Roundup: Closing three loopholes

As expected, Bill Morneau announced three new measures to crack down on tax avoidance by means of self-incorporation by high earners, many of them doctors and lawyers. While the government goes on a 75-day consultation period (to ensure that there are no unintended consequences) in order that the changes can be legislated in the autumn budget implementation bill, here’s economist Kevin Milligan explaining the problem and changes in detail here, plus his Twitter posts on the topic:

Morneau acknowledged that the changes may personally disadvantage him (though two of the three categories didn’t apply to him) – making it clear that he didn’t look into his own situation to ensure that he was being fair and not self-interested in making them.

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Senate QP: Morneau talks growth

After a length delay owing to a snap vote in the Commons, Senate QP finally got underway with special guest star, finance minister Bill Morneau. Senator Smith led off, worrying that for an “innovation budget,” it wasn’t doing enough for promoting business investment I order to promote innovation. Morneau responded by reminding Smith that the fundamental challenge they were trying to address was slow growth, and noted that the reduction of unemployment was a sign that their plan was working, creating a level of optimism that would attract future growth. Smith insisted that they should be lowering taxes and giving an EI break for hiring younger people, but Morneau wasn’t sold on Smith’s logic, pointing out flaws with this argument around corporate tax rates and said that they were on track for a higher level of growth.

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Roundup: The vacuous pleas to change the Standing Orders

As the procedural warfare over the government’s proposed changes to the Standing Orders drags on, my patience for the government’s digging in their heels and insisting on “modernizing” things are increasingly absurd. To wit, Liberal MP Scott Simms – who is behind the motion to fast track this study, which touched off this warfare in the first place – tried to defend his positon last night, and I just want to bang my head into a wall for a while over the vacuousness of his justifications.

You say that now, but Trudeau has long promised that he wants to be out glad-handing among Canadians instead of being in the Ottawa bubble, so you’ll excuse me if I treat this with suspicion. Meanwhile, there’s nothing stopping him from answering all of the questions one day a week if he wants without needing to change the Standing Orders to do it.

If there is one bit of discourse that I would ban from Canadian politics, it’s the insistence that we can always come up with some new Made in Canada Solution™ to any problem that vexes us. It’s a bullshit sentiment, especially because in this case, the system is already made in Canada and fits the unique circumstances of our parliament as it differs from Westminster. Trying to import other Westminster-isms and mapping them onto our parliament and calling it “Made in Canada” is a fool’s game at best, because our political cultures are quite different. Sure, PMQs sounds like a good idea, but they don’t have desks, don’t use scripts, have a more generous timer, and they have a debating culture that can use wit and self-deprecating humour rather than constant unctuous sanctimony and robotic reliance on scripted talking points like we get here. You can’t just map PMQs here without recognizing the cultural changes. That likely applies to their scheduling motions, while the problem in Canada is more that we have House Leaders of dubious competence as opposed to unworkable rules.

This is specious. If government wants to get their bills passed, they need to convince the Commons. That’s how it works. Meanwhile, the fact that they didn’t get much passed without time allocation (which is not closure, and I want to smack people who confuse the two) is again due to inept House Leadership, not the rules.

Meanwhile, as the Conservatives froth at the mouth at the idea of a once-a-week PMQs, they not only forget that it was all Harper could bother to show up for toward the end of his mandate, and the fact that they voted for Michael Chong’s proposals around exploring this very idea. Oops.

But you know, they have some more outrage to perform.

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Roundup: Backbenchers already have jobs

There were a couple of competing tweet storms that went out yesterday – one from Alex Usher, who seems to think that maybe backbench MPs should consider their jobs to be part-time and take on a second job, and Emmett Macfarlane, who (correctly) thinks that idea is a bunch of bunkum.

As Kady O’Malley points out, it’s not actually against the rules.

And hey, there’s even an academic study that shows that the public (at least in the UK) isn’t too keen on backbenchers taking on second jobs.

I’m going to assume that much of Usher’s position comes from ignorance, because let’s face it – most people, including most MPs, don’t know what an MP’s job description is supposed to be. (Hint: It’s holding the government to account). But because most MPs don’t know that’s their main job, many of them spend their days burning their time and energy doing things like writing up and promoting a dozen private members’ bills that will never see the light of day, or crusading for causes that are as much about getting their own face in the news than they are about helping those in need (or maybe I’m just cynical). The point, however, is that if Usher thinks MPs are bored and in need of something to do, I would suggest that those MPs should actually be doing their jobs, and if they’re actually doing it right, then they shouldn’t be bored. They especially shouldn’t be bored if they’re doing their jobs correctly and not just reading scripts into the record prepared by the leader’s office (and to be fair, there are a few MPs who don’t, even though they’ll still rely on prepared speeches). If we carry on with this path of making MPs obsolete by turning them into drones then sure, I can see Usher’s point, but the answer is not to let them take on outside work. The answer is for them to actually learn their own jobs and do them. Parliament would be vastly improved if that were actually the case.

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Roundup: The problem with measuring parliamentary productivity

Every year around this time, we get the series of articles trying to measure just how “productive” parliament has been, and it uses metrics like how many votes passed – as though that were the sole function of an MP.  And while Aaron Wherry tried to challenge this particular metric of parliamentary productivity, I thought that I would add a few added bits of context. For starters, a number of the bills passed by the Conservatives late in any parliamentary sitting would be some small and very narrow bills to do with something like legislating changes to a particular federal park whose boundaries they expanded (and called it an environmental programme), or specific one-off changes that deal with particular First Nations. They would introduce these bills, let them languish on the Order Paper, and then just before the Commons was set to rise for either winter or summer break, they would pass them at all stages with pretty much no debate or committee hearing, citing them as uncontroversial, and off they would go to the Senate, where they tended to at least get a few hours of debate. Bills like these helped to inflate the numbers that the Conservatives would then cite to “prove” just how productive they had been, when in reality, so much debate time got swallowed up by the need to constantly debate and vote on time allocation motions.

Meanwhile, has this particular government been slow on their legislative agenda? Hell, yes. The fact that Bill C-7 on RCMP labour relations went the entire fall sitting without being brought back for debate after the Senate amended the bill last June is concerning. This was a bill that was in response to a Supreme Court of Canada decision that was granted a brief extension by the Court (around the same time as the assisted dying legislation) and the fact that said deadline expired months ago is a problem. I really don’t know why Bill C-32 (equalising the age of consent for gay sex) hasn’t been brought up for debate yet because the bill is a no-brainer and could (and should) pass with a mere few hours of debate, and yet it’s been sitting there for a month. There are customs and pre-clearance bills that have been sitting on the Order Paper since June, which you think would be important to a government that is looking to try to eliminate barriers to trade with the United States. I’m not sure why the House Leaders are having difficulty in getting these bills moved forward. So while I do think that trying to measure the effectiveness of a parliament by the number of bills passed is a bogus measure, it doesn’t mean that there still aren’t bills that they should have moved on months ago.

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Roundup: Not offering excuses

Justin Trudeau has been making the media rounds over the past few days, and some of the highlights of yesterday’s interviews were how he warned the now-former Italian prime minister that referendums were a bad idea because they give people a licence to lash out at institutions – and they did in that case, and said PM resigned. He also spoke about his “friendly-ish” phone conversation with Donald Trump, the inedible lunch served at a Paris climate conference event, and that he hasn’t yet decided if RCAF001 will be replaced anytime soon. And then there are the fundraising questions. His response was that he’s followed all of the rules, and that this hysteria (my word, not his) is largely a result of opposition and media frenzy than anything substantive. And he’s not really wrong.

And as if summoned, former advisor to Stephen Harper, Tom Flanagan, appeared in the Globe and Mail to remind everyone that these kinds of fundraisers are the exact same thing that Harper and company did when they were in office. The problem, of course, is that Trudeau promised not to have the “appearance” of conflict, but I always bring it back to defining what the appearance is, because I am still waiting for any evidence that would lead one to actually think there is an appearance of conflict and I remain unconvinced. Indeed, when the Globe came out with yesterday’s screaming headline that Liberal donors were invited to a dinner for the Chinese premier, I’m not seeing any evidence that they were invited solely because they were donors – indeed, most of the names highlighted seemed to be invited because they have business interests with China than there being proof of quid pro quo. And as someone else pointed out on Twitter, did anyone thought to compare how many of the people that Stephen Harper took on his trip to Israel were Conservative donors? Or do they not count because when Stephen Harper rode into power in 2006 on the white horse of accountability that he didn’t make the promise of “appearance” of conflict that is being generously interpreted? Have we not finished hoisting Trudeau on his own petard long enough, or do we need to go full Yellow Peril with all of the insinuations about Chinese connections, while continuing to poison the well when it comes to our faith in political institutions?

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Roundup: The whinge of the everyman

I had hoped that after the last round of appointments that we were done with the vapid narcissistic “everyman/woman” wannabe candidates for the Senate would finally go back into the woodwork, but no, I see that we are indulging them once more in a plaintive wail about how terribly unfair it is that deserving, qualified candidates with decades of community and specialty experience got the nod and not them. Because who wouldn’t want an expert in the field when you could get a hot dog vendor or a draftsman who will totally enrich the legislative experience by…um, well, I’m not really sure. I mean, that’s kind of why we have a House of Commons, right? So that the everyman/woman can run and get their chance to do their part and influence policy and so on? And then the Senate goes over their work to ensure that they haven’t made mistakes with the legislation and that it’s all looking good. You know, that whole sober second thought thing? Still failing to see what value a hot dog vendor is going to add to that process. But oh noes! Elites! To which I simply reply “So what?” Do you, hot dog vendor and draftsman who are complaining to the media that your application was passed over, actually know the role and function of the Senate? Because based on everything you’ve said here, I’m not seeing that indication at all.

Meanwhile, Senator Peter Harder is coming to the defence of the new appointment system (as he obviously would, being a recipient of its beneficence already), but takes a few gratuitous swipes at the partisans still in the Senate while he’s at it. But there’s a key paragraph in there toward the bottom, where he talks about how Trudeau “voluntarily relinquished one of the traditional levers of power of his political party and of his office” when he expelled his senators from his caucus, and it rankles just a bit. Why? Because Trudeau didn’t so much give up one traditional lever of power so much as he used the show of relinquishing his lever to gain control over a bunch of other levers instead that are less obvious, from centralizing power over the MPs in his caucus with their institutional memory driven from the room, or his now using ministers to meet with individual senators to try to cut deals for support and using Harder’s own empire-building efforts to “colonize” the new independent senators with his offers of “support” and constant attempts to bigfoot the efforts of the Independent Senators Group to establish their own processes. So no, government influence has not been driven from the Senate – it’s just changed forms, and not necessarily as transparent as it was before, and yes, that does matter.

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Roundup: Lamenting the regional ministries

Agriculture minister Lawrence MacAulay told his local paper that he’s not too concerned that the minister in charge of the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency isn’t from the region, but that he’s a Central Canadian, but hey, he’s gotten results so it’s all good. And then people went insane because how dare the government not have a regional development minister from the region, ignoring that the policy of this government has been to eschew the tradition of regional ministers writ large, and that all regional development agencies all report to the same minister – the industry minister – rather than spreading it around to a number of ministers of state (and bloating the size of cabinet while you’re at it). And then from there comes the perennial outrage that we have regional representation at the cabinet level, which ignores that cabinet positions are not actually something that requires subject matter expertise, but that it’s a political position that is largely based on managerial competence, which is fine, particularly under a system of Responsible Government that the legislature can hold them to account for the performance of their duties. After all, they have the civil service to do the subject-matter expertise part for them, and it’s the job of ministers to make decisions that they can then be held to account for. But a few of the exchanges were at least worth noting.

Most of those were all well and good, but this one from Candice Bergen caught my eye, because it actually highlights something that has largely been ignored.

While it may be a little overwrought, the point about centralizing power in the PMO is actually quite astute, and fits the pattern of centralization that Trudeau has been entirely underreported. Within the Liberal Party itself, Trudeau has convinced the party to abolish its regional powerbases and centralize it all within his own office under the guise of “modernization” and “being more responsive.” Once could very well argue that eliminating regional minister has a similar effect. That said, one could also argue that the purpose of regional minister was about pork-barrelling and doing the partisan work of securing votes from those very same regions for the government’s benefit, so their loss wouldn’t be too deeply felt in a move to make a system built to be more responsive to evidence than political consideration. Regardless, the propensity of this prime minister to consolidate power should not be underestimated, and this is something we should absolutely be keeping an eye on.

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Roundup: Anxiety and resentment

As the United States continues to be subjected to demagoguery in their electoral gong show, Bill Morneau is warning about “canary in the coal mine” that Trumpism is representing, which can be echoed in other places with the Brexit vote or the rise of Bernie Sanders on the left in the US. Morneau attributes it to anxiety and resentment over the belief that globalisation is not benefitting the majority of citizens (never mind that $400 flat panel televisions are totally not the benefit of global trade, but just a coincidence. Oh, wait…) Morneau pegs his solutions in terms of what his government is doing with their “inclusive growth” agenda, and mentions their higher taxes on the one percent in order to pay for the enhanced child benefit payments and their plans to overhaul the CPP, along with infrastructure spending, but it seems to me that it’s only half the battle, and that we need some greater financial economic amongst the general public to see just what the benefits of global trade are, and that they’re not just benefitting the super-rich.

We need talk about things like the “Iowa car crop” to educate people about how trade benefits them in ways that they don’t think about – like hey, food prices are at something approaching an all-time low thanks to trade, and cars and electronics continue to fall in price and we have devices nowadays that would be considered magical just a few decades ago, at price points that are unimaginable for their complexity. But none of this fits into the narratives of resentment that people stoke for political benefit, and that’s a problem. It’s also a problem with that narrative is used to fuel anti-establishment sentiments that only serve to poison the well against the way governments function, and that’s going to start biting back in a very big way before too long in the States, as people demanding wholesale dismantling of the state start reaping what they’ve sown – particularly as it comes wrapped in Trump’s message and his attempts to delegitimise the results of the election before they’ve happened already. It’s a dangerous game that they’re playing, and it needs to be stopped, but anyone who does is “biased” and “protecting the status quo,” and where do you go from there? I wish I knew.

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Roundup: The shameless Duff

Senator Mike Duffy is back in the news again, once again claiming his housing allowance for his long-time residence in Ottawa, because of course he is. There are a couple of problems here, but the first one is the way in which the story is being reported.

“Hasn’t the Senate tightened its rules?” is usually the first plaintive wail that we hear, and yes, they did. They have put rules in place around what constitutes proof of a primary residence in the province that a senator represents, and those rules include things like driver’s licence, health card, CRA tax assessment – things that Duffy didn’t have when he was first appointed and yet started claiming his housing allowance for the residence he lived in for years already. Duffy has since acquired the necessary documentation to “prove” that his primary residence is PEI. It’s also problematic to start devising a formula for how many hours one has to spend in their primary and secondary residence because it is generally a qualitative and not a quantitative measure, complicated by the work that senators do, and in some cases, there are senators who can’t travel back to their primary residences because of health concerns and are essentially forced to spend more time in Ottawa than they would otherwise. They may yet assign some kind of hour or day measure, but my understanding is that there is not one at the moment.

The bigger problem here is not the rules or the Senate itself (and for the love of all the gods on Olympus, I wish that my journalistic colleagues would stop treating this issue as a problem of the institution than its actors), but rather that Duffy himself is completely and utterly without shame. If he had any shame or decency, he wouldn’t keep claiming for his Ottawa residence, because he would know that it’s what got the whole issue rolling in the first place. But no – he is entitled to his entitlements, and has taken the fact that he was not convicted of criminal fraud and breach of trust as validation rather than the fact that he was nevertheless condemned for his behaviour while recognizing that it didn’t quite meet the test of being criminal. And that’s why this is really a Mike Duffy problem and not a Senate problem. He never should have been appointed as a PEI senator, and yet here we are.

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