Roundup: The AG’s vacancy problem

The Auditor General was on Power Play yesterday to talk about his recent examination of the Great Lakes Pilotage Authority, and how the lack of appointments to the board meant a lack of oversight for the CEO, who then abused his expenses. Michael Ferguson then went on to talk about the greater pattern of unfilled vacancies by this government (which will be the focus of one of his upcoming reports), and it’s a verifiable problem that this government has, in large part because as part of their reform of the system to ensure that more women and minorities were appointed, they changed to a system of seeking out nominees to having people apply for positions. For as much merit as ensuring more diversity among appointees has, the way they’ve handled it has been a gong show.

All of this is well and good to point out, but where I have a problem is where the AG suggests that if governments can’t fill these positions in a timely manner that we should consider a system where these boards have their own nomination committees to make their own appointments. This should raise a major alarm because it’s a sign of creeping technocracy and undermining accountability and responsible government. Government makes these appointments so that there is someone who can be held to account for them. Who is accountable if boards nominate their own members? How do we ensure that they don’t turn into cesspits of nepotism after we worked long and hard to ensure that we have taken patronage out of our current appointment systems?

Unfortunately, this is not a surprise with Ferguson, whose recommendations around an external audit committee for the Senate ignores the detrimental effect that this would have on Parliament’s ability to be self-governing. I do think it’s problematic that you have an officer of parliament who keeps advocating for greater technocracy and the undermining of our parliamentary democracy (and worse, that nobody in the media will dare to call him on it, because apparently we worship auditors general and believe that they can do no wrong). His observations about the problems around appointments are valid, don’t get me wrong. It’s his solutions that are untenable in the extreme.

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Roundup: Justice bill under fire

The big news over the long weekend was the Liberals’ major criminal justice reform bill, which was tabled at the end of last week. It’s a big bill because it’s a big topic, but also because the government decided to fold in two previous bills that have been languishing on the Order Paper so that they can all get passed at once. One of those bills has clauses that have been overtaken by a previous bill that again, languishes on the Order Paper. And yet, despite this major reform push, one of the biggest problems facing the justice system, mandatory minimum sentences, which are clogging the courts, remain intact because this bill doesn’t address them, and the minister is shrugging in terms of saying the debate is still ongoing with provinces and courts over those. Among changes in this bill are severely limiting preliminary inquiries, which could mean that a number of cases go to trial where they wouldn’t have otherwise given that the point of a preliminary inquiry was to determine whether there was enough evidence to secure a conviction. Another change is to eliminate peremptory challenges in jury selection, something which has gained a lot of attention in the past couple of months after the Gerald Stanley trial in Saskatchewan had an all-white jury.

None of this is without controversy, and defence lawyers are raising the alarm. Lawyers like Michael Spratt say the changes will not speed up trials, and will actually eliminate some procedural fairness from the system. The elimination of peremptory challenges is far more contentious, with some defence lawyers saying it won’t fix anything while another says it could eliminate the current abuses. One law professor calls it a good first step, but lists other recommendations to increase access to justice in remote communities and improve jury selection.

On a related note, it looks like Saskatchewan hasn’t been selecting juries in a way that complies with their own provincial laws. While this may not be enough to cause an appeal in the Stanley trial, which has put much of the focus on the issue of peremptory challenges, it does raise questions about jury selection laws in this country that are part of these reforms.

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Roundup: Giving the PBO confidential data

In his report to parliament about the latest federal budget this past week, the Parliamentary Budget Officer made note that some of the information that they requested was given to them on a confidential basis – in order for them to check the maths, but not report on it public (at least for the time being). It’s a bit of an oddity that the PBO says it puts them in an awkward position, and it also raises questions about the government’s commitment to transparency.

Recently, the Department of National Defence gave the same kind of confidential information to the PBO regarding its 20-year expenditure plan, which one suspects may have to do with either sensitivities in the procurement process (remember that they have been insisting on particular secrecy declarations for those involved in the process), or not wanting to tip their hands on how they’re planning on rolling out their procurement just yet. Maybe. The government says that the budget information that was confidential was because it related to departments or Crown corporations whose information had not been approved by Treasury Board or vetted for release, which makes a certain amount of sense, and does give rise to concerns that the real stumbling block is the bureaucracy and not the government. Backing up this supposition has been complaints that Treasury Board president Scott Brison has made around his difficulty in getting departments onside when it comes to the process of reforming the Estimates, so that they reflect the budget rather than the previous fall economic update and subsequently relying on Supplementary Estimates in order to “correct” the spending plans to reflect said budget (and part of that problem has been ever-later budget releases that come after the statutory Estimates tabling dates). And our civil service, for all of the plaudits it gets internationally, is sclerotic and resistant to change, often exacerbating the “culture of secrecy” around any kind of transparency (though one also has to factor in a certain amount of incompetence around that secrecy – sometimes they’re not being secret for the sake of secrecy, but because they’re simply unable to find needed information).

There have been complaints from the pundit class that the Liberals have subverted the PBO in this manner of giving confidential information, but I’m not sure that I’m ready to go there. They could have simply stonewalled, forcing an escalation of tactics, but they didn’t. They wound up caving and giving the PBO way too much authority and way, way too broad of a mandate when they reformed his office and turned him into an Independent Officer of Parliament, and I will reiterate that they did turn over the information. The question is does this start a pattern, or is this a kind of temporary status while they continue to push the departments into making this kind of data available in a timelier manner, much like the Estimates? I’m not willing to make a final pronouncement just yet, but I am going to consider this notice, and will keep an eye on how this progresses (particularly because I do think Estimates reform is vitally important to Parliament, and if we have the same kinds of problems, then it’s a sign that there’s a systemic issue that needs to be dealt with).

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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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