Roundup: Legislative hostages

Every few months this story comes around again – that the government misses have a senate that acted more like a rubber stamp than the active revising body that they are. And the government – and Trudeau in particular – will say oh no, we believe in an independent senate, and we want them to do their jobs, unless of course that means amending budget bills, in which case they invent reasons why the Senate isn’t supposed to amend them, because they’re money bills (not true – the Senate is only barred from initiating money bills, not from amending them), and so on. And lo, we have yet another example this past weekend, but this time over the transport bill that is currently in the Senate. But because this is an omnibus bill with several parts to it (which isn’t to say that it’s an illegitimate omnibus bill – these are all aspects dealing with transportation issues), and because the government wouldn’t let it be pulled apart, the easier stuff couldn’t get passed first while they dug into the more challenging parts. But, c’est la vie.

What does bother me, however is this particular snideness that comes from some of the commentariat class over these kinds of issues.

The three senators in this case were Senators Carignan, Mercer, and Lankin. Two of the three, Carignan and Lankin, had previously served in elected office. They’re no more or less unknown than the vast majority of MPs, and “unaccountable” is one of those slippery terms in this case because they exist to hold government to account. They’re also just as much parliamentarians as MPs are, for the record, not simple appointees. Gilmore also has this bizarre notion that the business of accountability – which is the whole point of parliament – is somehow “holding hostage” the work of the elected officials. Last I checked, the point of parliament wasn’t to be a clearing house for the agenda of the government of the day, but rather, to keep it in check. That’s what they’re doing, just as much as judges – you know, also unknown, unaccountable appointees – do.

The one partial point I will grant is the “self-righteous” aspect, because some senators absolutely are. But then again, so are a hell of a lot of MPs. The recent changes to the selection process for senators may have amped up some of that self-righteousness for a few of them, but to date, nobody has actually held any legislation hostage, and the government has backed down when they knew they were in the wrong about it. So really, the process is working the way it’s supposed to, and that’s a good thing.

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Senate QP: Chagger skirts some issues

While the official apology to LGBT Canadians carried on in the House of Commons, the Senate moved onto its regularly scheduled ministerial Question Period, with special guest star Bardish Chagger in her role as minister of small business and tourism. That didn’t quite matter to the Conservative leader, Senator Smith, who led off on the ongoing issue of the process to name a new Ethics Commissioner, which Chagger is in charge of, and his concerns with news that four members of the PMO had recused themselves from the process because they were on the PM’s vacation to the Bahamas over Christmas. Chagger noted that she was supposed to be here in her role as minister of small business and tourism, but that being said, she responded that the was an open, transparent, merit-based process in place. When Smith pressed, noting that Chagger had defended the PM on his vacation while she was in charge of this process, Chagger reiterated that there was an open, transparent, merit-based process.

Senator McIntyre asked about the PBO report on the proposed tax changes, and whether she knew in advance what it said. Chagger noted that she read the report at the same time as others, and that the intent of the changes was to close loopholes on places where they are used for high-earners evading taxes but not to punish small businesses, which are the backbone of the economy.

Senator Day asked a question in relation to Chagger’s role as House Leader, and raised the omnibus motion that Chagger moved in June that in part rejected Senate amendments to the budget bill. Day demanded to know what “rights and privileges” the amendments would have violated, and why they would have been passed without debate. Chagger said that they have the utmost respect for the Senate, but didn’t really defend her motion or her actions. Day pressed on the rights and privileges, given there was no debate that spelled out what they were, but Chagger merely said that she would ensure that the Senate’s views were heard.

Senator Cormier asked about the Business Development Bank of Canada, and the needs of the arts and culture sector. Chagger said that she has been working with BDC on several initiatives, and that a whole-of-government approach was being taken, but she was pushing for more recognition of the arts sector.

Senator Lankin asked about taxes on campgrounds and the lack of sufficient answers on the matter to date. Chagger said that CRA was dealing with those cases on a case-by-case basis, and she had asked to be kept informed on the progress.

Senator Batters asked about the lack of details on retroactive tax changes to passive investments (which is not actually right — passive income changes were to be grandfather existing investments). Chagger respectfully disagreed with Batters on her characterization, noted the 73 percent tax rate referred to was not common, and then quoted the PBO report that said that 97 percent of businesses would not be affected.

Senator Greene Raine asked about a programme for tourism packages, which was had their GST rebate application later than expected and less than expected. Chagger said that she would follow up with her on the issue.

Senator Omidvar talked about entrepreneurship among immigrants, and some of the difficulty that they have with navigating the system. Chagger highlighted the accelerated growth service that caters to the needs of entrepreneurs that provides help to get through the hurdles.

Senator McPhedran asked about a fund for women entrepreneurs in the tech sector, particularly for Indigenous women. Chagger agreed that were not doing enough in that sector and they were trying to do better, and they were seeing returns on that fund, and curiously, tied it into the apology to persecuted LGBT Canadians taking place in the Commons, and the loss of potential that took place then and that she doesn’t want to keep taking place now.

Senator Oh asked about Canada-China tourism, and the ability to quickly process visa applications. Chagger said that she was happy to see the numbers from China grow, and gave some praise for the tourism industry before getting around to the visas, and noted the seven new visa centres which were opened and are “working well.”

Overall, it was a fairly mixed bag. On the one hand, Chagger could absolutely give good answers to some questions, and without the same 35-second constraints in the Commons, was able to actually give reasonable answers instead of sound-bites. This having been said, she did have a tendency to dissemble at times, but not quite as much as some of her colleagues, and generally, she would return to the question being posed. But when pressed on one of the most fundamental issues, being Senator Day’s inquiry into just what happened in June with the amendments to the budget bill (during which, I will remind you, Senator Harder compromised his own position in his leading the response from the Senate), and the somewhat alarming manner in which Chagger made her response in the Commons at the time, she remained mute. While it wasn’t too surprising, it was certainly disappointing, especially as it points to the ways in which this government continues to handle the independent Senate that they have promoted.

Sartorially speaking, style citations go out to Senator Lillian Eva Dyck for a black leather jacket with embroidery, a white blouse with a lace collar and a black skirt with a Indigenous floral pattern, as well as to Senator René Cormier for a tailored dark grey suit with a white shirt and patterned tie. Style citations go out to Senator David Richards for a baggy black jacket, taupe slacks, white shirt and black striped tie, and to Senator Pierrette Ringuette for a tan long sweater over a black, white and red patterned dress, with red tights.

Roundup: Mid-term check-in

Over in Maclean’s, John Geddes put together a deep dive into the current government’s midterm woes, and it’s well worth the read – and it’s a pretty long read too. But once you’re done (seriously, this post isn’t going anywhere), I would want to push back on some of the things that he highlights.

For starters, I think that there is something to be said for a government that is willing to walk back on bad promises, and they made a few. Most notably is electoral reform, and the fact that they could actually take the step of smothering it the cradle is actually something that they should be congratulated for. We dodged a bullet with that one, and I wish that my fellow journalists would get that through their heads. Likewise, Bardish Chagger taking back her plans to “modernise” the way that the House of Commons operates is similarly another dodged bullet – most of her plans were terrible and would make things worse, not better. Casting them as failures does a disservice to the fact that they backed down from bad promises. When it comes to Bill Morneau and his troubles, I think it also bears mentioning that the vast majority of the attacks against his tax proposals (and his own personal ethics situation) are largely unfounded, based on disingenuous framing or outright lies designed to try and wound him. The attacks have largely not been about the policies themselves (even though there were actual problems that should have been asked about more), and I think that bears some mention.

I also think that Geddes doesn’t pay enough attention to some of the backroom process changes that the government has been spearheading, particularly on the Indigenous files – many of the problems mentioned need to have capacity issues addressed before funding is increased because we have seen numerous examples of places where money was shovelled out without that capacity-building being done, and it made situations worse. Is it frustrating that some of this is going slowly? Yes. But some of the ground-up work of reforming how the whole system works, and ensuring that once more money flows that it can be spent effectively is something that we should be talking more about, because process matters. We simply don’t like to talk about it because we labour under this belief that nobody reads process stories, so we ignore them, which is why I think some of the calls about “failures” are premature or outright wrong – things are changing that we can’t immediately see. That doesn’t mean that changes aren’t happening.

Finally, there is a list of major legislation coming down the pipe, and I think it bears reminding that the focus on consultation before making some of these changes is as much about inoculating the government against criticism that was levelled against their predecessors as it was about trying to get some of this complex legislation right. Do they get it right all the time? No. There is a demonstrated record of barrelling ahead on things with good intentions and not properly thinking through the consequences *cough*Access to Information*cough* and when it blows up in their faces, they’re not really sure how to respond because they think that their good intentions count for something. I’m not sure that simply focusing on the perceived inexperience of ministers helps when it comes to trying to meaningfully discuss these issues, but here we are.

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Roundup: Time allocation’s a-coming

Getting people worked up over the weekend was the revelation that Government House Leader Barish Chagger had sent a letter to her opposition counterparts noting that she planned to use time allocation a little more often this fall, in order to help get the government’s agenda through (with the note that things were taking longer in the Senate as a consequence of some of the changes there). And immediately, a number of pundits got upset with the whole notion, because Trudeau was supposed to be different, and time allocation is a great evil that’s used to “clamp down” on debate, and so on.

Let me be the first to remind you that in and of itself, time allocation isn’t all that bad if used responsibly. Part of why it became a big issue in the last election was because the Conservatives – and most especially then-Government House Leader Peter Van Loan – used it for everything under the sun, because they were inept at House management, and they had so abused things like omnibus legislation that the whole legislative process itself had largely broken down, hence why it became necessary to schedule by means of time allocation. It wasn’t pretty, and it wasn’t responsible, but it got done.

Part of our problem is that all parties in this country have lost our ability to manage our debates. One of the most pressing examples is with Second Reading debate, where it’s supposed to be about the general principle of a bill – is it a good idea or not – and that’s it. It shouldn’t take more than an afternoon, but no. Instead, we have to speechify into the record, and for some reason insist that on routine bills, take days for “is this a good idea or not” debate. More time should be spent at committee, but that’s often where we have been clamping down even further, because apparently, we need more terrible, scripted speeches being written into the record that aren’t debate. The logical result of this broken system of debate is that time allocation becomes a more regular feature because we’re no longer actually debating, we’re speechifying. So if we don’t want to see the government resort to time allocation, then maybe we need to start thinking meaningfully about fixing our broken debate practices so that our debate actually have meaning again. But that may be too novel of a suggestion.

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Roundup: Charles and Camilla in Iqaluit

Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, arrived in Canada, starting their tour in Iqaluit to talk about revitalising the Inuit language – project he has taken great interest in, and last year invited some Inuit delegates to Wales to hear about how they had success in revitalising the Welsh language there. While Charles’ official role in Canada is somewhat ambiguous now that we have a dubious succession law on the books (thanks to the previous government), he is nevertheless the heir to the Crown. The tour moves to Trenton and Prince Edward County in Ontario today, and Ottawa for Canada Day on Saturday.

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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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