Roundup: No, it’s not cash-for-access

This latest round of pearl-clutching over political fundraising is reaching its fever pitch in a most tiresome way possible, and I’m losing all patience with it. Determined to try and label it “cash-for-access” in order to tie the story in with the gross lack of fundraising rules that existed in Ontario, and the very dubious practices of the government there of having ministers essentially asking for donations from companies lobbying them, what’s going on at the federal level is nothing like that at all. However, bored journalists are drawing lines on between people who are attending or organizing fundraisers and lobbying activities, despite everything being reported and above board, are going “Look! Look! Smell test!” But I’m having a really, really hard time buying this. Likewise with opposition parties going “Sure, it’s in the rules, but Trudeau’s letters said that nobody should have the appearance of conflict of interest and this has the appearance!” No, it actually doesn’t. Just because you say it does, it doesn’t mean that there’s a problem.

I’m trying very hard not to come off as some kind of an apologist, but for the love of all the gods on Olympus, we have a really, really clean fundraising system with clear rules, and it shouldn’t bear repeating (and yet here we are) that you can’t buy influence for $1500. You just can’t. Sure, you might get to meet a minister, but what is that going to get you? You think they’re going to engineer a special loophole in the law for your company because you donated $1500 to their party – registered through Elections Canada, and the lobbying registry? Honestly? And it’s not like there aren’t a hundred other consultations that you could offer your suggestions to a minster or their staff with, because as we know, this government loves to consult. And further to that, are we actively trying to insist that no minister should ever fundraise because, well, “smell test” or “appearance.” Give me a break.

Meanwhile, we get inundated with everyone giving their “solution” to this, whether it’s returning the per-vote subsidy as Susan Delacourt suggests here, or if it’s Duff Conacher howling in the corner that we should adopt the Quebec donor limits of $100 (ignoring that limits that are too low means that money starts getting funnelled in other ways). But maybe, just maybe, we should all take a deep breath and realise that the more we get hysterical about this perfectly above-board fundraising in a clean and quite transparent system, it’s that we’re turning it into some zero-sum game. If we keep inventing scandal, shouting “smell test!” and “appearance!” when no, a reasonable and rational look at the situation shows that there isn’t actually a problem, we’re going to wind up giving excuses for parties to start hiding these activities. To paraphrase Rick Anderson on last night’s Power & Politics, there’s only a perception problem around this fundraising because people are throwing mud. It’s time to stop throwing mud and be grown-ups about it. This isn’t cash-for-access. $1500 is not buying influence. Stop lighting your hair on fire.

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Senate QP: The loquacious Mr. Goodale

This week’s ministerial Senate Question Period featured special guest star Ralph Goodale, minister of public safety. Senator Carignan led off for the opposition, asking about PTSD for RCMP, and the delays in passing the Senate amendments to Bill C-7 on RCMP unionization and whether the government was going to seek another judicial extension on it. Goodale said that they were considering the amendments and were consulting with their stakeholders to determine the nature of their response, and then said that they were working on coming up with policies for PTSD in first responders.

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QP: Demanding a firm commitment on Yazidis

All leaders, permanent or interim, were present for QP today, and it feels like a while since that has been the case. Rona Ambrose led off, mini-lectern on desk, demanding to know how many Yazidi refugees the government would bring to Canada in the next 120 days. Trudeau thanked her for her leadership on the file, and committed to doing so, but didn’t provide a number. Ambrose asked about the call for Chancellor Merkel in Germany to create security zones in Iraq, and Trudeau committed to more aid for refugees. Ambrose moved onto CETA, and demanded Trudeau get on a plane and do anything necessary to get the deal signed. Trudeau reminded her that they already made progress on getting ISDS, and he expected good news in the coming days. Ambrose changed topics again, raised the Medicine Hat by-election as a pronouncement on the carbon tax schemes, and Trudeau promised more visits to Alberta. Ambrose then moved again, this time onto “cash-for-access” fundraisers, and Trudeau reminded her that the low personal limits in Canada ensured that there were no ethical problems. Thomas Mulcair was up next, and tried to go after the same issue, and Trudeau reminded him that looking south of the border, our system was well above and repeated that the low limits meant there were no ethical issues. Mulcair tried again in French, got the same answer, and then moved onto the situation at Muskrat Falls and the health of those Aboriginals who rely on fishing in the area. Trudeau reminded him that the provinces were working on the issue, and he trusted them, and they went one more round in English.

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Roundup: Chong’s plans are a start

While new Conservative leadership candidate Steven Blaney decided to come out swinging with a niqab ban policy designed to appeal to those Quebeckers still hot for the idea and to give Kellie Leitch a run for her money, Michael Chong also came out with some policy yesterday morning – much more modest policy in line with how he thinks he could start to change parliament for the better if he were party leader. Because it’s not big policy pronouncements, it’s more in keeping with the kinds of things that leadership candidates should be focusing on, but that said, there are a few problems with what he laid out. I tweeted some of those concerns earlier, but I’ll elaborate a bit more.

So yes, Chong made a valiant attempt at doing this with this Reform Act, but it got so watered down in his amending the bill to get it passed that it rendered it useless, and the veto went from the party leader to their designated surrogate. This is a promise that is more difficult than it sounds because there does need to be a quality control mechanism in place (which is why it was introduced in the first place), but it also needs to be arm’s length from the leader, and Chong’s previous proposals for such an officer didn’t fly. He’ll need to try and thread this needle much more carefully going forward.

This one bothers me a fair deal because it’s buying into the nonsense that the Liberal Party has been spreading with their reforms to their party constitution. They claim it’s about “modernizing” the party structure and making it more responsive, but it’s more about populating databases, so that when they come out with top-down policy pronouncements, they can use their Big Data approach to justify anything. If other parties want to simply populate their own databases to target or micro-target policies even more that the Conservatives did during their decade in office, this isn’t actually good for democracy, and it’s not actually good for the grassroots. You don’t have people who are quite literally buying into the process (thus putting some skin in the game) and having an interest in their responsibilities as members when it comes to policy and nominations. It devalues membership, and I do think that’s a problem.

Promising reforms to the way the Senate operates while billing this as part of a package of giving power back to the grassroots is curious, but I’ll run with it only so far as to say that Chong shouldn’t actually be trying to out-Trudeau on this. Trudeau has put some things in motion that are not actually for the better, be it centralizing power in his own caucus, or trying to weaken the accountability role of the Senate, while his current “representative” there is trying to upend the whole system so that he can be the true bureaucrat that he is and empire-build, co-opting the whole burgeoning independent system for his own ends. Chong not grasping the constitutional role of the Senate Speaker, or the role of the Government Leader under Responsible Government is worrying, and I do feel like he should know better and not just try to play the reform-for-the-sake-of-reform card. That becomes a very dangerous thing under our system, especially because the system is not broken, so we should stop trying to break it while insisting on fixing problems that don’t actually exist.

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QP: Demanding adult supervision

Despite the fact that it was a Monday, none of the leaders save Elizabeth May were present in the Commons. Denis Lebel led off, blaming Chrystia Freeland for being unable to conclude the Canada-EU trade agreement, or any other trade agreement. Freeland insisted that Canada had done its job, but this was an internal dispute for the EU to resolve and then come back to Canada, and that she remained committed to it. Lebel repeated the question in English word-for-word, and Freeland elaborated on her answer. Lebel demanded that the PM head to Europe to salvage the deal — as though that was how negotiations work, and Freeland started getting feistier about the previous government’s record. Gerry Ritz picked up the torch, and took on a more bullying tone with a pair of questions that belittled Freeland for her visible emotion in Brussels, and saying that she needed the “adult supervision” of the Prime Minister. Freeland had none of it, and hit back on the previous government’s record on the stalled agreement and expensive signing ceremonies for a deal that wasn’t done. Murray Rankin led off for the NDP, and kept up the same topic, but from the angle that they needed to drop the investor-state dispute resolution mechanism. Freeland listed socialist governments in Europe who had signed onto the deal, trying to prove it’s not just an ideological divide. Niki Ashton then got up to decry the comments from the Finance Minister about “job churn,” decrying precarious work. MaryAnn Mihychuk said that the new work environment had a lot to do with technology but they were helping Canadians. Ashton demanded that Morneau and the PM attend their precarious job summit, to which Mihychuk reminded her that they have a youth workers council.

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Roundup: Lamenting the regional ministries

Agriculture minister Lawrence MacAulay told his local paper that he’s not too concerned that the minister in charge of the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency isn’t from the region, but that he’s a Central Canadian, but hey, he’s gotten results so it’s all good. And then people went insane because how dare the government not have a regional development minister from the region, ignoring that the policy of this government has been to eschew the tradition of regional ministers writ large, and that all regional development agencies all report to the same minister – the industry minister – rather than spreading it around to a number of ministers of state (and bloating the size of cabinet while you’re at it). And then from there comes the perennial outrage that we have regional representation at the cabinet level, which ignores that cabinet positions are not actually something that requires subject matter expertise, but that it’s a political position that is largely based on managerial competence, which is fine, particularly under a system of Responsible Government that the legislature can hold them to account for the performance of their duties. After all, they have the civil service to do the subject-matter expertise part for them, and it’s the job of ministers to make decisions that they can then be held to account for. But a few of the exchanges were at least worth noting.

Most of those were all well and good, but this one from Candice Bergen caught my eye, because it actually highlights something that has largely been ignored.

While it may be a little overwrought, the point about centralizing power in the PMO is actually quite astute, and fits the pattern of centralization that Trudeau has been entirely underreported. Within the Liberal Party itself, Trudeau has convinced the party to abolish its regional powerbases and centralize it all within his own office under the guise of “modernization” and “being more responsive.” Once could very well argue that eliminating regional minister has a similar effect. That said, one could also argue that the purpose of regional minister was about pork-barrelling and doing the partisan work of securing votes from those very same regions for the government’s benefit, so their loss wouldn’t be too deeply felt in a move to make a system built to be more responsive to evidence than political consideration. Regardless, the propensity of this prime minister to consolidate power should not be underestimated, and this is something we should absolutely be keeping an eye on.

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Roundup: Walking out on Wallonia

Talks to save the Canada-EU trade agreement broke down yesterday, and after more than two days of direct talks, trade minister Chrystia Freeland walked out of the meeting and basically declared that it was now impossible for the EU to come to an international trade deal. And really, this was about the Walloons in Belgium who weren’t letting this go through. Wallonia’s president tried to sound an optimistic tone, and said that “difficulties remain” around largely the investor-state dispute resolution mechanism and wanted Justin Trudeau to hold off on his planned trip to Europe next week to finalize the deal so that the Walloons could have more time.

While Freeland said she was ready to get back on a plane and go home to see her kids, it looks like the EU president managed to keep her around for more talks, which may have been the whole point of Freeland’s exit – so that the rest of the EU could pressure Wallonia to come to their senses. While Belgium’s ambassador to Canada also said that the deal wasn’t dead, we did see some of the usual suspects line up to applaud the potential demise of the agreement, like Elizabeth May, the NDP, and the Council of Canadians.

Throughout this, however, I will admit to more than a little distaste at the snide tone of the Conservatives throughout all of this. In QP yesterday, Candice Bergen laid this at the feet of Freeland personally and declared that she would have to “wear it.” Gerry Ritz said that Freeland should have “rolled up her sleeves” and stayed at the table (which she had already been doing), and Rona Ambrose demanded that Justin Trudeau get on a plane and smooth this over himself. And there is this overall tone that the deal had been “gift wrapped” for the Liberals (after Harper had already done two symbolic signings of the agreement before it had been ratified), which is specious and facile. The Liberals have countered that the deal was essentially dead before Freeland resurrected it, largely through reopening some of the negotiations and through declaratory statements to clarify the language in the provisions of the deal, so it’s not like they didn’t do nothing. Quite the opposite, in fact. And one fails to see how it’s Freeland’s fault when pretty much everyone agrees that this is now an internal EU matter that Canada really can’t do anything about. Then again, the Conservative message around other trade deals like softwood lumber are equally fantastical (how they could have forced the Americans to come to an agreement when they clearly aren’t interested is beyond me, and there was a lot of unhappiness with the deal they signed when they first got into office that gave the Americans a victory). Sure, they signed a bunch of deals with small countries with small economies. Sure, they got CETA and TPP off the ground, but they still protected a lot of industries that didn’t necessarily deserve it, nor did they seal those deals either. Trade is a difficult business, and I’m not sure they have the moral authority to be as frankly abusive as they have been on the file.

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Roundup: Fundraising fears

It’s been a curious thing the last few days, watching in QP as the Conservatives are tearing their hair out over this Bill Morneau fundraiser in Halifax and raising the spectre of the wealthy contributing to politics, and calling Bill Morneau a millionaire like it’s a bad thing. As though suddenly the Conservative Party of Canada has become overrun by socialists or something. Really, it’s just their cheap populism run amok, trying to cast themselves as champions of ordinary Canadians (never mind that their policies disproportionately aided wealthier Canadians during their decade in power), and if they really were the champions of the working class, you would think the rest of their policies to date would be different (such as around labour unions or the Canada Pension Plan, or anything like that), but no. And if you think this is really a question about ethics or conflicts of interest, well, no, the Ethics Commissioner herself has stated that this fundraiser was above board, but hey, if they wanted to tighten the rules around fundraising, she’s been asking them to do that for years and after a decade in power, they wouldn’t do that either. So here we are, with a desperate attempt to frame perfectly above-board fundraising as “cash for access” and somehow comparable to the situation in Ontario, which it’s not. Meanwhile, Howard Anglin had a perfectly apropos tweet storm on this, so I’ll let him finish off here.

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QP: The menace of millionaires

Despite it being Thursday, there were no leaders present in the Commons today (save Elizabeth May), Justin Trudeau at an Amazon fulfilment centre opening in the GTA, and the others, well, elsewhere. Denis Lebel led off for the opposition, decrying the government not respecting provincial jurisdiction regarding healthcare, and Jane Philpott immediately hit back that the previous government didn’t much care for the file and they were making investments. Lebel asked again in English, and Philpott noted that previous investments did not transform the system as was necessary, which they were engaged in. Lebel then moved onto that Bill Morneau fundraiser in Halifax, and Bardish Chagger stood to take that bullet, assuring him that all rules were obeyed. Candice Bergen took over, decrying the appointment to the Port Authority one of the attendees. Chagger repeated her answer in English, and Bergen took her through one more round of the same. Murray Rankin led off for the NDP, his first time as their new House Leader, and he carried on the same line of questioning. Chagger’s answer didn’t change, leaving it for Brigitte Sansoucy to ask again in French, no avail. Sansoucy moved onto the investments in mental health, to which Philpott insisted that this was not a political issue but one of a responsibility to Canadians and ensuring that the investments translated in better access to care. Rankin asked the same again in English, and Philpott responded with an edge in her tone, assuring him that she does not play politics with mental health.

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Roundup: A warning or a betrayal?

Justin Trudeau made some comments to Le Devoir about the reduced sense of urgency around electoral reform, and a bunch of people – notably the NDP – freaked out. Trudeau said:

Under Stephen Harper, there were so many people unhappy with the government and their approach that people were saying, ‘It will take electoral reform to no longer have a government we don’t like’. But under the current system, they now have a government they’re more satisfied with and the motivation to change the electoral system is less compelling.

And then comes the parsing of the rhetoric – is he trying to walk back on his election promise that 2015 was the last election under first-past-the-post, or is he trying to give signals to the electoral reform committee as they begin to draft their report after their summer of consultations across the country? To the NDP (and Ed Broadbent of his eponymously named Institute), Trudeau’s comments are a betrayal because to them, he can only deliver proportional representation or bust. Their working premise is that Trudeau was saying that because the system elected Liberals it’s fine, but when it elected Conservatives, it was broken. But I’m not sure that’s what Trudeau was actually saying, because the prevailing popular discussion pre-election was that reform was needed because any system that delivered Conservative majorities was deemed illegitimate – one of those kinds of talking points that gives me hives because it presumes that electoral reform needs to be done for partisan reasons. And to that extent, Trudeau is right, that the sense of urgency has decreased because the Conservatives are no longer in power, so there’s less clamour for it to happen. There is also the theory that what Trudeau was signalling was that there are degrees of acceptable change, and that without as much broad support that smaller change like ranked ballots could be something he would push through (seeing as we all know that the committee is going to be deadlocked).

Kady O’Malley, on the other hand, thinks that Trudeau is signalling to the NDP and Greens that they should be willing to compromise on PR during the committee deliberations, or he’ll deem it a stalemate and either walk away or put it to a referendum, where it would almost certainly be doomed. Rona Ambrose says that it could signal that Trudeau is backing down, which the Conservatives would like (and to be perfectly honest, I would too because the system is not broken and electoral reform is a solution in search of a problem). That he may have found the excuse to back down and admit this election promise is a failure – and then move on – would be the ideal move in my most humble opinion.

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