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: Provocation theatre

I have been giving a good deal of thought to this whole situation with Rachael Harder and the Status of Women committee, and it wasn’t until Andrew Scheer went on CTV’s Your Morning yesterday to decry the “intolerance” of Liberal MPs for a “strong, competent, dynamic young woman” that it started to click. “The Liberals are trying to politicize this. I actually find it disgusting that the Liberals would treat a young, female Member of Parliament in this way, and it just shows the intolerance of the Liberal party,” Scheer went on to say, which is hilarious because he’s the one who made the very political move of putting his critic into the role of committee chair, which is supposed to be a neutral arbiter of the rules and to facilitate discussion, and who isn’t supposed to vote other than to break a tie.

It was then that I finally understood what was going on. Andrew Scheer is trying to be a Dollarama knock-off Ann Coulter/Milo Yiannopoulos provocateur.

The signs were all there, from his preoccupation with free speech on campus, to his appropriation of the kinds of alt-right language being used to weaponize free speech across North America, and this move with Harder fits that bill entirely. I’m pretty sure that Scheer knew exactly what he was doing when he put someone who was avowedly pro-life into the Status of Women portfolio as a poke in the eye to the Liberals (for whom there are still some unhealed wounds over Trudeau’s dictate that the party is a pro-choice, full-stop), and it was an even bigger deliberate provocation to try and put her into the chair position of that committee, no matter how inappropriate it was to put a critic into that role. Of course, this is Scheer, so his timing has been inept enough that he created his own distraction from the tax proposal issue that he has been all sound and fury over (then tried to blame the Liberals for creating the distraction). It was also his way of provoking another round of discussion about the abortion issue without his having to deliberately raise it – he just ensured that the Liberals and NDP would do it for him, and he could stand back and accuse them of “politicizing” the issue, and then getting Harder to play victim.

Of course, some of the pundit class is trying to brand this as the Liberals being “in contempt of Parliament” (which is a specific Thing, and this is not it – and when you point that out, the correction is “having contempt for Parliament.”) Which is ridiculous. Walking out on votes is as much a parliamentary tradition as filibusters and any other procedural protest. And when it’s being done because someone wants to play provocateur in order to virtue signal to a portion of their base that they want to solidify, it’s all the more eye-roll inducing.

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Roundup: The needless drama over the Status of Women chair

The news yesterday that the Liberals on the Commons standing committee on the status of women walked out rather than vote on the Conservatives’ choice for chair, Rachael Harder, certainly had a bit of drama to it, but underneath that surface-level bit of excitement, so much of this story defies sense.

For starters, it makes no sense that the Conservatives would name their chosen critic for the portfolio to be the committee chair. Why? Because a committee chair is supposed to be a somewhat more neutral figure who presides over the meetings in order to maintain decorum, decide on questions of order and procedure, and only vote in the event of breaking a tie. These are qualities that a critic should be dealing with. No, a critic should be doing the work of leading the questions of witnesses and doing the work of holding the government to account. That is not the chair’s job. Furthermore, if Andrew Scheer is going to insist on calling his critics “shadow ministers,” then perhaps he should actually treat them as such which means not having them on committees at all – and yes, the semantic difference is important. If you want to implement a shadow ministerial system then start behaving like that’s what they are. Otherwise, changing their nomenclature is nothing more than a twee affectation that he shouldn’t get so uppity about (and he has been).

Meanwhile, for the rest of the day, the Conservatives tried to spin this as a distraction from the tax change proposals that they are otherwise getting hammered on when they put her up for the position of chair knowing full well that this would be an issue. The NDP were out on Monday afternoon in the Foyer decrying this possibility and they went ahead with it. They created their own distraction and then tried to spin it as the Liberals using it as such. The Liberals didn’t create this drama, so you can’t accuse them of creating something from nothing.

The Conservatives have three members on the committee – Harder, Karen Vecchio, and Martin Shields, and if it makes no sense to put the critic in the role of chair, then why not put Vecchio forward? Is it because she isn’t looked kindly upon by Campaign Life Coalition? I would have thought her more than capable of the role otherwise, which is why this mystifies me unless this is something that the Conservatives were looking to try and force a confrontation of some variety by putting forward a critic and then candidate for Chair that would deliberately offend the sensibilities of the other parties – something that you shouldn’t be doing in a committee setting because committees, as the lifeblood of parliament, are supposed to be less partisan and more collegial.

This is just one more example of how the current iteration of the Conservative party doesn’t seem to know what it’s doing. Since Scheer took over the leadership, there seems to have been a sudden loss of know-how amongst the party’s senior staffers and they’re making all manner of really dumb tactical mistakes. You also have to wonder how much of this is also because the party had spent their nine years in power trying to burn down many of the norms of our parliamentary system and treating the institutions with utter disdain, and now that they’re back in opposition, they have simply lost the capacity to engage with them properly, leading to these kinds of mindless choices that just shoot themselves in the foot. It’s not promising for a party that is supposed to be considered a government in waiting.

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Roundup: No more gimmicky rules

In her latest installment of her occasional “Dear Process Nerd” column series, Kady O’Malley takes on the subject of heckling, and offers a sympathetic answer about the frustration of MPs who can’t get a word in edgewise given the way in which debates and QP are structured to all but discourage actual debate. And she’s right – that is a very serious problem that we should address. The problem? The solutions that she offered were not solutions.

As is so often the case with people who are looking to reform the system to improve the obvious deficiencies, the instinct is always to implement some new gimmick, and my learned friend is no different in this regard. In this case, O’Malley notes that we should give MPs more time to meaningfully engage with legislation (go on…) but decides that the answer lies in rejigging the daily schedule for un-structured, open-interaction with things like quizzing specific ministers on subjects or Urgent Questions.

And this is the part where I heave a great sigh, because my learned friend as completely missed the mark.

When you identify a problem, you shouldn’t go looking for a new gimmick to try and counterbalance it – you should go looking for the source of the problem and solve it there. In this case, it’s the way in which we started regulating speaking times in Canada so that when we imposed maximum speaking times, we incentivised MPs to use up that whole time. That meant speeches that went up to 40 minutes, then twenty, and the ten minutes allotted for questions and comments wound up being just as rote and scripted more often than not because MPs no longer know how to debate. So why not just tackle that problem instead? Restore the old rules – abolish speaking times and speaking lists, have the Speaker gauge how long MPs should have to speak to a bill or motion based on the number of MPs who want to speak to it, and allow for interruptions for questions in a free-flowing manner, and above all, ban scripts so that MPs will be engaged in the subject matter, talking for probably eight to ten minutes, ensure that there is free-flowing debate throughout, and most of all, it eliminates the impetus to read speeches into the record. Just tacking on new rules and gimmicks has made the situation worse over the years. Strip that away. Get us back to the fundamentals. That will help bring about actual change.

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Roundup: Renewing the tax change battle

Those proposed tax changes around private corporations were big in the news again yesterday, given that Parliament had returned and there was a sense that the fight was about to begin in earnest, now that everyone was paying attention. The Canadian Taxpayers Federation hired a plane to fly a banner above Parliament Hill that read “No Small Biz Tax Hike,” never mind that the small business tax rate isn’t being raised and that the proposed changes aren’t going to affect the vast majority of small and medium-sized businesses. Before the fight got started in earnest during QP, the NDP tried to insert themselves into the debate by trying to insist that the government should instead be attacking the “tax cheats” who use offshore tax havens – which, it must be pointed out, are also using legal instruments and thus are not actually “tax cheats” either, which is language that doesn’t help anyone.

In the Law Times, I have a story on how some lawyers are angry with the Canadian Bar Association over their opposition to the proposed tax changes – something that garnered a fair bit of attention. Global tried to work out what some of those tax changes amount to in terms of how it benefits those able to use the current provisions (though their use of the term “loopholes” rankled some of the economists they quoted). Colby Cosh takes on the semantic warfare in the proposed tax change debate.

And then the Twitter battles were renewed in earnest as well. Lisa Raitt was back at it, but Andrew Coyne took on her points with particular aplomb to show why they didn’t have any particular logic or intenral consistency.

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Roundup: Time allocation’s a-coming

Getting people worked up over the weekend was the revelation that Government House Leader Barish Chagger had sent a letter to her opposition counterparts noting that she planned to use time allocation a little more often this fall, in order to help get the government’s agenda through (with the note that things were taking longer in the Senate as a consequence of some of the changes there). And immediately, a number of pundits got upset with the whole notion, because Trudeau was supposed to be different, and time allocation is a great evil that’s used to “clamp down” on debate, and so on.

Let me be the first to remind you that in and of itself, time allocation isn’t all that bad if used responsibly. Part of why it became a big issue in the last election was because the Conservatives – and most especially then-Government House Leader Peter Van Loan – used it for everything under the sun, because they were inept at House management, and they had so abused things like omnibus legislation that the whole legislative process itself had largely broken down, hence why it became necessary to schedule by means of time allocation. It wasn’t pretty, and it wasn’t responsible, but it got done.

Part of our problem is that all parties in this country have lost our ability to manage our debates. One of the most pressing examples is with Second Reading debate, where it’s supposed to be about the general principle of a bill – is it a good idea or not – and that’s it. It shouldn’t take more than an afternoon, but no. Instead, we have to speechify into the record, and for some reason insist that on routine bills, take days for “is this a good idea or not” debate. More time should be spent at committee, but that’s often where we have been clamping down even further, because apparently, we need more terrible, scripted speeches being written into the record that aren’t debate. The logical result of this broken system of debate is that time allocation becomes a more regular feature because we’re no longer actually debating, we’re speechifying. So if we don’t want to see the government resort to time allocation, then maybe we need to start thinking meaningfully about fixing our broken debate practices so that our debate actually have meaning again. But that may be too novel of a suggestion.

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Roundup: Media as government whip

The fact that a couple of Liberal backbenchers are expressing reservations about the government’s proposed tax changes to private corporations has journalists salivating about caucus divisions – again.

Never mind that we’ve seen several examples of MPs going against the government in this current parliament – sometimes en masse (like with the genetic privacy bill), and time after time, Justin Trudeau doesn’t rise to the bait, and yet We The Media continue to try to make an issue out of it. Never mind that backbenchers holding their own government to account is how things are supposed to work in a Westminster system, because that’s their job as MPs, the media tends to remain focused on this narrative that all MPs should be in lockstep with their leadership, especially when they form government. No. That’s not true at all. And yet, Power & Politics spent several blocks on this very notion, especially with the interview with MP Wayne Long (not that there was sufficient pushback against Long’s positions, especially because lower tax rates for self-incorporation are not supposed to be a reward for risk, nor did his assertions about these tax rates being responsible for the current economic growth make any logical sense). What was notable in the eyes of the producers was that a government MP was going against the grain, and that needs to be An Issue.

As for Bill Morneau, he seems to have finally clued in that his communications plan for these changes has been nothing short of an omnishambles and is promising better information out this fall as consultations wrap up, but it’s almost too late at this point, considering the loads of utter nonsense coming out from the business community and how much traction it’s getting.

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Roundup: Digs at the current leader

The NDP had their final official leadership debate yesterday in Vancouver, and it was about as exciting as any of their debates have been so far. But scratching beneath the surface, there was an undercurrent that was playing out which was deeply critical of the way that the party has been run under the leadership of Thomas Mulcair, and why they planned to fix it.

One of the points that was noted several times by both Guy Caron and Charlie Angus was that the caucus was being underutilised when it comes to outreach, and furthermore, Angus was very critical about the way in which the grassroots membership was being taken for granted and dictated to rather than giving input into the process. While this is really par for the course in pretty much all parties these days, thanks to top-down leadership styles brought on by the fact that we now run leadership contests as presidential primaries in this country (and the fact that these very same candidates are playing into it with competing policy platforms that were developed by their own teams rather than the grassroots membership), the fact that they hammered away at the caucus being underutilised was something that stuck out for me, because it certainly implies that Mulcair has been running a party-of-one (and yes, those are shades of Stephen Harper you’re seeing). But while Angus and Caron talked about not enough effort being made to translate what was going on in the House of Commons to their base, one has to wonder how they plan to remedy that, and whether we’re going to see an explosion of YouTube clips of MP speeches (which are generally terrible recitations of scripts into the record) attached to more fundraising demands, demonstrating the “good work” that they’re doing in Ottawa.

Meanwhile, here’s Éric Grenier’s analysis of the various endorsements of the candidates, and what the breakdown of them looks like regionally, while Jagmeet Singh dropped a new policy proposal of decriminalising all illicit drug possession as a harm reduction measure, much as Portugal did.

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Roundup: Unveiling the critics

Andrew Scheer unveiled his list of critics – err, “shadow cabinet” yesterday, and all of the attention is on how leadership rivals fared. All eyes were of course on Maxime Bernier, who didn’t get the finance portfolio that he was publicly lobbying for – which was rather impolitic of him to have done so it needs to be said. Instead Bernier got the industry portfolio, which is still a major economic portfolio and one where he will get to rail about corporate welfare to his heart’s content. And the finance role that he so coveted? That went to Pierre Poilievre, which is something that Liberal partisans everywhere were salivating over, seeing as Poilievre is not exactly someone with poise and tact, and will be in the media a lot (though I will note that he’s better than he used to be).

And those other leadership rivals (who are still in the caucus)? Well, Erin O’Toole got Foreign Affairs, Steven Blaney gets veterans affairs, Michael Chong gets infrastructure, and Tony Clement (for his short-lived leadership ambitions) gets public services and procurement. (Lisa Raitt, meanwhile, already got the coveted deputy leader position, you will recall). But Kellie Leitch, Brad Trost and Deepak Obhrai were all left off the list – all while insisting that they’re happy with things, and that there are no hard feelings, etcetera, etcetera.

But all of this makes me wonder once again why so many of these no hope leadership candidates bothered to stay in the race to the bitter end, as if it was going to mean good standing in the party going forward. I’m not seeing a lot of “good standing” coming out of this, despite the way that it’s being parsed as healing divisions in the party, especially as the more extreme voices of Leitch and Trost being kept on the outside. Leitch, and to a certain extent Trost, humiliated themselves by running terrible campaigns that got them lots of attention but little else, and they are further marginalized by being kept away from the front bench going forward. This justifies those campaigns in what way? It’s why I find the whole exercise of the leadership campaign even more mystifying (beyond the fact that the way in which we conduct them is part of what is wrong with the way our system has been bastardized). The return for no hope campaigns is so limited that I’m can’t see the rationale, but maybe that’s just me.

Meanwhile, Paul Wells and Andrew Coyne each parse what the picks mean about the kind of face that Scheer is trying to put on the party, and the ways in which he is trying to make a mark in the post-Harper era.

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Roundup: Shadow ministers vs critics

Conservative leader Andrew Scheer is set to release his full critic list today, not only to be dubbed as a shadow cabinet, but with plans to style the critics as “shadow ministers.” Now, this is normally the kinds of British/Westminster nomenclature that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside, which is why I suspect that a fanboy like Scheer is doing it, but I would raise a particular note of caution – that unless Scheer plans to actually have his “shadow minsters” act in the way that Westminster shadow ministers actually operate, then it’s going to quickly come across as a twee affectation.

So what kinds of differences would matter between a British shadow minister and a Canadian critic? For one, it’s a far more institutionalised role, where a shadow minister plays the function of someone who is able to fill the cabinet role immediately if the government were to fall, rather than the kinds of placeholders that we’ve come to expect in Canadian critic roles. Shadow ministers, in my observation, tend to be in place for a fairly long time and develop expertise in the portfolio, and they have more structured time to visit the departments and get briefings from civil servants, which doesn’t seem to be the way that Canadian critics operate (who do get some briefings, but in my estimation, are not to the same level). Of course, one of the reasons why is that cabinet construction in the UK doesn’t have to deal with the same regional considerations that Canada does, so it’s far easier to have someone who was in a shadow cabinet position slide into cabinet, whereas in Canada, the federalist calculations may not work out.

Another key difference is that UK shadow ministers are not members of select committees, whereas in Canada, critics are leads for their party on standing committees. Why this is different is because in the UK, it not only lets the shadow minister spend more time with their portfolio, but it gives the committee members more independence because they don’t have the lead on the file shepherding them. Just by numbers alone, I’m guessing that this isn’t going to happen here (another advantage to the UK’s House of Commons having 650 members instead of 338). One could also remark that the current Conservative Party in Canada hasn’t demonstrated a great deal of willingness to give committees a great deal of independence (especially seeing as they turned them into branch plants of the ministers’ offices during the Harper years), but who knows? Maybe Scheer is more serious about it. But unless he wants to reform the way his critics operate, then I’m less sold on billing them as “shadow ministers.”

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