Roundup: Suspicions about political donations

The Star has a story that shows how a recently appointed judge made donations to the Liberal Party in the past couple of years – $1800 worth over the two fiscal years, in part by attending a fundraising dinner. And after it lays out all of his donations, the story leaves us with this: “It is not unusual for judicial appointees to have made political donations, nor does it break any rules.” Which makes me wonder why they’re making a) an issue out of it, and b) framing the story in such a way that it gives the impression that he bought his appointment, because that’s exactly what the headline screams. Emmett Macfarlane sees an issue, but I’m having a hard time buying it.

Part of my issue is the fact that we’re already at a crisis point in this country when it comes to grassroots democratic engagement, and this current media demonization of any political fundraising hurts that. The more we demand that anyone who has made donations be excluded from jobs, the worse we make the political ecosystem as a whole. Sure, once they’ve been appointed they shouldn’t make further donations – that’s fair. But the fact that he didn’t even make the maximum allowable donation over those two years, and the fact that the amount he’s donated is a couple of billable hours for him, is hardly worth getting exercised over. This isn’t America – we don’t have big money buying candidates here, nor do we have the spectre of elected judges that are entirely interested in getting re-elected. And, might I remind you, the previous government appointed Vic Toews and most of Peter MacKay’s wedding party to the bench, which seems far bigger of an ethical breach. The current government has reformed the judicial advisory committees to broaden the scope of who they’re considering, and considering how slowly the process is going, it’s not believable that they’re simply going through the party donor rolls to find a match. And while Macfarlane insists that it’s not about the dollar amount, but the perception of bias, I am very bothered by the way in which stories like this are framed adds to that perception. It’s driving the perception, not the other way around, and that is a problem when it comes to trying to fix the actual things that are breaking down about our democracy.

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Roundup: Appointment backlog woes

The National Post has a really good piece looking into the current backlog of appointments and the effect it’s having on the functioning of government. It’s something that has been talked about a lot, but it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a good breakdown of those vacancies, and the effect that it’s having. It’s one of those subjects that sounds pretty easy to grumble about, but it’s also something that we should take a step back and realise that to a certain extent, the goals of reforming the appointments process has been laudable, and in many cases, overdue when it comes to increasing the level of diversity into these positions. Over the course of my reporting, a lot of civil society actors have praised the move (while still being concerned at the timeframe it took for getting the processes up and running) because they all know that the outcomes will inevitably be better over the longer term now that the bulk of positions aren’t simply being filled by straight white men.

That said, I also wanted to just put a bit of additional context around some of this backlog in saying that as much as the Conservatives are baying at the moon about some of these appointments right now, that they were no saints when it came to this sort of thing either, and reformed the appointment process for some of these positions themselves, creating massive backlogs in the process. The two that come to mind immediately are the Immigration and Refugee Board, where they took a functioning system and drove it to dysfunction when they changed that process to “de-politicise it” (with plenty of accusations that they just made the system easier to put their own cronies in) and turning a system where the optimal number of files was churning through into a massive backlog that they tried to blame their predecessors on (sound familiar?). The other was the Social Security Tribunal, which they completely revamped as part of their changes to the system overall, and I’m not sure it ever got fixed before they lost the election, only for the Liberals to turn around to reform the appointment process yet again. So yes, some of the backlogs are bad, but in some cases, ‘twas ever thus, and we should keep that in mind.

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Roundup: Lighting a fire under the minister

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

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

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

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

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Roundup: PBO’s platform peril

Now that the budget implementation bill has passed, the Parliamentary Budget Officer is in the midst of transforming into yet another unaccountable Officer of Parliament that will have a broad mandate and few checks on his actions, given that the government backed down on their attempts to limit the scope of his work. What they didn’t limit was the giving the PBO the mandate to cost election promises by other parties, despite his objections to doing so, and so now his office is being forced to figure out just how they’ll do it. The legislation does make it clear that he’s only to cost individual promises, not their whole campaign, but it’s going to be an enormous amount of work that will be used even more as a cudgel than his work already is, and we can expect an election period being filled with taunts of “See, the PBO says that your plans will cost more than you say and he’s independent,” with the unspoken “Nya, nya!” in there. Oh boy. Anyway, Jennifer Robson has a few more thoughts on the issue.

The bit about a common baseline is possibly important, given that economist Stephen Gordon has been trying to match Liberal election promises to the current budget framework and has found the task to be nigh impossible.

Enforcing common costing baselines may sound like a good idea, but it does make me nervous about campaigns devolving into accounting exercises at the expense of other considerations, including accountability, and that we’ll have repeats of 2008, when we had clear platform commitments shrugged off by reporters going “it’s just so complicated” when a) it wasn’t, and b) it reinforces this “math is hard” narrative that does nobody any favours. But maybe that’s just me.

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QP: Final accusations of the spring

One what was almost certainly the final sitting day (for real!), and after a number of statements for National Aboriginal Day (to be renamed next year), QP was on. Andrew Scheer led off, worrying that the changes to national security laws will make things too difficult for CSIS to do their jobs, per the fears of a former director. Justin Trudeau assured him that they we getting the balance right of safety and protecting rights. Scheer worried that security was being watered down, and Trudeau reiterated that they were getting the balance right. Scheer then changed to the issue of taxes and demanded he listened to the Liberal senators and stop the escalator taxes on beer and wine, and Trudeau reminded him that they lowered taxes on the middle class. Scheer railed about how they were hiking taxes on ordinary people (and no, cancelling a bunch of tax credits does not equal raising taxes), and Trudeau reiterated his response. For his final question, Scheer spun up a hyperbolic rant about all of the awful things the government has done, and Trudeau responded with a list of accomplishments and promises kept. Thomas Mulcair was up next, accusing the government betraying their promises to Indigenous people, and Trudeau assured him that they were committed to reconciliation and the relationship. Mulcair accused the government of breaking their promises on Access to Information, and Trudeau hit back that the NDP were completely absent on the transparency file. Mulcair worried about the Infrastructure Bank and the spectre of user fees, and Trudeau reminded him that they were looking for new ways to invest in the things Canadians need. For his final question, Mulcair railed about fundraisers, and Trudeau said that they were raising the bar and were exhorting the opposition to do the same.

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Roundup: Amendment and attempted intimidation

As the spring sitting of Parliament draws to a close, and the Commons is getting tired and cranky as MPs are restlessly looking to get back to their ridings, all eyes are on the Senate to see if they’ll pass the budget bill unamended so that MPs can leave, or if they’ll be forced to stick around to deal with delays. It looks like the latter is going to happen after the Senate voted to adopt changes made at the committee that would remove the automatic escalator on beer and wine taxes. (There is some debate around this – while on the one hand there is the argument that increases won’t be scrutinized in future years by Parliament, there is also a reminder that the indexation fight was settled years ago).

So while this means that the Commons wasn’t able to rise last night, and may have to stick around until Thursday, depending on whether or not they pass it at Third Reading tonight, and how fast it takes the Commons to turn around a vote on accepting or rejecting (almost certainly the latter) the amendment.

But that’s not the only curious part of this tale. Apparently when the vote was about to happen, all manner of Liberal MPs and ministers arrived in the Senate to watch the vote happen – but not in the gallery. No, they were instead on the floor of the Senate, behind the bar at the entrance.

While this attempt at intimidation is quite unseemly in and of itself, I’ve also been hearing complaints that Senator Peter Harder, the Leader of the Government in the Senate – err, “government representative,” is admonishing senators not to amend bills this late in the game because recalling the House of Commons to pass or reject those amendments “is expensive.”

I. Can’t. Even.

Telling Senators not to do their constitutional duties of reviewing and amending legislation because it might inconvenience a few MPs is gob-smacking in and of itself, but couching it in dollar terms is beyond the pale. Apparently, we can only have parliamentary democracy if it’s done on the cheap. Why have oversight or hold the government to account if it’s going to cost any additional dollars? I guess we might as well pack it all in and roll over for the government – costs too much otherwise. Sweet Rhea mother of Zeus…

Update: It seems there were some Conservatives there as well.

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QP: Tired jabs and deficit questions

Nearly all the desks were filled on what was possibly the final QP of the spring. Andrew Scheer led off, concerned about the “astronomical” debt the Liberals were leaving behind (which, in absolute terms, is one of the envies of the world because it’s quite low). Justin Trudeau reminded him that they won the election on promises to invest. Scheer tried again, giving a lame “budgets don’t balance themselves” quip, and Trudeau again reminded him that they needed to invest after the previous government didn’t and hey, lower taxes for the middle class and the Canada Child Benefit. Scheer railed about all of the new taxes being levied (most of which were not new taxes but cancelled tax credits that had little efficacy), and the PM reiterated that he lowered taxes. Scheer jabbed that Trudeau had never been part of the middle class, and Trudeau hit back that boutique tax credits and lower taxes on the wealthiest didn’t help those who needed it the most. Scheer then turned to the new national security bill, saying it removed needed tools for law enforcement agencies. Trudeau noted that they were balancing community safety with rights and freedoms, and that they welcomed recommendations for amendments. Thomas Mulcair was up next, grousing that the government broke their promise on allowing Access to Information requests to ministers offices and the PMO. Trudeau simply noted that they made the biggest reforms to the bills and increased proactive disclosure. Mulcair tried again with added mocking, but Trudeau didn’t budge, and Mulcair then railed that they kicked journalists out of a party fundraiser. Trudeau reminded him that they have raised the bar on transparency and that other parties weren’t doing. Mulcair tried again in French, but Trudeau’s answer didn’t change.

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Roundup: Demanding ATIP perfection may be the enemy of the good

I find myself torn about the government announcement on new legislation to amend the Access to Information Act because on the whole, they made most of the changes that they promised to, but they failed to uphold one promise, which was to make the Act apply to the PMO and minister’s offices. And yes, We The Media let them know how displeased we were about it.

Part of the problem here is that like so many of their other election promises, it may have been a stupid one – kind of like their promise around electoral reform. Why? Because it was always going to be problematic to promise access to cabinet documents, and there’s a very good reason for that, because much of that information should remain private because it will otherwise damage the ability for there to be unfettered advice to ministers or between cabinet colleagues, and they need to have space to make these kinds of deliberations, otherwise the whole machinery of government starts to fall apart.

Like Philippe Lagassé says, the better discussion would have been to have specific proposals as to what falls under cabinet confidence. Currently the Information Commissioner has some determination around that, and with the changes in this bill, the onus will be reversed – the government will need to convince her (and if that fails, the courts) that information should remain secret, as opposed to her having to take the government to court to get that access. That’s significant.

There is a lot of good in these changes, but I fear that it will be lost amidst the grumbling that it didn’t go far enough. And let’s face it – sometimes We The Media are our own worst enemies when we use Access requests for cheap outrage stories rather than meaningful accountability, and then wonder why the government suddenly clamps down and turns to message control, and worst of all, nobody wants to talk about that problem. That may wind up making things worse for everyone in the end.

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QP: Demands to split the bill

While it was a Monday with the Prime Minister present, the other major leaders weren’t, curiously enough. Alain Rayes led off for the Conservatives, demanding to know when the budget would be balanced. Justin Trudeau reminded him that they had a lot of priorities that they got elected on that they were delivering on after ten years of underinvestment by the previous government. Rayes then wondered why the government wouldn’t split out the Infrastructure Bank out of the budget bill, and Trudeau insisted that it was a centrepiece of the campaign and that there was a need for the Bank and its investments in infrastructure. Rayes tried again, got much the same answer, and then Candice Bergen tried again in English, calling it a slush fund. Trudeau repeated his same points about the need for investment in English, and when Bergen demanded a date for a balanced budget, Trudeau listed the ways in which voters repudiated them in the last election. Ruth Ellen Brosseau led off for the NDP, railing about NAFTA negotiations — including Supply Management, because it wouldn’t be a question from her without Supply Management — and Trudeau insisted that they were looking forward to sitting down with the Americans once negotiations start, but they would defend Canadian interests. After Brosseau asked the same in English and got the same answer, Matthew Dubé demanded that the Infrastructure Bank provisions be split out of the budget bill, and Trudeau noted that it was still a budgetary measure so it wasn’t an abuse of omnibus legislation and that he expected the Senate to pass budget bills passed by the Commons. Dubé switched to French to concern troll about how the Bank affects Quebec, and Trudeau responded that at some point, they needed to deliver on promises, and that was what the Bank was doing for Quebec and Canada.

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QP: The non-existent plan for a non-existent tax

Despite it being a Thursday, the only leader in the Commons was Elizabeth May — because reasons. Candice Bergen led off, demanding an admission that the government ignored American warnings about the Norsat sale. Navdeep Bains assured her that they followed the process and took the advice of our security agencies, who did consult. Bergen wasn’t buying it, but Bains reiterated his point about the process before touting improved economic progress thanks to their being open to trade. Bergen then accused the government of proposing an internet tax, which was entirely disingenuous because it wasn’t the government who floated the idea — it was a committee of backbenchers. Mélanie Joly assured her they would not levy such a tax. Alain Rayes asked the same again in French, got the same answer, and then reiterated the Norsat question in French. Bains repeated his previous points in French, reading from a prepared response. Matthew Dubé led for the NDP, wondering when reforms to the Anti-terrorism Act would finally be tabled. Ralph Goodale assured him that new legislation was on the way. Dubé switched to English to ask again, adding in a clause about lawful access. Goodale accused him of trying to spook people with innuendo, and that the legislation would keep Canadians safe while protecting their privacy rights. Brian Masse raised the Norsat sale, and Bains repeated his same answer. Alexandre Boulerice then raised a question of an EI case, and Jean-Yves Duclos asked him to forward him the details so that he could look into it.

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