Roundup: The Meilleur problem

The feigned outrage over Madeleine Meilleur’s nomination as the new Official Languages Commissioner, combined with the disingenuous concern over the search for a new Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, is really starting to annoy me – particularly because of the way in which things are being spun, and the abject hypocrisy of it all. As for Meilleur’s surprise that this has become an Issue amidst a snake nest of partisans looking to stir things up and try and throw as much mud on the PM as they can, I have to say Oh, come on. You were in Queen’s Park. You know that they’ll play politics over this. Because seriously.

To start with, I will take note of Meilleur telling an interviewer that she had initially thought about applying to be a Senator to continue to contribute to public life now that she had resigned from Queen’s Park. While I continue to object to the self-identification process that this government has put into place (because why not try to get every narcissist in the country to hand in a CV?), the fact that she was told by the head of the selection committee that recent politicians were verboten in the “newly independent” Chamber is kind of infuriating. Why? Because the Senate is Parliament’s institutional memory. It’s a Good Thing to have some experienced political players in there, from both federal and provincial sides, so that they can be of use to Parliament as that institutional memory. That Trudeau seems keen to destroy that function of it is a problem.

As for Meilleur meeting with Gerald Butts and Katie Telford, I’m far less sold that this is somehow suspicious partisan work. They are contacts she had from their mutual time at Queen’s Park, and she was looking for ways to contribute, and hey, they’re people who would have some ideas. You realise that trying to make a Thing out of it is childish, right? Is the fact that she was once a provincial Liberal a problem for the job? Perhaps, if she didn’t have the qualifications for it. But by all accounts, she is more than qualified, which makes the partisan gamesmanship all the pettier. And to hear the party that appointed Vic Toews to the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench rail on about how terrible this is, I have little patience for their arguments.

Meanwhile, as for the Conservatives’ demands that the process for the new Ethics Commissioner be turned over to a third party, I have a couple of things to say: one is that this is a democracy and not a technocracy, so stop trying to offload political decisions to outsiders; two is that you get to hold the government to account for the choices that are made; and three, demanding a retired judge make the selection, when the criteria specifies that the new Commissioner should be a former judge or head of a tribunal, you’re just creating a new conflict of interest because you’re asking said judge to appoint a former colleague. How is this any better? Seriously, do you people not stop to think for one second about your supposed attempts at being clever? Honest to gods, you people.

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Roundup: Seriously, civilian control of the military is a Thing

If three incidents makes a trend, then we may have a serious problem with civil-military relations on our hands in this country. After the allegations that Mark Norman leaked Cabinet confidences to publicly pressure the government to run a procurement his way, and calls by soldiers in uniform for the defence minister to resign, we now have a retiring general who wants less political control over combat missions (on top of greater resources). Because apparently civilian control over the military isn’t a Thing and we should just let them run their own show.

Oh, wait. This is a problem because it’s looking to weaken that civilian control. No one can deny that there were a lot of problems with the way that things were run in Afghanistan because of some rather spectacular bureaucratic bungling, but that doesn’t mean that we should simply turn over operational control to the military. Madness – and coups – lie that way. And if serving members of our military can’t see that, then we have a serious problem on our hands.

Meanwhile, as Harjit Sajjan issued yet another apology for characterizing his role in Operation Medusa, we also saw a letter released from General Fraser on Sajjan’s role was at the time. The more that this drags on, and the more we hear military voices chirping on about this, the more I’m seeing another problem with the way in which Sajjan was given the role as minister, while he was still an active member of the Canadian Forces Reserves (and indeed, the point was made upon his appointment that he had to resign because he was still technically subordinate to the Chief of Defence Staff owing to his rank). This is a problem for civilian control of the military, when we put recently retired members into the civilian role of oversight – they’re too close to the culture for one, and as we’re seeing with this particular incident, the soldiers still serving have different expectations of the minister because they’re still seeing him through the lens of being a “good soldier” rather than a politician, which he is now. We’re also seeing this problem in the States with appointments of recently retired military personnel into Trump’s cabinet, where they are blurring lines around civilian control. And We The Media aren’t helping by treating Sajjan as a former soldier instead of a politician in how this whole thing is being handled, which is only amplifying the problems. Neither, frankly, are the Conservatives, who keep trying to insist that the military be left to handle their own procurement (particularly around fighter jets), apparently forgetting about the problems they had with those same files when they were in government when the military’s wish lists were unrealistic, and the fact that just turning it over again undermines civilian control. This is really serious business, and I fear that we’re letting this get out of hand, with not enough voices pushing back against this creeping problem.

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Roundup: Chagger doubles down – again

Oh, Bardish Chagger. So very earnest in her desire to try and change the Standing Orders to try and prevent the excesses and abuses of the Conservative era that she’s ready to be her most ham-fisted in order to get it done. In an interview with The West Block this weekend, she said that she wasn’t going to hand over a veto to the Conservatives about these reforms, which means she’s doubling down about ensuring that any rule changes happen by consensus, and so I guess we’ll see the filibuster carry on in committee, and yet more egregious privilege debates and various other procedural shenanigans by the other opposition parties in the hopes that she backs down. So far, that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen.

If I had my druthers, I would tell Chagger to stick to two simple points – omnibus bills, and prorogation. And specifically, the proposal to restore prorogation ceremonies, and take those two suggestions to the opposition parties, and just get them to agree to those. Those are the only two suggestions that are workable and doable (and prorogation ceremonies are in fact something that I recommend restoring in The Unbroken Machine), because that’s rolling back a change that happened in order to “streamline” things a couple of decades ago, and it’s a necessary tool for transparency and accountability. And omnibus bill restrictions are an obvious change that anyone can see as being necessary after the abuses of the 41st parliament.

But as I’ve stated before, on numerous occasions, any other suggestion that Chagger makes in her discussion paper is unnecessary and will cause more harm than good, because the underlying changes that need to happen are cultural, not structural. The problem is that it’s hard to sell MPs on this, especially when they keep using the phrases “modernize” and “21st century workplace” as though the terms meant something. And she keeps using them. Over. And over. And over. And it’s driven me to the point of complete distraction. But because Chagger is doubling down, I have the sinking feeling that it’s going to be yet another week of apocalyptic language and procedural gamesmanship and nothing will get done. Because that’s the state of things right now, and no amount of rule changes will actually fix that.

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Roundup: Chagger on fundraising

Government House Leader Bardish Chagger talked to the Huffington Post, and the headline had all of my media colleagues grasping for their pearls as she declared that the House of Commons was not the place to discuss Liberal fundraisers. And if I’m going to go full pedant on this, she’s right – to an extent. On its face, fundraising is party business and really nothing to do with the administrative responsibility of the government. Why this current round of eye-rolling nonsense around so-called “cash for access” fundraising (which isn’t actually cash for access in the sense that we got used to talking about with Ontario) is because the opposition is trying to link those fundraisers with conflicts of interest from the government, all based on insinuation with no actual proof of quid pro quo. But because there is this tenuous connection, the questions are being allowed, and they get to make all manner of accusations that would otherwise be considered libellous before the cameras under the protection of parliamentary privilege. Indeed, when Ambrose accused the government of acting illegally with those fundraisers, Chagger invited her to step outside of the Chamber to repeat those accusations. Ambrose wouldn’t, for the record.

Where this might resonate are with memories of the previous parliament, with endless questions about the ClusterDuff affair, and the operations of the Senate, and those various and sundry questions that came up time and again, and which were rarely actually about things that were the administrative responsibility of the government. And every now and again, Speaker Andrew Scheer would say so. But contrary to the opinions of some, this wasn’t something that Scheer made up out of thin air.

In fact, Scheer was too lenient for many of these questions, and there are sometimes that I think that Regan is even more so. Most of the NDP questions asked during the height of the ClusterDuff affair were blatantly out of order, asked for the sake of grandstanding. That the questions with the current fundraising contretemps have made this tenuous link to government operations and decisions is the only thing that makes them marginally relevant to QP. That said, the hope that this will somehow tarnish the government or grind down their ethical sheen generally depends on there being actual rules broken or actual impropriety, which there hasn’t been. Meanwhile, a bunch of issues that the opposition should be holding the government to account for are languishing because they need to put up six MPs a day on this. But hey, at least they’re providing clips to the media as opposed to doing their jobs, right?

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Roundup: Pushing more policy to the courts

There’s this terrible idea that keeps circling, and here it comes again, which is the idea that we should enshrine environmental rights in the constitution. David Suzuki is going around trying to make this happen once again, concerned that like the coming Trumpocalypse in the States, that one bad election in Canada and any progress we’ve made on environmental laws would be set back. And while this kind of thinking – insulating environmental laws in a more robust constitutional framework – sounds good on its face, its proponents need a good smack upside the head.

Why? Because this is a democracy, and what they are trying to do is take the environment out of the role of the government, and put it in the lap of the courts. No longer should the people decide on an important area like the environment, but instead, we’ll ensure that unelected judges with no accountability are the ones who are now determining policy. Add to that, I’m not sure that the courts have the competency to do be making these kinds of policy determinations, and yes, that is an issue that this proposal doesn’t seem to talk about. It’s disturbing that Suzuki and his ilk are trying to diminish the role of democracy in favour of a more technocratic approach to government, no matter how much importance one places on environmental policy. We have a system of government which is supposed to hold the government of the day to account, and usually it’s pretty successful. It held the Conservatives to account after they abused the public trust on things like the environment file, and were duly punished for it at the ballot box, and when you look at recent elections like that in the Yukon where the environment was apparently an issue, the party that was more reluctant to take action was punished for it. You don’t need to yet again turn everything over to the courts in order to take action – just mobilize enough popular support to the cause. It can and does happen, but to simply suggest that politics has failed and the courts should handle it is the kind of thinking that makes me really, really uncomfortable because of where it leads.

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Roundup: The AG’s disastrous advice

The Senate’s internal economy committee is signalling that they are looking into setting up an independent audit committee, and my alarm bells are going off so hard right now because if they follow the path that the Auditor General wants them to go down, then they are risking serious damage to our entire parliamentary system. And no, I’m not even exaggerating a little bit. You see, Michael Ferguson wants to ensure that if there are any senators on this independent committee, that they are in the minority and not in a position to chair it, because that would mean they’re still writing their own rules. And the answer to that is of course they’re writing their own rules. They’re Parliament. Parliament is self-governing. In fact, it’s not only ignorant but dangerous to insist that we subject our parliamentarians to some kind of external authority because that blows parliamentary privilege out of the water. If you don’t think that Parliament should be self-governing, then let’s just hand power back to the Queen and say “thank you very much, your Majesty, but after 168 years, we’ve decided that Responsible Government just isn’t for us.” So no, let’s not do that, thanks. And it’s not to say that there shouldn’t be an audit committee, and Senator Elaine McCoy has suggested one patterned on the one used in the House of Lords, which would be five members – three senators, plus an auditor and someone like a retired judge to adjudicate disputes, but the Senate still maintains control because Parliament is self-governing. It allows outsiders into the process to ensure that there is greater independence and which the senators on the committee would ignore at their peril, but the Senate must still control the process. Anything less is an affront to our democracy and to Responsible Government, and I cannot stress this point enough. Ferguson is completely wrong on this one, and senators and the media need to wake up to this fact before we really do something to damage our parliamentary institutions irreparably (worse than we’re already doing).

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Senate QP: Third time’s the charm

Twice before, the Senate has invited Small Business and Tourism Minister Bardish Chagger to attend Senate Question Period, and in each of those attempts, scheduling on either side scotched the attempt. This time it finally happened, even as votes in the Commons went a bit overtime.

Senator Carignan led off, as he often does, and asked a fairly standard question about the small business tax rate. Charger, used to this question, gave her standard reply about how the government was looking to put more money into people’s pockets, and how that would benefit the revenues of these small businesses.

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