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Calgary new arena deal was driven by politics

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Duane Bratt is a political science professor and chair, Department of Economics, Justice, and Policy Studies, at Mount Royal University in Calgary.

On Tuesday, Calgary City Council approved the deal for a new National Hockey League arena. It was a three-way partnership between the City of Calgary, Calgary Flames owner Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corp. and the Calgary Stampede Board. The cost of the project, estimated at $550-million, would be evenly split between the City and the Flames, with the City retaining ownership of the building, and the Flames operating it (and getting most of the revenue from it) for 35 years. There are also some side deals, involving land options for the Flames. There has been plenty of economic analysis, from supporters, opponents, and economists.

But the arena deal was as much about politics as it was about economics.

There have been four fundamental political variables at play.

First, the decision to spend $275-million (or more) of taxpayer’s money on the arena, occurred in a time of a lingering economic downturn in Calgary. Last week, City Council voted for $60-million in spending cuts that affected fire, police, transportation, and other services.

In addition, more than a month ago, a property-tax revolt led City Council to rollback an expected increase in small-business taxes outside of the downtown core. Finally, there have been prominent business people, and the new provincial government, who argued that the city should pause the construction of the new multibillion Green LRT line because it was too financially risky. Monday, City Council approved the Green LRT line with some conditions. Even proponents of the arena, such as Mayor Naheed Nenshi and Councillor Jeff Davison (who chaired the negotiations committee), recognized that the timing presented really bad political optics for signing off on a new arena.

Second, was the decision to limit public consultation to only a week at the end of July. The lack of public consultation was surprising, given the amount of consultation for other high-profile infrastructure projects, such as the new downtown library, the airport tunnel, and the Green LRT line. Supporters of the deal argued that since Calgarians have been debating the idea of a new arena since 2015, there was nothing more to add. A replacement for the Saddledome, jointly funded by the City and the Flames, was always the project, but the devil was in the details. (Even now, there exist many unanswered questions: Who is responsible for cost overruns, who is responsible for major renovations, what is the penalty if the Flames break the 35-year lease, what is the economic impact of the land options, etc.?)

The real reason for the rush to decision, is that all negotiating parties, and especially the Flames, did not want time for opposition to the deal to coalesce. This had occurred over previous arena proposals (such as CalgaryNext in 2015) as well as the bid to host the Olympics in 2026. It was felt that time would allow critics to poke holes in the project and mobilize opposition.

A third political variable concerns the 2021 mayoral election. It is widely anticipated that Mr. Nenshi, whose popularity has dropped to below 40 per cent in his third term, will not run for re-election. This has meant jockeying from a number of Councillors. Whether they are for or against the new arena, many have been using this high-profile decision to raise their stature, get media attention, raise money, and acquire supporters.

And the rivalry with Edmonton cannot be dismissed. In 2016, Edmonton got a nice shiny new arena, and corresponding redevelopment in its downtown Ice District. Calgarians looked at Rogers Place in jealousy because the Saddledome had become the oldest arena in the NHL. The iron law of Alberta politics is that if Edmonton gets something new, then Calgary must, too.

In addition, Rogers Place received significant public funding from the City of Edmonton. When the Vancouver Canucks, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Montreal Canadiens all built their current arenas, it was done with 100-per-cent private funding. But those comparisons did not register with Calgarians. What mattered is what Edmonton got. The fact that Edmonton had a much greater need to revitalize its downtown than Calgary needed to revitalize the East Village was irrelevant. The fact that economic times were good when the Edmonton deal was ratified, and times were bad in Calgary, was also irrelevant. What mattered was ensuring that Calgary would get whatever Edmonton got, and it had to be better, too.

Ultimately, it was politics, not economics that drove the arena decision. If there are no surprises in the numbers and the Calgary arena is better than Rogers Place, then opposition will disappear (as it did with the Peace Bridge and downtown library).

But if damaging economic details emerge from the deal or the Calgary arena is worse than Rogers Place, then there will be political hell to pay for the Councillors who supported the deal.

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Canada elections and political ads on Facebook

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Facebook users in B.C. and Alberta have been bombarded with political ads supporting pipelines, while Ontario users of the social network are seeing attacks on Premier Doug Ford and his education policies, a CBC News analysis shows.

As the federal election approaches, industry groups, partisan advocates and unions have spent large sums of money to get their messages in front of Facebook users. But new political advertising rules that came into effect last month seem to have slowed down the spending spree.

CBC obtained 35,000 ads published this year on Facebook’s new ad library, which the social media giant created in an effort to be more transparent and regain public trust after being accused of enabling foreign actors to interfere in elections.

The archive of ads offers a glimpse into the political messaging being crafted for Canadians in an election year.

And it shows how advertisers are making use of Facebook’s ability to target audiences by location, delivering tailored messages on local issues.

In Ontario, for example, three teachers associations have been running ads critical of provincial government cuts to education. Facebook users in Alberta have been shown ads by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation urging politicians to deny equalization payments to provinces that oppose oil pipelines that would travel through their territory.

“This shows how political groups are able to use Facebook to target messages,” said Stuart Soroka, a professor of political science at Michigan University who used to teach at McGill University in Montreal.

“Facebook is an extension of what we saw in the ’90s, a capability to run regional TV ad campaigns thanks to technical changes.”

An ad from the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association that was targeted at Facebook users in B.C., Ontario, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador. (Facebook)

Facebook’s public ad archive expanded to Canada this year in response to Bill C-76, also known as the Elections Modernization Act. Adopted late last year, C-76 forces online companies like Facebook to disclose the political ads on their platforms and the people or groups that paid for them.

Although Facebook lets advertisers target their ads to specific audiences based on gender, age, location and interests, it doesn’t disclose what groups an ad was meant for.

It does, however, disclose what kinds of users saw the ad. So by looking at ads that were shown disproportionately to one group, you can get a rough idea of the types of messages that were aimed at them.

To find ads that were targeted by location, we looked at those that had at least 95 per cent of total views in a single province. The graphic below lists the ten most frequent words in ads that were seen overwhelmingly in specific provinces.

Canada elections
These word clouds show the 20 most frequently used words in ads that were targeted at users in specific provinces and territories. The bigger the word, the more frequently it appeared. Northwest Territories and Nunavut are excluded because there isn’t enough data. (CBC News Graphics)

The top two words in Alberta-targeted ads are “pipelines” and “equalization” because of a campaign from the Canadian Taxpayers Federation with the slogan, “No pipelines? No equalization!”

“Energy” and “move” were popular words in ads targeted in B.C., mostly due to ads from the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association (CEPA) promoting pipelines as a solution to climate change and as a contributor to the economy. CEPA ran more than 1,250 ads nationwide, 280 of which were seen only in B.C., making it Facebook’s biggest political advertiser in the province.

The province has resisted the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline, which would increase the volume of Alberta crude carried to a port in Burnaby, B.C.

CEPA spokesperson Carla Minogue said the ad campaign is national in scope, and the high numbers for B.C. are not related to Trans Mountain resistance, but to reach users in Metro Vancouver. She said CEPA is also targeting users in the Greater Toronto Area.

“We want to reach people who are neutral in the pipeline issue and that’s where they tend to be,” she said.

In Ontario, “education,” was a top word due to the nearly 200 ads run by three teacher associations: the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation. All of their ads denounced the province’s recent cuts to schools.

However, they were all outdone by North99, an advocacy group that used petitions and surveys in Facebook ads as a way to collect contact information from users.

The group’s 300 ads were shown mostly in Ontario and were highly critical of Doug Ford’s government.

Canada elections
Northwest Territories and Nunavut are excluded due to a lack of data. (CBC News Graphics)

But North99’s output was topped by Fair Path Forward, a Facebook page run by Canadians for Clean Prosperity, an advocacy group that supports a carbon tax as a solution to climate change. It ran 450 separate ads aimed at Facebook users in Ontario, the highest total in any province so far.

“Clean Prosperity will be running ads until the election starts, and our goal is to educate Canadians about why a carbon tax is a fair, effective and affordable way to address climate change,” said spokesperson Max Fawcett.

Big spenders

Facebook also discloses how much advertisers spent on ads. The biggest spender in Canada was a group called Shaping Canada’s Future, which describes itself as a “free enterprise oriented” group. It gained notoriety in June when it ran TV spots critical of the federal Liberal government during game 5 of the NBA finals. The group has spent close to $190,000 this year on Faceobok ads alone.

The group ran all of its 61 ads in June, just before the new rules about political advertising kicked in. Facebook requires that ads about social issues or politics contain a disclaimer and disclose the organization that paid for them. None of the ads by Shaping Canada’s Future had this disclaimer, despite being political, and were taken down by the social network.

Shaping Canada’s Future has so far yet to respond to CBC’s request for comment.

Unifor, Canada’s largest private-sector union, spent more than $130,000 on 41 video ads since June urging Canadians to vote with workers in mind.

The federal Liberal and Conservative parties were the fourth and fifth biggest spenders, respectively.

New rules discouraging advertisers

Since the new advertising rules came into effect last month, the number of political and issue ads on Facebook dropped significantly, from roughly 14,000 in June to 9,500 in July.

Ads posted in June were not subject to third-party rules, which means the groups running those ads were not obligated to register with Elections Canada and publicly release their donors and spending.

One advertiser contacted by CBC said it decided to stop running Facebook ads following the introduction of the new rules out of caution. The Canadian Taxpayers Federation, which had run ads supporting pipelines and opposing inheritance taxes and the Liberal government’s media bailout, ran 330 ads in June, but only one in July.

“Because this is the first time this is happening in Canada, we did this out of an abundance of caution,” said Aaron Wudrick, national director of the federation. “We’ll see how things go and we might reassess in the future.”

Methodology

CBC collected data on more than 36,000 ads using Facebook’s Ad Library API. We searched the API by advertiser ID numbers, which were published in Facebook’s daily Ad Library Report. Major non-political advertisers (those that sell products or services and ran at least 50 ads or spent at least $30,000 in 2019) were excluded from the analysis. These advertisers were mistakenly classified as political by Facebook’s algorithms because their ad texts may contain words associated with political issues like “environment,” “guns” and “economy.”

Data analysis was done using the Python programming language. Word frequencies were found using the Natural Language Toolkit.

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Americans Are not Happy About Politics

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Americans Politics: Sometimes I wonder what I would be thinking about all day if I weren’t thinking all day about politics.

I sort of fell into this line of work. I wanted to write for a living and to live in a city where my friends were, which turned out to be Washington, D.C. I was less than happy working in a golf course conference room for a fledgling import-export company, living at home and pretty regularly sobbing alone in my bedroom. (It was post-crash America, and I’m decently confident that this scenario meant that I was better off than about 90 percent of recent college grads.) A guy I knew who worked at a political magazine maneuvered my résumé out of a pile, and a course was charted that has led me here, to 2019, where I think about politics all day, every day. I fantasize, occasionally, about becoming an archaeologist — I think I would like all the camping, plus the time spent in cool, musty museum labs with papyrus and pottery shards.

Up until recently, these fantasies of “something-else-besides-politics” were logical because it seemed like a lot of the country wasn’t very interested in politics. It made me feel sort of useless — who really read this stuff outside of D.C.? Was it making a difference? But now things are different — people are paying attention. Perhaps it’s because of President Trump — a 2017 Pew Research Center survey found that 52 percent of Americans said they were paying more attention to politics since his election. My colleague Geoffrey Skelley recently wrote about just how much attention likely Democratic primary voters were paying to the Democratic primary — a lot, it turns out. Forty-five percent of people in one survey done this year said they were paying “a lot” of attention to the campaign, compared with only 28 percent of people who said the same thing in a similarly-phrased poll question from 2015.

But to what end is that engagement? Last year, the Public Religion Research Institute found that 69 percent of Americans felt sad, angry or fearful when they thought about what’s going on in the country today. But only 19 percent of people had gotten in touch with an elected official in the last year, just 14 percent had volunteered and a paltry 12 percent had attended a community meeting, like a school board or city council meeting. For all the sadness some Americans feel, and for all our tuned in-ness to politics, we don’t seem to be doing much politically proactive day-to-day.

I write this not to name and shame America, but to identify with its ennui. It’s difficult not to talk day after day about the ups and downs of the election without pulling back every once in a while and wondering who all the talk and writing is for. A recent Gallup survey found that 68 percent of Americans aren’t proud of our country’s political system; according to a Pew survey from July, only 46 percent of people who say they have a generally high threshold of personal trust also say they have confidence in elected officials to act in the best interests of the public — that figure drops to 27 percent among people who express low levels of generalized trust. That’s abysmal, and they’re the kind of numbers that make a person think: If a lot of Americans have decided that they have no faith in the process, then why painstakingly chronicle it? Is political coverage in an age of disillusionment simply a self-contained symbiotic act? Are reporters like me just a little Egyptian plover bird in the crocodile’s jaw, picking at bits of food in its teeth to survive?

I’ll answer “no” for the sake of my job and because of an abiding belief that records of history must be kept — it’s probably some medieval Irish monk DNA at work. But there’s also no innate virtue in political engagement; I won’t plead with Americans to get “more political.” A friend of mine once said that she thought of journalism as helping people understand the world around them in a deeper way. It might just be that people understand American politics just fine — we have the numbers to show that they’re paying attention — it’s just that they don’t like what they see.

Disillusionment played a role in the last presidential election. Indifference, too. Trump and Hillary Clinton were historically unpopular candidates. Trump’s election was a shock in part because pre-election day polls and models were on shakier ground than in years past, thanks to the high number of undecided voters (you can read Nate Silver in depth on the phenomenon here), and a whole lot of people Democrats depended on to elect Barack Obama ended up staying home that November. There’s nothing to say that the 2020 election won’t see similar dynamics.

I’m just one woman, with only the thoughts stirring in my own brain to offer, but I think America’s ennui, its pervasive, high-information sadness, has something to do with the blurring line between what is a “political issue” and what is a “moral issue.” Partisan discourse is so strong, so all-encompassing, that to render judgements about what is a violation of those inalienable rights we are all supposed to cherish, is to take a political stance. Today, the issue of immigration — portrayed on the national stage not long ago in the dry language of H1 visas, pathways to citizenship and legislative solutions — is now a moral morass of separated families, dead children and unsanitary, overcrowded holding facilities. Massacres of elementary school children have become common enough that schools have adapted with the brisk practicality we expect of our teachers — active shooter drills help little children envision what to do in the event their nightmares are made flesh. Writing these sentences will make some readers angry since they will be seen as a promotion of a Democratic Party line — but what’s a political journalist to do when she lays her moral compass on the table, and it points in just one direction on these things?

Americans of both parties oppose family separation. You can also watch a steady, national trend toward greater support for stricter gun control over the past decade. The public expressions about the need for change on our new moral issues are clear, but the political system isn’t built to acknowledge this.

Perhaps people choose not to engage with politics because they know that partisanship’s brittle paradigm will shatter when it takes on the heft of a moral load. It isn’t equipped to handle the problems that plague our consciences. Maybe America is right to feel sad.

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Manitoba Province Election could kick off today

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Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister is expected to announce this afternoon that the province’s election is officially underway.

The election was initially scheduled for October 2020, but Mr. Pallister said earlier this summer he would call an early election for Sept. 10.

Mr. Pallister’s Progressive Conservatives swept to victory just three years ago, and ending 17 years of NDP government.

The Manitoba NDP, now led by former broadcaster Wab Kinew, are running on a platform centred on reversing many of the changes the PCs brought in, particularly in health care.

The election call means a busy few months for politicians and volunteers in the province – many of whom will spend the next four weeks knocking on doors for the provincial election, and then they will keep on knocking for the federal campaign that begins right after.

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