Roundup: Trudeau laying in the Senate bed he made

There is a renewed round of wailing and gnashing of teeth about the Senate feeling it oats and flexing its muscles, and yesterday it was the Prime Minister doing it. Apparently deliberating and amending bills is fine unless it’s a budget bill, in which case it’s a no go. The problem with that is that of course is that a) there is no constitutional basis for that position, and b) if the whole point of Parliament is to hold the government to account by means of controlling supply (meaning the public purse), then telling one of the chambers that it actually can’t do that is pretty much an existential betrayal. So there’s that.

But part of this is not so much about the actual issue of splitting out the Infrastructure Bank from the budget bill – which Senator Pratte, who is leading this charge, actually supports. Part of the problem is the principle that the Senate isn’t about to let the Commons push it around and tell them what they can and can’t do – that’s not the Commons’ job either. As Kady O’Malley delves into here, the principle has driven the vote (as has the Conservatives doing their level best to oppose, full stop). But some very good points were raised about the principle of money bills in the Senate, and while they can’t initiate them, that’s their only restriction, and they want to defend that principle so that there’s no precent of them backing down on that, and that’s actually important in a parliamentary context.

As for this problem of Trudeau now ruing the independent Senate that he created, well, he gets to lie in the bed that he made. That said, even as much as certain commenters are clutching their pearls about how terrible it is that the Senate is doing their constitutional duties of amending legislation and sending it back, it’s their job. They haven’t substituted their judgment for those of MPs and killed any government bills outright and have pretty much always backed down when the Commons has rejected any of their amendments, and that matters. But it’s also not the most activist that the Senate has ever been, and someone may want to look to the Eighties for when they were really flexing their muscles, enough so that Mulroney had to use the emergency constitutional powers to add an extra eight senators to the Chamber in order to pass the GST – which was a money bill. So perhaps those pearl-clutchers should actually grab a bit of perspective and go lie down on their fainting couch for a while.

On the subject of the Senate, it’s being blamed for why the government hasn’t passed as many bills in its first 18 months as the Harper government had. Apart from the fact that the analysis doesn’t actually look at the kinds of bills that were passed (because that matters), the reason why things tend to be slow in the Senate is because the Government Leader – err, “representative” – Senator Peter Harder isn’t doing his job and negotiating with the other caucuses and groups to have an agenda and move things through. That’s a pretty big deal that nobody wants to talk about.

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Roundup: The disingenuous framing of a committee report

As you may have heard, the Heritage Committee released their long-awaited study on suggested ways to help the local media landscape in Canada. And I’m not here to talk about that, however, but rather how the narrative got completely spun into “Netflix tax!” or “Internet tax!” which wasn’t exactly what they were proposing either. Still, it became a convenient cudgel by which to try and bash the government with.

And that’s the bigger problem with this whole affair – that a committee report is being used to paint the government when it’s backbenchers who are on the committee. That separation between government (meaning Cabinet) and a committee of the legislature is important, and conflating the two is being wilfully disingenuous and makes the problem of not understanding how our parliament works even worse.

Paul and Aaron both have some very valid points. When the opposition frames it as “Netflix tax!” it’s sadly how most media will report it as well, and I didn’t see a lot of corrections going on about what the report actually said, and that’s a problem. But Aaron also has the point about how the media loves to jump on differences of opinion in parties, but when the parties themselves frame the issue, the media often gets swept up in those narratives.

Remember when there were those Conservative backbenchers trying to float some backdoor abortion legislation or motions that the government distanced themselves from but the NDP screamed bloody murder about hidden agendas and so on? This is not far from the same thing. And they know they’re being disingenuous, but they’re doing it anyway, no matter how much they’re actually damaging the perceptions of the institution.

That said, I could be really mean and point out that it may be hard for the Conservatives to tell the difference between backbenchers on a committee and the government seeing as during their decade in office, they essentially turned the committees into branch plants of the ministers’ offices with parliamentary secretaries ringleading the show and completely destroying their independence…but maybe I won’t.

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QP: The non-existent plan for a non-existent tax

Despite it being a Thursday, the only leader in the Commons was Elizabeth May — because reasons. Candice Bergen led off, demanding an admission that the government ignored American warnings about the Norsat sale. Navdeep Bains assured her that they followed the process and took the advice of our security agencies, who did consult. Bergen wasn’t buying it, but Bains reiterated his point about the process before touting improved economic progress thanks to their being open to trade. Bergen then accused the government of proposing an internet tax, which was entirely disingenuous because it wasn’t the government who floated the idea — it was a committee of backbenchers. Mélanie Joly assured her they would not levy such a tax. Alain Rayes asked the same again in French, got the same answer, and then reiterated the Norsat question in French. Bains repeated his previous points in French, reading from a prepared response. Matthew Dubé led for the NDP, wondering when reforms to the Anti-terrorism Act would finally be tabled. Ralph Goodale assured him that new legislation was on the way. Dubé switched to English to ask again, adding in a clause about lawful access. Goodale accused him of trying to spook people with innuendo, and that the legislation would keep Canadians safe while protecting their privacy rights. Brian Masse raised the Norsat sale, and Bains repeated his same answer. Alexandre Boulerice then raised a question of an EI case, and Jean-Yves Duclos asked him to forward him the details so that he could look into it.

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Roundup: A wake-up call on court complacency

The Senate’s legal and constitutional affairs committee released their report on judicial delays yesterday, and while I haven’t made it through the whole report yet, I will say that the highlights are pretty eye-opening.

While you may think that the issue of judicial vacancies is top of mind, it’s actually the culture of complacency that has infected the court system, with inefficient processes, poor case management, an unwillingness by some judges to take their peers to task for granting repeated adjournments, and the list goes on. Yes, judicial vacancies are in there, and this government has excelled in delays for all manner of appointments (witness the backlog of nominations for Officers of Parliament, for example). It’s part of what the Supreme Court of Canada was hoping to get at with the Jordan decision (and may refine that somewhat more with the upcoming decision on Friday), but it’s clear that a lot of processes need to change.

I know there has been some work done, and I’ve written a bit about things like the move to do more summary judgments in some cases rather than going to full trial, and it can work. I just wrote a story last week where it did, and the biggest delay in the case was getting an actual hearing date. But some of the bigger problems remain structural, with things like inadequate mental health services that wind up processing these people through the courts rather than getting them proper treatment, or not having culturally appropriate services for Indigenous offenders which would do more to address their concerns and keep them from recidivism rather than keeping them cycling through the system (or out of jail entirely). Things like legal aid funding are also important to the smooth operation of the system, but one has to wonder if it’s not just giving the court system more resources, but also better drafting laws so that we deal with crime in a better way rather than just trying to look tough on the issues.

Anyway, what I’ve read so far looks good and resonates with what I’ve heard in my own justice reporting, so maybe, just maybe, this government can take some of the recommendations seriously and not just thank them, promise to consult further, and put it on a shelf.

(Incidentally, Christie Blatchford, who covers a lot of trials, is full of praise for the report).

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QP: Performing Norsat outrage

On a very pleasant day in the nation’s capital, things were busy on the Hill between caucus meetings, the marking of the 100th anniversary of the dedication of the new Centre Block (after the original one was destroyed by fire), and after QP, the raising of the Pride flag on Parliament Hill. But first, there was QP. Andrew Scheer led off worrying about the deficit and wondered what the PM was going to do about it. Justin Trudeau was ready, and hit back with the list of ineffective boutique tax credits from the previous government and accused them of having neglected the middle class while his government has created jobs and prompted growth. Scheer moved on, and demanded a public sex offender registry, and Trudeau noted that the system already works. Scheer tried again in English, concern trolling about concerns that the government didn’t have funds to make it public. Trudeau reiterated the current system, and that it was put into place by both the Trudeau and Martin governments while the Harper government’s promise for a public registry was left without framework or funding. Scheer then switched back to French, and worried about the Norsat sale and allied objections. Trudeau insisted that allies were consulted and they listened to the advice of national security agencies. Scheer tried again in English, and Trudeau reiterated his points. Thomas Mulcair was up next, demanding the government support their suggestion on reforming appointments, and Trudeau remarked that they already had a new merit-based process. Mulcair then turned to the Der Spiegel article, and insistence that Trudeau was lying about it, and Trudeau countered with a statement from the German government that the story was wrong. Mulcair then demanded that the journalistic sources protection bill be passed before the end of the term, but Trudeau simply noted their support — which is all he could do because it’s not a government bill and they can’t fast track it. For his final question, Mulcair was concerned about whether Harjit Sajjan misled the Ethics Commissioner on his role with Afghan detainees, and Trudeau reassured him that they take their responsibilities seriously.

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Roundup: Cullen’s plan to launder accountability

The NDP used their Supply Day motion yesterday to call for a new process to vet nominations for Officers of Parliament using a newly created subcommittee of Procedure and House Affairs that would have one member from each recognized party to vet the nominees. And while you may think on the surface that this is innocuous, there are plenty of problems with this proposal that go to the core of our system of Responsible Government.

For starters, the original motion was absolutely a veto, despite Nathan Cullen’s protests, and that’s not entirely appropriate given our system. They negotiated an amendment to remove that section, but the Liberals decided they weren’t going to agree to the motion in any case, which is fine because the veto wasn’t the bigger problem.

The problem is that a committee like this will not actually bring other parties into the process to make it “non-partisan,” but rather, it will launder the government’s responsibility for the appointments so that it becomes impossible to hold them to account when things go wrong. Remember when the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner, Christiane Ouimet, turned out to be a giant problem? Do you remember what the government said when it came up in QP? They said “We consulted and no one raised any objections then – not our problem,” which was untrue. Add this process in, and that “not our problem” becomes baked in. At least this government has enough of a shred of decency when it comes to our parliamentary system to not look to find a new solution to wash their hands of future accountability, because that’s all that this motion offers – aside from the ability for opposition parties to engage in shenanigans of their own on the nomination sub-committee. And this isn’t even mentioning the fact that for many of these Officers, they serve Parliament as a whole, so a process that excludes senators becomes even more problematic for the functioning of our system.

To try and tie this to what happened with Madeleine Meilleur is a bit of a red herring – through the established process, it became clear to everyone (except maybe Mélanie Joly) that Meilleur simply wasn’t suited, most especially after she managed to alienate Anglophone Quebeckers – an extremely difficult thing to do, and yet she managed, and with the Senate lining up to vote against her appointment, it pretty much proves that the existing system worked.

No, this is about this farcical notion that people like Cullen keep pushing about how this is all about “making Parliament work.” It already works when the players involved do their jobs, and creating new processes creates added complications and unintended consequences, like the laundering of accountability, which nobody thinks about or raises as an issue because few people bother to learn how the system works. This Americanized suggestion is flash in the pan, trying to capitalize on what was clearly a blunder that the existing system nevertheless corrected. And if people had any good sense, they’d stop listening to Nathan Cullen’s attempts to “improve” our democracy.

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QP: Concern about summer vacations

The day was not as hot as yesterday, but tempers were indeed starting to fray in the House of Commons with the threat of procedural shenanigans hanging in the air. Andrew Scheer led off, saying that the PM was eager to get away for summer vacation but lo, there were all kinds of new taxes. Trudeau noted that his summer vacation plans included touring the various federal parks around the country, which were all free, and oh, he lowered taxes on the middle class. Scheer then switched to French to demand a publicly accessible sex offender registry, to which Trudeau noted the existing system worked just fine. Scheer tried again in English, and got the same answer. Scheer turned to the Norsat sale in French, and Trudeau assured him that they listened to their national security agencies and allies. They went another round of the same in English, before Thomas Mulcair got up to ask the same question in English. Trudeau reiterated his response, and Mulcair insisted the answer was “demonstrably false.” Mulcair hammered away in French, but Trudeau stuck to his points about due diligence. Mulcair then demanded the government adopt the NDP’s proposed nomination process for officers of parliament, but Trudeau insisted that they already adopted a new process that got more meritorious diverse appointments. Mulcair tried again in French, but got the same response.

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Roundup: The looming retirement of the Chief Justice

Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin announced yesterday that she would be retiring on December 15th, a few months in advance of her mandatory retirement date, in order to give the government enough time to find a suitable replacement. Why that date is significant is because it will be at the end of the Court’s fall sitting, letting her use the next six months that she is able to clear off the files from her desk and work on any outstanding judgments rather than depart mid-sitting and the organizational chaos that would follow.

The next steps are now an important consideration. The government will not only have to name a new Chief Justice, but a new judge from Western Canada (and likely BC given that’s where McLachlin was appointed from). And in order to keep gender balance on the court it will likely have to be a woman, and in accordance with this government’s push for diversity, it will likely be a person of colour, if not someone Indigenous (and let us not forget that said person must also be fluently bilingual, which is another self-imposed criteria that this government has made for itself). This may be easier to find in BC than it was in Atlantic Canada, mind you. And for Chief Justice? My money is on Justice Richard Wagner, whom I know many close the court have already tapped as being the successor if they had their druthers.

Of course, we’ll see if this government can get an appointment process back up and running within the six months. Experience has shown us that they seem to have difficulty with that, especially as there are still some sixty or so federally appointed judicial vacancies still remaining around the country, and a few of the Judicial Advisory Committees charged with finding candidates for said vacancies still not fully appointed either, which is a problem. Of course, they may be able to largely reconstitute the committee that oversaw the nomination of Justice Rowe, with Kim Campbell again in charge of the process, but I guess we’ll see how long that takes.

For more reaction, here’s Emmett Macfarlane on As It Happens and in the Ottawa Citizen, and Carissima Mathen on Power Play.

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QP: Carbon taxes and foreign takeovers

On a sweltering day in Ottawa, things carried on as usual in the House of Commons. Andrew Scheer led off, railing about carbon taxes killing the manufacturing sector, never mind that in his Ontario example, it was a provincial carbon price. Justin Trudeau hit back with jibes that it was good to see that most of the aconservaties believed in the Paris Accords and that carbon pricing was good for the market. Scheer groused that they would meet the targets without a carbon price, before moving onto the Norsat sale and lack of a comprehensive security screening. Trudeau reminded him that they took the advice of national security agencies. Scheer took a second kick, needling that Trudeau admired Chinese dictatorship too much to care about national security, and Trudeau lashed back that partisan jibes like that were unworthy of this place. Denis Lebel was up next, demanding a non-partisan process to appoint parliamentary watchdogs, and Trudeau noted their new appointments and rattled off some of the diversity of the new reports. Lebel tried again in English, and got the same answer. Thomas Mulcair was up next, asking if the Der Spiegel article was true that the government was backing away from climate goals at the G20. Trudeau insisted that they have been climate leaders and pointed to examples. Mulcair pressed, and Trudeau was unequivocal that he did not say what was in the article. Mulcair then turned to the issue of court cases involving First Nations children and dialled up the sanctimony to 11, and Trudeau noted the memorandum of understanding he signed with the AFN this morning about moving forward on steps. Mulcair demanded that the NDP bill on UNDRIP be adopted, but Trudeau insisted they were moving forward in consultation (never mind that said bill is almost certainly of dubious constitutionality).

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Roundup: Not seeing the cannon fodder

After thinking a bit more about it, and seeing some of the reaction over the Twitter Machine over the weekend, I find myself coming back to Chantal Hébert’s weekend column about Trudeau treating his rookie ministers like cannon fodder, and I really have a hard time with it. Part of why I have difficulty is because it ignores some of the actual day-to-day realities as to why there were so many rookies in cabinet, which was that there were not a lot of veterans to choose from, and in order to maintain regional and gender balance, while still ensuring that you had enough veterans to do the other jobs of being a party in power, like having committee chairs who had some experience, then of course you were going to have rookies in cabinet. As well, the fact that Trudeau is behaving far more in the ethos of government by cabinet than his predecessor means that some of these rookies are going to be saddled with responsibility (and yes, this is a far less centrally-controlled cabinet, as I’ve spoken to staffers who used to work at Queen’s Park and have regaled us with the vast differences between how things operated between them).

I also find the implicit notion that it’s young women ministers being thrown under the bus to be a problem, because I’m not so sure we’d hear the same complaints if it were a male minister who has been handed a tough file and it doesn’t go according to the expectations of the pundit class. Yes, Joly made a bad call with Madeleine Meilleur, but I would hardly call Joly incapable, and she is juggling a lot of other files on her plate at the moment. She’s not incompetent, and Trudeau hasn’t thrown her under any bus. Maryam Monsef? She handled a file that was basically a flaming bag of dog excrement and managed to come out intact with a promotion to a line department with a hefty agenda (whereas “Democratic institutions” is a make-work project with staff assigned from PCO). Monsef did her job, better than most people give her credit for, and the fact that the Rosemary’s Baby that was electoral reform got smothered in the cradle is not a black mark on her because she didn’t micromanage the committee. The fact that the Liberals on that committee dropped the ball and didn’t make their own case, and in fact let themselves be railroaded by the other parties is not Monsef’s fault (though one has to wonder how much blame to assign to her for letting Nathan Cullen manipulate her into accepting the “proportional” nonsense in committee make-up that doomed it). If anyone blames Karina Gould for electoral reform being cancelled, they’re the ones at fault – not Gould. Trudeau made that call (rightfully), and has taken his lumps for it. And if Hébert or anyone else (like Ed Broadbent for one) thinks that these poor young women should have been either kept out of cabinet instead of being given difficult files and a chance to prove themselves because they’re women, then I think that’s a bigger problem. I’m not seeing any cannon fodder – just some ministers doing their best with some of the problems handed to them.

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