Friday, February 28, 2014



It's been years since a Sabia irked me with controversial views but these latest musings by Michael against those of us silly enough to invest in stocks and trust that our views count should draw a broadside of contempt.
His mother, Laura, the famous feminist, Tory and Sun columnist, used to give me ulcers as her editor at the Toronto Sun when she was just getting warmed up at the keyboard. God bless her! She was great in an argument about anything, whether she knew about the subject or not.
Since we also had mutual friends and met at parties, I could sympathize with her husband, the senior Michael, who was a doctor in St. Catharines where his wife started as a councillor, and said mornings at the hospital were quite interesting since his colleagues daily came to work raving about the latest, ahem, nonsense, from his wife.
Since Laura never rejected a microphone or a request for a comment, the Sabia family was used to living in the eye of verbal storms. And two of the children, Maureen, who I always regarded as a woman who fancied herself a legal greyhound in a world of beagles, and Michael, now the head of Canada's second largest pension fund dominating the affairs of Quebec, were no strangers to spinning hurricanes.
Canada and other big economies can't continue to treat companies like commodities that can be bought and sold at a whim, says Michael as he continues his crusade that there has to be a new market model, one that doesn't have the short-term focus of money-making and is aimed more at long-term investment and company building.
So let's see now. Let's take BCE, a company that Michael used to know a lot about since it certainly has soared since he left as boss. It's the traditional widows-and-orphans stock, where humble folk  depend on dividends and maybe even capital appreciation to buy the necessities of life. So Michael says Bell should concentrate not on good quarterly returns but work more towards building a stronger company.
Of course that makes sense, unless you are a widow or orphan who would just as soon have the stock go up, which it has been doing, and also pay a great dividend, which it also has been doing, one of the reasons it's so often recommended in business coverage.
Articles covering this latest round in Sabia's campaign pointed out that other business leaders, even the Supreme Court, have said that shareholders should not always get the last word, for example, on a takeover bid. Then there's the securities watchdog in Quebec saying that corporate directors should be able to decide what's in the best interest of a company when there's a hostile attempt to buy it without the intervention of authorities.
I just don't understand this crap.
We have had billion dollar scandals where the U.S. and Canadian governments have had to save giant financial organizations and banks from ruin when they really didn't know or care what they were doing, or who they were robbing, as long as the execs got obscene bonuses.
We have had huge platinum handshakes and payoffs, for example with BlackBerry, where companies frantically treading water get rid of the people that started the drowning.
 We have jerks like Conrad Black still swanning around in society as if he wasn't a jailed cheat, as if it was okay to live like a bloated baron as long as you impressed with preening use of big words.
And now these corporate leaders really expect us to let them operate as if the shareholders who have bought a bit of the company have no rights. They pretend that the overpaid execs can be trusted to do the right thing.
The latest word out of Wall Street and the TSX is that the licentious days of obscene expense accounts, bigger bonuses, dwarf tossing, and sticking suckers with bogus stocks are now just the stuff of novels and movies nominated for the Academy Award.
Elite university grads no longer drool at being stockbrokers. They still are paid well but it's 100-hour weeks, or so they say, so now the curdled cream of the graduation crop head for the dream streets in Silicon Valley, which now has its own problems with San Francisco saying it's ruining the local economy.
What the Sabias of the world have to realize is that  CEOs these days have all the aroma of politicians, and anyone who buys stocks still has a healthy distrust of stock markets, and anyone who really trusts bankers probably are so dumb that they think all those bank charges are legit.
Except you make only a tad more money on your savings in the bank than you do if it's stuffed in your mattress, but it's safer in your mattress.
Sabia can wrap his rhetoric in MBA BS and pretend that it would lead to a healthier economy, but the blunt fact is that ordinary Joes and Janes invest in companies listed on the stock markets because they would like the stock to go up and it would be nice if it paid a dividend too.
If you expect stockholders to wait five years or so for even one dollar, and not judge a company every quarter, then you really view them as a flock of sheep to be fleeced without securities watchdogs interfering. Yeah, some watchdogs, they have a lousy bark and no bite, and the stories of how they didn't act against the Ponzi schemers and pyramid builders read like anecdotes from Hell.
Isn't it sad that we have to wait for years for movies like The Wolf Of Wall Street and investigative shows like 60 Minute to tell us how they tried to take us five years or so ago. And now Sabia wants to slow down the reporting so CEOs and their handpicked boards can have more years in order to play with the books.
For shame!

Monday, February 24, 2014



Memo to Ontario Ombudsman Andre Marin:
May I make a suggestion about the investigation into Hydro One you started in early February. You say you have never received such a flood of complaints about a provincial organization. Believe me, advertise that Toronto Hydro will be examined too - to hell with jurisdiction - and you will face a tsunami.
I have blogged often about the provincial and municipal Hydro outfits since there have always been a fat-cat arrogance about their operations. Maybe it is due to the fact they're a monopoly, damn it, and if you don't like it, buy a generator.
As your information director, Linda Williamson, will tell you from her days as Editor of the Toronto Sun  (after me,) only the laws of libel have restrained me, and other columnists and letter writers, about the dunderheaded bureaucracy that produces so many obvious over billings through the years without any sense of shame. When these outfits goof in billing and then become stupid about immediate restitution, they mock the word utility.
The February letter of apology to everyone from Hydro One President Carmine Marcello says "the new billing system hasn't produced the level of service you deserve…" He said the previous system was more than a decade old and needed to be replaced. Marcello doesn't seem to understand that the previous system didn't work, the present system, obviously, doesn't work, and the heart of the matter is that too many meters just don't work accurately.
Farmers used to have a name for unprincipled but shrewd operators. And Marcello certainly is a
snollygoster. In the old days Hydro overcharged for every pole that the farmer needed to get electricity from the road after interminable waits for service. Nowadays, snollygosters come armed with meters that over-guess at how much power is used.
By the way, Andre, have you heard the one about my friend Alby who received an enormous Hydro One bill for his home in the Kawarthas even though he had spend the winter in Florida. Hydro One said his bill was triple the normal rate because neighbours must be running extension cords into his property. "But I live on top of a cliff," my friend said.


Got my Toronto Hydro bill. What a wonderful surprise. Due to the "competence" of its billing system and its "wonderful" new smart meters which have replaced mere mortals, the charge for 63 days ending Feb. 12 was only $127.74 higher than for the same period a year ago.
I shouted hosanna to the heavens. From what I've been reading about the financial atrocities reported to Marin, it could have been much worse. After all, Hydro even charges homeowners for electricity when their houses have burned down and there is plainly no electricity being used.
In my case, as was true with too much of Toronto, I had no power at all for 8% of the latest billing period, including the wonderful Christmas holiday. Since the blackout arrived at precisely the same time that my son Mark, home from Christmas for the occasion, was going to help me with outside and inside Christmas lights and a tree, I actually expected sort of a gift from Toronto Hydro.
You know, a lower bill because of no Christmas lights.
A year ago with Christmas lights proclaiming my love for the season from every inside and outside cranny of the Downing mansion, my bill for the period was $250.98.  This year, despite the absence of that happy power drain, my bill was $378.72. And yet the bill will show, that is if you can believe any of the figures on it, that 64% of the power was  used off peak when the price was supposedly the lowest.
Or so Hydro says. Hydrocrats weren't around yet when the expression was first coined about "figures lie and liars figure." but  it could be their motto.
My meter, which is classed as a "smart" meter, which is just another joke that Hydrocrats like to pull on a gullible public, says we used 2449 kWh this time and 1693 a year ago. Sure we did. That difference is so large that there would have had to be a significant change in lifestyle. There wasn't. Subtract the power that the Christmas lights would have used and the difference becomes a mistake.
So what I am proposing, Mr. Obudsman, is that you have the police fraud squad come and collect meter number 10034531 from my house and have it tested by some electrician who is actually competent.  Then have the Toronto police and the OPP randomly select 100 "smart" meters throughout the province and test them. Then the provincial cabinet should take the average margin of error, the average over billing,  and use that figure to reduce by a similar amount the hourly pay of every person at Hydro One and Toronto Hydro who make more than the average wage in Canada.
Then fire all the people who stuck us with these "smart" meters in the first place because they have been notorious for years. I've never been convinced they're bad for our health, as some insist, but there are too many weird readings for them to be trusted.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014



What bugs me most about the extortion by hospital administrators in parking charges fon their patients and visitors is that things have only got worse since the Canadian Medical Association Journal three years ago called for abolition of hospital parking fees because they were a barrier to better health care.
I wrote about it on Dec. 3, 2011,  under the same headline that this blog/column waves. The CMA and patient committees have not softened their approach about hospital CEOs acting like highwaymen.  The only reaction is that the federal Conservative government on Jan. 24 eliminated the HST on hospital parking fees.
Good for it! Unfortunately it has got little or no credit, matching the strange reaction when it lowered the HST rate  by two per cent., and for some dumb reason actually was attacked for that sensible move helping ordinary taxpayers by various think tanks and the usual political suspects.
(Of course there shouldn't have been an HST on hospital parking in the first place. Just another example of the feds tossing their HST net over items that used to be free of their gouging.)
Several years ago I spent three months in four hospitals. After the ordeal where I had to learn to walk again, I wrote a Toronto Sun series called Hospital Hell.  What is burned into my soul forever is anger about the awful nursing at St. Joseph's which left me with deep ulcers on my backside that took a tedious year to heal, AND the deep ulcers on the wallets of family and friends when they came to visit.
There are specialists who will admit that they have had patients stand up in the middle of the crucial interview and say that they have to go rescue their car. They had faced the usual long wait even though they had shown up on time and now, because of all the delays,  the $9 an hour fee, for example  at Western, had grown past $18 and they just didn't have the money.
The CBC program Marketplace has been running some useful stuff critical of hospitals. It paid for a survey of 1,000 Canadians: 52% said parking costs affected how often they visit and stay at a hospital, 22% said they couldn't afford to visit, 14% said they couldn't afford to volunteer, and 3% said they couldn't afford to come for an appointment.
Yet Deb Matthews, the provincial health minister, doesn't even try to convince us that she will do  something about this awful situation, saying parking charges aren't covered by the Canada Health Act.  A typical response from this awful government. I can write out a policy for her on one sheet of paper that can be imposed tomorrow and everyone would benefit. All she has to do is tell the hospitals that they can only charge a parking fee that covers the cost and maintenance of parking facilities or lots. Any profit will be deducted from the money the hospital gets from the province.
Of course parking is just the start. Just look at the gouging over TV and telephone service, which are generally lousy.
The only reason the exorbitant parking fees are not more controversial is because of the anti-car feeling by too many in public health and politics. Surely it would be better for the city, they think, if we all took transit to the hospital and maybe, if the heart attack is too bad, perhaps use an ambulance.  As for visitors to come and hold your hand in case you are expiring, well, they can hoof it.
Just look at the policy of the police and City Hall dealing with parking in a hospital neighbourhood. It is punitive both in regulation and enforcement.  The city should also order the parking enforcement officers that they can only check the block around a hospital at the same rate as they do the rest of the city. They can't look on a hospital neighbourhood as a favourite fishing hole.
Go to a hospital like St. Joe's and watch the parking cops endlessly circle the block. I parked on a side street waiting to collect Mary from a hospital appointment and was sitting in the car which had a disabled parking sign. The parking cop pulled up and told me to move because, as the poor signage didn't indicate, apparently I was in a No Stopping zone which existed for no apparent reason.
Watch the parking cop vultures nail parkers outside every hospital who are waiting to collect relatives from an appointment because they can't afford the usurious hospital parking rates.
Ah yes, the flip side of medicare. It's wonderful, but there are wait times, strange fees and the parking costs more than the surgeon.

Monday, February 17, 2014



I still think making Toronto one big city in 1998 was a great idea. Too bad the mushy middle and radical left of urban politics went out of their way to sabotage it.
There are those who claim they never met a fan of Mike Harris' Common Sense Revolution and one of its best ideas of scrambling the downtown and suburbs of T.O. into one big omelette that would be delicious for taxpayers because there would be fewer politicians and civil servants.
One of those who pretend that actually became premier too. Kathleen Wynne in the old days was a fellow traveller of John Sewell, the dour conservative/socialist/renegade opponent of any idea that wasn't his. She said she knocked on thousands of doors in her anti-campaign and never met a supporter of amalgamation.
Naturally that's exaggeration. After all, Grits are always liberal with the truth.
There were former mayors like David Crombie, former Metro chairmen like Paul Godfrey, former columnists like John Downing, and a host of people who now call themselves Ford Nation, who thought One Big City was a great idea.
We applauded Premier Harris for many of his initiatives to curb public unions and public payrolls and therefore reap a bountiful harvest in reduced taxation.
You'll notice that supporters were Conservatives of various red hues and opponents who love expanding government and aid programs are Liberals and New Democrats who basically think red tape and ever higher taxes are the most important product of any government as long as they gag Tories first before it strangles them.
Of course it was in the Toronto Star where I read about a report that massive  government restructuring that decreased the number of municipalities in Ontario from 850 to 445 just didn't work. The Star always thought Harris and his CSR leading to amalgamation were the spawn of devils because Canada's largest newspaper believes that we have to steal from the middle class to give to the poor while letting the rich away with murder because maybe then they'll stop reading the Globe and become Star-lings.
Under Harris, amalgamation was to save a quarter of a billion dollars by reducing the duplication in jobs in adjoining municipalities and also a quarter of the councillors in Ontario. Except it hasn't. The lead researcher in this report, Timothy Cobban, a Western University prof, says: " The conclusion is very strong amalgamation didn't reduce the size of municipal government.
The crusher is this. When stats are compared for the years before and after amalgamation, the municipalities grew in cost and employment and expanded at a faster rate in the decade after the merging than in the decade previous.  About 270,000 people now work in the municipal public sector in Ontario , compared to 160,000 in 1995. Spending of under $200 million in 1981 increased by 2011 to $750 million.
All you have to do is watching that dysfunctional body, Toronto council, on the community  TV channel, and realize that we haven't cut enough councillors, and what's with all those officials making more than $130,000 a year sitting about in the lounge in case they may be summoned to the bear pit.
So I have a radical idea for Conservative leader Tim Hudak. When he wins the next provincial election, and he should because anyone who would vote Liberal is so out of it that they won't be able to find the polls, let's update the Common Sense Revolution  and fix amalgamation.
There is too much about municipal government today that is still stuck in the horse-and-buggy age when it all began, except the horse is too fat, the buggy is too opulent and the driver is too busy stuffing his mouth.
The terrible reality is that our country has evolved from part-time politicians, whether MP, MPP or councillor, to where they make a better living than most people just being our "full time" representative. Except the quality of government has decreased even as its quantity has increased.
It's a case of Parkinson's Law run amuck. No matter how many we hire, their work expands to fill all available time. In the age of computer, we are still trying to climb out of a pothole.

Thursday, February 13, 2014



It's the middle of the night. Very cold. Very empty. Not the setting for a nice story.
My son Mark, who lives and works in China, is home having a late beer with an old friend, Gord Weiske, the noted film maker and Ryerson legend. who lives at the end of the Bloor subway when it is running.
As the pub closes, they start to head home, Mark by foot, Gord by the TTC. A bus comes along and Gord, not being at the stop, ignores it, but Mark waves at it, trusting from his experience as a world traveller that anything is possible, even a TTC bus stopping in mid block.
The bus does stop. Pleasant driver, who tells Gord,  who can only find a $10 bill in change, to pay extra the next time. Gord rides home, full of good will, Mark walks home, quick to tell me because he was with me the last time I exchanged pleasantries with a subway guard.
We were headed to a TSO concert when I limped up to the last car on the University line, using a hiking stick because of all the gawddamnsnowice left humped like an Himalayan obstacle course along our curbs because the city and business no longer even pretend to clear the snow.
The doors shut in our face, there was a long, long pause, and then the train departed, slowly, giving me plenty of opportunity to tell the TTC employee peering out the last window what I thought of his lack of courtesy when things were quiet.  He sassed me right back and smirked. Apparently I made his day. I must think up more cutting profanities.
So there you have the polar opposites, which seems suitable considering the weather, of public employees in Toronto. A driver going above and beyond because it really wasn't a busy time. And some TTC jerk who couldn't have cared less. Two weeks later, Mark and Gord flagged down another TTC bus in the middle of the night in between official stops. Must be catching!
I have a mixed reaction when I consider the annual report of city ombudsman Fiona Crean that she found in 2013 an unacceptable level of rudeness towards the public by city workers is becoming a worrisome trend.  I find it's a crap shoot, helpful or pleasant service maybe 45% of the time, indifference verging on incomprehensibility the rest of the time.
The useful 311 city information number  is a great aid for routine stuff but if it gets difficult, then you're info a boundless wilderness of confusion. No wonder aides to councillors have special numbers.
The agencies which are supposed to regularly provide us with power, and don't, don't really believe in answering phones and if by some miracle, someone does answer, they become unhelpful and then stupid, stubborn and inane.
Since there are some friends and family who consider me a titch belligerent when it comes to dealing with what is supposed to be service, let me assure you that my golden rule is never to be rude to anyone first.
But heaven help anyone who is rude to me first because then I feel free to bring down the wrath of warrior gods upon their heads and pursue them with verbal swords until they are fired.
Since they say a soft answer turneth away wrath, occasionally I do respond to rudeness in a whisper which I am happy to escalate to a bellow if nothing thaws with the jerks.
Recently I asked for senior tickets at the Royal York subway station and the guy threw adult tokens at me. I repeated my request. He yelled I had to tell him what I wanted. I said I had. He said I hadn't and refused to serve me. So I walked through the turnstile and thanked him for the free ride. It would have been an interesting confrontation if he had been stupid enough to call for assistance since I last looked like I was under 65 about a century ago.
What Mary and I find as we age into decrepitude is that many pedestrians are quick to offer help if the footing is really tricky. Torontonians are even more kindly at the sight of a cane or walker. When we use the subway because parking and traffic downtown has become a hell run by the socialists,  other passengers, particularly young women, quickly spring to their feet to offer seats. Occasionally there are louts lounging in the seats reserved for the elderly and disabled but fortunately someone offers me a seat first as I lumber towards them intending  to impale them on my hiking pole.
Crean, the ombudswoman, has a popular cause when she tackles rudeness, which is generally more indifference than boorishness  Yet there are a growing number of older people who don't really give a damn when younger people, particularly the oblivious packs of teenagers, dismiss them as cranky old farts.
You bet they're cantankerous after a lifetime of over paying in taxes because of TTC and municipal unions, the general obscene wastage of all government, and the feeling by too many workers living off  taxpayers that they don't intend to be bothered about anyone or anything as they relax in what they feel is their job for life.
They had better be careful around pensioners, especially now when we're multiplying like rabbits force-fed Viagra.
.Several years ago, Mary and I were in the wonderful Hermitage Museum in Russia and some drunken Russian youths rudely pushed her aside at an elevator. She shoved her cane between the legs of this punk and as he staggered and glared, she looked innocently away. But he knew.
Beware the sleeping giants even if they're only five foot two.