With it being the two-year mark since the 2015 election, we’re going to start seeing a wave of thinkpieces and columns over the next few days (I suspect there will be a glut of weekend columns of dubious quality on the topic), but Paul Wells got things off to a good start yesterday with his piece on the matter. And he makes some pretty good points about how the complaints that this government hasn’t done anything are off the mark, because I do believe there are a number of things that we forget with our short attention spans, but there are also things that we don’t see obvious signs of, where the government has reformed a lot of the processes by which things get done – and this is a particularly big issue when it comes to trying to move the various Indigenous files forward. While it looks like there has been halting progress, people ignore that many of the problems are capacity-related, so if the government is moving to address those fundamental issues, it leads to better outcomes later than simply throwing money at problems only to make them worse in the long run – which happens all too often.
But Wells also acknowledges the bad, and just like with any government, there’s a lot of that too – the appointments process is a notable example, and Wells points to the bottleneck in the PMO, which goes along with the glut of rookie ministers (unavoidable with so few experienced MPs in caucus), and the problem with messaging. As I wrote about earlier this week, there is a real problem with the way this government shovels pabulum at everyone, but I’m not sure it’s any worse than under the previous government, when you were treated to non sequiturs rather than vague answers that resembled the topics you were asking about. And it’s this inability to have forthright communications that created much of this tax mess as well (but I will also lay some blame on bad and lazy reporting that was too quick to lean on opposition talking points as examples of accountability rather than reaching out to experts and then using that to push back against the tidal wave of misinformation that came out). And most especially the fact that this government was unwilling to actually fight back against the misinformation is why this mess of their own making has been compounded even more so.
“But it’s hard to be entirely saddened by Trudeau’s current discomfort, which if nothing else might shake his team out of the towering sanctimony that characterizes too much of its action and rhetoric,” Wells writes, and I fully agree. In fact, it’s the moments in the past couple of weeks where Trudeau and his ministers have dropped their pabulum-like talking points and been punchier and more authentic in their fighting back against their attackers that I’ve seen a spike in public responses to my own reporting of those instances. Hopefully they’re seeing that too, and it’ll prompt them to take more risks and to stop being so gods damned scripted. But this is also politics in 2017, and we’ve killed off spontaneity or the ability to debate, so I fear that my hopes for honest communications are doomed.
Minutes before QP was about to start, Bill Morneau announced that he was immediately moving his shares into a blind trust and would sell them off as soon as feasible, and admitted that he may have been a bit naive around the issue. As Conservative MPs filed into the Chamber, party comms staffers pulled them aside to feed them the required lines about how they would react to this news, and there was likely some hasty rewriting of scripts to ensure that they continued to maximize their outrage. Meanwhile, neither the PM nor Andrew Scheer were present, but Bill Morneau was, meaning he would be the target of all of that maximized outrage. Pierre Poilievre led off, intimating a vast conspiracy of numbered accounts that Morneau controlled, and Bill Morneau stood up to give his contrite admission that he could do more, and that he has divested himself of those shares and would keep his Ethics screens in place. Poilievre accused Morneau of being a hypocrite attacking small businesses. Morneau stated that they were working to ensure tax fairness, and that he planned to go beyond the Ethics Commissioner’s recommendations. Poilievre wondered how many times he had to recuse himself (at the press conference, Morneau said twice), and I’m not sure that he reiterated this answer when he repeated his pledge to do better. Alain Rayes was up next to demand in French when he told the PM of his conflicts, and Morneau reminded him that our system has these questions go through the Ethics Commissioner, whom he worked with to ensure there were no conflicts. Rayes asked again, with additional concern trolling about the mandate letters, and Morneau repeated in English this time the same response. Guy Caron was up next for the NDP, accusing Morneau of misleading everyone on his shares. Morneau reminded him that he followed the Commissioner’s guidelines, and when both Caron and Nathan Cullen raised the Morneau Shepell/C-27 conspiracy theory, got much the same answer, and Cullen sanctimoniously repeated Caron’s first question, but Morneau let the message track drop, and accused Cullen of sowing distrust by misrepresenting facts.
Bill Morneau unveiled his latest tweaks to his tax change proposals in New Brunswick today, and it looks like a pretty serious attempt to continue to close the avenues for tax avoidance by means of using Canadian-Controlled Private Corporations, while at the same time trying not to completely dissuade the use of those corporations to help businesses save for rainy days or mat leaves, etcetera – in other words, that he’s taken the concerns seriously. So here are economists Lindsay Tedds and Kevin Milligan to break down the new proposals.
While Bill Morneau was off in New Brunswick to talk tax changes, Justin Trudeau was present for the first time this week, so it was guaranteed to be a gong show. After a moment of silence, Andrew Scheer, led off, mini-lectern on desk, lamenting that Morneau still “controlled” millions of dollars of his own wealth (which I’m not sure is an accurate portrayal of the situation). Trudeau reminded him that Morneau had followed the Ethics Commissioner’s advice, and had additionally just sent her a letter to see if there was anything he could do to go above and beyond her request. After another round of the same in French, Scheer read a portion of Morneau’s mandate letter and demanded to know when Trudeau knew that he was in a conflict of interest. Trudeau reiterated his previous response, calling it the kind of integrity that Canadians expect. Scheer accused Morneau of attacking small businesses while protecting his own wealth. Trudeau returned to questions of tax fairness, and when Scheer pressed, Trudeau produced a copy of the Liberal campaign platform and read that it was a promise made then that they kept. Guy Caron was up for the NDP, and he too pressed on Morneau’s shares, and Trudeau reiterated that Morneau worked with the Ethics Commissioner. Caron proffered the latest conspiracy theory that Morneau tabled Bill C-27 for the sole benefit of his old company, and Trudeau reiterated the Commissioner talking points. Nathan Cullen reiterated the claims in English, and Trudeau tripped up in referring to the Commissioner as the “Conflict of Ethics Commissioner,” to great uproar. Cullen tried again, and got the same answer — including the same slip-up.
Trudeau accuses the opposition of “gutter politics.” #QP
The fixation on Bill Morneau and his family wealth is becoming mind-numbing, with new conspiracy theories and allegations of conflicts of interest arriving daily. While the Conservatives made him the subject of their Supply Day motion, demanding he produce all documents he shared with the Ethics Commissioner while continuing to promulgate the absurd conspiracy theory that he was pushing through the private corporation tax changes for the benefit of his company, while the NDP crowed about more alleged “appearances” of conflicts with his tabling a pension reform bill that his family company could, in theory, benefit from. And the subject of whether or not he still controls shares in said family company went through the media cycle like a tornado, with confirmation from the Ethics Commissioner in committee testimony that she didn’t tell Morneau to place his shares into a blind trust – because, as it turns out, he doesn’t control them, having already offloaded them into a holding company that he doesn’t control (apparently his wife does), and none of this is subject to current rules under the Conflict of Interest Act. In response to it all, Morneau sent a letter to the Commissioner requesting a meeting to see if there’s anything else he can do to further comply with the rules that he’s already complying with per her advice.
Two things here – one is that the Commissioner has raised this exception to the Act in the past, and when the Act last came up for review in 2014, she flagged it then and it wasn’t acted upon. Guess who was in power then? The Conservatives, who also pushed through all of those changes to various accountability legislation in 2009, along with the NDP. The second point is that we have constantly been bombarded with constant baseless accusations about the “appearance” of a conflict of interest for everything under the sun. And with these various conspiracy theories being put forward, even Occam’s Razor will tell you that the idea that these changes being put forward, either to pensions or private corporation taxation, for the benefit of Morneau’s company are absurd on the face of it. Pension reforms have long been debated, and there are reams of data about the problems that these private corporations are being used for reasons they were not intended to be by wealthy individuals in order to avoid taxation. Trying to use Morneau as an excuse to make the government back off on either is absurd and shows just how debased our ability to debate is in this country if debate is being replaced by personal attack. Never mind the fact that there has been a whole lot of crying wolf. If everything is a conflict, then nothing is a conflict. Sooner or later a wolf will come, and nobody will care anymore, having been completely numbed by the constant cries beforehand.
(Incidentally, Dawson also called on the government to amend their fundraising bill to include parliamentary secretaries as those who must report, for what it’s worth).
With the cancellation of the Energy East pipeline by its proponent still fresh in the minds of many Canadians, it was natural that an appearance by Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr in the Senate would prompt a lot of questions. It did not disappoint. Senator Larry Smith led off, wondering about the “evaporation” of energy projects in Canada while the Americans continued to ramp up their own projects. Carr disputed that there was an evaporation, and spoke about the approval of three projects that would create 27,000 jobs and that while they recognized the need to reform the regulatory process, they were approving more projects than they were rejecting. On a supplemental, Smith asked what could be done to better advance Canadian energy security through things like pipelines, and Carr disputed a bit with how it was worded, and noted that the government has certain responsibilities, and upon seeing some shaking heads across the aisle, Carr laid out conditions that have changed since the Energy East pipeline was first proposed, including the price of oil and new approved pipelines including Keystone XL.
While the PM was in Toronto and Bill Morneau in Montreal, it was promising to be an insufferable day in Question Period. Andrew Scheer led off, accusing Morneau of evading Canadian taxes while labelling small businesses as tax cheats (not true), and Bardish Chagger got to stand up to read that Morneau followed the advice of the Ethics Commissioner and that they trust her. Scheer tried again, and Chagger read that they are making changes to their proposals based on what Canadians told them, and hey, lower small business taxes! Scheer switched to English to worry that Morneau didn’t place his shares into a blind trust, and Chagger read another trite statement. They went another round, Chagger trying to play up small business week, and then another round again. Guy Caron was up next, leading for the NDP, raising the supposed conflicts of interest that Morneau was involved in — per the letter that Nathan Cullen sent to the Ethics Commissioner — and Chagger reminded him that they cleared everything with the Commissioner and after another round of the same in French, Cullen got up to reiterate and tried to get Duclos to respond based on pension legislation that could, theoretically, benefit Morneau’s family company, but Chagger gave her stock response. When Cullen chastised her for responding instead of Duclos, the response didn’t change.
The Liberals’ planned rollout of all kinds of “good news” announcements for Small Business Week – reductions in the small business tax rate by 2019, and changes to their planned amendments to Canadian-Controlled Private Corporation (CCPC) rules to crack down on those who use them to avoid paying taxes – were very nearly overshadowed by a Globe and Mail article that cried out that Bill Morneau hadn’t put his shares into a blind trust after all. As it turns out, this was largely a non-story – Morneau followed the advice of the Ethics Commissioner, who felt that because of his particular share structure that he wouldn’t need a blind trust but an ethics screen instead – though there are some added complications around it (see Glen McGregor’s tweets). This after the “revelation” about Morneau’s French villa – not that he had forgotten to disclose it, because he had already – just that he didn’t disclose the particular ownership structure, which is a French corporate structure not uncommon with the ownership of non-commercial real estate, known as a Société Civile Immobilière. Again, a non-story that the opposition (and certain media outlets) pounced upon, trying to make a bigger deal out of them than was merited.
And then there was the Prime Minister’s tax cut announcement at that Stouffville restaurant, and the somewhat bizarre behaviour by Trudeau in the Q&A period after where he tried to answer questions directed at Morneau (no doubt trying to keep control of the message and not let it get railroaded by the non-stories about his villa and shares, but it came off as smarmy). And back in Ottawa, his backbench critics seemed mollified by the morning’s announcements, so we’ll see if that holds in the days ahead. (Not to be outdone by all of the Liberal press shenanigans, Andrew Scheer walked out on a press conference when asked about his former campaign manager’s association with Rebel Media.)
Meanwhile, neither Chantal Hébert nor Andrew Coyne are impressed with the theatrics of this government’s attempt to change the channel on the pummelling they’ve received.
Hours after the mandatory Monday morning Liberal caucus meeting and the presser by Justin Trudeau, Bill Morneau, and Bardish Chagger on small business tax cuts, QP got underway, with the opposition smelling blood in the water. Andrew Scheer led off, mini-lectern on desk, and read a demand in French for clarity on employee discounts as tax benefits. Diane Lebouthillier stood up to say that the document from CRA did not reflect the government’s position, and they would be reviewed. Scheer asked again in English, making a bigger issue out of this being a tax grab, and a Lebouthillier repeated her response in English — a rarity for her (which she has been working on). When Scheer asked yet again, Lebouthillier reiterated her response for a third time, but back again in French. Alain Rayes took another stab at the very same question in French, got the same answer, and then when Rayes tried to insinuate that she didn’t know what was going on in her department, Lebouthillier stuck to her points. Guy Caron was up next for the NDP, and he raised the non-stories of Bill Morneau’s villa in France, and his company shares not being put into a blind trust (never mind that he followed the Ethics Commissioner’s instructions on the ethics screen instead). François-Philippe Champagne stood up to praise the small business tax cuts instead, and on a second question of the same, Champagne reminded him that he followed the guidance of the Ethics Commissioner. Nathan Cullen was up next, and wondered rhetorically about Liberal promise-keeping as damage control. Champagne praised the small business tax cuts instead, given that there wasn’t really a question there. Cullen raised the villa and the lack of blind trust, and Champagne reiterated that Morneau followed the Commissioner’s guidelines.
Lebouthillier has been working on her English, and got applause for it. #QP
After Kady O’Malley suggested last week that the Senate adopt some kind of formal mechanisms to prevent the Senate from indefinitely delaying private members’ bills so that they die on the Order Paper, Senator Frances Lankin wrote this weekend that as much as she wants to see some of those bills get passed, she has no desire to adopt any mechanisms that would constrain debate in the Senate. And while I’m sympathetic to O’Malley’s point to an extent, I think Lankin has it right – and it’s good that she said something, because a lot of the newer senators look to her for guidance given that she is a senator who came into the job with previous legislative experience. The reasons why those bills can face delays are varied, but sometimes it’s legitimate that they do, and I think it would be a mistake to put in a mechanism that would essentially force those bills to be passed – especially as that would create an incentive for governments to start trying to pass difficult agenda items as PMBs (as the Conservatives tried to do on more than a few occasions when they were in power).
Meanwhile, Conservative MP Todd Doherty took to YouTube to bully senators into passing his private members’ bill. This is one of those kinds of stories that bothers me because nowhere in the piece does it mention who the sponsor of the bill in the Senate is, nor does it try to reach out to them to ask them about state of the bill and what efforts they are taking in order to see it passed, and that’s a detail that matters. If it is indeed waiting to come up for debate in committee, that’s not out of the ordinary considering that usually committees are bound to deal with government legislation before they deal with private members’ bills, and they’re the masters of their own destiny. Never mind that the bill itself is of dubious merit – these kinds of PMBs that demand “national strategies” for everything under the sun, no matter how worthy the cause, tend to be little more than feel-good bills that have little impact other than moral suasion, because they can’t oblige a government to spend money, and they figure that demanding a national strategy will push a government to take action. They don’t, but it’s all about optics, and Doherty is really pushing that optics angle.