Roundup: The Hehr question

For the past few days, one of the same questions keeps being raised in light of everything that has gone on – with all of the resignations in light of sexual misconduct allegations, why is Kent Hehr still in caucus? I have to say that the policing of who is and is not in caucus by the pundit class is getting a bit crass, to say the least, the concern trolling over a lack of consistent practice is something that the commentariat should be trying to come to grips with, rather than exacerbating the situation with some blatant concern trolling.

Prior to this parliament, there was no process when it came to sexual harassment allegations against MPs. The process was explicitly that there was no process – MPs don’t fit under a workplace framework when dealing with one another, so the lack of process was to ensure that there was room for mediation between the parties involved, and things were dealt with quietly behind the scenes, so that there wouldn’t be partisan advantage taken of it. I can’t say how well it did or did not work, but things changed in 2014 with the Scott Andrews and Massimo Pacetti allegations. What changed was that Thomas Mulcair fully intended to make a partisan issue out of the allegation and had booked a press conference to denounce the MPs and Trudeau for not doing anything about the allegations that had been made directly to him. When Trudeau beat Mulcair to the punch and suspended the two MPs (who were later formally expelled), Mulcair had to instead shift tactics and accuse Trudeau of re-victimising the complainants, but those involved knew that Mulcair has readying his salvo and swift action needed to be taken. When the allegations about Darshan Kang surfaced (plus the allegation he offered to pay the complainant to keep it quiet), and were corroborated by those who had worked for him in provincial politics, Kang removed himself from caucus (and went on medical leave), but there’s been no indication that he was expelled by Trudeau.

When pressed about Hehr’s status, Trudeau noted yesterday that the party is trying to deal with things on a case-by-case basis, and there is a process in place now that didn’t exist before, and an investigation has been launched into Hehr’s activities. That Trudeau would try to respect the process put into place since the Andrews/Pacetti incident is likely a good thing, but this being politics, there is already partisan hay being made of this, with Erin O’Toole trying to paint this as Trudeau having changed his own rules. Because you know, why resist the urge to take partisan shots? And if Trudeau went around the process, you know that the question would be why he didn’t wait for the investigation – because damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

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Roundup: Making a martyr of herself

If there’s one thing that we’re talking about right now that’s not the interminable Standing Orders debate, it’s Senator Lynn Beyak, of the “well intentioned residential schools” remarks, which came shortly after her incomprehensible remarks about trans people while saying that good gays don’t like to cause waves. And after being removed from the Senate’s Aboriginal Peoples committee, she put out a press release that didn’t really help her cause.

Of course, the more we talk about Beyak in the media and demand that Something Must Be Done about her, the more it’s going to embolden her and her supporters. The fact that she’s starting to martyr herself on the cause of “opposing political correctness” is gaining her fans, including Maxime Bernier, whom she is supporting in the leadership. Bernier says he doesn’t agree with her statement about residential schools, but he’s all aboard her “political correctness” martyrdom. Oh, and it’s causing some of the other Conservative senators to close ranks around her, because that’s what starts to happen when someone on their team is being harassed (and before you say anything, my reading of Senator Ogilvie’s “parasites” comment was more dark humour in the face of this situation than anything, and reporters taking to the Twitter Machine to tattle and whinge makes We The Media look all the worse).

But seriously, Beyak is not an important figure. She’s marginal at best within her own party, and her comments have marginalized her position further. But the more that people continue to howl about her, or post e-petitions demanding that the government remove her (which is unconstitutional, by the way), the more she turns herself into a martyr on this faux-free speech platform that is attracting all manner of right-wing trolls, the more she will feel completely shameless about her words. We’ve shone the spotlight, but sometimes we also need to know when to let it go and let obscurity reclaim her.

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Roundup: A jobs crisis report rooted in fancy

The Conservatives released their Alberta Jobs Taskforce report yesterday – a make-work project to make it look like they were paying attention to the plight of the province’s resource-driven downturn, never mind that it wasn’t going to actually do anything because they’re not in government. The eleven recommendations that it came up with were…ambitious. I won’t say magic (such as the Ontario NDP’s Hydro plan, also released yesterday, relied on), but I will say that it relies a lot on wishing and hoping instead.

To start off with, the top recommendation is to eliminate the proposed carbon tax – which is provincial jurisdiction, not federal, to be clear – and to reduce corporate and small business taxes along with reversing CPP contribution increases. These are typical Conservative bugaboos, so it’s not a surprise we would see these recommendations. “Reducing red tape” for resource projects? It’s like the Conservatives forgot that when they tried to do that when they were in office, it backfired on them and created even bigger headaches as the lack of due diligence, particularly around dealing with First Nations, landed them in court numerous times. Encourage retraining? Provincial jurisdiction. Review EI to “improve efficiency”? You mean like their ham-fisted attempt at doing that a couple of years ago that cost them every Atlantic Canadian seat that they had? Recommendation five is particularly interesting because it calls on both a) reducing red tape for starting small businesses while b) creating tax credits to hire unskilled workers. Ask any small business and they’ll tell you the worst red tape is the complex tax code, so asking for the creation of yet more tax credits is to work against the first demand. Coherence! Implement programs to encourage hiring of recent graduates (sounds like big government), while increasing financial literacy across Canada? Erm, how does that actually help youth? I don’t get the connection. Lower interprovincial trade barriers? Well, considering that every government has tried doing that since 1867, and that the Conservatives didn’t make any tangible progress in their nine years in office, I’m not sure that Alberta hurting now is going to suddenly fixate everyone to solve that problem. Adjust domestic policy to the new Trumpocalypse reality? Seriously? There is no policy coherence coming from the States, so how can Canada “adjust” to it? Reform credentials-matching for new immigrants and the Temporary Foreign Workers Programme? Again, if it were easy, the Conservatives would have done it when they were in power. And finally, balance the budget? How does this solve Alberta’s job woes? Oh wait, it doesn’t. It’s just yet another Conservative bugaboo that they’re trying to hit the government with, using Alberta’s jobs crisis as the cudgel.

I’m sure that they spent time on this, but honestly, I’m less than impressed with the suite of recommendations. The lack of coherence and insistence that nigh-intractable problems should be solved now when they haven’t been for decades is more than fanciful.

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Roundup: About that two percent

Part of the preoccupying discussion over the weekend has been comments that Donald Trump made regarding the two percent of GDP spending target as a NATO obligation, and his threats to be less responsive to the alliance unless countries pony up to that level. Never mind that it’s not an actual obligation (Article 5 – the notion that an attack on one member country is an attack on all – is the actual core of the alliance), it’s become a fixation, and that could be a problem for Canada, no matter the fact that we actually show up and do the heavy lifting. To translate heavy lifting, it means that we haven’t been afraid of doing the dirty work, and getting involved in the actual fighting, as with Afghanistan, in part because we have a system of government that allows the government of the day to authorise it without bogging it down in legislative votes or in coalition negotiations where the reluctance to put troops into harm’s way means that most NATO countries wind up deploying troops with very restrictive caveats as to what they can and can’t do, and deploying them to areas where they are less likely to see active combat. (This, incidentally, is generally another caution about PR governments, but I’m sure there are those who would say that this is a feature and not a bug. Those people would be overly idealistic). That heavy lifting should count for something beyond just spending levels.

Paul Wells walks us through some of the history of the two percent target, and why it’s a poor measure of results, as well as some theorizing about why Donald Trump is fixating on that target as much as he is. Likewise, NATO scholar Stephen Saideman engages in some two percent myth-busting here. And Philippe Lagassé offers some additional thoughts about those spending targets and what could be a better measure.

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Roundup: Trying to help with attendance

The Conservatives have become very preoccupied with Justin Trudeau’s attendance in Question Period of late, which is one of those particular political cudgels that annoys me on a couple of different levels. On the one hand, I’m annoyed at the PM for not taking it more seriously and showing up in order to be held to account, as our system of government demands; on the other hand, I get annoyed when the opposition plays cheap politics with this because they are just as guilty, with their own leaders having fairly poor attendance records to match. It’s especially precious that the Conservatives are so concerned about Trudeau’s attendance as Stephen Harper’s was abysmal, and by 2014, you were lucky if he might show up once a week. Might.

Huffington Post crunched the numbers and found that Trudeau has missed 58 percent of QPs within his first year, while Stephen Harper missed 46 percent in his first year. Mind you, that was his first year, and that thrice-weekly attendance fell off pretty quickly. Trudeau has had a fairly punishing international schedule, which is part of his job – but we’re seeing a number of instances, especially lately, where he is in town and not attending, or that he counter-programmes another event to take place at the same time as QP, which again annoys me because it shows that he’s not taking the responsibility of being held to account seriously. Sure, it’s great that you want to show kids that that coding is a good life lesson, but there are other hours in the day where that might be more appropriate, and not when you should be answering questions for your government’s actions.

But the petty politics that the opposition are playing around this are frustrating. Offering to move Question Period to 4:15 in the afternoon – or any other time to “help” the PM make it – is lunacy considering how disruptive it leaves the rhythms of operation on the Hill, with committee schedules where witnesses have flown in across the country, with the media’s ability to keep the production cycle of news shows. I’m not saying that this is a big deal, but I’m not sure that this is the way to address the problem of non-attendance, particularly when other leaders can hardly deign to make their own appearance most days.

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Roundup: Questions about ordered repayments

Conservative-turned-independent Senator John Wallace is asking questions around the decision to withhold Senator Mike Duffy’s salary to repay inappropriate expenses that were uncovered as part of his court case, and in particular, whether the Internal Economy Committee’s three-member steering committee has been exceeding its authority in making decisions without the full committee signing off. The steering committee after all is supposed to be limited to some administrative matters, but in cases of “emergency,” they can do more. So was this an emergency? There is the argument that the decision was made over the summer when the full committee could not meet, and it was in accordance with rules laid out as part of the broader expenses issue and dispute resolution process, which Duffy did not avail himself of, his lawyer insisting that he was “fully exonerated” by the judge in his court case (which is not what the judge said, but rather that what he did simply didn’t meet the threshold of being criminal, and yes, there is a vast difference). With a case as high-profile as Duffy’s, the fact that inappropriate expenses have been flagged meant that the appearance of doing something about recovering those expenses was a very real consideration for the continued public legitimacy of the institution whose reputation has taken a beating, and letting Duffy get away with those inappropriate expenses would continue to damage the institution in the eyes of the public. But, that having been said, was this a decision that could or should have waited for the full committee to decide up on in the fall, and is this a case of procedural unfairness or worse, of a lack of any kind of due process, as has happened on more than one occasion as this whole expenses issue has reared its head? I’m not sure, but it does bear asking. I do think that something needed to be done to address the issue in a timely manner because the Senate has to rebuild its public image after senators like Duffy have done so much to muddy it, but whether what happened was right, well, that’s not a question I can answer.

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Roundup: Sound the independent thought alarm

Every time I read these headlines, I sigh and shake my head a little, because here we go again. “Indigenous Liberal MP breaks ranks with government on BC’s Site C Dam” it reads. The MP is Robert-Falcon Ouellette, and by “breaking ranks,” he has questions for the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans – who grants approvals for these kinds of things – and he plans to ask him in caucus next week. Oooh, someone had better sound the independent thought alarm!

It seems that most of my fellow journalists have forgotten that it’s the job of backbenchers – even those of the governing party – to hold the government (meaning cabinet) to account. They’re supposed to ask questions and to not just give them a pass. Ouellette is doing his job. But by sensationalizing it (which this headline clearly does), and portraying it as “breaking ranks” (which he’s not – there have been no votes that he’s gone off-side with) is both demeaning to his job, and it reinforces the notion that MPs are supposed to be drones parroting the lines of their leaders, which is absurd. Not only that, but We The Media nevertheless insist that MPs are supposed to do their jobs and represent their constituents and address issues and not just parrot talking points, and yet we call them out the moment that they do just that. Why? Seriously – why are we doing this? We’re actively being destructive to our democratic system when we pull this kind of nonsense. There are far better and more effective ways that this story could have been framed that don’t privilege party discipline (which again, not actually being broken here) and this notion that MPs must be in lockstep. It shouldn’t be that difficult to do. And yet here we are.

Honestly, we need to do better if we expect better democratic outcomes in this country. We are part of the problem, and we should stop being just that.

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Roundup: Calling in the OPP

It took MPs long enough to respond, but one supposes that it’s about time they did. On Thursday of last week, the Information Commissioner issued her damning special report on the RCMP destroying records that were under Access to Information requests, related to the long-gun registry, and the government is now proposing legislation to make it retroactively legal (more in my column here). No MP other than Wayne Easter bothered to actually say something until yesterday – five days later – at which point the committees decided to get involved. The NDP are moving a motion in Ethics committee, which has jurisdiction over Access to Information policy, while the Liberals are proposing similar hearings in the Public Safety committee where they can haul the RCMP Commissioner before them. Still, it’s another week’s delay, and there’s no guarantee they’ll get the hearings given the limited number of sitting days left, and the fact that government MPs can block their request in camera. That having been said, it looks like Suzanne Legault’s recommendation that charges be laid for the destruction of those records might actually come to fruition, as the Attorney General’s office did forward the request on to the Director of Public Prosecutions, who in turn has asked the OPP to investigate. We’ll see if the government proposes to still go ahead with retroactively changing the law while there is an active police investigation, but if they stick to their guns, that they’re just “closing a loophole” (which is not true), then they just might.

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Roundup: Passing knowingly flawed bills

The Senate, it turns out, passed a tough-on-crime private members’ bill that contained a gaping error in it, and they knew it had an error in it and passed it anyway – with observations attached about the errors. Why? Because said private member had become a parliamentary secretary, and sending it back to the House to fix the error would have basically killed it because its sponsor could no longer sponsor it. It seems to me that there should have been a fix for that – generally a unanimous vote in the Commons that someone else take it on, as has happened when an MP retires while their bill is in process – but more to the point, if the government was so enamoured with it, then they should have drawn up a government bill that fixed the errors and put it through the process, which likely would have been expedited since it had already had committee hearings in its previous form. But hey, let’s keep up this nonsense of backbenchers sucking up to the government with these nonsense bills, and let’s keep up this bawling that the Senate shouldn’t overturn flawed bills that passed the Commons because they’re not elected. It’s really helping our legislative process, clearly.

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Roundup: A surprise trip to Iraq

John Baird quietly took a trip to Iraq along with is opposition critics, Paul Dewar and Marc Garneau, to meet with officials there and to pledge aid. James Cudmore looks at what Canada could contribute if we take the fight to ISIS, which could include special forces or aerial reconnaissance and support, but unlikely boots on the ground, as it’s politically unpalatable in an election year. Whatever we do, Harper has stated that it’ll be done on a tight budget because we really want to be cheap about fighting the kinds of grave threats that Harper is making them out to be.

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