Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Theo Caldwell on U.S. Ambassador David Wilkins: pro-Canada, pro-Canadian Forces, pro-Rick Hillier

David Wilkins, the United States’ Ambassador to Canada, spent Christmas Eve 2007 under a full moon in the Afghan desert. Wilkins’ gratitude for Canada’s leading role in the Afghanistan campaign has been part of his public pronouncements for some time, so when he was invited to accompany Defence Minister Peter MacKay and Chief of Defence Staff General Rick Hillier to Kandahar, the Ambassador jumped at the chance to thank Canadian troops in person.

“It was one of the most impressive things I have ever seen,” Wilkins says of his time with the troops. “It had a profound effect on me. I got to see first-hand their spirit, their morale and their willingness to do the tough jobs. They are convinced they are making a difference. They believe in their mission and that democracy will take hold and grow in Afghanistan if we give these people … the time necessary to establish a free country. It was an awe-inspiring trip. I wouldn’t take anything for it.”

Wilkins’ admiration for the Canadian Forces extends right up to Gen. Hillier himself, of whom he says, “This guy is the real deal. He is unbelievable. He connects with his troops. We could all go to school on how he does it. He is absolutely a soldier’s soldier, and they just love him.”

Indeed, it was on Hillier’s initiative that Ambassador Wilkins found himself under that big desert moon when Christmas arrived: “About midnight, after the troops were fed, General Hillier said ‘I’m going to go walk around and say Merry Christmas to the guys at the guard posts.’ Full moonlight, you could see forever. These guys, out in the most desolate of areas, professional, in good spirits, standing guard on Christmas Eve — incredible. I was saying ‘Joyeux Noël’ and they were saying ‘Merry Christmas.’ ”

In his office, Wilkins displays one of the most prized souvenirs from his trip: a picture of himself and Tim Horton’s founder Ron Joyce serving coffee and doughnuts to Canadian troops in Kandahar on Christmas Day. One would be hard-pressed to conjure a more iconic image of the friendship and shared values of Canada and the United States.

Wilkins’ path to one of America’s most important diplomatic posts began in 1998, when he befriended then-Governor George W. Bush of Texas, who was contemplating a White House run. At the time, Wilkins was Speaker of the South Carolina House of Representatives — the first Republican to hold this lofty post in the Palmetto State since Reconstruction.

Wilkins served as co-chair of the South Carolina Bush for President Campaign in 2000, and was state chairman of the president’s re-election effort in 2004. The personal friendship between the two men remains strong, each of them speaking highly of the other, though Wilkins is well aware of how many Canadians feel about Bush.

“I know what the feelings are up here about my president, but Canadians should know that for the last seven years, this president has vigorously supported NAFTA, free trade, supported them when the border was closed because of the [Mad Cow] scare, and worked very hard publicly and in the courts system to re-open the border as quickly as possible. He has, obviously, played a major role in keeping North America safe … He has been a friend to Canada. And I don’t think he gets that appreciation.”

Since presenting his diplomatic papers to then-Prime Minister Paul Martin on June 29, 2005, Ambassador Wilkins has shown extraordinary dedication to his role. He has logged over a half-million kilometres in the air over Canada, visiting every province and territory, meeting many thousands of Canadians, always giving thanks for the relationship this country shares with the United States.

“My goal from the first day has been to accentuate the positive and leave the relationship stronger than it was when I found it,” he reports. “The relationship is so good, so positive, that it is easy for all of us to take it for granted. So, when one or two issues come up that are irritants, we tend to spend a lot of effort and publicity on those issues. I sometimes remind my Canadian friends that it’s important for all of us sometimes to take a deep breath and appreciate what we have in common than look for issues that divide us.”

While maintaining friendships at the pinnacles of political power, Wilkins seems instinctively to know that greatness comes from simple goodness. He extends warmth and sincerity to heads of state and simple citizens alike, evincing the crucial common touch of a leader. His admiration for the inherent decency of both countries comes across in official speeches and casual conversations, revealing a refreshing seamlessness between his public and private views.

In his capacity as the United States’ representative to Canada, Wilkins serves at the pleasure of the president. This means that his term will end round about the time a new administration takes over the White House in January 2009. As Canadians prepare to say goodbye to Ambassador Wilkins, we may also want to say thanks.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Greens continue to ignore the real danger

"The Greatest Threat to Our Generation." This is how Toronto Mayor David Miller routinely characterizes "climate change," the euphemistic moniker hung upon "global warming" during brutal winters.

Miller's most recent employment of this deathly description came in his response to the Canadian federal budget, as he assessed its environmental provisions.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg prioritizes his fears in much the same way as Miller, recently telling reporters after addressing the United Nations General Assembly, "Weapons of mass destruction have the potential to kill an enormous amount of people, but global warming in the long term has the potential to kill everybody."

Not even two years since terrorists plotted to blow up the Toronto Stock Exchange, and with Ground Zero still a hallowed pit at the foot of Manhattan, it is awkward to have to point out this simple truth to the titular leaders of both cities, but here goes: The greatest threat to our generation is, in fact, Islamic terrorism.

This threat is embodied by millions of fanatics throughout the world and has already claimed the lives of many thousands of innocents.

As terrorists and their supporters clamour and scheme for the murder of millions more, major cities remain primary targets. Comforting as it may be to imagine our enemies are impersonal entities like carbon molecules and SUVs, our actual foes are evil men who really hate us and want us dead. City leaders ought to have this much in mind.

One of the many misfortunes of war is we rarely get to choose our enemies, and a manageable foe like energy usage would be far preferable to the reality of what we face. I, for one, would volunteer to be leader of the Luddites, dousing every light and riding a unicycle to work in winter if I believed the threat of man-made climate change to be as near and deadly as that of Islamic terrorism.

Moreover, I am ready to be convinced. Rather than reasoned arguments, however, we get histrionic proclamations like those of Miller and Bloomberg, frequently followed by invective against anyone who hesitates to agree, up to and including threats of arrest (David Suzuki, please pick up the nearest solar-powered courtesy phone).

The evidence of terrorism's threat, meanwhile, is undeniable and tragic. From Toronto to New York, to London to Madrid, recent history makes it clear that urban centres are most at risk. Yet for every mention of Miller's "Green Mandate" from the voters -- including $106 million set aside for his climate change initiatives over the next five years -- there is nothing to evince the mayor takes terrorism anywhere near as seriously.

The argument here is not whether climate change is real, or whether we are its cause. It is, rather, a question of priorities. Even if the direst prognostications of the most humourless environmentalist are accurate (another call for you, Dr. Suzuki), the effects cannot compare with the immediate devastation of a successful terrorist attack on an urban centre.

If citizens and elected officials truly believe that climate change is a threat, then by all means it should be addressed. But Toronto is Canada's largest terrorism target -- does that not merit the attention of our leaders?

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Inside the mind of the CBC

Over lunch recently, a CBC television journalist outlined to me some of the stories she has put together for upcoming broadcasts. A segment of which she was particularly proud included an interview with the Chief Exorcist at the Vatican, and the increased frequency of demonic possession around the world. What excited her most about this segment was the date it was then scheduled to air: "I told my producer -- we have to do it on Easter Sunday!"

I have not seen the interview in question. That said, I suggested to her that, on a day when millions of Canadians revere Christ's triumph over death, it seems insensitive to broadcast an update on the devil's progress.

"All right, then," she answered with annoyance, "What would be on your approved list for CBC Sunday?"

Interesting, that. Always, we are told that the CBC is the people's broadcaster, owned by all Canadians. Yet when I, a Canadian taxpayer, posit that a segment about demonic possession is inappropriate programming on the holiest day of the Christian calendar, the reflexive response is a who-do-you-think-you-are, sarcastic rejoinder, as though I should have no say in the matter.

I suggested a church service, or even something with no religious connection at all. For Heaven's sake, they could just replay Chicken Run, which is shown on CBC half a dozen times on any given weekend (see what a billion taxpayer dollars buys you?).

But then, this is the network that marked the fifth anniversary of 9/11 with a special investigation into whether the terrorist attacks were an inside job by the U.S. government (CBC gave "both sides" of the story -- note to our national broadcaster: both sides of bollocks is still bollocks). They will do as they please with our tax dollars.

From our testy discussion of religion, my lunch companion and I moved on to even more dangerous ground -- CBC's role and its responsiveness to Canadians.

I proposed that a publicly financed broadcaster ought to restrict itself to programming that private broadcasters, for reasons of profit and loss, cannot or will not produce. On this point, my CBC interlocutor seemed to feel we had some common ground, and began to enthuse on the topic of CBC's drama and comedy series.
What I had in mind, I replied, was more on the order of public hearings and service announcements, not shows that are unprofitable by virtue of being breathtakingly bad. Sadly, the CBC's perceived responsibility to produce fictional series has had taxpayers footing the bill for unbearable, politically correct harangues from King of Kensington to Little Mosque on the Prairie.

"Well," my companion mused, a slyness slipping into her voice as though rhetorical checkmate were a few words away, "don't you think it's important that Canadians watch Canadian shows?"

"No," I replied. Programming that excites the mind, affirms the human spirit and earns the approbation of the audience is the ideal, and country of origin is secondary. In fact, in the case of some Canadian shows, I think she has it exactly backward. For example, I believe it is important that Canadians not watch a single episode of The Border (this is CBC's tax-payer-funded offering in the age of terror, wherein Canadian intelligence officers do battle with our age-old, dastardly foe: the United States of America).

As a Canadian taxpayer, the most I expect from the CBC is a bill. But is it too much to ask for a little courtesy, even on Easter?

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Bad on trade = bad for Canada

Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama
in San Antonio, Texas yesterday. (Win McNamee, Getty Images)

It is difficult to overstate the severity of the hosing Canadians will experience if Barack Obama becomes president of the United States.

The foremost way in which the callow Senator from Illinois would snatch the double-double from our Timmy's is evident in his attitude toward trade. In pursuit of blue-collar primary votes in Wisconsin and Ohio, and in defiance of the fact that U.S. manufacturing jobs have been declining since 1979, Obama has effectively scapegoated the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) for job losses, promising to revisit, and perhaps withdraw from, the treaty.

Slapping tariffs on Canadian exports would hurt folks on both sides of the border. (Does Obama suppose that duties on American exports will actually revitalize the U.S. manufacturing base?). The same organized labour groups that clamour against NAFTA (or any free trade deal, really) would do far better to encourage a cut in corporate tax rates, assuming their ambition is to bring back jobs. Such a move in the United States would prompt similar action in Canada, helping all of our workers.

But this is not in Obama's playbook. Whether Canadians know it or not, his election would hit us squarely in the wallet.

Here is a simple truth with which Canadians should acquaint themselves: Republicans are generally free traders; Democrats, not. Since two Republican presidents and one Conservative prime minister effected the Canada-U.S. free trade agreement in 1989, trade between our two countries has tripled. Bill Clinton's acceptance of NAFTA in 1993 remains a heresy to many in his party -- including his wife and her rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Obama.

But trade is only one aspect of Obama's abysmal agenda. His misbegotten economic and foreign-policy prescriptions matter, too. He plans to raise taxes across the board -- doubling capital gains, increasing inheritance taxes to 55%, and hiking income taxes to such levels that Americans could see marginal rates at the 65-70% range of the bad old days. The American economy is already facing a recession; with Obama's help, a full-on depression is achievable. And as the American economy goes, so does that of Canada.

There is much talk about Obama as the agent of "hope" and "change," and his energy and youth have prompted comparisons to John F. Kennedy. But JFK understood the value of letting businesspeople do business, within and across borders. Kennedy's tax cuts were larger than those of any president since --including Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush -- resulting in higher tax receipts for years, and buoying the North American economy.

From a broader perspective, consider Obama's threats to invade Pakistan, negotiate without condition with Cuba and Iran, and cut off exports from China. "Hope," indeed! One hopes Obama does not mean a word he is saying. He is Jimmy Carter without the foreign-policy acumen.

We have all dodged a bullet with the collapse of Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign (but expect to see her screeching back in 2012, like Glenn Close coming out of that bathtub). The big-government, high-tax protectionist notions that animate Hillary's political philosophy, however, are still part of this presidential contest, and they are embodied by Obama. This is not good news for Canadians, however compelling they may find Obama to be.

For various ideological reasons, Canadians most often identify with the Democratic candidates in American presidential contests. As Barack Obama prepares to hobble America's economy, close its borders to trade and legitimize our shared enemies, Canadians ought to reconsider their outlook.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Toronto's budget: show me the money

From the tyrant’s perspective, liberty is a delicacy. To wit, he does not wolf it down all in one mouthful; rather, he savours it one little bite at a time. In this way, a free populace is unaware of their liberty’s chomping until it is all but gone.

A rapacious ruler will often start with government’s transparency, and this approach is applicable to the City of Toronto. As the Sun’s Sue-Ann Levy has lamented, it is all but impossible for citizens, journalists, or even city councillors to obtain a line-by-line accounting of the city’s budget. By any standard of government in Western society, this is egregious.

It may not seem so, since working folks have more compelling things to do than curl up with copious pages of municipal data — but they ought to have the untrammelled ability to inspect how their tax dollars are being spent.

Can’t drive stick
Despots prefer dim lighting.

I am not concluding from this one instance that we are close to having tanks in our city streets — if for no other reason than I suspect not a single member of Mayor David Miller’s coterie can drive a standard transmission — but it evinces a Soviet-style contempt for the citizenry that manifests itself more boldly by the day.

For example, this winter’s heavy snowfall has prompted Miller’s loyal councillors to fits of proletarian pique that would make the Politburo proud. As Coun. Joe Mihevc contemplates how severely citizens ought to be fined for failing to clear city sidewalks in front of their homes and businesses, Coun. Glenn De Baeremaeker refers to those who pay his salary and expenses as “lazy” and imagines them “sitting in their homes eating popcorn,” rather than shovelling snow.

But this kind of mass recrimination and lack of perspective are commonplace among the swivel-chair Trotskyites who comprise the council of any major metropolis. A padlock on the books, however, is a step beyond.
Requests to the city for complete budget data yield direction to a website, where one will find summaries, Power Points and pie charts to beat the band. But a line-by-line accounting of all figures remains elusive, even to elected city officials.

Coun. Mike Del Grande, the only chartered accountant on Toronto city council, has requested complete budget data for years, to no avail. Moreover, despite accounting credentials that are unique among his peers, Del Grande remains excluded from the city’s budget committee.
In lieu of specifics, what one discovers within the published budget documents are the major challenges of city departments, as outlined by council, with a tenuous relevance to dollars and cents.

For example, the Toronto Police Service is charged with, “Reduction in Paper Usage: Double-siding photocopies and printing along with limiting paper handouts is projected to result in 5 million less photocopies in 2007 with a savings of $0.050 million.”

Police priorities
A citizen may be forgiven for wondering if, in a city with appalling rates of homicide and violent crime and an increasing number of areas in which folks cannot walk safely in broad daylight, a paperless paradise ought to be a priority of the police. Of course, this misbegotten approach does not reflect on Toronto’s finest, but on their civilian overseers.

It is a point so rudimentary that it seems odd to have to state it explicitly: This is our city, run with our money. Any citizen, taxpayer, or, especially, elected city councillor, ought to be able to see where each dollar goes.

Top-line reports of revenues and expenses, unveiled in multi-colour, expensive-looking reports (adding insult to injury), do not suffice. We have a fine city, and it belongs to us all. Liberty loves the sunlight.