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.

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(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.

The discussion on transit in the GTA has moved past the “what to do” stage and is now in the “how to pay for it” stage. And that’s where it should be.

So why are public officials like Karen Stintz, Glenn De Baeremaeker and Glen Murray not thinking about how it looks when they try to reopen the transit agreement signed last year? Did they not consider how citizens might perceive it when yet another politician tries to revisit a transit deal (Sheppard East, Finch West, the Eglinton Crosstown and replacing the Scarborough LRT) that the region has been waiting decades to see?  I can just imagine the thousands of people, who upon opening the paper in the morning and reading the headlines, saying “Jesus! Enough already! Get on with it!”

Image: Ontario Government Archives

From a political communications perspective, the discussion over transit needs to have a rational and human element to it. This means anyone who advocates for further study, revisions or new ideas needs to explain very clearly why this would be of tangible and practical benefit for transit users and why we should wait even further.

In the case of Stintz and De Baeremaeker, we are wondering why they would be motivated to agitate for a subway to replace the Scarborough LRT? As the Grid’s Ed Keenan wrote in taking apart Stintz and De Baeremaeker’s suggestion, they have ignored the fact that a transit system should primarily serve its users; convenience of service is therefore a key consideration – not, as Keenan points out, the type of technology used.  For example, if a donkey and covered cart pulled up at a Queen streetcar stop and got me to my destination faster than the streetcar, then my needs have been met.

In the case of Glen Murray, he seemed to be thinking aloud about revisiting the entire transit plan. Thankfully for us, he had the poor communications judgement to do it on the same day as the provincial budget – when the government is really only focused on one story – thus pissing off the Premier and forcing Murray to climb down.

Both these cases should be a warning sign to any public official who wants to tinker with the transit deal. Whether for political points, a higher profile, more media coverage or other reason, anyone who decides to indulge themselves by suggesting fundamental changes to the transit plan will be judged harshly.

And if you don’t believe me, just ask Rob Ford.

Few things irritate me as much as politicians (and certain sycophantic elements of the media) who pay lip service to “science” and “evidence” while pursuing policies that are based on pure bullshit – sometimes called “common sense”.

In a contemporary context, much of the debate about global warming and climate change in the U.S. and Canada is infected with this, as is much of the debate over crime and punishment (another post on this will arrive soon, by the way).

A good example of this arose recently when Justin Trudeau wondered why domestically radicalized terror suspects (from the alleged VIA train bombing plot) chose the path of political violence. Barak Obama asked the same question about the Boston suspects. Stephen Harper, however, said this is not the time to “commit sociology” because it would detract from his government’s condemnation of the plot.

And with this, science was once again tossed aside in the service of pure partisan exploitation of a very serious issue. Who cares why this stuff happens, after all? That’s for academics.

Here’s an excellent opinion piece on why Stephen Harper’s comments – and the values they represent – are worth thinking about.  I’m posting it not because I dislike conservatives, but because ignoring science and fact is no way to make smart decisions about public policy. Because ultimately, we all pay for bad policy.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the media coverage surrounding the verdict of Richard Kachkar.

He was found Not Criminally Responsible (NCR) for running down a Toronto police officer with a stolen snowplow.  I bemoaned the media coverage for failing to balance the tragedy of the death with facts about how those found to be NCR are treated by the justice system and by the mental health system.

A recent Canadian documentary from director John Kastner called NCR: Not Criminally Responsible focuses on exactly this issue, and the conclusions are that it is an appropriate and effective method of dealing with those mentally ill who have committed terrible crimes.

This review of the film, and the information provided to contextualize NCR, would have been very good to see in the media at the time of the verdict. In particular, the documentary shows how the authorities tasked with overseeing the treatment and socialization of those found to be NCR are doing a pretty good job – and how they are not being influenced by the sadly predominant school of thought that considers punishment behind bars to be all that we need.

Too bad it took a documentary to spur the kind of media coverage we should have had weeks ago. On the other hand, documentaries provide some of the best journalism and storytelling around these days.

The Star, in particular, has been busy filling in the gaps. This story, and this one, should be checked out. As well, this CP story about criticisms of the Harper government’s proposed changes to the law overseeing NCR should not be missed.

NCR: Not Criminally Responsible is playing at the Toronto Hot Docs festival.

Part of Porter’s ad blitz

Intuition isn’t much to rely on when it comes to complex decisions, especially if those decisions are up to other people.  However, I have been hearing the same intuitive responses to Porter’s expansion plans in the weeks since they caught most of Toronto City Council off-guard. Many people I’ve asked think Porter will get their longer runways, amended noise limits, new planes and new routes — even if city council is not on board.

Porter, no doubt, is lobbying behind the scenes, and it is still attracting “supporters” of its plan through social media, although they are yet to reach 7,500 people (still a small number when you consider the potential number of Torontonians who would love to bypass Pearson and fly to Vancouver, LA or Miami from the Island). They are also continuing the ad buy that started soon after the announcement.

If you check the language at porterplans.com, it gives the impression that the proposal is going to happen (“… as we’re adding new routes,” “…our take off and approach flight paths will be over water…”), and that the debate and consideration are simply parts of the process that need to be endured.

There is something almost passive about Porter’s messaging and strategy since the announcement; something that suggests they know something we don’t – or least it appears that way. Maybe Porter is heartened by a new poll they commissioned  that suggests a majority of Toronto citizens support the expansion plans.

So, I stop and ask myself: for or against?

I’m pro-expansion, with conditions. I’m guessing that Porter’s confidence comes from the knowledge that convenience and accessibility are very, very appealing. So in thinking that this is a done deal, am I simply giving in to my own biases?

(Image: Torontoist Flckr Pool)

Last week, like others who have flown on Porter, I got an email from the airline that recapped their big announcement (new jets, new destinations,  expansion of the Island Airport’s runway) and put it in the context of improving their customers’ experience.  The email asks customers to visit a website  that provides more details on Porter’s plans and gives customers an opportunity to put their name on a support list and to “share your support” through Facebook or Twitter (5,600+ supporters at this point, not yet a groundswell).  The content of the email was mirrored in print ads seen in Toronto newspapers.

What the email, ads and website didn’t mention was the conditional nature of the entire proposal and the bottom-line need to get Toronto City Council, the Toronto Port Authority and the Government of Canada to approve the proposal.

The federal government, by the way, appoints seven of the nine directors on the Port Authority’s Board – many of whom are Conservative Party members. In terms of approval, I can’t see the federal government getting in the way of this. For the Harper Tories, this is a no brainer; they have no votes to lose in Toronto, they’ll claim economic benefits for Quebec (Bombardier’s jets will be assembled in Mirabel, Quebec – with the parts and components coming from everywhere from China to Northern Ireland) and they’ll provide further evidence of a sensible approach to economic development and growth.

Compared to the 2003 debate about the island airport, this time around there seems to be more favourable consideration of the proposal. A quickly-done poll shows Torontonians are generally supportive and even the Star is in support. After all, the lakeshore is already a noisy place. Pearson – even with a train to and from Union Station – is still big, crowded and expensive. And flying to L.A. or Vancouver or Miami from the Island is hugely appealing in its convenience.

However, the first and biggest hurdle to the expansion proposal is Toronto City Council. Much has been made of the fact that Porter didn’t tip its hat to most of council; in fact, some councillors were caught off guard and were clearly peeved that Porter didn’t give them any advance notice.  Opposing Councillors are already organizing with Toronto Island residents and others to plot an anti-expansion strategy. The Globe’s “informal tally” of councillors shows Porter has an uphill battle to get a majority on its side.

Here’s what I wonder: If Porter is positioning their expansion as a passenger issue, why is it not more concerned with building support with its passengers (and potential passengers) in the Toronto area? Why is it not making a more robust call to action? Why isn’t it putting more effort into mobilizing the hundreds of thousands of passengers they flew last year? Wouldn’t that be the best way to put pressure on city council, particularly those members who are on the fence?

On their way up to crap on the roof (Image: Wilson Lee)

The raccoons are back in my neighbourhood, and I can already hear thousands of Torontonians muttering into their beers and wondering how to manage – or, let’s face it, get rid of – the city’s raccoons. A large family is dividing its time between where I live and the house next door; this photo shows part of their commute.

It’s not surprising that Toronto – the world’s raccoon capital – is home to raccoons so intelligent, nimble and sneaky that they can use power lines to get around.

The city’s web site has a lot of information on how to try to get the raccoons out of your garbage, green bin, lawn, chimney, barbeque, patio furniture, etc. But there appears to be an unconditional surrender from the city when it comes to doing anything to reduce the raccoon population. The raccoon that moves out of your neighbour’s shed will just move into yours. Depending on where you live, you might spend half your week defending your  house and garden against raccoons.

Here’s a question for city hall: Can raccoons in this city be trapped, neutered, and then released? Or would it that cost more than a city hall bike station?

I love the idea that Toronto can build a cycling infrastructure that will encourage more people to bike to work.

I also love the idea that city council can bypass Rob Ford’s screw-everything-that-is-not-a-car approach to city building. Such as the $1.2 million bike station  with 380 secure parking spots and shower facilities that the city’s government management committee approved on Monday of this week.

Chicago’s bike station (Image: Toronto Star)

Having biked to work in six different cities on three continents, knowing your bike will be parked safely and having a place to shower before work is pretty much nirvana for bike commuters. Most of the media coverage of the story mentions the popular and successful bike stations in places like Chicago.

However, from a communications perspective, I wish that the city government management committee and City Council’s biking advocates had done a better job in explaining and defending this project (which is part of a larger Nathan Phillips Square revitalization plan and which has been on the back burner for a few years).

Because, once again, this served up a grapefruit for Rob/Doug Ford and Ford Nation. We heard the usual “gravy train” comments and questions about political judgement in the context of strained budgets and many other urgent needs. I don’t buy any of the Ford’s arguments on this issue, but I haven’t yet heard a comprehensive justification for the bike station as the smartest use of resources for Toronto cyclists.

I think we need to hear exactly why this is $1.2 million well spent, who benefits and why did it not get spent on existing cycling infrastructure.  I would like to hear why the $1.2 million wasn’t some subsidy to 380 of City Hall’s elite bike commuters. Will there be full cost-recovery user fees for the facility? Is there not a better use of this money for cycling infrastructure in Toronto? One that would perhaps benefit a broader group of cyclists?

I’m not saying the bike station is a bad – far from it. It is simply that if cycling advocates in Toronto want to more effectively articulate why investing in cycling is a net benefit for the city, they need to do a better job. Hopefully we’ll get to hear that when the issue goes to a full City Council vote.