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 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:

Monday, July 30, 2012

Animal Farm, Conservatives-style. All ethnic groups are equal, but some are more equal

Two months ago the Stephen Harper government announced they were shutting down the Experimental Lakes Area, a one-of-a-kind science research project, run by Winnipeg scientists.

They said it was to save $2 million a year, a half-a-gazillionth of the federal budget.

The ELA consists of 58 lakes near Kenora. For 44 years scientists were able to use the closed ecosystems of the lakes to do groundbreaking research on acid rain, toxic metals, the effect of phosphates on freshwater lakes, what spawns algae blooms that kill lakes, and climate change. One story on the closure declared "the ELA was to water ecology what the supercollider is to physics."

As a result of the defunding of the world-reknowned project, 40 biologists, chemists and other scientists from Winnipeg will lose their jobs. Scientists from around the world have decried the Harper government's action, giving Canada a bad name in science circles everywhere.

But the government refused to relent. Too bad, so sad, said the government. We need to balance the budget. Tough decisions have to be made. It's the principle of the thing, you understand.

Two months later, the same government announced it is shovelling another $35 million into the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

That's enough money to fund the ELA for 17 years with a million left over.

No mention of the deficit. No talk about hard decisions. Just, 'here's some free money, enjoy'.

The moment the federal government flip-flopped on funding the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, it demonstrated that it makes decisions based on politics, not principle.

They sent Manitoba's senior cabinet minister, Vic Toews, to, ahem, "explain" that the $35 million was not "new" money.

"It's an advance," Toews said with the sincerity of a snakeoil salesman. And it wouldn't cost taxpayers a cent, he pledged, demonstrating that Conservatives had mastered the art of doubletalk as well as Liberals.

He was lying. Toews may have thought he was ever so clever, but the public hasn't been fooled.

Toews was claiming that the government was taking $35 million that it would otherwise be spending on operating funds, if the museum had opened on schedule, and giving it to the CMHR now to cover the runaway costs of construction.

The federal government is in the same boat as the CMHR---strapped for money. It's running on a deficit of billions of dollars. In other words, it has to borrow the money it gives the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

 And money isn't free. It must be repaid with interest.

So there's a cost to the taxpayers for the "advance" that the federal government allegedly intends to make to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

At the very, very least an advance of $35 million costs the taxpayers more than $500,000 a year (at the current rate of a Government of Canada five-year bond) in interest. So much for Toews' pledge that it wouldn't cost a dime.

Then, the CMHR has no god-given right to receive $21.5 million a year in operating funds from the federal government.

That's the amount they claimed they needed to run the museum once it was open. That's the maximum the government agreed to pay per year. If the museum needs less, it can't simply collect the full $21.5 million and use the excess money on whatever it wants. That screams of kickbacks and corruption. What's not spent returns to the public purse.

They've already tried that version of three-card monte. Last December, at their first and only public meeting so far, they revealed they had, without telling anyone, shifted $7 million from maintenance to construction. At the time we asked if that was even legal. We know it's unethical.

The government thinks it can use the same trick to funnel $35 million into the failing museum project. Someone should file a complaint with the auditor general asking whether the government can simply shift money allocated by Parliament on a whim to whatever pet project they want.

But more to the point, $35 million is well over the annual $21.5 million the government has agreed to pay to run the museum. How can Vic Toews take $35 million out of $21.5 million? Will the money be paid today and deducted from the annual payments due next year, and the year after that, and so on? Is the CMHR to get zero next year? Or will operating funds be cut by increments until the "advance" is covered?

How's that going to work, given that the CMHR declared in its last annual report that $21.5 million was nowhere near enough to run the place once it was open to the public. If $21.5 million is not enough, how can less be enough?

There's only one way--- Toews and his government will top up the annual maintenance payments to make up for the "advance."

The federal government is only making up half of what the CMHR needs to finish construction. The province is offering to guarantee a $35 million loan to cover the other half.

Funny. The CMHR brags that its donors include all the major banks and trust companies and credit unions in the country. So far, not one of them has offered a bridge loan. You might think that's because financial institutions that are accountable to their shareholders actually weigh the credit risk of their borrowers.

We're betting the loan will come from another source--- the Manitoba Development Corporation. That's a relatively unknown government slush fund that hands out money to whatever the provincial government wants funded. It's what Gary Doer used to fund a secret $11 million loan to the City of Winnipeg which the City then handed the CMHR under the pretense that it was Winnipeg's contribution to museum.

(The existence of the loan has ONLY been reported in The Black Rod. That's the case even though the loan appears to be illegal. The law requires all loans from the MDC to carry the going rate of interest, but the loan to the City was "interest-free". But don't expect the "professional journalists" in Winnipeg to follow this up.)

Note, too, that with the provincial government ponying up another $35 million, the province's contribution has more than tripled from the $20 million initially announced. And that's not counting the $11 million loaned to the city to create the illusion that the city was making its own contribution.

What's being overlooked in the news stories about the $70 million in new funding for the CMHR is the timing of the announcement.

The museum will release its next annual report any day now. The barrels of new cash are intended to preempt the bad news in that report.

We don't have to wait for the annual report. We can tell you today what's in it.

* the museum is flat broke (just as we've been reporting for the past year)
* the prospects of raising the money needed to finish the building are zero
* private fundraising has been an enormous flop
* a million dollars in IOU's has gone unpaid
* the CMHR is raising so little money that fundraising is literally going backwards

At the beginning of the year, the project was $61 million short of what was needed to finish construction. The new funding is for $70 million, which means that costs have gone up another $9 million.

That may include the $6.5 million for a temporary gallery and theatre that had been cut from the plans to keep the last announced cost overrun ($41 million) closer to $40 million than $50 million. It looks like they just put the temporary gallery and theatre back in without admitting the higher cost. Either that or the cost just crept higher and these elements will still be missing when the museum allegedly opens in 2014. Nevertheless, the total cost is now near the $360 million mark.

The Friends of the CMHR issued a statement following the announcement of the government funding increase, in which they claimed to have raised another $3 million.

Given that pledges to the museum are usually paid over a number of years, fundraising is actually going backward, with the museum losing $1 million in uncollected IOU's this year, while getting less than that in annual pledges.

No wonder chief fundraiser Dav Cvitkovic skipped town after less than a year working for the Friends of the CMHR. Maybe she didn't want to sign her name to some funny business. Only a full forensic audit will tell.

Note that last year the Friends claimed they raised $5 million, and the year before that, $10 million.

The timeframe is as interesting as the trend.

Fundraising for the CMHR has collapsed in the 18 months since Gail Asper launched a smear campaign against Canada's ethnic groups-
--Ukrainians, Poles, Germans, Latvians, Estonians, Lithuanians, Hungarians, Slovaks, Armenians, just about everyone---who don't accept that a national museum should highlight the Nazi persecution of Europe's Jewish community over all other genocides in the history of the world.

The Harper government has decided that Canada's ethnic groups don't deliver the votes that the country's Jewish community can. Thirty-five million dollars for a holocaust museum in Winnipeg could be enough to carve the Jewish vote out of its traditional support for the Liberal camp and into the Conservative column for the forseeable future.

And if Vic Toews has to bite his tongue while Gail Asper throws around vile and unwarranted accusations of anti-Semitism, then so be it. That's the price of politics the Harper government is willing to pay.

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