsidized, the miserly support given to city public libraries, the lack of so much as a basic public emergency clinic in many large suburban communities, and, for that matter, the money spent maintaining redundant full-service hospitals in tiny villages while major urban hospitals sit abandoned or are turned into condos.

These are all issues that an urban-based social democratic party like the NDP could, and should, get its teeth into. If that involves a little gentle urban-rural polarization, well, so be it! Many urban voters would say it’s about time.

Persisting with the hallucination that the Alberta NDP is a full-spectrum political party with a realistic chance of forming the provincial government is a cul de sac that will further marginalize the party. As it is, the caucus can now meet in a telephone booth without too much discomfort. It might get even smaller, or disappear entirely, if any more voters conclude that since there’s no difference between the opposition parties anyway, they might as well vote for the larger one. Either that or support the single-issue Greens, who will likely never elect anyone but at least have carved out a niche for protest voters.

Spending time and resources in Beaverlodge diverts the NDP from the task at hand with no prospect of success. Making the NDP the de facto “Urban Party of Alberta” would increase its appeal to its potential core constituency and hasten the day it could aspire to actually playing a meaningful role as Opposition.