Roundup: Provocative boilerplate

The House of Commons has risen for the summer, but how long it stays risen could be the big question as the Senate has two bills on its plate that they could send back to the Commons. The first of those is the budget implementation bill, after the Commons rejected their amendment. What inflamed tensions however was the boilerplate language that it was rejected for infringing on the rights and privileges of the Commons.

The fact that this is boilerplate eluded many Senators (and yours truly), given that it seemed to be yet another provocation given some of the underlying tensions in the current dispute. Yes, the language comes from Section 80(1) of the Standing Orders, but given that the Senate is trying to assert its independence and authority, the words seemed particularly targeted in this instance, especially as the Prime Minister rather dubiously claimed that the Senate has no ability to amend or reject budget bills when their only actual limitation is that they can’t initiate them.

Having received this rejection, the Senate decided to leave it overnight to think it over, and with luck, tempers will cool and they’ll get the better sense that this is boilerplate straight from the appendix of Beauchesne’s Parliamentary Rules and Forms, 5th edition, that that it likely wasn’t meant as a slight or a provocation. (Probably. But given how ham-fisted and tone-deaf the House Leader has a tendency of being, this isn’t a guarantee). It’s possible that cooler heads will prevail and they will defer rather than letting it ping-pong.

The more contentious bill may in fact be Bill S-3, which amends the Indian Act to remove gender-based discrimination, but the Commons rejected the Senate amendments that would eliminate other forms of discrimination. This particular bill may wind up being more problematic because it’s not a money bill and there is a bigger point of principle about discrimination and rights which a lot of senators get very exercised about (rightfully), and Indigenous senators in this case are particularly sensitive to. There have been suggestions that some are proposing a conference between the chambers to resolve the potential impasse, but we are not there yet.

Part of the calculation is that because the Commons has risen, a game of chicken is now being declared, where they are essentially daring senators not to recall them to deal with these amendments, and like Peter Harder has been doing, there will be all kinds of voices going on about the expense of such a recall. I think it’s overblown, but it wouldn’t be the first time that the Commons has used such a tactic to try and force the Senate’s hand into backing down on passing bills at the end of the sitting.

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QP: Final accusations of the spring

One what was almost certainly the final sitting day (for real!), and after a number of statements for National Aboriginal Day (to be renamed next year), QP was on. Andrew Scheer led off, worrying that the changes to national security laws will make things too difficult for CSIS to do their jobs, per the fears of a former director. Justin Trudeau assured him that they we getting the balance right of safety and protecting rights. Scheer worried that security was being watered down, and Trudeau reiterated that they were getting the balance right. Scheer then changed to the issue of taxes and demanded he listened to the Liberal senators and stop the escalator taxes on beer and wine, and Trudeau reminded him that they lowered taxes on the middle class. Scheer railed about how they were hiking taxes on ordinary people (and no, cancelling a bunch of tax credits does not equal raising taxes), and Trudeau reiterated his response. For his final question, Scheer spun up a hyperbolic rant about all of the awful things the government has done, and Trudeau responded with a list of accomplishments and promises kept. Thomas Mulcair was up next, accusing the government betraying their promises to Indigenous people, and Trudeau assured him that they were committed to reconciliation and the relationship. Mulcair accused the government of breaking their promises on Access to Information, and Trudeau hit back that the NDP were completely absent on the transparency file. Mulcair worried about the Infrastructure Bank and the spectre of user fees, and Trudeau reminded him that they were looking for new ways to invest in the things Canadians need. For his final question, Mulcair railed about fundraisers, and Trudeau said that they were raising the bar and were exhorting the opposition to do the same.

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Roundup: Amendment and attempted intimidation

As the spring sitting of Parliament draws to a close, and the Commons is getting tired and cranky as MPs are restlessly looking to get back to their ridings, all eyes are on the Senate to see if they’ll pass the budget bill unamended so that MPs can leave, or if they’ll be forced to stick around to deal with delays. It looks like the latter is going to happen after the Senate voted to adopt changes made at the committee that would remove the automatic escalator on beer and wine taxes. (There is some debate around this – while on the one hand there is the argument that increases won’t be scrutinized in future years by Parliament, there is also a reminder that the indexation fight was settled years ago).

So while this means that the Commons wasn’t able to rise last night, and may have to stick around until Thursday, depending on whether or not they pass it at Third Reading tonight, and how fast it takes the Commons to turn around a vote on accepting or rejecting (almost certainly the latter) the amendment.

But that’s not the only curious part of this tale. Apparently when the vote was about to happen, all manner of Liberal MPs and ministers arrived in the Senate to watch the vote happen – but not in the gallery. No, they were instead on the floor of the Senate, behind the bar at the entrance.

While this attempt at intimidation is quite unseemly in and of itself, I’ve also been hearing complaints that Senator Peter Harder, the Leader of the Government in the Senate – err, “government representative,” is admonishing senators not to amend bills this late in the game because recalling the House of Commons to pass or reject those amendments “is expensive.”

I. Can’t. Even.

Telling Senators not to do their constitutional duties of reviewing and amending legislation because it might inconvenience a few MPs is gob-smacking in and of itself, but couching it in dollar terms is beyond the pale. Apparently, we can only have parliamentary democracy if it’s done on the cheap. Why have oversight or hold the government to account if it’s going to cost any additional dollars? I guess we might as well pack it all in and roll over for the government – costs too much otherwise. Sweet Rhea mother of Zeus…

Update: It seems there were some Conservatives there as well.

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QP: Tired jabs and deficit questions

Nearly all the desks were filled on what was possibly the final QP of the spring. Andrew Scheer led off, concerned about the “astronomical” debt the Liberals were leaving behind (which, in absolute terms, is one of the envies of the world because it’s quite low). Justin Trudeau reminded him that they won the election on promises to invest. Scheer tried again, giving a lame “budgets don’t balance themselves” quip, and Trudeau again reminded him that they needed to invest after the previous government didn’t and hey, lower taxes for the middle class and the Canada Child Benefit. Scheer railed about all of the new taxes being levied (most of which were not new taxes but cancelled tax credits that had little efficacy), and the PM reiterated that he lowered taxes. Scheer jabbed that Trudeau had never been part of the middle class, and Trudeau hit back that boutique tax credits and lower taxes on the wealthiest didn’t help those who needed it the most. Scheer then turned to the new national security bill, saying it removed needed tools for law enforcement agencies. Trudeau noted that they were balancing community safety with rights and freedoms, and that they welcomed recommendations for amendments. Thomas Mulcair was up next, grousing that the government broke their promise on allowing Access to Information requests to ministers offices and the PMO. Trudeau simply noted that they made the biggest reforms to the bills and increased proactive disclosure. Mulcair tried again with added mocking, but Trudeau didn’t budge, and Mulcair then railed that they kicked journalists out of a party fundraiser. Trudeau reminded him that they have raised the bar on transparency and that other parties weren’t doing. Mulcair tried again in French, but Trudeau’s answer didn’t change.

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QP: Demands to split the bill

While it was a Monday with the Prime Minister present, the other major leaders weren’t, curiously enough. Alain Rayes led off for the Conservatives, demanding to know when the budget would be balanced. Justin Trudeau reminded him that they had a lot of priorities that they got elected on that they were delivering on after ten years of underinvestment by the previous government. Rayes then wondered why the government wouldn’t split out the Infrastructure Bank out of the budget bill, and Trudeau insisted that it was a centrepiece of the campaign and that there was a need for the Bank and its investments in infrastructure. Rayes tried again, got much the same answer, and then Candice Bergen tried again in English, calling it a slush fund. Trudeau repeated his same points about the need for investment in English, and when Bergen demanded a date for a balanced budget, Trudeau listed the ways in which voters repudiated them in the last election. Ruth Ellen Brosseau led off for the NDP, railing about NAFTA negotiations — including Supply Management, because it wouldn’t be a question from her without Supply Management — and Trudeau insisted that they were looking forward to sitting down with the Americans once negotiations start, but they would defend Canadian interests. After Brosseau asked the same in English and got the same answer, Matthew Dubé demanded that the Infrastructure Bank provisions be split out of the budget bill, and Trudeau noted that it was still a budgetary measure so it wasn’t an abuse of omnibus legislation and that he expected the Senate to pass budget bills passed by the Commons. Dubé switched to French to concern troll about how the Bank affects Quebec, and Trudeau responded that at some point, they needed to deliver on promises, and that was what the Bank was doing for Quebec and Canada.

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Roundup: Trudeau laying in the Senate bed he made

There is a renewed round of wailing and gnashing of teeth about the Senate feeling it oats and flexing its muscles, and yesterday it was the Prime Minister doing it. Apparently deliberating and amending bills is fine unless it’s a budget bill, in which case it’s a no go. The problem with that is that of course is that a) there is no constitutional basis for that position, and b) if the whole point of Parliament is to hold the government to account by means of controlling supply (meaning the public purse), then telling one of the chambers that it actually can’t do that is pretty much an existential betrayal. So there’s that.

But part of this is not so much about the actual issue of splitting out the Infrastructure Bank from the budget bill – which Senator Pratte, who is leading this charge, actually supports. Part of the problem is the principle that the Senate isn’t about to let the Commons push it around and tell them what they can and can’t do – that’s not the Commons’ job either. As Kady O’Malley delves into here, the principle has driven the vote (as has the Conservatives doing their level best to oppose, full stop). But some very good points were raised about the principle of money bills in the Senate, and while they can’t initiate them, that’s their only restriction, and they want to defend that principle so that there’s no precent of them backing down on that, and that’s actually important in a parliamentary context.

As for this problem of Trudeau now ruing the independent Senate that he created, well, he gets to lie in the bed that he made. That said, even as much as certain commenters are clutching their pearls about how terrible it is that the Senate is doing their constitutional duties of amending legislation and sending it back, it’s their job. They haven’t substituted their judgment for those of MPs and killed any government bills outright and have pretty much always backed down when the Commons has rejected any of their amendments, and that matters. But it’s also not the most activist that the Senate has ever been, and someone may want to look to the Eighties for when they were really flexing their muscles, enough so that Mulroney had to use the emergency constitutional powers to add an extra eight senators to the Chamber in order to pass the GST – which was a money bill. So perhaps those pearl-clutchers should actually grab a bit of perspective and go lie down on their fainting couch for a while.

On the subject of the Senate, it’s being blamed for why the government hasn’t passed as many bills in its first 18 months as the Harper government had. Apart from the fact that the analysis doesn’t actually look at the kinds of bills that were passed (because that matters), the reason why things tend to be slow in the Senate is because the Government Leader – err, “representative” – Senator Peter Harder isn’t doing his job and negotiating with the other caucuses and groups to have an agenda and move things through. That’s a pretty big deal that nobody wants to talk about.

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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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QP: The non-existent plan for a non-existent tax

Despite it being a Thursday, the only leader in the Commons was Elizabeth May — because reasons. Candice Bergen led off, demanding an admission that the government ignored American warnings about the Norsat sale. Navdeep Bains assured her that they followed the process and took the advice of our security agencies, who did consult. Bergen wasn’t buying it, but Bains reiterated his point about the process before touting improved economic progress thanks to their being open to trade. Bergen then accused the government of proposing an internet tax, which was entirely disingenuous because it wasn’t the government who floated the idea — it was a committee of backbenchers. Mélanie Joly assured her they would not levy such a tax. Alain Rayes asked the same again in French, got the same answer, and then reiterated the Norsat question in French. Bains repeated his previous points in French, reading from a prepared response. Matthew Dubé led for the NDP, wondering when reforms to the Anti-terrorism Act would finally be tabled. Ralph Goodale assured him that new legislation was on the way. Dubé switched to English to ask again, adding in a clause about lawful access. Goodale accused him of trying to spook people with innuendo, and that the legislation would keep Canadians safe while protecting their privacy rights. Brian Masse raised the Norsat sale, and Bains repeated his same answer. Alexandre Boulerice then raised a question of an EI case, and Jean-Yves Duclos asked him to forward him the details so that he could look into it.

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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: Performing Norsat outrage

On a very pleasant day in the nation’s capital, things were busy on the Hill between caucus meetings, the marking of the 100th anniversary of the dedication of the new Centre Block (after the original one was destroyed by fire), and after QP, the raising of the Pride flag on Parliament Hill. But first, there was QP. Andrew Scheer led off worrying about the deficit and wondered what the PM was going to do about it. Justin Trudeau was ready, and hit back with the list of ineffective boutique tax credits from the previous government and accused them of having neglected the middle class while his government has created jobs and prompted growth. Scheer moved on, and demanded a public sex offender registry, and Trudeau noted that the system already works. Scheer tried again in English, concern trolling about concerns that the government didn’t have funds to make it public. Trudeau reiterated the current system, and that it was put into place by both the Trudeau and Martin governments while the Harper government’s promise for a public registry was left without framework or funding. Scheer then switched back to French, and worried about the Norsat sale and allied objections. Trudeau insisted that allies were consulted and they listened to the advice of national security agencies. Scheer tried again in English, and Trudeau reiterated his points. Thomas Mulcair was up next, demanding the government support their suggestion on reforming appointments, and Trudeau remarked that they already had a new merit-based process. Mulcair then turned to the Der Spiegel article, and insistence that Trudeau was lying about it, and Trudeau countered with a statement from the German government that the story was wrong. Mulcair then demanded that the journalistic sources protection bill be passed before the end of the term, but Trudeau simply noted their support — which is all he could do because it’s not a government bill and they can’t fast track it. For his final question, Mulcair was concerned about whether Harjit Sajjan misled the Ethics Commissioner on his role with Afghan detainees, and Trudeau reassured him that they take their responsibilities seriously.

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