The Black Rod

The origin of the Usher of the Black Rod goes back to early fourteenth century England . Today, with no royal duties to perform, the Usher knocks on the doors of the House of Commons with the Black Rod at the start of Parliament to summon the members. The rod is a symbol for the authority of debate in the upper house. We of The Black Rod have since 2005, adopted the symbol to knock some sense and the right questions into the heads of Legislators, pundits, and other opinion makers.

Location: Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

We are citizen journalists in Winnipeg. When not breaking exclusive stories, we analyze news coverage by the mainstream media and highlight bias, ignorance, incompetence, flawed logic, missed angles and, where warranted, good work. We serve as the only overall news monitors in the province of Manitoba. We do the same with politicians (who require even more monitoring.) EMAIL:

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Gail Asper to CJOB: Thanks for nothing

CJOB radio host Geoff Currier did more damage Tuesday to the prospects of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights than the proverbial bull in a china shop.

After years of ignoring the scam being perpetrated by Gail Asper on Manitoba taxpayers, CJOB finally tiptoed into the debate over the huge, growing, and unrestricted cost overruns for her daddy's legacy project.

And Currier, inadvertently, opened with a bombshell revelation.

Introducing Colin Craig of the Canadian Taxayers Federation he said:

"Initially we had planned to have both Gail Asper and Arni Thorsteinson from the Human Rights museum in studio... Without too much detail, we couldn't come to an agreement on the format of the interview."

So the millionaires who are spending at the very least $160 million of taxpayers' money on their pet project don't want to answer any questions about where the money is going. Ain't that interesting?

Especially since Gail has run to her boyfriend Premier Gary Doer for still another $7 million to tide her over while she flits around the country from city to city panhandling for the $45 million in already announced cost overruns on the construction of the "iconic" museum.

Meanwhile, she's asking Winnipeg city council to cough up an extra $3 million. But don't ask any questions, okay. Just sign the cheque.

Gail Asper has a very good reason for refusing to tell taxpayers where their money is going. It could be embarassing.

In 2005 she got caught by a Freedom of Information request asking Ottawa for money for limousines, a cash advance for herself, gourmet coffee, in-room hotel movies, and $12,432 for advice from Glen Murray.

And her screw-the-taxpayers attitude goes a long way back.

We reported exclusively in The Black Rod
that the Asper Foundation went to Federal Court to stop the release of information to somebody asking the department of Western Economic Diversification for documents "relating to the construction of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights".

But let's not get too far away from Currier on OB.

While fielding calls, most of which were extremely negative to the bottomless pit museum, Currier tried to run some defence for Gail Asper, only to wind up running over her.

A caller questioned the hypocrisy of the Aspers wanting the public to support a museum dedicated to human rights when Izzy Asper funded Jewish/Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Instantly Currier leaped in, cutting the caller off and declaring that it was just this kind of anti-semitic call that poor Gail was afraid of receiving.

Except that there was nothing anti-Semitic about the call.

There's nothing anti-Semitic about questioning or challenging the settlement program. That's a matter of Israeli foreign policy and cannot be exempt from any discussion of human rights and Palestinians who live in the West Bank and who object to the settlements.

By being so quick to stifle the call and to censor any discussion of Palestinian human rights concerns, Currier gave ammunition to those museum critics who have argued for years that the CMHR will have a biased and slanted presentation on Middle Eastern issues.

While Gail Asper has proclaimed the museum will fairly examine both sides of every contentious issue, her claim is undermined by Currier's assertion that discussing her father's Zionist, pro-settlement beliefs is off-limits.

Either that side of the issue is given a full and fair hearing even now, or no one can deny that the museum's message will be conveniently one-sided. And publicly funded.

Currier did allow us to hear from some of the museum's supporters, many of whom stress the unique design of the CMHR.

"What's the first thing you think of when you hear Sydney, Australia?" asked one patrician sounding woman.

Kangaroos! we all shouted in the office.

Wrong answer. Apparently it's the Sydney Opera House.

Now you know.

After running Gail Asper's fund-raising campaign into a reef, Currier made a lacklustre effort to discuss the real issues of the CMHR boondoggle.

"The spades have been put to ground," he repeated over and over, implying that its too late to stop the project.

Actually, a hole has been dug and some piles put in.

The only rush to complete the job is the fear that the public will catch on that there is no limit to how expensive it's going to be.

And when is it too late to stop wasting money?

If CJOB and the rest the cheerleading press had done its job the cost of the museum would have been thoroughly debated before the first hole was dug, in time for the public to see there has never been any limit to cost, as long as the taxpayer can be tapped.

Did the politicians know about the cost overruns before the ground-breaking last December? asked Colin Craig.

Of course they did. Over a year ago The Black Rod (Saturday, May 10, 2008 The Canadian Museum of Human Rights: Follow the money) flagged the fact the cost overruns were going to be huge.

Here's just a tiny excerpt of what politicians (many of whom are regular readers) knew then:

"The proponents of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights knew they were in trouble in 2004.

- Projected construction costs had risen 47 percent in three years.
- A cornerstone of the project, an endowment fund to bring tens of thousands of students to the museum in Winnipeg each year, had become prohibitively expensive.
- And the amount of money the private sector would have to come up with had leaped from $60 million to $103 million.
The following year, the Friends of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights released their annual report. It raised an alarm.

* The capital cost had grown to $243 million.
* The $35 million endowment fund that was part of the $200 million Phase 1 was now going to cost $50 million, they said, and should be hived off into Phase 2.
* And the $60 million the private sector had promised to raise was now $103 million to cover the increased cost of construction."

In March, 2008, they appeared before the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights where they were asked about the potential for cost overruns.

As reported exclusively in The Black Rod, the Senators were told cost inflation was running at the rate of $800,000 to $1.2 million a month even then, and that the museum's board of private directors would be responsible for any cost overruns.

If Gail Asper is telling people today that the cost overruns came as a surprise, she's lying.

The museum's board came clean on the overruns May 26, five days after The Black Rod spelled out the red ink drowning the museum project. (Thursday, May 21, 2009, CMHR to Politicians: We Lied. So, Whatcha Gonna Do?)

The numbers are far worse than CJOB or anyone in the mainstream media is admitting.

Do the math.

They admitted they were $45 million in the soup, 27 percent over the initial budget for construction of $165 million. They say they've made up $2 million already, although where that money came from nobody is saying.

(Remember the days when people were happy to get their picture handing over a big cheque to Gail Asper printed in the newspaper?-ed.)

So let's start with $43 million.
Add the five million they told the government they need for operating costs for this year.
To cover last year's operating cost they dipped into this year's budget, so they want the federal government to top up their wallet to the tune of 5 million.

Subtotal: $48 million.

Add $1.2 million per month for April, May, June and July, at least. (The construction inflation hasn't stopped. In fact last week city councillors spent a 12-hour day bemoaning the unrestricted construction overruns on city projects.)
Sub Sub-total: $52.8 million.

And does the museum have to pay taxes on the land this year? They took possession last August. They'll have to start paying when the museum opens, and they admit they don't have the money.

Gail Asper claimed the board had tenders in hand for 75 percent of the work. Goody Goody.

Winnipeg had tenders in hand for its water treatment projects and still went 30 percent over budget.

And is that 75 percent of the budget or 75 percent of the contracts? Have the tenders been awarded yet? Are the big budget contracts still up for tender, like, say the never-before-done glass work?

The last time we saw an "experimental" building go up in Winnipeg the taxpayer wound up on the hook for the $258 million ultra-energy efficient Manitoba Hydro headquarters which was initially sold as a $75 million project. For those who care, the final cost is 340 percent of the original estimate, the one the politicians were sold on.

Will the Canadian Museum for Human Rights wind up costing 340 percent over its initial budget?

Are we willing to see almost half a billion dollars go into the Asper museum?

We have to consider that prospect, because Gail Asper has every reason to believe she has been given a blank cheque.

We were ready to rescind our award of Civic Weasel Number One to city councillor Jeff Browaty (
who earned it by refusing to say unequivocally he would vote NO if Gail Asper came calling, tin cup in hand, for an exemption from city taxes (worth an estimated $9 million).

A day later he reversed himself and declared he would refuse such a request.

But last Friday, when Asper said she would come to city hall for $3 million, Browaty said he wasn't against giving her the millions and, in typical weasel fashion, he reverted to babbling about seeing a business plan before deciding. (This was before Winnipeg Sun columnist Tom Brodbeck reported that he was told by Gail Asper that there was a business plan, only it wasn't for public consumption.)

- No politician is willing to set a drop-dead number on construction costs. If they were, the switch would already be pulled.

- Gail Asper has no idea what the museum will cost to build and operate.

- She doesn't care, so long as she can count on Gary Doer and other politicians to give her money.

- And CJOB is at least a year late and a reporter short in covering this scandal.

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