Roundup: Mike Duffy, white knight

Oh, Senator Mike Duffy. For his suffering, he has decided to launch a $7.8 million lawsuit against the RCMP, the Government of Canada, and the Senate itself. It’s not just about the two years of suspension without pay, or the reimbursement or legal fees, or indeed about the further clawbacks of his salary that the Senate undertook for his abuse of expense claims, or about the lost income from speaking fees that he could have claimed had he not been dragged through the process. No, Duffy is so concerned about the lack of Charter rights for those who work on the Hill that he’s willing to take on this multi-million-dollar lawsuit for the principle of the matter.

Such a hero.

Now, I will be the first to admit that yes, the way in which Duffy’s suspension handled was hugely problematic, and that his rights to due process were trampled on because of political expediency, it cannot be argued that the Senate was illegitimate in the way it acted because as a self-governing parliamentary body, the Senate not only has the ability to police its own, it is in fact the only body that can police its members because of parliamentary privilege and institutional independence.

While Duffy’s lawyer was effusive in his characterisation of Duffy’s acquittal, I’m not sure that it completely passes the smell test – Duffy was found not to have met the criminal test for fraud and breach of trust, but you cannot say that no rules were broken. The Senate has pointed to numerous examples where this was the case and fined him appropriately, and while he claims that the rules were too loose and vague, that is certainly not the case with all of his rejected claims. And it will raise questions if this suit goes ahead because the judge’s ruling was indeed problematic (and I know for a fact that there are other judges on that same bench who were not keen on it), and without an appeal being raised, that could raise more questions with this trial – if it goes to trial.

Of course, we can’t deny that perhaps Duffy is looking for a settlement of a couple of million dollars, but I’m not sure that of the parties involved, the Senate would bite and go for it. They are still pretty sore about the whole thing and are keen to continue to prove that they are taking a hard line to those who abuse it. I would wager that they are more likely to fight this to the bitter end on principle, come what may.

Meanwhile, Susan Delacourt sees an odd parallel between Duffy and Omar Khadr in that their rights were violated (which is a bit of a stretch, legally speaking), while Christie Blatchford suggests that perhaps Duffy is indeed owed something because his rights to due process were robbed.

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QP: Woe be Vegreville

With the PM away and Rona Ambrose already gone, the Conservatives surprisingly led with Shannon Stubbs, who railed about the plans to close the Vegreville immigration processing centre, in light of revelations of costs associated. Ralph Goodall took this one, noting the difficulty in filling current vacancies in the centre, and that the new centre in Edmonton would double its capacity. Stubbs angrily insisted that the government had lied about the costs, but Goodale insisted that the issue was capacity. Stubbs accused the government of punishing a small town with a Conservative MP in favour of moving it to a Liberal riding, but Goodale stood firm. Gérard Deltell got up next and railed about the government cutting tax credits, to which Scott Brison reminded him that their tax measures helped those who needed it the most. Deltell tried again, railing about the transit tax credit loss (seriously, it was bad policy no matter which way you slice it), and Brison listed the good economic news since the Liberals took power. Thomas Mulcair was up next, and in French, concerned trolled that Bardish Chagger wasn’t up to picking a new Ethics Commissioner. Chagger reminded him of the open and transparent process in place. Mulcair switched to English and wondered what the Liberals would think if Stephen Harper called on Paul Calandra to choose a new Commissioner, but Chagger repeated her answer. Mulcair then turned to the issue of the Official Languages Commissioner, and wondered in what role Gerald Butts communicated with Madeleine Meilleur before her appointment. Joly noted that candidates were vetted and interviewed after a rigorous process and that she spoke with other parties who agreed that she had credentials. Mulcair tried again in French, and got the same answer.

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Roundup: Removing a senator over dinner

It started with a dinner invitation. The Prime Minister invited all of the senators who had thus-far sponsored government legislation to dinner to thank them for their contribution and to, presumably, talk about Senate modernization, and how it was taking shape. One of those senators was a sitting Conservative, Senator Stephen Greene, who had sponsored Bill S-4, on a tax agreement between Taiwan and Israel. The Conservative Senate leader, Senator Larry Smith, decided that if Greene was going to dine with the Prime Minister, that he was out of the caucus. Greene said fine – I’m going to be an Independent Reform Senator.

Part of Smith’s impetus for this move is because the Conservatives in the Senate are trying to preserve the Westminster role of opposition in the Upper Chamber, and that’s not a small thing. And there is a push, led by those like the Government Leader – err, “representative,” Peter Harder, to try and do away with the traditional roles of government and opposition, so that you have one big body of independents, which some of us have a problem with.

The other part of the context here is that Greene has been pushing for reforms in the Senate that would do away with partisan caucuses, and this would have been the final straw for Smith.

I will add that I do think that there is a problem with trying to eliminate the roles of government and opposition in the Senate, and I do think it’s problematic that the government is getting independent senators to sponsor legislation – particularly government legislation, and most especially budget bills. Those should be shepherded by ministers, which the Government Leader should be as opposed to this farcical “government representative” nonsense. Co-opting independents in this way has been problematic not only from a procedural and accountability framework (because ministers should be able to answer on behalf of cabinet when they sponsor such bills), but we have had several instances of independent senators sponsoring these bills with the intent to move amendments to them right away, which complicates their role in sponsoring and defending those bills. Part of this is the growing pains associated with the new reality of the Senate, but it’s also a reflection of this stubborn refusal by the PM to properly appoint a Government Leader who is the point of accountability in the Senate under our system of Responsible Government. Harder is not that, and it is a problem, and what happened to Greene is a fracture point in this bigger issue.

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QP: Rona Ambrose’s swan song

With the news that Rona Ambrose was stepping down now confirmed, and Justin Trudeau present for what was likely the only day this week, QP was off and running. Ambrose led off, asking about the report calling to scrap and replace the National Energy Board. Trudeau noted that they have been consulting, and reiterated that they are serious about ensuring that the economy and the environment go together. Ambrose took exception to the report recommendation that its headquarters be moved to Ottawa from Calgary, and Trudeau took a few shots at the previous government politicising the Board while he was working to restore trust in the process. Ambrose worried that Trudeau was trying to choke out the oilsands in red tape, but Trudeau insisted that a responsible approach would mean growing the economy. Ambrose switched to French to demand that the House appoint a new Ethics Commissioner without any Liberal interference. Trudeau jabbed back about political appointments the Conservatives made while touting his own merit-based process. Ambrose noted that the last question would likely be her final one as leader of the opposition, and said she would call off her attack dogs if he answered how many times he met with the Ethics Commissioner. Trudeau reminded her that she asks them not to talk about investigations and he has met with her several times over his time as an MP, and was going to pay Ambrose a compliment before he was drowned out. Thomas Mulcair was up next, raising the reach of a CBC news story about the ownership of the Aga Khan’s island. Trudeau retreated to the talking point that it was a private family vacation. Mulcair railed about the helicopter ride, but Trudeau noted that he would answer any questions the Ethics Commissioner may have. Mulcair then moved onto the story about someone from KPMG working for the Liberal Party, in the context of a committee study of the firm being voted down, and Trudeau noted that the committee is independent. Mulcair pressed, and Trudeau launched into a spiel about ethics and openness.

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Roundup: Wise asses and the Wise Owls

The snickering and childish guffaws that accompanied the news that the Senate released a children’s book-style brochure about the Senate was predictable. Every single wise ass in the pundit sphere threw in their two cents, many of them in the tiresome form of children’s book verses of their own, detailing how sordid those awful owls really are, and aren’t we clever for subverting this book? Others decried the (meagre) expenses and time used to create such a brochure, never mind that these very same pundits kept wondering aloud why the Senate never promotes itself or its good works. And while a more grown-up brochure was also produced alongside it, nary a soul mentioned that one.

I will be the first to say that The Wise Owls is not without its flaws, particularly in how they allegorically depict how and why the Senate came about. It was not because the House of Commons wasn’t working, and it’s particularly disingenuous to suggest that was the case. The general audience brochure has a more accurate take on that history, but I will also add that one of the problems with that brochure is that it places the legislative role of the Senate above all others under the heading that “Senators are lawmakers.” The abuse of the term “lawmakers” in the Canadian context rankles me because it’s an Americanism owing to how their system works, while our parliamentarians in our system are about holding the government to account, and legislating they do is a by-product of that as opposed to their raison d’être.

Nevertheless, some of the reactions to the book have also been particularly problematic, from Elizabeth May complaining that it’s not good democratic education because it implies that those responsible for sober second thought are wiser than those who are elected, to journalists like Justin Ling, who complain that the message to children is that your elected officials can’t be trusted.

Putting aside the potential that this is petty jealousy – after all, it would seem to be the media’s job to keep telling people that our elected officials are not to be trusted – these complaints ignore the fact that the entire Westminster system is predicated on that very fact – that while it’s all well and good to have elected officials, we still need safeguards against the excesses of populism. It’s why we have a monarch who is a disinterested party that can hit the reset button in times of crisis. It’s why we have an upper chamber that is appointed and not pandering for votes and has the institutional independence to speak truth to power. It’s why our courts don’t rely on judges to tailor their verdicts with an eye toward keeping the public favour in order to seek re-election. The very foundation of our system is that sometimes elected officials need to be reined in, and not by yet more elected officials. It shouldn’t be scandalous that this very same message is what this book exposes children to.

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Roundup: A reasonable plea for restitution

Retired Senator Sharon Carstairs is looking to be reimbursed for some $80,000 in legal fees after being caught up in the Auditor General’s report on expenses, and it’s a tale that exposes how shabbily many senators were treated in the wake of that report. To recap, that AG report essentially made up a bunch of rules that did not exist, particularly around how many days a year constituted “primary residency,” which Carstairs got caught up in. And in a rush to show the public that they were taking this report seriously, the Senate turned over the report directly to the RCMP, and Carstairs was left trying to keep her reputation intact, hence retaining counsel and trying to explain that she hadn’t broken any rules.

What needs to be repeated again with this story is just how problematic that AG report was. When the Senate later retained its own counsel to go over that report to see if they should try to sue any of the senators who had refused to repay or seek arbitration for the identified sums (which included Carstairs), that legal review laid bare the arbitrary rules that the AG imposed as part of his review, and essentially how shoddily it was done. And I know several senators who simply opted to pay back the sum rather than keep fighting it because they wanted it to go away – Carstairs refused, and it looks like she’s going to be punished for it, whether financially with the loss (the maximum reimbursement for legal fees under Senate rules is generally $25,000), but also with the loss of reputation. I would hope that the Senate has had enough time since the audit that they can now revisit this case and offer the apology and what restitution they can, and admit that they were hasty in their actions because they were trying to appease a public that was baying for blood post-Duffy, for what good it did them. I would also hope that more of my media colleagues would also start calling out the AG for the problems in his report when cases like Carstairs’ come up again in the media, but I suspect that won’t happen, as we pay far too much deference to him as being untouchable and infallible, when clearly that’s not the case.

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Roundup: A bad term-limit promise

Senator John Wallace announced yesterday that he’s keeping his pledge to Stephen Harper and resigning after eight years in the chamber despite the fact that he won’t have reached the mandatory age of 75. Of the other cohort of Senators that Harper appointed in late 2008, only Pamela Wallin has indicated that she plans to also end her term after 8 years – but not including the time she was suspended, so she’s got a couple of years left to go. Other senators from that cohort have either said that their pledge was conditional on Harper’s reform plans, which went down in flames after the Supreme Court of Canada shot them down spectacularly, or that they still have things left to accomplish, which is fair. But you know there is a whole crowd of people waiting for them to fail to live up to this “promise.”

Here’s the thing – it was a bad promise that Harper never should have extracted because short term limits are antithetical to the design of our senate, and that a mandatory retirement age of 75 is actually part of its structural guarantees. By having security of tenure, senators are able to exercise institutional independence, and by ensuring that they have employment until age 75, there is not the temptation for them to try to curry favour with the government in order to try and win some kind of post-Senate appointment (be it a diplomatic posting, or heading and administrative tribunal or commission). The lack of term limits like Harper was proposing were part of what is supposed to keep senators more independent and less beholden to the party leaders than MPs are. But it’s not like Harper was trying to undermine the Senate’s ability to be independent – oh, wait. He spent his nine years in power doing exactly that. So no, I will not be joining in the chorus demanding these senators resign, and in fact, I think Wallace is making a mistake in doing so.

Meanwhile, the Senate has grave concerns about bill S-3 on gender inequities in registering First Nations identity with the government, which the minister herself has acknowledged has problems but she wants them to pass it anyway because there’s a court deadline which she said they couldn’t extend, but now it looks like they’re going to. Also, this was a government bill introduced in the Senate so you can’t even claim that it goes against the will of the Commons. Once again, the Senate is doing its job, and oh, look – Andrew Coyne is furiously clutching his pearls over it, while National Post reporter’s description of the current state of the Senate is that they’re moving away from rubber-stamping bills which was never their role in the first place. Honestly, my head is about to explode about this. Again.

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Roundup: Desmond’s deserving recognition

The news was announced yesterday that Bill Morneau had chosen Canadian civil rights icon Viola Desmond to grace the new $10 banknote, which is being hailed pretty much universally as an excellent choice, and certainly the one that I had been hoping for when the shortlist was announced. As soon as it was announced, though, we got inundated with a flood of headlines declaring Desmond to be “Canada’s Rosa Parks,” which starts to grate because Desmond’s stand against segregation began nine years before Parks’ did, but she has largely been an unknown in Canadian history. I hadn’t even really heard of her until the History Minute last year (and side note, not only was it a compelling story, but I was pleased to see that Battlestar Galactica’s Kandyce McClure played her), and it was a reminder that yes, we too had segregation in Canada, albeit a subtler one because it wasn’t entrenched in legislation. That Canadians identify Parks before Desmond is part of our problem with our own history, both in that we have a tendency to whitewash much of it, but also that we are so inundated with Americana that our own achievements get lost in it (such as when Upper Canada was the first jurisdiction in the British Empire to end slavery). Of course, part of why Desmond’s case has been obscured in history has to do with the fact that her case was ostensibly one related to tax evasion (for the one cent theatre tax she did not pay to sit in the lower seats despite requesting to pay the higher priced ticket) and her lawyer didn’t push the racial discrimination angle in court. Hopefully, this inclusion will help to rectify this wrong, to restore Desmond’s rightful place in the history books and in the popular consciousness about civil rights in Canada.

Chatelaine has seven facts about Desmond. Former Nova Scotia lieutenant governor Maryann Francis talks about when she was able to give a Free Pardon posthumously for Desmond and the meaning of it for her. Maclean’s digs into its archives to look at Desmond and the issues of racism in Nova Scotia going back decades.

Meanwhile, there have been a few comments about how our wartime prime ministers, Sir Robert Borden and William Lyon Mackenzie King will no longer be gracing banknotes, while Sir John A Macdonald and Sir Wilfred Laurier are moving from the $5 and $10 banknotes to the $50 and $100, with accusations that this means that we’re somehow “effacing history.” The thing is, Borden and King are in plenty of other places in our history books, while a person like Desmond is not. I think we have room enough to learn about the contributions of more than just the great white men of history and making it more inclusive. That’s hardly effacing history – it’s opening it up.

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QP: The Goldilocks of pipelines

In the wake of yesterday’s big pipeline announcement, it remained to be seen if that would finally knock the fundraising questions off of the agenda. Rona Ambrose led off, lamenting that saying no to the Northern Gateway robbed hope and opportunity from 31 Aboriginal communities who had an equity stake in the project. Justin Trudeau noted that his government did what the previous one could not, and they would protect the environment while still growing the economy. Ambrose went or another round of the same, and Trudeau shot back that they we flailing about for something to talk about. Ambrose worried that Trudeau didn’t have a plan to deal with the Trumpocalyse (not her word) particularly with their tax plans, and Trudeau reminded her that they would engage constructively while working to diversify Canada’s trade markets. Ambrose then wondered when Trudeau would head to BC to get pipeline opponents onside, and Trudeau insisted that he was going about things the right way. Ambrose pivoted to CBC’s proposal to go ad-free for a bigger subsidy, and Trudeau replied that her party didn’t understand cultural industries and their importance. Thomas Mulcair was up next, and raised the issue of 59 First Nations opposed Kinder Morgan. Trudeau said that there were groups on all sides and that the balanced the various interests to make a decision. Mulcair switched to French to lament that the decision was done with Stephen Harper’s process, and Trudeau reminded him of their work with the provinces, particularly with new climate plans. Mulcair moved onto the appeal of a Manitoba case involving First Nations survivors, and Trudeau mouthed some platitudes about working together to move ahead in the relationship. Mulcair’s final question was on electoral reform, demanding that Trudeau keep his election promise, and Trudeau replied that he awaited the committee report and the consultations with Canadians.

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Roundup: Two yays and a nay

The government announced its decisions on three pipelines yesterday – no to Northern Gateway (and a tanker ban on the north coast of BC was also reaffirmed), but yes to Kinder Morgan expansion and Line 3 to the United States. There are a lot of people not happy on either side – the Conservatives are upset that Northern Gateway also didn’t get approved, saying this was just a political decision, and the NDP and Greens (and the mayor of Vancouver) unhappy about the Kinder Morgan announcement, Elizabeth May going so far as to say that she’s willing to go to jail for protesting it.

None of this should be a surprise to anyone, as Trudeau has pretty much telegraphed these plans for weeks, if not months. And as for the critics, well, Robyn Urback makes the point that I do believe that Trudeau was going for:

In fact, Trudeau said as much yesterday in QP when he noted that they were sitting between a party demanding blanket approvals on everything, and another party opposed to approving anything, so that was where he preferred to be. He’s spending some political capital on this decision, including with some of his own caucus members who are not fans of the Kinder Morgan expansion, but he has some to spare, so we’ll see whether he’s picked up any support in the west, or lost any on the west coast when this all blows over.

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