Archive for July, 2009

#18 – Ma Bell and her creeping pricing.

Thursday, July 30th, 2009

I have finally had it with Ma Bell. I have always made alibis for her. I have defended her. I have even worked for her and believed in her. I have been a loyal customer from the day I moved to my first home away from my family. I have stuck by her for many, many years.

But enough is enough. I am joining the legions of Canadians from Ontario and Quebec who no longer wish to endure her pseudo-sexual or other favours or do business of any kind with Ma Bell. And that is not a simple thing to do. After all, I get a small pension from her. The cheque goes into my bank account every month. It is one of those indexed-to-inflation mites that adds a few dollars with the cost of living. When I first started receiving it, I was quite satisfied with it, despite its small amount.

That pitiful pension was, at the time, more than enough to pay for my telephone, my cell phone and my Internet service. Ma’s grinches at her headquarters in Montreal refused my simple request to truly be treated as a pensioner and be allowed to continue the employee discount that I enjoyed in the years that I worked for the company. I was told that I had not worked for the company long enough to be included among those privileged pensioners.

Despite my hurt feelings over the denied discount (35 per cent off your telephone, Internet and cell phone bills is nothing to sneeze at), I stuck with her. I reasoned that since she was paying for my telephone services, there was no reason for me to go elsewhere. And, an indexed pension meant that I could look after any small increase.

Boy, was I kidding myself. I was still paying less than my pension amount when I moved to Babel. I had even been able to upgrade my Internet service from dial to Digital Subscriber Line (DSL). Where I lived in the big smoke, I was located too far from the central office to be able to use that service and had to use a second telephone line to connect to the Internet. In Babel, I could use the same line for both a home phone and high speed Internet. It meant I actually paid a bit less for my Bell services.

Not for long. Ma Bell soon launched her insidious program of extra costs for the unwary customer. I used to call 310-Bell every month when I got my bill to ask why this item or that item had been added to my bill. The odd time, because of Bell’s contractual obligations, I got apologies and rebates. When I got the occasional older employee still working the phones, we would compare notes and I would earn further discounts through creative use of the rules.

But the program of added costs was too pervasive. I could not stem the tide. In the past four years, my monthly bill from Ma Bell has increased by 50 per cent. It is amazing what companies can do, even when semi-regulated. You add a dollar here and a dollar there. A new network charge can net $7.95 per month and then another $2 that Ma never got before. You thought you had a good deal on long distance until Ma adds a charge of $5.95 per month for just having the plan.

The latest charge is the one for the DSL modem. When I moved to Babel, my inexpensive little made-in-China Internet modem, that blinks at me as I surf, was included at no charge. Suddenly a modem charge of $2 per month appeared on my bills. When I complained about that, Ma actually choked my service, reducing the bandwidth. I not only got slower service but I had to pay the $2 a month for a modem I had already paid for five times over. When I got the information recently that Ma was going to double the modem charge per month, I was outraged. When I called about it, I got some out-sourced call centre where the woman on the line had no clue what was going on. When she understood that I did not want to pay for the modem but wanted to keep the service, she told me to go buy my own modem and return Bell’s.

I quickly found out that there are very few sources where you can buy a DSL modem. It seems the telephone companies are controlling that market. Places like Best Buy and Future Shop said ‘no way.’ I finally found a modem that was actually better than the one from Bell and after some interesting modifications I find it works just fine. Then I found that the call centre airhead had lied to me. The problem is that if you return the old modem, Ma Bell will not stop charging you for it.

I have a problem with that. If somebody charges you for something that you do not need and have returned to them, I don’t think that is honest. There is no contract that says you will use Ma’s cheap little modem at an outrageous price. I am no longer paying Ma.

I am now trying out Yak Communications. It might be a stupid name but the company resells the services on Bell’s copper wires, so there is not much that can go wrong. Yak is charging me less for more services than I got from Bell for my home phone. I am also paying less than I paid Ma for my Internet service and getting a bandwidth of 4.2 Mbps which is ten times faster than the service that Bell provided. (And I use my own modem without charge.)

So far Ma has had a few out-sourced call centre people call me but as soon as you realize how poorly they are trained and how little they know about the business, you end the call. Bell Canada management would be amazed at how much respect they would earn if they just respected their customers.

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# 17 – This is Ontario. Paint us green.

Wednesday, July 29th, 2009

Go green and win friends. Go green and win elections. Go green and try to convince people you know what you are doing. I came up with that last one myself. As you know, today’s politicians vie with each other to be the greenest. What they need to learn is that it’s a lot like being in favour of motherhood. After a while, you get more people saying ‘That’s nice. So what?’

The Ontario government is very much in favour of being green. Judging from the cancelation of plans to go more nuclear in Ontario, the premier and vice-premier (McGinty and Smitherman) will have no choice but take Ontario green whether anyone likes it or not. McGinty drew a line on the grass earlier this year and declared that NIMBY’s need not try to impede the greening progress.

At the time, our pemier was pointing a finger at some Scarborough ratepayers who object to a scheme to put a wind farm of generating turbines out in Lake Ontario off the Scarborough Bluffs. “Not in my backyard” stated the NIMBY’s—which explains why they are referred to as NIMBY’s.

To be fair to these ratepayers, the location is not my backyard. I therefore looked out at my view of the bay here in Babel and imagined how it would look with an arrayof wind turbines off shore. Sorry NIMBY’s but I think it would look great.

There is just something lyrical and beautiful about wind turbines. They have such a gentle dignity as they turn in concert to the breezes. I will take the wonders of wind turbines over dark and sombre solar panels any day.

What leaves me a little confused is the why of putting the things out in open water. They would probably not be a hazard to commercial shipping because those people prefer deep water but there are bound to be collisions with Saturday sailors. I always thought higher winds were higher up. Why are we not putting wind turbines on top of the Scarborough Bluffs, where they can catch a better breeze? And what is wrong with using the Sandbanks Provincial Park? There can be no denying what centuries of reliable winds have wrought in that strikingly beautiful area of Prince Edward County. Or is that the back yard of Ontario’s rulers?

Even in Babel’s bay, I would worry about drunken Seadoo drivers in summer and the same drunks on their Skidoos in the winter. They would end up hitting the wind turbines. I expect these wind catching structures could also whack a few seaplane pilots, capture an occasional wind surfer or parachute-skier, and be a hazard to wandering fishing persons.

No doubt, all suitable locations have their problems. There will always be those who disagree no matter where we put them.

But in all this to-do about locating wind turbines, we never hear much about the economics of their generating value. When checking out both wind turbines and solar panels over the last few years, I have learned that the cost of establishing the generating capacity and connecting it to the Ontario grid seems to the same as the contractual payment from Ontario Power Generation. Frankly that is not a deal that has any appeal to me. It sounds like I can loan my provincial power authority money for years without interest. I might like to be green but that should not have to include being stupid!

Besides, there is little sense to wind turbines or to solar panels until our scientists show us how to store power efficiently. Our greening of our environment is never going to happen until we can use the power of the wind when it is not blowing and the power of the sun when it is not shining.

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#16 – Babel Backward bumbles on.

Tuesday, July 28th, 2009

I can hardly believe it. On the front page of Babel Backward’s July 23 issue, there is a story saying “CRTC order helps A-Channel.” Not only is this story based on information that appeared in real newspapers two weeks ago but it does not even get it right. It makes the erroneous claim that the Canadian Radio-Television Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) ordered cable and satellite companies to start paying broadcasters for carrying their programming. What the CRTC ruling really said was that there would be an increase of the Local Program Improvement Fund from one per cent of cable and satellite service gross revenues to one and a half per cent. That will mean that another 30-plus million dollars will now be added to the $68 million already available to support Canadian produced programs such as Flashpoint, The Listener and others, over the next year—paid for by cable and satellite customers.

But that is not going to do anything for A Channel unless the station needs a refurbished backdrop for its news programming such as the high-tech set now used by its competitive sister station CTV News down in the big smoke. What the CRTC really told the small market broadcasters is that they have to sit down with the cable and satellite people and negotiate a deal on how to wrest more money from cable and satellite customers. This money will be given to the broadcasters whose signals they have always distributed without payment.

Since civil discussion between broadcasters and distributors is unlikely, you know that the CRTC will be back to wrestle with the problem again. We certainly hope the commission will be back. For the broadcasters and distributors to sit together to decide how to split the pie, the only thing you know for sure is that the viewers will pay for it. Without the public being represented at the table, the viewers’ basic channel line-up costs are going to take a hit in the range of another $6 every month. That can be more than $70 per year per subscriber to add to the profits of the television networks.

What is galling to the television distributors is that these channels are the ones the CRTC demands that distributors carry as a condition of license. The door was opened to payment when, in the past, specialty channels were added to the cable and satellite line-up. These channels do not go over the air and you are paying for them as part of the charge for the line-up of channels you choose from your supplier.

Confusing the issue is that within two years, the CRTC has mandated that broadcast outlets must follow the American lead and switch to digital over-the-air broadcasting. Broadcasters such as A Channel in Barrie are arguing with the CRTC that it makes little sense to convert to broadcasting digitally when they claim that less than ten per cent of Canadians use antennas to receive their television signals. What nobody wants to tell people is that low cost digital antennas can provide better quality for viewers and going back to antennas can satisfy many current cable and satellite users. If A Channel goes digital from its current tower, I could point a cheap digital antenna out my window at the A Channel tower up off Essa Road and get a far better high definition picture from it than Rogers Cable can deliver to my TV. A digital antenna and hook-up would be a one-time cost of about $70. Compare that to about $50 (and rising) per month charged by the cable and satellite providers for basic service.

But I would not bother with A Channel for anything more than local news. The station produces nothing else. Rogers Cable does more for local viewers by offering Colts’ hockey games and city council meetings.

The accurate part of the front-page story in Babel Backward was when Peggy Hebden, A Channel general manager, is quoted as saying “It’s business as usual until we find out what’s happening.” Reading Babel Backward might not be an assist in that!

But Hebden is further quoted as saying that Patrick Brown, MP has been the station’s champion on Parliament Hill. That might help explain the station’s problems.

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#15 – “No budy rites gud no mor!”

Friday, July 24th, 2009

It’s not the texting languages that people use. IMHO (In my humble opinion) most texting SUX. I expect the problem is you can only get so many characters on those tiny screens. And nobody wants to wear out their thumbs spelling multisyllabic words. It is when they try to write in understandable English, that we realize, as it says in the headline: Nobody writes good anymore. So, who cares? Other than English teachers, editors, writers and other people who care about effective communications, nobody.

But, as I explain to my letter-writing course students, effective communication can earn and save you a great deal of money. One story I tell them is about the time (years ago) I was told I could park anywhere in the big smoke without concern for parking tickets. I had to watch out for tow-away zones but parking tickets would be waived.

It had to do with a simple letter I sent “to whom it may concern” in the metro parking ticket office. The letter explained that Miss Johnson, my teacher in grade three, had told us children that there was a ’12 noon’ and a ’12 midnight’ but there was no such thing as ’12 pm’ or ’12 am.’ I had parked my car on a busy thoroughfare in the city one evening where a sign said there was no parking between 8 am and 12 pm. Since I had no idea when 12 pm occurred, I left my car there. When I returned there was a ticket on the windshield demanding a surprising amount of money.

Friends who were with my wife and I at the time wanted to share in the expense. My wife said that was not necessary, I would look after it with one of my letters. She was right. It was a fun letter to write.

It was short and to the point. It was also friendly. I ignored the amount of the parking ticket and merely discussed what Miss Johnson had taught me and politely requested clarification as to when it happened and what authority had ruled that 12 pm was a specific time of day.

Several days later, I received a telephone call from a gentleman in the parking office. While it was obvious from his accent that he had attended school in another country, he spoke excellent English. He told me that he called because he had enjoyed my letter very much and wanted to tell me that he also had been taught to tell time by a Miss Johnson. His Miss Johnson had also explained patiently to the children in his class about there being a 12 noon or 12 midnight and that 12 o’clock is neither am nor pm.

But, because he was educated outside of Canada, nobody in the city’s sign department would listen to him when he tried to get them to print noon or midnight on the appropriate signs. In disgust, he informed me that whenever I got a parking ticket anywhere in the city, I was to call him and he would cancel the ticket.

Do you think that has not saved me some money?

There is a small addendum to this story. When in the big smoke the other day, I noticed that they are now paying attention to my friend. The incorrect parking signs are being modified. It looked like they are using an adhesive strip. It will take a long time to complete the job. There must be many thousands of signs to change. The signs that said ‘12 pm’ now say ’12:01 am.’

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#14 – The worst beer store in Ontario.

Tuesday, July 21st, 2009

I have stopped complaining. Many who know me will be amazed at that statement. This is a specific complaint on which I have relented and abandoned. It is my campaign to have the Anne Street Beer Store in Babel labelled as the Worst Beer Store in Ontario. I decided I might as well give up.

The Beer Store bosses do not care. Provincial politicians are not interested. Babel city councillors only drink VSOP Ontario wines. Why would they give a hoot about a beer store? My campaign of polite letters and e-mails to the headquarters of The Beer Store down in the big smoke has ended. It is a waste of time.

And they were sincere letters. The only thing that might have been slightly tongue-in-cheek was the suggestion that all Ontarions who shop at the more than 400 local beer stores be given a vote. I asked that ballots be distributed at every store and patrons could vote for the store they considered the worst. Of course, I should have realized that anything smacking of democracy would scare The Beer Store bureaucrats.

The Beer Store chain and its owner, Brewers Warehousing Limited, were created by the Ontario government to save us all from the evils of demon rum and other alcoholic beverages such as beer. Along with the monopolistic Liquor Control Board of Ontario, Brewers Warehousing has been controlling the distribution of suds to the province’s beer drinkers since 1927.

What started out as a puritanical effort to control sales of alcoholic beverages has become the biggest slush fund in the province. (Even more than the $2 billion it gets from lotteries and gaming.) We are not talking just a few millions here. The Ontario government, by keeping a stranglehold on beer and liquor sales in Ontario, is reaping billions of dollars in excessive profits. Not everywhere though. The smart Ottawa area resident who drives across a bridge to buy his beer in Quebec can save 25 per cent on a case of beer. Ontario consumers buying a two-four of Labatt Blue at regular price in the Beer Store are paying more than $10 to Queen’s Park just for the privilege.

So, with all that money, you would think that we would have some fairly nice beer stores. No we do not. We can deal with Anne Street in Babel first. That store is dirty, messy, badly run and the part-time staff is ill-trained, slovenly, slow and generally useless. Sometimes when you go in there, you are afraid your boots are going to be permanently stuck to the filthy floor. Customers are often greeted by the sight of the entire incoming rails for empties full of bottles and the floor around it loaded. The staff is often so busy they take your word for what bottles you have added to the piles of returns.

You would think that Babel beer drinkers would know better than to go to the Anne Street store. The problem is that it is the only beer store near to downtown and the waterfront. Sometimes we go to the newer, larger beer stores in the shopping areas in Babel’s north and south ends. These stores are open concept and you get to go find your preferred brand yourself. In summer, you can catch pneumonia in those stores. The problem is that you get lost trying to find a preferred brand. The people who designed those particular stores certainly had no sympathy for the poor Ontario consumer. They saved staff and left the consumer confused and in the cold.

Returning liquor bottles to the Beer Store was also one of the dumbest ideas ever perpetrated by politicians trying to be righteous recyclers. Let’s leave the recycling business to people who are not trying to sell us suds at the same time.

To be fair to our provincial politicians, they have a tiger by the tail with Brewers Warehousing and the LCBO. They can hardly forego all that revenue. There is no question that beer should properly be sold through convenience store and grocery stores. It would be cheaper. And we would certainly get better deals from competitive liquor stores. We would also have to pay billions more in provincial taxes. As the poor maiden was told back in 1927, if you succumb to the temptations of the demon drink, some Lothario is going to have his way with you.

I already know I am getting screwed, I just want it done with a little more class.

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#13 – Rebuffed again Mr. Brown?

Tuesday, July 14th, 2009

Babel’s earnest Member of Parliament, Mr. Brown, must have very thick skin. Every time he comes up in a pile of manure, he seems to busy himself digging into it to see if someone left him a pony. He recently took on a job usually left by politicos to the spin doctors. In a July 10 news release on his web site, Mr. Brown claims success for his local petition to help save CTVglobemedia’s ‘A’ Channel in Babel. In making such a claim, he ignores the advice of members of the Conservative caucus who serve on the House of Commons’ Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage.

It is possible that he never read the Conservative minority report from the committee that was issued last month. It is even more likely that he did not know that the committee was studying the problems of local television while he was getting an unnecessary petition together for A Channel. Mind you, he only got a few hundred signatures on it. In a riding with a population of some 135,000, you would think the sitting Member of Parliament would be able to get thousands of signatures.

But not Mr. Brown. Maybe, his constituents are tiring of his constant in-your-face campaigning. Or maybe, he was too far out of his depth with the subject matter. Does he think there is a nice warm feeling to having a television station here in the riding? The station is just one of the hundreds of channels available to cable and satellite users in the market area. His caucus colleagues, who heard hundreds of hours of submissions from industry experts on the subject, indicated in their report their “most fervent and rigorous opposition to any potential feeforcarriage system, either negotiated or imposed.” In this, they were just more strident than the majority report. The opposition members of the committee of the House had also rejected taxing cable and satellite users to support local stations.

Mr. Brown’s little victory came from last week’s report from the Canadian Radio Television-Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). The CRTC had done what it had already told the committee it would do. It has instructed the major carriers of television signals—cable and satellite providers—that they had to sit down with their counterparts at the local broadcasting outlets and negotiate a solution to the ‘fee-for-carriage’ argument. There are many observers of the industry who would like to be able to serve the tea and crumpets for those social events. The only problem is the threat from the CRTC that if the signal distributors and the local outlets do not play nice and find an equitable solution, the CRTC will step in and find a solution for them.

If Mr. Brown thinks that is a win, it shows how little he knows. He does not seem to understand that money A Channel might extract from the cable and satellite companies will come from the pockets of the voters in his riding, the users of cable and satellite services. While the famously avaricious Lord Thompson once claimed that a television station licence is a licence for the holder to print money, modern broadcasters are making their money from specialty channels, targeted audiences and production of programming. We are already contributing part of our cable and satellite fees to producers of Canadian programs. Nothing is free.

But bear in mind, times are changing. Television is working with new technologies in a world linked by satellites. Programmers try to outdo each other to build audiences. Some of their ideas are brilliant and some are disgusting. It is the viewer watching the programs who determines where we are going.

There are times when we should take a tip from the classic 1976 movie Network and tell Mr. Brown and A Channel and the cable and satellite providers that we are ‘mad as hell and we’re not going to take this any more.’

And then we can go play golf on our Wii.

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# 12 – Canada’s middle class and the politics of inclusion

Friday, July 10th, 2009

Harper was late again at the Italian G8 meeting. He seems to take longer than any of the other major world rulers to get himself ready for photo ops. Either his logistics people are asleep at the switch or it is just getting harder to comb his hair over as he ages. Or maybe, as an Ottawa writer noted several months ago, Canada’s Prime Minister has discovered middle-class Canadians and thinks tardiness is a middle-class characteristic. He sees this middle-class thing as novel and new (the reporter, not Mr. Harper). Frankly, the reporter seems slow. Canadian politicians have been fighting over the hearts and minds of Canada’s middle class for as long as we have been able to attribute middle-class characteristics to some of Canada’s population.

The reporter actually thinks Mr. Harper should have an advantage with this group because he is himself so middle class. Wrong. Mr. Harper is a right-wing ideologue and the last thing he would ever consider himself to be is middle class. He is likely to consider that description pejorative. He knows himself as a superior person whom others should know to follow.

At the same time, the reporter says that certain pollsters and Mr. Harper are attempting to position Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff as “a stuffy intellectual.” Wrong again. While Ignatieff is unquestionably intellectual, he also has a wonderfully wry sense of humour, a self-deprecating style and a very real concern for people that Mr. Harper can never match.

It really is quite funny when the reporter tells readers that Mr. Harper shows that he is really middle-class by having two young children. The news media show clips of him taking his son to play hockey. He is as stiff with his children as he is in the boardroom. He should have taken a lesson from the upper-class Pierre Trudeau, who never allowed his sons to be part of political campaigning, other than the requisite picture for the annual Christmas card.

The reporter builds all this silliness on Barack Obama’s win in the United States last November. That win was achieved, the reporter tells us, by Obama using a positive and inclusive message. The reporter was not up on American history nor aware of the power of new media. It was a lesson Obama learned from the last of the truly patrician American presidents: Franklin Roosevelt. FDR built his politics of inclusion on a new medium of communications of his era: radio. Obama built his inclusion with the new media of this era: the Internet,

When you refer to the politics of inclusion, you are not really talking about the middle class. The middle class of society is hardly a voting block. The politics of inclusion crosses the economic and intellectual lines in society and invites broad participation. Roosevelt built a path out of the Great Depression for Americans with the “New Deal.” Barack Obama opened doors to blacks, Hispanics and white Americans frustrated with the George W. Bush regime with the simple words: “Yes we can.”

More important than the actual words was the positive nature of the message. In an era of vicious, negative attack advertising in politics, Obama reversed the trend. He left the sneering insults to the late night talk shows and the news media and took the high road. He was respectful but firm with his Republican opponent and he kept looking better and better throughout the American election.

Conversely, the campaign in Canada in October was awash in a constant turmoil with scurrilous attacks and mixed messages that put the Canadian voter on a seesaw. The refusal of Stephen Harper to admit there were problems with the economy was to put his campaign in direct conflict with reality. He won a narrow victory in the end by staying with his message and emphasizing the weaknesses of Liberal Stéphane Dion.

But, with the self destructive ideological approach of Stephen Harper, nobody should give this government much time before Michael Ignatieff brings it down. Ignatieff has already laid the groundwork in Ottawa of ensuring that his caucus is not the cause of any disrespect and nastiness in the House of Commons. He is determined that Harper is not going to pull him down into the gutter politics that destroyed his predecessor Stéphane Dion. The difference between the two liberals is that while they are both professors and intellectuals, Ignatieff is also very much a politician.

Canadians are going to start to remember a slogan that was popular after the Great Depression of the 1930s. The slogan is simply “Liberal times are good times.”

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#11 – Flaherty’s floundering financial fix.

Thursday, July 9th, 2009

There are no more passing report cards for Jim Flaherty. Harper’s finance minister is toast. On November 27 last year, he brought the Harper government to its knees with an ill-conceived economic statement that ignored reality. Given a reprieve by the Governor General, he brought in a budget at the end of January that made everybody choke. All it did was ensure our federal government would fall deeper in debt. He produced a budget that lacked planning and focus and did no measureable good for anybody.

In fact, the budget did more wrong than right. It trivialized the serious flaws in Canada’s employment insurance and, in doing so, kept funds from the people in the most desperate need. All his tax cuts could do was put the country deeper into debt. They did nothing to solve the immediate problems: the need for job creation and financial stimulus.

The budget made much of a tax credit amounting to 15 per cent of the costs of some limited home improvements that homeowners carry out this year. You get the tax credit next year. Home Depot or Rona can beat that deal any time with just some sharp marketing and give you money back at the same time.

The municipal infrastructure support plan has been a bad political joke. It is not enough and Flaherty failed to solve the basic problems of how to get the money moving immediately to where needed. Besides, infrastructure programs do not receive funding until announced in the community at least six times, by the local Conservative politician. If you do not have one of those people representing your riding, you can hardly expect very much largess from Ottawa.

The only hope for Flaherty’s foolishness was that President Obama’s rescue plan for America would cover all of North America. It did not as Americans, once again, proved that their idea of free trade is not fair trade. We have to work hard on the Americans to convince them that we are all in the same boat. We also have to cheer on Obama’s recovery program because when he gets the U.S. out of the deep doo-doo, it will pull our economy with it. And that is reality.

Meanwhile, Flaherty has missed every opportunity to soften the short-term recession hit for Canadians. We need to get cash money into the hands of people who are going to spend it immediately. Any program that can do that is worthwhile. All the rest are lies. While watching details on that January budget on television, Canadians were seeing commercials touting the Conservative’s tax-free savings plan. Our taxes (or deficit) pay for those television commercials that encouraged Canadians to do what is the most harmful thing in our current economic situation: put their money in banks. And they have been doing it in record numbers.

What Flaherty’s budget did accomplish was to wash out the proposed coalition of the Liberals and NDP supported by the Bloc Québécois. It was hardly that the budget was too persuasive. If anything, it was because the budget was so bad. The Liberal’s Michael Ignatieff saw that he did not need the coalition. Without the threat to political funding that was in the earlier economic statement, Ignatieff could let the Conservatives destroy themselves. Over the summer, Canadians will continue to get ample evidence that Harper’s government has no answers. This fall or, at the latest, early next year, everybody will be ready for an election. It is hardly the best solution for Canadians but Ignatieff needed the time to get his party organized and, at the same time, let the voters see the ineptness of the Conservatives.

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The ubiquitous Mr. Brown, Member of Parliament

Tuesday, July 7th, 2009

Mr. Brown is a ward heeler. Ward heelers (not healers) originated as minor American political functionaries during the 19th Century. Their role was to do the neighbourhood work for the political bosses and their organizations. The fact that a ward heeler of Mr. Brown’s insignificance is also a Member of Canada’s Parliament is a regrettable aspect of modern Canadian politics.

With the trends towards fewer voters bothering to cast a vote, the lack of good media coverage of local candidates, the concentration of the broadcast media on leaders and their policies and the disappearing all-candidate meetings in the ridings, a ward heeler such as Mr. Brown becomes the ideal candidate for his party. The only problem is it leaves him unable to properly fulfill either role. He is neither an effective Member of Parliament nor a particularly good ward heeler.

While supposedly busy in the nation’s capitol looking after the affairs of our country, Mr. Brown is busy tweeting and twittering, on his web site, connecting through Facebook, sending out news releases written in offices of the Prime Minister and cabinet members and looking for opportunities to expand his advertising around Babel. All this effort is supposed to make the voters in Babel believe he is busy working for them. At the same time, there is little going on in Babel in which his possible participation is not evaluated in terms of potential votes.

It needs noting that some think the term ‘ward heeler’ as insulting. I do not. They can be very useful people. Good ward heelers are hard to find. I have known some outstanding ones over the years. And, in some circumstances, it is possible to be an elected politician and a good ward heeler at the same time. I think the best I ever met was a provincial politician named Allan Grossman. His advantage was that the Ontario Legislature was almost in the middle of his riding. Allan served his constituents in the Legislature for 20 years. His son, Larry Grossman, tried to carry on his father’s legacy in the Legislature and riding but he was thin gruel compared to his old man and soon left politics.

Allan Grossman knew his voters, knew their wants and needs, and he looked after them. I once served on a charitable board with him and I was constantly impressed with his ability to turn complex political concerns into practical solutions for individual human needs. It was a delight to be able to work with him. His secret was that he cared.

In contrast, my impression is that Mr. Brown spreads himself far too thin across this electoral district to care for anyone other than himself. His voters find him a will-o-the-wisp, flitting from photo-op to photo-op on an itinerary of hypocrisy. There appears to be no one thing he stands for or opposes. There do not seem to be any contentious issues on which he takes a stand. (That is unless his party leader has already said it.)

He does take credit for the work of others. Along with all other active politicos in Babel, he takes full credit for the GO trains that now service Babel commuters wishing to travel to and from the big smoke. He does not take responsibility for the predawn train whistles that are raising the ire of residents in the south of Babel. It makes no difference to him that GO trains are the responsibility of the provincial government. You would think he personally winds up their rubber bands and starts them on their travels every morning.

Less understandable is his involvement in the province’s health care problems. While I will write more about his health care moves at a later date, his involvement in the local hospital provides lots of photo-ops but it is hard to tell whether he is helping or hindering the hospital staff in achieving their objectives.

Mr. Brown spends a great deal of money between elections keeping his name recognition high and avoiding the spending restrictions in force during elections. In an era of serious recession, money seems to be no problem for the ubiquitous Mr. Brown.

Mr. Brown looks like he was trained for the job of MP. The only problem is that he seems to have nothing to contribute to the job but another vote for his party. He struggled through Ontario’s easiest law school in Windsor, tried French immersion and served a couple of non-descript terms on city council before assuming the Conservative banner under Stephen Harper. He took no special knowledge of Barrie, national or foreign affairs to Ottawa. He makes no contribution in parliament to the betterment of our country. Everything he does is in aid of getting him re-elected. Given a strong candidate for the Liberals and a solid campaign by Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff in the coming election, Mr. Brown`s days as a member of parliament will be history.

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The wonderful informality of Babel.

Monday, July 6th, 2009

“Wear a hat when making sales calls on Spadina and never wear a tie north of Highway 7.” These were among the rules sales people used to follow when doing business out of the big city. I always thought the tie rule was very sensible and when I moved north of Highway 7 to Babel, I stopped wearing ties.

Oh, I keep a couple ties in the back of the closet for those times I have to go down to the city for a funeral, wedding or lunch at someone’s club, or other stuffy occasion. I have even pointed out to my wife the one to give to the undertaker, should the need ever arise. (I have always been intending to burn that tie. I guess that is the one time you can be caught dead wearing it.)

The first time I went to a funeral in Babel, it was certainly an eye opener. My wife demanded I wear a suit. I finally agreed but it was not until we were in the car that she realized I had put on the suit but deliberately forgot the tie. She did not demand I turn around but things were a bit frosty.

I knew funerals are different in Babel when we went in the door of the funeral parlour. The undertaker manning the door looked at me as though I was a competitor trying to sneak in to steal business from him. He had a tie with his suit. He imperiously sent us on to the main salon where that day’s event was happening.

There were more than 200 people in that room. I was the only guy in a suit. One refined looking gentleman was wearing a sports jacket and a tie and I made a point of meeting him. He turned out to be the deceased’s lawyer. He explained to me that only lawyers and undertakers wear ties in Babel. I commiserated with him over the loss of a client.

I finally got to meet the deceased while perusing a memorabilia wall displaying pictures of the highlights of his life. I thought the wall was rather well done until I came across the urn that contained the deceased. It made a complete story.

But it was the informality of the event that sticks with me. It was definitely a ‘come as you are’ party. One woman had something more important on later and had kept her hair in curlers. Another was one of those ladies whom, if you could show her a photograph from behind, would never wear those shorts again. It was a warm, sunny day and some of the sun dresses and halter tops were, to say the least, skimpy, but enjoyable.

The men were worse. T-shirts and jeans could be forgiven but you should not change the oil in your car immediately before coming to the funeral. The deceased had lots of golf trophies on the memorabilia wall, so many of his friends obviously came directly to the funeral from doing their 18 for the day. They obviously hurried as many seemed to have had no time for a shower.

I thought it was touching that one of his golfing buddies brought his eight iron in with him to chip a ball around the room in his honour. This caused something of a confrontation with the undertaker. I was too far away to hear whether the undertaker was more concerned about divots in the carpet or errant chips through windows. I suppose it would never do to have the premature dispersal of the ashes by a hard-hooked Titleist.

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