Roundup: Legislative hostages

Every few months this story comes around again – that the government misses have a senate that acted more like a rubber stamp than the active revising body that they are. And the government – and Trudeau in particular – will say oh no, we believe in an independent senate, and we want them to do their jobs, unless of course that means amending budget bills, in which case they invent reasons why the Senate isn’t supposed to amend them, because they’re money bills (not true – the Senate is only barred from initiating money bills, not from amending them), and so on. And lo, we have yet another example this past weekend, but this time over the transport bill that is currently in the Senate. But because this is an omnibus bill with several parts to it (which isn’t to say that it’s an illegitimate omnibus bill – these are all aspects dealing with transportation issues), and because the government wouldn’t let it be pulled apart, the easier stuff couldn’t get passed first while they dug into the more challenging parts. But, c’est la vie.

What does bother me, however is this particular snideness that comes from some of the commentariat class over these kinds of issues.

The three senators in this case were Senators Carignan, Mercer, and Lankin. Two of the three, Carignan and Lankin, had previously served in elected office. They’re no more or less unknown than the vast majority of MPs, and “unaccountable” is one of those slippery terms in this case because they exist to hold government to account. They’re also just as much parliamentarians as MPs are, for the record, not simple appointees. Gilmore also has this bizarre notion that the business of accountability – which is the whole point of parliament – is somehow “holding hostage” the work of the elected officials. Last I checked, the point of parliament wasn’t to be a clearing house for the agenda of the government of the day, but rather, to keep it in check. That’s what they’re doing, just as much as judges – you know, also unknown, unaccountable appointees – do.

The one partial point I will grant is the “self-righteous” aspect, because some senators absolutely are. But then again, so are a hell of a lot of MPs. The recent changes to the selection process for senators may have amped up some of that self-righteousness for a few of them, but to date, nobody has actually held any legislation hostage, and the government has backed down when they knew they were in the wrong about it. So really, the process is working the way it’s supposed to, and that’s a good thing.

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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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QP: Of Poilievre and pabulum

With the PM off to Toronto for the day, and Andrew Scheer at the funeral of Senator Enverga, it meant no major leaders present. That left Alain Rayes to lead off for the Official Opposition, concern trolling that some Liberal backbencher have anonymously groused to the media about Bill Morneau’s apparent ethical issues, to which Morneau stood up to deliver his well-rehearsed lines about working with the Ethics Commissioner and he has since gone above and beyond. Rayes gave a usual disingenuous list of “apparent” conflicts of interest, and Morneau gave the line about the opposition going after him because they couldn’t fault his economic performance. Rayes raised their previous Supply Day motion around demanding Morneau disclose all of his assets (never mind that he has), and wanted a free vote on it. Morneau responded with some well-worn pabulum. Candice Bergen took over in English, demanding disclosure, and Morneau reminded her that he already has. Bergen disingenuously worried about the lack of a blind trust (which the Commissioner didn’t recommend) and that he “forgot” about his Villa in France (incorrect: he disclosed the villa but forgot to disclose the ownership structure), and Morneau gently pushed back. Guy Caron led off for the NDP, concern trolling that Morneau Shepell has a number of government contracts, to which Carla Qualtrough reminded him that all procurement processes are open and transparent. Caron also raised those anonymous Liberals crying to the media, and Morneau responded with some usual pabulum. Hélène Laverdière was up next, and raised former NDP MP Craig Scott’s brief to the International Criminal Court to demand that Canada also be investigated for war crimes in Afghanistan, to which Chrystia Freeland responded that Canada respects the Court, and our Forces respected the codes of conduct. Laverdière asked again in French, and got the same answer.

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QP: Veteran benefits before reruns

Thursday before a constituency week, and not only were the benches starting to thing out, but Elizabeth May was the only leader present, not counting “parliamentary leader” Guy Caron. Conservative Quebec lieutenant Alain Rayes led off, railing about the news that elite soldiers who are ill or injured for more than six months will have their benefits cut off. Diane Lebouthillier — surprisingly (but with neither the veterans affairs minister or his parliamentary secretary present) — answered, saying that there was a six-month grace period, and they got a pay increase and have added benefits. Rayes repeated the question, and this time Kent Hehr, the former minister, offered assurances that veterans were a priority. Rayes offered some added sanctimony for the apparent callous treatment of said troops. Hehr repeated his answer, before Candice Bergen got up to repeat the question in English, and Lebouthillier got back up to repeat her previous answer, noting that the Chief of Defence Staff had reviewed the file. Bergen got back up to try and lump this with the other faux scandals, but Lebouthillier reiterated her answer. Guy Caron got up next, leading for the NDP, demanding to know if CRA had recouped $25 billion of it had simply been identified. Lebouthillier essentially confirmed the latter, saying that they were “on the way” to recouping it. Caron railed that KPMG’s clients were not being named and shamed on the CRA website, but Lebouthillier repeated her response. Alexandre Boulerice got up next to rail about what tax avoidance was considered abusive, but Lebouthillier praised the work that CRA was doing. Boulerice ranted about tax treaties, and Lebouthillier noted that those treaties are now the CRA is able to conduct investigations and lay charges.

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Roundup: Blame Dawson or the system?

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

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

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

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

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Senate QP: McKenna dissembles

After another day of tedium in the Other Place, the Senate paid host to Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, to answer questions about her portfolio. Senator Larry Smith started off, with a question about the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and grumbled that Canadian dollars were going to projects not subject to upstream and downstream tests while Canadian pipeline projects were. McKenna first praised the made-in-Canada climate plan before noting that they ensured their planned reforms to the environmental assessment project needed to ensure that trust was rebuilt. Smith worried about the government sending mixed messages in investing in projects that don’t have the same regulation or restrictions as at home, worrying that it would impact assessments here. McKenna noted that pipeline projects in Canada were approved, that Energy East was a market decision, then turned to meetings she has been having with stakeholders to get growth in Canada while respecting the environment.

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QP: Strange Paradise Papers storylines

With the Paradise Papers dominating the headlines, and the 150th anniversary of Parliament setting the mood on the Hill, there was going to be a mixed tone. Four previous prime ministers, two former Speakers, and a handful of retired senators were in the Galleries to watch for the anniversary and the speeches that would follow QP.

Andrew Scheer led off, mini-lectern on desk, and he immediately launched into the revelation that Stephen Bronfman was named, then launched the weird non-sequitur about Bronfman going to the state dinner at the White Huose, but the minister of natural resources did not. Trudeau first read a statement about the mass shooting in Texas before noting that they were committed to fighting tax evasion and avoidance. Scheer made the connection between the proposed tax changes and these alleged tax avoiders, and Trudeau reiterated that they were committed to fighting tax evasion. Scheer switched to French to ask again, and Trudeau reiterated his same response. Scheer accused Bronfman of trying to influence the government in protecting offshore accounts. Trudeau said that he would let individuals answer for their own activities, before repeating that they had invested in the CRA and were on track to recoup some $25 billion. Scheer then listed all of the supposed way in which the government was touching the middle class to protect those hiding income offshore, to which Trudeau recited their list of accomplishments in helping the middle class. Guy Caron was up next, railing about Bronfman, the older KPMG investigations, and other avoidance schemes. Trudeau reminded him about the billon-dollar investment they made in the CRA, and fruits that it was yielding. Caron repeated the question, got the same response, and then Alexandre Boulerice took over for the same questions with additional bombast in French, and lo and behold, got much the same answer in French, before going one more round of the very same.

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QP: Here’s how your riding benefitted!

A rainy Wednesday in Ottawa, and all of the leaders were once again in the Commons, awaiting QP — three days in a row! It’s been a long time since that happened. Andrew Scheer led off, mini-lectern on desk, reading a stilted condemnation of Bill Morneau. Justin Trudeau reminded him that they have an Ethics Commissioner to protect the integrity of the institutions. Scheer insisted that it only works when they disclose, as the villa was not (not entirely true — the villa was disclosed but not the ownership structure), and Trudeau reiterated that they have confidence in the Commissioner. Scheer tried to press on when he learned about the villa’s ownership corporation, and Trudeau reminded him that they have a habit of attacking officers of parliament. Scheer accused the government of “hiding” things from the Commissioner — not really true — and then demanded to know if the Ethics Commissioner was advised of Morneau’s recusals, and Trudeau offered the lecture on the importance of opposition and why it was important to have a Commissioner that was above that. Scheer demanded to know if the Commissioner was advised before Bill C-27 was tabled, and Trudeau reiterated that they work with the Commissioner constantly. Guy Caron was up next, leading for the NDP, and read out statements that Trudeau made about leadership and accountability during the Harper era, and accused him of not living up to his word. Trudeau insisted that he has raised the bar with openness and transparency, and after a second round for the same in French, Marjolaine Boutin-Sweet repeated much the same question in French. Trudeau reminded the House about their move for proactive disclosure that the NDP balked at. Boutin-Sweet repeated the question in English, and got much the same reply.

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Roundup: A surprise by-election win

In the two federal by-elections that took place last night, it was no surprise that the Conservatives won handily in Sturgeon River–Parkland riding that Rona Ambrose used to hold. Mind you, the newly elected MP there, Dane Lloyd, may prove to be uncomfortable given his past history of saying some fairly controversial things, but that’s now Andrew Scheer’s problem to manage. The real surprise, however, was that the Liberals won the Quebec riding of Lac Saint-Jean, the former riding of Denis Lebel. Why is it so surprising? Because for a Conservative riding where the NDP were a close second in the 2015 election, this time around it was a Liberal victory, with the Conservatives barely managing second place, the Bloc in a close third, and the NDP a distant fourth. And this was the Liberals’ weakest Quebec showing in 2015 and a riding that they haven’t held since 1980.

So can we draw any conclusion from these results? Probably not yet – it’ll probably take a few days to suss out the data and get a sense of what happened on the ground, but it does bear mentioning that the of the three opposition parties, all of them had new leaders, and each of them spent a fair bit of time in the riding over the past couple of weeks, hoping to drum up support. That the Conservatives lost the riding may simply be indicative that the riding was more loyal to Lebel himself than the party he ran for (remember that he was a former mayor from the region), but it can’t be a ringing endorsement of Scheer either. And while the pollsters are all out in force talking about the Liberals’ fall from grace in their polling numbers lately, the fact that the Liberals still managed to win a seat that the Conservatives held, even amidst weeks of headlines about tax changes and Bill Morneau’s assets, in a region where they didn’t have any historic strength, probably still says something about the party’s appeal nationally. Maybe it’s about the collapse of the NDP vote in Quebec, which could possibly be a harbinger of things to come under Jagmeet Singh? Maybe it’s the appeal of sock diplomacy and selfies? Suffice to say, it’s going to be an interesting few days for all of the parties as they figure out what happened, and prepare for the next round of by-elections.

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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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