Roundup: Say no to written guidelines

In the pages of the Hill Times, recently retired Liberal Senator George Baker opined that he thinks the Senate needs written guidelines to restrict how bills can be amended or defeated. Currently, there is the constitutional provision for an unlimited veto, and a general principle followed by senators that they don’t defeat (government) bills unless it’s a Very Serious Matter because they know they’re not elected and don’t have a democratic mandate to do so. And as much as I appreciate the learned wisdom of Senator Baker (and his retirement is a tremendous loss for the institution), I’m going to solidly disagree with him on this one.

For one, our institutions in their Westminster model are predicated on their flexibility, which allows for a great deal of evolution and adaptability, and adding too many written guidelines to hem in powers – powers that were given to the institution for a reason – rankles a bit because there will always be situation for which those powers may become necessary to use. Too many guidelines, especially when it comes to amendment or veto powers for a body for whom that is their entire purpose, takes away their power and ability to do the jobs that they are there to do in the first place. As with the constant demands for a Cabinet manual to spell out the powers of the Governor General, it’s the first step in removing discretionary power, and giving political actors (especially prime ministers) ways to go around the other constitutional actors, be they the Senate or the Governor General, which is something that should worry every Canadian. As well, codifying those powers opens up the possibility of litigation, and you can bet that our friends at Democracy Watch are salivating for any chance at all to start suing the Senate based on their not living up to whatever guidelines are drawn up, thus further imperilling the exercise of parliamentary privilege and the separation of powers between Parliament and the courts. So no, I don’t think written guidelines are needed, nor would they be helpful. At least not from where I’m sitting.

Meanwhile the Senate’s Internal Economy Committee members published an open letter to Senator Peter Harder in response to his Policy Options op-ed on independent oversight for the Senate. Suffice to say, they weren’t fans. (My own response to Harder can be found here).

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QP: What about Morneau-Shapell?

With it being Wednesday and with the PM out to town, there were a few more empty desks in the Commons, but QP rolled along regardless. Andrew Scheer led off, returning again to the proposed tax changes as an attack on “local businesses.” Jim Carr stood up to instead note that the opposition has been so concerned with women entrepreneurs, then how could they contenance the statements by Gerry Ritz in calling the environment minister “Climate Barbie.” Andrew Scheer didn’t respond, and stuck to his script, and so Carr stood up again, to again demand that the comments be denounced. Scheer again hewed to his script on “local businesses,” and Carr again expressed his disappointment and his expectation of a retraction. Onto Alain Rayes, who read the “local businesses” scripts in French, and this time, Bill Morneau stood up to reiterate that they were trying to make the system fairer for the middle class. They went another round of the same, before Thomas Mulcair rose for the NDP, railing that the PM left the door open to ballistic missile defence. Harjit Sajjan said that they were working actively with the US on NORAD modernisation, but the policy had not changed. Mulcair asked again in French, and Marc Garneau took this one, offering much the same response. Nathan Cullen was up next to rail about tax loopholes, and Diane Lebouthillier assured him they were going after tax avoidance. Alexandre Boulerice asked the same in French, and Bill Morneau gave his pat response on tax fairness.

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Roundup: Neglecting a vital institution

Of the things that vex me about our current government, their tacit endorsement of republican sentiment in this country is high on my list. The fact that they have allowed the Conservatives to take up and politicise the monarchist space in the Canadian landscape is shameful, and the fact that they have allowed the position of Canadian Secretary to the Queen to lapse is just one more sign of this particular antipathy. For all that he professes his affection for Her Majesty, Justin Trudeau seems to have a pretty difficult time reflecting that in his government’s particular decisions, and we will pay the price for it. That the work of arranging royal tours and being the link to Buckingham Palace is being left to the bureaucrats in Canadian Heritage is not a good thing. Everything I have heard about the job they do is not only that they are plagued with incompetence when it comes to the actual work of dealing with the Canadian Monarchy, but the tacit acknowledgement of my sources that those very bureaucrats charged with the responsibility are themselves republicans is hugely problematic. That they are the ones offering advice to the government is a very big problem. And that Trudeau appears to be neglecting this very important relationship is worrying. I know that there are monarchist Liberals in the ranks, and I hope very much that they can start to raise a fuss about this, because it’s a very worrying road that we are now on, and this kind of neglect can do lasting damage to our most fundamental institution, which we should all be very concerned about.

Meanwhile, Paul Wells had an exit interview with Governor General David Johnston, and brought up the issue of debating abolishing the monarchy. Johnston, bless him, pointed out that the countries that most satisfy the needs of their people tend to be constitutional monarchies, so we’ve got that going for us.

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QP: Local businesses for local people

With Justin Trudeau off to the United Nations for the rest of the week, we weren’t expecting fireworks, but rather the continued caterwauling about the proposed tax changes, that are sure to doom the whole economy. Andrew Scheer led off, worried about what the tax changes would do to “local businesses,” coincidentally the very new campaign that his party has launched. Bill Morneau reminded him that the changes were about ensuring that the wealthiest Canadians couldn’t use these mechanisms to pay less tax. Scheer talked about two local craft brewers who were “middle class,” and Morneau quipped that he was sure that Scheer was happy to defend the wealthiest Canadians. Scheer wondered how many jobs these measures would create, but Morneau stuck with his points. Alain Rayes then picked up the line of questioning in French, and Morneau insisted, in French, that he was listening and would ensure that the system was fair. After another round of the same, Thomas Mulcair rose for the NDP, worried that th government was looking to do away with the “bilingual bonus” in the public service, to which Dominic LeBlanc assured him that they would ensure a bilingual public service. Mulcair pressed in French, and got much the same response. Mulcair moved onto the topic of Canadians being barred from entering the US post-marijuana legalisation, to which Ralph Goodale reminded him that we can’t dictate to the Americans who they let into their country. Mulcair then asked about cannabis edibles, and Goodale assured him that work was ongoing.

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QP: Tax change melodrama

The first day back in the House of Commons, and all of the leaders were present — Trudeau’s only appearance for the week before he heads to the UN General Assembly, and in between appearances with U.K. prime minister Theresa May. Of note was the bouquet of flowers sitting on Arnold Chan’s desk, to mark his recent passing. Andrew Scheer led off, railing about the proposed changes to private corporations, and insisted that small businesses were being called “tax cheats.” (Note: Only the Conservatives have used that phraseology). Trudeau stood up to remind him that nobody accused anyone of breaking the law, but that these rules were being used by the very wealthy to pay less taxes, which wasn’t fair. Scheer tried again, got the same answer, and Scheer gave increasingly hysterical hypothetical situations (which were not reflected in reality), but Trudeau was unflappable in sticking to his points. Scheer tried then turn this into a dig at Bombardier, and Trudeau reminded him that they were investing in Canadian jobs. Thomas Mulcair was up next, asking about UN talks on nuclear disarmament in light of North Korea, and Trudeau reminded him that they were working on a fissile materials treaty that would include nuclear states, which would have more effect than a symbolic treaty. Mulcair asked again in French, got the same answer in French, before Mulcair turned to the issue of Saudi Arabia and arms sales (Trudeau: We will ensure that our partners follow the rules, and you promised to respect that contract), and then another round of the same in English.

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Roundup: Arnold Chan and his parliamentary legacy

News was delivered yesterday morning that Liberal MP Arnold Chan has succumbed to cancer and passed away earlier that morning. The news is a blow for Parliament, as Chan was a very decent and well-liked MP who was serious about the dignity of the institution. Back in June, he delivered a speech in Parliament that was viewed at the time as a bit of a farewell (which he insisted that it wasn’t), in which he implored that his fellow MPs not only demonstrate their love of Parliament, but that they demonstrate it by doing things like ending the reliance on talking points.

At the time that Chan made the speech, I wrote a column about its importance, and why more MPs should heed his words. Scripts and talking points have been suffocating our parliament and our very democracy, and it gets worse as time goes on. That Chan could see their inherent problems and try to break the cycle is encouraging, because it hopefully means that other MPs will too. It’s one of the reasons why I hope that as part of honouring Chan’s legacy, MPs will work to do away with the rules in the Commons that have led to the rise of canned speeches, and that we can get to a place where debate is no longer a series of speeches read into the record without actual exchanges, and where MPs actually become engaged in the material rather than just reading the points that their leaders’ offices handed their assistants to write up for them. Parliament should be more than that, and let’s hope that others follow Chan’s lead.

Here are some more remembrances of Chan by his colleagues.

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Roundup: Picking the overseers

The composition of the forthcoming National Security Committee of Parliamentarians has been brewing under the surface for a while now, given that the legislation has taken a long time to get through Parliament, but it looks like more consternation is on the way. The NDP have complained to the National Post’s John Ivison that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has asked for four names from their caucus for consideration on the committee, and that the PM would pick one, as is his right under the Act. The reason, according to the PMO, is to try and build a committee reflective of Canada – so essentially that it’s not all straight, white men looking at national security issues from that particular lens – and that would be a very easy thing to do. And the NDP’s one and only pick for their party’s representative on the committee, Murray Rankin, is just that – a straight, white man who happens to be eminently qualified for the role. And so Mulcair is, as he so often does, pitching a fit about it.

I’m a bit torn on the outrage here because as much as this is being spun as Trudeau having contempt for Parliament and being a Harper-esque figure in that regard, this is exactly how he drafted the legislation and how it passed, so unlike many of the tactics that Harper employed, he was upfront about his plans how he planned to achieve them. Now, granted, many of Trudeau’s plans and promises have been utterly boneheaded (see: electoral reform, “modernizing” the House of Commons, his “benign neglect” of the Senate, etcetera, etcetera), but he generally hasn’t tried to stealthily undermine the institutions or actively firebomb them. So there’s that. Also, this is how our system of government tends to work – a prime minister who enjoys the confidence of Parliament makes the appointment, and is judged on the quality of them both by Parliament and the electorate. And I get why he would want to ensure a diverse committee makeup, and not want to necessarily have to rely on his own party members to make up the more diverse members of the committee, but rather share that load between all of the parties. Nevertheless, there is something unseemly about not letting opposition parties choose their own representatives (though I hardly imagine that the members he chooses would be any friendlier to him and his agenda than one that the opposition party leader would choose). On the other hand, selection powers can be abused, and things done for ostensibly good reasons (like diversity) can have all kinds of unintended consequences. But in the meantime, this will start to look like yet another self-inflicted wound for Trudeau.

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Roundup: That fictional “crippling tax hike”

This particular exchange dominated my Twitter Machine feed over the weekend. And lo, it’s some of the same tired, disingenuous rhetoric that over this same issue we’ve been talking about for weeks, because apparently, that’s how we roll.

Of course, the point is to be disingenuous and raise a panic so that they can fundraise and data mine over it with this petition that Rempel is pushing, which is a model of political engagement that we really, really need to stop doing in this country, but unfortunately, we’re in the “If it works…” line of thinking, never mind the broader consequences.

Erin O’Toole decided he wanted to get in on the action to complain that these changes would affect “competitiveness.”

Because you know, facts are hard. And hey, Kevin Milligan went through and modelled the impact that those tax changes will actually have, and shockingly, it’s not what the Conservatives are trying to insist will happen. Imagine that.

Milligan left it with this helpful reminder that questioning is a good thing, but also reminded us that he too can bring the shade.

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Roundup: A complex figure

I really didn’t want to write about this topic, and yet we’re swarming with stories and thinkpieces about it, so in the interest of that, I’ll say a few words, however clumsy and inexpert. On the subject of Sir John A. Macdonald and the current vogue of removing his name from things, I find myself annoyed by so much of it. Part of it is because the sudden rush to start doing this smacks of the me-tooism that so often plagues our political discourse, especially on the left or “progressive” side of things. Having a discussion about Macdonald and his role in the cultural genocide of Indigenous people is not the same thing as removing Confederate monuments in the United States, and yet there is a kind of equivalency being proffered, including by a number of self-righteous activists. They’re different conversations, and trying to equate them does nobody any favours.

Second, Macdonald is a complex figure on pretty much every level. While there has been increasing agitation in his role in promulgating residential schools, or the much-repeated quote about reducing food aid to starving First Nations on the prairies following the collapse of buffalo herd populations, all of that all of this ignores context. While people keep insisting that Macdonald was the architect of genocide, any reading of history that I’ve done is that Macdonald was trying to prevent it, having seen what happened south of the border. The problem is that there was little conception as to how to go about doing it, and there was a great deal of political opposition to his doing do, when there were a great many voices who would have preferred that they starve. That Macdonald mitigated these calls and actually did deliver food aid (which was something that governments were certainly not in the business of in the 1800s), and tried to come up with plans to get them to transition to farming once they couldn’t hunt bison any longer (which didn’t take), and to give them the vote in order to involve them in the political life and decision-making of the country despite that they didn’t own land and would otherwise not eligible under the existing electoral laws of the time (leading to howls that he was giving them “special” rights, which subsequent Liberal governments stripped) – it all should mean something. Yes, what we recognise now as being cultural genocide was an attempt at staving off actual physical genocide. It’s why Macdonald created the Northwest Mounted Police – to ensure that there were orderly treaties rather than the mass slaughter done by the Americans in order to clear lands for settlement. We know this now as the violence of colonisation, while it was trying to do this without the loss of life in the United States is a complicating factor.

So yeah, Macdonald is complex, and you can’t just mark him down in the column of “racist promoter of genocide” and leave it at that, which is why we need conversations about history, but most of what passes for it over social media, between the woke voices crying genocide and their opponents decrying the erasure of history, is not a proper conversation. It also requires a recognition that history is an evolving process, and that adding voices to the narrative isn’t erasing it – it’s adding to it, even if it makes the picture more complicated (not that I’m seeing a desire for nuance on either side). And we’re going to have a lot more conversations about this going forward, if this guide of problematic figures is anything to go by. But given the state of the debate right now, I don’t have high hopes that it’ll be constructive in the immediate term.

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Roundup: Mike Duffy, white knight

Oh, Senator Mike Duffy. For his suffering, he has decided to launch a $7.8 million lawsuit against the RCMP, the Government of Canada, and the Senate itself. It’s not just about the two years of suspension without pay, or the reimbursement or legal fees, or indeed about the further clawbacks of his salary that the Senate undertook for his abuse of expense claims, or about the lost income from speaking fees that he could have claimed had he not been dragged through the process. No, Duffy is so concerned about the lack of Charter rights for those who work on the Hill that he’s willing to take on this multi-million-dollar lawsuit for the principle of the matter.

Such a hero.

Now, I will be the first to admit that yes, the way in which Duffy’s suspension handled was hugely problematic, and that his rights to due process were trampled on because of political expediency, it cannot be argued that the Senate was illegitimate in the way it acted because as a self-governing parliamentary body, the Senate not only has the ability to police its own, it is in fact the only body that can police its members because of parliamentary privilege and institutional independence.

While Duffy’s lawyer was effusive in his characterisation of Duffy’s acquittal, I’m not sure that it completely passes the smell test – Duffy was found not to have met the criminal test for fraud and breach of trust, but you cannot say that no rules were broken. The Senate has pointed to numerous examples where this was the case and fined him appropriately, and while he claims that the rules were too loose and vague, that is certainly not the case with all of his rejected claims. And it will raise questions if this suit goes ahead because the judge’s ruling was indeed problematic (and I know for a fact that there are other judges on that same bench who were not keen on it), and without an appeal being raised, that could raise more questions with this trial – if it goes to trial.

Of course, we can’t deny that perhaps Duffy is looking for a settlement of a couple of million dollars, but I’m not sure that of the parties involved, the Senate would bite and go for it. They are still pretty sore about the whole thing and are keen to continue to prove that they are taking a hard line to those who abuse it. I would wager that they are more likely to fight this to the bitter end on principle, come what may.

Meanwhile, Susan Delacourt sees an odd parallel between Duffy and Omar Khadr in that their rights were violated (which is a bit of a stretch, legally speaking), while Christie Blatchford suggests that perhaps Duffy is indeed owed something because his rights to due process were robbed.

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