Fast & Curious: Short Takes on Random Things

Editor’s Note: It’s that time of year when the Spectator turns off the computer for a bit to focus on decking halls, trimming trees and eating all the best chocolates in the Quality Street tin. To facilitate this, we’re including Fast & Curious with the regular edition of the paper this week, like the tiny bottle Bailey’s attached to the big bottle of Jameson. Whether you will be celebrating over the next few weeks or cursing the whole she-bang, we wish you well and look forward to picking up where we left off in 2019!

Quad C

A Spectator reader (you know who you are) helped me connect some rather spectacular dots this week and I’d like to share the resulting picture with you.

It starts with a New York Times exposé of McKinsey, the international consultancy firm, and its very dodgy list of clients, which includes a Ukrainian oligarch who paid the firm to “burnish the image of a disgraced presidential candidate, Viktor F. Yanukovych, recasting him as a reformer;” the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, for which McKinsey undertook 600 projects between 2011-2016; and, most interestingly from our perspective, the Chinese Communications Construction Company (CCCC or, to our “port developers,” Quad C), the firm that, back when we were talking about a container terminal in Sydney harbor, was going to build it.

Here’s how the NYT describes CCCC, in a discussion of the company’s participation in a rail project in Malayasia, part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative:

China Communications, which was barred for eight years from doing business on some World Bank projects because of a corruption scandal, played a leading role in building artificial islands in the South China Sea that have raised tensions with the United States.

The company’s subsidiary also built a new port for Sri Lanka. But the debt turned out to be such a burden that the Sri Lankan government had to give up the port and hand it over for 99 years — to China.

Sri Lanka’s fate was so alarming that Malaysia’s new prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, worried that the same thing might happen to him. So he suspended the railway project in July.

“That is not good for us,” Mr. Mahathir said in September. “Malaysian workers have no jobs that they can do. All the work is hired from China. You can see how one-sided it is.”

In fact, McKinsey has apparently been a big cheerleader for China’s Belt and Road Initiative. As the Times reported:

Dominic Barton, McKinsey’s managing partner at the time, made Belt and Road the theme of a keynote address in Beijing in 2015, recounting the Silk Road trade from the second century B.C. onward.

McKinsey’s in-house research group, the McKinsey Global Institute, sprang into action, producing reports — widely cited in the Chinese state news media — extolling the benefits of the Belt and Road Initiative.

Mr. Barton — who has served on the advisory board of China Development Bank, one of the two biggest Chinese lenders to the Belt and Road Initiative — also batted down concerns in a 2015 interview with Chinese state media that the undertaking might be used as a tool to expand China’s global influence.

“The world is waiting for the ‘One Belt, One Road’ grand blueprint to move from dream to reality,” Mr. Barton and his colleagues wrote in a report published on the company’s Chinese website in May 2015, expressing McKinsey’s enthusiasm to work on it.

Dominic Barton, it turns out, is a Canadian.

And not just any Canadian — he’s the chair of the Canadian Minister of Finance’s Advisory Council on Economic Growth, in which capacity he’s been asked to “develop advice on concrete policy actions to help create the conditions for strong and sustained long-term economic growth.”

Throw in one last dot — a former Liberal Canadian Prime Minister advising our port developers on its dealings with CCCC — and the resulting picture is very strange indeed.

Albert Barbusci (fourth from left) and Jean Chrétien (fifth from left) visit China Communications Construction Company. (Source: Novaporte website)

Albert Barbusci (fourth from left) and Jean Chrétien (fifth from left) visit China Communications Construction Company. (Source: Novaporte website)



All (Over)board!

Rosie Spinks, writing  in Quartz, tackles the phenomenon of MOBs (man overboards) on cruise ships.

I first became aware of the phenomenon of passengers falling off cruise ships through the research of Memorial Prof. Ross A Kline (aka cruisejunkie) who keeps a running tally of cruise and ferry passengers falling overboard (so far in 2018, the total is 24) and whose work is cited in this article.

Spinks begins by recounting the case of Samantha Broberg, a “mother of two and stepmother to two more,” who fell off the Carnival Liberty in 2016 after being served 19 drinks at one (or more) of the ship’s bars. Broberg’s husband, who is suing the cruise line, says Broberg’s friends reported her missing the next morning, but it took the cruise line 15 hours after her fall to summon the coast guard.

Spinks’ article basically asks the question, “Why are people still falling off cruise ships?” which leads to an in-depth discussion of automatic MOB technology, the cruise ship as “company town,” the harsh conditions under which crew members work and more — including the centrality of drinking to “life on board a cruise ship”.

From a business perspective, there’s also little incentive for the cruising companies to curb alcoholic indulgence. Each of the big three lines—Carnival Corporation & plc, Royal Caribbean Cruise Ltd, and Norwegian Cruise Lines—made between 26% and 30% of its 2017 revenue on drinks and extras sold onboard, according to their annual reports

She also explores an interesting angle I had not considered before, one raised by Michael Lloyd—”a former sea captain with 50 years at sea, and now a marine-safety consultant, victims’ advocate, and cruise industry critic”—who explained that:

“The rise of the modern ‘hotel’ cruise ships is something fundamentally different than what we had seen at sea before,” Lloyd says. “It was as if the ships were becoming part of Las Vegas rather than part of the sea. We saw this shift, and then the operational officers and crew of the ship [became] subservient to the hotel staff, who were seen as the money-makers.”

This approach, says Lloyd:

…goes against centuries of maritime tradition, in which safety is the main priority, and the operational crew of the ship—not the entertainment and hotel side—is seen as the ultimate authority.

Well worth the read.


Corruption, Canadian-style

I’m a regular listener of Canadaland, Jesse Brown’s weekly media criticism podcast, but I hadn’t been a regular listener of Commons, a sister podcast which had originally (as I remember it, anyway) been a vehicle for explaining basic aspects of the Canadian political system I flattered myself I already understood.

But this season, Commons is “focusing on stories at the intersection of money, influence and politics in Canada” and I have tuned in with a vengeance.

Much of the material covered has already been reported elsewhere in the Canadian media but that’s not a knock — because although much of it has been reported elsewhere, I hadn’t necessarily read or heard or watched it, so having someone with a knack for telling a story (like host Arshy Mann) take that coverage and repackage it into a podcast (always giving full credit to the original reporters) is what the bidnessmen call a real “value-add.”

Take the episode “The Trouble with Paradise: How Canadians Built the Offshore World.” In my previous life, as a business reporter, I was always writing about funds and financial services firms based in the Bahamas or the British Virgin Islands or Delaware but I had no idea how deeply involved Canada had been in creating the very notion of the offshore tax haven.

And for once, Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia aren’t hogging all the spotlight — Prince Edward Island gets its own episode, dedicated to its incredibly corrupt attempt to become “Canada’s online gambling hub.”

If you crave something to listen to (other than the Boney M Christmas Album) this holiday season, a podcast series dedicated to Canadian corruption might be just the thing.


Free Willy

Dolphin, Port Philip, Australia. (Photo by Camille Ménard, CC BY-SA 2.0 FR, via Wikimedia Commons)

Dolphin, Port Phillip, Australia. (Photo by Camille Ménard, CC BY-SA 2.0 FR, via Wikimedia Commons)

But enough with the corruption, already!

Let’s end on a more positive note.

Back in October (after a “surprise vote”) a piece of legislation championed by Nova Scotian Senator Wilfred Moore and, when he retired in 2017, by Senator Murray Sinclair, finally passed the Canadian Senate. As Holly Lake reported in iPolitics:

Tabled in December 2015 by former Liberal senator Wilfred Moore, the Ending the Captivity of Whales and Dolphins Act has faced Tory opposition led by Sen. Don Plett, the party’s whip and caucus critic on the bill. He has repeatedly used procedural obstruction to keep it from moving to a vote — a tactic that appeared to have the support of the Conservative caucus.

A Conservative amendment that would have excluded the Vancouver Aquarium from the scope of the bill was defeated ahead of Tuesday’s vote by a vote of 49-29. A sub-amendment that would have excluded Marineland was also defeated last week by a wide margin: 49-23-2.

Those are the only two facilities that keep captive cetaceans in Canada.

Also known as the “Free Willy” bill, it is now making its way through the House of Commons, sponsored by Green Party leader Elizabeth May. In an email to supporters this week, May noted that:

When held in captivity these animals suffer from confinement isolation, health problems, reduced lifespans, sensory deprivation and much more. The practice of keeping cetaceans in captivity for the sole purpose of entertainment is inherently cruel and must stop.

In fact, the Vancouver aquarium announced in January it would no longer keep whales or dolphins in captivity.

There are those (other than Don Plett) who argue that captivity is necessary for breeding/conservation purposes but according to the Animal Welfare Institute:

There are no self-sustaining captive populations and animals are needed from the wild to maintain genetic viability. Bottlenose dolphins, orcas and beluga whales are the only cetaceans who have been bred with some success, but even these do not have self-sustaining captive populations. Also, captive-bred offspring are never returned to the wild, a required step for any breeding program claiming a conservation purpose

As for saving them from “brutal deaths” in the wild or ensuring we can study them, such arguments could be just as easily applied to humans — I would probably live a longer, safer life if I were kept in a pen, fed regularly and protected from threats like, I don’t know, traffic and blenders. And scientists might even be able to figure out things that have always puzzled me about myself — like why I am incapable of closing a cupboard door. But let’s face it, my life would suck.

The thing that fascinates us most about dolphins and whales — the thing that makes us want to study them — is their intelligence which, to me, is precisely the thing that means we shouldn’t keep them in captivity.

Of course, freeing them is only half the battle — the other half is ensuring the “natural habitat” to which we return them continues to exist.


This just in…

Did Marlowe buy the call center or the Screaming Eagles?

Wait, I have to do one last item — and some will no doubt consider this ending on a high note, although I, personally, am deeply ambivalent.

A Connecticut bankruptcy court has approved the sale of ServiCom Canada’s contracts to Iowa businessman Anthony Marlowe for $1.5 million.

CBRM Mayor Cecil Clarke has issued a joyous press release:

The Sydney centre was a profitable one; its workers were dedicated to its success. The speed at which the sale moved through the complications of U.S. bankruptcy proceedings shows Anthony Marlowe of MCI Canada saw that and is determined to pick up where they left off.

Marlowe himself, who is clearly starting to believe the “savior” headlines he’s been generating in the local press, issued one of the most incredible press releases I’ve ever seen from a business — and not just because of the Sydney Call Centre logo which looks like it was ripped from a Screaming Eagles jersey. It begins like this:

When MCI founder and CEO Anthony Marlowe heard 500+ people lost their jobs when ServiCom closed its door just weeks before Christmas, he saw an opportunity to do something meaningful on behalf of the people of Sydney. “It feels great to align our desire to help the workers impacted with our desire to grow MCI.  We are in a unique position to be able to quickly bring jobs back to Sydney, provide a valuable service to customers, and add talented employees and capacity to the MCI Portfolio,” said Marlowe.

Anyone who believes Marlowe’s motivations were first, to help the ServiCom workers, and second, to grow his own business, needs their head examined. There’s a quote I once heard (although I can’t seem to find it anywhere on the internet, so perhaps I actually made it up) that seems apt:

If the founding fathers of Cleveland could have made their fortunes by not founding Cleveland, they would have not founded Cleveland.

That Marlowe is as hard-nosed as any businessman becomes clear a few paragraphs later when he announces he won’t be assuming ServiCom’s debts — meaning he won’t be paying ServiCom workers the money they’re owed. Which doesn’t surprise me — he’s a businessman doing business. His concern is not the workers (some of whom are owed four weeks’ wages) but his own bottom line.

He does, however, promise that:

We will do as much as possible to assist the workers impacted and have decided to provide an employment offer to ServiCom workers that will include sign-on and retention bonuses.  We hope that this will help lessen some of the financial impacts of the closing.

The value of this depends on what Marlowe determines  is “possible,” the size of those sign-on and retention bonuses, and the number of workers who are actually rehired. Because as I noted last Friday, Marlowe is a fan of automation who is on record stating:

The benefits of advancing technology have been a game changer in the industry, Mr. Marlowe said, and customers who once might have wanted 100 call center operators to interact with their customers may now want half that many operators, and more digital services.

The Post is reporting confidently that:

With the Sydney call centre now part of its operations, MCI will employ about 2,000 people.

That means the 1,400 people it employs currently plus 600 in Sydney. But I would hold off counting heads until contracts have been signed and people are actually back to work here.

Business Minister Geoff MacLellan told the CBC he was happy to know ServiCom had found a “stable” owner who was “in it for the long run,” which made me think, immediately, of something George Karaphillis, the dean of the Shannon School of Business, told Steve Sutherland of CBC Information Morning – Cape Breton during a December 10 interview. Asked if there was anything about the general nature of the call center business people here should know, Karaphillis noted:

In general, the call centers, they operate on a very short-term basis. So, usually, they do not buy any buildings, they lease. They do not buy that much equipment, they lease. Because they’re trying to be very mobile because they might not keep the contracts they have for a long period of time.

Believing in this Christmas “miracle” requires us to forget the last 50 years of regional economic development in Cape Breton and have faith that this foreign owner is different. He loves us — loves the workers, loves the community, loves the “outstanding regional officials.”

It goes against the grain, but in the spirit of the season, I will swallow my “Bah-humbugs” and give the man the benefit of the doubt. Here’s hoping he actually will bring us “new, exciting opportunities” in 2019.





The Cape Breton Spectator is entirely reader supported. Please consider subscribing today!