Roundup: Procedural shenanigans beget the new anthem

There has been some drama in the Senate over the past couple of days as the procedural shenanigans to bring the national anthem bill to a final vote culminated in a motion to call the vote, and eventually that happened. The bill has passed, and the new national anthem will be law once the Governor General gives it royal assent. But the procedural moves have the Conservatives in a high dudgeon, somewhat legitimately.

My understanding of events was that the main motion to call the vote has been on the Order Paper for months, and was finally called Tuesday night. This was a debatable motion, and likely would have sparked a few weeks of adjournments and debate, but ultimately would have delayed the vote for only that long. But a second, also legitimate procedural move was used by another Independent senator immediately following, and Speaker apparently didn’t hear Senator Don Plett’s desire to debate it. What I’ve been able to gather is that this was likely a mistake given lines of sight, but were compounded by tactical errors on the Conservatives’ part in demanding to debate the first motion and not the second (or something to that effect). Points order were debated last night, but they had agreed to end the sitting at 4 PM in order to have the votes at 5:30, and when they didn’t get unanimous consent to extend the sitting, debate collapsed and when 5:30 rolled around, the Conservatives boycotted the vote in protest. According to those I’ve consulted, the moves were all legitimate but messy, and have the danger of setting up bad precedent for not allowing debate on this kind of motion.

The Conservatives in the Senate, meanwhile, are caterwauling that their democratic rights have been taken away, and there is talk about conspiracy between Mélanie Joly’s staff, and other threads that are hard to track when they’re throwing them against the wall like spaghetti. And while I share the concerns about bad precedent, I can’t say that I have too much sympathy because they’ve used (and one could argue abused) procedure for over a year to keep the bill at Third Reading, with the intent to ultimately delay it until it died on the Order Paper. They insist that they offered the chance to amend it to the more grammatically correct “thou dost in us command” rather than the clunky “in all of us command,” but I find it a bit disingenuous, because it was simply another delay tactic. And I’ve argued before that this continued tendency to use procedural tactics to delay bills is going to end up biting them in the ass, especially because it plays into Senator Peter Harder’s hands in his quest to overhaul the chamber in order to strip it of its Westminster character. The Conservatives are overplaying their hand, and it’s going to make it very difficult to drum up enough legitimate concern to stop Harder when crunch time comes, and they should be very aware of that fact.

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Roundup: The cause, not the cure

The particular turmoil of the Ontario Progressive Conservative leadership is difficult to turn away from, particularly given that right now it’s grappling with a fairly fundamental point about what is ailing our Westminster parliamentary system, which is the way in which we choose our leaders. Andrew Coyne lays it out really well in his latest column, which notes that another leadership contest won’t solve the party’s problems precisely because it’s the cause of those problems. And Chris Selley notes that with the inclusion of Doug Ford in this new race, that system of leadership selection is just as likely to result in a civil war within the party as it will do for anything else. (On a side note, Selley’s piece notes how Ford is attracting the evangelical endorsements in such an eerily Trump-like way).

Another point that Coyne gets to is this particular fetishization of the membership figures that Brown was able to attract to the party, but it ignores the fact that most of those who are signing up memberships have little connection to the party itself, and are little more than tools to be used by the leadership winner who sold them those memberships. And the point that I would add is that these memberships don’t actually strengthen the party because they’re being used to justify central control by the leadership rather than being a vehicle by which the riding associations are interlocutors between the grassroots and the caucus. These “rented” memberships are meaningless and do little to enhance the party, the way the chatter would otherwise suggest. If anything, they weaken the meaning of what the grassroots is supposed to represent. That’s why we need to get back to the proper working of a Westminster system, and restore caucus selection, so that we can reinvigorate the meaning of the grassroots.

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Roundup: The coming Senate legislative crunch

While the legalized cannabis bill passed the House of Commons last night and is off to the Senate, questions about the kind of reception it will find there are sure to be buzzing about in the days to come. While the bill’s Senate sponsor wants a process akin to the medical assistance in dying bill to take place (something I find overzealous and ignores the context of what happened then), it’s unlikely to happen that way, and we may see the Conservatives in the Senate trying to dig their heels in. But it’s still early days, so we’ll see.

With this in mind, I wanted to turn to Kady O’Malley’s Process Nerd column yesterday, where she looked at how the Senate could gum up the government’s end-of-season legislative plan, as they try to push through a number of bills before the Commons rises in just under three weeks. The Senate is already seeing a growing backlog of bills on its Order Paper (a function I’m told has to do largely with the Government Leader in the Senate – err, “government representative” and his unwillingness to negotiate with the caucuses in there on timelines), and will likely sit up to the 22nd to try and get most of them passed. But what O’Malley described in the refusal by the Senate to engage in pre-study of the budget implementation bill as being a sign that of uncertainty, I will note that the circumstances around this demand for pre-study were unusual from a procedural standpoint. As he outlined in his speech against the pre-study motion, Senate Liberal leader Joseph Day pointed out that the point of pre-study is for the Senate to do a parallel committee process and send recommendations to the Commons before they complete their own study so that they have the chance to make amendments that the Senate proposes at that time. The problem is that this particular bill had already reached Report Stage in the Commons before the motion to pre-study was moved in the Senate by Senator Harder, meaning that the opportunity to offer amendments had already passed, and there was no actual cause for pre-study, and what Harder was looking to do was short-circuit Senate procedure for his own scheduling purposes, and well, the Liberals were having none of it. And in the end, neither were the Conservatives and several of the Independents.

And this is one of the things that I think O’Malley missed in her column – that part of the problem in the Senate right now is that the leadership (meaning Senator Harder) is not exactly doing the government any favours with his inability to manage the legislative agenda in that chamber, especially when he tries to do an end-run around the rules to suit his purposes. It will be a problem if he keeps this up, because the veterans in that chamber won’t stand for it.

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Roundup: Some actual accountability

If there’s one committee of the House of Commons that I wish I could spend more time following, it’s the Public Accounts committee. It may not be one of the sexier committees tackling the hot issues of the day, but instead, it’s the heart and soul of what parliament is about – holding the government to account. Alas, my day-to-day work means that I don’t have the time to follow it like I did in years gone by, but I try to keep an eye on them when I can.

In the wake of the latest Auditor General’s report, the committee’s vice-chairs – NDP and Liberal, as the Conservatives chair this particular committee, as one might expect for a committee dedicated to holding the government accountable – are vowing that they will hold hearings on each chapter of the latest report (rather than just selected ones) because they are concerned about his level of frustration that departments aren’t keeping their focus on how services are delivered to citizens (rather than their own internal processes), and more than that, they plan to keep calling back senior civil servants to ensure that they’re shaping up. This can only be a good thing.

Over the past few years, that committee has been more stringent in ensuring that they get progress reports from departments on implementing recommendations from AG reports, but now it looks like they’re willing to go a bit further, which is encouraging. This is the kind of work that frankly, we don’t see enough of from MPs, so I’m glad it’s not only getting done, but getting a bit of attention. That can only bode well for parliamentary democracy.

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Roundup: Uncritical about the playwright’s lament

Toronto playwright Michael Healy apparently took to the Twitter Machine to plead with the government to ditch their talking points and talk like human beings. Aaron Wherry in turn wrote this up as wondering why politicians don’t talk like they’re on the West Wing, but didn’t actually look at the reasons why message control has taken hold – never mind that nobody actually talks like they’re in an Aaron Sorkin production (because honestly, the sanctimony alone…) But in all honesty, it would have been a useful exercise to see why some of this has become entrenched.

For one, part of the problem is the format of Question Period in the Commons, where the strict 35-second clock makes reasonable answers all-but impossible in most cases. I’ve had staffers tell me that they have to prepare scripts, not because their ministers don’t know the subject matter, but because they need to keep it within those 35 seconds and that’s the easiest way. I can’t say that I’m necessarily sold on that – or too sympathetic – but I can see why the temptation is there.

Part of the problem is the way in which branding has taken hold of politics to such a degree that there is a perceived need to drill slogans into people’s brains – things like “Strong, Stable Conservative Majority™,” or “The Middle Class and Those Looking to Join It™.” One of my pet peeves is “The Environment and The Economy Go Together™” because I know that the minister who keeps saying that is capable of answering questions in a reasonable manner and could do so if she stopped delivering that line, but that’s the message that she wants to drive home. Even though we get it.

And part of the problem is the way that We The Media treat frankness – we punish them for it. Witness what happened two weeks ago when Carla Qualtrough went on CTV’s Question Period, and Evan Solomon picked the $1 billion figure for a possible Phoenix price tag out of thin air, and when Qualtrough said, frankly, that she didn’t know but she couldn’t rule it out, suddenly CTV ran with the “billion dollar” headline, and absolutely everyone else followed suit. It’s now stuck to the Phoenix issue in most headlines, never mind that it wasn’t what she actually said, but her moment of frankness is now being treated as some confession that we will tar the issue with. We The Media have been repeating the mendacious and disingenuous framing devices around the interminable Morneau Shepell questions uncritically – and in some cases, fuelling them in a complete absence of fact of context *cough*Globe and Mail*cough* and anything that the ministers say becomes a trap.

So why, then, would any minister want to be frank in their answers, if we’re just going to punish them for it? Unfortunately, we don’t seem to have the self-awareness to process this – that we are part of the problem that drives this issue to turn all government messages into pabulum. We do this to ourselves. Let’s think about that.

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QP: Virtually ignoring the AG’s report

While the day got started with a report by the Auditor General, which in any other parliament would be the subject matter by which Question Period would be seized with. But not this parliament, at this particular time, with these particular denizens therein. Andrew Scheer led off, raising the AG’s concerns about the CRA’s call centre performance, and Justin Trudeau praised the report that would help them do better, which they intended to do, but it also reminded the House that the previous government cut services over a decade. Scheer switched to English and tried to turn this into a question about how Stephen Bronfman picked up the call to get his tax issues cleared — utterly false — and Trudeau repeated his previous answer in English. Excited, Scheer’s cadence got breathier as he raced through a scripted question on the Ethics Commissioner to clearing Bill Morneau to table Bill C-27 — which is utterly absurd procedurally — and Trudeau reminded him that they work with the Ethics Commissioner and take her advice. After another round of the same in French, Scheer stumbled through an accusation that the Liberals don’t follow rules, and Trudeau stuck to his points about the Commissioner. Guy Caron led for the NDP, railing about the revelations from the AG on the Phoenix pay system, to which Trudeau reminded the House that the system was brought in by the previous government — to much uproar — and listed off who they were working with. Caron railed that there should be a refund for the system, and Trudeau listed mistakes the previous regime made, and promised that they were working to fix it. Alexandre Boulerice, making a telephone hand gesture, mimed a call to the CRA, and Trudeau noted that they were working on fixing things after a decade of cuts. Nathan Cullen took over for a round of the same in English, and got much the same answer.

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Roundup: Absurd procedural objections abound

There are times when I don’t get the way that the opposition is trying to do its job – and I don’t mean the epic levels of disingenuousness and mendaciousness by which Question Period is operating these days. Rather, it’s the procedural objections to the way in which the government plans to handle Bill C-59, being the major national security bill that they’ve tabled. They’ve stated that they want the bill to head to committee before Second Reading, which is unusual, but still procedurally sound because it means that it will allow for a wider variety of amendments to be proposed and adopted, as a vote at Second Reading means that the bill is “locked” at its principles, and changes made at that point tend to be fairly technical. One would think that proactively taking this move would generally be appreciated, because it’s a recognition that it’s a tough subject that they want to get as much input on as possible, and are open to a wider degree of changes than usual. But no.

Instead, the opposition are now crying foul because they say that the government is trying to “fast track” it by doing his – not necessarily true, given that it can stay at committee for a long time, and they haven’t invoked any time allocation – that they’re trying to “evade” second reading debate (which, again, is absurd given the procedural move of allowing a greater scope of amendments), and that they’re avoiding the possibility that the Speaker could break up the bill because it’s an omnibus bill. But part of the problem with that is that omnibus bills aren’t bad per se – they’re bad when they’re used abusively to ram through a multitude of unrelated things with little debate. In this case, all of the constituent changes in the bill, which affect several other existing pieces of legislation, are all part of the same national security framework. It makes more sense to make the changes at once with a single piece of legislation rather than piecemeal bills that may create legislative traffic jams that would require coordinating amendments in order to ensure that all of the changes don’t butt up against one another. It’s hardly an abuse of omnibus legislation in this case, and they should know that.

What the government is doing is procedurally sound, and I can’t count the number of times that the NDP have demanded that bills go to committee before second reading debate on a whole host of issues (and it happened a lot under the previous regime). This government is doing that move on a major piece of legislation proactively, and they’re being accused of evasion. It’s enough to make a person scream.

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Roundup: Trying to score dangerous points

In amidst all of the really bad takes on Governor General Julie Payette’s commentary the other night, I find myself more than a little horrified that the Conservatives have decided to play political games around this. More specifically, they are attacking Payette obliquely by directing their comments at the prime minister, who didn’t leave well enough alone when he said it was great that the GG stood up for science. And great that she did, but this was also in the context of there being a willingness to torque the comments into a bit of a scandal, and to blow them completely out of proportion.

So what did the Conservatives do? It started with a Members’ Statement before QP, where MP Ziad Aboultaif denounced the supposed attack by the PM on people of faith (which isn’t what happened), and was followed up by a Facebook post by Andrew Scheer who said much the same thing – entirely ignoring that Trudeau is a practicing Catholic who has been public about the value that he places on his faith.

But what irks me the most about all of this is that it’s an example where our elected officials keep being cute about our most vital institutions – the Crown – and politicising them in subtle ways. When the Conservatives were in power, it was aggressively giving things a royal re-brand (which, don’t get me wrong, I’m in favour of), but the manner in which it was handled, along with the abdication on the opposition benches of similarly owning the fact that this country is a constitutional monarchy, allowed the media to paint the exercise as a Conservative nostalgia for the days of colonialism, and to tar the whole of our monarchical institutions with a partisan taint. And I fear that Scheer is going down the same path here in trying to stir up controversy around these largely innocuous statements by the GG in order to try and whip up his base. It’s a very dangerous game, especially because Scheer and his entourage have proven themselves to be ham-fisted in pretty much everything that they do, and that increases the chances of this blowing up in everyone’s faces, and the very last thing we need to do is try to politicize the Crown or the GG in this country. So seriously – knock it the hell off. This is not something that’s worth scoring a few cheap partisan points off of. You’ll only hurt everyone in the process.

Meanwhile, Colby Cosh has made one of the only reasonable takes on the Payette comments in noting that we don’t have rulebooks for Governors General, so they should stick to principles about appearing to arbitrate impartially, particularly because of the powers she possesses. And he’s right. And I would also add that it’s why I find the furore overblown – the existence of climate change and evolution are not partisan issues in Canada, so she’s not actually crossing any partisan lines in her comments. My own weekend column delves further into that aspect, as well as the reminder that she’s not actually a figurehead like so many of the pearl clutchers seem to be demanding from their fainting couches.

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Roundup: Harper unhappy with NAFTA talks

Stephen Harper has apparently written an angry memo to his clients about the governmetn’s handling of the NAFTA negotiations, accusing them of bungling them by not evaluating American demands seriously (err, you have seen how many of their demands are literal impossibilities, right?) and of ignoring a softwood deal (which officials say was never on the table), and of aligning themselves too much with Mexico when they were the targets of America’s ire. Canadian officials are none too pleased, and consider it a gift to the Trump administration.

Alex Panetta, the Canadian Press reporter who broke the story, has more commentary below.

Paul Wells offered a few thoughts of his own on the news.

Incidentally, the PM has also vocally disagreed with former Conservative minister James Moore’s assertion that trade talks with China are hurting our talks with the Americans.

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Roundup: Holding companies and crying wolf

The fixation on Bill Morneau and his family wealth is becoming mind-numbing, with new conspiracy theories and allegations of conflicts of interest arriving daily. While the Conservatives made him the subject of their Supply Day motion, demanding he produce all documents he shared with the Ethics Commissioner while continuing to promulgate the absurd conspiracy theory that he was pushing through the private corporation tax changes for the benefit of his company, while the NDP crowed about more alleged “appearances” of conflicts with his tabling a pension reform bill that his family company could, in theory, benefit from. And the subject of whether or not he still controls shares in said family company went through the media cycle like a tornado, with confirmation from the Ethics Commissioner in committee testimony that she didn’t tell Morneau to place his shares into a blind trust – because, as it turns out, he doesn’t control them, having already offloaded them into a holding company that he doesn’t control (apparently his wife does), and none of this is subject to current rules under the Conflict of Interest Act. In response to it all, Morneau sent a letter to the Commissioner requesting a meeting to see if there’s anything else he can do to further comply with the rules that he’s already complying with per her advice.

Two things here – one is that the Commissioner has raised this exception to the Act in the past, and when the Act last came up for review in 2014, she flagged it then and it wasn’t acted upon. Guess who was in power then? The Conservatives, who also pushed through all of those changes to various accountability legislation in 2009, along with the NDP. The second point is that we have constantly been bombarded with constant baseless accusations about the “appearance” of a conflict of interest for everything under the sun. And with these various conspiracy theories being put forward, even Occam’s Razor will tell you that the idea that these changes being put forward, either to pensions or private corporation taxation, for the benefit of Morneau’s company are absurd on the face of it. Pension reforms have long been debated, and there are reams of data about the problems that these private corporations are being used for reasons they were not intended to be by wealthy individuals in order to avoid taxation. Trying to use Morneau as an excuse to make the government back off on either is absurd and shows just how debased our ability to debate is in this country if debate is being replaced by personal attack. Never mind the fact that there has been a whole lot of crying wolf. If everything is a conflict, then nothing is a conflict. Sooner or later a wolf will come, and nobody will care anymore, having been completely numbed by the constant cries beforehand.

(Incidentally, Dawson also called on the government to amend their fundraising bill to include parliamentary secretaries as those who must report, for what it’s worth).

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