Archives for category: Transparency

Image: Torontoist.com

It was while I was bailing out the back yard that I realized that this was quite a rainstorm. Like a lot of people, I was neither expecting nor prepared for the amount of rain we got and what it did to Toronto.

I see the storm as one of those events that makes us realize we are now firmly in a new weather paradigm – one that is shaped by climate change.

For years, I worked in the sustainable energy sector. Occasionally, I would meet someone who insisted that all the evidence on climate change wasn’t in and that there’s not much we can do about the weather in any case. I don’t see much point in debating the science with someone like that, but this week’s storm made me think about what happens even after we acknowledge climate change.

Acceptance is one thing, but action is another. And even if we still can’t put a price on carbon and manage to find ways to reduce our use of fossil fuels, there is still the issue of how to deal with what we face right now. If you thought the storms of the past while (Calgary, Toronto) are outliers, think again. In fact, the city’s Parks and Environment Committee already considered this question, and came up with a report that says our city’s infrastructure is not adequate for Toronto’s new weather paradigm. By the way, the chair of that committee was Councillor Norm Kelly, who suggested we not make a big deal about it, since climate change is still “contentious.” I wonder if Norm’s opinion is shifting after the rainiest day in the city’s recorded history.

We should not balk at answering the hard questions about how we now understand the impact of global warming and extreme weather and our state of preparedness. Part of this is about looking at how we build and develop our city and what mitigation measures we can integrate to protect us and our infrastructure from flooding. Another part is about ensuring the city’s entire ecosystem can absorb water, or simply have it run off concrete and asphalt and flood our basements, backyards, subways, underpasses, hydro system and major highways.

A third part is about how we understand weather forecasts, what they mean and how they impact our decision-making. Monday’s deluge was an excellent example of the entire city getting caught in the rain. Somewhere between the meteorological scientists at Environment Canada and the weather reports you get, something is lost.

I could go on about this, but I would just be getting in the way of you reading this excellent blog post by The Grid’s Ed Keenan about this exact topic.

The storm revealed a lot about how unprepared we are, as individuals and as a city. It almost makes the transit debate looks minor.

Yesterday’s news about evidence disclosed by the RCMP into Mike Duffy’s expenses has raised some sharp questions about both the character of some key players and about Duffy’s strange hold over some high-ranking politicos.

Image: Cbc.ca

I still cannot understand how on earth Duffy, despite decades as a highly-paid broadcaster (with pensions), could successfully sell the line that he couldn’t come up with any money? Was Old Duff’s confusion and despair so overwhelming that the Conservative Fund and then former PMO chief of staff Nigel Wright thought it was possible Duffy couldn’t afford to pay back what he had taken in improper expenses? Is Duffy some sort of master salesman? The Canadian political version of Dale Carnegie?

Then, despite being told repeatedly that Wright is a stand-up guy, we learn that he was willing to write a cheque to essentially cover up Duffy’s expenses mess. He wanted to save taxpayers from being on the hook, according to his lawyers.

Wright will have to explain how he thought that paying Duffy’s debt and “saving taxpayers’ money” was not only the correct thing to do, but also the kind of action that would work to restore the public’s trust in politicians and teach Old Duff a lesson about cheating on his expenses.

But Wright was only put in this position after the Conservative Fund decided that it could not cover Duffy’s debt.

So, for Conservative Fund boss Senator Irving Gerstein, there are questions about why it’s ok to use taxpayer-subsidized political funds to bail out Duffy his bogus expenses. There’s also a question about why, having already crossed that line, he thought that $30,000 was ok, but $90,000 was too much. Is there perhaps some financial threshold that the Fund uses as a moral yardstick?

And one last question for both Mike Duffy and Pam Wallin: In their decades of working in journalism and filing expense claims, when did they get so lazy or so greedy that they stopped taking responsibility for how they spend someone else’s money?

I also have some questions for myself. As a former journalist, I’m worried I might have the same sort of condition that affected Duffy and Wallin. So I’m checking for the following symptoms:

  • Trying to squeeze as much money out of expenses as possible?
  • Trying to dismiss any concerns about whether the expenses were appropriate?
  • Blaming the rules?
  • Pretending to be contrite?
  • Blaming staff?

One must be vigilant, after all.

Yesterday… What a news day! What a day for journalism!

I had the interesting task of summarizing the big stories of the day on a four-minute phone call with my wife (who’s out of the country). I was spoiled for choice.

Duffy’s quit the Conservative caucus, I say. About time, comes the reply. No doubt, I add, the PMO got tired of waiting for Duffy to do it himself.

Then comes the second story: Paul Godfrey gets summarily axed as Chair of the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation – and the rest of the board resigns in protest. The order came from Premier Wynne. The plan to expand gambling, including the downtown Toronto casino proposal, is now pretty much dead.

But it gets better, I say, much better. The Star is running a huge page one story saying there’s video of Rob Ford smoking crack. And they’ve seen it. Our mayor could be a crackhead!

After the call, I felt sort of vindicated after thinking about how people are now going to view Ford, as one of my first posts was about why I would believe anything I heard about Ford. Many people will believe this story, and the Star has no doubt nailed down and lawyered the story several times over. Even Ford Nation will have second thoughts about going to the barricades for their man.

This was a great day for public interest journalism and for those who care about public debate. A buffet of fantastic, important stories that lay bare the trenches of political fighting over public policy issues, political personalities and media coverage of said fights. Each story exploded on Twitter and led to gigantic conversations about transparency, credibility and the pervasive cynicism of politics. Despite the sadness of the stories, I sensed a great degree of positivity in the online conversation because the details of the stories were coming from a wonderful combination of quality journalism, public interest and social media engagement.

I hope tomorrow is as fascinating and engaging as yesterday was. It was heaven from my perspective; stories that push public policy issues out into the light, allowing us to learn about them, debate them and make up our own minds. Even if yesterday’s news made you feel tired and powerless, just imagine how much worse you’d feel if you didn’t learn about the credibility of a senator, the institution and a prime minister; Ontario’s approach to gambling, the money it generates for the government and the emerging character of a new premier who is throwing her weight around; and the reality-tv story of Rob Ford that just gets better and better.

It’s addictive, this stuff.

(Image: Toronto Star)

Canadians have Senator Duffy to thank for exposing us to a story that explains everything we need to know about the federal government and its non-compromising communications strategy.

Is it all that surprising that some politicians lie in order to deny Canadians the facts need to fully understand this entire sad affair? No – of course not. This is not actually an unusual thing in politics.

But now, instead of forgiving the Conservatives for a bit of political back scratching and still associating them with competent economic management, we are increasingly linking them with self-preservation, nastiness and a strong inclination for secrecy.  A sordid story about some public servants gaming the system for cash is changing the political communications landscape for the government.

Let’s set aside for a moment that Senator Duffy was unable to clearly understand the rules around primary and secondary residences and related expense claims, despite being a journalist on Parliament Hill for decades. Let’s also set aside questions related to why the Senate and PMO can’t get Senators to clearly understand the rules and effectively enforce them.

Forget, as well, that some of Duffy’s Senate expense claims covered travel for days when he was campaigning in the last federal election (full details of his expenses are unavailable because the Senate and the Conservatives won’t release them). Forget that Duffy didn’t fully co-operate with the Deloitte audit that was done on his expenses, and also forget that Duffy suggests he clammed up as a quid pro quo for Nigel Wright giving him $90,000.

Instead, consider how all of this was communicated to Canadians and how the issue was contextualized. Consider how Duffy was praised by the PMO for showing “leadership” in paying back his expenses. Consider how the only substantive comment offered on the $90,000 payment was that no taxpayer money was used. Consider, how we’ve been treated like fools.

What is missing is transparency. Without it, there is no credibility and no trust.

Why did the PMO not deal with this much earlier and ensure that Duffy – who is clearly a liability and who has awful judgement – take the blame and pay the price?

I think the answer is because exposing one weakness in the Conservative government communications strategy would then open the door to a complete re-evaluation of how we as citizens understand the choices the government makes. Thanks to the extreme partisanship that underlies all government communications, there is both an enormous disconnect between what we are told about the workings of government and how we actually perceive it and an unwillingness of the government of ever back down from its message.

Now, with Duffy exposing that weakness in spectacular style, things might seem that much clearer to Canadians. When you have been spun so hard and so relentlessly by your government, when you begin to feel like your government can no longer distinguish between fact and fiction, then you stop believing and then you stop listening.

The point is, we’re not really as worried about $90,000 wrongly claimed in expenses as much as we are worried about how the government has attempted to explain and rationalize this to us. That is what pisses us off more than anything.

Lack of transparency leads to lack of credibility. It’s that simple.

I used to work for the Ontario Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services. So I have first-hand experience in knowing that there are some things you don’t want politicized. Public security – including policing, corrections, emergency management and anti-terrorism activities – is a special area of public service. People with guns, people who have powers of arrest, detention and investigation should be shielded from political interference in operations. Their independence is absolutely fundamental to the most basic concept of justice. Additionally, how their work is communicated to the public should also be free of political interference – as this is at the core of the trust that citizens need to have in their police and public security services.

With this in mind, some recent events are worrying.

First thing: Vic Toews, Canada’s Minister of Public Safety, recently overruled a prison warden (and, in doing so, apparently broke the established rules) who approved a media interview with Omar Khadr. Why? There was no real explanation from Toews or his office. That story, by the way, was only told because the Canadian Press filed an Access to Information request. I suspect that it was because Vic and Stephen Harper do not want us hearing from someone convicted by a military tribunal of terrorism, even if they are Canadian, even if they have the right to speak and even if they happen to be appealing their sentence. Otherwise we might lose focus on how the government – not the police – are keeping us safe from terrorists. But regardless of what I suspect, this is political interference in an operational decision for decidedly political reasons.

Second thing: Recently, CBC News revealed that RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson circulated a memo that outlined a new process for approving meetings between senior officers and MPs and Senators. The new system? All meetings have to be approved by Vic Toews’s office.

Why this new process?

At first, only the RCMP would respond to this question, saying it “wanted to ensure that all information being sent to parliamentarians was co-ordinated through the strategic policy and planning directorate which manages the ministerial liaison function.”

Then, when a reporter asked why, Toews said (the underlines are mine):

I don’t clear as the appropriate[ness] of any interview. Interviews are done all the time with the RCMP without them clearing it but there is a communications protocol that does take place between the RCMP and my office, absolutely. I’m responsible for the RCMP. I need to know exactly what the RCMP is doing and saying because if I go into the House of Commons and I have no idea what is being said, I’m at a distinct situation where it appears that I’m not carrying out my responsibilities to the House of Commons. So the communication discussions that go on between us, I think are quite normal and certainly were in effect under the prior Liberal government as I recall.

When asked to clarify, Toews said:

Well they don’t clear it with my office but essentially what happens, especially if it’s MPs from my party, they’ll come to me and say, look I want to talk to the RCMP and I’ll refer them to an individual and that’s the end of it. I don’t see any more of that.

So, Minister Toews and his office don’t clear meeting requests, but they do enforce a “communications protocol.” I have no idea what that means, but I wonder why the Minister sees the need to have that degree of oversight and approval over meetings and communications between our national police force and elected MPs.

We should all be concerned about how the hot hand of politics is reaching into parts of the government that should be stone cold objective. Because trust is a difficult thing to build, and we all need to trust those who are tasked with keeping us safe.

A Toronto Star story on a recent poll shows a slim majority of GTA residents reject the various taxes, fees and levies proposed to pay for the Big Move, the plan for long-term transit expansion.

No doubt there is value in a pollster asking the question, and absolutely it deserves to be covered as a story, but I honestly can’t completely trust a poll that isn’t more transparent. As a reader, I’m given the sample size, the geographic spread of the respondents and the date of the poll, but not the questions (A similar poll in late March by the same pollster generated similar results). The details of the poll are not available to the public.

Why do I consider this important?

This was an “interactive voice response telephone poll”, or IVR, which means respondents aren’t talking to a human, but a pre-recorded voice that asks them to push a button to indicate their response to specific prompts. Without knowing what exactly was asked and how the issues are defined to the respondent, it’s easy to imagine that respondents can be guided into a certain kind of response or perception.

Image: Megasat.de

IVR polls favour simple questions; it’s not the ideal method to capture opinions on complex public policy issues – such as various types of taxes and fees on everything from road use to property development to payrolls.

This is where the journalist’s job comes in. Without having the poll script dropped into the story, it is the journalist’s job to ensure the poll is not misrepresenting public opinion or not skewing opinion by presenting subjective or leading information to the respondents.

I’m not saying I don’t believe the results of the poll. And I have absolutely no reason to doubt the professionalism of Forum Research, the company that conducted the poll. But consider this: we’ve been bombarded for years with messages that tell us that taxes are bad, so it’s not hard to imagine that a robocall from a pollster asking if you want to pay more taxes for transit generates an automatic negative response.

A poll can be a quick and easy story to do, with results that make for tasty headlines. Consumers of news media should be confident that they are getting fully transparent and objective coverage of opinion polls.

I hate the word “taxpayer”. Why? Because it puts the word tax front and center, as if our identity revolves around the fact that we pay tax – as opposed to, say, the fact that we consume public services like health care, pensions, roads, utilities, etc.

The discussion over how to fund the needed transit expansion for the GTA has me overjoyed for a variety of reasons. First, we’re having a discussion about transit. Second, it’s participatory; the discussion is relatively broad and it includes various levels of government, business and citizens’ groups.

And finally, it appears we are having an adult discussion about taxes. Although the vague phrase “revenue tools” has been used frequently,  I think that most people understand we are talking about taxes, full stop. Even if we’re all clear on what “revenue tools” means, I wish Premier Wynne and Metrolinx would stop using it.

Express Tax Route? (Image: Globe & Mail)

Road tolls are a tax. Parking fees are a tax. The other oft-mentioned solutions are dedicated sales and fuel taxes – which are both, of course, taxes.

What I like about this – no, what I love about this – is that citizens are being treated with respect and honesty. You want good transit? We need to raise money to pay for it, through taxes.  So, let’s talk about which taxes we can pay to get something that will increase the quality of life in the GTA.

I realize not everyone shares my enthusiasm, but I rejoice in the fact that all citizens – whether they want better transit or not – are clear in what they are debating. Isn’t transparency a great thing?

UPDATE: No, this is not an April Fool’s joke. Seriously.

Robert Prichard — Image: Toronto Star

You want to know why so many people don’t trust politicians and the political class? Because of cases like Robert Prichard.

Since July of last year, Mr. Prichard, who is the Chair of GTA regional transit agency Metrolinx, has been a registered lobbyist for MGM in its efforts to build a casino in Toronto.

Prichard is also the Chair of Onyx, which is also fronting a casino proposal.

MGM hired Torys, the law firm Prichard chairs, to lobby relevant provincial ministries and agencies. He is not lobbying Toronto City Councillors, who will decide if there is to be a casino in the city. Prichard says there will be no lobbying if Toronto turns down a casino. Still, is this not a perceived conflict of interest?

Prichard went to Ontario’s Integrity Commissioner, Mr. Justice Sidney Linden, who said there’s no problem if Prichard leaves the room when Metrolinx discusses the casino issue and its impact on public transit.

Here’s what I wish the Integrity Commissioner had said: “Sure, Bob – there is no law against this, but consider how this looks to Ontarians. Wouldn’t it be better to sit on the sidelines on the casino issue? Do you really have to do both? Surely it’s more important to build public confidence and trust than it is to wear your lobbyist hat and your Metrolinx hat?”

Later, Ontario Transportation Minister Glen Murray predictably said that Prichard did the right thing by going to the Integrity Commissioner. Sigh.

Prichard is a very qualified and experienced guy – former Dean of University of Toronto’s Law School, President of UofT and CEO of TorStar. But is it too much to ask that people choose between their private and professional interests and their duty to the province? Is it more important that Prichard have the opportunity to both head Metrolinx and lobby the province on a casino, or that Ontarians have unshakable trust in their public institutions and those who lead them? Is this a naïve and unrealistic perspective?

I don’t think so. The perception, for me, is that there is a conflict – and I don’t understand why this isn’t more apparent to Prichard, Linden and Murray.

Here’s the thing: this is all about trust. Most people aren’t going to trust someone who intuitively thinks that it’s acceptable to resolve this conflict simply by leaving the room when the word “casino” gets mentioned. Political and policy influence is a more complex and nuanced process than that.

In the end, this story confirms the widespread perception that public sector appointees, politicians and the circles around them are not really in it to make Ontario better – but to enrich themselves and protect their web of influence. The result is less trust in the people who appointed Prichard, less trust in the Integrity Commissioner and less trust in the political class.

That’s why the story was on the front page of the Globe and Mail, and that’s why this issue will further erode confidence in public oversight.

My mom is a retired teacher and fairly active in progressive politics. Over a recent dinner, we started talking about striking Ontario teachers, Bill 115 (the Ontario government’s bill sending the teachers back to work), and the fallout, including the issue of sick days. Mom said first that she couldn’t imagine not doing extracurricular activities, and she thought that banking sick days for a retirement payoffs was a thing of the past.  That’s an opinion held by quite a few people.

The issue, as it is popularly understood, is generally as follows: The teachers’ old collective agreement gave them annual sick days, which can be saved up over a career to a maximum of 200, and paid out upon retirement. An average lump sum for cashing out sick days over a career is over $40,000 (according to this CP story). UPDATE: This figure is disputed; teachers say it is less than that, and that not all teachers are even eligible for such a payout.

But what if the issue is more complex – or simpler – than that?

Last week, TVO’s The Agenda blog ran a great post on the sick days issue. The post suggests that the common understanding of the sick days issue may not be accurate or based on fact. It also suggests that the culprit for this may be “a colossal failure of communication on behalf of the government or on behalf of the union to its members.”

How the public – especially parents – perceives issues like this through the media and discussion with friends, families and fellow parents is critical to the communications strategies of the government, school boards and the teachers’ unions. And that strategy is critical to achieving their goals, whether it be cutting costs, successfully negotiating a collective agreement or preserving benefits.

Who could have thought that the perceptions among so many interests active in this debate (including the media) would be potentially under informed? Could the entire debate have been more focused to all involved, and possibly less contentious?

A good lesson for communicators here: frame the issue clearly, simply and honestly – based on facts.