Backstage

Bailing out of a bad idea

Anthony Wilson-Smith January 31 2000
Backstage

Bailing out of a bad idea

Anthony Wilson-Smith January 31 2000

Bailing out of a bad idea

Backstage

Anthony Wilson-Smith

In politics, the measure of a really bad idea is how far our leaders go to duck responsibility. Consider Industry Minister John Manleys announced plan last week to spend up to $20 million per year propping up Canadas six National Hockey League teams. For starters, Manley admitted it seemed “strange,” and emphasized the conditions attached. Then, friends of Paul Martin confided to reporters that Martin was vigorously opposed. Other Liberals, most of whom have never heard an idea from the Prime Ministers Office that they didn’t adore, publicly declared opposition. They chose an opportune time. Within 72 hours, even though none of this could have happened without approval from the Prime Minister’s Office, people were saying Jean Chrétien had never been keen: Jean Pelletier, his chief of staff, had been the driving force. From there, the end was as inevitable as a Don Cherry rant: by week’s end, the humiliated Manley announced he was withdrawing the proposal.

To paraphrase an old line, it’s dirty work—and nobody had to do it. For students of political history, the last time a federal governing party reversed a decision in like fashion was in 1985, after the Progressive Conservatives announced the partial de-indexation of old age pensions. A month later, after Brian Mulroney had been publicly berated by a pensioner named Solange Denis (who turned out to be an active Liberal partisan), the Tories restored full indexing.

At least in the Tories’ case, it was possible to find neutral people with no vested interests prepared to defend de-indexing. In the present instance, about the only Manley supporters were—surprise!—NHL owners themselves, and some sportswriters who would lose their beats if their teams left town. Even then, the only owner who said the measure would make a real difference was Rod Bryden, the Ottawa Senators owner and well-connected Liberal, who was the prime beneficiary. Meanwhile, it amounted to a red flag on the eve of a federal budget to people in a variety of sectors bordering on collapse. That includes farmers, fishermen and the whole health-care field. Not to mention people in Winnipeg and Quebec City, wondering why no one cared when their teams left town. And the Canadian Football League, and the Expos and Blue Jays, and amateur sports organizations, and ...

The Manley Plan would have made money available to, among others, the Molson Cos. (owners of the Montreal Canadiens) and the American McCaw family, the multibillionaires who own the Vancouver Canucks. It’s more proof, then, that the rich really are different: they get way better tax breaks. If that’s not annoying enough, there’s Toronto Maple

Leafs president Ken Dryden—who in his more principled youth once interned with Ralph Naders consumer protection group. Last week, Dryden said his already profitable team would want its share because, well... it’s entitled.

Dryden, the once-but-no-more social cmsader, is the perfect example of the disconnect that happens when affluent, well-connected people only talk to others like themselves. NHL ticket prices are now so high that the only people who regularly attend games are business executives with companypaid tickets—and the company, in turn, recovers half the cost in tax writeoffs. In many ways, the franchises are like the spendaholic Liberals of other years—a reputation the Liberals could argue, until last week, is outdated. Since 1993, they have turned a $40-billion annual deficit into a surplus. In roughly the same period, NHL salaries increased more than fourfold, from an average of about $400,000 annually to about $1.8 million at present. Twenty of 28 NHL teams lose money—but they keep spending more, in part because of tax breaks and grants from friendly governments to help them. In addiction-counselling jargon, that’s called “enabling.”

As well, the Liberals came forth with their stillborn idea amidst a burgeoning debate over ways to make Canadas tax system more like that of the United States. In this case, that’s a terrible role model, because the world champs of capitalism morph into ditzy corporate welfare groupies when it comes to subsidizing sports teams. Franchises routinely leave town despite strong fan support—think of the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Colts, not to mention the Winnipeg Jets and Quebec Nordiques—because American cities and states offer things like fully funded new facilities and tax holidays. Often, the franchises have less fan support in their new homes, but make more money because of those concessions.

Canadians, by contrast, expect franchises to pay their own way. Chrétien often says that as Prime Minister, he makes “less than the lowest-paid member of the Ottawa Senators.” Tme, so why would he, as a taxpayer, help pay their salaries? And Manley described pro hockey as something distincdy Canadian—perhaps hoping all those Finns, Swedes, Czechs, Slovaks, Americans and Russians who now play for our teams will take that message to heart and go home. Or perhaps he confused the pro game with the amateur variety, a pastime in which millions of us have spent large parts of our lives. But in one way, the proposal succeeded: Canadians haven’t risen up in so spontaneous and united a fashion since Paul Henderson stunned the Soviet Union with his last-minute goal in 1972. Now the Libs know what Vladislav Tretiak felt like.