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: Freeland brings the vague

The morning belonged to Chrystia Freeland yesterday, starting with her speech on NAFTA renegotiation at the University of Ottawa, followed by her appearance before the Commons trade committee to answer questions – however vaguely – about what the country’s priorities were. And while she did list ten things that Canada is looking for (compared the American wish list of 100 items), she didn’t bow to opposition pressure to negotiate in the media, or to lay out which of the items on that list were merely for show, whether that’s the proposed chapter on gender or Indigenous issues. It was driven home several times that yes, Supply Management is going to be defended (no matter how many times the different opposition parties have tried to play the game that only they truly love the system). And as for talk about things like harmonizing regulations – a constant promise that never seems to make much progress no matter which government is in power in either country – it has become clear that this is something that the government began doing their homework on since Trump began raising trade issues in the 2016 US election.

Meanwhile, Paul Wells evaluates Freeland’s deliberate vagueness in what she was trying to convey about the talks, while Andrew Coyne wonders if the Canadian government’s wishlist isn’t a deliberate attempt to sandbag the talks from the start, possibly in the hopes of keeping things status quo.

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Roundup: Prepping for trade talks

Starting this week, it looks like it’s going to be all NAFTA, all the time, as trade talks get underway. Chrystia Freeland is kicking things off with a speech in Ottawa today, urging support for an overhaul, before she goes before a parliamentary committee about the government’s priorities (which I’m sure there will be a certain amount of vagueness about because I’m sure she’s not looking to negotiate in the media). While Freeland and Justin Trudeau have been making noises about labour and environmental standards of late, the red line will likely remain a dispute resolution mechanism, given our disadvantages with American litigiousness and their compliant courts.

In light of these talks, here’s a look at how the benefits are often invisible to Canadians, how populism is affecting negotiations – particularly among the Americans, and how energy could be an area where NAFTA does a great deal of good – assuming that it gets to the table this time around. Here is a look at the lead US negotiator, and how various groups back here in Ottawa are lobbying the government ahead of negotiation. And no examination of the negotiations would be complete without a reminder of previous trade talks with the US, going as far back as pre-Confederation times.

Meanwhile, John Geddes sets the stage for the talks, while Andrew Coyne makes the point that Canada’s leverage in these talks is the ability to walk away, seeing as we survived without free trade for 120 years and we can do it again.

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Roundup: Forcing a narrative onto Petronas’ facts

Over the past few days, we’ve seen a spike in concern trolling editorials about the state of natural resources projects in Canada, predicated by Petronas’ decision to cancel the Pacific NorthWest LNG plant in BC. And reading through these editorials, be they from John Ivison, the National Post editorial board, or Licia Corbella (well, that one I’m not bothering to read or link to because she’s a fabulist who doesn’t deserve clicks), but the effect is the same – woe is Canada’s energy sector because of too much government regulation. They also claim that the excuse of market conditions is just political cover.

The problem with that, however, is that it doesn’t actually take the facts into account – it’s merely asserting their pre-existing narrative onto the situation, which is why it’s well worth your time to read Andrew Leach’s exploration of the economic case and conditions for why Pacific NorthWest didn’t go ahead. And when people like Ivison say that projects are going ahead in the US and Australia, Leach explains why (and it has a lot to do with pre-existing infrastructure that BC doesn’t have). So yes, there is a very big market reason why the project was cancelled, and perhaps these editorialists should actually read up on just what that is before they make facile pronouncements, because trying to force a narrative onto the facts is doing a disservice to Canadians.

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Roundup: A Northern SCC justice?

The government announced yesterday that they have begun the process for searching for the next Supreme Court of Canada justice, which it should be noted is almost record-breaking in how fast they got this particular process started, as normally it takes them six months to a year to get a process even started, by which time the vacancy has happened and terms need to be extended (which isn’t possible in this case). And while this is notable in and of itself, there was something else notable – that they are explicitly looking for a justice from either the West or the North.

Why this is important is because it seems to demonstrate that they learned their lesson from the previous SCC appointment process, when they toyed with finding a justice who was not from Atlantic Canada despite it being a traditionally Atlantic Canadian seat that was vacant, and there was some pretty big uproar which they tried to pooh-pooh with talking points about how some of those federalist notions were perhaps a bit archaic and they were trying to find a bilingual justice (which was difficult for that region, even more so if they were trying to find someone Indigenous or a person of colour). That will be less of a problem in the West, but the fact that they also mentioned the North is a bit curious.

As it stands, some territorial cases, particularly at the appeal level, are heard in courts in provinces like BC or sometimes Ontario, because there simply aren’t enough judges and infrastructure in place to do the job up North. And while it’s not necessary that one be a judge to get a Supreme Court nomination (they must be a member of the bar, but can come from private practice or even a law school), it is a bit peculiar that they have expanded their search in such a way. It is the first time that such a consideration has been made, which is no doubt part of this government’s constant attempts to pat themselves on the back, and their language about the “custom of regional representation” still sounds a bit like they’re making it out to be less of an important deal than it is, which is a problem because the principles of federalism are a pretty big deal given how this country works. I would say that it also raises the possibility of raising hackles in the West because it could open them up to accusations that they’re depriving the West of representation on the Court (the West typically has two seats, one of which is currently held by Justice Brown from Alberta, so no, Alberta has no room to raise a fuss), but one could imagine that BC would very well make an issue of it if they felt like it. Granted, if they do find someone from the North, it could provide some greater perspective on the Court – or it could simply be yet another reason for back-patting. We’ll find out in a few months’ time when the decision is made. (And for the record, the plan is to name the new Chief Justice after the vacancy is filled).

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Roundup: Caretakers and emergencies

The situation in BC, where there is an emergency situation of wildfires and evacuations in the midst of a change of government, can be pretty instructive as to how our system of government works. Right now, as with during an election period, the machinery of government goes into “caretaker” mode, and because Christy Clark remains the premier until the moment John Horgan is sworn in, she is able to respond to the situation as she is doing now.

This is why, after Clark’s visit to the lieutenant governor, the statement from the LG was that she “will accept her resignation,” not that Clark has resigned on the spot.

Why is this important? Because the Crown must always have someone to advise them, especially in circumstances like this. Add to that, we have a professional, non-partisan civil service means that they are already in place, and don’t need to have a massive new appointment spree to fill the upper layers like they do in the US. That means that they can respond to these kinds of situations, and while the caretaker government gives the orders, the incoming government’s transition team is being briefed so that they can handoff the files when they form government. It’s an elegant system that we’re lucky to have.

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Roundup: Charles and Camilla in Iqaluit

Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, arrived in Canada, starting their tour in Iqaluit to talk about revitalising the Inuit language – project he has taken great interest in, and last year invited some Inuit delegates to Wales to hear about how they had success in revitalising the Welsh language there. While Charles’ official role in Canada is somewhat ambiguous now that we have a dubious succession law on the books (thanks to the previous government), he is nevertheless the heir to the Crown. The tour moves to Trenton and Prince Edward County in Ontario today, and Ottawa for Canada Day on Saturday.

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Roundup: Clarity is not an appeal

With another court case involving First Nations children, you’d expect there to be a bunch of hue and cry, and there certainly has been, but I wonder how much of it is actually misplaced. In this case, the government is seeking clarity from the court on a couple of aspects of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal decision on applying Jordan’s Principle, which is not an appeal. I’ve seen all manner of people, from reporters to advocates on Twitter railing that the government is appealing the decision. Asking for clarity is not an appeal.

If you actually read the story, they have legitimate concerns about the restrictions around case conferencing and on timelines in the decision, both of which seem to be pretty fair concerns to have given that both ministers are medical doctors and have expertise in what these issues mean. And I fail to see how getting clarity is trying to find a loophole to get out of the decision – it doesn’t track with either the promises, the investments made, or the fact that the whole file is more complex than many of the advocates would let on. You can’t simply pour money into a system that doesn’t have the capacity to absorb it and distribute it effectively, and you can’t just wave a magic wand into a jurisdictional minefield like this particular decision addresses and expect that everything will always have the best outcome by sheer force of willpower, especially when there are areas that are unclear to players involved.

The fact that I’ve been a justice reporter for the past couple of years means that I’ve been exposed to a lot of the sensitivities involved in complex cases, and this certainly qualifies, despite what certain advocates and opposition MPs would have one believe. Outrage that the government is going to court isn’t necessarily warranted, and most of the time, it’s been pretty disingenuous, whether it’s on this case, or in assessing the damages in the Sixties Scoop class action, where again advocates, opposition MPs, and even reporters characterized it as an appeal when it wasn’t an appeal – it was the next stage in a process where they needed to determine damages on a case-by-case basis rather than simply mailing out cheques. Not every time the government goes to court is nefarious, and people need to calm down because there is a lot of crying wolf going on that’s helping nobody, most especially the people who these decisions are supposed to benefit.

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Roundup: Not a real QP fix

Earlier in the week, the NDP put a motion on the Order Paper that they plan to use for a future Supply Day. The text of it, presented in the NDP House Leader Murray Rankin’s name reads as thus:

May 9, 2017 — Mr. Rankin (Victoria) — That Standing Order 11(2) be replaced with the following: “The Speaker or the Chair of Committees of the Whole, after having called the attention of the House, or of the Committee, to the conduct of a Member who persists in irrelevance, or repetition, including during responses to oral questions, may direct the Member to discontinue his or her intervention, and if then the Member still continues to speak, the Speaker shall name the Member or, if in Committee of the Whole, the Chair shall report the Member to the House.”

As Kady O’Malley points out, this would actually be a binding Supply Day motion, as it involves the Commons moving changes to its own rules, and the effect of which is to give the Speaker much more power to police answers given by enhancing the orders around irrelevant or repetitive answers. And on paper, it sounds great. I’m just not sure that this will work in practice.

For starters, this is attacking a mere fraction of the actual problem that we face in the House of Commons. It’s not just the answers that are lacking – it’s the questions (which are as repetitive and irrelevant as the answers), and in many cases, they’re not actually questions, but meandering speeches disguised as rhetorical questions, or non sequitur accusations for which there can be no answer. Empowering the Speaker alone will not solve the problem – the whole ecosystem in the House of Commons needs to change, which means banning scripts, loosening up the clock, and doing away with the established speaking lists. The rigid structure and scripted nature is now all about creating a buffet of media clips, and simply empowering the Speaker to compel answers by means of naming and shaming is not going to fix the underlying problems.

The second problem is that this is something that can very quickly be abused. In fact, you can guarantee that if this were implemented that the very first series of questions that the Opposition would ask would be a trap for the Prime Minister – as much of a trap as their constant questions on Wednesday about the Ethics Commissioner investigation were. That Trudeau refused to step into said trap was a political calculation that has endeared nobody in the whole sordid affair, and everyone came off looking petty. Compelling the PM to walk into traps on a daily basis will quickly become a major problem.

A third major concern is that enforcement of this rule change is going to cause all manner of problems if the opposition doesn’t see the Speaker enforcing this to their liking. Accusations of favouritism or partisanship will soon flow, and there will be tears and recriminations. Nobody will win. So while I appreciate the sentiment of this motion, and would agree with it to a very limited degree, until we get the bigger and more important changes, this simply becomes a bigger problem than the one they’re trying to solve.

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QP: Infrastructure Bank blues

It was a grey day in the Nation’s Capital, and outside of the Centre Block, the lawn was littered with Catholic high school students bussed up to the Hill for the March for Life, with a couple of Conservative leadership candidates in the mix. Rona Ambrose led off, concerned about potential waste and duplication created by the Infrastructure Bank, and cited a KPMG report that the government commissioned (highlighted by a Globe and Mail story, of course). Amarjeet Sohi defended the Bank as delivering funds after a decade of inconsistent investment by the previous government. Ambrose suggested that the Bank was simply giving money to billionaires, but Sohi insisted that they were delivering for communities. Ambrose tried a third time, but Sohi listed possible projects the Bank could fund. Alain Rayes picked up the line of questioning in French, considering it “Sponsorship Scandal 2.0.” Sohi carried on with his points about what it could fund. Rayes railed about redacted documents around consultations conducted about the Bank, but Sohi insisted that the documents given to investors were all online. Matthew Dubé and Rachel Blaney worried about tolls associated with projects funded by the Bank in both official languages (Sohi: Your party has no plan for infrastructure), and then both turned to the KPMG report (Sohi: Here are some Canadian funds who want to invest in infrastructure).

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