QP: A non-existent conflict

The b-team was out a little early today, as both Justin Trudeau and Rona Ambrose jetted off to Israel for the funeral of Shimon Peres, and Thomas Mulcair decided he had better things to do. Candice Bergen led off, mini-lectern on desk, conspiracy theorizing at the attendance of Dominic LeBlanc at an event in Toronto hosted by a law firm that does lobbying for the Irvings. LeBlanc stood up to tell the House that he was there to promote the Atlantic Growth Strategy. Bergen noted that he was the lead on litigation strategy for the government and that it was a conflict, but LeBlanc insisted that he cleared it in writing with the Ethics Commissioner. Bergen decried his lack of judgment, but LeBlanc continued to rebuff the allegation. Alain Rayes was up next, and decried the health negotiations with provinces and the possibility of strings being attached, and Jane Philpott noted that the health transfers were going up, and they went one more round of the same. Don Davies led off for the NDP, decrying the healthcare escalator (referring to them as “cuts” when the transfer continues to go up), and Philpott reminded that there is no cut. Davies went a second round, got the same answer, and then Brigitte Sansoucy took over in French on the very same topic. Philpott repeated her answers in English, reminding the NDP that they promised a balanced budget which they wouldn’t have been able to achieve without cuts, and then one more round again of the same.

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Roundup: Harder’s arrogant dismissal

It is probably not without a certain amount of chutzpah that Senator Peter Harder went before the Senate’s modernisation committee yesterday, and not only lectured to them about what the Senate does, but offered his particular thoughts on how the institution should be reformed, and most of all, having the gall to suggest that there was nothing that could be learned from the House of Lords and their integration of crossbenchers. Harder, with his mere couple of months of experience, has taken it upon himself to declare that the Senate should comprise of the government representative (a creature which does not actually appear in convention, statute or logic) and independents who will loosely affiliate on an ad hoc basis – no government, no opposition, no parties, no partisanship.

Give. Me. A. Break.

This declared allergy to partisanship in the upper chamber has reached the point of being utterly ridiculous. Parties exist for a reason. No one is arguing that the current power structure in the Senate needs to be broken apart and for independents to be given more power and resources, but blowing up parties is not the way to go, nor is assiduously screening nominees for any past hint of partisanship because there is nothing inherently wrong with partisanship. If Harder thinks that 105 individuals can sufficiently organise themselves for debates without any kind of structure – that his office doesn’t impose anyway – is lunacy. And it does concern me that Harder is making a bit of a power grab, especially considering that his office is already poised to start offering staffing services for the incoming batch of senators, which is not only unseemly but once again looks to bigfoot the work that the Independent Senators Group has been doing to come up with a bottom-up approach to organising unaligned senators in a manner consistent with the operation of the Chamber while working to give them caucus-like powers for committee assignments and with any luck, research dollars and support. But this isn’t the first time that Harder has attempted to bigfoot this nascent group, and I think that’s a very real problem. His attitude towards the modernisation committee – and in particular his arrogant dismissal of the crossbencher model (which the Independent Senate Group has been looking toward) – is a worrying sign.

Meanwhile, Andrew Coyne not only unhelpfully endorses the Segal-Kirby call for the Senate to limit its veto to a suspensive one (because hey, it’s not like we might need an option to stop a prime minister with a majority from passing really terrible legislation), but goes one step further and proposes that any bill in the Senate that has not been passed in six months is deemed to have passed, so that when they can’t procedurally speed through certain bills that get bottlenecked in committees (like any private member’s bill, many of which are objectively terrible), or when they demand more time and attention, they should just be passed anyway? Seriously? What a way to run a parliament.

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QP: More shovels in the ground

Caucus day, and nearly a full house in the Commons as QP got underway. Rona Ambrose, mini-lectern on desk, was terribly concerned about 190 conditions attached to the Pacific Northwest LNG approval. Justin Trudeau reminded her that the last government’s cheerleading didn’t get them anywhere and they needed to do things differently. Ambrose demanded they get shovels in the ground, but Trudeau stuck to his points about sustainable development. Ambrose shifted gears and was concerned that the first round of deficit spending didn’t spend jobs, to which Trudeau praised the investments they were making in communities. Ambrose went for another round, and Trudeau insisted that the Conservatives didn’t learn the lessons of the last election, and they went one more round on the same question in French. Thomas Mulcair was up next, and he railed about the lack of consultation with local First Nations on the LNG project. Trudeau praised economic growth with environmental protection and they “folded in” the consultations. Mulcair decried that it was now impossible to meet GHG targets, to which Trudeau noted that they need to grow the economy while working to meet targets, so they are working with the provinces to do so. Mulcair wanted approval for their supply day motion for parliamentary oversight over arms sales, and Trudeau spoke instead about participating the arms trade treaty. Mulcair asked again in English, and got much the same answer.

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Roundup: Non-binding unanimous support

Supply day motions – also known as opposition day motions – can be tricky business, and unless the opposition party that moves it isn’t careful, they can wind up giving the government a free pass on supporting said motions without fear of consequence. Never mind that the point of supply day motions is to debate why the government should be denied supply (and hence confidence), these have largely turned into take-note debates on topics of the opposition’s choosing. These free pass motions happened with surprising regularity in the previous parliament, with the NDP frequently offering up mom-and-apple-pie motions that the Conservatives would obviously support the intent of, despite never having the intention to follow through with substantive action on, because hey, the motions are non-binding, and why not look like they support the idea of the motion? And lo and behold, the Conservatives offered up just such a motion around the Supreme Court of Canada, imploring the government to “respect the custom of regional representation” when making appointments to that court, “in particular, when replacing the retiring Justice Thomas Cromwell, who is Atlantic Canada’s representative on the Supreme Court.” While I will quibble with their use of “custom” as opposed to “constitutional convention” (which it really is at this point), this was one of those motions worded just loosely enough that the government could vote for it (and it did pass unanimously, as these kinds of motions often do), and should they go ahead and appoint a non-Atlantic justice to the court, they have room enough to turn around and give some kind of a nonsense excuse like “Oh, we felt that such-and-such diversity requirement was more needed at this point,” or “we felt that the Atlantic nominees were insufficiently bilingual,” or what have you. Or, as the talking points have been turning to, they will point to the number of Atlantic nominees on the short-list and said that they got equal opportunity and were not prejudiced against or some such, and make the merit argument. Suffice to say, there is more than enough wiggle room, and for a party that was so recently in government, the Conservative should have known better than to word a motion in a way that the government can support and later wiggle out of. This having been said, the government has been under enormous political pressure from the premiers regarding this Atlantic seat, so it is not inconceivable that this as a step in walking back from having the nominations being too open, but that remains to be seen.

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QP: The Giorno angle

With all of the leaders in the Commons today, the hope was that the show would be a little less awful than it was yesterday. On the whole, it was. Rona Ambrose led off, mini-lectern on desk, reading a plea that the government approve the Pacific Northwest LNG project, and Justin Trudeau dissembles about the choice between the environment and the economy. Ambrose lamented that too many pipeline projects were languishing and getting people back to work. Trudeau reminded her that their pipeline plans didn’t work because they didn’t get community buy-in, added that the Conservative voted against middle-class tax cuts. Ambrose changed topics, concerned about discussions with China that included cyber-security regardless of how many times Chinese hackers attacked Canadian targets. Trudeau stated that previous discussions were always ad hoc, while these new high-level discussions provided a more permanent framework. Ambrose expressed confusion about any extradition talks with China, and Trudeau returned to the same response about high-level dialogue. Ambrose asked again in French, and got the same answer. Thomas Mulcair was up next, asking if the Great Bear rainforest was no place for a crude oil pipeline, but wondered if it would also be one for natural gas. Trudeau didn’t give a clear response, mentioning analyzing various projects. Mulcair then lamented the adoption of Harper-era healthcare “cuts” (note: it’s not a cut, because the funds are still increasing), but Trudeau shrugged it off with talk of consultation with the provinces. Mulcair went another round in French, got the same answer, and then Mulcair moved onto labour rights and demanded that the government support their anti-scab bill. Trudeau spoke about the need for a better collaborative approach.

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Roundup: Say no to a Charter Rights Officer

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association is leading a push for the creation of an independent Charter Rights Officer for Parliament, and that sound you hear is my head hitting my desk over and over again. Because no. We don’t need yet another officer of parliament. We really, really don’t.

What we need is for MPs – particularly the opposition – to stand up and actually do their jobs, rather than fobbing off their homework onto yet another officer, who is accountable to nobody, whose reports they can then wield like some kind of a cudgel while not actually fulfilling their own responsibilities as parliamentarians (which, I will remind you once again, is to hold the government to account). The proliferation of officers of parliament has so diminished the capacity of the opposition to do their gods damned jobs in this country that it’s embarrassing, and since the inception of the Parliamentary Budget Office, it’s only become so much more egregious because now they can ignore the Estimates cycle entirely (despite controlling the public purse being the inherent definition of what MPs are supposed to do, and how they hold governments to account).

Oh, but it’s hard! Oh, but why not cede this to subject matter experts like lawyers and judges? Oh, why don’t we just start pre-referring all bills to the Supreme Court of Canada while we’re at it and turn the dialogue between the Court and Parliament into a game of “Mother May I?” Honestly, would it kill MPs to actually debate policy, which Charter compliance is a big part of? Parliament has responsibilities to fulfil. Why don’t we actually make them do their jobs rather than finding yet another excuse for them to avoid doing it?

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QP: Sanctimony and escalators

With none of the leaders were present, Denis Lebel led off, railing about the non-existent negotiations for an extradition treaty with China. Harjit Sajjan responded that it was a high-level security and rule-of-law dialogue, which included talk of extradition. Lebel asked again in English, got the same response, then moved on to the moving expenses of one of Dion’s staff. Bardish Chagger noted that they were committed to changing the rules. Candice Bergen got up to deliver some unctuous sanctimony about moving expenses, but Chagger stuck to her prepared lines. Brigitte Sansoucy was up for the NDP, decrying the fact that the government won’t increase the healthcare transfer escalator. Jane Philpott said that they would be making investments in priority areas like home care and mental health care. Sansoucy went another round, got the same answer, before Don Davies went up to ask the same again in English. Philpott chided him that the NDP platform would have been hard pressed to use the old escalators and still balance the budget, then they went one more round of the same.

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Roundup: Begin Royal Tour 2016!

The Royal Tour has begun, which means we’re already being inundated with a bunch of ridiculous stories about “is it worth the price,” or treating the Canadian Royal Family as foreign curiosities when the Canadian Crown is a separate and distinct legal entity from the British Crown (well, unless you happen to follow the logic of the previous government, whose changes to the Royal Succession Act without going the constitutional amendment route put us on par with Tuvalu in terms of making our relationship with the Crown a subordinate one, but we’ll see if that survives the court challenges). Suffice to say, yes it’s entirely worth it because it’s a very small amount of money, and their touring for a week costs us less than it does for Obama to visit for an afternoon, they draw a lot of attention to a number of worthwhile causes that the Governor General never could, and hey, we’re a constitutional monarchy so it pays for us to act like one from time to time. And to all of those pundits who insist that it’s time that we “grow up” as a nation and “leave the Queen’s basement,” how’s that republic to the south of us doing when it comes to selecting a head of state? Yeah, I thought so.

Meanwhile, here are some photos from the arrival, along with a look at the symbolism of what Kate was wearing. The tour promises to focus on social issues like the environment, young families, and mental health issues. Sunday, they met with young mothers in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side battling addiction issues, before visiting the re-opened Coast Guard base at Kitsilano (which isn’t a dig at the previous government that closed the base at all). Later this week, they’ll visit the town of Bella Bella, which has managed to basically solve its suicide crisis.

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Roundup: A few more partial concessions

I’m about at the end of my patience with stories about moving expenses, just as news comes down that two more senior ministerial staffers have offered to partially reimburse their own expenses. This while we continue the smarmy remarks by the Conservatives who can’t decide if the perpetrators are cronies or millionaire BFFs, and the NDP perch on their sanctimony, and pundits across the nation clutch their pearls about how it doesn’t actually matter that all of these expenses were within the rules, that it’s all a matter of perception (which they incidentally are fuelling by the way in which these stories and columns are framed). Indeed, we have moralising columns mentioning entitlement, corruption, and how this puts things back on a “war footing.”

About the only salient bit of analysis that has been Robyn Urback’s (otherwise sarcastic) look at the Liberal damage control strategy pattern, which tends to be “ignore, defend, project, concede partial defeat.” And we did see elements of all of these, including the final two simultaneously as they not only had the partial concession of the repayments, but also the projection of looking at similar expenses within the Harper PMO, which they obviously spent Thursday night digging up from PCO records. And let’s be honest – as her first test, Bardish Chagger didn’t do much to help her cause when she would try to deflect with protestations that they were trying to help the middle class or building a strong team. (I will add that it may have been unfair for We The Media to castigate Trudeau for not giving the names of who the staffers were, given privacy considerations).

There was plenty of evidence or fact that Chagger could have used, from being more specific in pointing out the policies, or contextualising them as being a reflection of policies collectively negotiated with senior public servants (where changing policies could affect them), and most especially when the Conservatives were making cheap shots about the “personalised cash payments,” noting what those referred to precisely, which is not a payment in a brown envelope.

But no, we didn’t get that, and instead of having a discussion based on fact, we got pabulum, and it feeds into this ugly and petty narrative that We The Media love to perpetuate, where we must reflect a nation that is so cheap that we must be mean-spirited about it (and I deeply suspect is part of our collective tendency toward tall poppy syndrome). I defy you find a single person who wouldn’t claim moving expenses that they were legitimately entitled to. But instead, I’m getting people barking at me over the Twitter Machine that these staffers should be volunteers, and that it’s some kind of awful crime that they get reasonably well compensated for doing a damned difficult job that most people wouldn’t want to go anywhere near. This is the kind of nonsense that we shouldn’t be feeding, and yet we can’t help ourselves because cheap outrage is such a quick and easy high, but like most highs, it leaves us empty and worse off in the long run.

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Roundup: A questionable path forward

Two former senators, Michael Kirby and Hugh Segal, got together to write a report on how they see a move to a more independent Senate should go, and offered a number of suggestions along the way. (They summarise the report in an op-ed here, as does Susan Delacourt in her column here). The highlights of the report are that they feel that the Parliament of Canada Act be amended so that the Senate is no longer dependent on recognized party lines to organise themselves, that they instead be organised into four regional caucuses (Newfoundland and Labrador apparently being lumped in with the Maritime region, and the territories being given a choice as to which region they want to sit with) that would form a “senior council” to decide things like committee selection. They also suggest changes to Senate Question Period, that the absolute veto be self-limited to a six-month suspensive veto, and that the minimum age of 30 be dropped as with the net worth qualification of $4000 (but not property, as it helps to determine residency requirement).

While I will no doubt discuss these recommendations in more depth elsewhere, I will first preface my comments by saying that the Senate Modernisation Committee will have their own report out in a few weeks, and we will likely get a better sense of how things are headed on the ground from there. As for these recommendations, while changes to the Parliament of Canada Act need to happen in order to break the party oligopoly now in place, I fail to see the value-added of regional caucuses. Current committee selection already looks at regional as well as gender balance, so creating a “council” to determine this seems frivolous, and the current seat allocation on committees will rebalance as more unaffiliated senators are appointed and start feeling comfortable enough to take on committee work. I’m not sure that enforcing regional lines is really what the Fathers of Confederation had in mind (as Segal and Kirby keep going back to) because I think it has the potential to create balkanization. Breaking the oligopoly and giving the unaligned senators more of a voice in organization and logistics can happen without needing to completely freeze out parties. The post-2008 excesses were not necessarily the fault of partisanship per se as it was an overly controlling PMO manipulating new senators, who didn’t know any better, to get their way. The suggested changes to Senate QP (like asking questions of committee chairs) make no sense as there is little accountability to be had from them, which is the point of QP. The change to a suspensive veto I am wary of because the point of the Senate is to be able to check the powers of a prime minister with a majority, and saying that the Lords in the UK has been like this since 1911 ignores the history or temperament of that chamber as it differs from our Senate. As for dropping the minimum age, if I had my druthers I would raise it a decade if not two, but if we can’t do that, then leave it as is. We have no need to appoint twentysomethings to be there until age 75. Sorry.

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