The day after Donald Trump’s impeachment by the US House of Representatives I find myself in the Art Gallery of Ontario enjoying their splendid exhibition on political satire from 1800 to today.  

The exhibition “Crossing the Line” says this:

“Humour can be a powerful weapon to fight hypocrisy and corruption, and politicians, monarchs and the clergy have long provided easy targets for satirical artists.

Political cartoons critic the antics of people in high places. Inspiring debate and provoking a range of responses, from amusement to outrage. While witty and playful, visual humour can also be biting and cruel.

Where do you think political satire crosses the line? Even satirists themselves do not always escape unscathed: they have been fired, imprisoned, attacked and even killed for their images.”

The exhibition includes a series of ten lithographs by the American Sandow Birk, drawn in 2017, which lampoons Trump and his administration. 

I learn that Sandow Birk based his series on an 1800s edition of The Adventures of Gargantua and Pantagruel by Francois Rabelais and illustrated by Gustave Dore which

“tells the story of the misadventures of two bumbling giants. In his version, Birk portrays American President Donald Trump as the lumbering giant, unaware of the destruction he is causing.

Permanently fixated on his cell phone, the president appears oblivious to real world problems.

Through the guise of humour, Birk comments on Trump’s impulsive nature and on the issues circling his presidency – such as Russian relations, climate change and threats to democracy.”

Indelible Record

Trump's recent letter to House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, written over six pages 

“for the purpose of history and to put my thoughts on a permanent and indelible record”

complements the drawings perfectly.

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(To see more drawings click the link below)

Boris Johnson’s emphatic victory in last Thursday’s General Election means the UK will now be leaving the European Union on 31 January 2020. 

The details of Britain’s new relationship with the EU are still to be settled but Johnson wants everything wrapped up by the end of next year. Easier said than done. 

We shall learn more about the Government’s plans on Thursday (19 December) with the State Opening of Parliament and the Queen’s Speech.

The Conservative Manifesto tells us:

“Boris Johnson’s new deal takes the whole country out of the EU as one United Kingdom. It takes us out of the Customs Union, allowing us to set our own tariffs and do our own trade deals. It allows us to pass our own laws and ensures that it is our courts that enforce them.”

It goes on:

“We will keep the UK out of the single market, out of any form of customs union and end the role of the European Court of Justice…. We will negotiate a trade agreement next year – one that will strengthen our Union – and we will not extend the implementation period beyond December 2020.”

Get Brexit Done

Boris Johnson now has a colossal majority in Parliament to do whatever he wants. His simple promise to the voters to “Get Brexit Done” won the day. But will the EU play ball?

Self evidently, the EU will not want to agree terms of trade which disadvantage their own producers. What will happen to the UK’s hugely important service sector? Will the UK’s car manufacturers still be able to export their vehicles to the EU without tariffs? And what about the future of aerospace – an important UK industry? What is going to happen to Airbus? The wings are made in North Wales and shipped to Toulouse in France to be assembled with other parts that come from across Europe. Are these arrangements going to continue as before? Unlikely. 

Mark Carney has warned that decoupling the UK from Europe could mean that some key UK industries could become uneconomic

Boris makes it up as he goes along

We do not really know how Johnson will deal with the millions of practical problems thrown up by Brexit. With Boris the past is not a reliable guide to the future. 

Over his years in the public eye, first as a journalist and latterly as a politician, Johnson has always embellished and fabricated. His speeches and statements are full of evasions, half-truths and out-and-out lies. This is presumably why Donald Trump gets along so well with him.

The Conservative columnist Peter Obsorne has launched a website to track Johnson. He tweets when the PM is caught telling a whopper.

When one of the BBC’s most feared political interrogators, Andrew Neil, sought an interview with Johnson during the election campaign he was ignored. Neil, who had interviewed all the other Party leaders, was livid

The Observer's political columnist, Andrew Rawnsley, says the election result means we shall at last find out what the shape-shifter Johnson really believes

So, where does this leave Labour?

Sitting on the fence

The Labour Leader, Jeremy Corbyn, sat on the fence on the biggest issue of the day. No-one knew if he was for or against Brexit. He stayed studiously neutral in the election while promising, after he’d won, a second referendum on a renegotiated withdrawal deal or the status quo. Aaaargh! After three and a half years of debate on Brexit this was a contortion too far.

Corbyn reasoned he would alienate Labour leaning voters if he nailed his colours to the leave or remain masts and ended up satisfying no-one. His trumpet made a very uncertain sound.

While Corbyn was trying to be all things to all people, Johnson was purging the Conservative Party of pro-EU MPs and honing his simple message promising to get Brexit done. Outflanked, the populist leader of the Brexit Party, Nigel Farage, threw in his lot with Johnson. He would not field candidates in Conservative held ridings - giving them a free pass - but he would contest Labour and Liberal ridings.

In the election, the Conservatives percentage share of the vote increased only marginally, by 1.2% (compared with the previous election in 2017) but Labour's support fell through the floor. 

Constituencies that had been Labour since the dawn of time - including Tony Blair's Sedgefield - now returned Conservative MPs. How this will change the dynamics within the Conservative Party is, for the moment, uncertain but it will surely come into play at some stage.

This election was all about Brexit and Johnson won. If it goes pear-shaped he has no-one else to blame.

But, being Johnson, he will try.

The Scottish Question

The relentless rise of the Scottish National Party (SNP) which enthusiastically embraces the EU is the other big story of this historic election. The SNP is pressing for another referendum on independence which Johnson flatly refuses. (Under the devolution settlement it falls to the UK Parliament to decide.) But if the SNP sweeps the board again in the next Scottish Parliamentary election on 6 May 2021 it will claim a fresh new mandate for another referendum which may be difficult to resist. 

We may yet see the kind of constitutional turbulence in the UK which, though dormant now, has long been a feature of politics here in Canada.  

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Update on 16 December 2019: From the Globe and Mail: Brexit and the future of Conservatism.

Update on 23 December 2019: From the House of Commons Library: Why the trade in services is so important to the UK

Newmarket-Aurora’s new MP, Tony Van Bynen, yesterday made his first speech in the House of Commons.  

The self-styled “Voice for Fiscal Prudence” told fellow MPs that climate change, affordable housing, infrastructure funding, health care and a need for a long-term fiscal plan would be his priorities. But he stressed the fiscal plan 

“would not be at the expense of creating a social deficit”.

Van Bynen told CTV News before the election that his priorities for the riding would also include preserving local heritage.

I emailed Tony three weeks ago to congratulate him on his stunning election victory and to ask for his views on the unlawful demolition of 184-186 Main Street South in the heart of the old downtown. I am waiting to hear from him. 

I am also pressing Tony to stop blocking me from reading his Tweets where these concern his activities as my Member of Parliament.

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Tomorrow’s General Election in the UK must deliver a majority Conservative Government if Boris Johnson is going to “get Brexit done”.  

The polls, though narrowing, still point to a Conservative victory. Personally, I think it will be a lot closer than the experts predict

I am hoping for a hung Parliament. 

People in Britain are fed up to the back teeth hearing about Brexit. It has totally dominated the national conversation ever since David Cameron’s ill-fated decision to hold a referendum in 2016 as a way of managing his fractious Party, split for decades between leavers and remainers. No-one else was crying out for a referendum.

Split down the middle

Then as now, the country was split down the middle with 52% voting leave and 48% voting to stay.

I am a remainer and always have been.

When the referendum was lost, Cameron resigned. Theresa May followed and when she couldn't get her negotiated deal through the House of Commons she, too, resigned. 

Boris Johnson, having positioned himself for this moment, took over as Conservative leader (winning a majority of the Party's shrivelled 159,320 membership) and automatically became Prime Minister.  

Leaving is not plain sailing.

The European Union is the UK’s largest trading partner taking 45% of all UK exports.

53% of UK imports come from EU countries. (The UK is by far Canada's most important commercial partner in Europe and our fifth largest globally.)

If the UK were to crash out of the EU without a deal this week’s Economist magazine forecasts income per head would be 8% lower after ten years than otherwise. 

It follows that people who vote for Brexit are acting against their own economic self interest.

The UK currently is the world’s fifth largest economy but, outside the EU, it will shrink over time as businesses relocate to be inside the single market, free of tariff barriers.

Britain will, of course, survive outside the EU but life will be different.

Boris Johnson, a charlatan "utterly unfit" to be Prime Minister

Its politics will change irrevocably if people, with their eyes wide open, vote for the Conservatives led by a charlatan. 

The well-known Conservative commentator, Peter Oborne, says in today’s Guardian that under Johnson the Party has turned into a “revolutionary sect”.

Of course, Johnson has his supporters including our very own convicted felon and fraudster, Conrad Black. But people who know Johnson best are those who are most critical of him.

His former boss at the Daily Telegraph, Max Hastings, tells us Johnson is “utterly unfit to be Prime Minister”.

And in his recent autobiography (courtesy of Newmarket Public Library) David Cameron variously decribes Johnson as paranoid, jealous and a careerist who didn’t believe in Brexit until it was convenient to do so.

Here is the BBC guide on what to look out for as the results come in. You can see it all unfold tomorrow on BBC World News.

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Above right. The infamous photograph of the (Eton educated) Boris Johnson (8) and (Eton educated) David Cameron (2) who were members of the all male Bullingdon "Dining" Club while at Oxford. It oozes entitlement.

In his autobiography Cameron writes:

"The stories of excessive drunkenness, restaurant trashing... all these things are exaggerated. I was never arrested. I was never completely insensible from drink."

Update on 12 December 2019: Exit Poll at 10pm UK time, after the Polling Stations have closed, points to a huge Conservative majority in the House of Commons

Sky TV: A screenshot at 5.55pm (10.55pm UK time) before any actual results have been declared. 

To read the CLOCK TOWER CHRONOLOGY click on the "Read more" link at the bottom of this blog.

On Wednesday 9 October 2019 a designated heritage building on Main Street South dating from the 1840s, in the heart of Newmarket’s only Heritage Conservation District, was demolished on the orders of the owner, Bob Forrest. By the following morning all traces of the building which once housed the apothecary of the first female pharmacist in Ontario, Anne Mary Simpson, had vanished.  

No demolition permit was issued by the Town. What happened was clearly unlawful.

This is what the Ontario Heritage Act says:

Erection, demolition, etc.

42 (1) No owner of property situated in a heritage conservation district that has been designated by a municipality under this Part shall do any of the following, unless the owner obtains a permit from the municipality to do so:

1. Alter, or permit the alteration of, any part of the property, other than the interior of any structure or building on the property.

2. Erect, demolish or remove any building or structure on the property or permit the erection, demolition or removal of such a building or structure.

In addition the Building Code Act says this:

Building permits

(1) No person shall construct or demolish a building or cause a building to be constructed or demolished unless a permit has been issued therefor by the chief building official. 

Mayor wants "full rebuild"

The Mayor, John Taylor, says he wants to see a full re-build of the demolished heritage building and insists there must be consequences. But what exactly does he have in mind?  

The Town has been investigating the circumstances of the demolition for two months now but remains tight-lipped. Peter Noehammer, the Town’s Commissioner for Development and Infrastructure, is leading the investigation but we don’t know anything about its modalities, who he has spoken to, what his report will say and when he will report.  

What is undeniable is that the demolition of a designated heritage property within a Heritage Conservation District without prior approval from the Municipality is a very big deal – and it is very, very rare. There are 134 Heritage Conservation Districts in Ontario and this is, I believe, the first unauthorised demolition of a designated heritage building within a Heritage Conservation District in Ontario.

I can find no cases reporting a prosecution under section 42(1)2 of the Ontario Heritage Act. That’s not to say they don’t exist but no-one – including the City of Toronto - can yet point me to one.

The Kingston demolition. 

Heritage experts often cite the historic Royal Block in Princess Street, Kingston, which was purchased by a Toronto real estate developer, Richard Christie, in February 1987. 

It lies just outside Kingston’s Market Square Heritage Conservation District so it is not an exact parallel. 

Christie wanted to knock the old buildings down and build a two-storey strip mall, a proposal resisted by Kingston’s heritage community. There was a devastating fire on 7 January 1988 but some parts of the edifice remained standing. The Council ordered their retention while it considered what to do next  - to see what, if anything, could be saved and restored - but the owner went ahead and demolished what was left anyway. 

The sentencing Judge, Mr Justice Paul Megginson, said Christie was the “guiding mind” of his Corporation and the “directing force” behind the decision to demolish what was left of the fire-ravaged heritage buildings on 2 June 1988. Christie was fined $48,000. ($91,000 in today’s dollars). 

Fast forward 31 years. We know from the record that Bob Forrest knew all about the heritage value of his properties on Main Street South. He had commissioned Heritage Impact Assessments. He knew his way around the Ontario Heritage Act. As a developer of long standing, he would know of the Building Code Act and that he could not lawfully knock down a building without a demolition permit. But he went ahead anyway, perhaps calculating that the worst that could happen would be a fine and he could write that off as the cost of doing business.  

However, Bob Forrest may not know that the Ontario Heritage Act provides for fines of up to $1,000,000 and imprisonment for the unlawful demolition of designated heritage structures in a Heritage Conservation District.

So, how did we get here?  

Forrest expressed an interest in acquiring the Clock Tower as far back as 2011. He was in touch with councillors and senior Town staff to see if he could develop the site in the heart of old Newmarket for a condo. He calculated, if approved, this could bring in a clear profit of $10M. There were three versions of his condo put before councillors and senior staff – the largest nine storeys.

The Town had long wrestled with the problem of inadequate parking in the old downtown and senior staff perhaps thought the condo plan might kill two birds with one stone. It would bring more people into the old downtown – a policy objective – and it would possibly increase the supply of public parking. 

Forrest’s modus operandi was to sound out politicians and staff, getting his ducks in a row, before formally submitting a planning application. He says he gets results:  

"by leveraging our strong reputation and existing relationships with municipal staff and politicians".

But Forrest needed Town owned land to make it all happen and this was the fly in the ointment. He claimed at the OMB he received tacit agreement for a “land swap” on Market Square which would allow his condo to be built. The Town denies there was an agreement. The report and minutes of the meeting where this was allegedly discussed remain sealed. Multiple Freedom of Information requests for sight of these reports and minutes have been rejected by the Town.

After endless discussions, negotiations and meetings stretching over many years, Forrest finally submitted a formal planning application which was turned down by the Town in December 2016. 

Mayor Van Bynen, on his own, out on a limb 

The then Mayor, Tony Van Bynen, now the MP for Newmarket-Aurora, was Forrest’s sole supporter on the Council but his arguments cut no ice with his colleagues. He declared that Forrest’s condo, entailing the demolition of the heritage commercial buildings on Main (but with the retention of their facades), was: 

“a great example of the intensification we need”.  

After his condo plan was rejected Forrest appealed to the OMB and then had second thoughts. Instead, he cut a deal with the Town in 2018 agreeing to restore and bring back into use the heritage buildings he owned. The settlement allowed Forrest to knock down specifically delineated later additions at the rear of the Main Street buildings to make space for parking. But other than that, no demolitions were permitted. 

The Simpson building was demolished on 9 October 2019 – without a demolition permit. 

Looking at the totality of the record, it is clear Forrest saw no value in the historic commercial buildings he owned on Main Street South. They stood in his way, preventing him from developing the site in a way that would maximise profits.

Take it down!

Shortly after the demolition, the contractor on-site, Jacques Carrier, told me (and others) he was concerned about the structural integrity of the Simpson building and that it would take $100,000 to make it safe so the owner said (in Carrier’s words)

 “take it down”.  

There is a compelling case for prosecuting Forrest.  

The Mayor John Taylor has said there must be consequences but, on the other hand, he doesn’t want to see empty buildings on Main Street South for another three years while the matter is litigated. In the Kingston case the developer responsible for the unlawful demolition pleaded guilty and the matter was disposed of by the Courts in next to no time.

The Town may have reasons for not prosecuting. I don’t know. Perhaps there are skeletons – real or imagined – in the municipal cupboard.

The roofs leak and the floors sag

Undoubtedly, the Town’s inspection regime was way too lax. The properties had been empty for years after Forrest evicted his business tenants and were becoming increasingly dilapidated. In his own words Forrest acknowledged 

“the roofs leak and the floors sag” 

but he did nothing to fix things. Just temporary patching up, here and there.

The Town may feel embarrassed about a lackadaisical approach to inspection. After all, another important heritage building dating from 1811, Bogart House, had been allowed to fall into a ruinous state. 

And then there is the “tacit agreement” allegedly contained in the June 2013 closed session records of the Committee of the Whole. I was told the minutes are to be kept under lock and key until their release "would no longer have any impact".

Personally, I don’t see what the fuss is all about. We know senior staff and some councillors were looking for a downtown parking solution and “more intensification”. If there was a tacit agreement to make Town land available but this was conditional on the Town approving the project as a whole then what’s the big deal? 

The Town has insisted there was no tacit agreement. Does it fear a prosecution would mean everything coming out in the wash?

If it does, so what?

What is worse? The Town pressing ahead with a prosecution and risking some fleeting embarrassment that it once, perhaps, countenanced the possibility of an out-of-place condo in the heart of the old downtown.

Or deciding not to prosecute Bob Forrest - the developer responsible for ordering the demolition of the storied Simpson building which was steeped in the history of our town.

That would be the greatest injustice of all.

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