QP: Discounts and French villas

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.

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Roundup: No constraints, please

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.

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Roundup: The orgy of unforced errors

Word has gone out to Liberal MPs that there will be a mandatory caucus meeting first thing on Monday morning – a rarity given that mostly they wait until Wednesdays (especially as it makes it harder for those MPs who are from remote ridings to get there). The only thing that we know so far is that both Bill Morneau and the PM will be there, and the speculation is that it will outline the changes to their proposed tax changes based on consultations, but one can also assume that this is going to be about the ongoing self-harm that the government has been inflicting on itself over the various tax stories.

And what self-harm it’s been. On Friday, it was revealed that Bill Morneau forgot to declare that he also has interest in a company that owns a villa in France, and you can bet that the Conservatives took to this like a pack of dogs to fresh meat. This after the way that they refused to punch back against the gross distortions being promulgated about the proposed changes to the rules around Canadian-Controlled Private Corporations (CPCCs), or the refusal to provide real clarification around the CRA “folio” on certain employee discounts, preferring in each case to mouth the pabulum about fairness for the middle class. (Cute fact: the CRA “folio” has been up for months, was briefly discussed in the Commons finance committee last month, but only turned into a major crisis after a piece in the Globe and Mail. Because that’s now the Opposition Research Bureau, and it’s where the Conservatives take their daily outrage marching orders from, too lazy or incompetent to do their own research anymore).

And then there’s the added outrage over the fact that the government spent $221,000 on the cover of this year’s federal budget. Oh, how terrible and outrageous, and look at how plain the cover of Paul Martin’s budgets were, and then the Conservative chorus chimes in and makes these snide remarks about comparing the spending priorities between the two governments – completely ignoring the fact that they chose instead to spend even more thousands of dollars staging photo ops off of Parliament Hill to make announcements or give speeches where the Liberals will do it in the House of Commons, where they should be. Lindsay Tedds, mind you, offered up a sort of defence for why the Liberals may have chosen to go with this particular route on a budget design, which those in the throes of a paroxysm of cheap outrage, remain blinkered about.

So I guess we’ll see what emerges from that caucus meeting. Will they emerge with some better means of communicating their plans that won’t just involve more pat phrases about the middle class, and would maybe let them engage in some actual, authentic conversations that will push back against some of the nonsense being thrown around? Or will Trudeau lay down the law on his restless backbench and double down on the talking points that blandly say nothing at all, while they continue to let the Conservatives set the narrative using their own particular brand of spin, misdirection, and distortion? I guess we’ll have to see.

Meanwhile, here’s Colby Cosh raining down hellfire on that $210,000 budget cover, Chantal Hébert on the fire that Bill Morneau is taking, Andrew MacDougall on the Liberal’s inability to communicate their changes, and Paul Wells sees the continued litany of unforced errors as putting the government in danger of alienating the middle class that it so vocally venerates.

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Roundup: Cozy think tank takedowns

Over on Maclean’s yesterday was a longread “exposé” of Canada 2020 as an arm of the federal Liberal party which is exerting all manner of influence, and how potentially inappropriate that may be. But after reading the piece, I found it less a convincing exploration of the think tank than it was simply a recitation of names with “links” to the Liberals, followed by Duff Conacher’s railing about how awful it all is.

Pro tip: If your story relies on Duff Conacher’s analysis of government misdeeds, then it’s probably not worth reading. Conacher is a noted crank who has a history of distorting issues and losing court battles, and who has a number of particularly harmful ideological agendas that involve the destruction of the Canadian Crown, the Westminster system, making all prerogatives justiciable, and one supposes the installation of a Parliamentary Thought Police with himself at the head. (Note: I have had to quote Conacher for stories in the past, but have limited those interactions to narrow questions of ethics legislation rather than the breadth of topics that other rely on his analysis for, just as Anne Kingston does here). In other words, it’s the laziest possible journalist trick in Canada if you want to write a story that makes any government look bad, and you won’t get any meaningful analysis of the issue.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t questions that can be raised about Canada 2020’s cozy relationship with the Liberal Party – but I would say that it’s in all likelihood no more nefarious than the kinds of ideological alignment between something like the Fraser Institute and the Conservative Party, and it’s no more incestuous than the Broadbent Institute is with the NDP (to the point where Broadbent’s PressProgress “news” service is simply a branch of the party’s opposition research bureau).

Part of the problem is that political parties in Canada have looked south with this particular kind of envy about the think tank networks in Washington as something that should be emulated, without necessarily realizing that the American think tank network is intrinsically linked to the fact that their civil service is far more partisan than Canada’s, and that the usual cycle is for parties who aren’t in power to send their senior staffers to bide their time in said think tanks, and when they return to power, they fill their upper civil service ranks from those think tanks, while those who’ve lost power fill their own think tank ranks, and on it goes. That’s not how things work in Canada, and the need for said think tanks is not the same. There has also been talk from some partisans about how they need these think tanks to help them develop policies, as thought that wasn’t the job of the parties’ grassroots membership. So I do think we need to rethink the whole “think tank” system in Canada writ-large and what parties are expecting of them – especially when it comes to policy development – but I’m not sure that this story is doing that job.

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Roundup: A failure to communicate

The state of the “debate” around this latest round of tax nonsense in Canada has me despairing for the state of discourse in this country. From the CRA’s opaque memo, to the Conservatives’ disingenuous and frankly incendiary characterization, followed up by terrible government communications and attempts at damage control (Scott Brison doing the rounds on the political shows last night was painful to watch), and throughout it all, shoddy and inadequate reporting on the whole thing has me ready to cast a pox on all of their houses. If anything was more embarrassing than Brison’s inability to explain the issue while reciting well-worn talking points on the middle class, it was David Cochrane quoting the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and asking if MPs need to reconsider their own benefits in light of this.

Hermes wept.

It also wasn’t until yesterday that CTV came up with an actual good fact-check on the issue, what it actually relates to (including how it relates to a 2011 Tax Court decision), and how it’s not targeting the bulk of the retail sector. But that took days to get, during which time we’ve been assaulted by all manner of noise. News stories in the interim that interviewed MPs and the Retail Council of Canada were distinctly unhelpful because they did nothing to dissect the actual proposals, which were technical and difficult to parse, so instead of being informed about the issues, we got rhetoric, which just inflames things. And I get that it’s tough to get tax experts over a long weekend, but Lyndsay Tedds tweeted a bunch of things on it that should have pointed people in the right direction, rather than just being a stenographer for the Conservative hysteria/government “nothing to see here, yay Middle class!” talking points.

Here’s a look at how the government scrambled to get a better message out around the Canada Infrastructure Bank, in order to combat those same media narratives. Because apparently neither side is learning any lessons here.

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Roundup: A reminder of why debate matters

While I haven’t been following the trial in Sudbury around those non-criminal bribery charges related to the provincial by-election, aside from Chris Selley’s columns on the topic, it was something that he tweeted from the courtroom yesterday that piqued my interest because it’s something I deal with a fair amount in writing both about law and politics. Part of the issue raised is that these sections of the law that the trial is proceeding under have never been tested before.

We see these kinds of bills passed not infrequently federally that are passed at all stages with no debate. This is usually where the Senate picks up the slack and does the actual heavy lifting, but not always. Sure, there are a few bills that are relatively non-contentious, related to national parks and such (to think of an example or two off the top of my head), but some that matter – like the changes to royal succession in Canadian law – got no debate in the Commons despite it being a fairly fundamental problem that the law as passed effectively reduced Canada’s status to that of a colony once again.

But the point I make is that the courts will often turn to Parliament for guidance in what it is they should be interpreting. That means looking to debates and committee transcripts to try to divine just what it is that Parliament intended when they passed the bill so that the judge can rule one way or the other in clarifying the meaning. And if you have no such debates – like in this Ontario statute – well, that’s a real problem. It’s also a reason why I will frequently harp on why the Senate matters so much is because they not only will offer some debate in instances where the Commons offers none, but it’s where committee testimony becomes most crucial, especially when it comes to hearing from witnesses that people object to (as happened with the trans rights bill) – because they want it on the record that they heard and dismissed these concerns should they eventually be litigated.

Parliament is supposed to matter, and MPs (and MPPs in this particular instance) do themselves and the province or country they serve a real disservice when they don’t do the job of putting things on the record. And I’ll say that the issue going on in Ontario right now with the bubble law around abortion clinics is another such issue. The provincial Progressive Conservatives offered to pass the bill at all stages – eager to get it off the agenda so that it minimizes the divisions in their ranks on the issue, and the Liberals refused, wanting instead to hear from those it affects. While the cynical calculation is that this is the Liberals playing politics – and to an extent it really is – it’s also the responsible thing to do, so that we get some debate and testimony on the record, so that when this legislation is inevitably challenged, there is a record for the courts to turn to. And yes, that matters beyond the petty politicking.

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Roundup: No conflict to investigate

For all of the ink spilled and concerns trolled in Question Period, the Morneau-Shepell conspiracy theory is turning into a big fat zero for the Conservatives. Why? It seems that for all of the “appearance of conflict of interest” that they’re trying to drum up and selective laying out of facts in true conspiracy theory style (with the added cowardice of hiding behind the so-called “experts” who laid them out in committee testimony), the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner herself is shrugging it off.

“There does not appear to be reasonable grounds at this time for the Commissioner to launch an examination under the Conflict of Interest Act or an inquiry under the Conflict of Interest Code for Members of the House of Commons,” said the Commissioner’s spokesperson, and added that they won’t bother investigating investigate “if there is no specific information to suggest that a provision of the Act or the Code may have been contravened.”

And guess who isn’t putting up any specific information that would suggest an actual conflict of interest? The Conservatives. They’re still “gathering information,” which is cute, because why bother filing anything formally when you can make all manner of accusations and cast as much aspersion as possible under the protection of the privilege of the House of Commons, that will be reported uncritically? After all, this is “just politics,” and you can worry about the “appearance” of conflicts all you want on flimsy to no evidence, while facing no consequences whatsoever. It’s tiresome, but it’s the kind of sad drama that we seem to be subsisting on rather than substantive debate on the issues and the actual concerns that appeared around those tax proposals. Such is the sad state of affairs these days.

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Roundup: The demise of Energy East

The news that TransCanada decided to cancel their plans for the Energy East pipeline yesterday created a predictable firestorm of reaction, from the gloating of Montreal mayor Denis Coderre, outgoing Saskatchewan premier getting in his last kicks, to the histrionics of the Conservative caucus. The government’s line is market conditions have changed since the project was first proposed – and they’re entirely correct. But that doesn’t stop the rhetoric, either from TransCanada itself, or from the Conservatives, who are peddling some incredulous, mind-boggling lines to vilify the government.

But seriously, there are plenty of charts and graphs that show how the market conditions have changed beyond just the world price of oil (which is a bit part of it), but that the capacity with the other approved pipelines changes the equation for the hole that Energy East would have filled, and it’s no longer clear that it was a clear-cut decision after all.

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Also, it should be mentioned that as much as TransCanada is blaming government regulation, they did balls this up on their own end more than once, and do need to take some of the blame along the way. But why take that blame when you can shake your fist at the government?

And this having been said, there is a proud Alberta tradition that is underlying all of this. Because some zombies refuse to die.

Meanwhile, Paul Wells looks at the current record of the government in trying to attract investment, and wonders if we really are a place that will get the big things built, or if it will all collapse in tears and recriminations, driving investors away.

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QP: Energy East and Barbados

After the Energy East cancellation announcement this morning, you just knew that this would be the fodder for increasingly hysterical denunciations during QP today. Justin Trudeau was present, but Andrew Scheer was not, so it remained to be seen how this would play out.

Lisa Raitt led off instead, mini-lectern on desk, blaming the government for killing Energy East with their ideology. Justin Trudeau responded that it was a business decision, that the project was proposed when oil was $90/barrel and it’s now half that, but that his government had already approved three other pipelines. Raitt accused the government of playing to the interests of countries like Saudi Arabia, and Trudeau shrugged off that suggestion. Raitt then accused him of taking Atlantic Canada for granted with this cancellation. Trudeau countered that they had an Atlantic growth strategy and that it was the previous government that ignored them. Gérard Deltell then took over the condemnation of the loss of Energy East in French, and Trudeau reiterated that conditions have changed, also in French. Deltell then said that Trudeau was responsible for conditions changing, as though Trudeau controls the world price of oil, and Trudeau instead responded about the ways that they have been doing what the market has been asking for, including carbon pricing. Guy Caron was up next, pointing to the recent PBO report on fiscal sustainability, and demanded that healthcare be adequately funded for the provinces. Trudeau touted the investments that they made in mental health and home care. In English, Caron demanded a national strategy for seniors, to which Trudeau listed all of the measures that they have taken. Caron then changed topics to the Phoenix pay system, demanding a refund for it. Trudeau noted that they were working with the public service and the unions to fix the situation, and then there was another round of the same in French.

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Roundup: Looking to punish a maverick

One Liberal MP broke ranks from and voted for the Conservatives’ Supply Day motion on extending the consultation period on the tax changes, and the media has spent the day salivating over it, and as has become usual, is playing the role of party whip better than the party whip himself. Because drama!

Said MP, Wayne Long, conspicuously made himself absent from national caucus yesterday morning, and made himself available to media, so it’s clear that he’s being a maverick and pushing his luck rather than keeping his head down and falling into line, but at the same time, I wonder if the fact that the media makes a Big Deal of these kinds of incidents just amplifies what he did (which shouldn’t be a big deal given that it wasn’t a confidence vote), but was simply a rather performative protest motion by the Conservatives as part of their campaign to sow confusion into the tax discussion. But my concern is that when the media goes out of their way to make a Big Deal out of this issue, chasing the whip across the Foyer to his office trying to get him to give a juicy comment about the whole thing, I fear that it sets up these public expectations that MPs who don’t always toe the party line should be ousted. We saw this in Manitoba over Steven Fletcher’s vote against his party on an issue that wasn’t one of confidence, but it was the media who kept reiterating the message that he should be thrown out of caucus, until the caucus did just that. It’s so very damaging to what we want out of our democracy, and for all that the pundit class protests that we want MPs to exercise more independence, We The Media are always the first to pounce when they don’t.

On a similar note, Kady O’Malley thinks we should stop calling it “embarrassing climb downs” when governments listen to criticism and make amendments to their bills and proposals. And like the salivating that happens when MPs break ranks, this too is always the narrative that crops up when governments respond to complaints and move to make changes to improve what’s on offer. It’s how democracy should work, and yet We The Media keeps reinforcing this message that listening and adapting is a bad thing. I have to wonder if we’re really our own worst enemies sometimes.

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