Roundup: Concern trolling the NAFTA talks

Amidst all of the other drama around the Trumpocalypse, talk of NAFTA renegotiations have been ramping up again with the next round of talks in Montreal taking place in a couple of weeks. So far, people seem to be backing away from the ramparts and are sounding out extensions to the talks rather than trying to complete them as soon as possible, given the political deadlines of the Mexican federal election this summer and American mid-term elections this fall. Chrystia Freeland herself went out to say that this was good, that artificial deadlines weren’t necessary, and so far, so good. Cabinet ministers were also back on the charm circuit down in the States, and Conservative leader Andrew Scheer is leading his own delegation next week – but not before he took to the Mississauga Board of Trade to blast the government’s handling of the whole thing. According to Scheer’s obvious concern trolling, Trudeau “doesn’t seem to have a plan” (which you would have to be completely blind and inattentive to believe, considering that Trudeau’s plan has been pretty bloody obvious), and we’ve seen plenty of examples in Question Period where the Conservatives insist that the government is fumbling the deal with all of the “unserious” talk of gender and Indigenous chapters. And while I get that Scheer and the Conservatives are supposed to hold government to account, this falls into the same category as their other efforts that rely on disingenuous statements and mendacious framing of issues in order to try and score cheap points. Scheer has also been disingenuous about the state of the lapsed softwood lumber agreement in the waning Obama years, and has tried to frame what happened with the TPP signing as more fumbling from Trudeau when in fact things were communicated to the Japanese, and the Australian media torqued the story to suit their own domestic purposes. And if you’re wondering what the NDP is up to, well, they’re still demanding that everything be out in the open, because that’s totally how you want to negotiate these things.

As for the government’s charm offensive, it seems to be meeting more with apathy with the Americans than anything, as NAFTA talks are apparently not on their radar while they focus on those tax cuts that Trump promised. That may be why the government decided to play hardball with the WTO challenge against the rash of protectionist measures in the States, such as softwood duties or the Bombardier C-Series tariffs, and Freeland has been musing recently about “creative thinking” to drive the talks forward, so we’ll see what next steps are. But you can’t say that the government doesn’t have a plan. This issue has consumed them for the past year, and they very obviously are doing something about it, which makes Scheer’s assertions all the more ridiculous.

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Roundup: Turning down the committee

It was pretty much as expected. The Commons ethics committee met yesterday and the opposition MPs assembled pleaded with the Liberal majority on the committee to think of the children – err, I mean, think about the meaning of holding the government to account when it came to the demand to call for the PM to appear to answer questions about the Ethics Commissioner’s findings regarding his vacation to the Aga Khan’s island. I will grant that the Liberals could have insisted that they go in camera for this, but didn’t. Rather, they simply said that, having read the report, and taking into account that the PM had apologised, answered questions in the media, and would be answering questions in QP on this topic, that it was enough. And so the motion was defeated 6-3, which surprised no one.

From the arguments presented, there is a little more that we could dig into. For example, Nathan Cullen said he wanted the PM’s suggestions on how to improve the rules – but if he cared about those, he would have taken the many suggestions that Mary Dawson has been making over the past decade and implemented those, but he, nor his party, nor any parliamentarian, has been keen to do that. And his worrying that the PM is ultimately accountable to parliament is true, but that ultimately means that if Cullen is so concerned, he can move a motion of non-confidence in the PM on the NDP’s next Supply Day and try to convince the Liberal ranks of the merits of his argument. As for the Conservatives, they seemed far more interested in seeing some grovelling the PM, and demanding that he repay the full cost of the trip (which would include the Challenger and security costs), never mind that during the Harper era, his “reimbursement” for his own private trips was supposed to be at economy fares, but nobody could find fares as low as the ones he was repaying (and there were several incidents of party stalwarts getting subsidized airfare improperly). And that whole incident nearly six years ago when they wanted Harper to appear to answer questions on the ClusterDuff Affair? Well, that was then and this is now, and Trudeau promised to be more open and transparent. (Err, remember when Stephen Harper rode into office on the white horse of accountability and transparency? Yeah, me neither).

And while opposition staffers chirp at my on the Twitter Machine about how it’s the role of MPs to hold the government to account – true – and that a committee setting is less theatrical than QP – not true – I will reiterate that the point of this exercise is not actually about accountability, but rather about gathering media clips under the protection of parliamentary privilege. If you think there would be sober questions asked, and that this would be a serious exercise in accountability, then you’re sorely mistaken. It remains a political calculus, and Trudeau has determined that it’s not worth it to spend an hour having the most torqued accusations hurled at him in the hopes that something sticks, and hoping for that “gold” clip that they can share around social media. If we’re going to lament the lack of accountability, then everyone needs to take a share of responsibility there – not just the PM.

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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.

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Roundup: Unifying the prohibitions across departments

The federal government has issued new guidelines for foreign intelligence likely obtained through torture, so that it now covers the Canadian Forces, the Canadian Security Establishment, and Global Affairs Canada. This means that they are prohibited from using such information, except if it’s going to save lives either from an imminent terrorist attack or protecting Canadian troops on an overseas mission. This appears to harmonize direction handed down earlier to the RCMP, CSIS, and CBSA, so that all national security agencies (which are now under the same parliamentary oversight regime and will soon be under an independent arm’s length national security oversight regime) will have the same rules and restrictions. For some, it’s reassuring that the government is taking the issue seriously, but for others, the caveat isn’t good enough, and they need to issue a full prohibition, no caveats, no exceptions, full stop. Stephanie Carvin has more reaction to the announcement here:

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QP: One last go at the PM

On what promises to be the final sitting day of 2017, all of the leaders were present, and duelling Christmas poems by Mark Strahl and Rodger Cuzner, things got underway. While some of Strahl’s lines raised eyebrows (particularly the line about Scheer’s virility), Cuzner’s annual poem didn’t disappoint.

Andrew Scheer led off, railing about the “devastating” small business tax changes. Justin Trudeau reminded him that small business taxes were being lowered, and restricting income sprinkling was about ensuring that people couldn’t take advantage of loopholes. Scheer insisted that the changes spelled doom, and Trudeau responded that the opposition had become so partisan that they treated a small business tax cut as a bad thing. Scheer listed off the supposed ways in which the government has apparently attacked taxpayers, but Trudeau insisted that they were doing everything to grow the middle class, and noted how many jobs had been created. Scheer pivoted mid-retort to decry Trudeau’s “erratic behaviour” on the trade file, to which Trudeau reminded him that they weren’t going to sign any deal, but only wanted good deals for Canada. Scheer was concerned that Trudeau was endangering the NAFTA talks, to which Trudeau reminded him that capitulation was not a trade strategy. Guy Caron was up next to bay about the nomination process for the new Ethics Commissioner, and Trudeau noted that they started engaging the opposition for criteria of this process last June, and if they didn’t have confidence, they should say so. Caron insisted that their dispute was with the process not the candidate, and that they couldn’t trust a process where the committee was dominated by cabinet staff. Trudeau responded with a defence of that process, with a slightly disappointed tone. Alexandre Boulerice was up next, and he railed that the Commissioner wouldn’t promise to carry on current investigations and insinuated that the government was trying to sweep everything under the rug. Trudeau insisted that the process was merit-based, and when Nathan Cullen got up to list the alleged ethical violations of the government, Trudeau responded with disappointment that the opposition was relying solely on personal attacks.

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QP: Trade, jets and jeers

The final Tuesday QP of the year, and all of the leaders were present — even past leader Thomas Mulcair was present, for a change. After each side offered statements of congratulations for their by-election wins, Andrew Scheer led off, mimi-lectern on desk, and he read some condemnation of the PM going to China and his willingness to allow foreign takeovers without security reviews. Trudeau chose instead to offer congratulations to the by-election winners, as well as everyone who put their names forward. Scheer offered his own breathy congratulations, then accused the PM of erratic behaviour and incompetence on the trade file. Trudeau insisted that they worked hard to get deal that “work good” for Canadians, and that things like environmental and labour rights be respected. Scheer sniped that the PM comes home empty handed, and then raised another instance of someone complaining about Kent Hehr’s comments. Trudeau said that the minister took the allegations seriously and apologized. Scheer then moved onto the fighter jet question, and the decision to purchase used interim jets. Trudeau said that the reality was that the military needed new jets years ago but the previous government didn’t deliver, but his government had launched an open process with interim jets to fill capacity gaps. Scheer noted the problems with those jets identified by the Australian Auditor General, and offered Trudeau an old minivan. Trudeau reiterated that the previous government botched their processes. Guy Caron was up next, and was concern trolling about the problems with getting new officers of parliament. Trudeau noted the open, transparent process, and that he had confidence in the nominees put forward. Caron insisted that the process was not transparent, and demanded the names on the selection committees and short lists. Trudeau said that the appointment processes take time, and have put in place processes that people could trust. Nathan Cullen repeated the same question with added sanctimony in English, and Trudeau reiterated that they would continue to consult with the opposition on appointments, and then after another round of the same, and Trudeau said that if they didn’t have confidence in the nominee they should just say so.

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QP: Concern trolling about the Commissioner

After a week away, Justin Trudeau was back in the Commons after a week away, and Andrew Scheer was also back, as the final sitting days of 2017 ticked down. Scheer led off, mini-lectern on desk, and he raised the current investigations by the Ethics Commissioner, and concern trolled that they wouldn’t be completed before her term was up. Trudeau noted that he had recused himself from any discussions around the Commissioner, but he was confident that the House Leader would do a good job. Scheer, breathily racing through his script, worried that MPs would not be consulted or have a chance to vet the new appointee, but Trudeau reiterated that he had confidence in the House Leader. Scheer moved onto the backlog of veterans awaiting disability benefits, to which Trudeau noted that while the previous government closed veterans officers, they were reopened under the current government along with new investments. Scheer insisted that this was solely the problem of the current government, to which Trudeau said that veterans had abandoned hope of getting help under the previous government while they were coming forward now that the current government was reaching out and reinvesting. Scheer tried to then wedge this into a “mean-spiritedness” onto the disability tax credits, and Trudeau assured him that they were looking at the issue carefully to ensure that Canadians were getting the benefits they deserved. Guy Caron was up next for the NDP, and he too returned to the issue of the backlog of veterans benefits, and Trudeau reiterated that these were applications by those who had previously given up hope. Irene Mathyssen and demanded to know if the new veterans disability plan would be released before the House rises, and Trudeau offered assurances that they were taking the issue seriously. Caron turned to demand a Netflix tax and defend the press, and Trudeau insisted that they would not raise taxes on Canadians. Pierre Nantel was up next to demand the same Netflix tax in French, and Trudeau assured him that no Quebec demanded that he raise their taxes.

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Roundup: Space to socialize

Amidst the growing buzz of MPs’ bad behaviour, whether it’s ejections from the House of Commons during QP, or the allegations of inappropriate comments at events as with James Bezan and Sherry Romanado, Kady O’Malley says that the presence of cameras hasn’t been a guarantor of good behaviour. And that’s fair enough. So what does she propose? Not to do away with the cameras, particularly in the Chamber itself, but rather creating the conditions by which MPs can spend more time together outside of the strictly partisan work situations.

More to the point, O’Malley suggests that MPs start sharing meal breaks, whether it’s in the cafeteria, or has been proposed earlier this session with a common space behind the Commons chamber where they can eat together rather than having the usual food services delivered to their respective lobbies on either side of the Chamber. It’s not a novel idea, given the fact that it was shared meals used to be a feature of how our parliament operated. Evening sittings happened three nights a week, and at the appointed hour, they would suspend debate, head upstairs to the Parliamentary Restaurant for a couple of hours and there was cross-pollination of socializing between the different parties. And lo and behold, when evening sittings were abolished in the name of being “family friendly,” collegiality between MPs took a hit.

The problem with simply creating a space behind the Commons for MPs to have that meal together is that it’s pretty much restricted to those who are stuck with House Duty, so the numbers at any given time would be pretty small, and I’m not sure that it’s enough to get a big the requisite sea change happening. Maybe the answer is to bring back evening sittings – it’s not like there’s a lack of legislation that could use the added time – but even there, part of what kept MPs at the parliamentary restaurant is that there was a dearth of other options in the area, which isn’t the case any longer. So while I don’t dispute that more opportunities for MPs to socialize is a good and necessary thing, I’m not sure that the conditions to make this a broader issue are really there any longer.

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QP: Return of the tax changes

While the prime minister remained in China, Andrew Scheer was finally back in the Commons for QP for the first time this week. After a moment of silence for the anniversary of the École Polytechnique massacre, Scheer led off, mini-lectern on desk, and he read a statement about violence against women. In response, Maryam Monsef rose to give her own statement about the importance of the day and the remembrance of the victims. Scheer then turned to the “attack on small business” by new rules not being fully outlined until the budget. Dominic LeBlanc, who this morning revealed that he was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukaemia, reminded him that small business taxes was being reduced and the new rules around private corporations were not about small businesses. Scheer trotted out the torqued 73 percent tax rate line (only applicable to those private corporations making over 100,000 under certain conditions in Ontario), and LeBlanc called him out for using a phoney example. Alain Rayes took over in French, offering the same concerns, and LeBlanc assured him that they listened to small business owners and they were acting on their concerns. Rayes tried again, but LeBlanc launched into a praise for small business tax cuts. Guy Caron was up next for the NDP, worrying that not taxing internet giants was hurting Canadian content creators — specifically community newspapers. Mélanie Joly said that they would work with stakeholders to strengthen local journalism. Caron tried again in English, and Joly listed investments made today and promised to help with transition to digital. Tracey Ramsey was up next, demanding transparency on the list of priorities with trade with China. Marie-Claude Bibeau, curiously, rose to read a statement on the importance of trade, but done under Canadian values. Ruth Ellen Brosseau asked the very same question again in French, and got much the same answer.

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Roundup: The abuse of “appearance”

Breaking! Ethics Commissioner wants to talk to Bill Morneau about that share sale! To which I immediately yawn and say, “Yeah, and?” Because we are beyond the point where any of these stories are actually advancing the story in a substantive manner, and we’re well past innuendo, and are now onto a full-on pile-on in the attempts to make something, anything, stick.

This attempt to try and create some issue around insider trading has been nothing short of ludicrous because none of the facts bear the slightest scrutiny, nor does any of their internal logic hold-up in the face of the other allegations. If he was really interested in “insider trading” (which isn’t actually possible from his position), why wouldn’t he wait to sell those shares until he tabled Bill C-27 and Morneau Shepell’s share prices spiked (temporarily)? But really, none of it makes adds up, and Andrew Coyne constructed a pretty good takedown of the allegation here. And Mary Dawson saying she’ll give Morneau a call sounds pretty pro forma here, given that this is in response to yet another of Nathan Cullen’s demands that she look into his dealings in the vague hope of her finding something, anything, that Cullen can use to any tactical advantage. But as both the opposition and some of the more mediocre journalists in the Gallery continue to carry on this campaign, it has the very definite potential to backfire – especially as Morneau is taking the gloves off now that his father is being dragged into the fray. As Terrence Corcoran points out, the Conservatives are the ones who are now acting unethically, not Morneau (and I’m sure you could add a couple of aforementioned journalists to this list, because their reporting on this has been anything but responsible).

But when this short thread from Howard Anglin was pointed out last night, it became clear to me where the real problem lies.

The problem here is not Bill Morneau – it’s Justin Trudeau, and the high-minded language he put into the mandate letters about being seen to be conduct the affairs without the appearance of conflict. What that turned out to be was an invitation for abuse. Because of the word “appearance,” all that anyone – opposition MP or mediocre journalist trying to make a big score – has to do is line up unrelated or conflated facts in a completely disingenuous manner and say “See! It looks like a conflict! This goes against the mandate letter!” Never mind that none of the allegations, whether it’s the cash-for-access (which wasn’t really cash for access) caterwauling months ago, or this Morneau nonsense now, bear up under the slightest bit of scrutiny – they are simply counting on it being the appearance of a conflict, and crying foul. We’re no longer dealing with issues of substance, but rather, the manufacture of optics in deliberately dishonest ways, because Justin Trudeau gave them an open invitation to. This is the state of our democratic discourse at the end of 2017. We should be embarrassed.

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