Roundup: Unleashing the two-year markers

With it being the two-year mark since the 2015 election, we’re going to start seeing a wave of thinkpieces and columns over the next few days (I suspect there will be a glut of weekend columns of dubious quality on the topic), but Paul Wells got things off to a good start yesterday with his piece on the matter. And he makes some pretty good points about how the complaints that this government hasn’t done anything are off the mark, because I do believe there are a number of things that we forget with our short attention spans, but there are also things that we don’t see obvious signs of, where the government has reformed a lot of the processes by which things get done – and this is a particularly big issue when it comes to trying to move the various Indigenous files forward. While it looks like there has been halting progress, people ignore that many of the problems are capacity-related, so if the government is moving to address those fundamental issues, it leads to better outcomes later than simply throwing money at problems only to make them worse in the long run – which happens all too often.

But Wells also acknowledges the bad, and just like with any government, there’s a lot of that too – the appointments process is a notable example, and Wells points to the bottleneck in the PMO, which goes along with the glut of rookie ministers (unavoidable with so few experienced MPs in caucus), and the problem with messaging. As I wrote about earlier this week, there is a real problem with the way this government shovels pabulum at everyone, but I’m not sure it’s any worse than under the previous government, when you were treated to non sequiturs rather than vague answers that resembled the topics you were asking about. And it’s this inability to have forthright communications that created much of this tax mess as well (but I will also lay some blame on bad and lazy reporting that was too quick to lean on opposition talking points as examples of accountability rather than reaching out to experts and then using that to push back against the tidal wave of misinformation that came out). And most especially the fact that this government was unwilling to actually fight back against the misinformation is why this mess of their own making has been compounded even more so.

“But it’s hard to be entirely saddened by Trudeau’s current discomfort, which if nothing else might shake his team out of the towering sanctimony that characterizes too much of its action and rhetoric,” Wells writes, and I fully agree. In fact, it’s the moments in the past couple of weeks where Trudeau and his ministers have dropped their pabulum-like talking points and been punchier and more authentic in their fighting back against their attackers that I’ve seen a spike in public responses to my own reporting of those instances. Hopefully they’re seeing that too, and it’ll prompt them to take more risks and to stop being so gods damned scripted. But this is also politics in 2017, and we’ve killed off spontaneity or the ability to debate, so I fear that my hopes for honest communications are doomed.

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QP: Bill Morneau faces the conspiracy theories

Minutes before QP was about to start, Bill Morneau announced that he was immediately moving his shares into a blind trust and would sell them off as soon as feasible, and admitted that he may have been a bit naive around the issue. As Conservative MPs filed into the Chamber, party comms staffers pulled them aside to feed them the required lines about how they would react to this news, and there was likely some hasty rewriting of scripts to ensure that they continued to maximize their outrage. Meanwhile, neither the PM nor Andrew Scheer were present, but Bill Morneau was, meaning he would be the target of all of that maximized outrage. Pierre Poilievre led off, intimating a vast conspiracy of numbered accounts that Morneau controlled, and Bill Morneau stood up to give his contrite admission that he could do more, and that he has divested himself of those shares and would keep his Ethics screens in place. Poilievre accused Morneau of being a hypocrite attacking small businesses. Morneau stated that they were working to ensure tax fairness, and that he planned to go beyond the Ethics Commissioner’s recommendations. Poilievre wondered how many times he had to recuse himself (at the press conference, Morneau said twice), and I’m not sure that he reiterated this answer when he repeated his pledge to do better. Alain Rayes was up next to demand in French when he told the PM of his conflicts, and Morneau reminded him that our system has these questions go through the Ethics Commissioner, whom he worked with to ensure there were no conflicts. Rayes asked again, with additional concern trolling about the mandate letters, and Morneau repeated in English this time the same response. Guy Caron was up next for the NDP, accusing Morneau of misleading everyone on his shares. Morneau reminded him that he followed the Commissioner’s guidelines, and when both Caron and Nathan Cullen raised the Morneau Shepell/C-27 conspiracy theory, got much the same answer, and Cullen sanctimoniously repeated Caron’s first question, but Morneau let the message track drop, and accused Cullen of sowing distrust by misrepresenting facts.

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QP: Having confidence in the Ethics Commissioner

While Bill Morneau was off in New Brunswick to talk tax changes, Justin Trudeau was present for the first time this week, so it was guaranteed to be a gong show. After a moment of silence, Andrew Scheer, led off, mini-lectern on desk, lamenting that Morneau still “controlled” millions of dollars of his own wealth (which I’m not sure is an accurate portrayal of the situation). Trudeau reminded him that Morneau had followed the Ethics Commissioner’s advice, and had additionally just sent her a letter to see if there was anything he could do to go above and beyond her request. After another round of the same in French, Scheer read a portion of Morneau’s mandate letter and demanded to know when Trudeau knew that he was in a conflict of interest. Trudeau reiterated his previous response, calling it the kind of integrity that Canadians expect. Scheer accused Morneau of attacking small businesses while protecting his own wealth. Trudeau returned to questions of tax fairness, and when Scheer pressed, Trudeau produced a copy of the Liberal campaign platform and read that it was a promise made then that they kept. Guy Caron was up for the NDP, and he too pressed on Morneau’s shares, and Trudeau reiterated that Morneau worked with the Ethics Commissioner. Caron proffered the latest conspiracy theory that Morneau tabled Bill C-27 for the sole benefit of his old company, and Trudeau reiterated the Commissioner talking points. Nathan Cullen reiterated the claims in English, and Trudeau tripped up in referring to the Commissioner as the “Conflict of Ethics Commissioner,” to great uproar. Cullen tried again, and got the same answer — including the same slip-up.

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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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QP: Selling shares, ad nauseam

While the PM was in Toronto and Bill Morneau in Montreal, it was promising to be an insufferable day in Question Period. Andrew Scheer led off, accusing Morneau of evading Canadian taxes while labelling small businesses as tax cheats (not true), and Bardish Chagger got to stand up to read that Morneau followed the advice of the Ethics Commissioner and that they trust her. Scheer tried again, and Chagger read that they are making changes to their proposals based on what Canadians told them, and hey, lower small business taxes! Scheer switched to English to worry that Morneau didn’t place his shares into a blind trust, and Chagger read another trite statement. They went another round, Chagger trying to play up small business week, and then another round again. Guy Caron was up next, leading for the NDP, raising the supposed conflicts of interest that Morneau was involved in — per the letter that Nathan Cullen sent to the Ethics Commissioner — and Chagger reminded him that they cleared everything with the Commissioner and after another round of the same in French, Cullen got up to reiterate and tried to get Duclos to respond based on pension legislation that could, theoretically, benefit Morneau’s family company, but Chagger gave her stock response. When Cullen chastised her for responding instead of Duclos, the response didn’t change.

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Roundup: The good news rollouts

The Liberals’ planned rollout of all kinds of “good news” announcements for Small Business Week – reductions in the small business tax rate by 2019, and changes to their planned amendments to Canadian-Controlled Private Corporation (CCPC) rules to crack down on those who use them to avoid paying taxes – were very nearly overshadowed by a Globe and Mail article that cried out that Bill Morneau hadn’t put his shares into a blind trust after all. As it turns out, this was largely a non-story – Morneau followed the advice of the Ethics Commissioner, who felt that because of his particular share structure that he wouldn’t need a blind trust but an ethics screen instead – though there are some added complications around it (see Glen McGregor’s tweets). This after the “revelation” about Morneau’s French villa – not that he had forgotten to disclose it, because he had already – just that he didn’t disclose the particular ownership structure, which is a French corporate structure not uncommon with the ownership of non-commercial real estate, known as a Société Civile Immobilière. Again, a non-story that the opposition (and certain media outlets) pounced upon, trying to make a bigger deal out of them than was merited.

And then there was the Prime Minister’s tax cut announcement at that Stouffville restaurant, and the somewhat bizarre behaviour by Trudeau in the Q&A period after where he tried to answer questions directed at Morneau (no doubt trying to keep control of the message and not let it get railroaded by the non-stories about his villa and shares, but it came off as smarmy). And back in Ottawa, his backbench critics seemed mollified by the morning’s announcements, so we’ll see if that holds in the days ahead. (Not to be outdone by all of the Liberal press shenanigans, Andrew Scheer walked out on a press conference when asked about his former campaign manager’s association with Rebel Media.)

Meanwhile, neither Chantal Hébert nor Andrew Coyne are impressed with the theatrics of this government’s attempt to change the channel on the pummelling they’ve received.

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QP: Discounts and French villas

Hours after the mandatory Monday morning Liberal caucus meeting and the presser by Justin Trudeau, Bill Morneau, and Bardish Chagger on small business tax cuts, QP got underway, with the opposition smelling blood in the water. Andrew Scheer led off, mini-lectern on desk, and read a demand in French for clarity on employee discounts as tax benefits. Diane Lebouthillier stood up to say that the document from CRA did not reflect the government’s position, and they would be reviewed. Scheer asked again in English, making a bigger issue out of this being a tax grab, and a Lebouthillier repeated her response in English — a rarity for her (which she has been working on). When Scheer asked yet again, Lebouthillier reiterated her response for a third time, but back again in French. Alain Rayes took another stab at the very same question in French, got the same answer, and then when Rayes tried to insinuate that she didn’t know what was going on in her department, Lebouthillier stuck to her points. Guy Caron was up next for the NDP, and he raised the non-stories of Bill Morneau’s villa in France, and his company shares not being put into a blind trust (never mind that he followed the Ethics Commissioner’s instructions on the ethics screen instead). François-Philippe Champagne stood up to praise the small business tax cuts instead, and on a second question of the same, Champagne reminded him that he followed the guidance of the Ethics Commissioner. Nathan Cullen was up next, and wondered rhetorically about Liberal promise-keeping as damage control. Champagne praised the small business tax cuts instead, given that there wasn’t really a question there. Cullen raised the villa and the lack of blind trust, and Champagne reiterated that Morneau followed the Commissioner’s guidelines.

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Roundup: The orgy of unforced errors

Word has gone out to Liberal MPs that there will be a mandatory caucus meeting first thing on Monday morning – a rarity given that mostly they wait until Wednesdays (especially as it makes it harder for those MPs who are from remote ridings to get there). The only thing that we know so far is that both Bill Morneau and the PM will be there, and the speculation is that it will outline the changes to their proposed tax changes based on consultations, but one can also assume that this is going to be about the ongoing self-harm that the government has been inflicting on itself over the various tax stories.

And what self-harm it’s been. On Friday, it was revealed that Bill Morneau forgot to declare that he also has interest in a company that owns a villa in France, and you can bet that the Conservatives took to this like a pack of dogs to fresh meat. This after the way that they refused to punch back against the gross distortions being promulgated about the proposed changes to the rules around Canadian-Controlled Private Corporations (CPCCs), or the refusal to provide real clarification around the CRA “folio” on certain employee discounts, preferring in each case to mouth the pabulum about fairness for the middle class. (Cute fact: the CRA “folio” has been up for months, was briefly discussed in the Commons finance committee last month, but only turned into a major crisis after a piece in the Globe and Mail. Because that’s now the Opposition Research Bureau, and it’s where the Conservatives take their daily outrage marching orders from, too lazy or incompetent to do their own research anymore).

And then there’s the added outrage over the fact that the government spent $221,000 on the cover of this year’s federal budget. Oh, how terrible and outrageous, and look at how plain the cover of Paul Martin’s budgets were, and then the Conservative chorus chimes in and makes these snide remarks about comparing the spending priorities between the two governments – completely ignoring the fact that they chose instead to spend even more thousands of dollars staging photo ops off of Parliament Hill to make announcements or give speeches where the Liberals will do it in the House of Commons, where they should be. Lindsay Tedds, mind you, offered up a sort of defence for why the Liberals may have chosen to go with this particular route on a budget design, which those in the throes of a paroxysm of cheap outrage, remain blinkered about.

So I guess we’ll see what emerges from that caucus meeting. Will they emerge with some better means of communicating their plans that won’t just involve more pat phrases about the middle class, and would maybe let them engage in some actual, authentic conversations that will push back against some of the nonsense being thrown around? Or will Trudeau lay down the law on his restless backbench and double down on the talking points that blandly say nothing at all, while they continue to let the Conservatives set the narrative using their own particular brand of spin, misdirection, and distortion? I guess we’ll have to see.

Meanwhile, here’s Colby Cosh raining down hellfire on that $210,000 budget cover, Chantal Hébert on the fire that Bill Morneau is taking, Andrew MacDougall on the Liberal’s inability to communicate their changes, and Paul Wells sees the continued litany of unforced errors as putting the government in danger of alienating the middle class that it so vocally venerates.

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Roundup: No conflict to investigate

For all of the ink spilled and concerns trolled in Question Period, the Morneau-Shepell conspiracy theory is turning into a big fat zero for the Conservatives. Why? It seems that for all of the “appearance of conflict of interest” that they’re trying to drum up and selective laying out of facts in true conspiracy theory style (with the added cowardice of hiding behind the so-called “experts” who laid them out in committee testimony), the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner herself is shrugging it off.

“There does not appear to be reasonable grounds at this time for the Commissioner to launch an examination under the Conflict of Interest Act or an inquiry under the Conflict of Interest Code for Members of the House of Commons,” said the Commissioner’s spokesperson, and added that they won’t bother investigating investigate “if there is no specific information to suggest that a provision of the Act or the Code may have been contravened.”

And guess who isn’t putting up any specific information that would suggest an actual conflict of interest? The Conservatives. They’re still “gathering information,” which is cute, because why bother filing anything formally when you can make all manner of accusations and cast as much aspersion as possible under the protection of the privilege of the House of Commons, that will be reported uncritically? After all, this is “just politics,” and you can worry about the “appearance” of conflicts all you want on flimsy to no evidence, while facing no consequences whatsoever. It’s tiresome, but it’s the kind of sad drama that we seem to be subsisting on rather than substantive debate on the issues and the actual concerns that appeared around those tax proposals. Such is the sad state of affairs these days.

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Senate QP: Morneau defends his proposals

While the furore over the proposed tax changes continues apace, the Senate took the opportunity to hear from finance minister Bill Morneau, which would be largely about those proposed changes. Senator Larry Smith led off with a litany of accusations about deficit spending and the proposed tax changes, the notion being that the government was bumbling. Morneau noted the return to growth rates that we haven’t seen in ten years, and that their deficits were lower as a result, and going forward, they were looking to keep the growth going, so that meant trying to make these tax changes in order to close the unintended consequences of rules that didn’t help with economic aim. Smith then insisted that the government hadn’t done economic modelling for two of their three proposed tax changes, and how people could have confidence in the process. Morneau took him back to the stats showing that these Canadian Controlled Private Corporations have grown without self-employment rates increasing at the same rate, and how these measures were being used to shield tax income.

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