Saturday, November 19, 2011

Conflicts of Interest, or: Be Careful What You Wish For

There were a lot of raised eyebrows over conflicts of interest claimed by local politicians in the LRT decision. For example:

  • The driving force behind LRT, Regional Chair Ken Seiling, spent nearly a decade ramming LRT down our throats and then claimed a conflict just before the final debate. His children own property near the route, and they owned that property back when he was instrumental in choosing the route.
  • Regional Councillor Tom Galloway, who had seemed to be opposed to LRT but was reportedly under a lot of pressure from Seiling & co to support it, claimed a rather dodgy-sounding conflict: he works for the University of Waterloo, which has the proposed LRT running through it. After the main vote, Galloway decided that his conflict no longer applies.
  • Waterloo City Councillor Jeff Henry, an LRT supporter, decided to call conflict because he too works at UW - even though the decisions he could vote on were about the route through the uptown. Other councillors who work for UW didn't call a conflict. The uptown route was decided by just three Waterloo city councillors, with the rest in declared conflicts.

Despite our frustration about the councillors who called conflicts seemingly without needing to, I don't see how we can really complain. Regional and city council is a part time job paying barely $30,000 a year. Councillors have to pay their own fees just to get a legal opinion about conflict of interest, and in an iffy situation they would probably need at least two legal opinions to stay in the game. Imagine the legal fees if a councillor was charged with conflict of interest.

Several Ontario communities are adopting LRT, and every one has had such a lot of declared conflicts of interest that a subset of politicians is voting on the biggest expenditure of all time for their communities. The province has now decided to review its conflict of interest legislation.

Easing the conflict of interest rules is not the way to go. The Seiling example shows how easily even the current legislation can be abused - not that I have any evidence that he did abuse them, but the appearance is there. I did a little research about conflicts of interest during last year's LRT debate, and talked to a lawyer about it: it seems that even the current legislation is barely enforceable.

We don't want to hamstring politicians with legal fees or put them in situations where they could be penalized just for doing their job. At the same time, we don't want to open the door to shady characters who gain office for self-enrichment. The current legislation seems to strike a good balance.

The bigger issue is around how monumental decisions such as billion dollar LRT projects are decided. This was not the way to do it. We should have had a referendum. We should have had votes at city councils as well as regional council. We should have had real public education and a dialog about alternatives, rather than a shoddy and expensive PR job by regional staff. This sham didn't just happen in Waterloo Region: it happened all over the province. And it isn't just about the monumental burden it's putting on tax payers: it's about a fundamental change to our urban landscape.


Canada is a Better Place with Pat Martin in Parliament

I'm a Liberal, but there's a lot about the NDP that I like. Foremost is the straight talking approach of some of their MPs. In the few televised committee hearings I've watched (such as the Mulroney graft inquiries), Pat Martin stood out as someone who asks intelligent, incisive questions. Over and over on issues of the day, Martin was the reasonable voice rising above the politichatter. I don't follow him closely enough to know how widely I agree with him, but as an approach, a mind, and a brave unweasely approach to politics, I'm a fan.

This week Martin swore on Twitter, and what a kerfuffle. Our local talk radio station devoted a morning phone-in to his "foul mouth" and the local paper has written about his "profane tirade". I'm not complaining about the exposure: but what a pity that the discussions didn't touch the issue.

Swear words are a very effective part of language. They convey something that words like "extremely annoyed" cannot. What Martin was talking about was the Conservatives using closure on the budget.

Martin got the issue into the top of the media and public agenda. It's our fault for ignoring the important part and focusing on the nonessentials. The good news is that Martin's twitter followers jumped from a couple hundred to several thousand (not including me; I'm just not that interested, in general, in the mass communicated soundbite).

So here's what seems to be the problem.

NDP MP Charlie Angus: "I think what’s really offensive is what’s happening here, the continual undermining of Parliament, the shutting down of committees, the use of in-camera, the vitriolic attacks that we see the Conservatives using again and again. I think Pat Martin called it like it is."

Liberal interim leader Bob Rae: the government is coming "pretty close to being abusive in its use of time allocation."

What Martin asked was: Shouldn’t Parliament be able to debate the budget? And he drove it home with: “This is a fucking disgrace… closure again. And on the Budget! There’s not a democracy in the world that would tolerate this jackboot shit.”

I'm writing this post about Martin rather than about the closure because I'm bothered that the Conservatives have used this issue as an opportunity to try to hound him out of office. I heard a party rep on the radio making all sorts of claims beyond the swearing that Martin is unfit for office, even suggesting that his riding should rise up against him. We're familiar with that sort of tactic from the Harperites now. It's just more jackboot shit.


Sunday, November 13, 2011


I went to see Jian Ghomeshi speak at Kitchener's TheMuseum last night. His topic was pop culture. It seemed a rather contentless talk (at the time the word I was thinking was "vacuous"), but he's a smart guy - he gave a funny introduction and a very interesting Q&A at the end. As examples of the low points and high points:
  • He used this anecdote to argue that we need to stop "siloizing" culture: He went to a Gaugin exhibit at the AGO. At the start of the exhibit there was a quote on the wall from Beaudelaire that he found off-putting, but inside the exhibit "it was all paintings of naked chicks."
  • Someone asked him, if he was able to interview Andy Warhol, what would he ask him, and he replied: "When you wake up in the morning, are you Andy Warhol?"

(Before I go on: my ticket also got me into the current exhibit, which was created at TheMuseum and is going to tour the world. It's worth seeing. Called Rethinking Art and Machine, it's really art made of machines, and there's some lovely interactive stuff. The new cafe is worth a visit too.)

All Ghomeshi really talked about was youth and their interest in culture. He spent a lot of time talking about how poor kids in the Phillipines know the lyrics to Justin Bieber songs. He said the goal of Q (now Canada's most successful radio show) was to attract more youth to CBC radio; he said that at the time it started, 70% of CBC listeners were over 50, and "a high percentage of them were over 70." (That's a telling statistic, as when Q started 4 years ago CBC had been dumbing itself down for decades in the vain hope to attract youth.)

Ghomeshi said that the Q team deliberately set out to not dumb down their show. CBC brass told them to keep interviews to 8 minutes because "youth have ADD" but he rejected that advice and does serious, indepth interviews up to 45 minutes long. But of course he's mostly interviewing celebrities and musicians, and his success is largely due to his viral Billy Bob Thornton interview and his movie-star good looks. (He's a very good interviewer, but Eleanor Wachtel and Ralph Benmergui are better, to name two people with lower ratings.)

Ghomeshi also said that when he was on the board of the Stratford Festival the challenge they faced was attracting people between 20 and 50, because kids tended to go to plays on school trips and then not go back till they were old. That was interesting, because the audience at TheMuseum last night fit that demographic: a lot of journalism and fine arts students, and a lot of old people who looked to be (like me) avid CBC listeners. (I have attended Stratford every year from when I was 10 to my current 54, and my prescription for attracting people would have more to do with quality and price than trying to appeal to Justin Bieber fans, but then nobody has asked me to sit on the board.)

I was too young to be a hippie and disdainful/detached (respectively) of disco and punk, so I missed falling into a pop culture stereotype. Ever since the coining of "generation X" we seem to feel a need to categorize an entire generation, when usually the categorization doesn't so much describe a generation as an advertising theme used over several years. As to the popularity of Bieber, when I lived in Africa in the mid-90s you heard Bob Marley and the Beatles everywhere; now the commercial arm of recording studios has a longer reach, is all.

The best part, for me, about Ghomeshi's disappointing talk was that it made me click a link this morning on the New York Times home page, and read this very engaging article about pop culture: Generation Sell. I recommend it - and the Comments section.


Saturday, November 12, 2011

Remember When There Wasn't So Much War

I was listening to the CBC the other day (normally a benign sort of radio experience) and a newscaster was describing, with some enthusiasm, bombs being dropped by Canadians or our allies on some hapless nation. At the end of his description he threw in a comment that the bombs would reduce civilian casualties.

Of course, of course... it's alright because we're helping them. These days it seems we can commit almost any atrocity in the service of "helping" people in defenseless nations. (I notice we don't "help" people in strong countries like Iran and China.)

When did the Western countries start this constant war against the South? It's difficult to tell. The Cold War ended, bringing in a seeming era of peace, in '89 or thereabouts. The West invaded Iraq in '90 (the Gulf War) and Somalia in '92. We started bombing Bosnia and Herzegovina in '95, and Yugoslavia in '99. We invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq (again) in 2003. But it seems to be a recent phenomenon that our military is in constant action against countries we're not at war with. Recently we have bombed Sudan and Libya and Yemen and... frankly, I've lost track. I tune it out. There's a bloodthirsty enthusiasm about the killing that I can't cope with.

The Americans are the driving force behind our state of constant war, and there are lots of fancy theories about US imperialism, but I think it comes down to American people liking violence and liking to dominate. There's a Democrat in the White House now, and if not as big a buffoon as the last guy, he's as big a hawk. In the US, if you're not enthusiastic about bombing innocents abroad and executing minorities at home, then you don't get elected (or like Jimmy Carter, you're treated like a joke).

In the long run, none of it is going to lead to more stable democratic governments. Most of these countries can't even afford elections. The dictators will be replaced by new dictators or Islamic states. There are all kinds of things we could have done to force the dictators to help their people, but instead we made sure that the dictators served our corporate interests.

So I know, all of this is old hat. The thing that struck me like the proverbial diamond through the forehead was that we are at constant war - even Canada. It wasn't that many years ago that on Remembrance Day people would lament that the veterans were getting old and dying off. Now our Legion Halls are packed with new veterans. Don't ask me to celebrate that. This is not defence of our homeland. This is something far scarier.