Roundup: Bad takes versus obstinacy

The bad takes continue to roll in on the Canada Summer Jobs brouhaha – so many bad takes – all of them written by straight white men who can’t fathom that these “sincerely held” religious beliefs that women and LGBT people shouldn’t be allowed to have equal rights, are in fact actual points of contention rather than some kind of Liberal Party demand for ideological orthodoxy. There seems to be not a clue that the governing party’s values are such that they have the gall to suggest that if you believe that women or LGBT people don’t deserve equal rights and you actively campaign against those rights, then maybe you don’t need taxpayer funds.

This isn’t to say that the government has done a stellar job of communicating this effectively, nor have they done a great job in drafting the wording of this attestation they want groups to sign. That’s fair criticism, and even pro-choice groups are saying hey, maybe you should clarify that language a bit so that you’re not freaking out the religious groups, and of course, the minister is obstinately saying no, I’m good with the wording as it stands – and I’m sure that they’ll be true to form and back down and agree to amend the wording after they get in another two or three weeks of self-inflicted damage, particularly after a week or two of mind-numbingly repetitive questions in QP about how this is all about feeding Christians to the lions, or some such bullshit – but we’ll hear all about it, and the Liberals will let this self-inflicted damage carry on until then.

This having been said, I’m at the absolute limit of my patience over the assertion of the pundit class that “if it had come from Conservatives but in reverse, there would be an uproar across the land.” That’s a quote from Chantal Hébert on The National on Thursday night.

There was uproar when the Conservative defunded anything to do with abortion internationally, and if you remember then-Senator Nancy Ruth’s blunt advice to women’s groups to “shut the fuck up about abortion,” it was well-meaning advice to stop poking the bear (for which she was unfairly castigated and her words being taken entirely out of context). Let’s not pretend that outrage didn’t happen then. Meanwhile, there was a hell of a lot less outrage when the Conservative defunded any LGBT festival or group that used to be funded, and the one time that they did give tourism funds to Toronto Pride, they got so petty about damage control that they literally trotted out Brad Trost to ritually humiliate the Minister of State, Diane Ablonczy, in order to placate their social conservative base.

“Two wrongs don’t make a right!” was the common Twitter response to this, and no, they don’t. My point, however, is that every single government engages in this kind of thing based on their values, and we can’t pretend that they don’t, or that this isn’t unique to the Liberals, nor can we pretend that the Liberals are getting an easier ride than the Conservatives did, because there wasn’t that outrage across the land when LGBT groups lost funding, or when HIV/AIDS service organizations lost funding, or when the Harper government pissed away millions in funds from the Gates Foundation in HIV prevention because they engaged in petty bullshit around local politics over facilities. Some of us covered those fights, and they didn’t get weeks of coverage or a plethora of terrible hot takes in national newspapers because that government was petty and ideological as opposed to inept about their communications strategy like the current one is.

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Roundup: Muddled takes on Charter rights

The bad takes on the government’s decision to stop giving summer job grants to groups that actively oppose abortions keep rolling in, with yesterday’s winner being one particularly mystifying piece that equates this to Christians being persecuted in ancient Rome. No, seriously. But probably the most overwrought objections are those which keep insisting that “there’s no Charter right to an abortion!” Err, no, there’s not. But when you try to take away that right, you trigger other Charter rights, most notably a woman’s right to life, liberty, and security of person, or the fact that discriminating against her ability to get a medical procedure does breach her Charter rights. University of Ottawa law professor Carissima Mathen walks us through some of those considerations here:

Emmett Macfarlane also took to Twitter to try to clarify some of the arguments in this particular case.

This having been said, it should be reiterated that yet again, this government has not done a particularly stellar job in communicating this particular policy decision, especially in how they are fuzzily defining what is a “core mandate” that would disqualify them. It shouldn’t be difficult – is this an organization that is devoted to picketing abortion clinics, or counselling women against abortions under the guise of being a support service? No? Then you can get your funding. I also think that some religious groups are being a bit hyperbolic in their concerns, egged on by the likes of Andrew Scheer, who has been torqueing this issue (as he is wont to do with any issue) so that what’s actually at stake bears no relation to what it’s being characterized as. But that’s politics, apparently.

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Roundup: Harder’s shrouded call for time allocation

Government Leader in the Senate – err, “government representative” Senator Peter Harder is back at it again, reviving his terrible idea of a Senate business committee, and putting out a piece about how great it would be. Just imagine, he says – ensuring that there are fewer gaps between interventions on bills will mean that Canadians can follow the debate more easily! It will safeguard substantive debate! The unspoken issue here is that it won’t let someone, probably the Official Opposition in the Senate, to delay debates.

In other words, Harder not only wants a committee to time allocate all government bills in the Senate, he wants to delegate the authority to do this time allocation to a particular clique who will do the dirty work for him (because as we’ve seen time and again, he’s loathe to do the actual negotiation of debate timetables with the other caucus groups as it is). This should, of course, be concerning to everyone because the Senate doesn’t debate bills like the House of Commons does, nor should it. The way the rules are currently structured maximise the rights of individual senators to speak to any bill or motion before the Senate, and it gives them an opportunity to carefully draft responses to the matter that were just given before them, rather than, as the Commons does, simply have them draft generic speeches that will then be read into the record (unless you’ve got someone adept enough to speak extemporaneously for their allotted time, which happens not at all in the Commons, and very rarely in the Senate). There is no actual demonstrated need for this – there isn’t any kind of crisis of bills not passing the Senate, and the few bills that are being deliberately delayed are either private members’ bills (which Senate rules don’t allow for time allocation), or it’s because the newer senators haven’t learned the procedural tactics that are letting the Conservative senators take as many adjournments on debate as they can. It’s a temporary problem that Harder is misdiagnosing and is looking to wield a sledgehammer to fix, completely unnecessarily.

As I’ve argued before, any gamesmanship that the Conservatives are playing is leaving the Senate vulnerable to arguments like Harder is making to need these kinds of time allocation measures – and they should be aware that they’re making Harder’s arguments for him. But it’s an unnecessary proposal that Harder is making, and one that not only misunderstands how things work in the Senate, but it will have consequences and it will diminish, rather than enhance, the debate. But we have a rich tradition of tinkering with the rules and making things worse off as a result that Harder is playing right into.

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Roundup: No knockout punch from Dawson

As expected, former Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson’s appearance at the Commons ethics committee yesterday was a show for the cameras. Throughout the hearing, opposition MPs kept trying to get Dawson to insist that it was a big deal that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau violated conflict of interest rules, and she kept rebuffing them, not giving them the clip that they were looking for. Because really, ever since former Auditor General Sheila Fraser remarked that the Liberals “broke every rule in the book” when it came to the Sponsorship Scandal, reporters and partisans have been trying desperately for another officer of parliament to give them a similar line (kind of like how everyone keeps looking for a “knockout punch” in a leadership debate that won’t ever come). Dawson also wouldn’t play ball when it came to the Conservatives trying to insist that the PM repay all of the costs of the vacation, and in fact seemed to defend some of them, so too bad for that attempted clip.

That’s not to say that there wasn’t some value in the exercise. For example, while the PM and Dawson will dispute the extent of Trudeau’s friendship with the Aga Khan for the purposes of the Act, had she agreed that they were close personal friends, Trudeau would have been found to have contravened the Act in another fashion when he sat in on two meetings related to the Aga Khan Foundation (even though she didn’t find that he unduly influenced those meetings based on his relationship). Nevertheless, the “friends” exception in the legislation was cause for some level of debate and indeed consternation among MPs, but it’s something that Dawson thinks they might as well just get rid of in the statute.

And amending the Act was part of the discussion as well, both with regard to closing loopholes, and the discussion on penalties. Regarding loopholes, Dawson said that she needed to interpret that Morneau was within his rights to indirectly hold his shares in holding companies because she had previously recommended that said loophole be closed (and, shockingly, MPs ignored the suggestion). If she suddenly interpreted the legislation differently, that would have been a problem, hence her need to apply the law in a consistent manner. Regarding penalties, Dawson said that she feels that naming and shaming political figures is punishment enough, which didn’t sit well with MPs who wanted a sliding scale of penalties to demonstrate the severity of the offence. (Andrew Coyne also advocates “meaningful penalties” but won’t say what qualifies). The problem with this, of course, is that it turns any violation into a political circus as MPs fall all over themselves to demand the stiffest possible penalties for their opponents in order to score points, ignoring that the whole exercise is one designed for political consequences, which Trudeau has and continues to face. The other aspect is that greater penalties also create the conception that these are criminal sanctions, which the opposition has already been exploiting with language about how Trudeau “broke federal laws” to give the impression that he has committed a criminal offence (which he has not). Changing the rules to encourage this kind of demagoguery doesn’t help our ethics system in the slightest, and would probably do far more harm than good in the interest of scoring a couple of cheap points.

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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”).

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Roundup: Union concoctions and opportunism

In the event that you’ve tuned out of the Bill Morneau/Bill C-27 conspiracy theory – and if you have, I don’t blame you – there was a big fuss a few days ago made of the fact that the postal employees’ union made a big deal about trying to get the Ethics Commissioner to investigate this weeks ago, and now that Nathan Cullen managed to get Mary Dawson to turn her attention to it, they’re crowing with a bit of victory, and still demanding that the bill be withdrawn. Given how ludicrous the whole story remains – remember that government bills are tabled on behalf of the cabinet as a whole, and that ministers don’t sponsor bills because they have a personal interest in them, but rather because they need to answer on behalf of their departments – I’ve largely just rolled my eyes at ongoing coverage, but it was flagged to me a couple of times yesterday that Terence Corcoran wrote a piece about how this little episode proves some of the underlying dynamics behind this ongoing campaign against Morneau and his integrity – that it’s less about any actual ethical issues than it has been about trying to get him to withdraw Bill C-27, because it’s antithetical to the interests of unions and their desires to ensure that everyone has a defined benefit pension plan (even though the economics of that demand aren’t there, and that the actuarial tables will show that they haven’t been sustainable because people stopped smoking two packs a day and are now living longer).

The problem with Corcoran’s piece is that it really only applies to the NDP’s interests. After all, the Conservatives were talking about targeted benefit pensions for years, and were making moves in that direction, which is why Morneau, in his previous life, was talking about their virtues – a cardinal sin in NDP eyes. But for the Conservatives, this is simply a matter of opportunism – they think that they can wound him, and if they have to play along with the NDP to do it, so be it they will. And thus, we are enduring day after day of attacks in QP that are showcased with mendacious framing devices and disingenuous questions, unrelated facts arranged in ways to look damning, never mind that they don’t line up with reality or with our parliamentary norms (such as this absurd demand that the Ethics Commissioner should have somehow vetted this before the bill was tabled. That’s now how our system works, and it would have been a violation of cabinet secrecy and parliamentary privilege). But even as opportunistic as this is, one has to wonder how much longer this will last.

One of the most veteran reporters sat with me in QP yesterday, and asked me this very question – how long can they hope to stretch this story? There’s little basis to it, and yet day after day, they carry on with these absurd demands for information that are already publicly disclosed, and outrage that is running on fumes. Meanwhile, actual, verifiable problems that should be addressed are going unsaid, day after day. It’s a little mystifying when you actually stop to think about it.

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Roundup: Caretakers and emergencies

The situation in BC, where there is an emergency situation of wildfires and evacuations in the midst of a change of government, can be pretty instructive as to how our system of government works. Right now, as with during an election period, the machinery of government goes into “caretaker” mode, and because Christy Clark remains the premier until the moment John Horgan is sworn in, she is able to respond to the situation as she is doing now.

This is why, after Clark’s visit to the lieutenant governor, the statement from the LG was that she “will accept her resignation,” not that Clark has resigned on the spot.

Why is this important? Because the Crown must always have someone to advise them, especially in circumstances like this. Add to that, we have a professional, non-partisan civil service means that they are already in place, and don’t need to have a massive new appointment spree to fill the upper layers like they do in the US. That means that they can respond to these kinds of situations, and while the caretaker government gives the orders, the incoming government’s transition team is being briefed so that they can handoff the files when they form government. It’s an elegant system that we’re lucky to have.

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Roundup: Lighting a fire under the minister

It’s been a year since the Supreme Court of Canada decision in Jordan, which set upper limits for trial delays, and so The Canadian Press had a couple of good pieces on it today, both looking at the fallout in terms of what needs to change in the justice system, as well as looking at the numbers of cases that have applied or been granted a stay of proceedings owing to delays that have been deemed unreasonable. I will note that while justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould says that the decision “lit a fire” under her, she’s been agonizingly slow in responding.

I write a lot for the Law Times, and I talk to a lot of players in the legal community, and there has been a sense of mystification as to what all of the delays are. The fact that it took her a year to start the process of reforming how judges are appointed was baffling, and that slowed down the process for making said appointments – especially as some of the committees advising on appointments still aren’t up and running, six months later. While more appointments are finally being made, it’s taken a long time and it’ll take even longer for those judges to be fully prepared and worked into the system.

There is the legislation that has been coming out in drips and drabs. For example, they made a big deal about a bill that would finally equalise the age of consent for gay sex, but then abandoned said bill to roll those provisions into a larger bill on doing away with “zombie laws” that have been struck down but remain on the books. How much time and energy was spent on that abandoned bill? We keep hearing about the big promised justice reforms promise – looking at the Criminal Code, sentencing, bail, the works, but we’re nearly two years in, and there’s still no sign of them. Yes, they’re big files, but this is nearly the halfway point in the mandate, and big, complicated files like that are going to take time to get through Parliament – especially in the more independent Senate where they will face pushback from law-and-order Conservatives who are looking to hold onto the “reforms” of the previous government.

And then there are the whispers about Wilson-Raybould’s office. There is a constant churn of staff, but not before great delays when it comes to actually filling positions, like the judicial affairs advisor – a pretty key role that took months and months to fill. And if these kinds of necessary staffing decisions are taking forever, what does that mean for the managerial skills of the minister? There are whispers in the legal community, and they’re not too flattering. So when Wilson-Raybould says that Jordan lit a fire under her, one shudders to think about the pace of progress had it not.

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Roundup: Not a real QP fix

Earlier in the week, the NDP put a motion on the Order Paper that they plan to use for a future Supply Day. The text of it, presented in the NDP House Leader Murray Rankin’s name reads as thus:

May 9, 2017 — Mr. Rankin (Victoria) — That Standing Order 11(2) be replaced with the following: “The Speaker or the Chair of Committees of the Whole, after having called the attention of the House, or of the Committee, to the conduct of a Member who persists in irrelevance, or repetition, including during responses to oral questions, may direct the Member to discontinue his or her intervention, and if then the Member still continues to speak, the Speaker shall name the Member or, if in Committee of the Whole, the Chair shall report the Member to the House.”

As Kady O’Malley points out, this would actually be a binding Supply Day motion, as it involves the Commons moving changes to its own rules, and the effect of which is to give the Speaker much more power to police answers given by enhancing the orders around irrelevant or repetitive answers. And on paper, it sounds great. I’m just not sure that this will work in practice.

For starters, this is attacking a mere fraction of the actual problem that we face in the House of Commons. It’s not just the answers that are lacking – it’s the questions (which are as repetitive and irrelevant as the answers), and in many cases, they’re not actually questions, but meandering speeches disguised as rhetorical questions, or non sequitur accusations for which there can be no answer. Empowering the Speaker alone will not solve the problem – the whole ecosystem in the House of Commons needs to change, which means banning scripts, loosening up the clock, and doing away with the established speaking lists. The rigid structure and scripted nature is now all about creating a buffet of media clips, and simply empowering the Speaker to compel answers by means of naming and shaming is not going to fix the underlying problems.

The second problem is that this is something that can very quickly be abused. In fact, you can guarantee that if this were implemented that the very first series of questions that the Opposition would ask would be a trap for the Prime Minister – as much of a trap as their constant questions on Wednesday about the Ethics Commissioner investigation were. That Trudeau refused to step into said trap was a political calculation that has endeared nobody in the whole sordid affair, and everyone came off looking petty. Compelling the PM to walk into traps on a daily basis will quickly become a major problem.

A third major concern is that enforcement of this rule change is going to cause all manner of problems if the opposition doesn’t see the Speaker enforcing this to their liking. Accusations of favouritism or partisanship will soon flow, and there will be tears and recriminations. Nobody will win. So while I appreciate the sentiment of this motion, and would agree with it to a very limited degree, until we get the bigger and more important changes, this simply becomes a bigger problem than the one they’re trying to solve.

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Roundup: A reasonable plea for restitution

Retired Senator Sharon Carstairs is looking to be reimbursed for some $80,000 in legal fees after being caught up in the Auditor General’s report on expenses, and it’s a tale that exposes how shabbily many senators were treated in the wake of that report. To recap, that AG report essentially made up a bunch of rules that did not exist, particularly around how many days a year constituted “primary residency,” which Carstairs got caught up in. And in a rush to show the public that they were taking this report seriously, the Senate turned over the report directly to the RCMP, and Carstairs was left trying to keep her reputation intact, hence retaining counsel and trying to explain that she hadn’t broken any rules.

What needs to be repeated again with this story is just how problematic that AG report was. When the Senate later retained its own counsel to go over that report to see if they should try to sue any of the senators who had refused to repay or seek arbitration for the identified sums (which included Carstairs), that legal review laid bare the arbitrary rules that the AG imposed as part of his review, and essentially how shoddily it was done. And I know several senators who simply opted to pay back the sum rather than keep fighting it because they wanted it to go away – Carstairs refused, and it looks like she’s going to be punished for it, whether financially with the loss (the maximum reimbursement for legal fees under Senate rules is generally $25,000), but also with the loss of reputation. I would hope that the Senate has had enough time since the audit that they can now revisit this case and offer the apology and what restitution they can, and admit that they were hasty in their actions because they were trying to appease a public that was baying for blood post-Duffy, for what good it did them. I would also hope that more of my media colleagues would also start calling out the AG for the problems in his report when cases like Carstairs’ come up again in the media, but I suspect that won’t happen, as we pay far too much deference to him as being untouchable and infallible, when clearly that’s not the case.

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