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Thursday, August 25, 2016

McKenna and Philpott give Conservatives opportunity to scuff Liberals’ carefully enameled image

Good things come to all who wait. In this case, I’m referring to recent examples of the spending practices of two senior ministers in the Trudeau cabinet and the gift it has been to the opposition Conservatives.

Until recently, missteps and broken promises seemed to have had little or no effect on how Canadians view the Trudeau government, and opposition members have struggled to latch on to criticisms that have the potential to span a few news cycles.

Recently, though, both Health Minister Jane Philpott and Environment Minister Catherine McKenna have caused embarrassment—or, at lest, some discomfort—after it was found they were less than diligent in carrying out their duty of care when spending tax money.

Ms. Philpott, of course, used one of her campaign supporter’s limousine service for a couple of days, for which she received a whopping $3,815 tab. And, to make the matter worse, she told Parliament—in a written response to an opposition question placed on the House of Commons order paper—that she’d never used a limousine service. Since that disingenuous response, she has apologized and, apparently agreed to pay back $3,700—at the prompting of the Conservatives, ethics commissioner Mary Dawson has agreed to investigate further.

Other of Ms. Philpott’s travel expenses are being criticized. It seems she billed taxpayers $520 for access to Air Canada's executive airport lounges.

Readers are also familiar, I’m sure, with the fact that Environment Minister McKenna has been forced to defended the use of a professional photographer to document her activities at last fall’s COP21 climate summit in Paris. (See post.) Earlier reports had the cost reported in euros with a Canadian dollar equivalent of nearly $11,000, but the minister has since confirmed the bill was CAD $6,600. She’s dug her heels in on this practice, but has, at least, promised “to review the practices so we [Environment and Climate Change ministry] can reduce the costs to Canadians.”

There also have been reports that three Canadian bureaucrats spent $12,000 on meals at the same COP21 conference

These sorts of revelations really do make the Conservative opposition’s job easier, for they reinforce the narrative of the Grits being big-spenders and not prudent financial managers. They also play into a broadly held belief that among senior bureaucrats and politicians there is a culture of entitlement and a general lack of accountability. And, to some extent at least, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked for and got a mandate last fall to end just such a culture of entitlement in Ottawa through greater openness and more accountability.

These are not large sums, of course, but loose spending habits at the individual level do hint at a broader lack of respect for the public purse. I cringe, for example, whenever a politician declares that his or her department cannot afford not to spend public money on some project or other. And especially when the proposed expense is euphemistically (and erroneously) referred to as an “investment.”

A $500 annual membership for a senior minister’s access to airport executive lounges is one thing—I personally believe this can be justified, assuming this minister travels a great deal—but coupled with paying a party insider/volunteer twice what an alternative car-for-hire service might charge smacks of entitlement and cronyism. I for one am offended by this sort of petty corruption. It smells too much like old fashioned politics of the worst kind, and that stinks.

There is a cost of doing government business; obviously there is. And I fully concede that cabinet ministers and senior civil servants should be treated with respect and dignity and should expect certain reasonable perquisites when doing their jobs. But they are also well compensated and can afford to pay from their own pockets for some of the upgrades they personally prefer—a sort of top-up, if you like. Not anything and everything one consumes or does on a job-related trip is a valid, justifiable expense claim.

All expense claims should be scrutinized and approved/disallowed by a government official with a fiduciary duty of protecting the public interest. All civil servants should have a modest maximum per-day amount for meals and incidentals supported by independently verifiable receipts of payments.

We as a society should have a zero tolerance for petty chiseling. All of us should also have a zero tolerance for the sort of inane response we get from otherwise intelligent and seemly capable cabinet ministers. You’d never know Ms. Philpott was herself the individual involved with the questionable practices she’s trying to explain away. She responds as if she is  a bystander with oversight responsibility, but with no personal involvement. It is her personal actions with which we are finding fault, not some nameless staffer’s.

She went on about the controversy underscoring the need for “absolutely rigid, rock-solid procedures, check lists that we go through and that all of government needs to go through.” And she tells us how “We [in government] have a huge responsibility not only to get the work done… but to do so in a way that is absolutely cognizant of the fact that the public puts their trust in us, that we have a responsibility to the public purse.”

These people really do believe they can baffle us with BS!

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Catherine McKenna: stateswoman in training or just another glory hound

[This post from Tuesday, August 23rd was deleted in error and re-posted.]

Today I wanted to say a few words about liberal politician Catherine McKenna. She’s the Ottawa Centre MP who, last November, was named minister of environment and climate change in Justin Trudeau’s cabinet.

Ms. McKenna was one of the Liberals’ star candidates in last fall’s federal election. She edged out the popular three-term NDP incumbent, MP Paul Dewar, in the Ottawa Centre riding. Prior to that she was a high-profile lawyer and taught at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. She reportedly also served as a board member at the Trudeau Centre for Peace, Conflict and Justice. After seeing her résumé, the average party (any party) organizer would drool in anticipation of landing her as a candidate for public office.

By all accounts, she was a local girl (I live in Burlington, she’s from neighbouring Hamilton) who went forth to conquer the world—and did a pretty good job of it. So you might well ask what my beef is with her.

For a start, a few weeks after her election I began wondering just how much substance there is to her as a politician. Soon after taking office last fall, Ms. McKenna and Prime Minister Trudeau led a team of more than 300 politicians, government staff and bureaucrats to the Paris climate change conference, COP21.

This was one of the largest delegations and included twenty-two Ontario ministry officials led by Premier Kathleen Wynne. It was more than double the U.S. team and about triple the U.K.’s team. And this from a country that contributes less than 2 per cent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

According to CTV, the federal government budgeted about $650,000 for COP21, but that piece of international showboating cost Canada’s taxpayers more than $1-million and still counting. (I doubt we’ll ever know the full cost.) It is exactly that sort of casual disregard for budgets and tax money that I worried about when it seemed certain the Grits would regain power.

Yes, Canada is high on the list of per-capita GHG emitters. But we are a subarctic nation that produces a disproportionate amount of the world’s energy, forestry products, minerals and food. Most of these commodities are exported and consumed in other countries, but the GHG emissions resulting from their production are counted against us.

So why did Canada contribute $2.65-billion to the Green Climate Fund—up from $300 million under the former Conservative government? Interestingly, the much higher GHG emitter, the United States, has pledged $3 billion, while Japan, Germany, France and Britain have only pledged about $1-billion each, despite being some of the richest nations on earth.

Trudeau and McKenna grandstanding? You think! And they are doing it with our taxpayer bucks. At least, bucks they’ll borrow and we’ll have to repay someday—this year’s budget deficit is projected to be $29.4-billion. In other words, they’ve promised money we don’t even have.

But that’s pretty stale news.

Since then, we’ve heard a lot about “sunny ways,” but have heard little in the way of original thought concerning Canada participating in a balanced, responsible way in the international effort to reduce GHG emissions. 

Controversial cap-and-trade schemes seem to be the holy grail, even though they know (but refuse to acknowledge) that, under carbon trading schemes, industries already addicted to carbon-based fuel will carry on as usual by buying cheap carbon credits.

Meanwhile, we let countries like China off the hook for their disproportionate contribution to the crisis, but sock it to Canadian consumers and taxpayers, then fritter away or send overseas whatever the government manages to gouge out of us.

Then there’s today’s media story about Ms. McKenna’s ministry spending $10,681 on photos of her and her staff during the Paris climate change talks

According to CTV News, “She [McKenna] appears in almost every shot from the conference posted on her ministerial and departmental Twitter accounts, and in each of the 23 pictures currently on ECCC’s Flickr photo-sharing account.

It’s all about her, eh? And, instead of leadership, we get “Canada is back,” “sunny ways” and other adolescent sloganeering.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Have the media abdicated their role of holding the Trudeau Liberals to account?

Whatever happened to the concept of the fourth estate, the media and mainly the news media, having a central role of holding governments to account—holding the rascals’ feet to the fire, so to speak? There was a time in Canada when most journalists seemed to take this role seriously, almost as a sacred duty.

I sense things have changed, especially with the victory last fall of the Trudeau Liberals over the Harper Conservatives. In the prior decade, many—possibly most—in the media seemed to relish the idea of demonizing the Conservative government, leaping on every hint of excess or wrongdoing on the part of then Prime Minister Harper’s team.

Since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took office, however, our media seem to have a more understanding nature. But I suppose it is too much to expect them to be speaking truth to power in Ottawa, when there are so many more “clicks” and “eyeballs” to be attracted by publishing bare-chested photos and selfies of the prime minister and his adoring fans.

Yes, to be sure, newspapers like the National Post and the Toronto Sun are diligent when it comes to keeping the Liberals honest and have been fast to point out government failures and missteps. The Sun, and especially their now defunct television news network, however, were as guilty as anyone when it came to cheer-leading the Conservatives when they held power.

For the most part, though, media are far too inclined to understand, rationalize and explain how difficult a job the Grits have and how great it is that they are trying so very hard. And media are far too busy cheering Trudeau from the sidelines as he marches in one parade or another. Photos of the prime minister pop up everywhere as he jogs with some world leader, jokes with U.S. president Barack Obama, appears shirtless in strangers’ wedding pictures, or is featured in a  fluff-piece in Vogue magazine.

For years Canada has consistently earned a high ranking in “Best Countries” reports—our number two spot in the World Economic Forum’s report in January and the 2016 Social Progress Index are but two recent examples. Notwithstanding similar achievements during the Conservative era, Trudeau tosses about terms like “sunny ways” as though he were leading the country out of the dark ages. And, of course, the media at large lap it all up and repeat his nonsense as if it were based on anything real or substantial.

A litany of Grit missteps are reported on, but then excused and explained away lest they damage the Prime Minister or his government’s pristine image.

The Liberals promised they would bring 25,000 refugees to Canada by the end of 2015. But when their promise proved impossible to keep, their reduced target of a mere 10,000 was met mainly with sympathy and only mild criticism.

The Liberals promised a deficit of $10-billion for three years, then a balanced budget. Their first budget projects a $30-billion deficit. Some miss, eh?

The Liberals have admitted their “middle class” tax cut will cost far more than promised, and will benefit those whose incomes range from $89,000 and $200,000, with little going to most actual middle-class taxpayers. They’ve also admitted their surtax on high-income taxpayers will raise about $1-billion less than they promised us.

The Liberals promised they would restore lost door-to-door mail delivery services. Now they won’t tell us if or when that will happen.

And what about that high-priority Canada-is-back promise to “immediately [emphasis mine] review Canada’s environmental assessment and introduce new, fair processes…,” etc., etc. So far? No real plan, of course, and almost a year later we pretty much operate under the same rules as we did under the Harper government.

Remember all that stuff about being open and transparent? More smoke and mirrors there, apparently. Earlier this year, the Ottawa Citizen reported that the Parliamentary Budget Officer possesses missing data needed to analyze the Liberal government’s budget, but he says he dare not disclose those numbers because they are confidential. The numbers are from the federal finance department, but cannot be used in his report to Parliament. I kid you not.

Readers may also want to read this Toronto Sun tale about “muzzled scientists” under the present regime, it highlights the duplicity of the Trudeau government. And how about Justin Trudeau’s Health Minister Jane Philpott telling us she’ll stop using a limousine service owned by a Liberal supporter that charged her $1,700 for transportation in the Greater Toronto Area. She admits the price tag was “too high" and “inappropriate." And get this, she said, “I have already taken steps to prevent this from occurring in the future." I guess she’s admonished herself in the mirror and given herself a good ol’ finger wag.

I could go on, but it’s too depressing. A Google search will provide several more examples of broken promises. My point is this: any Conservative government with such a shoddy record of broken promises so early in its mandate would be castigated 24/7 by newspapers and broadcast media alike. Any real attempt at criticism of the Grits, however, is met with rebuttals designed to exculpate Trudeau and his team, followed by Liberal tales of how much worse it would have been under Prime Minister Harper. Remember Harper the bogeyman?

There are many Canadian journalists on all points of the political spectrum who will believe rightly that my criticism is unfair to them individually, and to them I apologize. But taken as an industry, most of the big-business Canadian media is guilty of bias towards the federal Liberal government. And it’s just not healthy for our democracy when we give undeserving governments too much of a free pass.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Canada is back and so is Russ-Campbell’s Blog

It has been well over half a year since I last gave my “point of view on political and social issues.” I do hope, however, that a few of my former readers are still around and have enough patience left to put up with a few more of my rants and raves.

Shortly before my hiatus, we were beginning to fear that Donald Trump might actually win the Republican nomination and that Americans would face the choice of electing him as president or choosing Hillary Clinton as their first ever female commander-in-chief. Some choice!

Too often Mr. Trump displays unnerving tendencies that suggest a temperament unsuited for the office he seeks. And, as for Ms. Clinton, has there ever been a candidate for the U.S. presidency so obviously bought and owned by powerful special interests? Well, actually, I think several were, but that is not a good thing. Michael Gerson, in an opinion piece in the The Washington Post, referred to this as, “A choice between the uninspiring and the unfit.” Wow, eh? And this for choosing the most powerful elected official on the planet. Enough said.

On our side of the border, we got a whole new government replete with dozens of high-minded (expensive, excessive) promises, for which we’ll be borrowing billions to finance, all wrapped in the pompous, what-the-hell-does-it-even-mean, banner: Canada is back.

Well, the Liberals are certainly back with their run-away budget deficits, Trudeau photo ops, kowtowing to the Russians and Chinese on the international stage, broken promises and an agenda apparently founded on the dual principles of:

  • if the Conservatives planned or implemented it, it’s bad and must be reversed; and,
  • if it sells well at the United Nations, Canadians will have to like it or lump it.

By the way, the Grits call this “evidence-based decision-making” or some such euphemism for decisions based on progressive ideology and petty vindictiveness.

But, so far at least, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his team seem to have carried it off beautifully—judging from the opinion surveys I see. Although, it has to be said that the veil does seem to be dropping from the eyes of some progressives. I’m seeing criticism—some quite pointed—sneaking into commentary at places that are well known as hang-outs for Trudeau-cheerleaders. But more on that later.

And how about the Green Party of Canada’s adoption of a resolution officially supporting sanctions against Israel through the so-called Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement or BDS.

I can think of, at least, a dozen undemocratic countries, which are guilty of generations of human rights abuses, and who have a history of treating their citizens atrociously—even, sometimes, invading their neighbours. Yet these countries, apparently, have gone unnoticed by the Green party’s members even though they are far more deserving of disapproval. Those countries are not predominantly Jewish, though, so I guess they get a pass.

To her credit, Green party leader Elizabeth May made it clear she does not support BDS. I can see Ms. May crossing the floor to the governing Grits before the next federal election.

Meanwhile, Ontario’s Premier Kathleen Wynne keeps trucking along implementing one economy-sapping program after another. Poor Ontario, we were once the proud economic engine of Canada.

Hard on the heels of spending tens of millions of taxpayer dollars on a provincial pension that will never be implemented, our premier will now implement a cap-and-trade system to control greenhouse gases that will cost every household several extra bucks a month—this on top of already overly-onerous energy bills.

According to a recent public opinion poll by Forum Research, the majority (56%) of Ontario voters disapprove of the plan, while a bit more than a quarter approve (28%). Apparently, about 16 per cent did not express an opinion.

Kathleen Wynne knows what’s best for us, of course, so we had better just shut up and pay up. I wonder what’s next.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Radical Islam: Pernicious ideologies like noxious weeds must be rooted out—not just cut back or contained

President Barack Obama offered little in the way of new ideas to fight Islamic terrorism when he made his near-historic television address to the American people last night. It was not so much a speech of platitudes—though it was that to some extent—but it just seemed underwhelming and seemed to be received as such even from some of his admirers. 

What would I have liked the president to say, you may ask.

Well, for a start, I would have liked him to refer to attackers like the ones in Paris and San Bernardino as, at least, being inspired by Islamists, radical Islam, Islamic terrorism, terrorism in the name of Islam, or some similar term or phrase and not simply as “terrorists.”

I think most rational people understand that terrorism in all its forms is a horrible scourge on civilized societies. But surely we need to be more specific in our terminology if we want to eradicate this particularly virulent form of terrorism, which seems to be the sort most often used against Western democracies in recent years.

But most importantly, I would also have liked President Obama to have been more forthright in identifying the source of the poisonous ideology that masquerades as religious teaching and which seems to be at the root of much of the inspiration for these attacks. That source—the very root of it, that is—is not as the president implies, ISIS, aka ISIL and Daesh. They are merely the most recent exporters and inspirers of the crimes committed in the name of the ideology.

Daesh did not invent or even significantly advance the ideology in any way. Its roots go back into eighteenth-century Saudi Arabia. There it germinated and took root and grew into a branch of Sunni Islam. Wahhabism is an especially orthodox and puritanical movement, which has flourished in places like Saudi Arabia and Qatar as an extremist pseudo-Sunni movement, often referred to as Salafi. In more recent times, Wahhabism has spread to Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere, including the multicultural Western democracies.

Pernicious ideologies are like noxious weeds, they must be rooted out—not just cut back or contained—or they will spring back, and grow even more virulent than before.

Do not be fooled into believing that only a tiny percentage of those professing to be Muslims practice some sort of Wahhabi-like fundamentalist Islam, which qualifies as Salafi. Tens of millions of Muslims are Islamic fundamentalist and the number seems to be increasing. They can be found in Arab states like the aforementioned Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iraq and, increasingly, in Syria. They are also the tenacious Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They are also in Russia, in North Africa and in Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Chad.

Fortunately, only a few of these turn to terrorism to impose their religious views on the rest of us. But, until the ideology is discredited and made to be unacceptable in any form in the civilized world, if not entirely eradicated, we in the West will have to face an enemy like none who have threatened us before.

But let me be very clear: the threat is not from the overwhelming majority of the million or so Canadian Muslims who are our neighbours, friends and members of our families, for they are as peace-loving and fair-minded as any other Canadians. These “real” Muslims abhor the attacks by Islamist terrorists as much as I do, or as much as most readers do.

They are most often twice the victims of such terrorist acts: after being victimized directly—i.e., being killed—their fellow Muslims are further victimized by the backlash from an increasing number of non-Muslim Canadians. And there is no point telling them to go home, for Canada is their home and they are as stuck with their victimizers as the rest of us are.

We know who the enemy are and the real source of their twisted ideology. And so does President Obama—or so he should. So what I really wanted to hear from him is when he will lead the world against this threat in a fundamental way so as to stop it at the source.

A great start would be to sanction Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Daesh. Freeze their Western investments and bank accounts; stop buying their oil and selling them military hardware; restrict travel of their citizens to Western destinations; suspend landing rights for their airplanes; and list them officially as terrorist organizations along with any mosque, school or other organization that accepts financing from them. Then go in and clean out Daesh from Iraq and Syria. That would be a start.

They’d be some short-term pain no doubt. But we’d be better off and we’d have a safer world in the longer-term.

If only we had leaders with the will to do any of this, eh?

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