Roundup: Romanado’s version

A little over 24 hours after the allegations between Liberal MP Sherry Romanado and Conservative MP James Bezan ricocheted around the Hill, CTV got an exclusive interview with Romanado, and it’s eye-opening in how the accounts differ, particularly around the apology itself. In particular, Romanado disputes that Bezan had made attempts to apologize earlier – something she would have welcomed – and noted that she was blindsided by his public apology in the Commons on Monday morning considering that she was in her office when it happened, and only later made her statement to try to correct what she felt was wrong information.

The biggest takeaway from the interview (which I would encourage you to watch, despite the fact that it’s 20 minutes long) is the fact that in her estimation, Bezan broke the confidentiality of the mediation process by putting out his statement on Monday afternoon – something she respected up until that point, which is partially why she had been blindsided. She also notes that while others are accusing her of making a partisan issue out of it, she had plenty of opportunity to do so beforehand while she respected the confidentiality of the grievance process, and her “reward” for this affair is to be inundated with trolls over social media who have been replete with lewd suggestions about threesomes. As well, other MPs have come to her to recount their own experiences that they won’t come forward with.

There were a few other points of note in the interview – that what people will say was a bad joke felt to her like she was being undermined in front of stakeholders and treated like a sexual object, which made her job as parliamentary secretary harder to do. As well, she has been asked directly by young women who want to get involved in politics if they will be sexually harassed on the Hill, and she has told them unfortunately yes. There need to be conversations about what goes on and how to prevent it, but as this experience shows, it certainly appears that Bezan may have been engaging in some damage control that further sought to undermine Romanado, which is sadly the kind of cynical manoeuvres that happen here far too often.

Meanwhile, Susan Delacourt calls out those who would use sexual harassment allegations for political purposes, going back to the initial incident of those two Liberal MPs booted from caucus, while Robyn Urback argues that a bad joke is not really the same as the same kinds of allegations of sexual harassment that other women are coming forward about.

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QP: Turning attention to Lebouthillier

With Justin Trudeau off in Beijing, along with several of his ministers, it appeared that Andrew Scheer decided he had better things to do, and left it up to Lisa Raitt to lead off QP instead. Raitt raised the ethical bar in Bill Morneau’s mandate letter, and with that having been failed by the fine for forgetting to declare the holding company that owned his villa, it was enough for him to resign. Dominic LeBlanc rose to respond, and dismissed the line of questioning as a weeks-long fishing expedition, and that Morneau had worked with the Ethics Commissioner. Raitt tried again, bringing in the fictional compliance requirements around Bill C-27, and LeBlanc dismissed the concerns, and pointed out that Raitt wished that the Conservatives had Morneau’s economic growth record. Raitt tried a third time, raising the share sales as though there was anything to question with them, and LeBlanc shrugged it off a third time. Alain Rayes took over in French, demanding to know about the share sales. LeBlanc reiterated his previous responses in French, and they went one more round of the same. Guy Caron was up next for the NDP, concern trolling over Morneau having to meet with the Ethics Commissioner yet again over share sales, but LeBlanc reiterated that Morneau works with the Commissioner and takes her advice. After Caron tried again in English and got the same response, Alexandre Boulerice got up to decry the competence of the revenue minister regarding either the money hoped for from going after tax avoidance and disability tax credits for diabetics, but Diane Lebouthillier assured him that the restored disability advisory committee was getting to work. Boulerice tried again in French, and Lebouthillier responded that they were getting tough on tax avoidance.

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Roundup: Another run refused

Over the weekend, the NDP made a big deal out of the fact that new leader Jagmeet Singh was “going home” to Windsor, a city where he grew up. But immediately upon arriving, he told reporters that no, he had no plans to run for a seat in the area. Never mind that he a) doesn’t have a seat currently, b) has a connection to Windsor, and he says he wants to run in a riding that he has a connection to, and c) he has three seats in the region which are relatively safe for the party, all of which are conducive to his actually doing the time-honoured thing in our system of getting one of those three MPs to temporarily step aside and let him run for a seat there in their stead for the next couple of years. And it’s not like the party won’t be able to come up with some kind of job for the displaced MP for those two years – they have found work for other displaced MPs, and hell, they could even put him or her to work in the local riding office to keep that connection going, and top up their salary from party coffers rather than pay Singh from them outright for the next two years. But no.

Meanwhile, Guy Caron is in the House of Commons four days a week, and apparently is taking a bigger hand in running the staff in the leader’s office in Ottawa (given that Singh can barely be arsed to be in Ottawa even once a week), which leads me to wonder what exactly Singh’s role as party leader actually is. Furthermore, how is he able to actually wield any authority, either with the caucus or with the staff in the leader’s office, if he’s never there? And if I’m Charlie Angus or Niki Ashton, who did better than Caron in the leadership and who are now back to their old critic roles with nothing more to show for it, I’m probably getting pretty sore that Caron, who came in last, is now the de facto leader. If I’m an NDP supporter, I’m also probably pretty concerned that Singh has immediately sidelined himself into the role of a figurehead who has no institutional role, wields almost no authority, and is merely there to tour the country, give a couple of speeches and have a few photo ops.

Nothing about this situation is acceptable in a parliamentary democracy, and absolutely no part of this is acceptable when it comes to defending Parliament itself. By insisting that parliament is irrelevant, Singh is doing fundamental damage to the institution in the eyes of Canadians, and that should raise the red flags of everyone. How can you lead a party that wants to win more seats in an institution when you personally can’t even be bothered to do so? It’s perverse, and people in his party need to start demanding that either he respects our system of government and gets a seat immediately, or maybe it’s time to find a leader who can.

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Roundup: Blame Dawson or the system?

As the Bill Morneau imbroglio starts to fade behind the outrage du jour, being the Paradise Papers, Andrew Coyne decided to take another crack at the issue, this time taking a swing at Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson and her handling – or mishandling – of the whole affair from the beginning. The problem of course is that Coyne’s piece relies heavily on commentary from local civically illiterate crank and guaranteed quote machine Duff Conacher, for whom everything is evil and wrong, and why he hasn’t yet been labelled a vexatious litigant by the courts is beyond me. Regardless, it cannot be denied that yes, Dawson herself is a problem, but not the only problem.

A few days ago, Andrew Potter wrote a piece in the Globe and Mail about the whole sordid history of why we have the Commissioner position in the first place, and why it has always been a problem. And he’s right in pointing out that the point of this position has been politicized from the beginning, but as with so many of our watchdog or “Independent Officer of Parliament” positions these days, they exist as much to deflect problems onto as they do to act as the instrument by which the opposition can use as both a cudgel to launch their attacks, and a shield to hide behind if there is any counter-fire.

And to that end, we can’t simply blame Dawson herself – as much as she is and always has been part of the problem. Much of that lies on MPs themselves, who created the regime, wrote rules that don’t include ethics guidelines, and when presented with the litany of problems with the legislation, shrug and make minor tweaks without addressing the big stuff. And it happens constantly, so when imagined scandals happen, they can scream and rail that just following the rules isn’t good enough, but that the alleged transgressor must have known better and should have exceeded them. Never mind that it’s a nonsense frame to put around issues, but these are also the same rules that those MPs put into place. Saying that the rules they created for themselves aren’t good enough is galling, and one has to constantly ask why they didn’t create rules that were good enough in the first place if they knew that there were problems – and yes, they did know, because Dawson herself identified them. It’s childish politics, and just manages to make a farce out of their feigned outrage (not surprisingly).

Meanwhile, Conacher managed to get a whole piece out of the Star by complaining that the government is wrong in saying there aren’t enough qualified candidates for the Ethics and Lobbying Commissioner positions because he applied for the Lobbying Commissioner position and hasn’t been chosen. Err, that may be a reflection on you, Duff, and this exercise in your ego may be part of the reason why you’re not chosen.

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Roundup: Let’s not lobotomize the GG

There have been so, so many bad takes on the whole issue of Her Excellency Julie Payette’s speech to scientists last week, but there’s one published by the National Post yesterday that was so terrible, that Paul Wells’ incredulous reaction is something that matches my own. Fraser Valley University history professor Barbara Messamore writes that Julie Payette should be a scripted automaton because that’s the role that Governors General are expected to be.

No. Absolutely not.

This is the kind of thing that drives me completely insane. This constant need to keep politics as tightly scripted and lifeless as possible is part of what is killing our democracy, and it’s telling that so many people flocked to the unscripted (and unhinged) Donald Trump because of his “authenticity.” And to demand this of a vice-regal position is completely overkill. I also continue to boggle at the number of pundits who think that Payette somehow was commenting on live issues under debate. I’ve asked, and yet no one can point to where any of our mainstream parties are denying climate change, or who support creationism in our school curricula. They don’t exist in Canada, which is why the insistence that these are somehow issues under debate is baffling.

But beyond that, I find it unfathomable that we would want brilliant and accomplished individuals for the role, given the immense power at their disposal (should they choose to set off a constitutional crisis to exercise most of it), or the tough decisions that may be asked of them in any number of post-election scenarios, while we simultaneously demand that they be utterly vacuous so as not to cause problems. But while Payette may have rankled the delicate sensibilities of some, she also did not cross a partisan line which is what matters in this situation. Why we should force her to lobotomise herself for the sake of smiling and waving and mouthing beige platitudes makes no sense. If that’s what we want, then why not simply put some bilingual starlet in the role so that she can look good in photos and can smile and wave to her heart’s content? Why bother looking for someone accomplished if we’re not going to let them speak or exercise the judgment that we ask of them when it counts? If we let Payette continue to go unscripted, could she make a mistake? Maybe. She’s human. But it keeps her authentic and the reflection of her true self and intellect, and that to me is far more important than the fact that she may bruise a few feelings from time to time. We’re grown-ups. We should be able to handle the odd bump, and it’s far better than the alternative.

Meanwhile, Michael Coren defends Her Excellency’s “mocking” of religion from his own religious perspective, and he calls out the Conservatives’ attempts to make political hay out of this, which he deems akin to “prayer abuse” – something refreshing amidst days of fainting couches and clutched pearls.

 

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Roundup: One is less than five

As the whole Bill Morneau issue continues to run on outrage fumes, Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson’s office has been unhelpful in the least when it comes to trying to put this issue to bed. Two days ago her office said that “fewer than five” ministers held assets indirectly, and when this came up in QP on Wednesday, Trudeau confirmed what certain journalists had noted from the public disclosures – that it was Morneau and Jody Wilson-Raybould, who had since divested those shares. End of story. But no, then Dawson’s office responded to reports in the Globe and Mail that they were somehow “at odds” with the PM over just how many ministers were in such a situation (The Globe? Sensationalize something? Unbelievable!), and that one – Monreau – qualified as “less than five.” And that set the Twitter Machine ablaze, and turned QP in the gong show that it was of demanding to know which five ministers it was, despite the fact that this had already been answered on numerous occasions.

Yes, the Conflict of Interest and Ethics legislation is a mess that MPs refuse on a continual basis to do anything about when the issues are pointed out. Yes, Mary Dawson herself has largely been seen as unhelpful because she has had a tendency to read her mandate so narrowly that issues brought before her are deemed out of her purview. But as I’ve stated before, it’s rapidly turning into a job that nobody else wants, and given the very narrow criteria for a new one, it’s no wonder that the government is having a hard time filling the post, and we may be stuck with Dawson forever as a result.

 

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QP: Deliberately obtuse demands

On a rainy Thursday in the Nation’s Capital, the Prime Minister was away, but the rest of the leaders were present. Andrew Scheer led off, mini-lectern on desk, and raised the Ethics Commissioner’s statement that “less than five” ministers had indirectly-held assets. Bill Morneau rose, accused Scheer of having trouble with numbers, and assured him that they had engaged with the Commissioner. Scheer again demanded names, and Morneau noted that he is aware that the attacks aren’t personal but just a game, which the finances of the country are not. Scheer insisted that this wasn’t a game, but Morneau insisted that Scheer was wrong and knew he was wrong — before he listed how many children got benefits in Scheer’s riding. Scheer demanded to know how he was wrong, and listed disingenuous accusations, to which Morneau said that Scheer was wrong because he disclosed all of his assets. Scheer said that couldn’t be the case if Morneau was fined $200, and Morneau reiterated that Scheer was wrong, and the fine was related to an administrative error while he disclosed his assets. For the NDP, Guy Caron led off by raising the flaws in the Access to Information amendment bill that the Information Commissioner identified. Scott Brison took this one, accusing the NDP of opposing proactive disclosure. Nathan Cullen was up next to demand changes to the bill in his usual sanctimonious tone, and Brison said that he would support and amendment that would require departments to get clearance from the Information Commissioner before refusing any requests related to Indigenous peoples. Cullen got back up with a rambling screed about upholding ethics standards, to which Morneau stood up to reiterate that they work with the Ethics Commissioner. Caron got back up, and repeated the list of alleged ethical failings of the government in French, not that Morneau’s answer changed.

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Roundup: The stages of scandal

Kady O’Malley has a piece about the five stages of a Canadian political scandal, and wonders just where the current Bill Morneau imbroglio lies along it. While she’s probably not wrong in that it’s likely hovering near the end-point, I would like to just take a moment to point out that most of this whole affair has been fuelled by weak-sauce allegations and conflated facts, and this particular air of desperation as people keep flinging the equivalent of spaghetti against a wall in the hope that something inevitably sticks.

And there is a complete air of desperation in the latest developments in this case. Bill Morneau paying a $200 fine for failing to disclose his stake in the ownership structure of his French villa – he had disclosed the villa itself – was turned into wails that he was a law-breaker, or that the fine was somehow a sanction for a “conflict of interest” that was never a conflict. And the NDP tried to move a motion to get Bill C-27 withdrawn, because they sailed a conspiracy theory that somehow there was a conflict of interest with a bill that they opposed for ideological reasons, in order to come at a different angle of attack on it. And while is no actual conflict with the bill, it keeps being reported uncritically as though there were.

And that’s probably what gets me the most irritated about these so-called political scandals, is that many are started by poor reporting on thin facts that are designed to be sensational, with follow-ups that are bigger and bigger reaches to the point where it’s a series of mind-numbing conspiracy theories being floated, each of which get amplified in QP. For what? I’m failing to see how imaginary scandals are holding government to account. There are so many other issues that have substantive policy issues that should be debated or explored, and we keep chasing these non-stories because we think there’s blood in the water. But by all means, keep chasing this phantom menace. It’s doing our democracy wonders.

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Roundup: Is there meaning to staff changes?

The Hill Times had an interesting piece out yesterday about staffing changes into and out of the PMO, and what it says about the culture of central control in the Trudeau-led government. While some of the commentary from former Conservative staffers about the marked similarities could be seen as trouble-making (and indeed, I’m not sure that we are quite at the level of central control that was exerted under the Harper years), I do think there is a kernel of truth in there which may simply be a reflection of politics in the 21st century, which is heavy on message discipline in order to deal with the pressures of a media apparatus that was not as strident as it was during the days of cabinet government of yore. Add to that, the increasingly horizontal power structures mean that the mere act of governing is not the same as it was during those days, so the ways in which the practice of government has evolved should be a consideration.

Nevertheless, the movement of this staff is quite likely indicative of more than just the usual cross-pollination that takes place over the course of a government, and the concerns about rookie ministers needing more hand-holding are probably not unfounded, and there have definitely been some stories of certain ministers having chronic staffing problems that can’t be dismissed out of hand. Nor can former staffers’ concerns about movement being based on connections over ability be shrugged off either, though one has to wonder if it was ever always thus, and it just manifests itself in slightly different ways today than in the past. In all, while I disbelieve the notion that the Trudeau PMO is just the Harper PMO redux, I will agree that there are probably a few more similarities than either would like to admit to openly.

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Roundup: Unleashing the two-year markers

With it being the two-year mark since the 2015 election, we’re going to start seeing a wave of thinkpieces and columns over the next few days (I suspect there will be a glut of weekend columns of dubious quality on the topic), but Paul Wells got things off to a good start yesterday with his piece on the matter. And he makes some pretty good points about how the complaints that this government hasn’t done anything are off the mark, because I do believe there are a number of things that we forget with our short attention spans, but there are also things that we don’t see obvious signs of, where the government has reformed a lot of the processes by which things get done – and this is a particularly big issue when it comes to trying to move the various Indigenous files forward. While it looks like there has been halting progress, people ignore that many of the problems are capacity-related, so if the government is moving to address those fundamental issues, it leads to better outcomes later than simply throwing money at problems only to make them worse in the long run – which happens all too often.

But Wells also acknowledges the bad, and just like with any government, there’s a lot of that too – the appointments process is a notable example, and Wells points to the bottleneck in the PMO, which goes along with the glut of rookie ministers (unavoidable with so few experienced MPs in caucus), and the problem with messaging. As I wrote about earlier this week, there is a real problem with the way this government shovels pabulum at everyone, but I’m not sure it’s any worse than under the previous government, when you were treated to non sequiturs rather than vague answers that resembled the topics you were asking about. And it’s this inability to have forthright communications that created much of this tax mess as well (but I will also lay some blame on bad and lazy reporting that was too quick to lean on opposition talking points as examples of accountability rather than reaching out to experts and then using that to push back against the tidal wave of misinformation that came out). And most especially the fact that this government was unwilling to actually fight back against the misinformation is why this mess of their own making has been compounded even more so.

“But it’s hard to be entirely saddened by Trudeau’s current discomfort, which if nothing else might shake his team out of the towering sanctimony that characterizes too much of its action and rhetoric,” Wells writes, and I fully agree. In fact, it’s the moments in the past couple of weeks where Trudeau and his ministers have dropped their pabulum-like talking points and been punchier and more authentic in their fighting back against their attackers that I’ve seen a spike in public responses to my own reporting of those instances. Hopefully they’re seeing that too, and it’ll prompt them to take more risks and to stop being so gods damned scripted. But this is also politics in 2017, and we’ve killed off spontaneity or the ability to debate, so I fear that my hopes for honest communications are doomed.

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