I have to wonder if Government Leader in the Senate – err, “Government Representative” – Senator Peter Harder is starting to get a bit nervous about the viability of his proposal to reform the Senate rules, as he has started reaching out to sympathetic voices in order to give him some attention on the pages of the newspaper. We’ve seen two such examples in recent days, with a wholly problematic column from John Ibbitson over the weekend in the Globe and Mail, and now some unwarranted praise from Harder’s old friend from their mutual days in the Mulroney government, retired senator Hugh Segal. While Ibbitson’s column was a complete head-scratcher if you know the first thing about the Senate – they don’t need to “prove their value” because they do so constantly (hell, the very first bill of this parliament they needed to send back because the Commons didn’t do their jobs properly and sent over a bill missing a crucial financial schedule, but hey, they passed it in 20 minutes with zero scrutiny). And it was full of praise for the process of Bill C-14 (assisted dying), which is Harder’s go-to example of how things “should” work, which is a problem. And Segal’s offering was pretty much a wholesale endorsement of Harder’s pleading for a “business committee” to do the job he’s apparently unable to do through simple negotiation, so that’s not a real surprise either. But as I’ve written before, the Senate has managed to get bills passed in a relatively timely manner for 150 years without a “Business committee” because its leadership knew how to negotiate with one another, and just because Harder is apparently not up to that task, doesn’t mean we should change the rules to accommodate him.
Also: If your only example of the Senate’s good work is the assisted dying bill, then you’re REALLY not paying attention.
Meanwhile, there is some definite shenanigans being played by the Conservatives in the Senate in their quest to have an inquiry into the Bombardier loan, and their crying foul when it wasn’t immediately adopted, and wouldn’t you know it, they had a press release ready to go. Conservative Senator Leo Housakos was called out about this over the weekend by Independent Senator Francis Lankin, and while Housakos continues on his quest to try and “prove” that the new appointees are all just Trudeau lackeys in all-but-name, Housakos’ motion may find its match in Senator André Pratte, who wants to expand it to examine other loans so as not to play politics over Bombardier. No doubt we’ll see some added fireworks on this as over the week as the Senate continues its debate.
With the PM still in France, most of the other leaders didn’t bother showing up either today, which places more doubt in their howling insistence that the QP is so important that the PM should be there daily. But I digress… Denis Lebel led off, asking about an accused murderer released based on the Jordan decision fallout. Jody Wilson-Raybould insisted that they had taken steps to ensure that there was a transparent, merit-based process, and more judges would be appointed soon. Lebel moved onto softwood lumber and the lack of progress — never mind that there is no trade representative appointed in the States — and François-Philippe Champagne insisted that they were working the provinces and working to engage the Americans. Lebel pivoted to the question of Syria and doing something about Assad, and Champagne said that Assad must be held accountable for his war crimes and Canada was committed to humanitarian assistance, refugee resettlement, and ensuring a peaceful Syria. Candice Bergen picked it up in English, accused the government of shifting positions, and wondered how hey planned to institute regime change. Champagne repeated his response in English, never quite answering the regime change question. Bergen then moved onto the Standing Orders, demanding any changes be made by consensus. Chagger gave a bland response about the necessity to have a serious conversation. Thomas Mulcair was up next, and wondered how many court cases had been thrown out because of delays. Wilson-Raybould reiterated her plan to appoint new judges, but didn’t answer the question. Mulcair asked why the delays in French, and Wilson-Raybould said that she was meeting with provinces to discuss the issues of delays in order to find a coordinated approach to tackling them. Mulcair moved onto problems with the military justice system, and Navdeep Bains responded that they were planning to work on ensuring reforms to that system. Mulcair sniped that Bains answered, then moved onto veterans’ pensions, and Ralph Goodale asserted that they would have an announcement later this year.
Oh, Bardish Chagger. So very earnest in her desire to try and change the Standing Orders to try and prevent the excesses and abuses of the Conservative era that she’s ready to be her most ham-fisted in order to get it done. In an interview with The West Block this weekend, she said that she wasn’t going to hand over a veto to the Conservatives about these reforms, which means she’s doubling down about ensuring that any rule changes happen by consensus, and so I guess we’ll see the filibuster carry on in committee, and yet more egregious privilege debates and various other procedural shenanigans by the other opposition parties in the hopes that she backs down. So far, that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen.
If I had my druthers, I would tell Chagger to stick to two simple points – omnibus bills, and prorogation. And specifically, the proposal to restore prorogation ceremonies, and take those two suggestions to the opposition parties, and just get them to agree to those. Those are the only two suggestions that are workable and doable (and prorogation ceremonies are in fact something that I recommend restoring in The Unbroken Machine), because that’s rolling back a change that happened in order to “streamline” things a couple of decades ago, and it’s a necessary tool for transparency and accountability. And omnibus bill restrictions are an obvious change that anyone can see as being necessary after the abuses of the 41st parliament.
But as I’ve stated before, on numerous occasions, any other suggestion that Chagger makes in her discussion paper is unnecessary and will cause more harm than good, because the underlying changes that need to happen are cultural, not structural. The problem is that it’s hard to sell MPs on this, especially when they keep using the phrases “modernize” and “21st century workplace” as though the terms meant something. And she keeps using them. Over. And over. And over. And it’s driven me to the point of complete distraction. But because Chagger is doubling down, I have the sinking feeling that it’s going to be yet another week of apocalyptic language and procedural gamesmanship and nothing will get done. Because that’s the state of things right now, and no amount of rule changes will actually fix that.
It was certainly the first time in almost nine years of covering the Hill that I saw the Prime Minister attend Friday QP. Granted, this was owing to the rather urgent circumstances of the missile strikes on Syria, and in all fairness to the PM, he could have just marched down to the Foyer, made his statement with a backdrop of a smattering of MPs who are present and not on House Duty, and then march back up to his office without taking questions, but he didn’t. While the plan had been for him to make the statement in the Commons, he instead incorporated it into QP so that the opposition could ask him questions about it, and he did answer what he could. And after QP, Harjit Sajjan used the Ministerial Statements portion of the Order Paper to reiterate the message, and allow opposition parties to make their replies, all in the House of Commons. This matters.
It’s also done in the backdrop of the debate on whether or not to eliminate Friday sittings, and of opposition MPs howling daily that it would be unconscionable for to eliminate the day because it meant that the government would be shielding itself from accountability, and people demand MPs to be in Ottawa, and this was all an attempt by the PM to get an extra day off, and so on. As far as apocalyptic talking points go, it’s terrible, but what gets me is that in the midst of all of these protestations about how important Friday is, the opposition ranks were mighty thin today, and not one other leader was present – not even Elizabeth May.
For an opposition so worried about Friday sittings, their ranks are really thin today. #QP
You would think that while they are wailing and gnashing their teeth about Friday sittings that the opposition could at least have the gumption to make a better show of attending on Fridays, to at least pretend that they care about how important Fridays are. But they didn’t.
And don’t get me wrong – I think they should keep Friday sittings. I’m even fine with it staying a half-day because I get that MPs have some distance to travel to get home to their ridings. And you can, theoretically, get plenty of work done on a half-day, especially if they’re abiding by proper Westminster debate formatting and not just speechifying into the void. And today proved that sometimes, circumstances intervene and it’s a good way to address the public while respecting the importance of Parliament. I’m just disappointed that the very MPs who keep protesting how important it is can’t be bothered to demonstrate it with actions instead of hollow words.
If there’s one thing that we’re talking about right now that’s not the interminable Standing Orders debate, it’s Senator Lynn Beyak, of the “well intentioned residential schools” remarks, which came shortly after her incomprehensible remarks about trans people while saying that good gays don’t like to cause waves. And after being removed from the Senate’s Aboriginal Peoples committee, she put out a press release that didn’t really help her cause.
Of course, the more we talk about Beyak in the media and demand that Something Must Be Done about her, the more it’s going to embolden her and her supporters. The fact that she’s starting to martyr herself on the cause of “opposing political correctness” is gaining her fans, including Maxime Bernier, whom she is supporting in the leadership. Bernier says he doesn’t agree with her statement about residential schools, but he’s all aboard her “political correctness” martyrdom. Oh, and it’s causing some of the other Conservative senators to close ranks around her, because that’s what starts to happen when someone on their team is being harassed (and before you say anything, my reading of Senator Ogilvie’s “parasites” comment was more dark humour in the face of this situation than anything, and reporters taking to the Twitter Machine to tattle and whinge makes We The Media look all the worse).
But seriously, Beyak is not an important figure. She’s marginal at best within her own party, and her comments have marginalized her position further. But the more that people continue to howl about her, or post e-petitions demanding that the government remove her (which is unconstitutional, by the way), the more she turns herself into a martyr on this faux-free speech platform that is attracting all manner of right-wing trolls, the more she will feel completely shameless about her words. We’ve shone the spotlight, but sometimes we also need to know when to let it go and let obscurity reclaim her.
How did this Beyak thing turn into a free speech issue? Was she arrested? Jailed? Fined?
With Justin Trudeau off to New York, none of the other leaders decided to show up for QP today, so way to go for their insistence that all MPs should show up five days a week. Pierre Poilievre led off, demanding that the loan conditions to Bombardier to be reopened to ban the money from bonuses, to which Jean-Yves Duclos assured him that they were trying to grow the economy with key investments to the aerospace industry. Poilievre railed about the company’s family share structure, but Duclos’ answer didn’t change. Poilievre then moved onto the cancellation of tax credits, to which François-Philippe Champagne opted to answer, reminding him about their tax cuts. Gérard Deltell got up next to demand a balanced budget in the other official language, and Champagne reiterated his previous response. Deltell then worried that there was nothing in the budget for agriculture, and after a moment of confusion when Duclos stood up first, Lawrence MacAulay stood up to praise all kinds of measures in the budget. Sheila Malcolmson led off for the NDP, demanding childcare and pay equity legislation immediately. Maryam Monsef proclaimed that the budget was the most feminist budget in history, and listed off a number of commitments. Marjolaine Boutin-Sweet repeated the question in French, and Monsef listed off yet more budget commitments. Boutin-Sweet pivoted over to the changes to the Standing Orders, and Bardish Chagger deployed her “modernization” talking points, with some added self-congratulation about yesterday’s proto-PMQs. Murray Rankin demanded a special committee on modernization, and Chagger insisted she wanted to hear their views, but would not agree to a committee.
And so the filibuster over potential changes to the Standing Orders rolls on, with no end in sight. Opposition House leaders presented an open letter yesterday calling for a new special committee to examine the issue with an eye to ensuring that it only comes out with recommendations achieved by consensus, but I’m not sure how bright of an idea that really is. After all, they’ll demand that it be composed in a similar manner to the Electoral Reform committee (to be faux-“proportional” and to get buy-in from the Bloc and Elizabeth May, naturally), and they’ll spend months and months hearing all kinds of expert testimony about how great parliamentary or legislative rules are in other countries only to doubtlessly come up with some the same kind of non-consensus that the ERRE report did, that every party will walk away from.
Bardish Chagger isn’t backing down, incidentally, and keeps insisting she wants a dialogue but won’t commit to consensus, probably because a) the committee look into making the Commons more “family friendly” wound up being a bust – which is for the best, really; and b) because she wants to try and fulfil the half-baked election promise about doing some kind of parliamentary reform, never mind that no reform is actually necessary of the kind that she’s proposing (with the exception of restoring prorogation ceremonies – that one we do need).
But I will reiterate yet again that our problem is cultural. Looking at rule changes won’t fix the underlying cultural problems, and this will be just another months-long waste of time when what all parties need to be doing is getting back to the core of Westminster parliamentarianism, and doing the sensible things of banning scripts and speaking lists, throwing out the time limits that obligate MPs to fill the time rather than engaging in spontaneous debate, and actually taking the legislative process seriously, which means ending the insane (and inane) focus on endless Second Reading debate. Repeating the ERRE exercise for the Standing Orders is just a black hole to be avoided, and all parties should back away from this fight (especially the Liberals).
For caucus day, the benches were largely filled, and the PM was indeed present before heading off for London, Ontario. Rona Ambrose led off, asking about a response to the chemical weapon attack in Syria. Justin Trudeau, with a more uncharacteristic script in front of him, read a statement of condemnation and promises of humanitarian assistance and noted Chrystia Freeland’s presence at a conference where the issue is being discussed. Ambrose asked about the reports that our allies didn’t object to pulling our CF-18s out of Iraq, and Trudeau, this time without script, talked about discussions with allies and finding better ways to help, which they found. Ambrose asked again, wondering if the PM was simply misinformed, but Trudeau stood firm that their new mission was well received. Ambrose moved onto the issue of Bombardier and a muddled question on tax hikes, and Trudeau reverted to some fairly standard talking points about middle class tax cuts and hiking them on the one percent. For her final question, Ambrose accused the PM of handing bonuses to Bombardier while not funding families with autism, but Trudeau was not easily baited, and spoke about how much they support families with autism. From the NDP, Murray Rankin and Marjolaine Boutin-Sweet led off by bellyaching about changes to the Standing Orders, and Trudeau spoke sweepingly about looking to do better and looking for cooperation with other parties. Boutin-Sweet and Alistair MacGregor then turned to demands to criminalize marijuana, to which Trudeau reminded them that decriminalization doesn’t protect children nor does it stop criminals from profiting.
As is becoming a daily occurrence, we have yet another voice weighing in on the Standing Orders debate, and this time, it’s the mover of the motion that’s causing so much Sturm und Drang in the House of Commons (and the Procedure and House Affairs committee) right now – Scott Simms. Simms, I believe quite earnestly, insists that we need to give reform a chance, and he lists all of the wonderful things he hopes to happen out of Bardish Chagger’s discussion paper, and I believe he’s earnest because he has recently co-edited a book on parliamentary reform with noted notoriously wrong-headed would-be reformers Michael Chong and Kennedy Stewart.
Of course, nothing in these proposals will fix what ails parliament, and will only create more problems than it solves. We’ve established this time and again, and I’ve written a book to this effect, but the problems are not structural. MPs, however, don’t necessarily see that because they’re trapped in a sick and dysfunctional parliamentary culture and looking around for fixes, they see some levers that look easy to pull, never mind that those levers will make things worse. Digging into the underlying cultural problems are harder to see and do, and that’s why MPs have been assiduously avoiding them, but we shouldn’t let them get away with it. Granted, it would be far more helpful if more members of the media could see that fact as well and not get lured by the shiny reform ideas that keep getting floated around, followed by the drama of the outrage, which is all too easy to get sucked into. Because who doesn’t love drama?
So with all due respect to Simms, no, the time for being open-minded about these reform ideas has passed. We’ve lurched from one bad reform idea to another for the past half century (century if you want to count the granddaddy of all disastrous reforms, which the Liberals promulgated in 1919 when they changed the leadership selection process) and things haven’t gotten any better. It’s time to take that hard look at where things are situated, and means slapping MPs’ hands away from those shiny, easy-looking levers. It’s time to have a meaningful re-engagement with the system, and nothing in these discussion paper ideas does that. In fact, it does the opposite.
After delays from a number of votes in the Commons, Senate QP finally got underway, with special guest star Kent Hehr, minister of veterans affairs. Senator Larry Smith, the new Conservative leader, led off for his first time. Instead of asking the minister, however, he turned his questions to the Government Leader — err, “representative,” Senator Harder, for his remarks to CBC last week about “two classes of senators.” Harder assured him that it was not his intent to insinuate that all senators were not equal. He did not apologize, and Smith pressed the issue, and Harder talked about collaboration across the chamber but there was a different appointment process, and then gave a half-hearted apology for those who were offended by his words. Senator Plett got up to carry on the jabs at Harder, who kept insisting that he was trying to work collaboratively.