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Hubert O'Hearn
Politics for Joe
By: Hubert O'Hearn

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99 Luftballons

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THUNDER BAY, ON ----  September 2, 2010 ---- I thought of the title for this one as I was preparing to write about the dubious practice of the trial balloon. Those who have fond memories of the pastel T-shirt with unstructured jacket era surely remember 99 Luftballons, the anthemic German-English pop song heartily sung by Nena walking through a war zone. The controversy at the time was that Nena had armpit hair. That was the 1980s. Ronald Raegan was simple-minded and so was the decade.

In some ways eras in North America are defined by the glowing aura of whomever is in the White House. The more complex the mind of the President, the more complex the era. Franklin Roosevelt is I truly do believe the one true genius ever elected as the President or Prime Minister of a major nation. Were FDR and Pierre Trudeau both at the same cocktail party, the conversation would gravitate towards the American. Plus FDR was noted as the inventor, shaker and pourer of cocktails that could bring an entire newsroom of reporters to their knees. And the problems he faced as President had an heavier mix than his planter’s punch: Depression, Fascism, Civil Rights, World War Two, a brawny and expansive Soviet Union, and the invention of the modern welfare state. He would never had found time for golf, even if he could have played.

Eisenhower however had time for golf. The old general loved simple and straight lines of attack and he had the perfect time for that strategy. Granted, developing and holding a de facto empire is not a simple thing, but America was so pre-dominant economically and militarily that it actually could hold together political and economic hegemony at that time. They are only just now realizing that time has passed.

But, to run through some of the rest quickly: Kennedy - complex (Civil Rights, Vietnam, Soviet Union, Berlin Wall, Cuba); Reagan - simple (what problems? Have a party and leave the bill for that strange little vice-president you never really liked); Obama - complex (space will not allow the listing).

Getting back to 99 Luftballons, I hadn’t realized how perfectly the lyrics fit until for curiousity’s sake I looked them up. Here, see a few lines for yourself:

99 Decision Street.

99 ministers meet.

To worry, worry, super-scurry.

Call the troops out in a hurry.

This is what we've waited for.

This is it boys, this is war.

The president is on the line

As 99 red balloons go by.


Now, Ontario is not about to go to war with anyone, but I’m noticing a disturbing trend in terms of sending out trial balloons like so many World War One zeppelins out over the cities and towns of this province and equally scaring the bejeezus out of everyone.

There has always been something about Dalton McGuinty I haven’t liked, but I’ve only been able to put my finger on it lately. I know that it stemmed from the time of the run-up to the 2003 provincial election when the then-Leader of the Opposition Liberals gave perhaps the shiftiest, dodgiest, most weaselly political interview I have seen to this day with Paula Todd, then of TVOntario’s late and sadly missed Studio 2. After it was over I emailed Paula and said, I think, ‘Well you certainly gave it your best show.’ She in turn wondered if the viewers had caught the slipperiness of the thin-lipped McGuinty. Seven years of his Premiership later, I guess not.

My first personal encounter with what I’ll call the Chicken Little style of government was through my association with TVO as a member, later vice-president of their Regional Advisory Council for Northwestern Ontario. It was in the lead-up to Greg Sorbara’s first budget as Minister of Finance. Town halls were scheduled across the province for the purpose of discussing a number of possible options, including selling TVO, selling the provincial liquor outlets, and raising fees on i.e. campsites.

If there is one thing that can get the educated portion of Ontario all in a tizzy, it is threatening TVO. At the time in 2003, TVO had over 600 members in Thunder Bay alone. That may not sound huge, but any marketer will tell you that a 0.5% return on a passive campaign is pretty good. Think about it. TVO really only does consumer marketing through its own in-house media: website and television. as obnoxious as pledge weeks can be, they certainly beat high rep commercials across other networks with Steve Paikin playing Old Spice Guy.

Now there’s a foreboding image.

I had a word with the Minister of Natural Resources, David Ramsay. It was his ill fate to be the Cabinet representative at this particular grumpy Town hall. The Cabinet must have drawn straws to see who would attend these affairs. The losers won, getting the spine-stiffening task of playing St. Sebastian in a sharp blue suit. The Thunder Bay event was well-attended - some 40 breakout tables of 9: 1 facilitator to every 8 agitators. I cornered Ramsay at the side of the stage just after the first wave of crowd was arriving.

I knew Ramsay slightly from the days when I worked at Queen’s Park, so I played the part of the cool, ‘Hey, I’m on your side babe’ Liberal. “So what the hell’s up with TVO?,” I asked in a conspiratorial whisper, complete with sideways shifting eyes. He seemed relieved that he hadn’t been attacked. “Let me put it to you this way,” he said, “There are some sacred cows in this province and TVO is one of them.” Granted, i was relieved. Granted, I’ve never really worried about a TVO sale ever since. Granted, I still don’t like how the network’s public affairs unit has been shrunk to the size of Steve Paikin’s chin.

More to the point, it told me that this entire consultative exercise was a sham. If there was no chance in hell that the Province was going to sell TVO to a Bronfman, Miss Piggy or David Radler why was that option even being discussed? I can’t even think of any rock-ribbed Tories who have seriously pushed for a TVO sale, and you’d be drummed out of the NDP caucus for even joking about it. Therefore, this was an idea generated by the government itself.

The sky is falling! The sky is falling! And Chicken Little releases a pretty red helium balloon with DOOM! written on it in bright white letters. And oh look dear, isn’t that a World War One zeppelin on the horizon.

We entered the era of the trial balloon. They’d been done before McGuinty certainly. Arguably, this notion of putting out a policy option as a leak and seeing which way the wind of public opinion blows the balloon; it has been around since at least the beginning of private polling.

But McGuinty takes the thing to a whole new level which I why I find it morally corrupt, or at the very least sneaky and cynical. The story ends up with Chicken Little revealed as the hero. When everybody shrieks at the balloon, Chicken Little steps up and says, ‘Never never shall I sell TVO. Never never shall you miss a show.’ Then everybody dances and they start serving cheesecake. Why? Their government and Premier Dalton Little listens! Hoorah.

I saw that recently the spectre of TVO and the Liquor Control Board being privatized was brought up again, by the portly current Minister of Finance Dwight Duncan. I don’t believe it for a second. We’ve discussed TVO to death already, and the LCBO is a cash cow. Did nobody ever watch an episode of The Sopranos? Who on Earth is insane enough to dump a monopoly on liquor in a province whose northern half is feeling increasingly desperate?

No, it’s yet another trail balloon. And they’ve done it before in non-financial portfolios, as with the proposed education reforms last year that would have taught little Joey, age 10, how to fellate a banana. (I know there are international readers of my work who have just looked at the previous sentence and said to themselves, “Nawwww.” Oh it’s true. It’s damn true.) The Premier got to put on his Super Chicken cape and squawk that he will save us all by shooting down this heinous attack on moral values.

By the way, the announcement that Ontario will now sanction Mixed Martial Arts cards may yet prove to be a trial balloon ready for shooting down, but I rather doubt it. There will be money to be made and the Toronto and Ottawa media are mewing like happy kittens at having another event to cover, another special advertising section to sell.

The puzzlement is that it such an unnecessary, cynical habit, to rankly upset and then soothe the electorate. It seems to me abusive husbands use much the same psychological tactics to cower their spouses. And I do wonder sometimes what a good and honest public servant like Mike Gravelle thinks about all this, deep down inside. I’ll let you know if I find out.

So. I had tried to think of a new tag line for Politics for Joe, but the more I tried the more I realized that the one I’ve been using for years will do just fine. From Patrick McGoohan’s legendary series, because we’re all just living in The Village, we quote The Prisoner ... Be seeing you.

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