Roundup: Appointment backlog woes

The National Post has a really good piece looking into the current backlog of appointments and the effect it’s having on the functioning of government. It’s something that has been talked about a lot, but it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a good breakdown of those vacancies, and the effect that it’s having. It’s one of those subjects that sounds pretty easy to grumble about, but it’s also something that we should take a step back and realise that to a certain extent, the goals of reforming the appointments process has been laudable, and in many cases, overdue when it comes to increasing the level of diversity into these positions. Over the course of my reporting, a lot of civil society actors have praised the move (while still being concerned at the timeframe it took for getting the processes up and running) because they all know that the outcomes will inevitably be better over the longer term now that the bulk of positions aren’t simply being filled by straight white men.

That said, I also wanted to just put a bit of additional context around some of this backlog in saying that as much as the Conservatives are baying at the moon about some of these appointments right now, that they were no saints when it came to this sort of thing either, and reformed the appointment process for some of these positions themselves, creating massive backlogs in the process. The two that come to mind immediately are the Immigration and Refugee Board, where they took a functioning system and drove it to dysfunction when they changed that process to “de-politicise it” (with plenty of accusations that they just made the system easier to put their own cronies in) and turning a system where the optimal number of files was churning through into a massive backlog that they tried to blame their predecessors on (sound familiar?). The other was the Social Security Tribunal, which they completely revamped as part of their changes to the system overall, and I’m not sure it ever got fixed before they lost the election, only for the Liberals to turn around to reform the appointment process yet again. So yes, some of the backlogs are bad, but in some cases, ‘twas ever thus, and we should keep that in mind.

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Roundup: The Speaker’s clock

The CBC has a video segment released today talking to Commons Speaker Geoff Regan about the countdown clock in the Commons when it comes to things like Question Period, and how he enforces the 35-second rule for questions and answers.

While it’s a nice video explanation, and demonstrates that Regan will allow a few seconds’ grace when necessary, it does go to demonstrate part of what isn’t functioning with the way we’re doing things like Question Period – or even regular debate, for that matter. By enforcing strict clocks, we’ve incentivised a culture of filling that space rather than it being an upper limit. Even in QP, where it’s a simple yes-of-no question, the temptation to fill all 35 seconds with canned talking points usually wins out (though the three-word yes-or-no Mr. Speaker replies do occasionally happen and make my day). Also, the 35 second clock encourages ministers to read replies in order to ensure that they stay within the limit rather than going over – and that tends to lead to a greater reliance on talking points than substantive answers.

As I’ve written about several times, I think this video is a demonstration as to why we need to loosen the clock. I’ve also witnessed in Senate QP where there is no defined clock, where you can get far more substantive questions and answers (though the Senate Speaker does need to reign them in a bit – some senators will speechify during a question, and sometimes the visiting minister will ramble). But loosening the clock and empowering the Speaker to better manage that time – along with a ban on scripts – will go a long way to improving the flow of debate in the Commons, rather than the farce that we have today.

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Roundup: The Khadr settlement

News that Omar Khadr’s lawyers have reached a settlement with the government for some $10 million over his mistreatment and violation of his rights set off a firestorm, particularly among Conservatives, who took to the Twitter Machine to perform some outrage and to virtue signal, ignoring all of the relevant facts about the case, like the fact that he was a child soldier, that he was tortured, subjected to an illegal court process, confessed under duress to a made-up offence and pled guilty under similar duress, and the fact that thrice the Supreme Court of Canada found that we violated his Charter rights. (The government, incidentally, will only confirm that there is a judicial process underway, nor have any Liberal MPs joined in the online fray). And before you ask, no, this isn’t just something to be worn by the Harper government, but goes back to the Chrétien and Martin governments.

And it cannot be understated, no matter what Khadr is accused of having done (and there is much disputed evidence that he could have thrown that grenade), the reason he would be getting compensation is because Canada violated his rights. And while Andrew MacDougall may explore the partisan point-scoring on Khadr, we cannot escape the simple fact that, as Stephanie Carvin drives home, that we are now paying the financial price for violating his rights for no tangible benefit. I would add that this financial penalty should also serve as a deterrent to future governments who think that they can get away with violating a Canadian’s rights and there not be any consequences. Amidst this, that a party that purports to be concerned with “law and order” to have trouble grasping with the basics of the rule of law, and coming up with a myriad of disingenuous justifications for ignoring said rule of law, is troubling. Oh, and the widow of the soldier that Khadr is alleged to have killed, and the other he is alleged to have blinded, are applying to the Canadian courts to claim his settlement (but I would be curious to see, if it makes it to trial, if their claims would hold up in court considering that they are based on charges and evidence that would not have stood up to Canadian law).

Meanwhile, while all of this outrage is being performed, remember that these same conservatives who insist that he was fully capable of having the mens rea to commit war crimes (which there are no legal basis for) who also insist that fifteen-year-olds can’t consent to sex, or that they need parental consent to attend gay-straight alliance clubs at their schools. Because there’s so much logical consistency there.

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Roundup: The disingenuous framing of a committee report

As you may have heard, the Heritage Committee released their long-awaited study on suggested ways to help the local media landscape in Canada. And I’m not here to talk about that, however, but rather how the narrative got completely spun into “Netflix tax!” or “Internet tax!” which wasn’t exactly what they were proposing either. Still, it became a convenient cudgel by which to try and bash the government with.

And that’s the bigger problem with this whole affair – that a committee report is being used to paint the government when it’s backbenchers who are on the committee. That separation between government (meaning Cabinet) and a committee of the legislature is important, and conflating the two is being wilfully disingenuous and makes the problem of not understanding how our parliament works even worse.

Paul and Aaron both have some very valid points. When the opposition frames it as “Netflix tax!” it’s sadly how most media will report it as well, and I didn’t see a lot of corrections going on about what the report actually said, and that’s a problem. But Aaron also has the point about how the media loves to jump on differences of opinion in parties, but when the parties themselves frame the issue, the media often gets swept up in those narratives.

Remember when there were those Conservative backbenchers trying to float some backdoor abortion legislation or motions that the government distanced themselves from but the NDP screamed bloody murder about hidden agendas and so on? This is not far from the same thing. And they know they’re being disingenuous, but they’re doing it anyway, no matter how much they’re actually damaging the perceptions of the institution.

That said, I could be really mean and point out that it may be hard for the Conservatives to tell the difference between backbenchers on a committee and the government seeing as during their decade in office, they essentially turned the committees into branch plants of the ministers’ offices with parliamentary secretaries ringleading the show and completely destroying their independence…but maybe I won’t.

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Roundup: A wake-up call on court complacency

The Senate’s legal and constitutional affairs committee released their report on judicial delays yesterday, and while I haven’t made it through the whole report yet, I will say that the highlights are pretty eye-opening.

While you may think that the issue of judicial vacancies is top of mind, it’s actually the culture of complacency that has infected the court system, with inefficient processes, poor case management, an unwillingness by some judges to take their peers to task for granting repeated adjournments, and the list goes on. Yes, judicial vacancies are in there, and this government has excelled in delays for all manner of appointments (witness the backlog of nominations for Officers of Parliament, for example). It’s part of what the Supreme Court of Canada was hoping to get at with the Jordan decision (and may refine that somewhat more with the upcoming decision on Friday), but it’s clear that a lot of processes need to change.

I know there has been some work done, and I’ve written a bit about things like the move to do more summary judgments in some cases rather than going to full trial, and it can work. I just wrote a story last week where it did, and the biggest delay in the case was getting an actual hearing date. But some of the bigger problems remain structural, with things like inadequate mental health services that wind up processing these people through the courts rather than getting them proper treatment, or not having culturally appropriate services for Indigenous offenders which would do more to address their concerns and keep them from recidivism rather than keeping them cycling through the system (or out of jail entirely). Things like legal aid funding are also important to the smooth operation of the system, but one has to wonder if it’s not just giving the court system more resources, but also better drafting laws so that we deal with crime in a better way rather than just trying to look tough on the issues.

Anyway, what I’ve read so far looks good and resonates with what I’ve heard in my own justice reporting, so maybe, just maybe, this government can take some of the recommendations seriously and not just thank them, promise to consult further, and put it on a shelf.

(Incidentally, Christie Blatchford, who covers a lot of trials, is full of praise for the report).

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QP: A failed gotcha moment

With the PM flying back from Italy, Andrew Scheer was still left waiting for his sparring match with Trudeau despite being fired up on caucus day. Scheer led off, mini-lectern on desk, reading the accusation that the Infrastructure Bank was to be used for buying favours of friends. Amarjeet Sohi responded with his well-worn reply that the Bank would free up capital for communities to spend it on other needs. Scheer worried that taxpayers would be left on the hook when loans couldn’t be repaid, and Sohi assured him that only projects in the public interest would go ahead and that they ensured accountability. Scheer read some more concern about risk and the government co-signing loans for the one percent. Sohi reiterated his previous points. Scheer then switched to French to lament the nomination of Madeleine Meilleur, and Mélanie Joly reiterated her usual points about Meilleur’s qualifications. For his last question, Scheer railed about Karla Homolka being found volunteering at a school, and Ralph Goodall fielded the question, noting the robustness of background checks. Thomas Mulcair was up next, railing about Meilleur and demanding a parliamentary inquiry into her appointment process, and Joly gave her standard reply. When Mulcair insisted that there were too many conflicts of interest, Joly noted that committees are independent, and reiterated previous points. Mulcair then changed topics, and demanded a free vote on adopting the Electoral Reform committee report. Karina Gould said it was surprising that the NDP wanted to adopt the report considering that they didn’t even agree with it. Mulcair then changed to the issue of KPMG, and Diane Lebouthillier noted investments in cracking down on tax evasion.

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QP: Not taking yes for an answer

Scheer’s second day in the Commons as leader, and the PM was still in Italy. Even Speaker Regan was away, and it was Deputy Speaker Stanton in the chair instead. Scheer led off worrying about the TransMountain pipeline in the face of a potential NDP government in BC — never mind that the PM already told the press earlier that it was going ahead regardless. Jim Carr reiterated that same point in his reply, but Scheer was unconvinced, railing about how Northern Gateway was also approved at one point before it was cancelled (which isn’t exactly how things happened). Carr reiterated that the process for TransMountain was exhaustive, and had been approved. Scheer turned to the issue of the Infrastructure Bank, and Amarjeet Sohi insisted that the Bank was necessary to get private capital into infrastructure. Scheer insisted that the Bank was ripe for abuse and corruption, but Sohi reminded him that it would be accountable to Parliament. For his final question, Scheer concern trolled about the nomination of Madeleine Meilleur as Languages Commissioner, to which Mélanie Joly insisted that Meilleur was the most qualified candidate. Thomas Mulcair was up next, and asked about amendments to the PBO legislation. Bardish Chagger read a card about the committee’s important work and that they have accepted a number of their bills. Mulcair ripped into Chagger’s talking points, to which Chagger put down her comments to insist that they listened and have delivered on the amendments. Mulcair then turn to the Infrastructure Bank, wondering about the hands of BlackRock in it, and Sohi listed the great things they could help fund. Mulcair then accused the government of interfering in provincial jurisdiction with the Bank, but Sohi parried, noting it was just another funding option.

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QP: Rona Ambrose’s swan song

With the news that Rona Ambrose was stepping down now confirmed, and Justin Trudeau present for what was likely the only day this week, QP was off and running. Ambrose led off, asking about the report calling to scrap and replace the National Energy Board. Trudeau noted that they have been consulting, and reiterated that they are serious about ensuring that the economy and the environment go together. Ambrose took exception to the report recommendation that its headquarters be moved to Ottawa from Calgary, and Trudeau took a few shots at the previous government politicising the Board while he was working to restore trust in the process. Ambrose worried that Trudeau was trying to choke out the oilsands in red tape, but Trudeau insisted that a responsible approach would mean growing the economy. Ambrose switched to French to demand that the House appoint a new Ethics Commissioner without any Liberal interference. Trudeau jabbed back about political appointments the Conservatives made while touting his own merit-based process. Ambrose noted that the last question would likely be her final one as leader of the opposition, and said she would call off her attack dogs if he answered how many times he met with the Ethics Commissioner. Trudeau reminded her that she asks them not to talk about investigations and he has met with her several times over his time as an MP, and was going to pay Ambrose a compliment before he was drowned out. Thomas Mulcair was up next, raising the reach of a CBC news story about the ownership of the Aga Khan’s island. Trudeau retreated to the talking point that it was a private family vacation. Mulcair railed about the helicopter ride, but Trudeau noted that he would answer any questions the Ethics Commissioner may have. Mulcair then moved onto the story about someone from KPMG working for the Liberal Party, in the context of a committee study of the firm being voted down, and Trudeau noted that the committee is independent. Mulcair pressed, and Trudeau launched into a spiel about ethics and openness.

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Roundup: The curious PCO-PBO turf war

There is an interesting piece out from Kathryn May on iPolitics about the turf war going on between the Privy Council Office and the Parliamentary Budget Officer, and how that is playing out in the provisions of the budget implementation bill that would create an independent PBO. The PBO blames senior bureaucrats for trying to hobble its future role, and much of it seems to be down to an existential difference of opinion, between whether or not the PBO should exist to give advice to parliamentarians, or to be a watchdog of the government. PCO takes the view that the PBO was designed to offer advice and independent analysis, while the first PBO, Kevin Page, was certainly taking the latter view, which his successor has largely followed suit with. One of the other interesting notes was that the public service would rather the PBO act in more of a fashion like the Auditor General, where he goes back to departments with his figures to check for factual errors, and that it gives them a chance to respond to the report, rather than feeling like they are being constantly “ambushed.”

I am of the view that we run the risk of creating bigger problems if we continue to give the PBO too broad of a mandate, while being unaccountable and only able to be terminated for cause, meaning seven year terms by which they can self-initiate all manner of investigations with no constraints. That will be a problem, given that we already have at least one Independent Officer of Parliament who is going about making problematic declarations and giving reports of dubious quality without anyone calling him to task on it (and by this I mean the Auditor General). And I do think that PCO has a point in that the intent of the PBO was to give independent analysis, particularly of economic forecasts, and I do think that there is some merit to the criticisms that Kevin Page had become something of a showboat and was far exceeding his mandate before his term was not renewed. We have a serious problem in our parliament where we are handing too much power to these independent officers (and other appointed bodies for that matter) while MPs are doing less and less actual work – especially the work that they’re supposed to be doing.

While PCO says that the provisions in the budget bill were to try to “strike a balance” with the role of the PBO, I fear that he’s already become too popular with the media – and by extension the general public – to try and constrain his role, and the government will be forced to back down. Because We The Media are too keen to be deferential to watchdogs (like the Auditor General) and not call them out when they go wrong (like the AG did with the Senate report), I fear that the pattern will repeat itself with the PBO, as it already is with the demands from the pundit class that he be given overly broad powers with his new office. Because why let Parliament do the job it’s supposed to do when we can have Independent Officers do it for them?

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QP: Defence policy concerns

While Monday attendance is usual for the PM, he was nowhere to be seen today, instead meeting with Muslim leaders from around the country. Rona Ambrose led off, worried that the Trump administration would be able to see Canada’s defence policy before Canadians would. Harjit Sajjan said that because the policy was determined in consultation with allies, it made sense for them to see it first. Ambrose accused the PM of meeting with Americans in secret over it, and Sajjan reiterated that it was done with broad consultation and be fully costed. Ambrose turned to Wynn’s law, complaining that the government gutted it (despite the fact that the legal community was not in favour of the bill). Jody Wilson-Raybould said that they felt for Wynn’s widow and supported the principles of bail reform, but the bill didn’t pass muster. Ambrose accused her of looking out for the interests of lawyers instead of victims (as though it’s not lawyers navigating the new problems the bill would create), but Wilson-Raybould reiterated her response. Ambrose’s final question was to demand support for her bill on mandatory sexual assault training for judges. Wilson-Raybould was non-committal in her response, just talking about the importance of the issue. (Note that after QP, the government voted to ram the bill through without further debate). Matthew Dubé led for the NDP, worried about the possibility of tolls and service fees for projects funded out of the Infrastructure Bank. Amarjeet Sohi reminded him that they could leverage investment while freeing up government dollars for things like shelters and housing. Rachel Blaney railed about the risks associated with the investments, and Sohi noted pensions funds that invest in infrastructure in other countries, while they were trying to get those dollars to stay in Canada. Blaney then demanded guarantees for fair treatment at the US border (as if that will work for the Americans), and Ralph Goodale said that any incidents should be reported so that they had a statistical record but so far the figures were on the decline. Dubé reiterated in French, and Goodale told him to follow up on individual cases with his office.

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