Roundup: Ethics committee theatre incoming

We can look forward to a heap of bad political theatre next week as the Commons’ ethics committee plans to sit on Tuesday and Wednesday in order to demand that the PM appear before them to answer questions in regards to the Ethics Commissioner’s report into his Xmas vacation with the Aga Khan, and to hear from the now-former Commissioner on the report the following day. And you can expect that it’s going to be nothing short of howls of sanctimonious indignation. Oh, and there may be legitimate procedural roadblocks to their plans given that the report hasn’t been presented to the Commons yet, according to a former Commons procedural clerk.

Regarding the demands that Trudeau appear, it would be highly unlikely that the Liberals on the committee will let that go ahead (and they have the votes to block it if necessary). And if the Conservatives cry foul, they can turn around and point to the fact that they blocked an attempt by the committee in the last Parliament to have Stephen Harper appear before them to answer questions related to the ClusterDuff Affair, and fair is fair, besides which, Trudeau has answered in Question Period and the media on this issue. And really, why would a PM expose himself to an hour of MPs trying to play Matlock, asking questions that are all traps designed to get him to incriminate himself, and then baying at the moon when he refuses to answer. It would be worse than the performances we see in Question Period these days (which are generally terrible), and we’d get the same quality of answers from Trudeau, which will be some fairly pat and trite lines unless they trip him up (which is the whole point).

Oh, one might say (and Althia Raj did on Power & Politics last night), if they want to show that this is really a new era of accountability and transparency, they it might be in their best interests to go ahead and have him go before the committee, to which I remind people what happened when Thomas Mulcair appeared before a committee to answer questions related to the satellite offices issue. Mulcair blustered, obfuscated, and then proffered a fiction that Conservatives did it too (they didn’t – the “evidence” was a riding office and a party office in the same mini-mall but several doors down from one another, but hey, they were on the same sign by the parking lot), and as he did so, all of his partisans flooded social media praising that “this is what accountability looks like.” I’m not really sure that this is the kind of thing we want to revisit.

As for Dawson’s appearance, it’s “as an individual” since she will be officially retired by then, and we can imagine that it will be much the same – each side fishing for a media clip that fits their established narrative, which they will then flood social media with – assuming that she can answer, given the procedural issue identified. And we can imagine how many questions about Bill Morneau will be asked, followed by the Liberals asking how many investigations she conducted on Conservative ministers, and on and on it will go. It won’t be a constructive use of anyone’s time, but why does that matter when you’ve got cheap political theatre to perform?

Speaking of Dawson, here’s her exit interview with the Globe and Mail in which she defends how much time she took to write that report, confirms that she didn’t discuss Bill C-27 with Morneau (never mind that doing so would violate cabinet confidence and cabinet secrecy – funny how the Globe continually ignores that fact), and defends the advice she gave to Morneau about a blind trust (“You know what the hell’s in there. That’s a defect on a blind trust”).

Continue reading

Roundup: The emancipation of Lynn Beyak

Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, along with his Senate caucus leader, Senator Larry Smith, announced last night that troublesome Senator Lynn Beyak had been kicked out of caucus after she refused to remove blatantly racist “letters of support” from her website. In true Scheer form, he not only didn’t effectively manage the situation, but waited until there was a media storm before he backed down, just as he did with deciding not to give any more interviews to Rebel Media post-Charlottesville, or having to back down somewhat on his campus free-speech zealotry in the wake of another incident (though he did get back on that bandwagon again after the whole Lindsay Sheppard incident).

While this move was met with a number of people saying “better late than never,” I’m not so sure. In fact, I think that he’s just created a monster now that Beyak no longer has any kind of adult supervision. Indeed, I suspect that he’s just made a martyr out of Beyak, who can now claim that she’s a victim of “political correctness run amok,” and she will quickly attract a group of odious racists and free speech absolutists, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility that she’ll be yet another Jordan Peterson-like figure (though likely without the need for the Patreon account, given her Senate tenure).

But that Senate tenure is exactly why this situation should have been better managed, and why expelling her from caucus was possibly the wrong thing to do. At least inside of caucus, she could have been managed, and if they had been on the ball, they should have had a better handle on what she was posting to her website and had it locked down long before now, using whatever means of coercion are available to party and Senate caucus leadership. After all, taking her off of committees didn’t seem to do the trick, but I’m not sure what kinds of measures they were using to manage her once that happened, if any. And that’s key, because as someone who has institutional independence and can’t be fired, managing her was the best possible thing that they could have done rather than letting her continue to court racists. (This being said, the fact that she was viewed as a Pollyanna figure by some of her fellows was probably why they didn’t think they needed to manage her as closely, and look what happened as a result).

Beyak is likely to continue to sit as a non-affiliated Senator, as we can be assured that the Independent Senators Group will want nothing to do with her, especially as they have a new rule that means that they need to have a two-thirds vote to admit her into their caucus. While people will howl for her to resign, I sincerely doubt that she will, given that she’ll have a new crowd of adherents that will flock to her now. She can’t be expelled from the Senate unless she’s convicted of a serious crime or is found to be in violation of Senate ethics rules, and there’s nothing to suggest that she would be (not to mention that there will be great reluctance to push her out for what she’s said, no matter how odious it may be, because free speech is greatly valued in the Senate). Trying to have her charged with hate crimes isn’t likey to work as I doubt she meets the bar for that, and dragging her before the Human Rights Tribunal will make her an even bigger martyr with the free speech absolutists. And so now we’ll be stuck with her until February 2024, because the party leadership couldn’t figure out how to properly manage a problem like her. Well done, guys.

Continue reading

Roundup: On Scheer’s tolerance

It’s been a day since the Globe and Mail interview with Andrew Scheer came out, and yet I haven’t been able to shake some of what he says in the piece, particularly about how his is supposedly the more “tolerant” party. In it, Scheer lists a couple of areas where he lists the virtues of his party’s tolerance – for anti-abortionist views, and his curious view about how to deal with the LGBT question with a party that welcomes social conservatives. On the former, Scheer used the opportunity to re-litigate the issue of trying to appoint Rachael Harder to the chair of the Status of Women committee (never mind that the committees are supposed to pick their own chairs, and that it made no sense to put the critic in the chair position, since the chair is ostensibly supposed to be neutral, which your critic should not be). Why is this example salient? Because it was an example of Scheer acting like a Dollarama knock-off brand provocateur, trying to deliberately set off the leftist opponents to demonstrate how intolerant lefties are in the style that the alt-right has become so fond of doing. Just because your party’s values include social conservatism doesn’t make you more tolerant, particularly given how they denounce other small-l liberal values as “virtue signalling” and so on. Having different values is why different political parties exist.

The part that stuck in my craw a little more was Scheer insisting that just because he doesn’t want to march in a Pride parade, it doesn’t mean that he’s not supportive, pointing to his motion to condemn Russia for the persecution of LGBT people in Chechnya, and the fact that he supported the apology to those persecuted LGBT Canadians. What gets me is that he’s patting himself on the back for the bare minimum – that people don’t deserve to die or be persecuted. But what this does is miss the difference between equality on paper, and substantive equality, and this is something that the Conservative government seemed to struggle with as well. We don’t want other countries to kill gays, but we won’t do anything to meaningfully advance their equality, so they can stay second-class citizens. Or as I sometimes darkly muse, why kill the gays outright when your systematic marginalizing of them drives them to depression, addiction, and suicide instead? And to make it clear, Scheer’s language of “tolerance” is just that – being seen to tolerate something that much of his party’s base finds distasteful, and tolerance is a far cry from respect. So you’ll forgive me if I find Scheer’s assurances that he is “supportive” to ring entirely hollow, because that’s not the language or actions of support.

Meanwhile, the Globe and Mail’s editorial board did call out Scheer for his contradictions in that interview, questioning whether he really is the right person for the job.

Continue reading

Roundup: Lagging CBSA oversight

A report commissioned by PCO advises for the creation of a new oversight body for both the CBSA and the RCMP, given the amount of overlap between the two bodies when it comes to law enforcement. Currently, CBSA has no civilian oversight, though its national security functions are just now getting some oversight under the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians, and those functions would likely fall under the creation of the new intelligence commissioner created in Bill C-59 – but those don’t deal with the day-to-day interactions at the borders, or with some of their other functions, like immigration detention.

What the Canadian Press story doesn’t mention is that there is right now a Senate bill sitting on the Order Paper, which passed the Senate unanimously, to create a CBSA Inspector General. In fact, it passed in October 2016, and has been sitting there ever since, as no MP has bothered to sign up to sponsor it (which is unusual in the extreme). More unusual is the fact that Ralph Goodale had previously signed up to sponsor the version of the bill that was being debated in the previous parliament, but now that he’s public safety minister, he’s become much more gun-shy, saying that they need to do more consultation and will come out with their own bill. But almost a year-and-a-half later, it’s still sitting there, when it could be amended by the government to make whatever technical fixes they deem necessary and swiftly passed. (I last wrote about this for the Law Times a year ago).

Of course, if they wanted to go that route, the government would need to give the bill a Royal Recommendation and put in implementation language into the bill – something that it currently lacks to get around the requirement that it can’t spend money. In other words, it’s a framework but nothing more at this point. But if the government were serious about oversight for CBSA, they could do something to ensure that it happens expeditiously. But that commitment to oversight seems to be a bit more academic at this point, given that they haven’t moved on this in all this time. And that should be mentioned in these more recent stories, but haven’t been.

Continue reading

Roundup: The authentic Andrew Scheer

It’s year-end interview time, and Andrew Scheer gave a couple yesterday that gave me a bit of pause. First was his interview in the National Post, where off the bat, he lays out this gem: “I am younger, I am modern and I have a different take on Conservative principles than my predecessors.” But does he lay out what that different take is? Nope. Scheer says that he can offer “authenticity” like a Bernie Sanders or Ron Paul, which is…curious. He’s spent the week talking about how middle class he is, unlike Justin Trudeau. This immediately elicited some reminders from Twitter – that the only job he held outside of politics was working at his friend’s insurance company for six months, that he got elected at 25 and has a $3 million pension by age 38; his political career includes being Speaker and Leader of the Opposition, each of which comes with an official residence and a driver. So he’s authentically middle class. Later, Scheer talked about how he’s spent the past six months “setting down markers” about the Conservative approach. Markers like putting everything in a disingenuous or outright mendacious frame and treating people like idiots? Okay, then.

Meanwhile, over on CTV’s Power Play (starts at 8:15), Scheer went on about how Conservatives do better when they present a positive approach (which I totally see with the aforementioned disingenuous and mendacious manner in which they go about their role), and then added this: “We are actually more caring than Liberals because we actually care about results, and they just like to send signals and show their good intentions and they don’t care about what actually benefits people.”

That’s…interesting. Because immediately preceding that was Scheer was outright virtue signalling about free speech on university campuses (which, I will add, is an issue that the alt-right has weaponized, and Scheer is playing directly into it). And if you look at the Conservative record over the past decade, it’s replete with sending signals that didn’t actually benefit people, whether it was tough-on-crime legislation that was either unconstitutional or created backlogs in the court system (as mandatory minimum sentences did), or gutting environmental laws (which only ended up in litigation and didn’t get any further projects approved), or their actions in making cuts to show that they had a paper surplus (which led to the massive gong show that is Shared Services Canada and the Phoenix pay system fiasco, not to mention the loss of capacity in a number of other departments). All of it was the very signalling that they criticize the Liberals for. So you’ll forgive me if I find Scheer’s particular assertions to be a bit unconvincing.

Continue reading

Roundup: Mary Dawson delivers a spanking

Outgoing Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson released her report on the Prime Minister’s vacation to the Bahamas and the Aga Khan’s private island there last Christmas, and she determined that he had indeed broken four sections of the code. Reaction was swift – Trudeau quickly called a press conference to apologise and try and to take full responsibility, but stumbled in some of his responses. And soon after, both Andrew Scheer and Jagmeet Singh called their own press conferences to condemn Trudeau and to rail about how out of touch he is, and so on.

First things first: The Canadian Press has five items of note from the report, and John Geddes offers three items of his own. Hay is being made – particularly from certain opposition politicians – that Trudeau is the first PM to have been found guilty of breaking these conflict of interest laws, but it’s worth bearing in mind that this current conflict of interest regime is only a decade old, and it’s not a lot of time for which there to be much to compare to. Aaron Wherry parses the report here, while Paul Wells offers his own bigger-picture look as to why this all matters.

This all having been said, I’m trying to digest the substance of the report, and some of it does rankle with me a bit, in particular the way in which Dawson parses how a friendship with someone like the Aga Khan should unfold, given the position that he holds. I also wonder if better context should have been applied to just what his Foundation’s dealings with the Canadian government are, because actual private interests aren’t being advanced here – nobody profits from this. A lot of what the Foundation does with Canadian aid money is do things like provide school books to Syrian refugees in camps in the Middle East, where they have the networks to deliver them. This isn’t nearly the same thing as accepting gifts from businessmen whose private interests and personal profits may rely on decisions made by the Canadian government, and I wonder if it’s helpful to treat those as being on an equal playing field. (Then again, maybe it is. I’m not an expert in this).

A couple of other thoughts – It is fair to ask why Trudeau and his team, who can be so focused on optics at times, were so blind to this one. But given that they’ve scored more than a few own-goals this last year with bad communications plans, that’s becoming clear that they’re not the masters at this that they sometimes appear to be. As for the lack of penalties in the Conflict of Interest legislation, we have to bear in mind that these are political actors that we are discussing, and merely naming and shaming them does have political consequences. If we got into games of demanding financial penalties or that public office holders be jailed for breaches, we change the political calculus of this ethics regime, and it would become an even bigger gong show than it is now, not to mention that it would make cooperation even less likely if they think there’s a jail sentence attached. And finally, there is a lot of smug sanctimony going around, but some caution had best be exercised, particularly by members of the opposition, when it comes to how the Aga Khan is portrayed in this. The Ismaili community already has their backs up over how he has been characterised to date, and those opposition parties could find themselves alienating an important voting bloc if they’re not careful.

Continue reading

Roundup: Will American tax changes affect us?

With the excitement building over that coming US tax cut legislation (if one can call it that), we have already started seeing reaction here in Canada about how we should react, and while there has been some predictable demands that we start cutting our own corporate taxes yet again, others have called for a more pragmatic approach. In the Financial Post, Jack Mintz foretold doom for our economy in the face of these changes. With that in mind, Kevin Milligan tweeted out some thoughts:

It also hasn’t gone unnoticed that these changes will create all manner of new loopholes around personal incorporation to avoid paying income taxes – kind of like Canada has been cracking down on this past year. Imagine that.

To that end, Milligan offered a few more thoughts about the experience around implementing these kinds of changes.

Meanwhile, my Loonie Politics column looks at whether the process used by that American tax bill could happen in Canada. Short answer: no.

Continue reading

Roundup: Cyberwarfare oversight concerns

The University of Toronto’s CitizenLab issued a report on Bill C-59, and the powers that it gives the Communications Security Establishment to engage in offensive cyberwarfare operations, rather than just sticking to being on the defensive. According to their report, these kinds of activities wouldn’t require any kind of judicial oversight – just the sign-off from the ministers of foreign affairs and national defence – and will have little other oversight other than the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians. And as Stephanie Carvin explains below, that’s actually not a bad thing, because offensive capabilities are not the same as intelligence gathering – one of CSE’s other activities.

And this is pretty much the point – a Crown prerogative doesn’t require the same kinds of oversight, and does not necessarily bind the activities to being Charter compliant because it’s not directed at Canadians, thus is not concerned with their particular rights and freedoms. And as Carvin points out, these kinds of operations have their own particular oversight mechanisms, which are simply different than the once that CitizenLab identifies. It’s perfectly fine to wonder if CSE is really the agency to be doing this kind of work, but that also means asking who else would be doing it, and if the answer is to build new capabilities within the Canadian Forces, is that the best use of scarce resources? Perhaps, perhaps not. It’s certainly a topic worthy of debate, but “no judicial oversight” is not right argument to be making in this case.

Continue reading

Roundup: Legislative hostages

Every few months this story comes around again – that the government misses have a senate that acted more like a rubber stamp than the active revising body that they are. And the government – and Trudeau in particular – will say oh no, we believe in an independent senate, and we want them to do their jobs, unless of course that means amending budget bills, in which case they invent reasons why the Senate isn’t supposed to amend them, because they’re money bills (not true – the Senate is only barred from initiating money bills, not from amending them), and so on. And lo, we have yet another example this past weekend, but this time over the transport bill that is currently in the Senate. But because this is an omnibus bill with several parts to it (which isn’t to say that it’s an illegitimate omnibus bill – these are all aspects dealing with transportation issues), and because the government wouldn’t let it be pulled apart, the easier stuff couldn’t get passed first while they dug into the more challenging parts. But, c’est la vie.

What does bother me, however is this particular snideness that comes from some of the commentariat class over these kinds of issues.

The three senators in this case were Senators Carignan, Mercer, and Lankin. Two of the three, Carignan and Lankin, had previously served in elected office. They’re no more or less unknown than the vast majority of MPs, and “unaccountable” is one of those slippery terms in this case because they exist to hold government to account. They’re also just as much parliamentarians as MPs are, for the record, not simple appointees. Gilmore also has this bizarre notion that the business of accountability – which is the whole point of parliament – is somehow “holding hostage” the work of the elected officials. Last I checked, the point of parliament wasn’t to be a clearing house for the agenda of the government of the day, but rather, to keep it in check. That’s what they’re doing, just as much as judges – you know, also unknown, unaccountable appointees – do.

The one partial point I will grant is the “self-righteous” aspect, because some senators absolutely are. But then again, so are a hell of a lot of MPs. The recent changes to the selection process for senators may have amped up some of that self-righteousness for a few of them, but to date, nobody has actually held any legislation hostage, and the government has backed down when they knew they were in the wrong about it. So really, the process is working the way it’s supposed to, and that’s a good thing.

Continue reading

Roundup: The existential threat to parliament nobody notices

After stories about how some MPs – both Conservative and Liberal – used the Canada Summer Jobs programme to funnel those job grants to anti-abortion and anti-gay organisations, the government has made a few tweaks to the programme so that any organisation that is looking for grants needs to sign an affirmation that they will agree to comply with Charter values, as well as its underlying values including
“reproductive rights, and the right to be free from discrimination on the basis of sex, religion, race, national or ethnic origin, colour, mental or physical disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression.” And while that’s all well and good, they didn’t fix the glaring problem with this system – the fact that it’s MPs who are signing off on these grants.

No. Seriously, no.

This is antithetical to the whole point of Parliament. Parliament is about holding the government (meaning Cabinet) to account, and part of that is by controlling the public purse. MPs don’t give out money – they ensure that the government can only spend it wisely. By Service Canada sending lists of groups recommended to receive funding, and then having the MPs validate and recommending more or fewer jobs through the group, or whether to fund them at all, it goes beyond accountability and into disbursing funds which is not the role of an MP. At all.

And what really burns me is that nobody sees this. We have become so civically illiterate that a practice that is a direct existential challenge to a thousand years of parliamentary history doesn’t merit a single shrug. No, instead, it’s become part of this expectation that MPs should be “bringing home the bacon” to their ridings. It’s why MPs shouldn’t be making funding announcements for the government – that’s the role of Cabinet ministers (and I will allow parliamentary secretaries under protest because it’s hard for cabinet to be everywhere), but that’s it. Having MPs make announcements “on behalf of” ministers is a betrayal of the role that MPs play with respect to ministers, which is to hold them to account, even if they’re in the same party. This is cabinet co-opting MPs, and in the case of these job grants, laundering their accountability so that nobody can actually be held to account for when funding goes to groups that are contrary to the values of the government of the day. But nobody cares – not even the journalist who wrote the story about the changes.

If only someone had written a book about this kind of thing…

Continue reading