The Minister of Swag

I had some fun with this story about Peter MacKay’s collected gifts during his time as Defence minister. I still can’t believe he got an autographed Joe DiMaggio baseball.

In looking through the conflict of interest database I couldn’t help but check out Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, who ended up having quite an extensive gift list. Here are the gifts Baird has accepted just since the 2011 election:

– A Mikimoto picture from His Excellency Norihiro Okuda, ambassador of Japan. (June, 2013)

– Montblanc cufflinks from Dr. Guido Westerwelle, Minister of Foreign Affairs for Germany. (May, 2013)

– A box of Cohiba cigars from Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla, Cuban minister of foreign affairs. (February, 2013)

– A gift basket containing champaigne, wine and chocolate from United Arab Emirates ambassador Mohammed Saif Hilal Al Shihi. (December, 2012)

– An iPad from the United Arab Emirates’ government at a forum in Abu Dhabi (weirdly, this is the second time the UAE gave Baird an iPad. I guess they bought in bulk). (November, 2012)

– A Cashsecret from Laurent Fabius, France’s minister of foreign affairs (I had no idea what a Cashsecret was but judging from pictures it appears to be some sort of cashmere blanket thing that can fold into a pillow. Or maybe it’s just the pillow and the blanket part is separate. The blanket might be more of a rug, or maybe a sash. This is not my area of expertise). (October, 2012)

– Cutlery from Adnan Mansour, Minister of Foreign Affairs for Lebanon (Lebanon is probably one of those who give out apples at Halloween). (August, 2012)

– A Dunhill wallet from the Honorary Consul of the Kingdom of Morocco in Hong Kong. (July, 2012)

– Cufflinks and a Cartier pen from Prince Haji Al-Muhtadee Billah of Brunei. (July, 2012)

– A Graf von Faber-Castell organizer (your guess is as good as mine) from the Luxembourg minister of foreign affairs. (June, 2012)

– A tablecloth (seriously, a tablecloth?) from Japan’s minister of foreign affairs. (March, 2012)

– Two framed pictures (he doesn’t say of what, sadly) from Burma’s minister of foreign affairs.

– A Christmas gift basket containing a bottle of champagne, two bottles of wine and a book from the United Arab Emirates ambassador to Canada (what’s up with the UAE and Christmas baskets?). (December, 2011)

– A gold plated plate (I swear that’s verbatim) of the 805th anniversary of the Great Mongolian Empire (capitalization also verbatim) from Mongolia’s minister for mineral resources and energy. (December, 2011)

– A 64 GB Applie iPad from the government of the United Arab Emirates. Baird donated the iPad to the department of Foreign Affairs. (November, 2011)

– A glass block with a city of Kuwait model inside from the Prime Minister of, you guessed it, Kuwait. During the same trip Baird also received a replica of a historical Kuwaiti fishing boat. (November, 2011)

– A “silver Celapa Malay traditional ornamental container embrossed with Brunei traditional motive” from Brunai’s minister of foreign affairs. (September, 2011)

The list keeps going (and going) but I’ve only got so much time. The moral of the story appears to be that if you’re into wine, chocolate and iPads get yourself to the United Arab Emirates. That said, sometimes patrons can be over-generous, particularly if they’re royalty. Ministers have to return gifts to the Canadian treasury if they’re valued at over $1,000.

In March of 2012 United Arab Emirates minister of foreign affairs Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan gave MacKay a painting by artist Najat Makki. In September of that year Nahyan gave MacKay a hand-knotted wool rug.

In both cases the gifts were deemed too valuable and were turned over to the government.

On June 4 of this year Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain gave MacKay a William & Son clock during a visit to Ottawa. This also was handed over to the treasury.

It’s no wonder there were so many rumours that Jason Kenney was rumoured to want the foreign affairs job so badly.

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Window to an alternate reality

In this incredible video Openfile founder Wilf Dinnick discusses how his website can beat newspapers at their own game, months after the site had already shut down.

Throughout the video, Dinnick drops nuggets of wisdom such as “Journalists do not work for pay, they work for passion” which is a thing people say when they’re trying not to pay journalists much.

But what’s utterly bizarre is that throughout the video, which it seems was filmed in late January, Dinnick never once lets on that Openfile had shut down four months earlier and still owes freelancers thousands of dollars. It feels like the interview was recorded in another world where the sky is orange and Openfile is thriving, and then it somehow made its way into our reality.

The interviewer, Randall Craig, apparently didn’t do the in-depth research of checking to see whether his guest’s website was still operational and keeps making cringe-inducing statements like “five years down the road, Openfile hopefully won’t be a closed file.”

Asked about it on Twitter, Craig said on February 24: “We conducted the interview last month. Sadly, we weren’t aware of the Sept date. Openfile had such promise – very unfortunate.”

Openfile sparked an interesting debate in it’s two-and-a-half year life. Many of us said the business model would never work, while just one year ago J-Source named Dinnick their Canadian newsperson of the year. In the months since Openfile was supposedly put on pause, Dinnick has continued to insist the site would return in a different form.

On January 10 Dinnick tweeted that paying off the freelancer debts was “all being wrapped up now,” though he’s been making similar promises for months. As recently as February 20 Dinnick claimed Openfile would not be gone for good and was just “down for a bit and was planned.”

I’m skeptical Dinnick will get Openfile off the ground again, but if he does it will bare no resemblance to its former self. Openfile was conceived as a “ground up” news site where readers pitch the stories they want to read. For reasons I’m not going to get into here, I think that’s a terrible model. But from what I’ve pieced together from Dinnick’s statements over the months, his new vision for Openfile seems to be as a cheap provider of custom content for other media companies.

Custom content is the industry buzzterm for content that isn’t quite advertorial but also not quite straight news. Here’s how it would work: Let’s say Postmedia goes to a bunch of real estate companies and says they’ve got this big insert coming out on buying a new home that you’ll want to advertise in. So the companies pony up the cash and the paper then goes to Openfile to write the stories around the ads. Rather than straight ad copy (“Why Greg Smith is the best Realtor!”) that no one wants to read, the stories are more like “5 things to look out for when buying your first condo.”

Of course companies have already been doing this for years (the condo example is actually the first and last custom content story I had to write years ago for a former employer) but as circulations decline they’re leaning more heavily on custom content now. The Toronto Star recently threw a lot of resources into a new in-house custom content division. From what I can tell, Openfile’s pitch is that it can create this content cheaper than the big companies because it doesn’t pay vacation, pensions, etc.

It’s a far cry from the lofty ideals of the original Openfile. The real shame here is that a lot of enthusiastic and talented people bought into the idea of Openfile and ended up getting screwed. I wonder what must be going through their heads as they watch Dinnick being interviewed as a visionary businessman.

UPDATE: The Grid staff writer David Topping, the same guy who compiled the list of Openfile’s freelance debts, says the producer of the Dinnick interview confirmed to him it was recorded on January 21, 2013.

UPDATE #2: Craig tells Halifax-based Frank Magazine his interview with Dinnick was a “massive fail.” He also tells Frank “we got snookered” before adding that there was no way he could have known about Openfile’s situation since Dinnick didn’t volunteer the info so “not snookered exactly.” If nothing else, this ordeal has perfectly illustrated what’s wrong with the ‘talking with great minds’ industry that has sprung up to capitalize on the popularity of TED talks.

Ezra and Me

Ezra face

My good friend Ezra Levant over at Sun News responded to my previous blog post on his show by denouncing not just me but the entire “Paul McLeod wing of the Media Party.” Here’s the video. On behalf of the wing, we are deeply hurt.

To be honest, I didn’t watch the whole thing and I’m not going to go spend too much time on this. But I did want to debunk one particularly egregious claim in Levant’s alleged outing of David Suzuki as an environymphomaniac.

Levant seizes on an email passage about arranging some students to meet Suzuki either “by having him step outside of the penthouse or enabling them to join the group in the sanctified air.” Here’s Ezra’s take on the “sheer grossness” of this at around the 10-minute mark of that video:

“Send these teenage girls, 17, 18, 19 years old, to Suzuki’s hotel room? At night? What dean would send teenage girls to a man’s hotel room at night?” …

“Isn’t it funny how both the Suzuki Foundation, and the college, didn’t deny that at all did they? They didn’t comment about the nighttime hotel room visit at all. They just said that I misinterpreted things. Really? What possible other interpretation can there be?

Yes, what possible other interpretation is there? Well, here’s one. It turns out the “penthouse” is the nickname for the top floor of John Abbott College’s new $45-million, five-story Science and Health Technologies Building. In fact the opening of the building, which is where the college trains nurses, ambulance technicians and pharmaceutical technicians, was timed to correspond to Suzuki’s visit.

Actually the building sounds pretty nice. Apparently the top floor has “an expansive view of Lac St. Louis and the college grounds.”

If you read the email that Ezra himself quotes, you can see there were two meetings with students – one in the morning and one in the evening. It even mentions how students were selected for the meetings. The criteria was not sexy, underage coeds. The criteria was science students.

Ta da! A meeting of science students and faculty in a school building becomes, in Ezra’s reports, a creepy sex offering of young girls to Suzuki’s private hotel. Cue uncomfortable mental images.

If it’s not clear already, Ezra isn’t trying to report a story. He’s trying to embarrass David Suzuki, a longtime target of Sun News. On behalf of the Paul McLeod wing of the Media Party, colour us shocked.

How to Manufacture a Story: David Suzuki Edition

What’s the over/under on an upcoming settlement between Sun News and environmentalist David Suzuki? One million? Maybe two?

I ask because I’d imagine Suzuki is about ready to unleash all his lawyerly hounds after Sun’s Ezra Levant called him a “dirty old man” who makes “bizarre and sexist requests.”

I’m inclined to stay out of this one. I also find the cult of David Suzuki kind of nauseating and Ezra, well, there are better life pursuits than hacking through his spin (I happen to be paid to hack through other people’s spin).

But Ezra and others are now saying the reason other reporters aren’t leaping on the story is because Suzuki is protected by the left-wing “media party.” Ezra makes this sort of claim a lot, and this seems as good an example as any for debunking it.

The thing with Ezra is is that much of the time his scoops disappear into thin air when you examine them too closely. So here’s my argument about why my socialist, media party hive-mind brothers and I might choose not to follow the Suzuki sex scandal.

The key with Ezra is you have to look through what he’s saying for what he can prove.

What he’s saying: As part of his rider for a speaking engagement at a small college, Suzuki demanded attractive young women follow him around dressed in sexy outfits. These women would then be invited up to his private Penthouse (presumably for some hot, carbon-neutral hanky panky).

What he can prove: Suzuki’s assistant requested he be followed around by female body guards.

That’s actually it. The rest is all in Ezra’s imagination and clever phrasing. The “rider”? Requesting the bodyguards be pretty? Made up by Ezra. There’s no sign that Suzuki requested the women be dressed any way at all.

So why have bodyguards? Apparently so he can “travel from one venue to another without being accosted too many times along the way.”

Ok, but why female body guards? I assume because he wanted to avoid the optics of the kind, old environmentalist being guarded by big, intimidating men. I assume this because that’s what the emails actually say: “No seriously, I believe it is his way of being discrete and less intimidating.”

This seems to be backed up in the correspondence we see about the bodyguard’s attire. The consideration seems not to be making them sexy, but making them appear not like bodyguards: “Please be certain that the women are nicely dressed, we don’t want them in evening gowns, but definitely NOT Police Tech uniforms.”

Keep in mind the emails about outfits were between school staff, not Suzuki’s people. There’s no evidence Suzuki’s assistant requested the girls be pretty, only some school staff fussing about the appearance of the people who will be following around their expensive guest speaker.

As for the penthouse, you have to torque this quote pretty hard to make it scandalous:

“In terms of acknowledging their contribution after the tours are completed, we will need to gather them together at the end to either give them some brief time with Suzuki (which I will try to make happen, either by having him step out of the penthouse or enabling them to join the group in the sanctified air).”

So this is a group of students (it doesn’t seem to be the bodyguard girls) getting a chance to either talk to him outside or with another group of people indoors. Hardly a private invitation to David Suzuki’s sex den. The only offensive thing about this statement seems to be the use of the gag-inducing term “sanctified air.”

The total cost of $40,000 does seem insanely high for a David Suzuki speech but hey, the college gets to decide how it spends its own money.

So where’s the sex scandal? All I see is a somewhat odd request for female bodyguards accompanied with a plausible explanation.

Ezra is a talented spin-man. I once watched him put together a case that the Liberal Party of Canada was behind Anonymous based on literally nothing. If he has real evidence that Suzuki is creepily asking for sexy college escorts then he’d have a story. But all I see so far is another one of his smoke and mirror routines.

UPDATE: My old coworker David Rodenhiser points out Suzuki spoke to a sold-out crowd of 1,600 at John Abbott College and his speech was live-streamed to about 14,000 more students. So his speaking fee worked out to about $2 per student.

UPDATE #2: Commenter Jay Watts points out that Suzuki was the keynote speaker at a fundraising gala that night. According to this faculty association memo the dinner was a hefty $650 per plate. That means just 64 attendees would have paid off the entire cost of bringing Suzuki into town. Of course, the dinner itself would have costs but it still seems pretty likely the college made money off of Suzuki’s visit.

And the worst column of the week goes to… it’s a tie!

Column writing is hard. Not finding-a-cure-for-cancer hard but it’s at least harder than it looks. So I usually feel some sympathy when I read a dud column. But at a certain point there’s no excuse, and today I read two pieces so astoundingly thick that I’ve decided to share them for your enjoyment/frustration/schadenfreude.

The first is this post by the Sun’s Brian Lilley. I know, I know, picking on a Brian Lilley column is like criticizing a Ke$ha song for vapid lyrics, but this one really is a doozy. Lilley argues the auditor general et al are lying about the F35 costs because they insist on counting up the full life cycle costs, which include things like fuel and repairs.

My favourite line: “Can you imagine what the cost of your car would be if you calculated its cost over decades, including estimates of every brake job, oil change and fill-up?”

Uh, yeah Brian, it would be the actual total cost of your car.

Lilley: “We don’t do this for other government programs or purchases, yet the opposition and the media demand that this is the only true way to account for military purchases.”

Yeah sort of, except it’s actually the Treasury Board’s own policies that say that. From the AG’s report: “Treasury Board policies require consideration of all relevant costs over the useful life of equipment, not just the initial acquisition or basic contract cost.” Whoopsies.

My other favourite column of the day is this piece by Tasha Kheiriddin saying we should abolish the CRTC because we have social media now. Seriously.

It starts by discussing the recent Supreme Court decision that the CRTC cannot force cable companies to pay broadcasters a fee for carrying their signals. Opines Kheiriddin: “At the same time, why should the CRTC decide the issue, instead of Parliament — or better yet, the free market?”

But the…how would… ok what? I have no idea how she thinks the “free market” can somehow force cable companies to pay for picking up over-the-air signals and packaging them in cable bundles. I’m kinda betting she doesn’t either. But the best part is the ending:

“In a world where a Korean pop music video gets a billion views, a monkey in a Toronto IKEA parking lot becomes a global folk hero, and social media drives the Arab Spring, the CRTC and bodies like it have become anachronisms. As cable goes the way of the rooftop antenna, the most recent CRTC decision will become irrelevant.

Instead of spending endless hours reinventing the institution, only to see change outpace it once again, the government should end its game of regulatory ping-pong, and abolish the CRTC.”

I have no idea what Gangnam Style and the Arab Spring have to do with the CRTC. I’m also unclear on why we should do away with the sole public regulator of our nation’s airwaves – a public resource – because people are using the internet. Also, I guess updating rules is too much of a hassle so we should just not bother regulating things.

I’d like to point out the holes in her argument but I honestly can’t piece together her argument to begin with, so I’ll just call it a day. There may be a reasonable case for reforming or perhaps even doing away with the CRTC, but I doubt it has anything to do with the IKEA Monkey.

Speaker Scheer carves the roast beast, or in this case a controversial government proposal

Following up on my previous post about Government House Leader Peter van Loan trying to strip Green Party leader Elizabeth May of the right to propose budget bill amendments, the verdict is now in. And as far as dry, procedural Speaker’s rulings go, it is an absolute smackdown.

van Loan argued May’s amendments should undergo a test vote to prove they had no support form the House. This would have saved government MPs from the trouble of actually having to vote down her amendments. After all, with a majority government the Speaker can easily “predict the intentions of the majority of Members” so why go through all the fuss?

Speaker of the House Andrew Scheer wasn’t having any of it. “Report stage motions are not, and never have been, selected for debate and grouped for voting on the basis of who the Chair thinks might win the vote on them,” wrote Scheer in a decision released today.

Scheer delves into the balance between the opposition’s responsibility to debate legislation and the government’s need to carry its business through the House in a reasonable amount of time. van Loan’s proposal would essentially destroy this balance, said Scheer. Here’s the key quote:

“The Government House Leader seemed to argue that the existence of a Government majority meant that the outcome of proceedings on the Bill was known in advance, that somehow this justified taking a new approach to decision-making by the House and that anything short of that would constitute a waste of the House’s time.  This line of reasoning, taken to its logical end, might lead to conclusions that trespass on important foundational principles of our institution.”

Scheer also quotes former Speaker Peter Milliken, who said “…neither the political realities of the moment nor the sheer force of the numbers should force us to set aside the values inherent in the parliamentary conventions and procedures by which we govern our deliberations.”

He then dropped the mic and strutted out of the House.

Scheer has been quietly controversial in his first year or so as Speaker of the House. Famously the youngest Speaker ever, his rulings have caused grumblings from some opposition MPs. Scheer has ruled he has no authority to tell government they have to provide substantive answers when it comes to question period (that fight was long-since lost before Scheer took the job) or order paper questions (this ruling I personally find both baffling and a dangerous precedent).

In fact, in Scheer’s ruling today he also dismissed a call from NDP House Leader Nathan Cullen to allow all budget amendments to be voted on individually (in 2001 the Liberals, wanting to avoid massive voting marathons, enacted “grouping” of amendments so that one vote could strike down, say, 20 amendments in one swoop). Scheer’s ruling was no surprise: he has consistently rejected attempts by Cullen and May disallow or delay a government’s ability to pass omnibus bills.

On the bright side for the opposition, he’s also mostly left them free to ask whatever they want of the government, except for a few short-lived attempts to limit them to government business.

So what kind of Speaker is Scheer? He’s, well, conservative. Like Milliken before him he takes a very narrow view of his powers and will mostly let MPs do as they like. But that conservatism cuts both ways, and we now see that he’s able to kick back against attempts to override the system, even when they come from his own party.

Scheer’s entire ruling can be read here.

Maritime Union Roundup

The idea is merging Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island into one province (sorry Newfoundland) is once again in the public sphere. This time it’s being proposed by three Conservative senators. For those who haven’t been following the Chronicle Herald’s coverage, here’s all you need to know:

Here is my original story on the proposal and NS Premier Darrell Dexter’s dismissal of it.

Here is my story on Senator Stephen Greene’s speech where he lays out the case for a merger. Or you can read his full speech here.

People have weighed in for and against the idea. Herald columnist Bill Black lays out how voters could achieve a Maritime Union.

Buuuut then there’s the small issue that the large majority of Atlantic Canadians oppose the idea, according to a new poll.

Finally, check out this very cool map of an actual Maritime Union back in 1783 when New Brunswick was still considered part of Nova Scotia, via the Nova Scotia Archives. For more fun historical stuff like this I highly recommend following the archives on twitter at @NS_Archives.