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Partisan junk mail on the agenda

Junk mail. You know how much you love to get it. The joy of opening your mailbox and finding it stuffed with flyers, ads, giveaways, requests for money and political ads is second only to the joy of opening your inbox and finding it full of email spam. I mean, how else would you fill your blue bin every week if not for the crap that fills your mail box? Without junk mail, what would life be, after all?

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So when I opened the agenda package for September 8, imagine my delight in finding a piece of junk mailinserted into the consent agenda - that area usually reserved for letters to council, requests for support or correspondence of some importance to the community. So now junk mail - not even new junk mail - is something the community just had to see again in our official correspondence.

Okay, the official trade name is "unaddressed ad mail,", direct mail or admail. But who calls it that? Sure, there is also "addressed" ad mail, but do you really care about the subtle difference between them? Junk mail is junk mail.

This particular piece of junk mail was one of the recent bulk items sent out to constituents by our MP Helena Guergis in such high numbers that residents were protesting them in the local media. It arrived early last month, not even within the past week. And our MP's blast of numerous junk mail pieces raised the ire of other folks in Collingwood and Alliston. Despite articles and letters to the editor protesting the recent deluge of political litter in local mailboxes, this was deemed important enough to be given permanent status in Collingwood's history (our council agendas are archived so that folks researching their past will be able to have a chuckle at our expense many years from now).

Using our tax dollars for personal propaganda purposes isn't an endearing trait by any MP, but of course, Helena wasn't alone in this. Others in her government did the same thing: create more litter and landfill using your hard-earned tax dollars. And who says governments can't be creative with your money?

These several pieces weren't even particularly well disguised: they were merely pro-government fluff. It's not like they provided some real information, or dealt with any real or current issues. They were just self-serving ads with all the social and municipal relevance of a TV mattress commercial.

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And this series of disinformation flyers wasn't even well written. This one opens with fragments that aren't even complete sentences: "The Conservative Government. Giving police and border guards the training and tools to protect Canadians." It looks like someone in the PC marketing department didn't get a passing grade in grammar.

Then we get 31 words to explain just what the PCs have done for us. Thirty one words to encapsulate the policies that affect our national safety and security. That includes such non-sentence statements as "Investing in 2,500 new police officers to protect our communities."

Well, that's not exactly what the PCs did, as we all know. After dithering for a couple of years and avoiding that particular election promise, the 2008 budget finally included $400 million for training new police officers over the next five years. So the Tories have NOT invested in 2,500 new police officers, just promised to do so and put a fraction of the amount necessary into the budget. I can't find anything online to actually say how much - if any - of that money has actually been distributed.

The number of new police officers the PCs are responsible for hiring might actually be none, making this flyer simply an exercise in Soviet-style disinformation. In a commentary on Canadacops.com dated May 8, 2008, Peter Mack says,

In a blunt letter to Premier Dalton McGuinty, Karl Walsh, president of the Ontario Provincial Police Association, is demanding immediate action to add up to 500 frontline officers.

“The (officers) are reaching the breaking point,” Walsh said in the letter obtained by The Free Press.
Blondeau said the province has hired 200 OPP officers since 2003, but Walsh says the force has 270 fewer officers now than then, based on recent staffing models.

“We’re not going to dispute the numbers because we’re in agreement that there are challenges and we’re certainly not in opposition,” said Blondeau.

He said the province is still pushing the federal government to follow through with its promise to fund 2,500 new police officers.

That promise has met opposition from provinces and police chiefs because the funding runs out in five years.

But opposition critics jumped on the issue, slamming the Liberals for inaction that’s fueled the crisis.
OPP Commissioner Julian Fantino conceded the force is short staffed.

“We know we have shortages in some places,” he said, adding the issue is still being studied and a business plan will be presented to the government.

Then this barely literate junk mail further proclaims, "Tools for border guards to keep drugs and criminals out." That horrible mangling of English might presumably mean the Conservatives have lived up to their promise to arm the nation's 5,000+ border guards. But in truth, back in 2006 they announced a 10-year plan to do so, but to date have only armed about 150-200 of them. Perhaps the word "tools" means something else - maybe the border guards all got gift certificates for Canadian Tire.

I found a humorous comment on Conservativeculture.com that says, even when armed, Canadian border guards can still run away if they feel threatened:

The government says a total of 4,800 officers will be deployed by the end of the training process, including 400 new officers to bolster crossings where border agents used to work alone.

The call for arming border guards grew after a spate of incidents where agents were forced to flee their posts after warnings of armed criminals approaching the border from the U.S. side.

Warawa, speaking on behalf of Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day, says one agent has already had to pull a weapon but wouldn’t elaborate.

He says border agents still have the right to run away if they think they’re in a dangerous situation but adds the fact agents in the riskiest positions will have guns makes that much less likely.

Maybe the new "tools" are running shoes? But seriously, this isn't news, and it isn't even particularly current.

Wikipedia has this comment about the border guard policy:

The Harper government announced in 2006, among several border security policies, that before 2016 all border guards will be equipped with weapons to track possible criminals, including those carrying firearms, that may pass the border on either side of it. The guards had requested the weapons in a previous negotiation. Also, Harper had spend for over $100 million to add extra staff to patrol borders. 400 or more new officers will be added.

A story on the new program ran back in 2006 on on CTV and said in part,

Just over one year from now some of Canada's border guards will begin carrying firearms, but it will take 10 years for the plan to be fully implemented.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper made the announcement Thursday at a border crossing in Surrey, B.C., making good on a campaign promise to beef-up border security.

"A safe, secure and efficient border is important for Canada, and for all Canadians," Harper said. "It is vital to our country's economy, and will protect the safety and security of all of our local communities."

Under the announcement, about 150 of Canada's 5,000 border guards will be carrying side-arms by the end of March, 2008.
On Thursday, Harper also reiterated his government's promise to hire 400 more officers at a cost of $101 million. That expenditure was included in the federal budget, and was partly designed to double the number of officers at small border crossings that typically only have one officer on duty.

"Arming CBSA officers and eliminating situations where these officers work alone will allow them to do their job better and more effectively," Harper said.

The Liberal government refused to arm Canada's border guards, saying it was too expensive, and expressing concerns that tourists would be met by gun-toting border guards.

But the Conservatives are expected to take a gradual approach, training the border guards over a number of years and eventually arming about half the workforce.

So it's more than a little disingenuous to claim the PCs have significantly strengthened our border, or improved the safety and training of border guards because the program is only in its infancy. It's a ten-year program and didn't even get to the arming part until well into this year, two years after it was announced.

After the upcoming election, the program could be shelved by whomever wins, even the Tories themselves. After all, programs like this are good for gathering votes from a public that doesn't analyze promises in depth, but they cost money. A lot of money. And the Tories started their government with a huge surplus that seems to have dwindled down to a deficit in only a few years. Funny approach, that: spending your way out of fiscal stability. Why, it's almost NDP-ish!

National Post commentator Don Martin recently wrote a columnabout the PC's attempts to sneak an anti-abortion bill through the legislature under the guise of "fighting crime" (basically turning women into criminals if they seek abortion). He also made this comment on the Tories and their record on crime and justice:

The Conservatives are “just getting started” in fighting crime, he vowed, a priority it will highlight in the campaign to come.

In a country where the crime rate is at a 30-year low and violent crime is in steady decline, the only exception being a bump in drug offences and impaired driving credited to improved police enforcement, it seems a curious fixation.

This government can take a bow for what’s already been accomplished in tackling crime, even though studies attached to some summaries of its own legislation question the need for some crackdowns.

It has successfully imposed mandatory sentences for serious gun crimes, sped up dangerous offender designations, cracked down on drug-impaired driving and street racing, raised the age of sexual consent and introduced a reverse-onus for any accused when seeking bail on serious charges involving guns.

A youth crime bill is still on the order paper, even though a ten-year analysis by the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics showed “the amount of recorded crime committed by most child and teenage offenders is quite small and concentrated among the less serious types of crime”.

About the only thing missing from their tough-on-crime agenda is the cash to build the prisons for the resulting flood of inbound inmates.

Yet such is the way of government when an election call is imminent. It’s not what’s actually needed that counts. It’s what internal focus groups want and the polled voters pick that become instant priorities.

The Conservatives are being warned they’re vulnerable to smears from their past, particularly among women voters, and could gain critical support in the big cities by painting their rivals as soft on crime.

When I emailed town staff to inquire why a piece of obvious junk mail was on the agenda, I was told it was because "it is about police." That response suggests political pressure from someone elected. To call it a relevant document about policing issues would be a Pinocchio-like stretch. The flyer is simply about propaganda and trying to make the Tories look tough on crime (to their believers anyway) - even though statistics suggest we don't need that focus nearly as much as the sky-is-falling crowd screams we do.

It's a telling point that the Tories are focused on the front end of the crime fighting machine - the vote-getting part - but seem to be ignoring the other side of the justice system: jails, prison guards and staff, and rehabilitation programs. And let's not forget the horrendous waiting times in courts on most levels. But they're not hot-button vote-gaining issues, are they?

A story, originally printed in the Toronto Star, is reprinted at prisonjustice.ca. The writer says Corrections Canada, the agency that looks after prisons and their bureaucracy, is not happy with the government's policies on crime:

Federal government proposals to get tougher on criminals would hit aboriginal people the hardest, violate Charter rights of inmates, and likely not make for safer streets, says the agency that oversees federal prisons.

Underlying some of the agency's criticism is concern about dramatic increases in the prison population that would result from the Conservatives' approach. Among the targets in an analysis prepared by Correctional Services Canada's strategic policy division are proposals for mandatory minimum sentences and for the so-called three-strikes law, key elements of the Tories' law-and-order agenda.

The analysis says minimum sentences don't have a deterrent effect and drain away funds available for social programs that prevent crime.

The proposal for a three-strikes law – designating as a dangerous offender anyone convicted of a third violent or sexual offence – would have a "disproportionately higher impact" on native people, the analysis says.

The analysis took aim at almost every law-and-order promise that would affect prisoners made by Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives during the election campaign a year ago.
The final version of the document, obtained by the Star under Access to Information legislation, is dated Jan. 24, 2006 – the day after the Conservatives won the election. It outlined "considerations" for the new government on each of its proposed policies, as well as advice on the "direction/way forward."

The final document and its early drafts contain several blacked-out sections. But the public servants' critique appears to offer more ammunition to the government's critics.

Only two crime bills have passed – tougher penalties for street racing and a watered-down version of the promised restrictions on conditional sentencing or "house arrest." The rest of the Tories' promised measures are either stalled in the minority Parliament, or still to be introduced. But Harper appears undeterred by either opposition or concerns of the public service, naming law and order as still among the government's priorities.

So perhaps the get-tough approach isn't either successful or universally popular after all. But despite that - and of course the content of the flyer wasn't open for analysis at the table because it could have exposed some gaping holes in the Conservatives' platform - a piece of fluff circulated a month earlier ended up on our agenda as if it was an important policy announcement.

Read the story above, by the way, because some of the comments made by the Corrections Canada bureaucrats are very insightful.

The other side of our junk-mail piece is an 'in-depth' report on how the Tories have made our borders, our streets and our very lives safer. And they manage to fit it all into 79 words. Pardon my sarcasm, but Helena's picture and business card take up more space than the actual information.

The flyer doesn't tell us anything about where the money, how much has been spent so far, where the new officers will be hired and how many have actually been hired to date, nor do they mention that these programs are all long-term roll-outs still in their earliest stages, with very little actually being implemented to date. Convenient oversight, eh?

I had to Google to find out what I guess the writer of this junk mail meant by "funding for modern infrastructure at the border." It appears to be part of a program announced as Building Canadain 2007 under the Gateways and Border Crossings Fund:

The National Policy Framework for Strategic Gateways and Trade Corridors will guide the development of a limited number of new gateway and corridor strategies and will help determine the projects to be funded by the Gateways and Border Crossings Fund. This $2.1 billion fund will focus on strategic trade corridors linking to international gateways. Eligible projects will include core National Highway System (NHS) facilities impacted by increased trade flows, inter-modal connectors and facilities, international bridges and tunnels, rail/road grade separations, short-line rail, short-sea shipping and intelligent transportation systems. At least $400 million from this fund will be devoted to the construction of an access road for the new Windsor-Detroit crossing—the busiest border point for Canada-United States trade— and one of the most significant commercial trade corridors in the world. Projects will be assessed on the basis of merit. Federal funding will be cost-shared to generate additional investment in this critical infrastructure.

The activities under the Gateways and Border Crossings Fund build on the Asia-Pacific Gateway and Corridor Initiative, which was significantly enriched through the Building Canada plan. Investments from this $1 billion initiative are already producing results on policy, governance and operational issues, including strategic infrastructure projects to enhance marine, rail and road connections, and system capacity.

Again, you have to read further to learn, "The Building Canada Fund (BCF) will total $8.8 billion over seven years." But looking through the site, I can't find anything that suggests Ontario will get any of that money. Buried deep in the government site I spied this little gem: "Eligible investment categories for the Gateways and Border Crossings Fund have yet to be established. Details on the full criteria for project eligibility will be made available in the near future." Which suggests that little has actually been done beyond the spin.

In February, just after the 2008 budget was announced, the Tories also sent out a press releasethat promised the Canadian Border Service Agency (CBSA) which handles the actual border bureaucracy, would get some new funding, but only in Quebec where PCs have had a tough time getting a significant part of the popular vote:

The Government of Canada will commit $10 million to expand the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) facilities at the Lacolle-Champlain border crossing, one of the ten busiest Canada-United States border crossings. The Honourable Stockwell Day, Minister of Public Safety, made the announcement today on behalf of the Honourable Lawrence Cannon, Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities.

Collingwood has been fighting for four years with the Tories to get port of entry status for our airport, a process that requires little more than a check box in a CBSA registry at no cost to anyone, and we still don't have it. But Quebec gets $10 million for a border crossings that even the government recognizes is not even the busiest border crossing in Canada:

Lacolle is the sixth-busiest Canada-U.S. commercial border crossing. In 2006, Lacolle accounted for approximately 735,000 commercial vehicle crossings (398,000 to the U.S. and 337,000 to Canada), and approximately 2,000 commercial vehicles per day.

But it IS a province where the Tories need votes, so that's where the money goes. Didn't we kick the Liberals out of power for doing just that last election? The rest of the press release outlines what I suspect the PC's writer meant by "tools":

This week's Budget announcement injected $174 million over two years to make the border smarter and more secure. This includes $75 million for CBSA operations and $14 million to expand the NEXUS program.

As well, the Government of Canada introduced amendments to the Customs Act that will give the CBSA the tools and flexibility they need to assess risk at the border.

The amendments will make it mandatory for all businesses involved in the import trade chain to provide the CBSA with electronic data on their shipments before the goods reach Canada. With this advance information, the CBSA will be able to make better decisions about the admissibility of the goods, including whether the goods pose a risk to Canadians.

Other amendments will enable the CBSA to fully implement customs-controlled areas, which will provide border services officers with the flexibility to examine goods, and question and search people anywhere within those areas, as opposed to only at exit points as in the current Act.

Again, I can't find anything online to indicate the money has actually been spent on NEXUS or any other CBSA operation ($75 million is not, apparently, enough to get us port of entry status!). It's been promised, but the follow-through seems eerily absent.

Speaking of cozying up to Quebec, the CBSA's own web sitetells us that's where the money will go to upgrade a CBSA training facility:

The arming of CBSA officers will affect training facility requirements and make facility changes necessary. The CBSA national training facility in Rigaud, Quebec, will be expanded to accommodate the training of armed officers: use-of-force training facilities, firing ranges, additional academic training facilities and residence rooms will be built. Secure lock-up and storage space, lock boxes for transportation and clearing devices will also be required in the regions. Construction is expected to begin in late summer 2008, with completion anticipated by July 2010.

So, with all those fancy 79 words, even including the self-serving question asking if you support their policy (but not, it seems, their junk mail policy), you have 131 words total. Add in Helena's business card info and the "cut here" instructions and it's still under 150. That's about the limit teachers put on homework for Grade 3 students. So why was this obviously misleading piece of propaganda on the consent agenda? Could it be nothing more than a Con job?

Don't you think it's just a teeny bit coincidental that the day after the Prime Minster drops the writ and calls for a federal election that Collingwood Council gets a sleazy piece of Conservative propaganda on the consent agenda? Why, you ask, who on council could be such a staunch Conservative as to do this? Who would want this piece of useless dreck included in the agenda simply because it's Conservative dreck? And who on council might have the say over what gets included in the agenda?

Gasp! You don't think it could be our mayor? Not the same guy with a framed picture of Stephen Harper on his desk? Golly...

I can't think of a single previous incident in the past two decades in which unaddressed junk mail was included in the agenda package. But we're a precedent-setting council. We've plumbed the depths of bad precedents this term and this week we showed just how low we could go. Partisanship at its worst!

I asked to have the offending piece of junk mail removed from the consent agenda. After all, it struck me as a transparent ploy to get the PCs some free attention. I don't think it's council's role to publicize any political party, especially not during an election campaign. But no, the majority of council disagreed with my assertion that junk mail had no place in the municipal agenda. Well, the mayor disagreed and several heads turned to watch how he voted and their hands shot up in support. No surprises there. How many people at council actually investigated the piece and its claims? Probably the same number that voted in favour of removing it.

What next? Flyers of Wal-Mart or for lawn care services or discounts on undercoating cars? Or one of my personal favourites, pre-approved credit card offers. Why not? Just because they're not being produced by the Conservative flacks doesn't mean we shouldn't seriously read and discuss every piece of junk mail that comes to the town's mail box. If we are to prove a fair and equitable council, we should include every piece in the consent agenda, not just those that serve the Conservatives' needs.

Wow another VERY good post!

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