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Blowing the bankroll, Alberta-style

February 22, 2009 1 comment

“It’s hard to believe, but Alberta, the Wonderland of Canada — with its oil sands, no sales tax and debt-free balance sheet — has pissed away another oil boom.”

When I read that on Globe and Mail.com, it got my attention. It should get yours, too.

I spent my early adult years in Alberta. I got married there, and had my first newspaper and radio jobs in Edmonton. I remember being told by a callus-skinned laborer I’d encountered in one of the oil fields:

With all our riches, Alberta can be the wealthiest province in the world.

 He was right. But you’d never know it by looking at Alberta’s financial position today. Staring at a $1 billion deficit, Albertans are wondering what hit them.

Two things: Collapse of world oil prices, and a decade of profligate over-spending by a government that was supposed to be committed to conservative values.

It reminds me that conservative parties, be they the PCs or the Conservatives in Canada or the Republicans in the U.S., have been guilty of the most invidious betrayal of their promises.

Whether it was Reagan’s “morning in America” in 1980, or Harper’s boast in 2008 that he’d never run a deficit, it’s the conservative parties that have been the big spenders and the big debtors. Of course, no one compares with “compassionate conservative” George Bush in the eocnomic insanity department.

Plus, conservative governments in the U.S. and Canada have wrecked the public treasuries through indiscriminate and unaffordable tax cuts.

Case in point: the Alberta Heritage Fund. When Premier Peter Lougheed set it up in 1976, the idea was to stuff it with 30% of the province’s resource revenues. By 1982 they’d cut that in half and were taking out the profits.

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David Wood tells how the Fund was set up in his 1985 book.

In the past year, not a nickel’s gone into the Heritage Fund. It’s worth about $16 billion now. If the government had kept its original commitment and put in 30% of resource revenues while taking nothing out, the Fund would be worth $164 billion today. More than enough to see Alberta through the deepest of recessions.

Where did the money go? Taxpayer perks, mainly. At the peak of the boom, Ralph Klein wrote $400 checks for every Albertan, at a time when few really needed them. Government spending has gone up by 9.6% a year over the past three years.

Canada’s had only one fiscally responsible government in the past thirty years – the Jean Chretien/Paul Martin regime from 1993 to 2005. The deficit was tamed, taxes were cut, and our finances were put in the best shape of almost any industrial country in the world.

Then, when the Harper government took over, its combination of tax cuts and big-time spending sent Canada spiralling toward deficit hell  even before the economic crisis hit.

Now, Alberta’s trying to get back on track. The Globe ROB Magazine article profiles Leo de Bever, the guy who’s been brought in from the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Fund  to shape up the new Alberta Investment Management Corp. Its portfolio includes the Heritage Fund along with five other public endowments and investment plans.

It will take a long time to rescue the Heritage Fund. A recent study calls on the government to grow it to $100 billion by 2030.

If the politicians raid it any further — as they’re likely to if it’s the only way to avoid deep deficits in the next few years — it could take a lot longer.

Obama’s new American Empire

February 20, 2009 Leave a comment

As an old hand in the public relations business, I feel safe in saying that President Obama’s visit to Ottawa was a public relations triumph. It’s yet another sign that we’re into a new era of American influence in the world. And that holds both promise and danger.

Promise, because (as they used to say about General Motors) what is good for America is very often good for the world.

Danger, because for a sidekick country like Canada, getting caught up even more tightly in the American embrace will make us yet more vulnerable when the next turn of the wheel grinds what’s left of our distinct identity into dust.

I’m troubled by all the “love America” talk coming out of Stephen Harper’s mouth. He didn’t dare sound that way when George Bush was in the White House. Now that a popular reformer like Obama has taken over, it’s politically safe for Harper to revert to his raw boot-licking attitude.

As my friend Michael Callaghan reminds me, “It’s a Calgary thing.”

And as the Globe and Mail summed up the visit:

More than ever Mr. Harper, now dealing with a president who is popular in Canada, offered to do public business in close touch with the Untied States.

Mr. Obama’s strength is in his ability to speak in generalities on issues for which we all yearn for solutions. Afghanistan? “I did not press the Prime Minister for any additional commitments.” Environment? A “Clean Energy Dialogue,” whatever that means. Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach says Obama is taking Alberta’s approach. That worries me.

For all the happy talk, Michael Ignatieff’s comment probably made the most sense: “I don’t feel from what I heard that anything very substantial or substantive was agreed today.”

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It all got me to thinking about an intriguing book by the University of Michigan author, Herbert J. Gans. His Imagining America in 2033: How the Country Put Itself Together After Bush, is a futurist “history” of the first one-third of the 21st century.

In many ways, Gans sketches out the kind of society that Barack Obama has been pushing for. And while the book was published last year, it prophetically outlines the kind of public policy that’s now driving efforts to restore the American economy.

In his preface, Gans writes that “the economy in which ordinary people live will require government help, particularly the retail economy on which so much of the overall health of the American economy now rests. Washington will have to put money in the pockets of consumers and other customers, for example by creating better jobs and other income supports for them. Indeed, the big retailers and industries that depend on them will lobby the government for such programs, pressure it to take health insurance off their shoulders, and practically force it to create a 21st century welfare state. Government will have to find the money, partly by reducing defense and other budgets.”

Gans says that imagining the future is a useful public and scholarly activity.

The shape of the future can already be seen in the effusive acceptance in Canada and other coutnries of the idea, however vaguely articulated, that a new American empire can come into being under Barack Obama.

We’re treading on dangerous ground. For all that we admire Mr. Obama, and welcome his election as the final demolition of racial barriers in America, we shouldn’t assume that Canada no longer needs to protect its national independence.

Someday, there’ll be another Iraq — or a Vietnam. When that day comes, we must make sure Canada still has the intestinal fortitude, and the means, to stay clear of manifest destiny.

Why can’t we watch Al Jazeera?

February 17, 2009 2 comments

If you’re a cable TV subscriber — and who isn’t these days — you’ve probably got channels on your set you never watch.

But if you’re in Canada, the agency that rules over the TV wasteland, the Canadian Radio and Television Commission (CRTC) won’t let you see the English language network of Al Jazeera, the Quatar-based Arabic-oriented news service.

Most Canadians want news and entertainment that is distinct from what’s on the U.S. TV channels spilling into Canada. That’s why our public broadcaster, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., was set up back in the 1930s. Private broadcasters add to the mix with their own Canadian programming, even if most of what they air originates in the U.S.

For a time back in 2003, the CRTC allowed Canadian cable companies to carry Al Jazeera’s Arabic service, but on the condition that they’d be held responsible for its content.

Maybe that will change now that Al Jazeera English has a new boss.  Canadian Tony Burman, former editor-in-chief of CBC News, has taken over as the network’s Managing Director. Of that 2002 CRTC decision, Burman says:

“That’s a bit like holding a newsstand responsible for what the New York Times or the Economist prints.”

Al Jazeera was set up by the Emir of Qatar as a public broadcaster. It’s now subsidized, but the aim is for it to become self-sufficient from advertising and cable revenues.

Al Jazeera’s had a rough ride in the West since even before September 11. The demonization of everything Islamic has led to it being called a terrorist network. Its coverage of the recent Gaza invasion, when it was the only outside news service on the ground there, did not endear it to many in the West.

The late Edward Said, the Palestinian-American cultural critic, wrote of this anti-Islamic bias back in the 1990s. He spelled it out in Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World (Vintage, 1997).

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Said’s argument was that the incessant presentation of stereotypes and prejudices about Islamic peoples is deeply entrenched in Western culture. He puts much of the blame on biased reporting of Western news agencies which has prevented understanding and perpetuated distortions.

I’ve made a habit of checking in on Al Jazeera’s online news site. Its postings, many written by Westerners,  provide a fresh slant on the day’s news, offering a perspective you’ll not get even from such level-headed sources as the CBC or BBC World News.

Of course, it’s a perspective that was highly unacceptable to the Bush government and its allies. It remains suspect by many in Western media.

The ability to present an unfavorable image of the Islamic world was essential to the Bush strategy of building the fear that would permit public acceptance of the most repressive aspects of the war on terrorism.

We need to realize that there is no monolithic “Islam” any more than there is a monolithic Christian fundamentalism. Extremists in all religions pose an equal menace to peace and understanding.

A few glimpses of Al Jazeera’s English programming might go a long way to informing people in the West on the true nature, and challenges, of dealing with the Muslim world.

Sometime in the next few months, there will be a fresh application to the CRTC to add Al Jazeera to the line-ups of Canadian cable companies. If the past is any indication, you can expect to see bitter opposition from some in the Canadian media establishment.

And we thought varied voices were the bricks and mortar of an informed democracy!

Update: Al Jazeera English has applied officially to the CRTC to begin broadcasting in Canada. It also has launched a website iwantaje.ca to “clear up misperceptions and myths” about its TV news service.

Do writers make the creative class?

February 12, 2009 1 comment

I promised to post a blog on creativity and to deal with the issue of whether writers qualify as members of the creative class.

I realize that use of “class” is probably politically incorrect. But we still have different classes in society and probably always will. And it’s the creative class that Richard Florida and Roger Martin talk about in their report to the Ontario government on “Ontario in the Creative Age.”

The nexus of their argument, as they set out in a Globe and Mail column, is that we need to move more rapidly out of the era of  “jobs oriented to routine to jobs that hinge on creativity.” These are the jobs that pay the best.

What got me going on this is a chart in the report that shows how different occupations make use of three critical skill sets — analytical skills, social intelligence and physical labor.

As you’d expect, the creative occupations are strong on the first two. Old-fashioned jobs like those in manufacturing require little in the way of analysis or social intelligence, but a good deal of physical effort. CEOs and surgeons require lots of the first two qualities. Other jobs high up there on the analytical ladder are electricians, auto mechanics, and art and film directors. Lawyers and psychiatrists make it only half way up the analytical column, but they come out on top in the social intelligence department.

So you get the idea. For some things, you have to be smart and it helps if you’re a good socializer, too. Together, that makes you creative. Physical labor doesn’t count for much, except for jobs like the electrician or the auto mechanic.

What intrigues me most about the chart is where Florida and Martin pigeon hole writers. Now, I know being a writer doesn’t require any specific ranking on the IQ scale, but I was surprised to see scribes rated well below the median in the analytical department. We only outshine cashiers, store clerks and waiters.

And social intelligence? Well, you’ve all heard of the lonely writer. Ontario in the Creative Age puts us smack dab at the median for social intelligence. That’s somewhat higher than I’d expected.

Of course, writers don’t expend much physical effort. But I don’t think we belong down at the bottom, along with lawyers and telemarkets. Picking at a computer keyboard all day is hard work!

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Their chart seems to give us a C in analytical skills, -B in social intelligence, and F in labor. That last part’s okay.

So we have to ask the question: Does our mediocre performance  in analytics and social intelligence account for the low earnings of Canadian writers? (Hill Strategies reported recently that Canadian artists, including writers, averaged only $22,731 in 2005, which is 37 per cent under the $36,301 average for all Canadian workers.)

I see where Katherine Ashenburg, author of the fine non-fiction work, The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History, says writing it cost her $260,000 in lost take-home pay from the job she gave up. She says she’ll never tackle another serious work of non-fiction.

I suspect that the meagre earnings of Canadian writers stem more from the forces of supply vs demand than from where we rank on a creativity scale. Of course, writing is a creative function.

But for every book that’s published, there’s probably a hundred manuscripts that go unpublished. And not all those that are published sell well enough to earn anything more than a pittance for their authors.

A lot of writers seem ready to accept these economic consequences in order to pursue their dream. That’s fine, but I don’t think this entitles them to demand that somebody — publishers, book stores, buyers or the government — somehow change the reality.

Write if you will, but keep your day job. At least until you win the Giller or the Taylor.

Taylor Prize and the creative challenge

February 10, 2009 2 comments

I got to thinking, while attending the luncheon for the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction in Toronto on Monday, about the recent spate of  media pieces on the state of writing and book publishing in Canada.

As with most journalism, these pieces focus on the negative — the tightening-up of publisher budgets, the reduction of review space in the newspapers, the closing of independent book stores, and the uncertain future of electronic publishing.

None of this was reflected at the Taylor Prize luncheon. It’s to the credit of my dear friend Noreen Taylor, widow of Charles, that this event has become such red letter day on the literary calendar. It is run with style and grace and on Monday, the three finalists all brought the vigor of youth, creativity and charm to the occasion.

Readers of this blog will know that I predicted Tim Lee would win for his Shock Troops: Canadians Fighting the Great War, 1917-18, the second volume of his history of the Canadian Expeditionary Force in World War I. I’d read the jury — not the books — and made up my mind that a jury composed of a former director of the Canada Council, Shirley Thomson; a serious political journalist, Jeffrey Simpson; and an author and academic of the stature of Warren Cariou would be blown away by Cook’s subject. Now I’ll be certain to read it.

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I’m sure the other books, Sugar: A Bittersweet History by Elizabeth Abbott and Angel of Vengeance: The ‘Girl Assassin,’ the Governor of St. Petersburg and Russia’s Revolutionary World by Ana Siljak also demonstrate “a superb command of the English language, an elegance of style and a subtlety of thought and perception” as required of all Taylor Prize winners.

The fact that the Taylor Prize for 2008 drew 135 entries from 43 publishers tells me publishing isn’t in quite as bad shape as you’d be led to believe by some of the stuff we’ve been seeing in the media. James Adams, the able publishing reporter for The Globe and Mail, set off a small firestorm in writer circles with his article, Publish and your book will probably perish, in last Saturday’s paper. Judging from comments posted to the Writer’s Union Listserv, I’d say not all writers share such pessimism.

 Toronto Life has an equally dismal piece, The Blockbuster Imperative, dealing with the work of novelist Anne Michaels. Her new book The Winter Vault, arrives in a ” savage environment,” writes Don Gilmor:

The Winter Vault comes at a gloomy time; its title may be an apt metaphor for the publishing industry at the moment. And while the book has its share of bleak images, like Fugitive Pieces, it is ultimately redemptive. Perhaps that will be enough.

Amid all this soul-searching, comes the Hill Strategies report that Canadian artists who spend most of their time in visual art, theatre, production or writing averaged a poverty-level income of $22,731 in 2005.
Seeming to contradict all this, there’s the U of T report prepared by Richard Florida and Roger Martin for the Ontario Government — “Ontario in the Creative Age.” It makes the argument that the creative class is in the best position to thrive in the future economy, and that we need to be training everyone we can to fulfill a creative work function.

If creativity is the be-all and end-all, why are the creators so badly paid? I’ll take a run at this issue in another blog.

 

 

Warming up to Iggy

February 7, 2009 Leave a comment

It’s no secret among my friends that I’ve had a hard time warming up to Michael Ignatieff as Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.

I’ve always admired him as an author and an intellectual, and I give him full credit for the success he achieved in academic and media circles in England and the United States during thirty years of living outside Canada. Can’t fault a man for that kind of success.

But my discomfort with American foreign policy, fromVietnam to Iraq, left me wondering about Iggy. His apparent approval of the Iraq invasion, and some uncertainty about his attitude toward rendition and torture, left me wondering if he hadn’t absorbed too much of the American  “way of life” to be the kind of leader we want in Canada. I’m not anti-American, but with the United States possibly at the beginning of a long period of decline, I feel we Canadians need to be extremely cautious about embracing even Barack Obama’s domestic and foreign policies.

I remember attending an all-candidate meeting in the riding of Etobicoke Lakeshore in Toronto in 2006, when Iggy was running for the first time. He was having a hard time transforming himself from intellectual to street-smart politician. When people asked questions about local concerns at a level not much above pothole fixing, Iggy’s body language told you he’d rather be almost anywhere else.

But give the guy credit. He ran a strong campaign for leader. He lost, because Liberals weren’t ready to accept someone with little visible history in the party. That’s why Liberals, myself included, went for Stephane Dion.

Fast forward to today. Iggy’s doing the necessary business of visiting ridings across the country. This afternoon (Feb. 7) he stopped in the Ontario riding of Simcoe North and I went to the Orillia City Hall to hear him.

He showed himself to be warm and personable. He played nicely to the home town sentiments of a crowd that filled the council chambers. Mostly 50-plus, and all-white. He associated himself with the town’s literary hero, Stephen Leacock, mentioning his grandfather had taught school with the great Canadian humorist. He thought Orillia the kind of town President Obama should visit on a future trip to Canada.

michael-ignatieff-queensI’ve been concerned that the Liberals didn’t extract a better stimulus package from the Harper budget. I had the chance to ask Iggy if he had any plans to pressure the government during second reading of the budget bill. I pointed out the budget was bereft of support for science and technology, for seniors, or the unemployed (in any meaningful way). It would have been nice to see a one-time partial rebate on our 2008 taxes paid.

I can’t disagree with his answer, which was that he doesn’t want to go down the road of demanding amendments and sweeteners because that would lead, inevitably, to a vote of confidence and an election call. The country and the Liberal party’s not ready for that.

Iggy is clearly determined not to help Mr. Harper govern. This is what a lot of people, including some in the audience, would like. As one gentlemen put it, “Can’t you guys go into a room once a day or once a week and come out, black eyes and all, with a plan to manage this country?”

Sorry, our parliamentary system doesn’t work that way.

Iggy also made it clear he’s not going to consider a coalition with any other party, although he did not rule out “agreements” at one time or another. His rejection of the Liberal-NDP coalition brought a strong round of applause.

His best line came in predicting that “Sooner or later, this government is going to fail so miserably that we’ll have to bring it down.”

Other key points he made:

  • No to long-term income tax cuts – “We have to ensure the federal government has the capacity to serve Canadians.”
  • Canadian troops must be out of Afghanistan in 2011 – but there’ll still be a humanitarian and development role for Canada.
  • He’s concerned about the budget’s failure to broaden assistance to the unemployed. During second reading of the budget bill, the Liberals will frame a motion (not a want of confidence amendment) to try to get laid-off workers easier access to EI (Employment Insurance).

I thought Iggy performed very well before this conservative, small town audience — the kind of electorate he’ll have to win over to reverse past Conservative gains in Ontario and B.C.

Clearly, he’s paid his dues over the last three years. He won two elections in Etobicoke-Lakeshore, he contested for the Liberal leaderhsip, he loyally supported Stephane Dion as long as he was leader, and now he’s bringing a welcome touch of certainty and stability not only to the Liberal party but to Canadian politics generally.

Rick Mercer of CBC’s Mercer Report had some fun with Iggy on his move into Stornoway, the Opposition leader’s house. If you didn’t catch it, have a chuckle:

Scandal at the checkout

February 4, 2009 Leave a comment

This being my 100th post since starting this blog, I was thinking of what to write as I stood in line at the drugstore checkout. Then my eyes lighted on the array of weekly celebrity tabloids that are standard fare at most checkouts. And one stood out: Kennedy: HIS FINAL DAYS, screamed the headline in The Globe.

What a ghoulish headline! It reminded me of the tabloids of my youth that used to be so popular in Canada. We called them “scandal sheets” but thousands of Canadians devoured the likes of Hush and Flash every week, thirsty for gossip they couldn’t find in the mainstream press.

The rags presented themselves as fearless crusaders for the public good. Mostly, they were filled with juvenile, unsophisticated diatribes on cases before the police courts, or run-ins that customers had with the management of Eaton’s department stores. The Eatons were always a favorite target.

Papers like these, including the notorious Justice Weekly, bit the dust in the 1960s and 70s as Canadians’ reading habits became more sophisticated, and mainstream papers started covering scandalous stories they’d previously ignored.

 But they did do some good. Flash, put out by the former pulp publisher Lou Ruby, was the only paper willing to expose the corrupt Vancouver Police Department. Crusading reporter Ray Munro had been let go by the Vancouver Province after it refused to touch his copy. Flash carried Munro’s stories, with the result that Police Chief Walter Mulligan was forced to resign and two detectives shot themselves. One of them died.

These papers made much of the trials of men charged with homosexual crimes. Justice Weekly reported how the Toronto police department had two officers prowling the bushes of High Park, on the lookout for men making out. It referred to the old “knot hole” technique said to have been used by some men to otbain relief.

In revealing the police repression of gay men, the papers probably contributed to the public toleration that allowed then Justice Minister Pierre Trudeau to remove homosexual activity from the Criminal Code.

dsc012002 The granddaddy of the papers was Hush. It was started in the 1920s by Strathearn Boyd Thomson as a stock market tip sheet. In a replay of the old “horsewhip the editor” plot, Thomson was beaten up by three men, including a couple of prominent Forest Hill individuals, while enjoying an afternoon at the races. They didn’t like something he’d written. They beat the assault charges laid by Thomson, but later had to pay him off in a civil settlement.

The scandal sheets were often in trouble with the authorities. The Attorney General of Ontario once got an injunction shutting Flash down.The paper escaped oblivion only by promising to be more sedate in the future.

Today’s only equivalent of the scandal sheets is the satirical magazine Frank. It struggles from issue to issue, but still manages to insult more politicians, pr types and corporate moguls than ever felt the darts of the likes of Hush.

Ironically, one of the most successful of the scandal sheets, the Montreal-based Midnight, lives on today in the Globe mentioned above. Joe Azaria started this paper with $14 and a $1000 bank loan when the Gazette turned him down for a job. Many of his stories were simply made up, such as the one headlined, Hitler’s Daughter Found Wed to Rabbi’s Son.

Azaria went after the American market and eventually sold the paper to a U.S. publisher.

Lou Ruby shut down Flash when he realized it could no longer match the daily diet of scandal that mainstream newspapers came forth with in the 1970s. His son, Clayton Ruby, is today a prominent Toronto lawyer.

By the way, for anyone interested in the future of media, here’s a tip. The biggest selling magazines are the celebrity weeklies like the Globe that adorn supermarket and drug store checkouts. Depressing, no?