QP: Digging up a dead horse

As spring snow fell over Ottawa, Justin Trudeau was in Paris on an official visit, while Andrew Scheer was in Calgary rather than be in Question Period. That left Lisa Raitt to lead off, dredging up the long dead and buried horse of Justin Trudeau once saying that the oilsands needed to be phased out (never mind that he clarified it was a long-term goal in moving toward a decarbonized future). Jim Carr responded that they approved Trans Mountain and have reiterated their support for it continually. Raitt worried about industry uncertainty and the “flight” of capital from the country, to which Carr reiterate that the uncertainty wasn’t coming from them but one province, and that they are having discussions with Kinder Morgan to ensure there was investor certainty. Raitt worried that this lack of confidence was coming from the federal government’s inaction, but Carr reminded her that her government didn’t get a single kilometre of pipeline built to tidewater. Gérard Deltell took over to re-ask the “phased out” question in French, and Marc Garneau reiterated Carr’s points in French, and then they went for a second round of the same. Guy Caron was up next for the NDP, railing that the federal government was imposing its will on BC, and Garneau reminded him that the pipeline was federal jurisdiction per the Supreme Court and the constitution, and they were talking with the two provinces involved. Caron switched to English to rail that BC’s government was elected on a promise to stop it and governments are supposed to keep their promises. Carr reminded him that Alberta’s government was elected on a promise to build it, but it was federal jurisdiction. Romeo Saganash got up next to decry that the government wasn’t respecting their obligations to Indigenous communities around the pipeline, and Carr reminded him that they did more consultations than the previous government did, who got smacked down by the Supreme Court of Canada over their lack of proper consultations. Saganash insisted that there were no actual agreements with Indigenous communities, but Carr said that there was no agreement between Indigenous communities, and indeed between NDP premiers, but a decision needed to be taken.

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Roundup: Let’s not punt it to the Supreme Court

As the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion drama continues to chug along, we saw that Bill Morneau had a meeting with Rachel Notley and while nothing specific was announced, it was stated that something is on the way in fairly short order. Add to that, Jim Carr was doing the media rounds saying that the pipeline will get built, and it’s a question of how, which is an important clue. And then came Jagmeet Singh, who decided that his contribution to this is to insist that this all get referred to the Supreme Court of Canada in a joint federal/provincial/First Nations reference. Because showing political leadership apparently means fobbing off the tough questions to the Supreme Court. He also suffers from the delusion that the Court could act swiftly on this, ignoring that it would take six months to even pull a reference together (seriously – the Court wouldn’t hear it until the fall at the earliest). And then his environment critic went on Power & Politicsand said that even if the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the federal government and that the project could go ahead, they’d still oppose it because obviously it would be a wrong decision. Yeah. Okay.

As Carissima Mathen explains in this segment of The House, the Supreme Court doesn’t like to be used for political purposes, reference questions are generally of general application, and even referring the question of jurisdiction to them would imply that there is doubt that the federal government has it, which settled case law clearly demonstrates that they do. (Likewise, going Jason Kenney’s route and invoking Section 92(10)(c) implies that there is doubt that these pipelines are federal jurisdiction when we know that they are, hence why it’s not only a redundant course of action, but it creates damaging precedent). And that’s why Morneau was pretty explicit when he shot down Singh’s proposal yesterday – they know they have jurisdiction, so it would make no sense to refer it to the SCC. On a related note, the BC NDP have changed their rhetoric around using every tool in the toolbox to oppose the pipeline and are now pledging to use all tools to protect their coastline and environment, likely because they got a legal opinion that said that they have no jurisdiction.

Meanwhile, Jennifer Ditchburn notes that Indigenous protests against the pipeline aren’t a side plot – and she’s right, but it’s also separate from the jurisdiction issue, and should be treated as separate. (I also suspect that the government will argue that approval was given before they legislated implementation of UNDRIP, and that they did additional consultation and created the Indigenous-lead monitoring committee, so that should satisfy Section 35). Chantal Hébert sees few options that the federal government could use that would still maintain provincial peace. David Moscrop wants everyone to cool their jets because this isn’t actually a crisis, but rather how democracy and federalism actually work. Jen Gerson looks at how this failure would be the signal of a bigger market failure in Canada, and open us up to creating an institutionalized culture of kickbacks and corruption when it comes to major projects.

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Roundup: A curious appointment bottleneck

There was an interesting revelation in the Hill Timesyesterday in that the government is sitting on more than 100 vetted Senate candidates while twelve seats remain vacant, and yet put out a call for yet more applications while the advisory committees are all empty, which would be the people who are supposed to vet all of those incoming applications. But that number amazes me – 100 names that are vetted and ready to go for those twelve vacancies, and the government isn’t moving on them, adding one or two names every couple of months at random intervals. And don’t get me wrong – I’m firmly opposed to mass appointments, but that also means that the Chamber should be in full operation and that vacancies should be filled as they happen, which are one or two at a time. Add to that the fact that because these are all being named as Independents, the kinds of mentoring that should happen isn’t, so at this point it almost doesn’t matter if we get all twelve in one fell swoop because the result would be the same either way.

The other thing that is very interesting is that in the interview with former appointment committee member Indira Samarasekera, she mentioned that they identified key skill areas that the Senate is in need of and that their names have reflected that, but these aren’t necessarily the people that Trudeau is naming in the long run. Which isn’t to say that Trudeau has simply been naming ideological Liberals and calling them Independents (despite what the Conservatives in the Senate are claiming), but it is hard to deny that there isn’t a similarity to most of the candidates in the fact that they tend to be activists from the social sciences as opposed to some of the business, foreign affairs, and trade experts that Samarasekera noted that they recommended. Despite this all, the piece provides an interesting window on just what seems to be the bottleneck in appointments that this government has a problem with making, and which continues to be a slow-moving crisis of their credibility.

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Roundup: The AG’s vacancy problem

The Auditor General was on Power Play yesterday to talk about his recent examination of the Great Lakes Pilotage Authority, and how the lack of appointments to the board meant a lack of oversight for the CEO, who then abused his expenses. Michael Ferguson then went on to talk about the greater pattern of unfilled vacancies by this government (which will be the focus of one of his upcoming reports), and it’s a verifiable problem that this government has, in large part because as part of their reform of the system to ensure that more women and minorities were appointed, they changed to a system of seeking out nominees to having people apply for positions. For as much merit as ensuring more diversity among appointees has, the way they’ve handled it has been a gong show.

All of this is well and good to point out, but where I have a problem is where the AG suggests that if governments can’t fill these positions in a timely manner that we should consider a system where these boards have their own nomination committees to make their own appointments. This should raise a major alarm because it’s a sign of creeping technocracy and undermining accountability and responsible government. Government makes these appointments so that there is someone who can be held to account for them. Who is accountable if boards nominate their own members? How do we ensure that they don’t turn into cesspits of nepotism after we worked long and hard to ensure that we have taken patronage out of our current appointment systems?

Unfortunately, this is not a surprise with Ferguson, whose recommendations around an external audit committee for the Senate ignores the detrimental effect that this would have on Parliament’s ability to be self-governing. I do think it’s problematic that you have an officer of parliament who keeps advocating for greater technocracy and the undermining of our parliamentary democracy (and worse, that nobody in the media will dare to call him on it, because apparently we worship auditors general and believe that they can do no wrong). His observations about the problems around appointments are valid, don’t get me wrong. It’s his solutions that are untenable in the extreme.

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Roundup: Justice bill under fire

The big news over the long weekend was the Liberals’ major criminal justice reform bill, which was tabled at the end of last week. It’s a big bill because it’s a big topic, but also because the government decided to fold in two previous bills that have been languishing on the Order Paper so that they can all get passed at once. One of those bills has clauses that have been overtaken by a previous bill that again, languishes on the Order Paper. And yet, despite this major reform push, one of the biggest problems facing the justice system, mandatory minimum sentences, which are clogging the courts, remain intact because this bill doesn’t address them, and the minister is shrugging in terms of saying the debate is still ongoing with provinces and courts over those. Among changes in this bill are severely limiting preliminary inquiries, which could mean that a number of cases go to trial where they wouldn’t have otherwise given that the point of a preliminary inquiry was to determine whether there was enough evidence to secure a conviction. Another change is to eliminate peremptory challenges in jury selection, something which has gained a lot of attention in the past couple of months after the Gerald Stanley trial in Saskatchewan had an all-white jury.

None of this is without controversy, and defence lawyers are raising the alarm. Lawyers like Michael Spratt say the changes will not speed up trials, and will actually eliminate some procedural fairness from the system. The elimination of peremptory challenges is far more contentious, with some defence lawyers saying it won’t fix anything while another says it could eliminate the current abuses. One law professor calls it a good first step, but lists other recommendations to increase access to justice in remote communities and improve jury selection.

On a related note, it looks like Saskatchewan hasn’t been selecting juries in a way that complies with their own provincial laws. While this may not be enough to cause an appeal in the Stanley trial, which has put much of the focus on the issue of peremptory challenges, it does raise questions about jury selection laws in this country that are part of these reforms.

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QP: A sweater and an overnight bag

With all leaders in the House, and all hands on deck, we were ready to see just what fireworks would transpire. Andrew Scheer led off, mini-lectern on desk, concerned about the “inappropriate gift” that the PM received from the Aga Khan that was not disclosed. Justin Trudeau stood up to reiterate well-worn talking points about the previous Ethics Commissioner’s report and how they worked to strengthen future disclosures. When Scheer pressed, Trudeau assured him that during the holidays, family friends exchange gifts and he gave the Aga Khan a sweater, and got an overnight bag in return. Scheer changed topics, and demanded the briefing from Daniel Jean for the committee. Trudeau retorted that a briefing was offered to Scheer and he refused, and after a second round of the same, Scheer thundered that he was only offered a classified briefing so that he could stop asking questions. Trudeau gave the riposte that only a Harper Conservative would think that giving information to the media was hiding the truth. Guy Caron was up next, and he returned to the question of the “unacceptable” gift, insisting that it had to be worth over $1000 to be deemed such, and it couldn’t have been an overnight bag (Really? What if it was a Louis Vuitton bag?). Trudeau reiterated that he disclosed the gift to the Commissioner as part of the investigation. Caron was not mollified, and he railed that this was not open or transparent. Trudeau disagreed, and insisted that they were delivering on their promises. Charlie Angus got up next to deliver some sanctimony — and some swipes at the Aga Khan along the way — and Trudeau reminded him that the system is to disclose to the Commissioner. Angus went for a second round, and got the same in return. Continue reading

Roundup: What vice-regal appointment process?

Prime minister Justin Trudeau made two notable vice-regal appointments yesterday – new lieutenant governors for both Newfoundland and Labrador and British Columbia, both women (the first for Newfoundland and Labrador). While the new BC LG is the chair of Vancouver’s YWCA, the new Newfoundland  and Labrador LG is former cabinet minister Judy Foote, which seems like a curiously partisan appointment for a position such as this – especially when Trudeau keeps going out of his way to ensure that there are “independent, non-partisan” appointment processes to other key positions, most especially senators.

The point that none of the stories on these appointments made yesterday was that since Trudeau came to power, he dismantled the process that Stephen Harper put into place to find new vice-regal appointments in a depoliticized fashion. The Harper-era Vice Regal Appointments Committee was headed by the Canadian Secretary to the Queen, had two permanent members, and then had additional ad hoc members for whichever province or territory they had to search for candidates from in order to get the local perspective. Short lists were forwarded to the PM, and for the most part, they were appointments without partisan histories (though the last Manitoba LG appointment was the wife of a former provincial politician it does bear noting). When he came in, Trudeau and his people said that the system was working well, and that they were likely to continue it. Except they didn’t. They replicated portions of it for their Senate nomination committee, but dismantled the Vice-Regal Appointments Committee after they let the memberships lapse, including the post of Canadian Secretary to the Queen (which remains vacant to this day). And the only reason anyone can figure out as to why is because it was simple antipathy to the Harper government, regardless of whether the idea worked. Instead, appointments are made in a black box, and Foote’s appointment seems to indicate that he’s willing to let partisans into these posts in contrast with others.

And don’t get me wrong – I have nothing against Judy Foote personally, and I’m sure she’ll do a fine job, but the whole thing is a bit odd in the context of every other appointment process that Trudeau has put into place (which are interminable and can’t fill any position in a timely manner, Supreme Court of Canada excepted). There was a system that worked. What Trudeau has done instead makes no sense at all.

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Roundup: Gender Budget Breakdown

The great gender-based budget has landed, and aside from the gender aspects, consensus seems to be that it’s not terribly ambitious – but that’s not suprising for a budget that is a year out from an election year. And it does help Bill Morneau list off a few more promises fulfilled amidst modest spending, which has been tempered by the economic uncertainty on the horizon. Debt-to-GDP and the deficit continue to fall, but there are concerns that the revenue projections may be a bit too rosy.

In more specifics, here is a look at how it delivered on the gender front, including pay equity and paternity leave, and even more money for the RCMP to properly investigate sexual assault claims that were deemed “unfounded.” There is more money for Indigenous communities, and more for science and innovation. As expected, there is a commitment to study universal pharmacare to be headed by former Ontario health minister Eric Hoskins, but there were no dollars attached to the project. (The NDP, not surprisingly, are not convinced by the exercise). There’s more money for cyber-security and CSE, but nothing about new fighters or warships (but then again, DND has a procurement capacity bottleneck right now, so perhaps it’s for the best that they’re not piling on new promises). It also contains some $16 million over the next two years to find a new payroll system to replace the Phoenix gong show. The rules for how private corporations will be taxed have been made clearer. There is the expected $50 million over five years for local journalism (to be distributed by one or more independent, non-governmental organizations). And hey, there is also $73 million for the new Ottawa Public Library/Library and Archives Canada joint facility.

Canadian Press has reaction statements of various leaders and stakeholder groups. Maclean’s has compiled some lists as well: fifteen ways it affects your wallet, the eight biggest winners, five ways in which the budget helps families, and six ways it could help shrink the gender pay gap. The Financial Post looks at all the small items that may have escaped your notice.

Meanwhile, Chantal Hébert looks at how the budget positions the Liberals ahead of the 2019 election. Susan Delacourt notes how much of the budget reflects the tough year that Morneau endured. Andrew Coyne delivers a scathing rebuke of the budget and its social justice aspirations in lieu of economic ones.

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Roundup: The IRB’s crushing backlog

Some fairly big news out of the Immigration and Refugee Board, which has decided that they will forgo the legislated timetables for hearing cases, and just hear them in the order that they were received. This after they have run out of internal solutions to manage the ballooning caseload of arrivals crossing the border trying to flee the Trumpocalypse to the south of us, while being under-resourced and understaffed because this government has proven itself utterly incapable of making necessary appointments in a timely manner (Supreme Court of Canada excepted), and this is the mess we find ourselves in as a result.

Now, it needs to be reiterated that the IRB has a long history of problems in managing its backlog, and that it’s not just this current government that has been a problem, but the previous one as well, where they took a system that had an optimal number of cases churning through the system (essentially, there was no actual backlog) and threw a spanner in the works by deciding that they needed to reform the appointment process to involve an exam (which critics at the time declared was because they wanted to stuff it with their cronies). The result of this was a sudden backlog of files that they decided to try and tackle by legislating yet more changes to the system including new timelines, but if memory serves, those changes were criticised as not giving most refugee claimants time enough to get all of their documents in order or get a lawyer that they can trust to help them with their cases, particularly because many of these claimants are traumatized when they arrive and distrusting of authority; the end-result of that was going to mean yet more appeals and court challenges, because they also put in systems that tried to limit those as well. I’m not sure ever got that backlog cleared before the current government decided to reform that appointment process yet again, and here we are, broken process and a system struggling under its own weight, and awaiting yet more promised reforms that have yet to materialize. Slow clap to successive governments for continually dropping the ball on this file.

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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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