Archive for August, 2009

#26 – In harmony with Mr. Harper.

Friday, August 28th, 2009

In trying to find something to say on Premier Dalton McGinty’s behalf about the harmonization of the provincial and federal sales taxes in Ontario, we can only come up with the excuse that it was not Mr. McGinty’s idea. It was federal conservative Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s. And yet, while Ontario conservatives go out for a beer, it is the governing liberals who will carry the can with the voters for the huge tax grab represented by the move.

One can only wonder what sweet words Mr. Harper whispered in Mr. McGinty’s ear that lured him into taking the blame. His caucus is looking at him as though he might be crazy as he pleads with them to get out and sell the benefits of the harmonized plan. How do you sell a harmonized tax that is in harmony with nothing. The very word “harmonized’ is supposed to mean that it creates something better—if only in sound.

For the federal goods and services tax to be in harmony with the provincial sales tax, you first have to decide if the tax is going to be fish or fowl. What kind of harmony do you get when all the changes are so one sided? What Ontario is faced with is a new, slightly modified goods and services tax that will produce as much as $3 billion more in revenue each year for the province.

And it is not as though the province does not need the money. It is faced with record deficits in the current year and looks like it will be in deficit for a few years to come. For the Premier to be promising Ontario voters a “cash back” deal to accept this tax change should leave every voter suspicious of just what he is trying to pull. It is similar to Mr. McGinty’s claim that the new harmonized tax will streamline operations for business—while sucker punching the consumers.

There is no question that the change, slated for July 1, 2010, will be the most extensive tax change in Ontario in a long time. What Ontario voters need to think about is that the Harper Conservatives are paying the Ontario government $4.3 billion in tax transfers to do it. And if it is really worth that much, you need to figure out if it was their right wing ideology or some nefarious scheme that lead them to it?

All I know is that, as a liberal, I am opposed to sales taxes and in favour of progressive income taxes. The simple reason is that sales taxes require a larger proportion of the income of the poor than do progressive income taxes. Why then would I agree to a cut in income taxes for Ontario because of the increased potential of the combined federal and provincial goods and services tax?

Mr. Harper and Mr. McGinty, in simple words: stuff it!

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Addendum: Please send comments to: peter@lowry.me

#25 – Medicare for America

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

The last American President to tell people he could solve the problems with their medical care was Bill Clinton. He gave it his all. He sent Hilary to solve the problem while he and Monica went into the back office to delve into other matters. His failure on medical care was the failure of his presidency. President Barack Obama is a different kind of cat.

Obama will solve the medicare problem for Americans but please do not refer to it as Canadian style medicare. It will be a mishmash solution. It will be private care. It will be government funded care. It will be delivered by a melange of doctor owned, public owned, HMO owned hospitals. Health care will be delivered by the self-serving members of the American Medical Association. The only guarantee that anyone can give Americans is that they will continue to have the most expensive—per capita—health care system in the world.

There is nothing surprising in the stridency of the American right wing in making their last-ditched battle to forestall the juggernaut of realism with which they are faced. There will be more name calling and bigotry exhibited but the American Congress will pass Obama’s plan. It is just a process. Canada went through those days in the 1960s. Those were gentler times maybe but the cause was the same and the liberals won.

It hardly matters if Americans pay for health care through their taxes, or though individual premiums, or through their employer or through welfare. What matters is that the drug companies will continue to take their share of the pie, so will the HMOs, the private hospitals and the doctors and the nurses and the orderlies and the administrators and the cleaners and the ambulance drivers and the politicians. Health care costs eventually must become finite. The goose that lays the golden eggs of profit will eventually feel that pinch.

It might be 40 years from today, or as little as 20 that Americans will come to the realization that the socialized medicine that they thought was anathema to their republic has happened whether they like it or not.

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Addendum: Please feel free at any time to comment on any posting. Comments are welcome at peter@lowry.me

#24 – Mr. Brown, has earned our displeasure.

Friday, August 14th, 2009

Admittedly, I am not predisposed to liking Mr. Brown. He is unappealing and I am not sure he has any qualifications to be a Member of Parliament. I certainly have never voted for him. I do not believe in sending people of his ilk to Ottawa. It is a disservice to our country. He seems to be self absorbed, self serving, self promoting and self constituted. And he does not appear to represent anyone in Ottawa but the leader of his political party. Our local Conservative Party members should be ashamed.

I could forgive Mr. Brown for filling my mailbox with junk on a regular basis. It is easy to throw out junk. I could even forgive him for all the advertising he does in the local print media. I already ignore those pseudo newspapers anyway. All his self promotion proves is that he is desperate to get re-elected. What I cannot and will not forgive is him telephoning me to promote his self aggrandizing hockey event in support of Royal Victoria Hospital.

I will leave it to more astute legal minds than mine whether Mr. Brown is even within the law in promoting this event through his office as M.P. He is obviously out of control but nobody wants to be a curmudgeon and derail his actions on behalf of Babel’s favourite charity. You can break the law a little bit in Babel if it is in aid of RVH.

But his telephone call was the final unforgivable sin. I have difficulty even telling you about it without gnashing my teeth. I was given the privilege of listening to that bumptious, ignorant person in a recorded promotion of his hockey night event. He recorded the spiel and had a company autodial my home so that I could listen to his squeaky voice describe the joys of paying to attend his event. This is an affront to every civilized resident of Babel.

Mind you, this is not all bad news. I am not the only person who was called. There has to be a legion of Babelites out there who now have a fresh reason to want to lynch that person. Let’s organize folks, let’s get a stout fence rail, heat the tar, sacrifice some pillows for their feathers and clear a path down Yonge Street. The time has come.

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Addendum: There is some justice, I should add. Do you remember Mr. Brown’s silly little effort to rally support for A Channel? He wants us to pay for the station on our cable and satellite bills. He claimed a victory when the Canadian Radio-Television Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) ruled that there will be an increase in the Local Programming Improvement Fund (LPIF) from one per cent of our cable or satellite service fee to 1.5 per cent. This is not the fee-for-carriage funding that Mr. Brown was requesting we pay but an entirely different fund that A Channel is unlikely to ever access.

Mr. Brown is getting his comeuppance in that Rogers has become annoyed by the entire campaign and has just told all its customers in Babel that the 1.5 per cent fee for the LPIF will be added to their cable bill each month—starting this month. If Mr. Brown wants the credit for that, we should give it to him!

#23 – Planning in politics and in war.

Tuesday, August 11th, 2009

You think everything is quiet now in the dog days of summer. Wrong. The issues are simmering just below the surface. There is much to puzzle through. Much to think about. There are strategies to decide, tactics to consider.

Stephen Harper currently seems to be enjoying the prestige of office, meeting with U.S. President Obama and Mexican President Calderon. With their mathematical majority, the other less likely three amigos, the Bloc’s Gilles Duceppe, the New Democrat’s Jack Layton and the Liberal’s Michael Ignatieff are doing their duty rounds of their parties and contemplating strategies for September. Each, in their spare time between duty appearances, must decide their future.

Harper will make his party’s decision about the path to follow in attacking Michael Ignatieff. The public has tired of the Conservative campaign that attempted to vilify Ignatieff for spending years outside Canada, completing his education and teaching in England and the United States. More of the same will just show Harper to be mean spirited and desperate for something with which to defame his opponent.

Ignatieff is a very different person from his predecessor Stéphane Dion. Dion’s inability to respond effectively last fall played right into the Conservative election strategy. Ignatieff is not as easy a target. He can handle Conservative smear campaigns with wit and intelligence.

The Liberal leader is active shoring up his party’s hopes and enthusiasm for an election, when and if it comes. He can convince the rank and file to be ready for an October/November election but knows he might have to leave them hanging for another year if the party gurus see no victory when they look into the entrails. He has no choice but to listen to the advice.

Duceppe and Layton already know that there is no victory for them in an election this fall. Gilles Duceppe has nothing to gain beyond the Quebec seats his party now holds. Jack Layton has too much to lose in the fragile position of the New Democrats. The smaller parties will find they are also rans in the second dust-up between the Conservatives and the Liberals within a year.

Their respective advisors have told all party leaders that an election over an issue such as Employment Insurance (EI) could be a non-winner. EI is an issue that directly effects less than 20 per cent of the voters. There are many misconceptions and urban myths attached to it. And Harper and company are hardly going to worry about attacks on their handling of any part of the recession as long as Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney is going around telling Canadians that the recession is over.

Assuming, we hope, that Carney was just trying to shore up consumer confidence with his obviously premature announcement, nobody wants to continue to run around claiming that the sky is falling. One ponders, in this light, what avenues are still open for Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition?

The light at the end of the political tunnel is that there is a trap there for Harper if he just falls into it. Unemployment figures that will come out in late October could be devastating. Ontario is already running at over ten per cent unemployment and continuing to drain jobs at a serious rate and Quebec is close behind. The rates in the Atlantic are not going to be any rosier. The West will be supported by resources and B.C. by the coming Olympics but there are lots of people out there who can read the signs of trouble.

The key, if Michael Ignatieff’s communications people can start to humanize the problems with EI, is to shame Duceppe and Layton into helping bring down Harper at the end of September. Harper looks like he will help because he and his brain trust are not going to go along with any major improvements in EI.

But then the crucial need will be to develop a secondary issue that Harper cannot handle as easily as EI. If I was strategizing for the Liberals, I would come up with a policy to bring home our troops from Afghanistan as soon as possible.

The truth is that Canadian soldiers are equipped and trained for peace keeping, not war. They are disciplined peace keepers. They are willing warriors but not all that good at sacrificing themselves as cannon fodder in a war of attrition with the Taliban. It is time to admit that we have put our soldiers in harm’s way in a war where they do not belong. Since the first British soldier set foot in the Khyber Pass almost 200 years ago, the Pashtun and other tribes of Afghanistan have feasted on foreign rations. They drove out the British, defeated the Russians and seriously bruised the Americans. Are we doing a better job? Are we doing it smarter?

In war, as in politics, you can only win if you can take ownership of the issues.

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#22 – Airports are for planes. People hardly matter.

Friday, August 7th, 2009

Most adults in the Greater Toronto Area, at one time or another, have been to Lester B. Pearson International Airport. The old joke about that place is that it might just work if they ever finish building it. Since it never will be finished in that sense, it is also never going to work for people.

There was a time in my life when I was a heavy user of airlines. I experienced the strengths and weaknesses of airports in many parts of the world. It was an education. My favourite remains Paris’ Charles de Gaulle for its French architectural pomposity and my least favourite London’s Heathrow for its cold deteriorating English stoicism. For airports that take you as long to drive to as most flights take, it is hard to beat the 40 kilometre (25 mile) drive to Stockholm-Arlanda Airport or the impositions on the unwary traveler on the 60 kilometre (35 mile) trek to Tokyo’s Narita. Definitely not worth the trip is any major airport in or out of the New York area which includes John F. Kennedy, LaGuardia or Newark Liberty. Americans obviously do not like to encourage people to fly. They build nicer public washrooms than those facilities.

But this is about Lester B. Pearson International Airport. If one is going to be critical, one should always start at home. A frustrated London bobby explained it to me very simply one time at London’s Heathrow. I had arrived there early one morning on an overnight, very full, Air Canada 747 along with another full 747 from Montreal along with two more Air India 747s from Bombay (now called Mumbai). It made for a depressingly long queue of very tired people at the sole open gate for citizens of the Commonwealth. I explained to the bobby, who seemed to be there to teach us how to form a proper British queue, that I would willingly forgo my allegiance to the Queen—on a temporary basis, of course—so as to go through the gate for American citizens that seemed to be unused at the moment.

Besides being outraged at my frivolous disloyalty to Her Majesty, the bobby detected my implied criticism of how Brits run their airport and in a damn colonial accent yet.. He had obviously been born within the sound of the bells, as in a cockney accent he raged, “Oi’ an’ yers do things so bloody smart in yers country, do yer?”

That bobby might not have been armed but he was carrying a very large and very hard baton and he looked like he knew how to use it. I promised myself then and there that I would be sure that Lester B. Pearson International Airport was perfect before again voicing a public critique of anyone else’s airport.

The problem with airports is obviously an international problem. Each country and city wants to outdo all other cities and other countries with the architectural grandeur of their latest airport. Often, the authorities have competitions to see which of the various avant-guarde architects available to them is going to design something that will capture the essence of their glorious country, or city. When given their instructions, these architects are told that planes are protected by their wing span and height requirements, but people are considered much more flexible.

And that is why at Pearson, people are herded from pen to pen as cattle on the way to becoming hamburgers. It is why passengers are expected to climb mountains of stairs as the escalators never work as the architect expected. You walk vast distances weighted down with luggage where the architect made no provision for signs or logical direction. It starts even when you park your car. You know the odds are 90 to 1 that you have parked at the end of the terminal furthest from the gate from where you are departing or meeting someone who is arriving.

Once they had built the new terminal three at Pearson, they staffed it with the absolutely minimum number of the most bored, uninterested people they could find. If confronted by a traveller speaking a language they do not understand, they go down the list of cleaners who speak that language–none of whom are on duty. And, have you ever noticed that at any time, day or night, half the restaurants and bars and public washrooms will be closed (hopefully not by the Mississauga Board of Health).

There is more wrong but if you are one of the abused who use it, you will have your own view of the inadequacies. All I do now is act very respectful of other people’s airports. Nobody is perfect.

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#21 – The Fest returns to Babel.

Tuesday, August 4th, 2009

It is like a cloud of locusts descending on land and water. It is also a tradition. That means it is both good and bad. It happens every year for the long weekend at the beginning of August. It is something of a tribal rite. It is an amusement park and an outdoor concert. It features more than 400 tents for hawkers of antiques, crafts, food and unusual and sundry services. It is a poor person’s Canadian National Exhibition. It girds the Bay at Babel and strangles local traffic.

For Saturday and Sunday, this year, the Fest was blessed with sun and warm breezes. Cars are parked helter-skelter for blocks around the bay, many blocking the egress of others. The mood remains friendly and festive. The bay itself is a a haven for houseboats and yachts, power boats and sail. Smart exhibitors use boats for sleeping accommodation during the gruelling three days.

Many boaters come to anchor offshore to hear the concerts at the Main Stage and Beer Garden on Saturday and Sunday. This main entertainment venue was moved this year to reduce the complaints from the condominium owners at the west end of the bay. The organizers moved it to the other end of the event on the south shore of the bay. The stage and speakers are all angled excellently to bounce the sound off the water and people on the east end of the bay can now hear the music with greater clarity…and volume!

It was surprising to learn this year that the Fest is not near and dear to the hearts of all Babelites. In fact some of the more vocal opponents are those who resent the fact that almost every weekend of the summer is taken up with some event on the lakefront. To me it is what makes Babel exciting and fun. One of the events that many hated were the go-cart races that closed the roads and provided us with front row seats. They were raucous and noisy and loaded with displays of skill and daring. When the Lakeshore construction is finished (whenever?), we sure hope they come back to Babel.

Checking with many of the vendors on this last day of the event, the word heard most often is “awesome.” The vendors were ecstatic about the crowds, the friendly mood, the wonderful weather and even if the weather threatened a bit on the last day, the rains held off and the event closed on a high note. What more could you ask?

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#20 – Revisiting The Democracy Papers.

Sunday, August 2nd, 2009

It was almost three years ago that I started writing The Democracy Papers. They outlined, in a series of articles, why I believe Canadians prefer their first-past-the-post voting system over a proportional voting system. Events proved that Ontario voters agreed. They rejected changing to a form of Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP) voting by about two to one in the October 2007 provincial election and referendum.

British Columbia voters have also rejected a more convoluted form of proportional voting known as Single Transferable Vote (STV). They not only rejected it in a 2005 referendum but they got another chance to reject it in 2009. The government spent more on explaining STV to B.C. voters this time and more of them voted against it.

And yet people are still campaigning for some form of proportional voting. Before the B.C. vote newspaper readers saw remarks by Elizabeth May, leader of Canada’s Green Party. It seems that the gleam in her eye is still to convince Canadians to switch to some form of proportional representation. She recognized that the best hope for some seats for her party would be for federal and provincial governments to have some form of proportional representation. Her party is doomed to be an also ran in the foreseeable future without that type of change.

Ms. May had high hopes for British Columbia in its second referendum. And you can see why when reading B.C. newspaper articles and editorials, blogs and pro-change websites before the vote. The B.C.-STV advocates sank to new and surprisingly low levels of demagoguery in support of their cause. While STV is slightly less objectionable than the MMP that was proposed in Ontario, it is a foot in the door for proportional representation and needed to be addressed as such.

The demagogues of B.C.-STV wrote that it would give the voters greater stability in the governments. That is a surprising claim. Proportional representation rarely produces majority governments in what are considered literate societies. Take a look at the Israeli Knesset, for example, and figure out what stability that country enjoys in its government.

In their double-speak, the pro-proportional voting people get confused. They tell you that you get more effective representation with larger ridings and more competitive local contests. Then they tell us that the legislature will be more responsive. They say that larger parties will have more diverse candidates and that smaller parties will win some seats and provide some new ideas. You should ask these people if they have that promise in writing from all the parties.

Their most unusual claim is that proportional voting makes political parties more accountable. They throw some odd mathematics at you about 40 per cent of the vote and 60 per cent of the seats and 100 per cent of the power. It boils down to a much simpler equation: If party A is in power, it wants to stay there by paying attention to what people want. If party B, or C, or D are not in power, they pay even closer attention to what people want because they want to win next time. To say that our present system is perfect is a bit foolish. To say it is not accountable is to say something more foolish.

There are fewer Canadians today who remember the Bennett’s, pere et fils, who often gave a chuckle to political observers in other parts of the country when serving B.C. as Social Credit premiers. Eventually the province will live down the stigma. Luckily the voters did not refresh the idea of B.C.’s wacky politics by changing the way they elect their provincial politicians to a method nobody really understands.

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#19 – Train time in Babel.

Saturday, August 1st, 2009

When my older brother was promoted to head office of Alcan, he moved his family to Montreal. Born and educated in Ontario, he and his wife only spoke English. With their limited language skills, real estate people pointed them to the west island area of Greater Montreal where a high percentage of the households were Anglophone. They bought a new home in a development in Pointe Claire. And as Alcan’s head office was in Place Ville Marie, quite close to the central train station, for the next 20 some years, my brother was a regular train commuter to and from his work.

While, in time, his company made sure that he became quite proficient speaking French and his children became, to varying degrees, bilingual, he and his family enjoyed the mix of language skills in their Pointe Claire neighbourhood. What he also enjoyed was the convenience and comfort offered by the trains he took to and from work. He was an enthusiastic booster of commuting. That was probably reinforced daily as his train breezed towards downtown and he could see the ever present congestion on the parallel Route 2 highway to downtown.

The only drawback I could see to his arrangement was that he lived about three kilometres (just less than two miles) from the train station. He was philosophical about this as his was a quite sedentary job in his office all day and he felt that the combination of his walk to and from the station and walking the dog helped keep him fit. I did note though that as he got older, he did appreciate someone picking him up at the station in inclement weather.

This background is by way of explaining my expectations pertaining to our GO trains here in Babel. A while ago, a gentleman from Babel wrote a letter to the editor of our freebie newspaper. In the letter, he complained about the plans now afoot to create a boarding point for the GO trains in the area of our historic Allandale station. Since this is the point where Canadian National Railways has the layover yard for the GO trains, where the trains are stored and cleaned overnight, for their next day’s run to the big smoke, it does seem dumb to not let passengers board there.

But this gentleman objects. He claims that the need for people to park their cars, makes this a very bad place to allow people to board the trains. He disagrees with the business case study that shows that boarding the trains in this central Babel location will attract as many as 140 new riders. At the same time, he wails piteously about his projection of at least 150 more cars that would want to park at this new boarding point. This mathematical whiz feels that we would be wasting the funds recently used to increase the parking spaces at the station down at the south end of Babel.

One wonders if this genius has taken a look around and considered that this excellent location was chosen more than 100 years ago as a terminus for tourists attracted to Babel’s beautiful bay. Yet his concern is that parking for tourists will be foreshortened because of the commuters taking up the preferred parking places. The first question that comes to mind is why he thinks tourists would want to park at the same time as commuters? One further ponders the question as to whether this citizen has actually contemplated that today there are many thousands of people living within an easy walk of this location. Have the days of walking become a thing of the past?

Many of us in Babel are tiring of the ludicrous arguments that people get into over the historic train station. What should have been done first was to bring back the trains to Allandale Station. Smart developers would have followed.

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When first testing reaction to this site, we allowed comments as part of the test.  What we found was that some of the comments had no relation to what had been written.  Rather than get into an endless round of editing comments, I decided to turn them off.  That does not mean I do not appreciate comments.  Just send them to   peter@lowry.me