Smart and not-so-smart moves of '06

Darts and laurels handed out, all richly deserved

A laurel to Maxime Bernier, federal industry minister, for finally forcing some sense on the over-regulated telecommunications industry with his recent amendments to the Competition Act, announced Dec. 7. Maybe cable companies don't like it, but Bernier's move to loosen the regulatory handcuffs on telephone companies was a welcome nod to the marketplace of reality. (Take that, CRTC!) Nice to hear an industry minister talk about competition like he really means it.

A nickel-plated dart to Inco CEO Scott Hand and ex-CEO of Falconbridge Derek Pannell. In trying to create a made-in-Canada global mining giant, the Hand-Pannell brain trust ended up cogs in the wheels of a Brazilian-Swiss takeover.

A dart goes to Loblaw Cos. Ltd. for not getting its act together, even as Wal-Mart steamrolls into Canada with its supercentres. Canada's largest grocer has been suffering for far too long with distribution problems that have been eating into sales and profits. Even the new management team at Loblaw says it will take about three years to get things back on track.

A high-flying dart should be thrown at the Canadian airline industry for advertising fares without all the taxes, surcharges and other extras. These added fees can make what looks like a rock-bottom airfare balloon by hundreds of dollars.

Thankfully, the House of Commons committee looking at changes to the federal Transportation Act deserves a laurel for passing an amendment that, if passed, would force airlines to advertise their prices with all taxes and surcharges included. Not only would it disclose to consumers the true cost of a plane ticket, it would put travel agencies in Quebec, British Columbia and Ontario on the same footing, since laws in the three provinces force them to be more upfront.

A limp laurel to the HBC board for finally having the sense to bail on Canada's oldest company, even if it meant selling to a Yank in 2006. Good luck to new owner Jerry Zucker, a South Carolina industrialist and investor, as he tries to turn around the Bay and Zellers chains. He's gonna need it.

A big pointy one to Toronto mayor David Miller. Miller wants to add a special environment tax to the downtown parking fee. Newly elected councillor Adam Vaughan goes one step further by urging that tax should be according to vehicle size. Not a bad idea. Yet city-owned Toronto Parking Authority is spending much taxpayer dough on advertising to urge people to drive–and use its Green P lots when they do. Does the city want Torontonians to drive, or not? Make up your mind, Miller.

And while we're at it, a quiverful of darts to all of the city's wasteful advertising campaigns, such as a winter 2006 subway campaign urging people to wipe their snot on their sleeves. And buying subway cars with only one bidder? Puh-leeze. We'd chuck you out, but you just got re-elected.

A dart to the Conservative Party for promising not to tax income trusts during an election campaign, thus prompting a wave of ever-more-significant income trust conversions throughout the land–including BCE. By late October, tax expert Jack Mintz reported conversions had lost Ottawa $1.1 billion in corporate tax revenue. Net result? Finance Minister Jim Flaherty taxed the trusts. If he wanted to level the playing field with regular ol' corporations, he should have got rid of the regular ol' corporate tax.

And while we're on the delightful topic of taxes, a dart to the Conservative Party for cutting the GST–the one tax in this great nation that actually makes sense. If anything, the Tories should have cut income taxes and raised the GST. But hey–it got them elected.

Nor, to be fair, can we argue that there weren't some smart moves in Flaherty's “Advantage Canada” paper, released along with his economic update in November. At least the Conservatives (like the Libs before them) are talking about the need to boost this country's worsening productivity gap with the rest of the developed world. So a laurel bud to Flaherty on that one–we'll hold more in reserve for the 2007 budget.

A laurel for the Drowsy Chaperone, the Canadian-created Broadway musical. In December the upstart success announced it recouped its US$8-million initial investment after a run of just 30 weeks. Also this month, its cast recording was nominated for a Grammy award. And this past June its four creators–Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, who wrote the music and lyrics; Bob Martin and Don McKellar, who wrote the book–garnered Tony Awards.

A laurel to David Dodge, Bank of Canada governor, for saying (in a speech in December) what no politician has the cojones to say anymore: bank mergers make sense. Hear, hear–but with this proviso: if Ottawa lets the banks merge, then it must fully allow other international players to compete. We don't begrudge the Big Five their humongous profits, but in any other industry the kinds of margins they're reaping would lure new entrants into the market. Let it happen.

A dart to Canadian broadcast networks for running cap in hand to the CRTC, asking that fees be imposed on cable and satellite subscribers to receive their precious signals. Egad–as if preferential dial position and the right to pre-empt U.S. advertising on simulcast shows wasn't enough. Not much better was Quebecor chief Pierre Karl Péladeau's suggestion that existing carriage fees for specialty channels could be shared with the networks. As cable magnate Ted Rogers–a vociferous opponent of the networks' proposal (and the ultimate owner of this magazine)–said: “It's very imaginative, it's very creative, and it's bullshit.” Rogers gets a laurel for plain-speaking.

A severance package full of darts to the politicians and directors in charge of Ontario's Hydro One. If you recall, taxpayers were promised a lean operation after board-approved perks and pay led to the forced departure of former CEO Eleanor Clitheroe. And yet, replacement boss Tom Parkinson had no problem using the company helicopter for personal trips. That, of course, was when he wasn't busy golfing on the public dime. Like Clitheroe, he was paid more than a million bucks. But unlike his predecessor, Parkinson wasn't leading what was supposed to be Canada's largest IPO ever. Shame on all involved.

And finally, a laurel to Bill and Melinda Gates, for putting serious dosh on the line where it can really do some good–in the global effort to stamp out malaria. This mosquito-borne disease carries off more than one million people each year, but snags a mere 0.3% of total health research funding globally. The Gates Foundation aims to redress the balance with a $83.5 million donation, announced on Dec. 11.