Archive for August, 2013

Hair today, gone tomorrow.

Wednesday, August 21st, 2013

The Hair is doing Canada’s north. That just might be the only part of this country where the Hair can find a friendly audience. He took his hairdresser, his wife and his PMO flacks, boarded his jet and headed for Whitehorse, Yukon. Only in front of a friendly audience of what were Certified Conservative Supporters did he announce his intent to run again in 2015.

The Hair also used that dread word “prorogue.” Where in the past prime ministers have used a few days or at most a week or so of prorogation to prepare for a throne speech and a new session of parliament, Harper’s Hair takes the time for an extended holiday from the quibbling of his parliamentary opponents. He considers democracy such a spot of bother, you know.

But in front of this friendly Conservative audience who might not have heard much about the Canadian Senate, the Hair could be positive and confident. He told these quiet people that once again, he intends to run on his magnificent management of Canada’s economy and all the jobs he has created for Canadians in their new Target stores. And, we should not forget those wonderful high-paying jobs he created for the elite in the Senate!

The Hair might have disappointed his audience as to when he expects to have an environmental policy to do something about the tar sands people who are trashing northern Alberta. It would also be helpful in the north as his government promotes less restricted mining to try to balance the costs of assisting people trying to live above the frost line. He did announce that his government is going to train the local people to work in the mines instead of their traditional seal hunts. Those mining skills might not really pay off when the mines are played out.

Yet it was the Hair itself that was the big surprise for everybody. For the first time in quite a while, Canadians were seeing the Hair in better balance with the Prime Minister’s fringe.  The new piece has more white in it and it blends better. It actually makes the Prime Minister look more distinguished—if not older.  After all it would never do for the Prime Minister to have the sun glinting off his dome on those long days of August in the far north.

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Copyright 2013 © Peter Lowry

Complaints, comments, criticisms and compliments can be sent to  peter@lowry.me

Heavy-handed Heather hypes Torstar.

Tuesday, August 20th, 2013

Having usually enjoyed Heather Mallick’s writing in the Toronto Star, there was some consternation the other day when reading her piece extolling Torstar’s electronic output. While you never blame the writer for the headline, “Beyond the paywall lies a beautiful vista” should have been warning of the confusing pap to come. Heather might best be advised not to seek a future career in public relations.

While we sympathize with the Toronto Star’s wish for better profitability, this is not going to be done at any cost to this subscriber. There are those of us left who prefer our newspaper on the table beside our coffee in the morning. There is that special feel of newsprint that we cherish. The person who delivers our Toronto Star every morning (except Sunday) by 5 a.m. tells us that we not only have the slowest elevator in Babel but we are the only Toronto Star subscriber in this high-rise building. (We will remember that come Christmas.)

But Heather’s heavy-handed attempt to tell us of the joys of paying for the Star’s electronic edition fell on deaf ears. After all, Babel-on-the-Bay provides you with reasonably well thought out opinions for free. And there are days when the Toronto Star’s opinions are worth about as much. And they are also getting advertising revenue! (Do you see any ads here?)

In our experience, Torstar is not even doing a good job collecting its subscription money. It was two months ago that we first called the Star’s circulation department and asked why the company was charging us so much for our subscription. That was when we were told that someone had their Star Dispatches charged to our subscription. This was compounded because we called again today to question our charges and found that the Star Dispatches had never been cancelled. The person in circulation (a very noisy call centre) told us that they could not give us the money back for the four months but only two. There was no time to ask for the person’s manager.

Frankly, Torstar has yet to prove that the company is adept, creative and able to build a logical pathway for on-line news reporting. Yes, the print edition is slow and cumbersome but it allows readers to self-edit a view of their world. What programmers do not understand is that people need to back up as easily as they can go forward. And every little fancy step they add to the electronic presentation is just another snare waiting to trip the unwary reader.

Heather’s “opinion” piece for the electronic edition is not up to her usual standards. It is disjointed, overwritten, irrelevant, confusing, personal, vulgar (the gratuitous comment on Mr. Weiner’s penis should have been edited out) and fails to sell us on paying for the Toronto Star on-line. Maybe Rosie DiManno enjoys writing stuff like that but Heather, you can do better.

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Copyright 2013 © Peter Lowry

Complaints, comments, criticisms and compliments can be sent to  peter@lowry.me

The environmental waiting games.

Monday, August 19th, 2013

The games are endless. Only the representatives of the people change. The current combatants are President Obama of the United States and Prime Minister Harper of Canada. Both have finite time left. Harper will have to face election in 2015 and Obama will be out of office in 2016. The American President grandiosely wants to save the planet.  The Canadian Prime Minister just wants to save the tar sands investors.

But before then, President Obama will have to give a yes or no to the Keystone XL Pipeline. What he needs, to allow the pipeline, is Canada’s introduction of stronger rules to protect the environment in the extraction and processing of the tar sands bitumen. The solution to that does not seem to be anywhere on the horizon.

Harper’s process is flawed. His government is negotiating with the tar sands industry and with the Alberta government and it is hard to say which of the parties is more obdurate in their negotiating position.

The industry has failed to do its job. Its task was to find a way to reduce the environmental damage in the Athabasca region and instead, it continues to pollute the rivers, destroy the livelihood of our aboriginal peoples and demand that others find solutions to shipping bitumen slurry. And the Alberta government remains blind to the irreparable environmental damage caused by the extraction of bitumen from the tar sands.

But the province does recognize that refining tar sands bitumen into synthetic oil in Alberta is an absolutely no-win situation. The province and its political leaders are fighting to ship unprocessed bitumen by any means possible. They want that bitumen far away from the Alberta when the highly polluting refining is done.

But Canada cannot say in its new environmental regulations that it intends to ship billions of barrels of bitumen to third-world countries that do not care about pollution. This leaves Environment Canada with egg all over its faces. With taxpayers paying for the extensive advertising that promise environmental regulations for the tar sands, it is becoming more and more obvious to Canadians that their government just might be lying to them. Those regulations were supposed to be issued last year.

Meanwhile President Obama is in no rush. He can keep TransCanada Pipelines dangling over the Keystone XL pipeline as long as he is in office if he wants. The only problem is that Canada’s tar sands exploiters get a huge chunk of the money they need from American investors. That causes a bit of pressure on the President’s decision.

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Copyright 2013 © Peter Lowry

Complaints, comments, criticisms and compliments can be sent to  peter@lowry.me

Will Wynne win with Waitzer?

Sunday, August 18th, 2013

The confirmation process of Ontario’s provincial government was shown up for how artificial and shallow it is the other day. A lawyer named Ed Waitzer appeared before the Standing Committee on Government Agencies because he has been chosen to head the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO). Yet Waitzer appeared to have less knowledge or interest in the operations of the LCBO than the customer who buys her weekly bottle of cheap sherry from one of its more than 600 stores.

A senior lawyer with a major law firm in Toronto and a former securities commission head, Waitzer handled friendly and unfriendly questions alike with few opinions and apparently little knowledge of the job. Knowing Mr. Waitzer from the past, we must report that he would not be high on the list of our choices as chair of the LCBO.

But anyone being offered the job of running a corporation with sales of almost $5 billion per year for some 18,000 products and providing the government of Ontario with $1.7 billion in profit, you would think he would care enough to brief himself.

Even if the intent is to eventually privatize liquor sales in Ontario, you would think that you would want a chair with at least some understanding of the marketplace, employee relations, supplier negotiations, alcohol-related problems, alcohol products or effective merchandising. The last thing the LCBO would seem to need is someone who can be somewhat officious and legalistic and claims to have no opinions on the important questions facing the agency.

In our opinion, it would be seriously stupid for the government to have someone without extensive industry background in control of the LCBO when it transfers alcoholic beverage sales in Ontario to the private sector. When you find that the Conservatives on the committee voted unanimously to confirm Mr. Waitzer, you can comprehend the concern. Privatizing liquor sales in Ontario can be a very profitable step for any Ontario government and the Ontario Conservatives have recently climbed on board that bandwagon. Just because the current Finance Minister Charles Sousa and present Premier Kathleen Wynne seem to be blind to this opportunity, does not mean it will not happen within the next few years.

And besides, the committee did not seem interested in why Mr. Waitzer is the choice of a Liberal government?

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Copyright 2013 © Peter Lowry

Complaints, comments, criticisms and compliments can be sent to  peter@lowry.me

Buffett’s Berkshire buys into bitumen.

Saturday, August 17th, 2013

When the Oracle of Omaha, Warren Buffett, buys, Wall Street listens. That is why the recent $500 million investment in Suncor Energy Inc. by Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway investment company was good news for all the companies in the tar sands. It certainly tells us that business interests are not the same as those of us who care about our environment and the future of our planet.

Industry analysts tell us that Buffett recognized the depressed price of the tar sands companies because of the distribution problems. They say he saw the arguments as an opportunity rather than a problem. Americans are quite up to date on the waffling of President Obama’s administration on the Keystone XL Pipeline and are aware of the strong American environmentalist lobby helping fight the Northern Gateway pipeline across British Columbia to Kitimat. They are less aware of the growing fight against reversing the Enbridge pipeline to Montreal and the proposal to switch TransCanada’s main eastern gas pipeline to higher pressure bitumen slurry. Buffett has bought into a hornet’s nest but, as usual, he has an ace up his sleeve.

Even if all the current pipeline proposals were approved in Canada and the United States, that would be only half of the capacity that the tar sands people will want within ten years. Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway interests include the key alternatives to pipelines. Besides a major American railway, this also includes Union Tank Car, one of the few companies building railway tank cars today that can carry crude oil. Despite the Lac-Mégantic disaster and despite the likelihood of more stringent safety demands on the railroads and on tank cars, this is still a major relief valve for the tar sands shipments.

Buffett’s bullishness is bound to impress and motivate other members of the Wall Street fraternity to jump into tar sand stocks and the pressure will become even more intense to override the objections of the environmentalists. As it stands, the oil sands industry has been able to stall the government on announcing the new environmental regulations that it tells Canadians about in the ads that are currently promoting the tar sands. The industry has put the government in the position of lying to the Canadian public and more and more Canadians are becoming aware of the duplicity.

But Mr. Buffett hardly seems to be concerned about the chicanery involved with bitumen from the tar sands. He is out to show the world how smart a businessman he is before he dies. He hardly seems to care about the environmental catastrophe that converting bitumen to synthetic oil creates for future generations.

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Copyright 2013 © Peter Lowry

Complaints, comments, criticisms and compliments can be sent to  peter@lowry.me

Settling the Senate problem is only a start.

Friday, August 16th, 2013

Reading the rambling discourses of the pundits, you would think that the current outcry against the Senate is easy to solve by simply abolishing the place. If it was that simple, we would have been quit of the foolish waste of money in the last century. What all these pundits are missing is that we also have to replace the Senate with something that would bring balance back to our system of government.

If the Senate is not working as a safeguard in our parliamentary system, it needs to be replaced. Canada has to have protections to preserve its democracy. When devised, almost 150 years ago, the Senate was that protection. It was never considered back then that a government, such as the current one, would corrupt the Senate by wholesale, ill-considered appointments. Harper’s Conservatives are reaping what they sowed.

But the Senate is only a part of the problem. Nothing will be solved if we just dump it and try to carry on. If you thing the current parliament is useless, just wait until there is no Senate and there is no recourse for democracy but the courts. The Supreme Court can barely function under its current case load. And the Prime Minister’s Office already has far too much power.

In 2017 Canada will be celebrating 150 years as a nation. It was nice of Queen Victoria to be supportive of the creation of our nation but she can hardly object if we now take a thorough look at where we are and where we need to be.

Like many countries founded that far back, our democracy is more of an ideal than a fact. Canada was an idea of that generation and, in 1867, a modern democracy was hardly more than a glimmer in the distance of time.

We can make it that ideal if we citizens decide that we want to. Sure there are all kinds of safeguards to prevent any wholesale changes in Canada’s Constitution because that is the way it is done. In the United States of America, there are so many restrictions on change that the country just bumbles along from one government crisis to the next.

Only the people of the country have the power to make change. The Supreme Court, if it ever rules, will tell Stephen Harper that he does not have the power to abolish the Senate. Only we can do what Harper cannot. If Canadians vote for a constitutional conference, we will have one. If Canadians vote in a referendum for some changes, they will be made. For that is the only democratic way to change how we are governed.

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Copyright 2013 © Peter Lowry

Complaints, comments, criticisms and compliments can be sent to  peter@lowry.me

What’s with the turnover at the PMO?

Thursday, August 15th, 2013

Reading Andrew MacDougall’s farewell to the turnstile at the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) yesterday, you have to be puzzled. You wonder that, after the experience of serving Prime Minister Harper as his communications chief, MacDougall is not only leaving Ottawa but leaving the country. How bad can that job be?

That makes seven communications chiefs in that office in seven years. MacDougall says in his farewell that until he joined the PMO as a communications underling, he had never dealt with the news media. It might come as a surprise to his new bosses in an international communications firm that he still has not. The only thing the news people in Ottawa have written about him is that he is a good golfer and is polite.

But he obviously bought into the Anglophilia of Prime Minister Harper. He is going to work for a British communications firm in London. That might sound exciting but we expect the English media will have him for lunch. Maybe if he wears one of those inflatable sumo wrestling suits when working with them, it might save him from some serious bruising.

The problem is that the principal form of communications used by the PMO is better known as propaganda. That is what is practiced at that office.

They do not deal with the news media, they dictate. By no stretch is what they do considered reasonable negotiation, or even reasonable. They corral and control the media and it is only the equal fear some reporters have for their editors and news directors and their desire to keep their jobs that keeps things on an even keel. The communications people spew endless propaganda, call it information and the news media can like it or not. It is there for them and you get that or nothing.

The PMO communications people are the only ones we know who can pick a perfect locale for an announcement and then put up a trade show backdrop to put behind the speaker. And the traditional back shots of the speaker are not allowed.

You would like to think this is all a matter of opinion and this is just another Liberal diatribe over the Conservative way of running the country. If you are not aware of the constant lies this government uses our money to promote in advertisements on radio, television and in print, you are part of the problem.

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Copyright 2013 © Peter Lowry

Complaints, comments, criticisms and compliments can be sent to  peter@lowry.me

Helping health units that hate gambling.

Wednesday, August 14th, 2013

“For some individuals, gambling is a devastating problem,” says the Ottawa health unit. From this you can deduce that the unit is somewhat negative about the siren lure of casinos. This is in response to a recent question about casinos from the city council. With this level of response to casinos, would you dare ask these people about bars?

Since the Ottawa council had already decided in favour of another casino, this particular response was not taken too seriously. Yet it makes you wonder about the paternalistic attitude of our public health units. Having heard similar responses from other health units where they use alarmist tactics to try to stop casinos, you wonder where they get off condemning different aspects of human nature.

People gamble. It’s fun. It’s a rush. The only problem is that in Ontario casinos one sees very few smart gamblers. And, regrettably, there are some who need to know their limit and play within it. What is the most common failure of Ontario gamblers is that while they might know how to play the particular casino game, they have absolutely no understanding of the odds they are dealing with or how to manage their money to take advantage of those odds. And the casino operators are the last people to want to tell you.

What these health units should do is collar these problem gamblers and instead of castigating them for their very human weakness, they should teach them how to protect their money while indulging in gambling. It is the same logic as when you give someone a fish, it lasts through dinner; if you teach them how to fish, they are fed more often. And it is not as though there are large numbers of gamblers to teach. It would hardly be as huge a task as teaching binge drinkers how to drink.

What these problem gamblers need to learn is that the casino is not their friend. They have to understand that the casino is constantly devising ways for them to lose more money faster. This is not a malevolent practice. As long as the gambler knows that the casino is there to make money and not give it away, it goes a long way to ending problem gambling. Of course, since the casinos will always be coming up with new ways to separate the gambler from his money, the health unit will have to update its training programs to counter them. This is a win-win situation for everybody.

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 A THANK YOU

Babel-on-the-Bay thanks its readers who sent e-mails pointing out an error in yesterday’s blog. Yes, the company once known as Research in Motion, renamed itself Blackberry some time ago. Other than that error, your writer stands by the comments about the company and Ontario Finance Minister Charles Sousa.

Copyright 2013 © Peter Lowry

Complaints, comments, criticisms and compliments can be sent to  peter@lowry.me

Ontario’s Sousa is searching for solutions.

Tuesday, August 13th, 2013

It’s a daunting task and we can only hope that Finance Minister Charles Sousa is up to it. He is travelling Ontario searching for solutions to Ontario’s economic malaise. Needless to say, our unemployment is higher and our economy is shrinking and only the ignorant among us think the answer is to balance the books. Charles has come to the understanding that he has to get away from Queen’s Park. You have to get out of the box to think outside the box.

And if Charles stops by Babel on his pilgrimage of promise, we can at least promise him an earful.

With his last budget on behalf of the New Democrat’s Andrea Horwath, Charles proved that he had no ideas of his own. His biggest problem du jour is a company in Waterloo called Research in Motion (RIM). RIM and its product, the Blackberry, are credited with getting business executives’ thumbs out of their bums so that they could use their thumbnails on tiny keyboards. The company revolutionized micro-managing.

But, like most once-successful Canadian companies, RIM is now circling the drain. It is the victim of its own success. It turned out to be another one-pony show in a business of three-ring wonders. It kept assuming that if it was right the first time, it will continue to be right. It did not understand the ebb and flow of the affairs of a fickle business world. It also failed to understand that it was not in the hardware business in a world built by constantly changing software.

Charles needs to challenge his brain trust in that Treasury building across from the Pink Palace on what RIM really cost the taxpayers of Ontario and how we can get our dividends before giving the company to the Americans. And, like Nortel, RIM’s software patents are worth far than anything mechanical the company ever designed.

Any economic modeling of the Ontario economy should tell Charles’ Ministry experts that, like the bumble bee, the Ontario economy cannot fly. It has to tax business fully and properly, it has to put blocks in the way of exporting jobs, and it has to put good citizenship by business ahead of worrying about ownership.

And just because Ontario’s lame duck Conservative Leader Timmy Hudak jumped on the same bandwagon is no reason not to sell off the Liquor Control Board of Ontario. With our liquor taxes, it would be the gift that keeps on giving. And, while we are at it, please get rid of those disgusting Beer Stores!

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Copyright 2013 © Peter Lowry

Complaints, comments, criticisms and compliments can be sent to  peter@lowry.me

Toronto’s ‘good-ole boy’ mayor.

Monday, August 12th, 2013

You sometimes wonder where Toronto voters parked their brains when they elected Rob Ford as mayor of Toronto. What was understandable throughout that mayoralty campaign was that they wanted to vote against what was happening. The voters were searching for somewhere to park their votes. In this weird Monopoly Game of city politics, Rob Ford offered the “Free Parking.”

But the voters get what they pay for. You do not know whether to blame the ignorance of the voters or the stupidity of the news media but Toronto has an archaic and unworkable system of government. For a city of over two-and-a-half million to elect a mayor at large and independent councillors from 45 fiefdoms every four years is a guarantee of constant turmoil and confusion.

City Hall in Toronto is a zany zoo where the keepers try to control the inmates as best they can. It is only the ability of the civil servants to con the councillors that allows the city to function. Staff makes the important decisions but throws the good lines to the elected so they can look like they are earning their outrageous salaries.

The current system was what elected Mel Lastman as the first mayor after Premier Michael Harris foolishly amalgamated the city for all the wrong reasons. After the experience of Mel Lastman, city voters figured it hardly mattered who was mayor.

But nobody deserves Rob Ford. He and his twin-like brother, Doug, are a couple of pseudo Libertarians who rode into town from out west in Etobicoke and seem somewhat limited in their understanding of smart politics, good manners, social graces or common decency. Rob Ford is the grosser member of the team and never seems to buy clothes that fit him.

And why the mayor of Toronto was wandering around the Danforth alone during a street festival the other day was a matter of some wonder. The street festival was about the fun and tastes of Greek food and here the mayor seemed to be very much under the weather of the “two” beers, he said he had consumed. Where were his keepers?

Before Toronto becomes the laughing stock of North America for its selection of chief magistrates, someone is going to have to lead the charge to fix the problem. And it is not just the people but the system that has to change. If Toronto had better government structure and a way to hold politicians to their promises, the voters would never have picked Rob Ford. It is the present system that encourages the buffoons.

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Copyright 2013 © Peter Lowry

Complaints, comments, criticisms and compliments can be sent to  peter@lowry.me