Conrad Black, the Canadian media mogul and convicted felon* was in Calgary last week to have a “conversation” with the Calgary business elite (and me) over lunch at the Calgary Petroleum Club.
The big question is why does Baron Black of Crossharbour—oh let’s just call him Conrad—continue to draw sell-out crowds. By the end of lunch and the exchange between Conrad and Ms Danielle Smith, the leader of the Opposition, I had my answer.
Before we go there, let’s set the stage. The Petroleum Club dining room is, as you would imagine, an upscale venue. Tables filled with glittering china and silverware were clustered in front of a stage upon which were two comfy armchairs—one for Conrad and the other for our host, Dr Roger Gibbons.
Ms Soapbox was seated at table 35, the lone woman at a table of accountants, lawyers and businessmen. One of the accountants admitted that Conrad had been his client. The other whipped out The Concise Oxford Dictionary in case Conrad soared off into overblown oratory.
Conrad was witty and entertaining. He made a number of Conradesque comments. But he also said some things that were totally out of character. Here are the highlights:
The American and Canadian justice systems: The American system is “rancid”. US prosecutors enjoy a 99.5% conviction rate** in comparison to the Canadian conviction rate of 62%. US prosecutors achieve these stellar results by coercing witnesses to “turn” on the accused. The Canadian system is more even-handed and the defendant has a fighting chance. I agree.
The US penal system: Conrad says it’s not bad, at least in low security, but admits that he was not “psychologically in the place”. He had email access and his writing career flourished.
Conrad made an uncharacteristic and insightful comment: Prime Minister Harper’s push for more prisons and stiffer mandatory sentences is ill-conceived, particularly for non-violent offenders who generally leave prison in worse shape than when they went in. Hear hear!
The decline of America: America’s greatness was founded on hard working immigrants and brilliant statesmen (I’d venture a guess that Conrad sees himself in the latter category). However the US will sink into decline if it fails to correct three flaws: (1) complacency, (2) the utter lack of interest in anything outside their borders, and (3) the belief that they are an “exceptional” nation. He thought the US could turn it around, I’m not so sure.
President Obama: Obama gets credit for being the first non-white president and for stealing “Bill and Hilary’s party” right out from under their noses. However Obama has not shown global leadership in addressing the buildup of nuclear weapons and is “playing chicken” with the Republicans in a misguided effort to address the ballooning national debt.
Quebec: Quebec is a “society of consultants and academics, both equally useless” (to which Dr Gibbins took mock offence). Quebec’s “addiction” to transfer payments has eliminated the risk of secession and a federal party no longer needs Quebec to win a majority. Probably not how Mulcair sees it.
Ezra Levant and Mark Stone: The Human Rights Commission cases against Levant and Stone were “scandalous!” Freedom of speech must be protected. This principle holds for Tom Flannagan as well. This comment elicited a smattering of applause.
Enter Danielle Smith
The most interesting conversation occurred when a woman took the microphone and said, “Lord Black, my name is Danielle Smith”. The audience held its breath. What’s her question? It turned out to be innocuous—should Canada adopt a federal securities commission like the SEC?***
Conrad peered into the crowd, shading his eyes against the spotlight’s glare. “Will you tell me your name again?” Danielle repeated her name and reminded Conrad she’d once worked for him at the Calgary Herald. “Ah, you are indeed who I think you are”. After a pause he complemented her on the “tremendous job” she’d done with the Wildrose and added a jab at Redford’s PCs with the observation, “Conservatives sometimes fish too far to the left”. Clearly Conrad is not up on Redford’s recent attempts to be even more conservative than the Wildrose, nevertheless Danielle looked pleased.
Why did I pay to see Conrad Black?
Mr Black and his ilk hold great wealth and power (even after they fall from grace). They chair influential gatherings like the Davos World Economic Forum and the Bilderberg group. They shape provincial, national and global policies and our politicians unabashedly seek their guidance.
Two recent examples: Prime Minister Harper consulted with Murray Edwards, the billionaire CEO of Canadian Natural Resources Limited, about whether a Chinese state-owned entity should take over Nexen (Mr Edwards had reservations).****
Ms Redford told Ms Smith in Question Period that she would take advice from Brian Ferguson, CEO of Cenovus, on the “bitumen bubble” spread (and the basis for her austerity budget) “well before” she’d take the Opposition’s advice.*****
I paid $250 to see Conrad Black to get a sense of where the man is going and which politicians he’s taking along for the ride. It was worth every penny.
*Conrad was convicted of mail fraud and obstruction of justice by the US courts and served 37 months of a 42 month sentence.
**In 2011 the US Dept of Justice reported a conviction rate of 93% so Conrad isn’t far off the mark.
***Conrad’s answer was no; beef up your provincial securities commission and sell it to someone who’s business friendly and criminal hostile.
****Globe and Mail online Dec 9, 2012
*****Hansard Apr 25, 2013, p 2046