If there’s one thing that we’re talking about right now that’s not the interminable Standing Orders debate, it’s Senator Lynn Beyak, of the “well intentioned residential schools” remarks, which came shortly after her incomprehensible remarks about trans people while saying that good gays don’t like to cause waves. And after being removed from the Senate’s Aboriginal Peoples committee, she put out a press release that didn’t really help her cause.
Of course, the more we talk about Beyak in the media and demand that Something Must Be Done about her, the more it’s going to embolden her and her supporters. The fact that she’s starting to martyr herself on the cause of “opposing political correctness” is gaining her fans, including Maxime Bernier, whom she is supporting in the leadership. Bernier says he doesn’t agree with her statement about residential schools, but he’s all aboard her “political correctness” martyrdom. Oh, and it’s causing some of the other Conservative senators to close ranks around her, because that’s what starts to happen when someone on their team is being harassed (and before you say anything, my reading of Senator Ogilvie’s “parasites” comment was more dark humour in the face of this situation than anything, and reporters taking to the Twitter Machine to tattle and whinge makes We The Media look all the worse).
But seriously, Beyak is not an important figure. She’s marginal at best within her own party, and her comments have marginalized her position further. But the more that people continue to howl about her, or post e-petitions demanding that the government remove her (which is unconstitutional, by the way), the more she turns herself into a martyr on this faux-free speech platform that is attracting all manner of right-wing trolls, the more she will feel completely shameless about her words. We’ve shone the spotlight, but sometimes we also need to know when to let it go and let obscurity reclaim her.
How did this Beyak thing turn into a free speech issue? Was she arrested? Jailed? Fined?
Whether through stubbornness or pique, the House of Commons voted to adopt nearly all of the amendments the Senate proposed to Bill C-14, with the exception of the biggest and most important one – the one which would eliminate the requirement of a “reasonably foreseeable” death before someone could be granted medical assistance in dying. And then, the Commons more or less announced that tomorrow will be their last sitting day before they rise for the summer, essentially daring the Senate to return a bill to a chamber that has gone home (well, they are supposed to come back on the 29th for Obama’s address), and leaving the spectre of there being no law in place, which has all manner of medical community stakeholders concerned (never mind that the framework of the Supreme Court of Canada’s Carter decision is in place and would ensure that nobody would be charged for providing the service). It’s a little more ballsy than I would have given the Liberals credit for a few weeks ago, particularly before I saw the background paper that Jody Wilson-Raybould released with her…questionable justification for drafting the law the way it was. Now comes the difficult part – will the Senate stick to their guns and insist that the amendments to eliminate “reasonably foreseeable” be maintained if the bill is to remain constitutional, or will they back down because they’ve made their point and the Commons is the elected chamber?
This is the part where I chime in with a few reminders that this is the reason why our Senate exists the way it does – it enjoys institutional independence and cannot be threatened by the Commons so that they can push back on bills they find unconstitutional, particularly a controversial one like this, where MPs are proving themselves to be timid in the face of a Supreme Court of Canada decision that lays out what they deem to be an appropriate constitutional reading of the issue – something the government is basically flouting in an attempt to push back on this bit of social evolution for as long as possible. And as I’ve stated before, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that the Commons is waiting for the Senate to “force” them to advance things. Will it turn into a ping-pong between the chambers? Not for much longer, I would say, but it is going to depend on who blinks. If the Senate does dig in its heels on this and insist that doing otherwise would be to let an unconstitutional bill pass, then there is every reason to suspect the government take the “forced into this” option and let the Senate be the punching bag when religious and disability groups complain. There are people suggesting that the Supreme Court should break the impasse, which I would loudly denounce because it’s the very last thing we need. It’s not their job, and it would signal a complete abdication of the rights of Parliament and Responsible Government that our predecessors fought long and hard for. (Also, stop demanding these bills be referred to the Court – legislating is not a game of “Mother May I?”). This whole exercise is why the Senate exists. Let’s let them do their jobs.
Honestly, the concern trolling over the perfectly legitimate actions of the Senate on a controversial bill is utterly galling.
The Senate bat-signal is calling me once more, and there’s plenty to discuss, starting with the fact that the Conservatives and Liberals have come to a decision about making space on the committees for “non-aligned” senators to get seats – likely two on each committee. It’s a tacit acknowledgment of the changes happening, and starts living up to a bit more fairness for the growing number of independent senators, but it’s not everything that it’s cracked up to be in part because this was a move made without consulting the Independent Working Group, which is organizing on behalf of seven of those independents (and may grow to include more as the new ones start getting their bearings). There were also 18 vacancies on committees, which this does fill. So it’s a good and welcome change, but there do seem to be a few questions around the process by which this happened.
As for Senator Harder’s budget request, I’m still having a hard time buying it. As he explained, he’s looking to hire a chief of staff (I’m dubious why), a senior policy advisor (okay), a director of communications (sure), three legislative assistants (three sounds like an awful lot), a director of parliamentary affairs (again, a bit dubious), plus an executive assistant and an assistant (I’m not sure why he needs both). It’s not like he has a caucus to manage, even if he is liaising with all parties in the Senate. He went onPower & Politics to insist that this is just like the previous Government Leaders got – but he’s not the Government Leader. They explicitly made this whole distinction so that it was going to be different. He’s not a cabinet minister, so I’m not sure why he needs the same staff as a cabinet minister would. His file management is minimal in comparison, and he has not caucus to manage, legislative agenda of his own to carry out. He’s sheperding the government’s agenda, and possibly answering questions on their behalf in Senate QP, maybe (which we’re not entirely sure about yet, and even then, he still wouldn’t need that much staff for that task). I remain dubious in the face of the task at hand, and the government’s insistence that they’re doing things differently, rather than just putting a new label on the position and being too-cute-by-half about it.
I was set to delve into the eight principles that Maryam Monsef laid out as part of what she plans to work on the electoral reform proposals around, when it turned out that Peter Loewen went ahead and tracked which of the three most likely voting systems corresponded to each principle. Suffice to say, not one system fit with each, which gives rise to the notion that Monsef will have to treat some principles more than others. Now, the NDP were outraged in QP yesterday that proportionality was not on this list of principles, though one could argue that the first principle, that votes are translated into election results without significant distortions, could be an endorsement of proportionality, except of course that it’s a perception problem based on a logical fallacy, which makes its inclusion as a principle to be a problem. I also have a problem with the inclusion of the third principle of using the system to increase diversity. That’s not a problem of the electoral system so much as it’s a problem of how parties seek out and nominate candidates. Most parties are getting better at this, but we should beware that including this principle would give rise to list systems, which in turn give rise to unaccountable token MPs in a two-tiered system. Monsef’s eighth principle, that the system needs to build consensus, is also problematic. Why? Because our system is built to hold people to account, and consensus makes this problematic. If everyone is accountable, then no one is accountable. Of course, I would remind everyone that there’s nothing actually wrong with our system as it is – what’s wrong is our crisis of civic literacy, which means that people don’t understand how the system works, leading them to assume that it’s broken – particularly if they succumb to sore loser tendencies and complain about things like “wasted votes.” If I may be so bold, Monsef is probably better off tinkering with the existing system to encourage greater participation (as we saw examples of in the last election, such as campus polling stations) and education rather than this attempt to rethink the system which will please no one and ensure that everything is worse off than it is now. We don’t have to break the system even further. We can stop this train before it goes off that cliff.
It was Audrey O’Brien Day in the Commons, as the Clerk Emeritus sat at the head of the table as a farewell to her time serving MPs. Rona Ambrose started off by paying tribute to O’Brien before she got to her question about pipelines, and how there was now a tanker ban on the west coast after Northern Gateway was approved (only it wasn’t really approved, as there were 200+ conditions attached). Trudeau also paid tribute to O’Brien before reminding Ambrose that they didn’t get any pipelines built. Ambrose demanded to know if Trudeau would let Energy East or Transmountain go through if they were approved, but Trudeau stuck to generalities. Ambrose tried again, but got a reminder that her government didn’t get pipelines to tidewater in ten years. Denis Lebel was up next, worried about the lack of information in the budget. Trudeau reminded him of the promises that they made to families in the election. Lebel tried to burnish his government’s record, but Trudeau’s answer didn’t change. Thomas Mulcair was up next, and after a brief homage to O’Brien, lambasted the government for approving the Saudi LAV deal. Trudeau reminded Mulcair of statements he made regarding the jobs in question and not cancelling agreements. Mulcair then accused Trudeau of using numbered companies to avoid taxes, but Trudeau insisted that all taxes were paid. Mulcair pressed, and Trudeau reminded him that he has been open about his financial holdings. Mulcair asked again in English, and Trudeau stood by his disclosures.
Those seven new independent senators are now sworn in and installed, and it seems the Conservative spared no time in trying to insist that they were all secretly Liberal partisans, particularly the new “government representative,” Senator Peter Harder. In response to questions during a restored non-ministerial Senate QP, Harder said that he was recommended for appointment by the Institute for Research on Public Policy, and that he had no communication from the government about it. He also claimed he didn’t intend to be partisan, but be a kind of bureaucratic presence who could field questions on behalf of the government, while relaying concerns to cabinet on occasion. Harder also said that the new practice of bringing ministers to the chamber to answer questions would continue, and be expanded to 40 minutes, which is not a bad thing. What I am a bit more concerned about is the fact that Harder is talking about making amendments to the Parliament of Canada Act to start formalizing some of these changes that Trudeau has imposed on the Senate, but I’m not seeing much in the way of collaborating this with the other efforts to modernise the Senate’s operations. That this would be a discussion around the cabinet table and not involve senators themselves, based on Harder’s statements, is concerning because it does seem like meddling in the way the Senate operates – something Trudeau has already been doing with little regard for the consequences – despite the fact that none of them are in the Senate, particularly under this new regime. I don’t want to go so far as to say that he’s meddling in the Senate’s privilege, but it’s getting close to the line in some cases. The Senate is the institutional memory of parliament, and is supposed to have a longevity for a reason, which is why Harder insisting that it’s not unusual for governments to tinker with the Act to reflect stylistic preferences rubs me the wrong way. I also have some sympathy for the concern that “government representative” is a fairly American term that’s not really reflected in our Westminster traditions (though perhaps Australia’s “Washminster” system may find a more analogous term. We’ll see what Harder starts implementing soon enough, but I do retain a sense of scepticism.
While new senators were being sworn in down the hall, all of the leaders were present for QP in the Commons, and everyone was raring to go. Rona Ambrose led off, reading from her mini-lectern, asking about how the budget numbers don’t add up. Justin Trudeau stated, matter-of-factly that they were putting money in Canadians’ pockets. Ambrose listed people who felt the budget lacked transparent, but Trudeau was undaunted in lauding the good news of the budget. Ambrose accused him of blocking projects like pipelines, and Trudeau hit back a little more pointedly about how “shouting pipelines into existence” didn’t work. Denis Lebel was up next, worried that the infrastructure envelope was thin, and Trudeau lauded the funding. Lebel launched a paean about how great the infrastructure funding was under their government, but Trudeau reminded him that their arguments failed to convince Canadians in the fall. Thomas Mulcair was up next, and got an ovation from the whole of the Commons. He repeated the false equivalency of that Shelly Glover fundraiser with the Jody Wilson-Raybould fundraiser, to which Trudeau listed all of the rules and said that they were being followed. Mulcair switched to the Panama Papers and the story that CRA officials went to work for KPMG, and Trudeau recalled the new funds for CRA in the budget. Mulcair repeated a bunch of dubious accusations and demanded an investigation into KPMG, and Trudeau repeated the funds for CRA. Mulcair closed the round with a question on EI reform, and Trudeau listed the reforms made so far.
The party that changed the accounting rules every year worries that we can't trust the numbers now. #QP
Following the surprise upset of Thomas Mulcair’s leadership yesterday, it was not difficult to see why he was absent for the first QP after the Easter break. As for the prime minister, he was also absent but we’re not quite sure why. Rona Ambrose led off, script on lectern, asking about a particular kidnapping case, for which Omar Algabra assured her that they were willing to meet at any time. Ambrose shifted to the “betrayal” of small business taxes, for which Bill Morneau insisted that their other measures would help small businesses. Ambrose wondered if Trudeau still believed that small businesses were just ways for the wealthy to shelter taxes, to which Bardish Chagger insisted that wasn’t the case at all. Denis Lebel took over in French, asking about infrastructure spending, for which Amarjeet Sohi listed the various infrastructure funds. Lebel insisted that the funds were already committed by the previous government, but Sohi noted that it wasn’t getting spent. Peter Julian led off for the NDP, asking about the minister of justice’s fundraising. Jody Wilson-Raybould assured him that she cleared the activity and there was no conflict. Julian kept up, to which Dominic LeBlanc to repeat the answer with a little more scorn poured on. Marjolaine Boutin-Sweet worried about a CRA employee going to work on the KPMG board while they were under investigation, for which Diane Lebouthillier recited the new funding for the agency to go after tax cheats. Boutin-Sweet raised the Panama Papers and asked the question again in French, and Lebouthillier noted that there were rules around those who leave the Agency.
Well, that was unexpected. After the NDP voted to adopt a resolution that would see them take the Leap Manifesto back to their riding associations for further discussion – much to the protests of their Alberta delegates – Thomas Mulcair took to the stage to give a lacklustre speech that was basically a rehash of his election speech for the past, oh, ten months, with the whole laundry list of applause lines and nothing about why he deserves to stay at the helm. And when the party voted, they voted 52 percent in favour of a leadership review. Mulcair indicated that he plans to stay on as interim leader until a new one can be chosen, which may be a process of up to two years, but we’ll see how long that lasts once the caucus and national council have had their deliberations. Suffice to say, there has been a tonne of reaction. Jen Gerson digs into the events a little more including some local reaction to the Leap Manifesto resolution adoption, while Jason Markusoff discusses that adoption on the Alberta NDP. Markusoff and John Geddes enumerate eleven signs that showed that Mulcair wasn’t going to win the review vote. Here are the five steps the party needs to take next regarding the leadership, and a look back at the results of leadership reviews in years past. CBC looks at some possible contenders for the leadership contest, while Don Braid advises Rachel Notley to divorce her party from the federal NDP. Chantal Hébert notes that the writing was on the wall for Mulcair from the start of the convention, while Michael Den Tandt says that the Leap Manifesto will sink the NDP permanently. Paul Wells delivers a tour de force with the questions that the party now has to grapple with as they choose that new leader, and the divides that future leader will have to straddle.
One of the big things that emerged from the Duffy trial yesterday was a raft of new emails released from Nigel Wright, along with Wright’s testimony. While none of it was particularly damning to the prime minister, a number of pundits and journalists were baying over the Twitterverse and elsewhere that “this proves that the PMO is controlling the Senate! Where’s the independence?” and so on, I’m going to get everyone to take a deep breath and calm down. Yes, the PMO has been playing the Senate leadership – not the Senate itself – like its own private pawn. I’m not going to dispute that fact. But I am going to offer some context. First of all, Stephen Harper broke the Senate with his petulant refusal to make appointments from 2006 to 2008, and then made mass appointments, which damaged the chamber. (Refresher read here). He had a Senate leader who did his bidding without question, which is a problem. Because said Senate leader had so many newbie senators under her wing who did her bidding without question, it set up a power dynamic that allowed the PMO to exercise power levers that don’t actually exist. Wright complained about this lack of levers at times in his correspondence, and we also know that the Senate staff, including committee clerks, were pushing back against this PMO control, even to the point of threatening legal action. (And to that point, this BuzzFeed headline is wrong – they weren’t “rogue staffers,” they were Senate staffers instead of political ones). This makes it a problem of actors instead of institutions. As it is designed, the Senate is already a bastion of institutional independence – appointed Senators have absolutely nothing preventing them from speaking truth to power, because they are protected right up to a retirement age of 75, which in turn protects them from needing to curry favour with the PM to get a post-Senate appointment to a board or tribunal. The system is designed to ensure that they can be fully independent – the problem is that the current crop of Conservative senators has chosen not to be, whether it’s out of ignorance of their role, sentimentality for the prime minister who appointed them, or the fact that they sincerely believe he knows what’s best, so they’ll do what he asks. I can’t think of any way to tinker with the system to prevent that. As a rule, senators get better with age, and when a party leadership changes, they tend to get really independent in a hurry, but until that point, this remains a problem of political actors instead of institutions.