Sunday, February 29, 2004

Excuse me, have you seen my agenda?

Paul Martin has stated repeatedly that he wants an early election because he wants a mandate for his "ambitious agenda". But so far all we've heard from him is a throne speech that was long on rhetoric and, in most areas, short on specifics. Now, via Paul Wells (who's become indispensable for keeping track of whatever it is the Liberals are up to), we learn that there may not be too much in the way of specifics.
Last week every deputy minister in Ottawa was given an astonishing assignment.

The lead civil servant in charge of every government department was given two weeks to deliver a ten-page memo outlining new ideas for government — "with an emphasis on 'thinking outside the box,'" I was told — for delivery within two weeks.

The documents are therefore due next week. And they are not simply to represent the random musings of lone departmental theoreticians: each DM has been told to have his minister sign off on the new-ideas memo.

This government-wide brainstorm represents Paul Martin's response to what every pundit in town has noticed in the past week: If the sponsorship scandal does force an election delay then this government is dangerously out of luck because it is devoid of a governing agenda.
What's this? Red Book Version 4.0 isn't ready? (For those not familiar with Canadian politics of the last decade, the Red Book was a very detailed policy platform on which the Liberal party ran in 1993 when they were swept back into power. The day after the election it became a conversation piece and not much more. They've since won two more elections.)

That would certainly provide a different explanation for Martin's outrage over the sponsorship scandal. We could hope that his anger was a simple refusal to countenance corruption but then we'd have to wonder why his original reaction to all those rumours he'd heard at the time was to put his head down and pretend he hadn't heard a thing. My own belief is that it was largely a performance for the electorate's sake but to the extent that he was drawing on real emotion, it seems much more likely it was fear over the possibility his bluff was about to be called.

And it would explain the move to suspend the heads of Via Rail and Canada Post without waiting for the results of any of the investigations. If the public wants blood, give it to them quickly. It might just get those poll numbers back up. And it seems to be working, too.

My guess is that we'll have that spring election, no matter what. If the public wants another blood sacrifice, Martin will find someone's head to hand them. (Of course idiots like Jean Pelletier are certainly making it easy for him.) He needs more time to prepare that new Red Book so he can ignore it, too, after the election.

Let's see, Paul Martin or Belinda Stronach. We're so screwed.

That's it for Belinda

Boss urges Magna workers to back Stronach
Workers at massive Magna International are being urged by one of their highest-ranking executives to support former chief executive officer Belinda Stronach for the Conservative leadership, sparking accusations of strong-arm tactics by her opponents.
In a letter to company presidents, general managers and corporate officials, Magna International executive vice-chairman Manfred Gingl asks that they remind employees of the race and distribute membership forms to those who want them.

"Please find attached a membership form for distribution to interested employees," Mr. Gingl writes in the Feb. 24 memo. "I would appreciate your co-operation in ensuring that an appropriate reminder is communicated to all employees in your division in the few, final days left, so that they can help make a difference in the future direction of our country."

Mr. Gingl is one of two executive vice-chairmen of Magna, which has about 20,000 employees in Canada and is a global auto-parts powerhouse with sales last year of $15.3-billion (U.S.). He is a friend of Frank Stronach, Ms. Stronach's father, the company founder. Before leaving to seek the leadership, Ms. Stronach acted as chief executive officer.

"Belinda needs our help," wrote Mr. Gingl. "... This is a rare opportunity for all of us to stand up and be counted."
For a senior executive to use his position in this manner is completely unacceptable whether the candidate has any association with the company or not. And the lack of a full and public repudiation of this by Belinda Stronach herself only indicates that she either doesn't understand, or doesn't care, about the affront to democracy this represents. But it certainly puts some of her other statements into perspective.
We are going to compete by creating world-class value-added products and services made and supplied by highly skilled Canadian workers
We're not citizens, we're prospective employees. As Prime Minister I'm sure Belinda would be only too happy to instruct us as to what skills we're required to learn so we can play the roles the corporations require us to play. And given the opportunity, she'll be only too happy to instruct us how to vote as well.

I've really tried to give Belinda Stronach the benefit of the doubt thus far, but at this point I'd sooner vote for a garden gnome.


That turned into a longer break than I'd planned. I had a customer in crisis, which meant I was in crisis. Once I had that straightened out it seemed like a good opportunity to get some other old business out of the way.

But it's not like there's been nothing going on out there that was of interest, as I'll demonstrate later on this evening.

The song of the day is Evil by Koko Taylor (originally written by Willie Dixon). Just 'cos I feel like it. Do I need an excuse for the Blues?

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

You're on your own for a bit

I'm on my way out the door for a quick business trip. There will be nothing new from until late tomorrow at the earliest. I know it'll be tough but try and bear up under the strain.

(Do I need to implement some kind of sarcasm tag?)

Let's not move on and say we did

Shorter William Thorsell:
I'm going to cherry pick a few numbers, spin them to "prove" that Americans are better than Canadians, and through some nifty rhetorical sleight of hand use this to demonstrate that corruption and possible criminal activity at the highest levels of our government should be ignored because that would make us more like the US.

Does he actually get paid to write this crap or is it a labour of love?

I'm at a bit of a loss to understand what people mean when they say we should "move on" from Adscam. Is our government incapable of getting anything else done while the investigation into this continues? Are their powers of concentration that limited? If so, they should all be fired right now.

There are four MPs sitting on the commons committee that's dealing with this. That leaves 297 other MPs free to think about other things. Paul Martin isn't personally sitting on any of the inquiry panels nor is he out in the trenches with the RCMP officers who are investigating. If the sponsorship scandal is occupying every waking hour of his day, and the days of his closest advisors, it's not because they're spending all that time worrying about the pursuit of truth and justice, it's because they're consumed by the politics of the situation. That's not my problem.

Do you want people to lose some of their cynicism about politics and to feel that their government is actually responsible to them? Then you demonstrate that, at least as much as possible, corruption won't be tolerated and criminal activity will be investigated and punished. That might just convince people that government works, that their tax dollars are being managed by people who at least try and take the responsibility seriously and that there's some point to being involved in the whole messy business other than looking for opportunities to line your own pockets.

Do you want to increase the cynicism people feel about politics and government? Then when confronted with obvious corruption, you shrug your shoulders, say "What are you gonna do, eh?" and "move on".

Sunday, February 22, 2004

Business as usual

During his time as finance minister Paul Martin turned the art of managing public expectations by way of the strategically placed leak into an art form. His MO seems to be intact. While there are a couple of named sources in this article, the most contentious of the revelations come from that ubiquitous leaker, he who must not be named. This guy gets around.
Paul Martin's plan to call an inquiry into the sponsorship scam sparked dissent within his cabinet led by Quebec ministers who fervently pleaded with him to reverse his stand, The Canadian Press has learned.
"All Quebec ministers were against a public inquiry. All of them," said one ministerial aide who asked not to be named.
But the most interesting revelation in the article is the depth and length of the debate surrounding the decision to go ahead with the inquiry.
Martin cancelled the scandal-riddled sponsorship program in a pre-emptive move on Dec. 13, just one day after he took over as prime minister.

The harder decisions were made over the eight following weeks: how far should the government go in responding to the report; should it try calming public outrage or sympathizing with it; and should it shield the Liberals who may have been involved.
Eight weeks. Which should tell us that nothing in the Liberal strategy we see unfolding is spontaneous. All of it has been carefully examined for potential political damage. If they seem at times to be confused or disorganized it may be that their implementation is faulty, but the planning was done. If it seems like a foolish or wrong-headed strategy, that's as may be. But it's still a strategy. The "Mad as Hell" tour and Martin's continued expressions of outrage are calculated, and my guess is they're calculated to cast him as the anti-Chrétien.

Team Martin knows that the next time they go to the polls, they'll be campaigning against the previous Liberal administration as much as against the current opposition. After ten years of Liberal government the hunger for change in the electorate can only be satisfied with a government that at least appears to be different. Hence the continuing effort to differentiate Martin from Chrétien, who would have shrugged off the whole messy sponsorship business and changed the subject. And hence the anonymous effort here to show Martin heroically standing up to the Quebec politicians even while he publicly states that Quebec politics and the Liberal party aren't corrupt. Someone's trying to have it both ways.

Of course some of the praise for Martin in the article is credited - the part that makes him sound heroic.
"The buck stops here," said [Dennis] Dawson.

"At the end of the day, he gets conflicting advice and he makes the decisions. On this one, he made a decision in the interest of the Canadian people and in the interest of honesty and integrity."
So Paul Martin is now Canada's answer to Harry Truman? And a decision made in the interest of honesty and integrity took a full eight weeks to arrive at? I don't think so, Dennis.

It doesn't look like we'll have to wait for the inquiry to even get under way to find out what it's going to tell us. He who must not be named has had a busy weekend.
The hunt for culpable parties in the federal sponsorship scandal will extend to the uppermost reaches of the public service, says a highly placed Liberal official.

It is the latest — and perhaps strongest — sign that the trail of the sponsorship fiasco, which has already shaken the new administration of Paul Martin, could ultimately lead to officials who worked in the Privy Council Office.

It is "widely expected" within Mr. Martin's government that officials who served in the PCO, the senior bureaucracy that serves the prime minister, helped set the stage for the abuses — from rule-bending to possible fraud — that flowed from the sponsorship program, said the Liberal source, who requested anonymity.

"I think it goes into PCO."
The important part of this isn't that the scandal reached into the "uppermost reaches", it's that it concerns the "public service" and not elected officials. Someone's setting the stage for civil servants to take the fall while cabinet ministers, and Jean Chrétien, walk away unscathed. If they know that already, why are we having a public inquiry? Doesn't this kind of innuendo undermine the honesty and integrity of the inquiry process? Games within games, levels within levels.

Paul Wells spent a lot of effort in the past week documenting the hypocrisy evident in the way the nomination process in Quebec is being managed. It's happening outside Quebec too and not just in Sheila Copps' case. Martin opened up the nomination process as a way to move the Chrétien loyalists out and move his own hand-picked people in. There's nothing like ensuring a friendly board of directors before you allow those much-heralded free votes. Wells wonders why Team Martin would do this.
The only question, then, is: Why is Martin doing it? Actually that's not the only question, because here's another: Why is he persisting in an untenable and literally incredible defence of his actions, in the very province and at the very moment when he can least afford it?
I think the answer is simple: because they think they can get away with it. I'm sure someone's worked the political calculus and decided that any damage from this will be temporary and localized. And if there's a price to pay in Quebec in particular, I'm sure that in the minds of Martin and his team this is outweighed by the benefits that will accrue from a decade or so of Martin's leadership. In their minds, it's a small price to pay and they're confident they'll be able to fix it. Yes, I think they're that arrogant.

No matter how much Dennis Dawson or Reg Alcock may try and convince us otherwise, Paul Martin is first and foremost a creature of ambition. The politics comes first and the public interest comes second. So the old rule of thumb where politicians are concerned is operative: ignore what they say and pay close attention to what they do.

The song of the day is Business as Usual by Little Feat.

Friday, February 20, 2004

Lord Tubby and the Prince of Darkness

Testimony in the trial I wrote about a few days ago wound up today with Conrad Black claiming to be an innocent and honorable business man who had been "horribly defamed". Given all the legal proceedings that are pending regarding Hollinger International, it's possible that Black became confused and thought this was his defamation suit against the Hollinger board. I can certainly understand him being nervous since the presence of a judge would put him off his normal game.
On Thursday, company adviser Richard Breeden told the court that Lord Black regularly threatened to sue independent members of the board of directors of Hollinger International.

Mr. Breeden, a former chairman of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, testified that Lord Black often began meetings with the company's board members by threatening them.

"I've heard him start several meetings by saying he'd sue every member of the board If they didn't go along with what he wanted," Mr. Breeden said under questioning from a Hollinger International lawyer.
But Black's bullying manner wasn't the most interesting thing that was brought to light in the proceedings.

The antagonism between Black and the rest of the board began over so-called unauthorized payments that he and other executives, most notably his "right-hand man" David Radler, received. Following the initial internal investigation, Black was asked to step down as CEO and to repay the money and, after a bit of a tussle, he agreed. But subsequently he claimed that his own lawyers had discovered previously undisclosed documents which authorized the payments. At that point he refused to repay the money, announced that he was selling his holdings in the company and launched a defamation suit against the board members.

His lawyers submitted the "authorizing" documents as evidence yesterday. They turned out to be "unanimous consents" signed by Black, Radler and Richard Perle. (Yes, that Richard Perle.) One is left to wonder why Black needed his lawyers to locate documents which he had signed himself to authorize paying himself and why, if this is all the authorization that was required, he originally stepped down and agreed to repay the money without more of a fight.

And one might wonder how Perle ends up in the middle of this. He is, in fact, a member of the board, but perhaps he's more than just an average director.
RICHARD PERLE, the former US Assistant Defence Secretary and Hollinger International board member, is under investigation for allegedly failing to disclose bonuses worth about $3 million (£1.6 million) which he received for running an investment scheme, The Times has learnt.

Mr Perle, a vocal supporter of President Bush, was awarded the money as a reward for investing Hollinger shareholder funds in a series of separate businesses. Mr Perle also held a stake in some of those businesses. While the scheme put Hollinger International shareholders’ money at risk, it was never disclosed to them.

Richard Breedon (sic), who heads a Hollinger committee that is already investigating other undisclosed payments to group executives, is said to be now looking at circumstances surrounding Mr Perle’s apparent undisclosed bonus.

Mr Perle was one of five Hollinger International directors who participated in the bonus scheme.

However, while Lord Black of Crossharbour, the publisher’s founder; David Radler, deputy chairman and chief executive of Hollinger International; Dan Colson, chief operating officer of Hollinger International; and Peter Atkinson, Hollinger vice-president, all divulged their awards to shareholders, it appears that Mr Perle has so far failed to do so.
The story goes on to say that Perle helped to set up this scheme and that the money was funnelled through a company of which he was co-chair. It also mentions the unfortunate fact that Perle's failure to disclose his bonus is a contravention of SEC rules. So now we have money flowing every which way between directors and executives of the company while the COO, Peter White, described the company itself as "broke" in his testimony today. And we have Richard Perle in the thick of it. (One might say it appears that Black and Perle were thick as thieves. But it's just an expression. Honest.)

And what about those payments to Black and Radler? I'm glad you asked.
The money paid to Black had been described as "non-compete" payments, which are normally paid to a seller of newspaper by the buyer to assure that the seller doesn't immediately re-enter the same market.

But [interim CEO and board member Gordon] Paris said that in Black's case, the payments were made to him personally instead of to the company, and without the approval of independent directors. He called them "fictitious," and said "they were inappropriate, and they were unauthorized."

Raymond Seitz, a U.S. former ambassador to the United Kingdom and one of the board members probing the payments, testified later that it was unclear why some of the money described as non-compete payments was going to Hollinger International's Toronto-based holding company, which didn't seem to ever be a likely competitive threat in the U.S. community newspaper market.

In one case, a non-compete payment went to a wholly owned subsidiary of Hollinger International. Seitz said he found it "odd to have an agreement not to compete with yourself."

Seitz said the situation "moved from the peculiar to the bizarre" when it became apparent that there had not even been an actual non-compete agreement signed in that case.
(Aside: is "bizarre" the newest euphemism for "fraud"? Just asking.)

The point of this proceeding is to determine whether Black can go ahead with the sale of his holdings in Hollinger International to the Barclay brothers. The Hollinger board objects because they're afraid it will prevent them from recovering the money they feel Black owes them and because Black had signed an agreement in November that should prevent the sale. It became evident during the proceedings that Black wasn't exactly honoring the spirit of that agreement and had taken pains to keep the board members in the dark about the interest on the part of the Barclays.
Conrad Black "put off" the millionaire Barclay brothers' attempts to inform the board of Hollinger International Inc. of their intention to purchase control -- against their insistence and the advice of his own lawyer, according to court papers filed this week by Hollinger International.

He also insisted they pursue the purchase of London's Daily Telegraph through his control stake in parent company Hollinger Inc., the court papers say.

Lord Black dismissed his own lawyer's warning to the Barclays that he was bound by a November agreement not to sell -- Lord Black called the lawyer's concerns "exaggerated," according to the statement of facts.
It may be a mug's game trying to anticipate how a judge will rule in this case, especially when it may well come down to the legalese in the company's bylaws and various contracts and agreements, but I'd have to say that if there's to be any real justice in the outcome it doesn't look good for Black.
Separately, Hollinger International director Richard Burt said an employee of the company has admitted to covering up improper payments to executives for years.

A document submitted to a Delaware court indicated that Mr. Burt said Hollinger Inc. executive Peter Atkinson admitted last November that "he had been asked to lie, cover up."

The filing, prepared by Hollinger International, quotes from Mr. Burt's deposition made ahead of the trial.

According to the filing, Mr. Burt said Mr. Atkinson was "very sad" and "very contrite" when he met with some board members to discuss alleged improper payments made to Conrad Black and some other executives, including Mr. Atkinson.

Mr. Burt said Mr. Atkinson admitted "that there were documents that were postdated. And ... essentially he described a conspiracy."

In addition, Mr. Burt said, "[Mr. Atkinson] and others had been engaging in this process, this cover up for years."
Several of the stories I read stated that this court has "a reputation for quick and clear judgments in business disputes". Here's hoping this one doesn't ruin it's reputation. If it does, and they want to sue Black, they'll have to get in line.

And with the new and prominent role that the Prince of Darkness has in all of this, I may have to start a new blog just for this.

A distinction without a difference

Treasury Board Chairman Reg Alcock would really appreciate it if we'd all be a lot more careful with our language in discussing the sponsorship scandal and the popularly reported figure of $100 million that seems to have gone astray.
"It is not $100 million. It is some figure quite a bit less than that. The Auditor General herself is having difficulty figuring it out," said Alcock during question period.
Speaking to reporters later on Alcock elaborated:
But he said that the Auditor-General herself does not know how much of that $100 million was actually misspent.

In her report released last week, Auditor-General Sheila Fraser concluded that "over" $100 million of the $250 million sponsorship program went to "communication agencies as fees and commissions." She also said, "Public servants broke the rules in selecting communications agencies for the government's advertising activities."
However, Alcock said that Fraser's findings are not conclusive that $100 million was misappropriated.

"There is some number between zero and $100 million that is at question here," he said.
I think Alcock may have a point so I'm going to try and restate the situation with this in mind.

Somewhere between 0 and $100 million of taxpayers' money has been misappropriated and this is a problem because it means that elected officials, civil servants and highly placed appointees in Crown corporations may have engaged in activity that is somewhere between dishonest and corrupt and may in fact be somewhere between illegal and criminal.

How's that, Reg?

Alcock had something else to say that was worthy of comment:
And Alcock denied that the prime minister or members of the Liberal caucus were using spin in their handling of the crisis that has hit the government.

"If you're saying there's some sort of strategy, I don't quite know what you're talking about," he told one reporter. "I'm telling you I don't have this sense of strategy."

He described the prime minister as a different kind of no-spin politician who reporters were not used to covering.

"You guys are all used to dealing with old politicians. You're looking inside this for spin," he said. "You've never seen a politician or prime minister stand up as openly as this one does. So he's being criticized for not being an old-fashioned politician and spinning you."
Upon reflection, I'd have to say that this is somewhere between drivel and a steaming pile of crap.

Thursday, February 19, 2004

Unintended consequences

In a post about the message that Democrats need to get across to American voters, digby at Hullabaloo expresses something I haven't seen put quite as succinctly anywhere else.
Regardless of whether they hyped, sexed up or pimped out the intelligence on Iraq, the fact is that by invading Iraq the way we did and being proved complete asses now that no WMD have been discovered, one of our best defenses has been completely destroyed. It may have always been nothing but a pretense that we had hi-tech, super duper satellites with x-ray vision and all-knowing eavesdropping devices that can hear a pin drop half a world away but it was a very useful pretense. Nobody knew exactly what we were capable of. Now they do. It appears to everyone on the planet that our vaunted intelligence services couldn't find water even if they fell off of a fucking aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf.

It's this kind of thing that makes really crazy wackos like Kim Jong Il make mistakes. When a hugely powerful country like the United States proves to the entire world that it is not as powerful as everyone thought, petty tyrants and ambitious generals tend to get excited. This is why mighty nations should never fight wars unless they absolutely have to. It is always better to have enemies wonder whether they are as omnipotent as they appear. They should not risk proving otherwise unless they have no choice.

They can't blame this on the previous government

After spending so much time telling us that he wanted to govern responsibly and transparently, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty has some explaining to do.
The provincial Liberals have launched a public relations strategy directing civil servants to float government-sanctioned "trial balloons" to reporters.

In a move that critics charge is politicizing the public service, the 15-page secret directive talks about communications "tactics" and includes a how-to manual for bureaucrats to help Liberal MPPs deliver partisan messages.

This new strategy was jointly written by the premier's office and cabinet office.

The communications directive goes into great details about the "tactical roll-out" of new government initiatives, including softening up the media and the public.

"Identify one or a series of tactics that will positively pre-condition media, the public and stakeholders in advance of the launch," the document states.

These "pre-conditioning" tactics or opportunities, it says, could include:
  • Floating trial balloons in a speech.

  • Story placement in the media, through proactive "pitches."

  • Highlighting prospective government policies at public events or announcements.
The document also directs civil service staff to "identify" government-friendly groups likely to support a particular announcement and assist Liberal MPPs to put out news releases and write opinion pieces.
McGuinty has a different strategy than the federal government, you see. Instead of hiring advertising agencies, he's going to turn the provincial civil service into one big advertising agency. Why not? They're already on the payroll so there won't be any problem with the provincial Auditor-General.

The particular idiot member of the government responsible for this document is David Guscott who is deputy minister of communications and associate secretary of cabinet. Apparently the length of your title bears no relation to your intelligence in McGuinty's government. Or perhaps it's an inverse relationship. On being confronted with this Guscott claimed that it was only a draft, even though it was sent out on Feb. 11th and contains the following:
Please use this template when preparing all communications plans starting today.
He's just trying to set a good example for the civil service by showing them how to float a trial balloon. Or is that an example of softening us up? On your marks, get set, spin.

I'd like to see how McGuinty blames this one on the Tories.

You're in the right place

I just rearranged the furniture a bit.

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Now this is cool

I'm posting this from Mozilla running on Linux. The reason that's noteworthy is that until about 15 minutes ago I had never run Linux in my life. I downloaded something called Gnoppix, which is a Linux implementation that comes as an iso file suitable for burning to a CD. You then set your system up to boot from the CD Drive, reboot with the CD in the drive, and there you are. If you're tempted to experiment with Linux but don't want to mess with your normal setup, this is the way to go (assuming you have broadband so you don't grow old waiting for the download). And there are quite a number of alternatives (via slashdot) from which to choose. I'll probably try a few more before I'm done.

I can't speak for the rest of them, but this one figured out all my hardware as it booted. There was no configuration required except selecting the language and clicking on the keyboard icon to find the one that gave me the characters I was expecting, although I may go looking in a minute to see if I can increase the screen resolution. And when I say no configuration, I just loaded the browser and I was on line (I'm going through a hub and router to a cable modem - that may help). I'm impressed.

OK, I just found a minor quibble. It didn't read my mind and figure out what I want it to do with button number four on my five-button mouse. I'm going to go play now.

I should have added that Gnoppix is beta software, i.e. this is not a finished product and it has bugs. I've already stumbled across one. If you're impatient with that sort of thing you might want to try one of the alternatives that's up to 'gold code'.

Socialize the risk and privatize the reward?

Andrew Coyne points to this story about Bombardier's request for support from the government.
A new aircraft under study by Bombardier could be assembled abroad unless the Canadian government provides more financial support, its chief executive said Tuesday.

Paul Tellier said in an interview with The Canadian Press the aircraft that would seat at least 100 passengers could very well be assembled at a Bombardier plant in Northern Ireland because the United Kingdom has just adopted a new policy supporting its aerospace industry.
In a speech later Tuesday to the Montreal Board of Trade, Tellier called on Ottawa to adopt an overall aerospace policy that would recognize the importance of the Canadian industry, and that could help Bombardier develop its new aircraft as well as build it and finance its sales.
"We can't expect our shareholders to assume these risks by themselves."
In the interests of ensuring that any reward that ensues from risk underwritten by the taxpayer is spread around a little more equally I have a suggestion for you, Paul. How about if you guarantee that no one in your company, including yourself, will be paid any more than four times the compensation of the lowest paid worker on your payroll?

I didn't think so.

The song of the day is Daily Grind by Little Feat. I'm in a mood today.

Actual new information. Maybe.

The only thing I've seen in the media today that actually moves the Adscam story along was in a piece by Chantal Hébert in the Toronto Star. Working from a transcript of testimony in the trial that dealt with François Beaudoin's abrupt firing from the Business Development Bank, Hébert finds evidence that senior officials, both elected and appointed, were indeed involved in the sponsorship program in a hands-on way.
Until the end of 1997, Carle was a key member of the former prime minister's inner circle, where he enjoyed a well-earned reputation for hardball tactics.

In March, 1998, he joined the BDC, a crown corporation that lends money to small businesses, as executive vice-president.

According to a court summary of his testimony, he made it his first order of business to ensure the institution reached the post-referendum visibility objectives of the federal government in Quebec.

To achieve that goal, Carle told the court he set up meetings with Quebec ministers Lucienne Robillard, Martin Cauchon and Gagliano. He also met Chuck Guité, the civil servant in charge of the sponsorship program.

Last week, the auditor-general fingered the BDC as one of five crown corporations and agencies through which sponsorship funds were inappropriately funnelled. She found money to have transited through the BDC at least twice, in late 1998 and again in 1999.
As Hébert points out, at the time of this testimony the sponsorship program wasn't front and centre in everyone's mind. That's certainly changed.

This doesn't prove wrongdoing on anyone's part, but it certainly makes it more difficult for those named to claim that they weren't directly involved in the program.

They can speak for themselves, thank you

When the Canadian Recording Industry Association announced recently that it was following in the footsteps of the RIAA in bringing legal action against file swappers, CRIA President Brian Robertson was quoted thusly:
Clearly, these people are blatant exploiters of artists' careers and their music and have no apparent interest in where the music is going to come from in the future.
The implication here is clear -- the CRIA is doing it for the sake of the artists and their art. It's all about The Music. Indeed, the RIAA has made the same claim. They present themselves as the defender of the artists' rights and careers. Strangely, some artists don't see it that way.

Don Henley, one of the founding members of The Eagles and a solo recording artist (there's also a donhenley.com but it's under construction), is also one of the founding members of the Recording Artists' Coalition, an organization formed to represent artists primarily in the legislative arena where the record companies normally have all the lobbying power. Henley has been an outspoken critic of the corporate dominance of the music industry and his activities in that regard have included testifying before congress on the negative consequences of consolidation in the radio business. (You can read his testimony in HTML or PDF format.)

In today's Washington Post he has an op-ed called Killing the Music (link via TalkLeft) in which he suggests that file swapping is not the only or even the most serious reason that music sales are down. (Since the WaPo now requires registration, I'm going to quote extensively and hope I don't get sued for piracy.)
Today the music business is in crisis. Sales have decreased between 20 and 30 percent over the past three years. Record labels are suing children for using unauthorized peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing systems. Only a few artists ever hear their music on the radio, yet radio networks are battling Congress over ownership restrictions. Independent music stores are closing at an unprecedented pace. And the artists seem to be at odds with just about everyone -- even the fans.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the root problem is not the artists, the fans or even new Internet technology. The problem is the music industry itself. It's systemic. The industry, which was once composed of hundreds of big and small record labels, is now controlled by just a handful of unregulated, multinational corporations determined to continue their mad rush toward further consolidation and merger. Sony and BMG announced their agreement to merge in November, and EMI and Time Warner may not be far behind. The industry may soon be dominated by only three multinational corporations.

The executives who run these corporations believe that music is solely a commodity. Unlike their predecessors, they fail to recognize that music is as much a vital art form and social barometer as it is a way to make a profit. At one time artists actually developed meaningful, even if strained, relationships with their record labels. This was possible because labels were relatively small and accessible, and they had an incentive to join with the artists in marketing their music. Today such a relationship is practically impossible for most artists.

Labels no longer take risks by signing unique and important new artists, nor do they become partners with artists in the creation and promotion of the music. After the music is created, the artist's connection with it is minimized and in some instances is nonexistent. In their world, music is generic. A major record label president confirmed this recently when he referred to artists as "content providers." Would a major label sign Johnny Cash today? I doubt it.
Henley goes on to discuss the continued consolidation of radio stations which leads to centralized programming of content and limited playlists, and the demise of independent retailers in favour of 'big-box' stores like Best Buy and Wal-Mart where shelf space is limited and music is often a loss leader. Given these developments, he asks, how are new artists supposed to emerge? Then he returns to the subject of piracy:
Piracy is perhaps the most emotionally gut-wrenching problem facing artists. Artists like the idea of a new and better business model for the industry, but they cannot accept a business model that uses their music without authority or compensation. Suing kids is not what artists want, but many of them feel betrayed by fans who claim to love artists but still want their music free.

The music industry must also take a large amount of blame for this piracy. Not only did the industry not address the issue sooner, it provided the P2P users with a convenient scapegoat. Many kids rationalize their P2P habit by pointing out that only record labels are hurt -- that the labels don't pay the artists anyway. This is clearly wrong, because artists are at the bottom of the food chain. They are the ones hit hardest when sales take a nosedive and when the labels cut back on promotion, on signing new artists and on keeping artists with potential. Artists are clearly affected, yet because many perceive the music business as being dominated by rich multinational corporations, the pain felt by the artist has no public face.

Artists are finally realizing their predicament is no different from that of any other group with common economic and political interests. They can no longer just hope for change; they must fight for it. Washington is where artists must go to plead their case and find answers.

So whether they are fighting against media and radio consolidation, fighting for fair recording contracts and corporate responsibility, or demanding that labels treat artists as partners and not as employees, the core message is the same: The artist must be allowed to join with the labels and must be treated in a fair and respectful manner. If the labels are not willing to voluntarily implement these changes, then the artists have no choice but to seek legislative and judicial solutions. Simply put, artists must regain control, as much as possible, over their music.
This is one of the best summaries of the issues surrounding music piracy that I've seen in a while, which is why I've posted this. Until the recording companies and their lobby groups acknowledge the issues that artists like Henley raise, they have no credibility and will continue to elicit scorn in their campaigns to, as Henley puts it, sue children.

Another articulate spokesperson for the artists' point of view is Janis Ian, who's been a performer and recording artist since 1965. You can read an article she wrote almost two years ago about "the internet debacle" here, and that includes a link to a follow-up piece. She makes her own feeling about the idea that the recording industry acts on behalf of the artists pretty clear:
I don't pretend to be an expert on intellectual property law, but I do know one thing. If a music industry executive claims I should agree with their agenda because it will make me more money, I put my hand on my wallet…and check it after they leave, just to make sure nothing's missing.
Not exactly a vote of confidence, eh? Ian has a lot to say on the positive aspects of downloading and the fallacies and duplicity in the industry position, but since her articles are open to all, I leave you to follow up as you wish. Just don't accept the word of the record labels when they say they're speaking for the artists because the artists can speak for themselves.

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Under the radar

I'm a city boy, born and raised. From my vantage point, food just miraculously appears in the produce bins and on the shelves in my local grocery store and I don't normally give a lot of the thought to the process behind it. It seems that while I was taking it for granted, the bottom has been falling out from under the agricultural industry in Canada.
Today, the federal government estimated Canadian realized net farm income for 2003 at negative $13-million - the lowest level ever recorded, far lower than during the Depression. Realized net farm income from the markets alone, net of government payments, is almost negative $5-billion. "This is the most spectacular and damaging market failure in the history of Canadian agriculture," said NFU President Stewart Wells.
The official explanation is that mad cow disease (BSE), drought and the rising dollar have combined to cause a serious short term problem, but Wells disputes that. Instead, he says, this situation has been building for a couple of decades and it's the direct result of government policies regarding deregulation and free trade, and the increasing consolidation in agri-business. The number of companies that buy the farmer's product have decreased, and become more powerful. They can pay the farmers less and make more profits for themselves because they dominate the market.

Negative $13 million in net farm income. Back to Stewart Wells:
The government took away our hog marketing agencies, cut the Crow, ended the two-price wheat program, deregulated grain handling and transportation, presided over the destruction of our co-ops, and tied their own hands with trade and investment agreements. At the same time, transnational corporations merged until there was often just three or four of them left controlling each link in the agri-food chain. These corporate and government policies pushed family farmers to the edge of a cliff. In 2003, we fell off.
Shouldn't this be a bigger story than it is? Or is it just me who hasn't been paying attention?

Incidentally, if you're interested in the relentless march of mergers and acquisitions and the way it affects, well, everything, Oligopoly Watch is an excellent resource.

Update: I forgot to give a tip of the hat to The Dominion Daily Weblog for the original link.

Monday, February 16, 2004

Tales of Lord Tubby: Showdown in Delaware

Conrad Black will be in a Delaware court on Wednesday. The Hollinger International board has filed a suit to block the sale of his holdings in the company to the Barclay Brothers. (The last installment of this series is here if you need a refresher.) This isn't the legal action that Hollinger has filed against Black and others to recover the $200 million in questionable payments. That one is still pending. Nor is this the suit brought by institutional investors against the board claiming that lax management allowed Black to loot the company. That one is still pending as well.

And it certainly isn't the suit that Black is bringing against Hollinger for defamation. That one's just getting off the ground. Read the language used in the claim and try and tell me that Black didn't write this himself.
Conrad Black has launched an $850-million defamation suit against members of the Hollinger International Inc. board and its advisers, claiming he's been made a "social leper" and a "loathsome laughingstock" by negative media coverage of the accusations against him.

The suit says that "false and malicious representations" about Lord Black have caused him to be "pilloried and mocked mercilessly in the media throughout the world."
A "loathsome laughingstock"? Cry me a river, Conrad. But I digress.

The legal proceedings on Wednesday are strictly concerned with Hollinger's attempts to block Black's sale of his holdings, and Black's contention that he has the right to amend the company's bylaws to allow that sale. These folks are just getting warmed up. I thought I'd post this in case any of you out there are considering a career in the law. If you start right away, you can probably finish law school in time to get in on some of this.

The NYT article I linked to at the beginning of the post does have some interesting details about what went on at Hollinger, and it doesn't sound too promising for the board members when the time comes for them to defend their actions against shareholders.

There's the $8 million they agreed to pay for the collection of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's personal papers, which Black wanted because he was working on a biography of Roosevelt. The board didn't get around to signing off on the purchase until two years after the fact, but they thought it was a good deal because the collection had been valued at $12 - $14 million. The only problem is that valuation came from the fellow who sold them to Black.

Then there are the two newspapers that Hollinger sold to Horizon Publications, a company that Black had a considerable stake in, for fifty cents each. Horizon eventually sold them for a total of about $730,000. Oopsie. There's more if you're interested. It's a mess. In trying to explain why the board approved all these deals without looking more closely, some people "close to the board", speaking on condition of anonymity of course, said it wasn't negligence but "something more like awe". I'm sure that suited Lord Tubby just fine.

Edited to sharpen a punch line. I couldn't help myself.

Maybe I was too hasty

When I took exception to that Library of Congress report that singled out Canada as being a haven for terrorists, maybe I spoke too soon.
One of Canada's busiest border crossings was closed for about an hour Monday after Canada Customs officials found a grenade in a car.
It turns out the car belongs to an American in the military who's posted at a base in Washington state. His wife, who was driving, thought she was headed for Vancouver, Washington. Another crisis averted.

We really should tighten up that border.

Just for the sake of perspective

Things here in Canada could be worse:
President Bush courted voters Monday in the state that decided the 2000 election, arguing his tax cuts are helping the economy and suggesting Democrats would endanger America's fiscal health by raising taxes.
Emphasis added. This is the guy who took a $200 billion surplus and turned it into a $500 billion deficit in less than four years. It would be like having an armed gunman break into your home, take you hostage, and then tell you that you just can't trust those guys outside with the badges and the uniforms.

I'll return to my regular snarling about Paul Martin shortly. After I stop laughing.

Martinizing the governing party

Liberal infighting escalates
The civil war within the Liberal Party escalated on the weekend after a long-time supporter of Jean Chrétien was prohibited from seeking the nomination in the former prime minister's riding.

Steven Hogue, 36, who had served as Mr. Chrétien's deputy press secretary until his retirement in November, was told Friday night that only women will be allowed to contest the Liberal nomination for the riding of Saint-Maurice-Champlain.
It's funny that being a woman doesn't seem to have helped Sheila Copps. She's involved in the fight of her life to win the nomination in the riding in which she lives.
The edict came from Prime Minister Paul Martin's new Quebec lieutenant Jean Lapierre, a former separatist who left the Liberals to help found the Bloc Québécois party.

Mr. Chrétien had represented that riding for nearly 40 years. Mr. Hogue, who grew up there, had been working on the nomination since September and declared his intention in November.
There's Lapierre again. Suddenly he's everywhere.

Now if I was a cynical man, I'd say that there's already a Martin-approved candidate waiting in the wings and it happens to be a woman. Mr. Hogue, it seems, isn't quite that cynical. Yet.
He believes Mr. Martin is sincere when he talks about democratic changes.

"I believe the Prime Minister when he talks about democracy and when he talks about letting members of the Liberal Party choose candidates in a democratic process," Mr. Hogue said.
I guess we'll see but personally I don't expect to see Mr. Hogue in the House of Commons any time soon. And Martin will claim that it's a local matter and has nothing to do with him. Unless it gets too much attention.

Sunday, February 15, 2004

Let's review

My favorite media story of the past week is this one:
Prime Minister Paul Martin said Friday that the letter he received in February, 2002, outlining concerns about the sponsorship program is proof that he did not know about of the scandal.
Let me get this straight. If I receive a letter informing me about something and the letter itself isn't really memorable because it only repeats rumours of which I was already aware, two years later the mere receipt of that letter is proof that I didn't know anything about it. One can only speculate whether the laws of physics are still operative in Ottawa because apparently the rules of logic have been suspended.

And this particular bit of doublespeak doesn't seem to have worked too well. The National Post is reporting on a poll that indicates eight out of ten people felt that Martin knew "somewhat more" about the sponsorship mess than he's admitting, if not a "lot more". So Martin has laid it on the line and promised his resignation if the inquiry proves that he had any knowledge of this mess. That should keep the ratings up if nothing else.

I guess this week counts as Martin's real trial by fire. But still he can take some comfort from the fact that none of these scandals are new. The stench coming off the sponsorship program may be more overpowering than expected, but we knew it was coming. And the sight of a couple of highly place individuals doing the perp walk at some point may well be enough to get the Liberals off the hook. Meanwhile most of the other negative aspects of Fraser's report have been pushed off the front pages. Is anyone still talking about Employment Insurance or historic sites?

The story about the additional cost of the gun registry that surfaced on Friday evening was probably an unexpected problem, but that subject has long been a sore point and it seems at least possible that this latest news can be spun as simply a difference of opinion as to which numbers rightfully belong on that particular balance sheet.

And if it seems that the business of governing the country continues to be overshadowed by what should rightfully be internal Liberal politics, that's certainly not a new development either. Andrew Coyne has a good summary of the way the storylines coming from both sides of Canada's version of the Hatfield-McCoy feud are being advanced by anonymous spinners. But neither side needs to fear that a leak inquiry will be convened since anyone who's any good is doubtless already spoken for by one of the other inquiries that have broken out everywhere we look.

Paul Wells points out that the Martin spin campaign, the one which blames things on the "tribalism" of Quebec politics, has done some serious damage to Liberal popularity in Quebec. But now we see why Martin courted Jean Lapierre: to do damage control in that province.

So if you're Paul Martin on this Sunday evening, I guess you can take some comfort from the fact that you still have some room to spin - all of these scandals spilled over from the previous regime - and there's still time to do damage control before that spring election you wanted to call. You may be past the worst of it and you're still alive. I'm reminded of one of the few memorable lines from the Patrick Swayze vehicle Road House. Kevin Tighe plays the owner of the "Double Deuce", the road house of the title that bouncer Swayze is hired to clean up. One night after surveying the premises following the departure, at times with some persuasion, of the bar's patrons, Tighe announces:
It was a good night. Nobody died.
There's always that, I guess. But tomorrow is another day and Bourque is reporting that Gagliano is on his way back and ready to shoot his mouth off testify that he did his job honorably and well.

It's going to be another long week.

You say that like it's a bad thing

A report prepared by the American Library of Congress and the Central Intelligence Crime and Narcotics Center is critical of Canada. It seems we Canadians put far too much stock in civil liberties.
Canada's concern with civil liberties also makes it easy for illegal immigrants, the report says. "The fact that the 2002 bill designed to make Canada's immigration laws less favourable to terrorists and international criminals is entitled the 'Immigration and Refugee Protection Act' serves as an indication of the prevailing concern for civil liberties in Canada."
I thought the War on Terror™ was about protecting liberty, not proscribing it.

The report also accuses us of lax law enforcement and a generous social welfare system. Seriously. Apparently a "generous social welfare system" contributes to crime and terrorism. And these flaws in our national character have consequences.
Terrorists and organized crime groups "increasingly are using Canada as an operational base and transit country en route to the United States," says the study, Nations Hospitable to Organized Crime and Terrorism.
You would think that such a serious charge would be accompanied by serious proof including a long list of examples. We get two:
  • A news report that the Lebanese group Hezbollah laundered "tens of thousands" of dollars through Canadian banks to buy "blasting devices, night-vision goggles, powerful computers and camera equipment to record attacks against Israeli forces."

  • Ahmed Ressam, who was arrested in December 1999 on his way to the United States from Canada with bomb-making material he planned to use to attack the Los Angeles airport.
The "news report" probably refers to this from Oct. 31, 2002. It was CSIS, a Canadian agency, that discovered the illegal activity and Canada slapped a total ban on Hezbollah in December of that year. The other item is a 5 year old incident in which the would-be perp was apprehended before he could commit the crime. And on that basis we're officially labelled as a Nation Hospitable to Organized Crime and Terrorism. Are we supposed to take this seriously?

Friday, February 13, 2004

Here we go again

Gun registry cost close to $2 billion
Canada's controversial gun registry is costing taxpayers far more than previously reported, CBC News has learned.

Nearly $2 billion has either been spent on or committed to the federal program since it was introduced in the mid-1990s, according to documents obtained by Zone Libre of CBC's French news service.

The figure is roughly twice as much as an official government estimate that caused an uproar across the country.

The gun registry was originally supposed to cost less than $2 million. In December 2002, Auditor General Sheila Fraser revealed that the program would run up bills of at least $1 billion by 2005.

But the calculations remained incomplete, so CBC News obtained documents through the Access to Information Act and crunched the numbers.
The auditor general has pledged to re-examine the gun registry to come up with an updated assessment. Last month, Prime Minister Paul Martin rejected calls to scrap the program. But he said the government intends to review the way it's being run and is prepared to make changes.
I guess Sheila Fraser doesn't have to worry about being bored any time soon.

On mass monetary diversion program related activities

It wasn't that long ago that the scandal-of-the-day concerned which cabinet minister was getting a free ride on which corporate jet and a free vacation at which fishing lodge. I can recall some lamenting the attention paid to this by both the media and members of the opposition in the House of Commons. Nothing to see here, really. We've got more important things to worry about. Let's move on.

With the release of the most recent Auditor-General's report last Tuesday we have a much bigger, juicier scandal to occupy us and I've already seen it argued that with public inquiries convened and criminal investigations under way, we should all take a deep breath, sit back and let the professionals do their work. Certainly when it comes to determining whose fingerprints are actually on the phony invoices and the stray cheques, the authorities are in a better position to assign blame than the rest of us. But there's an issue that should remain very much in the public eye.

Our current Prime Minister is a former owner and CEO of a company that is still in the possession of his immediate family. There are already long standing accusations of conflict of interest involving CSL and the same Auditor-General has already been asked to review $160 million worth of government contracts and grants awarded to that company. Meanwhile integral members of Martin's leadership campaign who are now among his key political advisors have a close relationship with another company, Earnscliffe Strategy Group, which has also benefitted from government contracts and was intimately involved in the formation of fiscal policy during Martin's tenure as Finance Minister.

One of the current candidates for the Conservative party leadership has only just stepped away from her position as CEO of Magna International. Curiously she seems to view even social issues such as the legal status of marijuana in terms of how they might affect our trade surplus. This could be an innocent concern with the strength of our economy, or it could be an overriding concern with the smooth flow of auto parts across the border and maintaining the value of executive stock option packages even at the expense of doing what we, as a society, think is right.

Whether it shows itself in the direct transfer of taxpayer dollars to private hands, in the awarding of government contracts and grants for the wrong reasons or in the shaping of public policy by corporate interests, it's all crony capitalism. It's all subversion of the public good for the benefit of a few based on who did favours for whom or who supported the right political campaign. Whether the beneficiary is Groupaction in Canada or Halliburton in the US, the stink is pretty much the same. It seems to me that this is a good time to keep the issue of corporate influence on government at the centre of the public debate because one thing the newest scandal-of-the-day demonstrates is that crony capitalism is very much alive and well in Ottawa.

Edited for awkward syntax.

The song for the day is Phil Ochs' Outside of a Small Circle of Friends.

Thursday, February 12, 2004

Ain't technology wonderful?

407 bills phantom trips to northern drivers
Northern Ontario motorists say they are getting bills from Highway 407 even though they have not driven on the Toronto-area toll road.

Beatrice Jean says she had never even heard of the 407 until she received her first bill for driving on the province's first toll highway.

The highway has an automated system that photographs licence plates of users, then sends bills to the cars' owners.

The resident of Red Rock, just east of Thunder Bay, says that system is mistaking someone else's licence plate for hers. (For those not familiar with Ontario, Thunder Bay is about 800 miles from Toronto. - ed.)

Jean says she called the company that runs the highway to alert them to their mistake.

"When I called a few times, they said, 'We can't get a clear image of the license,' " she recalled.

"I said, 'If you can't get a clear image, how can you bill us?' "
Makes perfect sense to me but any warm body with a wallet will do in a pinch, I guess.
Despite those complaints, Jean says she has received another 18 bills for trips she did not take on the highway over the last two years.

She's not alone. A resident of nearby Terrace Bay says he's received more than 20 bills for 407 trips, even though he's never driven on the highway.

Thunder Bay resident Marge Hackner says she's been billed for 407 tolls, too.

Hackner said she's worried about what the errant bills will do to her credit rating.

"They threaten you. They say they will take away, they will revoke, your driver's license," she said.
The song for the day is Ghost Riders in the Sky. It was the best I could do on short notice. (Personally I prefer the Vaughn Monroe version, but that page had too much clutter so you get Tom Jones instead.)

Paging Anne McLellan!

I hope Public Safety Minister Anne McLellan is keeping a close eye on the progress of CAPPS II. After all, she's informed Tom Ridge of the American Department of Homeland Security that Canada intends to develop its own version of the system and share the information with American officials, just as soon as she can get the legislation passed that would allow our government to further intrude on our privacy collect the necessary information.

Actually, McLellan might want to hold off on that for the moment, since there seems to be some doubt about the practicality of CAPPS II itself:
A congressional report to be published Friday slams the planning for a controversial new computer screening system designed to identify potential terrorists among airline passengers, saying it has failed a series of tests set by lawmakers.

"Key activities in the development of (the system) have been delayed and the Transportation Security Administration has not yet completed important system planning activities," says a draft summary of the report prepared by Congress' investigative arm, the General Accounting Office.

The damning report may prevent funds for the system, known by the acronym CAPPS II, for Computer Assisted Passenger Pre-screening System phase two, from being released by Congress.
The summary says that -- as of Jan.1 -- the Transportation Security Administration also had not finalized exactly how the system would work, or identified a timetable or budget for its implementation. It says that the agency has failed a series of tests set by Congress last year as a condition for the release of funding for the system.
... planning for the system ran into a firestorm of criticism from civil liberties and privacy advocates from both sides of the political spectrum. Critics contended that it would violate travelers' privacy and Fourth Amendment rights; brand some citizens terror suspects on the basis of potentially inaccurate data that they cannot challenge; and was being expanded for use against all kind of law-breakers and suspects, not just terrorists.

Concerned lawmakers set a series of eight tests -- enacted into law in several funding bills -- that the system had to pass before money could be released to fund its implementation. The tests included establishing a process for correcting erroneous information and restoring the right of wrongly labeled innocent passengers to travel by air; assuring the security of the system from hackers and internal abuse; addressing privacy concerns; and -- crucially -- providing evidence that the screening will actually turn up potential terrorists.

The summary says the Transportation Security Administration failed on all these counts. It says it made sufficient progress on only one of the tests -- establishing an oversight board for the system.

The summary identified what it called "three other challenges ... that may impede the success of CAPPS II." These were getting passenger data from foreign airlines, ensuring that identity theft could not be used to get around the system and "managing the expansion of the program's mission beyond its original purpose" -- a reference to what critics have called "mission creep."
Imagine that. They set up a series of tests the system had to pass and tied the funding to successful completion of the tests. Maybe we ought to try that. And maybe we should try it before they pass that legislation.

There's another interesting wrinkle in this story. In the articles linked to in the previous post, Tom Ridge is quoted as suggesting that any issues preventing the European Union's participation in the project had been resolved. Not according to this:
The Department of Homeland Security, of which the Transportation Security Administration is a part, became embroiled in a long-running dispute with the European Union last year over access to passenger data. Although a deal was reached, it has not yet been ratified by the European parliament.

As part of the deal, EU authorities agreed to provide passenger data for testing the CAPPS II system later this year, but privacy advocates in Europe, angered to learn subsequently that U.S. airlines had refused to do likewise for privacy reasons, have vowed to derail the deal when it comes before the parliament as it is expected to do shortly.
It's interesting to see the way all these deals are getting made before the necessary legislation has even been passed.

Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Good intentions don't excuse it

Warren Kinsella has responded to the media uproar concerning the Auditor-General's report and while I share his reservations at some of what he quite rightly refers to as the "histrionics" in some of the media and opposition pronouncements, I think he's off point in a couple of areas.

When he states that he has yet to see proof that any of the government officials involved personally profited from the sponsorship program, I wonder what accusations he's responding to. I haven't seen anyone suggest that Chrétien, Gagliano or any other elected official or civil servant lined their own pockets through this. But we, the taxpayers, are still out the money and it happened on their watch.

But the bigger point Kinsella appears to make is that the circumstances are mitigated by the severity of the problem the government was attempting to address:
...the razor-thin referendum result was a seismic event within the federal government (and, if you look back at the clippings of the day, around the world, too). That was what was "historic," and "shocking." We came within a few thousand votes of losing the greatest country in the world. People in government - officials and political folks alike - resolved that it would never happen again, and that every reasonable effort would be made to get credit for the things that the federal government did in Quebec.
To the extent that this sponsorship program was supposed to be a response to a serious problem, it only makes the Chrétien government look worse, not better. Throwing a bunch of money at the problem and then moving on without following up to ensure that the money was effectively serving its intended purpose gives every indication of a government that wanted to appear to be doing something without actually doing much of anything at all. The size of the wad of cash they invested here doesn't prove much when it wasn't their money - it was ours.

If we're to believe that all of this was an innocent attempt to help keep the country together with no thought of patronage then we can replace any questions about honesty with charges of incompetence so gross that I'm not sure which would be the bigger problem. It's been charged that the government was caught napping in the run-up to that referendum in that it vastly underestimated the support that the separatists had. It appears that the government's reaction was to latch on to the first solution it stumbled across and then go back to sleep.

One stop shopping

If you're in a hurry, Don of All things Canadian fame has pulled together reactions to yesterday's Auditor-General's report from quite a number of sources and posted them at the BlogsCanada E-Group Election Blog. Nice job, Don.

So many scandals, so little time

For those who can't get enough of the pain, the CBC has Sheila Fraser's report online. And by way of The Middleman, here's a link to the official government response.

There's enough material here to keep us all going for days. Obviously the sponsorship scandal and the firing of Alfonso Gagliano are the big stories, but since there's to be a public inquiry into the whole mess, there'll be lots of time to look at that. So on to some of the other highlights, and I use the term advisedly.

Matt at Living in a Society has addressed the lack of attention being paid to historic documents and sites. The thing I would add is that I would have expected better from a Chrétien government on this score than from his successor. Love or hate Sheila Copps, Chrétien at least had a high profile minister on the Heritage portfolio. By contrast, Martin has put a rookie on the job in Hélène Scherrer and so far it seems she's been AWOL. It'll be interesting to see what comes from this. (And I would join with Matt in saying: go read Paul Wells.)

As expected, Fraser pointed to the flouting of procedure in the purchase of the two Bombardier jets at the end of the 2002 fiscal year. I was particularly interested in the official response:
Key agencies involved in the controversial acquisition rejected Fraser's findings, continuing to insist the planes were a good deal.
I have two problems with this. Fraser isn't saying that they didn't get a good deal. She's saying that they can't know they spent the money appropriately when they didn't do the homework to justify the purchase or go through the tendering process that's supposed to ensure that they get the best deal they can. The "key agencies" are trying to change the subject.

And since when do you simply "reject" the auditor's findings? If you're running a business, you don't just blow off these kinds of concerns and criticisms when the auditors bring them to your attention. If things deteriorate to a point where the auditors refuse to sign off on your financial statements, you're in for a world of hurt. Obviously the Auditor-General needs more leverage over these people than just the ability to publicly humiliate them once a year. Until that happens, we can expect more scandalous reports.

And then we have the Employment Insurance program. Do we need any further proof that the government is treating this like a cash cow? With a surplus on hand that tops $40 billion they can't even be bothered to staff the phones properly or do any followup to ensure the program is working properly. Instead they take money contributed to an insurance program for a specific purpose and divert it into general revenue. If the private sector pulled a stunt like that, somebody would be doing the perp walk. And Martin can't lay this one off on Chrétien. He was Finance Minister the last time EI was restructured - this is his mess.

This should be a scandal all by itself. I just hope it doesn't get lost in the shuffle because the sponsorship mess makes for juicier headlines.

Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Public service announcement

'Critical' flaw in Windows, warns Microsoft (via Bourque)
Microsoft warned customers Tuesday about a serious security problem with its Windows software, saying users should download a patch immediately.

In its monthly security bulletin, the world's largest software maker said Windows NT, Windows 2000, Windows XP software, along with Windows NT Server, Server 2000 and Server 2003 were affected.

It could allow hackers to break into computers and steal or delete files.

The company, which said it learned about the problem six months ago, called the threat "critical," its highest rating.

The flaw is "an extremely deep and pervasive technology in Windows," said Microsoft security executive Stephen Toulouse.

Customers can download a patch on Microsoft's website.
Time to visit Windows Update. Again.

Linux and Mac users may commence gloating.

For the moment, I only have one question

Can we make Sheila Fraser Prime Minister?

Let the people understand

Let the people speak
Tomorrow (today - ed.), the Supreme Court of Canada will be the site of a historic legal brawl pitting my group, the National Citizens Coalition, against the full might of the federal political establishment.

Of course what makes this case historic isn't who is fighting whom, but rather what's at stake -- the democratic rights and freedoms of all Canadians.

The NCC is challenging an obnoxious piece of federal legislation -- part of the Canada Elections Act -- known as the election gag law.

The gag law makes it illegal for private citizens or non-partisan, independent organizations to freely and effectively communicate ideas or opinions during federal elections.

It essentially prohibits private citizens or groups from spending their own money on election ads that support or oppose political parties and candidates. It also imposes severe restrictions on the ability of citizens or groups to run ads on any issues that might be associated with any political party or candidate. That means non-partisan ads raising public awareness about the Kyoto Treaty, or the same-sex marriage issue, or gun control could be effectively banned during elections.

Under this law you need permission from Elections Canada if you plan to spend more than $500 on election advertising. And getting permission means enduring a regulatory procedure that could be costly, burdensome and invasive.

Failure to comply with the gag law can result in imprisonment.

If all this sounds scary to you, you're not alone. That's why we challenged this law in the courts immediately after it was enacted four years ago. Our argument was simple. The gag law denies all Canadians basic democratic freedoms guaranteed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. These include freedom of thought, freedom of opinion, freedom of expression and freedom of association.
This is from an op-ed in yesterday's Globe and Mail written by Gerry Nicholls, the vice-president of the National Citizen's Coalition. I wonder if anyone has ever accused Nicholls of having a flare for the melodramatic.

In fact the law in question doesn't prevent Nicholls, or anyone else, from thinking for himself, forming his own opinions or expressing those opinions to anyone else within earshot. What the law specifically addresses is Nicholls' freedom to spend money to directly influence the outcome of an election.

If Nicholls was a billionaire who happened to have a serious aversion to homeless people, he'd be in a position to pay for the production of television commercials to advocate that the homeless should be forcibly rounded up and thrown in jail, and to pay television stations to run those ads. The homeless, on the other hand, can't afford a television on which they can watch ads, never mind producing them and sponsoring their broadcast.

That may be an oversimplification but in a nutshell, that's the problem the law is trying to address and Nicholls doesn't help matters by blowing smoke up our kilts and making it seem like we're the victims of some great conspiracy. There's an issue that's worth discussing here, but not the way Nicholls frames it. I wonder if his issue ads would be as biased and overblown as his editorials.

OK, now it's just getting strange

Stronach team facing takeover, memo says
The campaign for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada took a nasty turn yesterday with the leak of an anonymous memo describing a takeover of Belinda Stronach's campaign by Magna corporate officials at the request of her father Frank and former prime minister Brian Mulroney.

The Stronach campaign said there is no dissent or change within the campaign team, and her campaign manager John Laschinger blamed Stronach's political opponents for trying to "cause mischief."

But spokespeople for the campaigns of candidates Tony Clement and Stephen Harper flatly denied any knowledge of, or connection to the memo.

The three-and-a-half page document is entitled "Team Stronach: Out of School Tales. Direct from the 5th floor of 2 St. Clair Ave. East."

It says at the behest of Stronach, her father Frank and Mulroney, the "dream team" of political professionals who were responsible for her campaign's "rocky start" have been sidelined.

The document says veteran Tory organizer Laschinger and others have been replaced by a group of "close personal advisers" who remain on the Magna payroll.
So does this mean that in the unlikely event Stronach becomes Prime Minister, Mulroney and the elder Stronach will actually be running things from an undisclosed location?

Today's song for the day is the old Marvin Gaye hit I'm Your Puppet. What? I like Marvin Gaye.

Y'all know I'm having fun with this one, don't you? The memo is likely a hoax.


Andrew Coyne has an interesting take on the way the Liberals have been worrying out loud about the upcoming Auditor-General's report. Coyne suggests that they're managing expectations -- making it sound so bad that the actual report will be an anticlimax.

Maybe. But the Martin supporters have been waiting a long time for their chance. They've had years to build up their own expectations about how great it would be when that other guy was finally out of the way and they could get on with the shiny new program Martin had developed. It must seem like the boney hand of Jean Chrétien is reaching out of the past to drag them down.

And Martin himself strikes me as the type to get worked up into a lather about things like this. Nervous anticipation in a leader can be contagious. It wouldn't surprise me if they're really running scared.

But I agree with Coyne when he scoffs at this quote from Liberal MP Nick Discepola:
Up until this point, we've always been perceived by the Canadian public as very sound prudent administrators.
In Bizarro World maybe.

Monday, February 09, 2004

Let's change the subject

Airline unions reject pension change
Air Canada's mainline unions are angrily rejecting a change to their pension plans demanded by Trinity Time Investment Ltd., the insolvent airline's would-be new major shareholder, arguing that it amounts to an abuse of the courts and a greedy attempt to rob them of negotiated benefits.

The explosive dispute could lead to another protracted legal battle that will complicate still further the tortuous efforts by Air Canada, which was granted court protection from its creditors at the beginning of last April, to remake itself as a leaner, more competitive carrier.
The unions are angry because they've already made concessions to the tune of $1.1 billion to help keep Air Canada afloat, and now they're being asked to make even more by accepting a pension plan that would pay employees less and to start paying a bigger share of benefit costs. If the pain was being spread around equally it might be a different story.

Conventional wisdom, at least in some circles, has it that the private sector is the place where the concept of personal responsibility reigns supreme. So even if there are mitigating circumstances one would think that senior management at Air Canada would at least share responsibility for the airline's decline into bankruptcy. But if sharing responsibility means sharing in the hardship, one would be wrong. The deal that Trinity Time has negotiated includes a 'bonus' package for senior executives that could be valued at as much as $160 million. CEO Robert Milton alone stands to gain $21 million and possibly more. So the rank and file employees keep getting asked to make concessions and the boss walks away a multi-millionaire.

I'd love to hear what the candidates for the Conservative party leadership have to say about this. For that matter, I'd love to hear what Paul Martin has to say about it. And I think this story makes the Don Cherry brouhaha look like small beer. But guess which story gets the bigger headlines?

Sunday, February 08, 2004

Blame Canada pogge!

If you're coming over from James Bow's blog to yell at me, go for it. I've got thick skin, I can take it.

Not surprisingly, James took a short post I wrote to have some fun and turned it into a thoughtful discussion of some larger issues. In reference to all the controversy generated by both the recent Superbowl Janet Jackson-bares-all-a-little half-time show and the latest proof that Don Cherry suffers from chronic foot-in-mouth disease, James writes:
I think it's the height of irony that what are apparently the greatest threats to civilization as we know it comes from what is supposed to be incidental; just a bit of fun.
In the second part of his post he admits that after dismissing sports as mere spectacle, he really has been affected by it. I can identify with that.

I grew up in Toronto at a time when there were only six NHL teams and we never even considered rooting for anyone but the Leafs. Hockey Night in Canada was a ritual at our house, and my interest wasn't limited to hockey. Among the clear memories from my youth I include the image of Sal Bando of the Oakland A's charging home plate anticipating the bunt, the way Jim Brown of the Cleveland Browns always seemed to be at death's door as he limped back to the huddle only to charge through the line the next time he was given the ball, and Dr. J of the underdog Philadelphia 76ers stepping in front of an errant Laker pass and breaking away down the floor for a dunk while the Philadelphia stands erupted.

But somewhere along the line I lost interest, with some few exceptions. I suppose Olympic hockey ruined the NHL for me. Once I'd seen the game played in a setting where the emphasis was more on speed and passing and less on looking for opportunities to drop the gloves and attempt to beat your opponent's head into a bloody pulp, I couldn't get that interested in the professional game anymore. (Which probably means that Don Cherry cares less about my opinion than I do about his. I can live with that.) If the Leafs win the cup this year I suspect the best I'll manage is: that's nice, it's about time.

I watched the World Series during the Blue Jays glory days a decade ago, but when the players cut that '94 season short and went out on strike, so did I. I don't think I've watched an entire baseball game since.

When Toronto finally got its own NBA franchise I tuned in for a while, but my interest only lasted for a couple of years. I recently caught part of a game at my brother's house and didn't recognize most of the players the Raptors were putting on the floor.

I'll watch the Olympics. When I can, I'll watch key matchups during March Madness, the NCAA college basketball tournament. But there isn't a professional sport I'll go out of my way to watch these days. And I think the reason I don't take pro sports seriously anymore is because they take themselves too seriously: the high salaries, the outrageous ticket prices accompanied by the demands for concessions from various levels of government, the way in which first the college game and then the high school game becomes ever more serious because the scouts are looking for future pros at an increasingly earlier age, the increasing number of young people who ruin their knees pursuing the one in a million chance they might get a pro career and make millions...the more the vested interests try and convince us all that it's a matter of life and death, the more likely I am to shrug and go read a book. And it's entirely likely that the latest drug scandal in amateur sports will turn me off the Olympics as well.

When James writes that "we need to get over ourselves" I take his point, but I think those directly involved in sports need to get over themselves. It really is just a game and when those who stand to profit from it try and make me lose perspective, it seems I lose my interest instead.

Where Don Cherry is concerned, let's be clear: he's become a fixture on HNIC precisely because he can be counted on to let his mouth run without engaging his brain. For the CBC to express outrage when he does what they count on him to do just because, on this occasion, he did it a bit too well is disingenuous at best. If he's not suitable for the job he was hired to do then fire him. If he's doing the job he was hired to do -- boost the ratings -- then stand behind him and admit that it's all about the ratings. (Full disclosure: in other respects I'm a believer in the CBC. But that can be left to another post.)

And, as Andrew Spicer wrote in comments to my previous post, it's a bit "over the top" when a cabinet minister and public agencies feel it necessary to wade in, make their outrage public and start multiple, overlapping investigations. I think all those folks have more important things to worry about. I know I do.

Saturday, February 07, 2004

His mind is on vacation and his mouth is workin' overtime

I have to confess that the only time I've given serious thought to Don Cherry in recent years, it had little to do with hockey. It occurred to me that we could appeal to the U.S. State Department to take Paul Cellucci back and send us Joe Wilson instead, and sweeten the deal by throwing Cherry in. They could put him on Monday night football where he ought to do at least as much for the ratings as Dennis Miller ever did.

Over at sean incognito there's a very amusing post up concerning the CBC's decision to put Cherry's mouth on a seven second delay. ("Coach Cacophony" is brilliant, sean, but I confess to being momentarily taken aback at seeing Don Cherry and Voltaire mentioned in the same post.) It could be worse. They could put him on a five minute delay as CBS has vowed to do with the Grammys after the infamous Janet Jackson incident. But I guess Cherry would actually have to show some skin for things to get that drastic. The mind boggles.

I suppose I should be up in arms about this assault on free speech but, frankly, I'm with sean. It's Don Cherry, after all. It's much ado about nothing. (I see your Voltaire and raise you a Shakespeare.) If I was still a regular viewer of hockey, I'd be inclined to use Coach's Corner as an opportunity to hit the can and put some more popcorn on.

I realize this may well enrage my Canadian readers far more than anything I might ever say about politics. My asbestos underwear is firmly in place.

By the way, I stole the title for this post from a Mose Allison tune. Credit where credit's due.

When I say "hit the can and put some more popcorn on" I am, of course, referring to two different activities conducted in two entirely separate rooms. I just thought I should clarify that.

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