QP: No one is above the law

With the PM off in PEI to deliver a speech and then off to Newfoundland to do a bit of by-election campaigning, Andrew Scheer opted not to show up either. That meant that it was up to Lisa Raitt to lead off, raising the new headlines around Stephen Bronfman, and demanded to know what assurances the PM had received from him. In response, Diane Lebouthillier gave her usual assurances that they are investigating tax evasion and charges were upcoming. When Raitt demanded to know if Bronfman was under investigation — as though the minister could actually answer that — and Lebouthillier reminded her that the previous government, of which Raitt was a member, cut investigations. Raitt then disingenuously suggested that the PM interfered in an investigation — wholly falsely — and Lebouthillier reiterated her assurances. Gérard Deltell got up to repeat the questions in French, to which Lebouthillier reminded him that she can’t comment on any investigation under the law and that they knew that. After another round of the same, Guy Caron got up to also carry on the Bronfman questions, and Lebouthillier dutifully repeated her points about investigations. Caron repeated in English, and Lebouthillier sharply noted that no one was above the law, and nobody was interfering with any investigation. Matthew Dubé was up next to ask about SS7 vulnerabilities with Canadian mobile phones, to which Ralph Goodale said that this was a CSE responsibility, that they work with telecom companies, and if they needed more of a push, they would get it. Dubé demanded legislative updates to protect Canadians’ privacy, and Goodale assured him that a cyber-review was underway and at least three initiatives would be tabled in the coming weeks.

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Roundup: Union concoctions and opportunism

In the event that you’ve tuned out of the Bill Morneau/Bill C-27 conspiracy theory – and if you have, I don’t blame you – there was a big fuss a few days ago made of the fact that the postal employees’ union made a big deal about trying to get the Ethics Commissioner to investigate this weeks ago, and now that Nathan Cullen managed to get Mary Dawson to turn her attention to it, they’re crowing with a bit of victory, and still demanding that the bill be withdrawn. Given how ludicrous the whole story remains – remember that government bills are tabled on behalf of the cabinet as a whole, and that ministers don’t sponsor bills because they have a personal interest in them, but rather because they need to answer on behalf of their departments – I’ve largely just rolled my eyes at ongoing coverage, but it was flagged to me a couple of times yesterday that Terence Corcoran wrote a piece about how this little episode proves some of the underlying dynamics behind this ongoing campaign against Morneau and his integrity – that it’s less about any actual ethical issues than it has been about trying to get him to withdraw Bill C-27, because it’s antithetical to the interests of unions and their desires to ensure that everyone has a defined benefit pension plan (even though the economics of that demand aren’t there, and that the actuarial tables will show that they haven’t been sustainable because people stopped smoking two packs a day and are now living longer).

The problem with Corcoran’s piece is that it really only applies to the NDP’s interests. After all, the Conservatives were talking about targeted benefit pensions for years, and were making moves in that direction, which is why Morneau, in his previous life, was talking about their virtues – a cardinal sin in NDP eyes. But for the Conservatives, this is simply a matter of opportunism – they think that they can wound him, and if they have to play along with the NDP to do it, so be it they will. And thus, we are enduring day after day of attacks in QP that are showcased with mendacious framing devices and disingenuous questions, unrelated facts arranged in ways to look damning, never mind that they don’t line up with reality or with our parliamentary norms (such as this absurd demand that the Ethics Commissioner should have somehow vetted this before the bill was tabled. That’s now how our system works, and it would have been a violation of cabinet secrecy and parliamentary privilege). But even as opportunistic as this is, one has to wonder how much longer this will last.

One of the most veteran reporters sat with me in QP yesterday, and asked me this very question – how long can they hope to stretch this story? There’s little basis to it, and yet day after day, they carry on with these absurd demands for information that are already publicly disclosed, and outrage that is running on fumes. Meanwhile, actual, verifiable problems that should be addressed are going unsaid, day after day. It’s a little mystifying when you actually stop to think about it.

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QP: Fabrications and absences

While the PM was away in Scarborough to announce the government’s housing strategy — and to campaign for his candidate in the by-election there — Andrew Scheer introduced his party’s newest MP to the Chamber before things got underway, and fortunately Dane Lloyd didn’t try to struggle as he came in. Scheer led off, demanding that the PM condemn the “egregious crackdown on free speech” at Laurier University. With the PM away, Kirsty Duncan offered assurances that they want to assure freedom of speech and the protection of Charter rights. Scheer lamented that the PM just couldn’t denounce it — being cute because he knows he can’t refer to the PM being absent — and then he launched into a tired question about Bill Morneau’s asssets. Morneau got up and first wished the Speaker a Happy Birthday — and after the Chamber stood up for a quick rendition of the appropriate song, Morneau reminded the chamber that he worked with the Ethics Commissioner. Scheer then turned to worry about tax changes and the supposed “attacks” on local businesses, and Morneau gave him assurances that they had listened to Canadians. Alain Rayes got up next to make a pair of demands in French for all of Morneau’s assets, and he deflected by noting that the opposition didn’t want to recognize the good work of the government in strengthening the economy. Guy Caron was up next for the NDP and started off with mentioning the Auditor General’s concerns about CRA’s call centre, but started throwing all manner of accusations at the wall, so Diane Lebouthillier assured him that working for Canadians was highlighted in her mandate letter. Alexandre Boulerice gave much the same in French, and Lebouthillier again got up to assure him that they were going after tax havens, and they didn’t circulate misinformation, unlike the other side. Boulerice railed at the laundry list of apparent sins, and Lebouthillier reminded him that the previous government cut CRA but they were reinvesting. Caron went for one more round of the same, not that the response changed.

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Roundup: Uncritical about the playwright’s lament

Toronto playwright Michael Healy apparently took to the Twitter Machine to plead with the government to ditch their talking points and talk like human beings. Aaron Wherry in turn wrote this up as wondering why politicians don’t talk like they’re on the West Wing, but didn’t actually look at the reasons why message control has taken hold – never mind that nobody actually talks like they’re in an Aaron Sorkin production (because honestly, the sanctimony alone…) But in all honesty, it would have been a useful exercise to see why some of this has become entrenched.

For one, part of the problem is the format of Question Period in the Commons, where the strict 35-second clock makes reasonable answers all-but impossible in most cases. I’ve had staffers tell me that they have to prepare scripts, not because their ministers don’t know the subject matter, but because they need to keep it within those 35 seconds and that’s the easiest way. I can’t say that I’m necessarily sold on that – or too sympathetic – but I can see why the temptation is there.

Part of the problem is the way in which branding has taken hold of politics to such a degree that there is a perceived need to drill slogans into people’s brains – things like “Strong, Stable Conservative Majority™,” or “The Middle Class and Those Looking to Join It™.” One of my pet peeves is “The Environment and The Economy Go Together™” because I know that the minister who keeps saying that is capable of answering questions in a reasonable manner and could do so if she stopped delivering that line, but that’s the message that she wants to drive home. Even though we get it.

And part of the problem is the way that We The Media treat frankness – we punish them for it. Witness what happened two weeks ago when Carla Qualtrough went on CTV’s Question Period, and Evan Solomon picked the $1 billion figure for a possible Phoenix price tag out of thin air, and when Qualtrough said, frankly, that she didn’t know but she couldn’t rule it out, suddenly CTV ran with the “billion dollar” headline, and absolutely everyone else followed suit. It’s now stuck to the Phoenix issue in most headlines, never mind that it wasn’t what she actually said, but her moment of frankness is now being treated as some confession that we will tar the issue with. We The Media have been repeating the mendacious and disingenuous framing devices around the interminable Morneau Shepell questions uncritically – and in some cases, fuelling them in a complete absence of fact of context *cough*Globe and Mail*cough* and anything that the ministers say becomes a trap.

So why, then, would any minister want to be frank in their answers, if we’re just going to punish them for it? Unfortunately, we don’t seem to have the self-awareness to process this – that we are part of the problem that drives this issue to turn all government messages into pabulum. We do this to ourselves. Let’s think about that.

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QP: Virtually ignoring the AG’s report

While the day got started with a report by the Auditor General, which in any other parliament would be the subject matter by which Question Period would be seized with. But not this parliament, at this particular time, with these particular denizens therein. Andrew Scheer led off, raising the AG’s concerns about the CRA’s call centre performance, and Justin Trudeau praised the report that would help them do better, which they intended to do, but it also reminded the House that the previous government cut services over a decade. Scheer switched to English and tried to turn this into a question about how Stephen Bronfman picked up the call to get his tax issues cleared — utterly false — and Trudeau repeated his previous answer in English. Excited, Scheer’s cadence got breathier as he raced through a scripted question on the Ethics Commissioner to clearing Bill Morneau to table Bill C-27 — which is utterly absurd procedurally — and Trudeau reminded him that they work with the Ethics Commissioner and take her advice. After another round of the same in French, Scheer stumbled through an accusation that the Liberals don’t follow rules, and Trudeau stuck to his points about the Commissioner. Guy Caron led for the NDP, railing about the revelations from the AG on the Phoenix pay system, to which Trudeau reminded the House that the system was brought in by the previous government — to much uproar — and listed off who they were working with. Caron railed that there should be a refund for the system, and Trudeau listed mistakes the previous regime made, and promised that they were working to fix it. Alexandre Boulerice, making a telephone hand gesture, mimed a call to the CRA, and Trudeau noted that they were working on fixing things after a decade of cuts. Nathan Cullen took over for a round of the same in English, and got much the same answer.

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Roundup: Absurd procedural objections abound

There are times when I don’t get the way that the opposition is trying to do its job – and I don’t mean the epic levels of disingenuousness and mendaciousness by which Question Period is operating these days. Rather, it’s the procedural objections to the way in which the government plans to handle Bill C-59, being the major national security bill that they’ve tabled. They’ve stated that they want the bill to head to committee before Second Reading, which is unusual, but still procedurally sound because it means that it will allow for a wider variety of amendments to be proposed and adopted, as a vote at Second Reading means that the bill is “locked” at its principles, and changes made at that point tend to be fairly technical. One would think that proactively taking this move would generally be appreciated, because it’s a recognition that it’s a tough subject that they want to get as much input on as possible, and are open to a wider degree of changes than usual. But no.

Instead, the opposition are now crying foul because they say that the government is trying to “fast track” it by doing his – not necessarily true, given that it can stay at committee for a long time, and they haven’t invoked any time allocation – that they’re trying to “evade” second reading debate (which, again, is absurd given the procedural move of allowing a greater scope of amendments), and that they’re avoiding the possibility that the Speaker could break up the bill because it’s an omnibus bill. But part of the problem with that is that omnibus bills aren’t bad per se – they’re bad when they’re used abusively to ram through a multitude of unrelated things with little debate. In this case, all of the constituent changes in the bill, which affect several other existing pieces of legislation, are all part of the same national security framework. It makes more sense to make the changes at once with a single piece of legislation rather than piecemeal bills that may create legislative traffic jams that would require coordinating amendments in order to ensure that all of the changes don’t butt up against one another. It’s hardly an abuse of omnibus legislation in this case, and they should know that.

What the government is doing is procedurally sound, and I can’t count the number of times that the NDP have demanded that bills go to committee before second reading debate on a whole host of issues (and it happened a lot under the previous regime). This government is doing that move on a major piece of legislation proactively, and they’re being accused of evasion. It’s enough to make a person scream.

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QP: Concerns over foreign fighters

The first day back from a constituency week, things were a bit delayed in getting started while new MP Richard Hébert was introduced to the Chamber — improperly, I might add, as he initially “struggled” before passing the bar, which is wrong. Only the Speaker is supposed to struggle before being taken to the chair, given the symbolism that in historical times, the Speaker had faced the wrath of the King, sometimes fatally so. This is not the case for an MP.

When QP got underway, Andrew Scheer led off, mendaciously framing a question about ISIS fighters, claiming that the government was welcoming back ISIS fighters with “reintegration services,” to which Trudeau gave some bland assurances that they were monitoring any foreign fighters returning. Scheer listed off ISIS atrocities before repeating his disingenuous framing device, and Trudeau listed services to deradicalize Canadians and noted that children who were in those situations need particular care. Scheer tried again in French, got the same answer, before changing the topic and noting that both the PM and finance minister were under investigation by the Ethics Commissioner, to which Trudeau shot back that the Conservatives were attacking the Commissioner and her integrity. Scheer then returned to the issue of the Paradise Papers and the bullshit assertion that Trudeau “pardoned” Stephen Bronfman on behalf of the CRA, and Trudeau assured him that CRA was looking into tax evasion. Guy Caron led off for the NDP, also railing about Morneau’s ethics filings, and Trudeau reminded him that they work with the Commissioner. Caron raised the fact that the postal workers union had alas raised the C-27 issue with the Commissioner months ago, as though that was of any consequences, and Trudeau reiterated his answer. Nathan Cullen got up to deliver the same again with added sanctimony, and Trudeau responded by lamenting that Cullen sat in the Chamber with him when the previous government attacked public institutions like the Ethics Commissioner and that was disappointed that the NDP would stoop so low. Cullen accused Trudeau of a cheap shot, and Trudeau made the accusation right back.

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Roundup: Artificial deadline drama

It’s one of these kinds of stories that I’m already suspicious of – the kind that presuppose that the Senate is going to delay the course of legislation. And lo, the fact that there is a story with Bill Blair out there, shaking his finger at the Senate and warning them not to delay the marijuana legislation, is one that makes me roll my eyes because 1) the Bill still hasn’t passed the Commons, and may not yet for another week; and 2) I have heard zero plans from any senators that this is something that they intend to sit on until any deadlines pass or expire. In fact, I’ve heard pretty much the opposite – that to date, there is an extreme reluctance on the part of those making up the Independent Senators Group to delaying or being perceived to be delaying government bills, and they will provide the statistics to show that they pass bills faster than the House of Commons does as a way to prove that they don’t delay bills.

Oh, but what about the national anthem bill, which Conservative senators are sitting on and deliberately delaying? Well, that’s a private member’s bill, so it is at the mercy of Senate procedure, unlike a government bill – as the marijuana legislation is – which not only takes precedence over other business in the Senate, and which Senator Peter Harder, the Government Leader in the Senate – err, “government representative” could invoke time allocation on, and I’m sure that he would be able to get enough votes for it to pass (grumbling of Conservative senators aside). This having been said, I think that perhaps it may be pushing it for the government to insist that a major piece of legislation like the marijuana bill be passed by the Senate within three weeks given that they took much longer on it, and given that provincial governments have a lot to say on the matter – though I’m hearing that the Senate will likely sit a full week longer than the Commons will before they rise for the Christmas break, meaning that if the Commons passes it by this Friday, it would be four weeks for the Senate to pass it before the break, which is a long time for a bill in the Senate, but not unreasonable. And if the Commons was so concerned about how long it was taking, they would have picked up their own pace on the bill beforehand. They didn’t, and didn’t invoke time allocation on it thus far, meaning that this concern of Blair’s is artificial and used to create some faux drama. People aren’t stupid – creating a problem where one doesn’t exist is just as likely to backfire than it is to try and shame the Senate into doing your bidding.

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Roundup: No maple death squads

A story that caught my eye yesterday was on the topic of foreign fighters who may return now that ISIS/Daesh has fallen. More particularly was the notion that the US, UK and France have all made it policy to try and target and kill their own home-grown fighters rather than risk them returning to their own countries. Canada, however, came out explicitly yesterday to state that we aren’t doing the same because we don’t engage in death squads. And yes, we’re taking the issue seriously, and our security forces are on alert, and so on. While it may be astonishing to hear, it’s also not unsurprising considering that this is a government that is committed to the Charter, and extrajudicial killings would seem to be a gross violation thereof.

The problem? Some of the responses.

While I have a great deal of respect for the good senator, I’m a bit troubled by the sentiments expressed because the implicit message is that governments should feel free to violate the Charter with impunity, with either extrajudicial killings, or processes that violate the Charter and our other international obligations against torture, as with the reference to Omar Khadr. And worse, the kinds of responses to that tweet are pretty disturbing in their own right.

Aside from the fact that any of these targeted killings would be outside of the rule of law, Stephanie Carvin also points out that this kind of policy would be a false certainty, particularly when it comes to verification. I would also add that it would seem to me that it keeps the focus elsewhere than on home soil, where radicalisation still happens to one extent or another, and I do think there is likely a sense that “Hey, we’ve killed them over there,” then we don’t think about how they were radicalised at home in the first place, and we don’t put in the time and resources toward solving that issue. Nevertheless, that our government follows the rule of law shouldn’t be a news story, but in this day and age, it would seem to be.

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Roundup: Phoenix transactions and rules culls

Public services minister Carla Qualtrough sent a letter to public servants apologizing for continued Phoenix pay problems as the number of backlogged transactions reaches 520,000. But that’s what I think needs to be highlighted here – these are transactions, not public servants being affected, which we don’t have a clear number on. Part of why there are so many backlogged transactions – and likely to be growing for the short term – is because the new collective agreements came into force, which add new complications to the ongoing transactions, so while those get sorted, the backlog may continue to loom large. Apparently, there was also a recent chance in how these were being addressed, so we’ll see how much of an effect that has on the outstanding transaction total.

Meanwhile, public service union PIPSC is calling on the government to cull the number of convoluted pay rules that are currently clogging the system, but this is one of those issues where I’m not sure that they may be a wee bit disingenuous. PIPSC maintains that it’s all Treasury Board’s fault that there are so many rules, because they’re the ones who ensure there are all of the exceptions around overtime or acting status, and so on, and that they should be the ones to do the cull. But as Kathryn May points out, there is a reluctance to do this, even by means of special negotiations, because the unions are very touchy about any particular changes that they might see as rolling back any employee’s rights or benefits. And if you don’t think the reluctance is real, if memory serves, the last public service strike happened when the government wanted to phase out some old classifications with few employees in them, and the unions balked. (I also seem to recall that the deal they ended up getting was possibly worse off to save these obsolete classifications, which soured many of the public servants that I knew on the whole thing). So yeah, there are problems with the vast number of pay rules in place, and that has certainly had a detrimental effect on the whole Phoenix pay system, but I think that if the unions aren’t engaging in any self-reflection over this, then that may be adding to the problems.

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