A different road

September 3rd, 2013

The past two weeks have taken a different turn for my wife and I as we are fairly used to a routine of daily duties attached to the newspaper cycle, regular monthly meetings of organizations and my meetings for town council and committees. 
That usually follows up with a catch-up day on Saturdays and then church and family day on Sunday. Two weeks ago, we headed to Strathclair to help Meyers Auction Service with a two-day private museum auction. That was a once-in-a-lifetime experience where the family of the late Graydon Cummins dispersed his 84-year collection of antiques and collectibles. It was hot, hard work for a desk jockey, but it was definitely worth the experience. 
Thousands of items in about 2,500 lots went through the auction rings. As many as three auctioneers selling simultaneously around the picturesque old farm yard dispersed as diverse a collection of Canadiana as I have ever seen. From antique cars to washboards, tobacco cans to apple boxes, it all went under the auctioneer’s chant to find new homes in western Canada, Ontario and the United States.
We also camped in a tent trailer, which hadn’t happened in about 40 years for this couple. It was hot, so even when it rained, some of the windows stayed open and we were alternately cooled by gentle rain, illuminated by a full moon or serenaded by coyotes.
While it was back to regular work on Monday and and an air show at Brandon Thursday, our thoughts were focused on another auction trip. This was a long one, as we travelled to Vermillion Bay, Ont. On Friday, we drove to said location and, yes, when you cross the border to Ontario, the roads get better. The drive from Whiteshell to Vermillion Bay is still a demanding road to travel on, but it’s well engineered. If you obey the speed limit and use the passing lanes properly, it’s quite a safe trip under summer conditions.
Neepawa has been told that the highways department won’t consider a centre turning lane for the highway going through Neepawa. Interestingly enough, that’s what they do in Kenora, Ont. Kenora’s main road through town is a pretty busy strip of road and they use the centre turning lane concept. That raises the question again as to why our highways department would rather spend $20 million in Neepawa, destroy our magnificent trees and cost the town millions in infrastructure upgrades when a simple cheap solution would do quite nicely.
The trip home from Vermillion Bay was more relaxing, took longer and involved a visit with friends where we went on a boat ride. Lake of the Woods is beautiful and the cottages range from modest to luxurious. One new one is reported to have cost $20 million and it’s nice. It was interesting that on a very warm weekend, so many cottages appeared empty. It was a lot more fun to slide by in the boat and see the ones where people were enjoying the cottage, the kids were swimming, diving or boating. I have no interest in owning a cottage, but I am happy for those who do and last weekend was definitely a great time to be at one. We were only there for a few hours, but we enjoyed the relaxation.
We saw a lot of country in the past two weeks – not nearly as much as our friends John and Val Wilson, who are documenting their trip to Alaska on Facebook. They are seeing some great country, but it was interesting to note one of Val’s comments – in the first several days, they never saw a community that surpassed home for beauty and services.
If we live in a full-service community, we are fortunate. However, we must be ever vigilant and understand that government and sometimes market forces are constantly gnawing away at our existence. The ever-hungry tax-grabbing senior government bureaucracy constantly sees spending shifts by cutting services, downloading responsibility to lower levels of government and at the same time, raising taxes. The usage of tax dollars per capita, isn’t shifting in rural Manitoba’s favour. Rural Manitoba is being farmed, pruned, hacked and slashed to feed an ever-hungry urbanized Manitoba. It’s not right, but the population has shifted so far to the Winnipeg urban vote base, that what we say in rural Manitoba or northern Manitoba counts for nothing.
The only weapon we have is our voice and while I will exercise my voice once in a while at auctions, I will save it for speaking out for rural Manitoba.

Still socialists

August 15th, 2013

Looking at the calendar and seeing that this column will hit the streets on Aug. 16 makes one wonder what happened to our summer. 
Thinking back to last year, with some help from my grandson and a friend, we re-did some concrete work and cleaned a lot of old ceiling material out of our basement. Then later in the season, I built a large garden shed. Nothing of that magnitude has happened this summer, not yet anyway. I feel a bit like our MLAs grinding away in Winnipeg. No summer holidays for them I guess.
Not to complain though. Due to the work done last year, we can enjoy our home knowing that things are in better shape than they were before we started the projects. Can’t say the same for our provincial government. They are locked in a prolonged battle, one in which they could have avoided. But the PC opposition is doing what opposition parties are supposed to do and that is oppose. They are opposing the PST increase, the forcing of municipalities to amalgamate and the very flawed anti-bullying legislation. Along the way, a whole bunch of other bills are held up, including the budget.
Governments around the world are facing the same problem. People have come to expect all solutions to flow from the government fountain. It has never worked, it never will work but most governments are still trying to find a way to make it work. About six years ago, I was roundly criticized in the mainstream media for claiming our provincial government was socialist. Notwithstanding that it was the truth and notwithstanding, that it still is the truth. Many are coming to realize that we indeed have a socialist provincial government. As sad as it is, it may make some of my friends in the federal government socialist too. It’s socialism that people say they want or at least that’s what they continue to vote for.
A government can’t withdraw overnight from various programs, but there needs to be a planned scheduled withdrawal from programs we can’t afford. We saw one small glimmer of hope when the province decided not to build a by-pass cloverleaf at the Portage junction of Highway 16 and Highway 1. The project had a price tag in the tens of millions and fortunately it was postponed indefinitely. We need to indefinitely postpone the Manitoba Hydro Bi-Pole III project and one or maybe both of the new Hydro dams. We are not back in the 50s when water power was the way of the future. We can be thankful for the Hydro dams we have, but if we wanted to produce power today, and for the next few decades, we would go to gas, coal or biofuels. In fact, local biofuel plants don’t need the large expensive long-distance transmission lines.
I’m not sure if either the province or the federal government have gotten the message yet. We have to live within our means. We should not be subsidizing businesses with large grants. We shouldn’t be restricting investment in health care to only public dollars. A new care home was built in Niverville with no provincial money. How did the socialists let that one slip by? Perhaps they are realizing that they are broke (we are broke) and that private money can do most of the jobs faster, better and cheaper.
Here’s an example of an absolute waste of time and bureaucracy. Why do we have a social insurance number, a health care number and a separate number at each and every medical clinic we may attend? Why doesn’t our SIN number cover everything? The reasons are two-fold. It’s too simple and we would need less government unionized jobs if the process were simplified. 
I have heard the deficit in the U.S. federal spending is shrinking. I have also heard that some U.S. states deficits are shrinking and a few U.S. states may have even balanced their budgets. Maybe our federal budget is shrinking too, but it’s sure not shrinking in Manitoba. Maybe we’ll catch on someday, but for now, we are still socialists.

The real news

August 8th, 2013

The recent sale of the Washington Post to the owner of internet giant Amazon.com is really quite interesting. 
Obviously, the owner of Amazon.com recognizes the business facts of life. The website began by actually selling a hard copy of books and other items. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how newspapers were still the primary source of news stories and feature writing. 
You have to have a source of news and writers need a bit of skill and a local base from which to write. The depth of writing that one gets from a newspaper isn’t usually matched by TV, radio or internet.
That doesn’t mean that newspapers aren’t changing or that they should resist change either. A reporter can write a story on a tablet, a computer or an I-phone. They can be curled up on a couch, sitting in a car or tucked into bed. They don’t need a centralized office but they do have to write.
Very few news or feature stories are off-the-cuff or impromptu. They are written by somebody, somewhere at some time. That task is still done best by newspapers.
There have also been many experiments with off-site work, flex hours, remote offices and telecommuting. They all work, but there’s still nothing that can substitute for gathering people in a central location and coming up with the final product. People need some face-to-face communication to get the quality of work that’s needed to produce news and feature stories.
Fiction writers can be hermits if they wish but for real news and feature writing, you have to have real people in touch with real people or the news flow simply withers and dies.
At The Banner, we have websites such as neepawbanner.com, riversbanner.com and myWestman.ca. None of the websites we have get all the attention they need or deserve, but we are trying to do the best we can. We plan to do more in the future.
One of the problems is that it’s still very difficult for a website to generate any money – let alone a profit. For every website out there that makes a profit, there are probably 100,000 financial duds. Some aren’t intended to make money as some sites are considered a hobby. However, as a business, a profit or benefit has to come.
On the benefit side, we can’t do without a website. People who don’t get a hard copy of our newspapers find us every day by going to our websites. We get calls from all over, saying, “We saw your web site…” They then usually ask for an ad or how to send us a news release.
One of the most annoying things about the news releases we get is that everyone from companies to government agencies to non-profit/charitable groups is that they expect us to publish their news releases. Not so fast folks! 
If a company or agency wants their release in our paper, there’s a sure way to get it there. It’s called, “Buy an ad”. Large companies and government departments are pretty cute. They have one person in charge of media releases and another person, in another department, in charge of advertising. When you let the news release person know that they need to buy an ad if they would like their stuff in the paper, they answer, “Oh that’s another department”. Occasionally, I have told companies and government agencies that they have our email on their news release list – and that they now need to get it on their ad purchasing list as well. That may sound harsh, but I don’t see any other industry regularly giving away their product without some compensation. Our compensation is ad revenue.
Without ad revenue, a newspaper can’t survive. Without ad revenue, the Washington Post won’t survive either. We have many loyal advertisers and this has made it possible for us to be in business now for nearly 25 years. Hopefully, the Banners and our websites will be around for another 25 years. 
It would be really cool to sit in on the planning meetings now that Amazon.com has bought the Washington Post. Now that leading edge has returned to the more traditional media, it will be very interesting to see how the two “blend” so to speak. There will be blending and companies like Amazon and the Washington Post can possibly afford to take on the financial risks to make that happen. We in the local paper business will have to to adapt. Perhaps we can learn from the big boys in this changing business, because we will have to adapt as well. One thing will stay constant. News will still have to be generated locally. There’s no other way it can happen except on the ground, in real time with real people.

Other people’s money

July 5th, 2013

The following quote is often bandied about.
“The trouble with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money” — Margaret Thatcher.
Quotes and stories are often stretched to fit the occasion, so when one goes to the internet verification site, Snopes, the following explanation is found.
“Although the quote has been simplified a bit, it does essentially reflect a statement made by Margaret Thatcher during an interview with journalist Llew Gardner of the television program entitled, “This Week” which aired Feb. 5, 1976 – a year after Mrs. Thatcher became the leader of the Conservative Party, and three years before she became prime minister. 
In response to a series of questions by Mr. Gardner about the timing of Conservative plans to bring down the Labour Party majority in parliament, Mrs. Thatcher replied: “I would much prefer to bring them down as soon as possible. I think they’ve made the biggest financial mess that any government has ever made in this country for a very long time, and socialist governments traditionally do make a financial mess. They always run out of other people’s money. It’s quite a characteristic of them. They then start to nationalize everything, and people just do not like more and more nationalization. They’re now trying to control everything by other means. They’re progressively reducing the choices available to ordinary people.”
Both the quote, and the context cast a reflection on Manitoba. Manitoba PC leader Brian Pallister has been opposition leader for about a year. He finds himself facing a long-standing government with a definite socialist bent. It may be two or three years before he becomes premier. The Manitoba NDP really like to spend other people’s money and in a way that they decide. The two consecutive years of very high tax hikes prove that very clearly.
What is the alternative? The alternative to government increasing taxes will not likely come soon out of the NDP and it may not come from a conservative government either. With an ever-increasing demand for both services and capital expenditures, it’s hard to imagine any alternative – but I believe there are alternatives. 
On the services side, there has never been a thorough audit as to what services actually cost and whether there is a return in line with the expenditure. It’s easy to pick on health care as having bloated budgets but nearly every government department could do more with less. There are whole departments that we may not need. It might mean busting a few public service unions, but that in itself, wouldn’t be a bad thing. 
Unions have little or no place in the public service. Unions are sometimes needed in the private sector to counter balance the power of owners but have little or no use in the public sector.
On the capital side, it’s much easier to lower the demand on taxes. Countless studies have shown that when the government builds, the price (cost) goes up. Everybody wants a government contract – they are lucrative. If we simply let the private sector build hospitals, care homes, schools, bridges and even roads on long-term lease arrangements, I believe there would be savings in the hundreds of millions annually.
Simply put, if a company was in charge of the design, the financing, the construction, the maintenance and the long-term operation of a building, one can be rest assured that at every step of the way costs would be saved. 
Faced with having to maintain a building for a 50-year lease would assure that every effort would be made to make sure the building was well designed, well built, well maintained and well financed.
In a typical government built and owned project, the architect blames the engineer, the engineer blames the contractor, the contractor blames the plumber and the plumber blames the framer. After all the blame is spread around, the government (taxpayer) ends up paying for everybody’s mistakes.
If the capital construction process was under the jurisdiction of one company from start to finish, quality at every level would be guaranteed. Even more so, if the same company had to stick around, the results could stay favourable for the next 50 years.
We need a huge shift in thinking in this province. Hopefully it will come before we run out of everybody’s money.


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