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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

Roundup: A modest peacekeeping package

At long last, Justin Trudeau delivered what the government had long-promised when it came to how Canada was going to fulfil its pledge around peacekeepers for the UN. Err, well, sort of. You see, while Trudeau said that the 600 troops would all roll out eventually, for the time being, we’re doing more of the work of capacity building, training, and getting more women involved, plus a new rapid-response air deployment of heavy-lift capability and weaponized helicopters that will include some 200 personnel. And no, we’re not sending troops to Mali. More significantly, perhaps, was the initiative on ending the use of child soldiers, which helps to fulfil some of the long-time work of retired general and Senator Roméo Dallaire.

At this point, the peanut gallery erupted into how the government’s mandate tracker would rate this promise as not having really been kept, but I have to wonder if that’s being unfair given the situation. We’ve heard for two years, since the initial pledge was made, that traditional peacekeeping was dead, and we needed to do something else, and lo, the government listened, consulted, and came up with a package of items – and funds – that will help with the real work of building capacity where it doesn’t exist currently. And listening to Dallaire on Power & Politics, he made the notion that it’s not really about committing another battalion of troops, because they have those – it’s about ensuring that they have the capacity to deal with the situation on the ground, and if Canada can help with that, is that not the better use of our time, money, resources, and personnel? Or do we demand 600 troops + 150 police in x-country that is just the right level of dangerous in order to check off a box and say “promise kept”? I’m not sure. We’ll see how the international community reacts, but so far the word out of the UN has been fairly positive (though it sounds like France may be a bit ticked that we’re not going to Mali). But maybe I’m wrong and we should have just sent them to Mali. I do think that we need to be a bit more nuanced in our understanding, and as with many things, people underestimate the need for capacity building at home and abroad, and it does seem to be something that this government is trying to address in one form or another. (For another take, here’s Stephen Saideman and his lukewarm feelings toward the announcement).

Continue reading

Roundup: Release the Mandate Tracker!

The government unveiled their “mandate tracker” website yesterday, put out by the Privy Council Office, which aims to track the progress of commitments made in ministerial mandate letters, which the government (rightly) touts is the first time these kinds of things are being publicly tracked. But the grousing immediately began – that these are not campaign commitments being tracked (and really, it would be inappropriate for PCO to be tracking those), that some of the progress is subjective, and that it’s a “propaganda tool” for the government.

That’s fair criticism, and sure, it’s cute that the government calls promises they no longer intend to keep as “not being pursued” (rightly in some cases, like electoral reform – because it was a stupid promise), and yes, there is some subjectivity to some of the measures like how they’ve improved Question Period – and if anyone wants to compare how it’s being run right now as compared to the zoo that it was in the Harper era, with the jeering, hooting baboons and the reading of non-sequiturs, they can go right ahead, but it is different, and I would argue, better most of the time. (Yes, many of the government’s responses are pabulum – but given how mendacious and disingenuous most of the questions are, that’s not a surprise either).

Suffice to say, it’s a step. The Conservatives never put anything like this out for public consumption, and had a habit of retconning some of their own promises (remember the promise around wait times? And how they tried to recast it as a different promise among the five that they made and supposedly kept? Good times). And while sure, it looks like they’re grading their own homework, you don’t have to take their word for it. You the public, and We The Media can fact-check these things, and hey, there’s something in the window for us to fact-check against. Great. I’m failing to see where the downside of any of this is.

Meanwhile, here is some more informed analysis:

https://twitter.com/JenniferRobson8/status/930543481419808768

https://twitter.com/JenniferRobson8/status/930544368938897409

Continue reading

Roundup: A cynical membership ploy

Oh, Alberta politics. For the place where I first got cut my political chops, you continue to fill me with such…outrage, particularly with how you’ve so bastardized the way in which leadership contests are supposed to run. The former Progressive Conservative party was a good example of how our system could be so debased as to turn those leadership contests into quasi-primaries that they became a direct election of the premier through instant party memberships, and usually block votes to groups such as teachers, for whom leaders like Alison Redford became indebted to. This time, it’s the antics of the upstart Alberta Party that has me fuming.

For those of you who don’t know, the Alberta Party is a centrist party of mostly hipsters and academics that aims to try and find the sweet spot of the province’s political pulse, while also not being associated with the heretofore tainted Liberal brand. (Disclosure: I was friends with one of the leadership hopefuls in the previous contest, and am friends with a previous candidate for the party in the last election; both, incidentally, are academics). And with the demise of the amorphous PC brand and its quasi-centrism in favour of Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party and its decidedly more right-leaning brand, there is optimism within the Alberta Party that hey, maybe they can attract some of the former PC types fleeting for greener pastures. And so with that in mind, the current leader (and up until a week ago, holder of their only seat in the legislature, until an NDP defector joined the ranks) decided he was going to resign.

But – and here’s the catch – he just might run for the position again. And admitted yesterday that his resignation is a ploy to drive party memberships. And this is the part that makes me crazy, because it reinforces this sick notion that has infected our body politic that the only real reason that the grassroots membership exists any longer is for the purpose of leadership contests. And while sure, that’s important, it continues do drive this growing push that makes these contests into quasi-presidential primaries that centralises power in the leader’s office because the selection (and subsequent ability to remove said leader) rests outside of the caucus – though I will grant you that for Greg Clark, that was a caucus of one until just now.

And I get that at this point, the Alberta Party is one that isn’t as centrally-driven as other parties, and where there is trust in candidates about policy matters that they’re not just parroting talking points (so says my friend who ran for them), and that’s great. But it’s also indicative of a party without seats (which they had none until the last election), and without a taste of power. But it nevertheless follows the pattern that memberships – which Clark is trying to drive – is all about the leadership, and not about the nominations, or the grassroots policy development, or being the interlocutor between civic life and the legislature. And if they do manage to attract a bunch of former PCers, that could be either great for them, or their own demise as that party’s former culture takes over the party (which isn’t necessarily a great thing). It’s a risky move that Clark made, and it may present a change for the political landscape…or it becomes one more cynical exercise in bastardizing the meaning of grassroots party memberships. I guess we’ll have to see.

Continue reading