Thursday, December 21, 2006

Sustainability op ed.

Great opinion piece by David Boyd in yesterday's Vancouver Sun. Unfortunately, it didn't seem to make to the site. You can however read his policy document, Sustainability within a Generation, at the David Suzuki Foundation website. Great Christmas reading!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

My first month in Vancouver

I've been in Vancouver for about a month now -- excluding a nine day road trip up and down the east coast. It's been a wild ride; first there were torrential rains and a boil water advisory; then a blizzard (in November!); and finally hurricane force winds.

For me, the wind storm last Friday was by far the most frightening. Our apartment is on the 18th floor facing English Bay. When the winds gusted it was as if someone were throwing their body against the windows and the entire building swayed. Scary. The greatest tragedy is the damage that was done to Stanley Park. I visited a couple of times last summer and was looking forward to spending time in the park next spring and summer. Sadly, it appears that the park won't be the same for a long time.

The one thing that has really struck me in my short time here, is the visible pervasiveness of homelessness. The homeless are everywhere -- in doorways, behind bushes, on the sidewalk, in parking lots. It's a tragedy that is at least as great a problem here as it is in Toronto, and one that needs to be addressed. I can't imagine how difficult it must be to be without a home; not being able to have a hot shower or sleep in a warm bed. No one deserves a fate like that. A couple of bad breaks and maybe it could be me.

One of the reason's certainly must be the lack of affordable housing. The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation just released its latest Rental Market Reports and Vancouver's vacancy rates are among the lowest in the country. Even if you look at availability rates rather than vacancy rates and include condo rentals it still looks pretty bleak. So, while the federal Conservatives decision to renew a homelessness initiative started by the previous Liberal government, it's unlikely that the $526 million is going to make a significant difference.

The other area that really needs to be addressed in Vancouver is the cost of purchasing a home or condominium. The average resale home price is over $500,000 and the average price for condominiums is over $340,000. These prices make it difficult for many people to get into the market (and relieve pressure on the rental market). It's definitely an overheated market and most of the demand is being driven from investors from outside of Canada. My banker has told be that most of the demand is from buyers in China and the Middle East. This was confirmed on my flight from Toronto last week. I got into a conversation about my move here with the guy sitting next to me and eventually the conversation turned to whether I was going to buy a property here. Long story short, a friend of his is a real estate agent in Vancouver and recently sold multiple properties to someone from Hong Kong.

While this may or may not be true -- at the very least it indicates that there are likely investors from outside the country who are fueling the frenzied market here. And while I'm all for capitalism, it seems that some form of regulation needs to be put in place to ensure that there is still a reasonable stock of affordable housing. Maybe it's limiting foreign investment in the residential market. Maybe it's requiring that foreign buyers are resident here. I'm not sure.

As it stands right now middle income and even upper middle income earners are being priced out of the market. Which will in turn lead to other problems like labor migration to more affordable markets and an inability to attract skilled workers from other markets.

Maybe it's a bubble. Or maybe Vancouver will be like San Francisco and you'll need two (or more) incomes, and a willingness to forgo other savings to get into the market. As a new Vancouverite, here's hoping that local, provincial and federal governments make housing one of there top priorities. Before the problem gets worse.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

Some humour in these times of terror

I happen to do a fair amount of travelling as a part of my job. Today I'm in Tampa, where the "Threat Advisory Level" is orange (high) and everyone is talking about the morass that is Iraq, and the bi-partisan committee report calling for the U.S. to get out by 2008 (Mr. Harper please take note).

Travelling anywhere in the United States these days has reached a level of drudgery that has removed any remaining joy from a life on the road. First there's the self-service kiosks which pretty require that you write your autobiography every time you enter the America. Then there's screening process which is now just short of a full strip and cavity search. Today in Tampa and removing my jacket, belt, shoes, watch and other item that looks like it might set security off, for what seems to be the millionth time (I used to joke about taking off my pants, but often as not the screeners now just look at you as if it might not be a bad idea.)

So I am more than pleasantly surprised by Ron, my security screener. Ron has an ironic, glib sense of humour. It starts by his asking everyone to place items on the table and he will place them in the colored bin of his choice (grey, grey, grey, grey or grey with a red stripe). No one is special including the wheelchair bound senior in front of me who is given an especially hard time for having three watches ("How many time zones are you travelling through today?" and "If I by 2 do I get the third one at 50% off?). In these overly serious times even bad jokes lighten the spirit.

My hope is that this is the start of a trend. How about hiring some Disney characters to make security fun for the whole family. Or better yet having everyone trained by Russel Peter's so that they're armed with something for travellers of every race and religion. So here's to you Ron. I hope you get your discount.

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Here we go again

So Prime Minister Harper (it hurts to say that) has seen fit to pander to his constituency by reopening the same sex marriage debate and open the door to revisit Bill C-38. While I'm sure he secretly hopes that the vote fails and the issue fades into the political ether, there is the possibility that it won't. And won't that serve him right. If it does, I for one think we should start a petition to make Mr. Harper, Mr. Nicholson and anyone else onside with this ridiculous effort to attend question period wearing nothing but chaps and a cowboy hat. They are, after all, from the west and we've all seen Brokeback Mountain.

Mr. Dion has it exactly right. You can't pick and choose who will have the benefit of rights. If marriage is a civil right then it must be made available to all equally. That said, it would be unfortunate if Mr. Dion forces the Liberal caucus to vote against the motion. Right now, Mr. Dion has the opportunity to build from the convention and Canadians' positive perception of him as an intelligent, honest and ethical leader. Right now even the press are helping him -- James Travers characterized him as a Canadian Tintin. Adding dogmatic to that might not be so helpful, as it would only validate the perception of him emanating from Quebec. And make it much more difficult to differentiate himself from the "control freak", Mr. Harper.

As discouraging as Mr. Harper's and Mr. Nicholson's motion is, Mr. Dion must allow Liberal caucus members to vote based on the wishes of their constituents and their beliefs. That, after all is democracy.

Monday, December 4, 2006

Final thoughts on the Liberal Convention

As a Liberal party member looking in from the outside, I have mixed feelings about the outcome of the convention. I'm a Kennedy supporter, so I'm disappointed he didn't win. But given his focus on party renewal and the fact that his French still needs work, he really didn't stand much of a chance with the party establishment. But Kennedy's ability to act as kingmaker hopefully will result in the party putting some focus on ethics and accountability. If not then it will be obvious to many inside and outside of the party that we've learned nothing. While time has softened Canadians anger over the sponsorship scandal I believe it's still on their minds -- at least it is with many of those I've talked to over the past few weeks.

That said, like many others Dion was my second choice and I believe that he has the potential to be a good, if not a great leader. He certainly has been underestimated and that may continue to play in his favour. Today's poll results certainly underline his potential. And it's validated by my own conversations immediately following Dion's win on Saturday.

I'm also a new newly transplanted to Vancouver from Toronto (my wife is pursuing an acting career out here). We went out for a very late brunch following the final ballot and I asked a few of the patrons of the Red Umbrella what they thought of Dion's win. To my surprise, more than a few were happy with the result -- they despise Harper and generally like Dion's strategy for creating a sustainable economy. Dion was also endorsed by the Georgia Straight weekly prior to the convention, so if this small sampling is any indication he has some potential out here.

What disappointed me most about the convention was the failure to really embrace the grass roots by extending suffrage to the broader party membership. I think the excitement of the convention can be maintained while allowing for broader participation in the selection of the leader and on policy for that matter.

I was also disappointed with Bob Rae's reaction to being outmanoeuvred by Dion and Kennedy. His comment on his decision to free his delegates to vote their conscience was a bit pathetic given his own machinations. I mean here's a guy who openly accepted Joe Volpe's support. The whining's a bit rich, particularly someone who is strongly motivated by his need to be famous. To me that certainly came out in his "all about Bob" speech on Friday night.

Finally, I'm encouraged by Kennedy's resolve in the aftermath of Dion's win. After all while he may have been the kingmaker he still lost. Nevertheless he still exhibits that resolve an commitment to the common good that inspired so many of his followers. So here's hoping that the Dion-Kennedy tandem can exert significant influence on the shape of the party; that the party will recognize that both the party and the broader electorate want reform and that they will all come together to win in the next election.

Friday, December 1, 2006

Kennedy Delivers

I watched the leadership speeches on CBC tonight and for my money Kennedy delivered the best speech of the night. He was the only candidate that addressed the issue of renewal, an issue which is important to those of us who are still troubled by the Liberal corruption and sense of entitlement after 13 years in power. You could see the audience reaction to his comments on the need for renewal. Stone cold silence from the back-roomers and lifers. Too bad because for those of us who are looking for a commitment to change and renewal, the last thing we want to see is long time Liberal fat cats licking their lips in anticipating of a big juicy meal at the next election.

His speech was also full of energy and passion. The end of his speech, when he was describing how his experience working at the food bank has motivated his public life was particularly moving. His tone was lower key, less aggressive and he was more relaxed. At that moment I really felt that he was letting you in to get a good look at who he really is. The guy you'd see if he invited you to his house for dinner. I thought it was a very effective way to end his speech and one which certainly cemented my support for him.

I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Kennedy about six weeks ago and we talked for several minutes. I was trying to get a sense for his character and so I asked an obviously provocative question. I asked if what he would do if it was clear he couldn't win. He said he is in this for the long haul. His response was immediate, short and direct. And I could tell that he meant it. I saw more of that tonight. It's the passion and honesty of people like Gerard Kennedy and Robert Kennedy who really make me believe that a commitment to public service is a more than worthy vocation. Something that I haven't felt for many, many years.

Dean or no Dean

I watched Howard Dean's keynote at the Liberal leadership convention last night. It was something of a contentious issue among Liberal's. On the one hand the Liberals are in the midst of "renewing" the party and have been shy about using the "Republican" and "Bush-lite" labels on the Conservatives and his royal Excellency the right honorable Stephen Harper. So you'd think they'd be a little more cautious about bringing in someone who could generate the same sort of criticism. And in the midst of renewal do the Liberal's really need to go south of the border for ideas and inspiration? Can't they find ANYONE who could inspire the troops who was actually Canadian? Are we really that pathetic?

On the other hand, the Democrats, under Dean's guidance, have just defeated the real Evil Empire, so any ideas and inspiration he can give to aid in the defeat of Satan Jr. can't hurt. And really, are we that insecure as a nation that there has to be wailing and gnashing of teeth every time we do this? After all America is not only the most powerful country in the world (England to our Ireland) but one of the oldest and most successful democracies, so why shouldn't we exchange ideas? After all while Dean's invoking Trudeau's "Just Society" was probably more pandering to the audience than sincere, his 50 state strategy and fighting for every vote really resonated with the audience. And from my own experience, campaigning for other candidates, if you listen to people, treat them with respect and respond to their issues in a principled and honest fashion they will respond. So let's just all relax and enjoy.

Unfortunately, for the most part, I found his speech to be pretty pedestrian and even robotic. I mean other than the "our diversity does not divide us, it defines us" and the part about "power does not belong to us, it is loaned to us", it just seemed pretty mechanical -- and dull.

In fact, compared with some of the other leadership candidates he seemed almost amateurish. While I don't support them for leader, both Ignatieff and Rae are far more eloquent and engaging as speakers. And for my money, they offer more substance in their speeches than Dean did last night. And while Gerard Kennedy lacks a bit in delivery (he always looks a bit nervous), he makes up for it with passion and a authenticity.

So why couldn't the Liberal's have it both ways. Bring in Dean to inspire the troops with stories of crushing the enemy and an actual Canadian who could deliver a passionate, inspired speech on what Canada could be. Beats me. They're out there. I've even met some of them.

Recognizing Quebec as a Nation

The debate over whether to recognize Quebec as a nation has taken over the national political agenda over the past week -- largely thanks to Michael Ignatieff and members of the Quebec Liberal caucus and Stephen Harper's seeming pathological need to have any shiny new idea that comes into his head realized.

While I'm split on the issue, it seems to me that it warrants deeper consideration than the cursory debate that was undertaken this past week by all of the leading parties. Given that the definition of a "nation" can include the notion of all, or some of, a common culture, language, history and geography it has the opportunity to be dangerous in the hands of the Bloc and the PQ. The vagueness of the motion and the Bloq's support of the motion only raises concerns. But once again, Mr. Harper's only consideration was the opportunity to realize some political gain in Quebec and so forged ahead all guns blazing.

In light of the almost unanimous vote to pass the motion, it's good to see that at least a few of the Liberal leadership candidates have come out either against it -- or at least voicing some concern. Both Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Rae have voiced their concerns and kept the debate open, and Mr. Dryden actually had the courage to vote against it. I hope that at least one of them has the courage to address the issue during their speeches on Friday night.

But it seems to me that the question is the wrong one for our times, and certainly the wrong one for the country. A comment made on Rex Murphy's Cross Country Checkup last night validated what I've been thinking for a while. At one point a Quebecois, who had been raised in a small French community and educated by separatists said that most Quebecois under 40 don't care about the separatist issue. To them it's an issue that the previous generation hasn't been able to let go of and not one that concerns them. He, and most people his age, are concerned with what concerns most of us in the rest of the country in an increasingly competitive, global economy -- our jobs, family, house, happiness.

It's probably telling that Mr. Ignatieff, who has been living in some sort of a time bubble would come back with this issue. What we really should be concerned about -- and what Mr. Kennedy, Mr. Dion and Mr. Rae seem to be more focused on is how we can be competitive in today's global economy.

This is the context, in which we should consider the question of nationalism. Rather than looking back at an issue that was relevant 20 years ago, we should be considering how we can leverage our uniqueness as a nation that comprises different ethnicities, cultures and languages to gain a unique advantage in the global economy? We should be promoting cross-pollination of cultures and languages in our education system and encouraging not just bilingualism but multi-lingualism in both business and political life.

If you go to Europe or Asia, or really anywhere but North America, many people speak two or more languages and are familiar with many different cultures. We should be embracing and expanding multiculturalism and pushing into every corner of the country. And in doing so perhaps we can truly be a model for democracy that the rest of the world will look to and want to emulate.