Wednesday, December 23, 2009

(No.70) To Europe a different way

What is the 'best' way ( the easiest/cheapest/most pleasant) to fly to Europe from Canada, specifically from Toronto? Many travellers have a favourite airline and route to Europe based on one or more factors, often including how much they shudder at the prospect of landing at Heathrow or Charles DeGaulle.

Pat and I had done trans-Atlantic flights more than a dozen times with various airlines, landing in London (Heathrow), Edinburgh, Paris (DeGaulle), Amsterdam and Vienna. We recently used an airline new to us: Jet Airways, a large Indian airline that flies from Toronto to Brussels Belgium on its way to Mumbai and Delhi in India.

Jet Airways has done little or no advertising in Toronto's newspaper travel sections and has a low profile. We found its prices to be very competitive. From Brussels one can get a direct flight to almost any significant European destination using Brussels Airlines with which Jet Airways has a relationship which (while not a code share) permits the checking of luggage through from Toronto to a final European destination via a Brussels Airlines flight (in our case it was to Malaga Spain).

Jet does not issue boarding passes at its Toronto check -in for use in Brussels on a connecting flight with Brussels Airlines but one can go online with Brussels to pick a seat and print a boarding pass within 24 hours of the connecting flight out of Brussels airport.

Jet Airways was using an Airbus 330-220 on our flight from Toronto with 2 seat configurations on each side of the 4 seat middle row. We were favourably impressed with this airline, specifically the seat and leg space for economy passengers, the promptness and quality of the cabin staff, passenger service and food. Even the passenger noise in the cabin (which of course the airline can't calibrate) seemed noticeably quieter than what one has come to expect on such fully booked flights. Jet Airways was markedly superior to Air Canada measured by all our indices although other longtime AC passengers may regard our compliment as damning with faint praise given the point of comparison.

Brussels airport is large and its Concourse A is new, pleasant, spacious and, for passengers waiting for a flight, a very pleasant contrast with Heathrow and DeGaulle. Brussels Airlines flies mainly to European and African destinations and seems well organized and efficient. However be warned: this airline gives away nothing to passengers, not even a glass of water. For example: a cup of instant coffee costs 2 Euros on the plane.

Overall we thought that Jet Airways and Brussels Airlines are both a pleasant contrast with current North American flights and service by many if not most North American-based airlines. Moreover our flights actually left on time and arrived early.

On our flights from Toronto to Malaga Spain via Brussels we experienced only two negatives worth mentioning:

1. In Brussels airport, in order to get from Concourse B where we disembarked to Concourse A where we boarded our connecting flight, we had to clear EU Passport Control. This took over an hour (fortunately we had left lots of connection time for our flight out of Brussels). This delay was caused by a mob of several hundred people, well-behaved but a mob nonetheless, which backed up at Passport Control waiting for processing and trying to figure out where specific lines might be forming (there were none indicated beyond a few feet back from the EU booths). A herd of cats would have been better organized than this aspect of the Brussels airport. Advice: to be on the safe side leave a minimum of 2 hours for any flight connection in Brussels.

2. Jet Airways had overbooked its flight out of Toronto and when we attempted to check in for our flight (and we did so quite early) we were redirected without explanation to a Jet agent whose assignment apparently was to try to persuade passengers like us with confirmed and reserved seats to fly to their destinations with a different airline(s) and/or even a different route and/or flight time(s). We declined although by the time the agent conceded defeat in persuading us to give up our seats the incentive offered to us to do so had gradually increased from meal vouchers to $250 each.

But these are minor points on a trip involving 10 hours flying time with an airline change at a second airport. Bottom line: the flights and the travel experience were better than average, the flights were on time and no luggage was lost. In these days of commercial flying as an endurance test one cannot really ask for much more than that.

Henceforth we will consider Jet Airways (with a Brussels Airlines connection if needed) for any flight to Europe as well as Brussels airport as a more appealing European entry point than Heathrow or DeGaulle.

Alastair Rickard


Thursday, December 17, 2009

(No.69) Banks & insurance: shooting off another toe?

As I have written previously in this column I argued for many years in articles, editorials and speeches that if the insurance jurisdiction of the provinces over agency matters was challenged by the feds or the federally regulated Canadian banks as it related to their insurance activity as banks the Supreme Court of Canada would side with the provinces as had been the case with the House of Lords decision which had forced Ottawa to come up with the federal insurance legislation of 1932. This was the core of a modus vivendi at the time between Ottawa and the provinces to address the federal government having over-reached itself constitutionally involving the regulation of insurance.

In more recent years it must be admitted that the provinces were hesitant to assert their right to regulate bank insurance activity within their area of competence. I longed for the big banks to exercise their happy combination of arrogance and ignorance and challenge provincial insurance jurisdiction vis-a-vis bank insurance activity. They did so in BC but in a case which did not really focus on the core jurisdictional/regulatory issue -- and won. Then, bless their high-priced legal advice, the big banks made the fundamental error (in Alberta) I had long waited for involving the clear cut issue of provincial insurance jurisdiction. The Western Bank v. Alberta case went all the way to the Supreme Court which, in a May 2007 decision, favoured the provinces.

[ For some of my previous comments on banks and insurance see column Nos. 33,34,47 & 48 on]

Now in what one must regard as an unintended consequence the Royal Bank has, by initiating a piddling civil suit in the Ontario Superior Court, caused to be generated a judgment (dated Nov 18,2009) which not only cites the Alberta bank case precedent but confronts the province of Ontario (as well as by implication the other common law provinces except Alberta and BC) with the need to take action themselves in terms of bank insurance activity.

Why? Because the nub of the matter in the case of Royal Bank v. Mujagic is this:
the bank was held to be taking and transmitting insurance applications and receiving benefits in return, i.e., acts like those of an insurance agent and therefore requiring an insurance license in Ontario -- which the bank does not have.

Several points that need to be noted about this significant case and judgment by Justice D.S. Crane:
  • This may well be the first time since the the unanimous decision of the Supreme Court of Canada in the Western Bank case that the decision has been cited with authority regarding banks' authorized types of insurance. Well done Royal Bank for causing this citation of a key precedent; another toe on the banks' legal foot is shot off since the banks' longtime core belief (almost religious in its intensity) is that they -- the almighty, deity- sanctified, federally incorporated and regulated big banks of Canada -- should not have to lower themselves to a point at which they need to pay attention to lowly provincial insurance regulators.
  • An Ontario judgment involving a regulatory framework for banks and insurance is significant not only for Ontario but other provinces. Since the definition of "insurance agent" is the same in all of the common law provinces the implications of the Royal Bank case judgment extend beyond Ontario. The other common law provinces (except for BC and Alberta which have already legislated on the matter of banks and licensing) cannot stand idly by and do nothing.
  • Given this decision by an Ontario court it seems clear that the status quo is no longer an option for Ontario. Therefore the Financial Services Commission of Ontario (FSCO), the insurance regulator, needs to: (1) apply the law, i.e., the existing insurance licensing requirement, OR (2) ask the legislature to pass amendments to specifically exempt banks from licensing (as in BC), OR (3) implement a restrictive licensing regime applicable to banks (as in Alberta). The insurance industry trade associations like CLHIA, CAILBA, Advocis and IFBC should work to ensure that FSCO does not try to successfully pretend that nothing has happened and that it does not need to take effective regulatory action.
  • The judgment in the Nov. 18 Royal Bank case clearly shows on the basis of evidence what has certainly been no secret: banks do more vis-a-vis insurance than simply enrolling consumers. They take and transmit insurance applications and receive something of value in return. These are core functions that define an insurance agent for regulatory purposes in Ontario. Hence this case reinforces, for those who may have preferred to turn a blind eye, that banks are functioning as insurance agents and need to be licensed accordingly.
  • Leaving banks unlicensed when they are acting as insurance agents creates an unlevel playing field, one that gives the banks a competitive advantage since they have a lesser regulatory burden. It also leaves insurance consumers at risk with no proper and appropriate regulator with whom to lodge insurance-related complaints and from whom to seek redress.
  • The Supreme Court decided in the Western Bank case that the distribution of insurance and its regulatory framework are NOT of federal competency. Only the provinces can regulate those acting as insurance agents. It is clear that if FSCO were to fail to enforce Ontario's insurance regulation on the banks then it would demonstrate, in light of the Royal bank decision, a lack of due diligence in protecting the insurance buying public.
  • Clearly the status quo in Ontario is not an option. There is nothing in the Ontario Insurance Act that empowers FSCO to replace the existing licensing regime with some sort of self-regulatory regime applicable to banks acting as insurance agents. The Ontario judgment in the Royal Bank case makes clear: a license is required in Ontario to do what the Royal Bank was found on the evidence to be doing. Therefore this now requires action by FSCO.
  • What ought to be done by Ontario is what agents and others (including me) have favoured for a long time concerning banks and insurance: apply a full insurance licensing regime at the provincial level to bankers rather than to banks per se vis-a-vis the banks' current authorized types of insurance. Certainly such compulsory individual licensing (and its associated preparation and knowledge) would at least begin to address the problem posed for consumers by the gross inadequacies arising from the so-called incidental sale of insurance (ISI), the biggest share of this ISI product category being the highly profitable creditors' group insurance coverage peddled by unlicensed bank staff in connection with the lives of those seeking the banks' mortgages and loans.
  • Finally, if FSCO (or any other provincial insurance regulator) decides that a possible bank court challenge in response is a deterrent to their taking real action involving bank licensing and levelling the regulatory playing field in terms of who is and is not required to be examined and licensed, they need to remember -- even if the banks and the same legal advisors who took them to the Supreme Court have retiform memories -- that provincial jurisdiction in this matter has already been decided by Canada's highest court.
Meanwhile, as the banks limp from legal defeat to legal setback, it is becoming ever more difficult for them to pretend that the provinces are unable to call the agency tune to which they must dance -- with implications that extend beyond bank branch staff licensing to the consequential issue of the potential provincial role and influence in their attempting to bring off any future expansion of bank branch retailing of insurance.

For the time being at least the federal Tory govt. has kept that door firmly closed. But stay tuned. Although the door is likely to remain closed for some time there are still likely to be further interesting developments in the area of banks and insurance in Canada. And there are bank toes yet to be severed.

Alastair Rickard


Sunday, December 13, 2009

(No.68) Feeling melancholy in Madeira & Malaga

Over generations the Spanish in the city of Malaga on the Costa del Sol and in the Canary Islands as well as the Portuguese on the island of Madeira have done a poor job of preserving the physical evidence of centuries of activity. Today the appearance is too often akin to a North Las Vegas suburb (where a structure built in 1950 -- if it still stood -- would be like somethng from the Middle Ages) than to cities whose origins are hundreds of years ago.

Having recently visited Malaga on the Spanish mainland, Funchal on Madeira and Santa Cruz on Tenerife, each being port cities backing against mountains, it strikes one like a swat across the face that -- driven by mindless commercialism -- high rise apartments and condos aimed at foreign tourists (especially punters from the United Kingdom) have spoiled not only the look but the scale of these cities. It has happened as surely as Hermann Goering's Luftwaffe bombers set the stage (by devastating much of London) for the post-war construction of more ugly modern buildings than can be found even in the Greater Toronto Area.

In Malaga the magnificent cathedral built in two phases in the 16th and 17th centuries is hemmed in on all sides by high rise residential buildings of uncommon ugliness, structures that even the most ardent opponents of Prince Charles' traditional architectural preferences would be hard pressed to describe as anything more than pedestrian.

Any reference to Malaga and the Costa del Sol reminds me of the 1930s American "public enemy"gangster Alvin Karpis (actually a Canadian born in Montreal) who ended up settling in Malaga in 1973. He lived modestly there on the money he made from his autobiography Public Enemy Number One (1971) written following his deportation to Canada in 1969. Karpis had been refused parole from his U.S. imprisonment so long as FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover reigned supreme. Hoover, who cemented his public reputation as a crime buster by saying he had personally captured Karpis (he didn't), steadfastly opposed Karpis' release from prison. Karpis remained incarcerated for 33 years (1936-1969) until three years before the cross-dressing Hoover died, having donned his pink chiffon dress for the last time. Karpis was finally able to get parole.

Unfortunately for the preservation of historic Malaga, Alvin Karpis' preference for the Costa del Sol (he died there in 1979 under suspicious circumstances) came to be shared by thousands of Europeans whose desire to visit or dwell on this part of Spain's Mediterranean coast have made Malaga into a cheek by jowl sort of place.

The Portuguese settled the Atlantic island of Madeira in the 15th century. In Funchal, Madeira's main city, the houses and commercial buildings are scattered higglety pigglety, many with sideyards of dwarf banana plants. Of Madeira's history and heritage too little remains as modern hotels are jammed along Funchal's seafront like hockey players elbowing each other in the corners. Indeed not that long ago the historic building where Hapsburg Empress 'SiSi' of Austria stayed regularly was pulled down to make way for a singularly unimpressive hotel. Indeed in the travels Pat and I have undertaken over the years I cannot recall seeing a less appealing stretch of jammed together hotels this side of a U.S interstate highway interchange.

The fact that Reid's Palace Hotel (opened in 1891) has managed to survive is the exception which proves the rule. Like 'arme blanche' horsed cavalry in late 19th century European armies, it holds out the lingering possibility of class in what would otherwise be an unseemly brawl. But the survival of Reid's Palace is too little to redeem the whole any more than Madeiran references today to Winston Churchill's occasional visits to paint a fishing village can endow the island with cultural awareness.

The British connection to this Portuguese island, beginning with the 17th century wine trade, is a long one but when post-WWII tourism on the island was started by the British in 1949 it began an era that has transformed Madeira. These days the seasons can be marked by when the French come to the island, when the Germans and then Scandinavians visit; the British apparently don't comparmentalize -- they come to Madeira year round.

In Santa Cruz on Tenerife, the major island of the Canary Islands, the millions of annual visitors can look (up) to the national park, to Mount Teide with its height of 12,000 feet and volcanic crater and terrain surrounding its base -- truly breath-taking views.

But look down and around and see what? An imitation of the Sydney Opera House or Santa Cruz's 'twin towers' that, according to one local, nobody since 9/11 wants to live in. But it would be unfair to ignore the preservation of the small El Tigre fortification: it houses the cannon that supposedly separated Horatio Nelson from his arm in 1797 as he led an attack on it eight years before his death at Trafalgar. I suppose one must give it some credit for representing what little remains of the city which fell to the Spanish hundreds of years ago.

I am prepared to be regarded as churlish for offering my conclusion that the city's lap dancers, spit-and-sawdust bars and discos are not, strange as it may seem, sufficient to offset what has been lost from this historic place.

And yet, so impressive is the vista from the top of another mountainous national park in another of the Canary Islands, La Palma, it is almost enough by itself to make up in a traveller's experience of the Canaries for what has been depreciated elsewhere.

Alastair Rickard


Monday, December 7, 2009

(No.67) Freud, Buddy Holly & 1897 Vienna

Selden Edwards, after graduating from Princeton University, was studying at Stanford in California in the early 1970s when he read Wittgenstein's Vienna by Allan Janik and Stephen Toulmin. As a result he gradually became fascinated by the Austrian city of Vienna as it was during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He arbitrarily chose 1897 as a year on which to focus. He then wrote ca 1974 the first rough version of what became his novel The Little Book (although it is not a 'little' novel).

Edwards became a teacher but continued to work on his novel off and on until it was published more than 30 years later in 2007. It is his first novel and not only did it surmount the usual obstacles in the way of publication of first novels it made the New York Times fiction list of bestsellers and is now out in trade paperback format (Plume, 2009).

One of my interests is turn-of-the century Vienna, the cultural and political centre of the Hapsburg Monarchy's Austro-Hungarian Empire, the disappearance of which was one of the outcomes of World War I and the agreements made at Versailles.

My interest in the Austro-Hungarian Empire was piqued years ago when I researched a curious but little known episode involving an heir to the Hapsburg throne, Archduke Maximilian, who was sponsored by French Emperor Napoleon III and Mexican monarchists to become an emperor. He sat on the Mexican throne briefly as it turned out (1864-67) during what is called the Second Mexican Empire. This European involvement in Mexico was attempted while the U.S. govt was absorbed by its own civil war in the 1860s and unable to to take effective action to prevent it at the time.

As a footnote -- one of the great engagements in the history of the French Foreign Legion and celebrated by Legionnaires to this day ( the Legion was the backbone of the military force supporting this European intervention) was fought in Mexico. But that is another story.

It is difficult to exaggerate the cultural vitality of Vienna during the period ca 1897, even as most of those involved remained largely immune to feelings of pending doom. In Vienna at this time one might encounter, among many luminaries: Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychoanalysis; Ludwig Wittgenstein, perhaps the 20th centruy's greatest philosopher; the composer/conductor Gustav Mahler; the artists Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele and other painters belonging to the Vienna 'secessionist' school; the Empress Elizabeth (known as SiSi); and even -- living not far from Vienna -- Adolph Hitler age 10.

It is this milieu which is at the heart of The Little Book, a novel which involves time travel by three generations of a Boston family back to 1897 Vienna.

The plot is multi-layered. Key plot points and reader enjoyment of this novel will be easily spoiled by any reviewer who is uncaring. It is sufficient to say here that members of the three generations of the Boston family, the Burdens, range beyond Vienna and encounter the likes of Mark Twain, Winston Churchill and Buddy Holly.

The plot of The Little Book involves war, mystery, romance and the murder of both fictional and historical characters. Several of the novel's reviewers have predicted that The Little Book will become a classic. While Selden Edwards seems to me unlikely to wander the foothills of immortality in the company of, say, Charles Dickens or Marcel Proust, his first belated novel may indeed stand the test of time by attracting future generations of readers.

There is more than enough remaining today of fin-de-siecle Vienna to make the city, and what has been inherited from the Hapsburgs and preserved, a wonderful place to visit. Selden Edwards' The Little Book evokes, in an absorbing novel combining adventure with ideas, why Vienna was and still is a fascinating place.


A footnote: several very enjoyable mystery novels by the English psychologist Frank Tallis are also set in Vienna during this pre-W.W.I era [see my review in column No. 54 at].

Alastair Rickard


Wednesday, December 2, 2009

(No.66) Wankers, wingnuts & Fox News


The 5-part series "Sun Life: Comments on its performance" appeared in in column numbers 50, 52, 60, 61 & 62.

The 2 part series "Insurance people email" appeared in column numbers 63 & 64.

The column "Some email responses to my U.S. health care comments" appeared as No. 65.

These columns as well as all my other columns posted this year can be read by going to the links in the left hand margin of any column.


Canadians generally do not have the same access to U.S. cable news broadcaster Fox News as they do to CBC Newsworld (recently renamed News Network) or to Fox's American cable news rival CNN. I was familiar with the particular right wing prism through which Fox broadcasts must pass before reaching American viewers but my familiarity recently became an overdose. This happened in the mid-Atlantic when reception of television channels by the ship on which Pat and I were passengers was lost, channels including the BBC, Euronews and CNN. The Fox News signal was substituted.

Dissatisfaction is a word that does not adequately describe my feelings when I found myself with Fox as my ONLY source of news (print or broadcast). But it did provide me with the opportunity to focus as never before on its bias and inadequacies.

Some Canadians will know that Fox News (owned by media baron Rupert Murdoch) was the leading media voice and defender of the Bush administration and is now the self-appointed 'leader of the opposition' to the Obama administration. Listen to Fox News and you will hear, for example, that the Obama administration is "socialist", that President Obama is a "racist" and you will learn about the American citizen "tea party" protests (Fox has promoted, supported and lavished coverage upon them) against all manner of federal government spending to deal with recession, unemployment and health care problems.

The clear message that the viewer gets from watching Fox News is that President Obama and the Democratic Party's majorities in both houses of Congress are actually a threat to American freedoms. Imagine such 'threats' in a country in which after 8 years led by Fox's favourite, President George Bush, 45 million people have no health insurance (but Fox talking heads routinely attack proposals for health insurance reform); the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture reports that in 2008 there were 49 million Americans living in households that lacked consistent access to food; and well before the latest recession and financial crisis began a U.S. Census Bureau survey reported that more than 1 in 5 Americans needed help from family, friends or outsiders to pay for basic needs.

After 8 years under a Republican administration (as well as years of Republican congressional majorities) such facts fail to connect in any realistic way with the core values that Fox embraces and trumpets today: less govt. spending, still lower taxes (on the wealthy) and even less government regulation. Indeed, listening recently to a Fox program 'host' construct a verbal plinth on which former Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin could pose as a superior political being is almost enough to convince me of the existence of a parallel universe.

It was of course no accident that when the former Alaska governor hit the road recently to promote her bestselling book Going Rogue the focus of her national television promotion (other than Oprah) was Fox News where she has been an object of near religious adoration since John McCain chose her as his 2008 running mate. Palin's Fox interviews could not really be called interviews in any journalistic sense since they were puffball affairs more closely resembling 'infomercials' not just for her book but for her as a political celebrity and (Fox people apparently hope) the 2012 Republican presidential nominee.

The Fox News slogan of " fair and balanced" may be one of the most inappropriate invoked since British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's declaration on his return from Munich of "peace in our time". Fox's defence for their pronounced right-of-centre slant on most political issues of substance on which they report and comment is that Fox commentators offer their own conservative views but Fox news broadcasts per se are fair and balanced. This is codswallop.

Just one recent example: a mid-Nov. recommendation of a change in American guidelines for mammography testing from an independent govt.-appointed panel of medical specialists is spun by Fox News into being a precursor of health care "rationing" under President Obama's "public option" health care reform -- if, God forbid in Fox's view, it were to be implemented.

But Canadians should not for a second underestimate the malign influence exerted by Fox on a segment of the American electorate and on much of the Republican Party, especially by the ranting of right wing wankers and wingnuts who regularly appear on its news programs.

Why does Fox News matter much to the U.S. body politic? Because the Fox influence in the U.S. is real indeed. 71% of Americans say (July 2009) that their "main source" for national and international news is television and specifically 40% cite cable news channels (of which Fox News is one of the two leaders along with CNN) as their main source.

The negative Fox influence on public affairs extends beyond encouraging the holding of puerile political views by voters many of whom, if they rely on Fox news to provide their information, are ill-equipped to separate wheat from chaff. It also instills in too many Americans the belief that Fox news is their best resource in understanding public issues and what is happening around them. Among the implications of this: among all national sources of news a study (2007) of American knowledge by news source conducted by Pew Research found that the the viewers with the lowest level of knowledge of national and international affairs were those who relied on Fox news as their "main source".

What is perhaps most striking to me about Fox's slanted broadcasts is that so much of the opinion expressed is manifestly false, even silly and yet Fox News is today close to being the leading American cable news network. It already has an unhealthy influence in particular over the Republican Party and many of its core voters: 63% of Americans surveyed (July 2009) who said Fox was their "main source" of news were Republicans and Republican-leaning independents.

Finally, an insurance industry footnote to my mid-Atlantic exposure to Fox:

as a former Sun Life executive I wonder, in passing, why Sun Life Financial in the US -- particularly at a time when it is a financial drain on the overall operations of the company -- is paying Fox News to broadcast pathetically unfunny television commercials featuring KC and the Sunshine Band.

Based on my understanding of the company line I had thought Sun-branded individual insurance sales activity in the U.S. (after it had dumped its own career agency system in that country) was supposed to target a PPGA-accessed upscale market. Is that what those who direct Sun Life's U.S. operation think Fox News delivers?

Oh dear.

Alastair Rickard