Over in the weekend Ottawa Citizen, our good friend Kady O’Malley has a comprehensive breakdown of everything that went wrong with the electoral reform committee, and it’s pretty stunning once it’s all laid out before you. It starts with the Liberals’ relenting to allow the makeup of the committee to be more *cough* “proportional” than the traditional make-up of a parliamentary committee (which was not actually proportional, but merely gamed by the NDP to give the appearance of proportionality, and the Liberals relented for what I’m guessing was good faith). From there, it moves to the Liberals putting all newbies on the committee (with the exception of the chair) who didn’t have a clue what they were doing, and their lack of experience, combined with the fact that they no longer had a majority (despite having a parliamentary majority) meant that the opposition party gamed the witness selection in such a way that it meant they were able to self-select witnesses to get the outcome they wanted – namely 88 percent of witnesses preferring proportional systems, and furthermore, because they had motivated followings for their public consultations, it allowed them to self-select their famed 87 percent in favour of proportional systems and a further 90 percent in favour of a referendum. And almost nary was there a voice for ranked ballots. (Also a nitpick: ranked ballots have little to do with the proportionality that people keep trying to force the system into, nor are they about gaming the system in favour of centrist parties like the Liberals. Rather, ranked ballots are designed to eliminate strategic voting, ensure that there is a “clear winner” with a simple majority once you redistribute votes, and to make campaigning “nicer” because you are also looking for second-place votes. Experience from Australia shows that it has not favoured centrist governments).
In other words, this whole exercise was flawed from the start, in large part because the Liberal government was so inept at handling it. In fact, this cannot be understated, and they are continuing to be completely inept at handling the fallout of the broken process that they allowed themselves to be bullied into (lest they face charges of trying to game the system – thus allowing the other parties to game it for them), and rather than either admitting that this went off the rails (because it did) and that it was a stupid promise to have made in the first place (because it was) and trying to either be honest about cutting their losses, they’re dragging it out in order to find a more legitimate way to either punt this into the future, or declare that no consensus can be found (which there won’t be) and trying to kill it that way. But in the meantime, the daily howls out outrage of the opposition because of the way that they have completely bungled not only the committee response (and let’s face it – the report’s recommendations were hot garbage) and the further rollout of their MyDemocracy survey without adequately explaining it has meant that this continues to turn into an outrageous farce. I’m not necessarily going to lay this all at the feet of the minister, or call for her resignation, but this is one particular file where the government has been so clueless and amateurish that the need to pull out of the tailspin that they find themselves in, take their lumps, and then smother this in the crib. Enough is enough.
The news was announced yesterday that Bill Morneau had chosen Canadian civil rights icon Viola Desmond to grace the new $10 banknote, which is being hailed pretty much universally as an excellent choice, and certainly the one that I had been hoping for when the shortlist was announced. As soon as it was announced, though, we got inundated with a flood of headlines declaring Desmond to be “Canada’s Rosa Parks,” which starts to grate because Desmond’s stand against segregation began nine years before Parks’ did, but she has largely been an unknown in Canadian history. I hadn’t even really heard of her until the History Minute last year (and side note, not only was it a compelling story, but I was pleased to see that Battlestar Galactica’s Kandyce McClure played her), and it was a reminder that yes, we too had segregation in Canada, albeit a subtler one because it wasn’t entrenched in legislation. That Canadians identify Parks before Desmond is part of our problem with our own history, both in that we have a tendency to whitewash much of it, but also that we are so inundated with Americana that our own achievements get lost in it (such as when Upper Canada was the first jurisdiction in the British Empire to end slavery). Of course, part of why Desmond’s case has been obscured in history has to do with the fact that her case was ostensibly one related to tax evasion (for the one cent theatre tax she did not pay to sit in the lower seats despite requesting to pay the higher priced ticket) and her lawyer didn’t push the racial discrimination angle in court. Hopefully, this inclusion will help to rectify this wrong, to restore Desmond’s rightful place in the history books and in the popular consciousness about civil rights in Canada.
Chatelaine has seven facts about Desmond. Former Nova Scotia lieutenant governor Maryann Francis talks about when she was able to give a Free Pardon posthumously for Desmond and the meaning of it for her. Maclean’s digs into its archives to look at Desmond and the issues of racism in Nova Scotia going back decades.
Meanwhile, there have been a few comments about how our wartime prime ministers, Sir Robert Borden and William Lyon Mackenzie King will no longer be gracing banknotes, while Sir John A Macdonald and Sir Wilfred Laurier are moving from the $5 and $10 banknotes to the $50 and $100, with accusations that this means that we’re somehow “effacing history.” The thing is, Borden and King are in plenty of other places in our history books, while a person like Desmond is not. I think we have room enough to learn about the contributions of more than just the great white men of history and making it more inclusive. That’s hardly effacing history – it’s opening it up.
The PM was present for a second day in a row, the benches were starting to empty out, with stacks of holiday cards on the desks of the other MPs present. Rona Ambrose led off, noting the visit of Joe Biden later in the day, but worried that with Trump about to slash taxes, and that Trudeau was too busy with photo ops and fundraisers. Trudeau responded by listing off the various things that this government has done to lower taxes and help families. Ambrose demanded a “real” low-tax plan, and Trudeau noted more things his government did like getting pipelines to tidewater approved. Ambrose switched to French to ask again, and Trudeau listed the many investments that he has attracted to the country. Ambrose changed back to English to pivot to the fundraising question, and Trudeau fell back to the rules talking points. For her last question, Ambrose accused him of breaking conflict of interest laws, and Trudeau assured her that he followed the rules. Thomas Mulcair was up next, accusing the PM of having become what he accused the Conservatives were doing, and Trudeau returned to his talking points on the rules. Mulcair wondered where the PM was last night, and when Trudeau only answered with his points about the rules, Mulcair prefaced his next question by saying that Trudeau was at a “cash-for-access” event. Mulcair moved onto the electoral reform file and worried that the government would unilaterally impose a system that would benefit their party. Trudeau responded with a plug for for MyDemocracy. Mulcair asked about the banking provisions in C-29, but Trudeau deflected with talks about tax cuts and benefits.
Every now and again, boneheaded ideas about what to do with Senate pop up, and then as now, I feel the need to take it myself to smack them down. Because I care about Westminster democracy. This time it’s political scientist Arash Abizadeh writing in the Montreal Gazette that we should replace the Senate with a randomly selected Citizens’ Assembly.
For starters, Abizadeh gets his civics wrong in which he tries to get at the tension between democratic legitimacy and the role of the Senate in being sober second thought on the House of Commons. The problem is that he doesn’t actually get to where the Senate derives its legitimacy which is from the constitution, and by that, we include the unwritten conventions of Responsible Government. The Senate is legitimate because the people appointed to it were chosen by the prime minister who held the confidence of the Chamber. It’s how all judges or tribunal chairs or any other decision-making body is appointed, and the Senate is no different. This is a glaring omission when it comes to trying to “solve” a problem that doesn’t actually exist. Just because the general public (and certain political scientists, it would seem) are ignorant as to how the system works, it does not mean that said system is illegitimate.
Abizadeh also fails to make a convincing case as to how some of the more specialised work of the Senate is to be done by 105 randoms selected by a national lottery. Currently there is an impetus to fill the body with people who have a lifetime of knowledge and experience (and up until recently, having done work for the party didn’t hurt either). It’s made the Senate the country’s pre-eminent think tank, which is part of the “value-added” of the institution on top of its job of scrutiny of legislation and holding the executive to account. This cannot be replicated by randoms, particularly if we keep the current appointment terms of continuous until age 75 (which is both for security of tenure and to dissuade them from seeking government favour for post-appointment work).
Abizadeh remains convinced that the citizens’ assemblies in Ontario and BC when it comes to electoral reform were such great experiences that obviously would be applicable to the Senate, and this is where his thinking is the fuzziest. While some people saw value in those assemblies, there was also a great deal of criticism that the political scientists who ran them exerted a great deal of influence in terms of getting their preferred electoral systems to be the one chosen in the end. Why this is particularly concerning with a senate of randoms is that they become especially vulnerable to, say, a Government Leader (or “government representative” as we are styling them these days) who has enough charisma and who can get them enough meetings with ministers to talk about causes near and dear to them that the Senate’s role in accountability and opposition to the government will evaporate. This should be concerning to everyone. And seriously – stop coming at the Senate with solutions to problems that don’t exist. You’re only confusing the issues and looking to unnecessarily damage our institutions.
At long last, the Prime Minister was present for Question Period, and the hope that he might have some answers. Rona Ambrose led off, asking about yet more fundraising allegations and claims that it is a way to meet ministers. Justin Trudeau did not take the bait, and assured her that there are strong rules that are being followed. Ambrose raised the potential of illegality with the donation to the Trudeau Foundation, and Trudeau said that he understands that there are questions, but moved right into his speech about the rules. Ambrose tried a third time, but Trudeau stuck to his message that Canadians can have confidence in the system. Ambrose raised the allegations that a fundraiser was done for the purposes of lobbying openly. Trudeau still didn’t bite, and assured her that the rigorous rules were being followed. Ambrose tried to throw Trudeau’s statement about talking about the need for investment at one of these events, but Trudeau stuck to the points. Thomas Mulcair rose for the NDP, said it was nice to see the PM without having to pay $1500, and asked yet another fundraising question, but Trudeau didn’t take his bait either. Mulcair switched to concerns that the Quebec Consumer Protection Act was undermined by C-29, and Trudeau got to change up his talking points, talking about the great things in the budget implementation bill. Mulcair asked if it was important for the PM to show up for Question Period, Trudeau reminded him that he has a lot of important duties, but he has a strong cabinet who can also take questions. Mulcair then asked if the PM was lying when he promised that 2015 would be the last election under First-Past-the-Post, Trudeau said that he had answered that in the positive — to much uproarious laughter at the verbal slip — and Trudeau pressed on to defend his coding exercise at Shopify as being a demonstration of investing in the economy of the future.
Mulcair says it's great to see the PM — as though his own attendance record is much better. #QP
The Conservatives have become very preoccupied with Justin Trudeau’s attendance in Question Period of late, which is one of those particular political cudgels that annoys me on a couple of different levels. On the one hand, I’m annoyed at the PM for not taking it more seriously and showing up in order to be held to account, as our system of government demands; on the other hand, I get annoyed when the opposition plays cheap politics with this because they are just as guilty, with their own leaders having fairly poor attendance records to match. It’s especially precious that the Conservatives are so concerned about Trudeau’s attendance as Stephen Harper’s was abysmal, and by 2014, you were lucky if he might show up once a week. Might.
Huffington Postcrunched the numbers and found that Trudeau has missed 58 percent of QPs within his first year, while Stephen Harper missed 46 percent in his first year. Mind you, that was his first year, and that thrice-weekly attendance fell off pretty quickly. Trudeau has had a fairly punishing international schedule, which is part of his job – but we’re seeing a number of instances, especially lately, where he is in town and not attending, or that he counter-programmes another event to take place at the same time as QP, which again annoys me because it shows that he’s not taking the responsibility of being held to account seriously. Sure, it’s great that you want to show kids that that coding is a good life lesson, but there are other hours in the day where that might be more appropriate, and not when you should be answering questions for your government’s actions.
But the petty politics that the opposition are playing around this are frustrating. Offering to move Question Period to 4:15 in the afternoon – or any other time to “help” the PM make it – is lunacy considering how disruptive it leaves the rhythms of operation on the Hill, with committee schedules where witnesses have flown in across the country, with the media’s ability to keep the production cycle of news shows. I’m not saying that this is a big deal, but I’m not sure that this is the way to address the problem of non-attendance, particularly when other leaders can hardly deign to make their own appearance most days.
This week’s Senate Question Period special guest star was justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, ready to talk about activities related to her portfolio. Senator Carignan led off asking about the lack of judicial appointments in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Jordan decision on reasonable delays for trials. Wilson-Raybould started off by defending the new application process for superior court justices across the country because of the need to diversify the judiciary and to better understand their backgrounds. She added that the vacancies were just one aspect of delays, and that they were looking at other aspects like bail reform and the shared responsibility of the administration of justice.
Senator Joyal stood up to hammer on about the number of accused whose charges were stayed in the wake of the Jordan decision, and that there was a brewing crisis that she seemed to be blind to. Wilson-Raybould stressed the need to act with the provinces and territories in a coordinated manner, and gave some platitudes about protecting rights and freedoms.
Sen Joyal taking a strip off @Puglaas over trial delays, asking what emergency measures govt will take so cases not punted, pub trust lost?
For a second day in a row, the PM was in town but otherwise occupied, and his seat would have been conspicuously vacant had a backbencher decided not to keep it warm for him (and the camera shot). After a number of statements in remembrance of the École Polytechnique massacre, Rona Ambrose led off, wondering why the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Inquiry is so slow to get started. Scott Brison responded with some fairly bland talking points about the accomplishments they have made toward reconciliation. Ambrose worried that the PM was making life more expensive for people, and Bill Morneau reminded her of the tax cuts they implemented along with the enhanced child care benefits. Ambrose decried plans to tax health and dental benefits, for which Morneau reiterated the lowered taxes, before noting that they were reviewing the tax code with an eye toward tax fairness and simplification. Ambrose switched to French to decry Liberal fundraising, and Bardish Chagger recited some French talking points about fundraising rules and the broader consultation program. Ambrose switched to English to demand to know if the PM has ever used a fundraiser to talk to anyone who was looking for something from the government. Chagger’s answer did not change. Thomas Mulcair accused the government of arranging a meeting with the Chinese premier in exchange for that person holding a fundraiser. Chagger’s answer was the same. Mulcair asked again in French, and Chagger repeated her response in robotic French. Mulcair then moved to the PBO report on funding for First Nations education, and Brison noted that the PBO pointed out that the previous government underfunded K-12 education, and that they were now closing the gap. Mulcair heaped on a number of accusations related to how the government was treating First Nations, and Jim Carr got up to clarify his remarks about protesters from last week.
The MyDemocracy.ca site went live yesterday, and immediately it became the subject of mockery because it asked questions related to outcomes rather than simplistic questions about which system of counting votes one preferred. Of course, focusing on the proportionality of votes to seats fixates on a facile notion of “representation” while ignoring the substance of what those votes actually mean, the effect on accountability, and the effect on our overall system of government. No, it won’t mean that whoever gets 50 percent of the votes will get 50 percent of the power. That’s a wrong-headed notion that ignores the ways in which our system operates currently, and the various roles that MPs have versus ministers.
Anyway, here’s Phil Lagassé explaining why the questions are the way they are (which are not some kind of People magazine pop-psychology quiz like Nathan Cullen constantly derides them as), and no, it’s not about ensuring that the fix is in for whatever the Liberals want – it’s designed to see what kinds of outcomes people are looking for and then working backwards to find an electoral system that favours those outcomes, and anyone who thinks that you can focus on electoral reform without looking at outcomes is deluding themselves.
Quite pleased that mydemocracy.ca places accountability front and centre.
Despite the fact that he was in town, Justin Trudeau decided to go to Shopify for Hour of Code instead of attend QP. Rona Ambrose led off, worrying about lost jobs, the Trumpocalypse of halved taxes to impact our economic competitiveness. Navdeep Bains responded, reciting some praise by companies who are investing in this country. Ambrose worried about plans to tax health and dental benefits, to which Scott Brison listed the ways in which they have made the system more progressive and the introduction of new child benefits. In French, Ambrose worried about what other taxes would be raised, and Brison answered partly in French about lowering taxes before switching to English to talk about the need for a strong middle class to have a strong economy. Ambrose then turned to a pair of questions on fundraising, calling them illegal. Bardish Chagger reminded her that the rules were strict and followed, and invited Ambrose to repeat any accusations of illegality outside of the House. Thomas Mulcair was up next, accusing Dominic LeBlanc of lying about business not being discussed at one of these fundraisers, and Chagger repeated the usual points about the rules. Mulcair asked again in French, got the same answer, and then demanded decriminalisation of marijuana in advance of legalisation. Jody Wilson-Raybould reminded him they were in the midst of a comprehensive review in advance of legislation coming in the spring. Mulcair asked again in English in a more snide tone, and Wilson-Raybould reiterated that the point of legalisation was to keep it out of the hands of children and profits from the hands of criminals.
Chagger just invited Rona Ambrose to repeat accusations of illegality outside of the Chamber. #QP