Roundup: End of round one

The first round of NAFTA talks has ended without any firm conclusions in one way or another, which is to be expected. It is also noted that they were free from any public drama, but it’s still early days, so we’ll see how long that lasts, especically considering that we’re dealing with an Uncertainty Engine for a president in the United States. While the US is signalling that Buy America is a non-negotiable in NAFTA talks, the PMO has assembled a crack unit to deal with the fallout of a US walkout on talks, seeing as Trump already played his walkout card months ago so it gave them time to prepare.

Meanwhile, trouble with NAFTA talks could mean an economic slowdown, as there have already been some signs of slowdown in the manufacturing sector, and expectations that GDP growth could start to slow for the remainder of the year. That having been said, there’s also talk that if the Trump administration tries to simply tear up NAFTA, there are recourses that Congress has at its disposal that would essentially work to keep the existing agreement up and running by backdoor means, but it’s messy and complicated (and you can see Alex Panetta talking about that starting at 10:51 on this Sunday Scrum segment).

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Roundup: Butts/Bannon brouhaha

Tongues were set wagging in the Nation’s Capital yesterday when The New Yorker claimed that Justin Trudeau’s principle secretary, Gerald Butts, had struck up a friendship with Donald Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon, of Breitbart fame. Apparently, Bannon sees Butts as the left-wing version of himself, or something, and Butts allegedly told him that there’s nothing more populist than a rich guy raising taxes on the wealthy. And while everyone clamoured for some kind of confirmation out of PMO, getting non-denials from official sources, and “it’s just business” from the less official sources, none of the Canadian stories that I read stopped at the part where the New Yorker piece claimed that Trudeau reversed a polling slump by pushing through these tax measures. While I will readily admit that most polling stories give me hives, especially two years out from an election, I can’t for the life of me recall this having happened – Trudeau’s poll numbers have remained stubbornly high, and only really dipped a little when Andrew Scheer won the Conservative leadership, because at that point there was an actual face that people could put to the poll questions (never mind that questions related to which leader one would vote for are illegitimate given our system of government). Trudeau putting forward these tax changes were the first piece of legislation that they tabled, and while it took a while to actually pass (during which time a budget had also been tabled and passed), it had no actual effect on his polling numbers. Where the New Yorker got this particular tidbit is mystifying to me, and why Canadian outlets didn’t call bullshit on this – and subsequently look side-eye at the other claims in the piece – is similarly baffling.

Of course, the story would not be complete without Thomas Mulcair coming out to theatrically demand that Butts disavow this “friendship” given all of the drama around racism and white nationalism in the States over the past few days. The problem of course is that a) Butts is not an elected official, and b) there are NAFTA talks underway, and it would be really bad form for our government to so blatantly thumb our noses at the Americans in this way. Keeping a working relationship going would seem to be the most prudent course of action – but that never seem to be the course that Mulcair advocates.

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Roundup: Urgent investigations

With more video evidence that purports to show Canadian-made LAVs being used in Saudi Arabia against their minority Shia population, Foreign Affairs minister Chrystia Freeland has ordered an “urgent investigation” of the claims. At the same time, we’re getting some pretty usual reaction from the various opposition parties and their supporters, that portray the Liberals as being wide-eyed naïfs who had no idea that these vehicles could ever be used for such purposes.

While it’s easy for the woke supporters of opposition parties to try and paint the Liberals as cynics on the issue, this ignores the very real fact that every party in the election was gung-ho about living up to this contract with the Saudis, and insisting that it would go ahead no matter what, because they wanted those jobs – particularly at the General Dynamics plant in London, ON. The fact that the opposition parties, while doing their jobs of holding government to account, are nevertheless speaking out of both sides of their mouths on this issue. It’s also easy to give facile talking points about how terrible Saudi Arabia’s human rights record is without going into the genuine strategic reasons why they’re an ally in the region, and why that complicates and adds a truckload of nuance into the relationship. And as we’ve discussed before, there is no “nice countries only” option when it comes to having an arms industry, and if you think that we can preserve those jobs without getting our hands dirty in the process, well, real life doesn’t work like that. There are trade-offs to be made, and we should be trying to have an honest discussion about it and what those trade-offs are. This chirping, like from our woke tweeter, is not an adult conversation, and does nothing to reflect the reality of the situation in any way.

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Roundup: Tuition trade-offs

If you’ve paid any attention to the NDP leadership race, you’ll know that the classic issue of free tuition has been bandied about with wild abandon, but no more enthusiastically than by Niki Ashton as she tries to bring Bernie Sanders-like excitement to the topic. The problem? That she’s ignoring some of the realities of the promise, for which Alex Usher took her to task over the Twitter Machine over the long weekend.

What Usher demonstrates here is that while it’s all well and good to promise free tuition, it comes with trade-offs, which is the reality in the countries where it is offered, and which Ashton refuses to discuss in her statements. You can’t give free tuition to everyone while maintaining the same level of access and quality instruction or institutions writ-large. There are other non-monetary resources that are finite, which this facile “free tuition is the solution!” boosterism ignores, and should be discussed if this is to be a seriously discussed issue and not just a vapid slogan, borrowing from American discourse without acknowledging the differences in Canada as so many of the Bernie Bro slogan appropriation has been.

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Roundup: Senator Greene’s lament

Conservative-turned-independent Senator Stephen Greene took to the pages of the National Post yesterday to decry Andrew Scheer’s plans to return the Senate to a more partisan institution by making partisan appointments, should he ever form a government and be in a position to do so. Much of Greene’s op-ed makes a series of good points, but at the same time, I find myself a bit leery of his particular conclusion that partisanship is a bad thing period. I agree with his points that a too-partisan Senate can simply act as a rubber stamp, which there were many cases that it appeared to during the later Harper years, when they had a comfortable majority in the Upper Chamber and simply went on neglecting needed appointments while letting their caucus be whipped into continued votes in support of legislation, no matter how flawed.

Where Greene’s analysis falls down, however, is the fact that while the tendency in a more partisan Senate to whip votes means there is less pushback against the government of the day, it fails to take into account that to a great degree, it’s not so much the final vote that matters in the bigger picture than what goes on the record. Courts rely on the parliamentary record to help determine what parliament’s intentions were when they are asked to interpret the law, and in cases where opposition parties in the Senate are unable to get enough votes to push through amendments to a bill, they can at least attach observations to it, and ensure that their objections are on the record – something the courts find valuable. The other aspect is that having senators in the caucus rooms provides a great deal of perspective to MPs because the Senate is the institutional memory of Parliament. Not having those voices in the caucus room, behind closed doors, can mean even more power for the leader because there are fewer people who aren’t constrained by the blackmail powers of that leader to not sign nomination forms, for example, who can push back and who can offer the cautions to the other MPs when the leader is overstepping their bounds. Not having those voices in the caucus room diminishes them, which is something that the Liberals have been dealing with (while Trudeau’s office centralizes yet more power as a result).

Greene also doesn’t seem to appreciate the fact that not having party caucuses in the Senate means that opposition is harder to organize, thereby advantaging the government of the day. It also makes ideological scrutiny of government legislation more difficult because a chamber of independents, especially when you have a mass appointed by a government on ideologically similar lines. That is an underappreciated element of the Westminster structure in the Senate that most modernization proponents continually overlook.

While I sympathise with many of his points, and I do recognise that there have been problems with how the Senate has been operating for the better part of a decade, partisan caucuses weren’t the sole cause of those problems. Breaking up the two-party duopoly has been a boon to the Chamber’s governance and management, and that’s why having a “crossbencher” component has proven to be extremely valuable. But doing away with party caucuses entirely is short-sighted, and causes more problems than it solves.

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Roundup: The Canadian pathology meets Rolling Stone

Justin Trudeau was on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine yesterday, which set off the Canadian Twitter sphere along its usual predictable paths. Journalists sniffed at the overly fawning tone of the piece (dismissing it as “political fan fiction”), while also pointing out the factual errors in the piece (apparently, Trudeau leads the “Liberty Party”) and ranking its cringe-worthy moments. The woke crowd railed about how Trudeau really isn’t progressive and how much of a terrible promise-breaking failure he is. And the Conservatives, predictably, acted with usual partisan disdain, so much that it strained credulity (Lisa Raitt in particular took the bizarre track of insisting that this was more damaging to coming NAFTA negotiations than her fellow MPs racing to American media outlets to decry the Khadr settlement). So, really, it was a fairly standard day of social media faux outrage.

This all having been said, the one thing that kept going through my head while this was all going on was just how perfectly this whole thing fit into the particular Canadian pathology of demanding approval from the Americans – especially when it comes to our artists or actors. Until they’ve decamped for the States and make it there, we largely tend to treat them with disdain, that they’re some kind of Podunk bush leaguers who obviously aren’t successful enough to have left Canada yet. And yet, the moment they do go to the States and make it big, we turn around and go all tall poppy syndrome on them and tear them apart for thinking that they’re better than us, and how dare they. And this whole Trudeau-Rolling Stone thing smacked of that entirely. The Americans are noticing him, so yay, we’re on the world stage, let’s mark the occasion by writing wire stories about the story and magazine cover, but how dare he seek the spotlight, and how dare they comment on his looks, and how dare they write a puff piece, etcetera, etcetera. Same pathology entirely. It’s boring, guys. Get a grip.

Meanwhile, here’s Robert Hiltz to throw some more cold water on the whole thing.

https://twitter.com/robert_hiltz/status/890217322966904832

https://twitter.com/robert_hiltz/status/890217785137274880

https://twitter.com/robert_hiltz/status/890218700128874496

Trudeau, incidentally, also appeared on the West Wing Weekly podcast, and John Geddes dissects Trudeau’s responses and what they all portend.

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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: Taking it to American media

This wailing and gnashing of teeth going on about whether or not the Conservatives may have damaged NAFTA renegotiations by going to the American media to bellyache about the Omar Khadr settlement is kind of tiresome, but I have to wonder if some of the angst or even analysis on this isn’t misplaced. While sure, there are points to be made about how going there is a bit of hypocrisy going on, where Andrew Scheer insists that it’s totally different for the Conservatives to go down about Khadr while at the same time saying it was “treasonous” for Thomas Mulcair to go to Washington to decry pipelines doesn’t pass the credibility test, I also don’t think that Scheer can credibly claim that If the Khadr payment hurts NAFTA that it’s Trudeau’s fault because it comes off as petulant.

Roland Paris gave some additional thoughts here:

There was an additional comment (that I can’t find to cite) that what’s more suspicious is the fact that the Conservatives had to go to the States to drum up outrage over Khadr because they weren’t getting much traction on it in Canada, as they were already preaching to the converted. I think that’s a fairly trenchant observation, and I have to wonder if it’s also because they chose particular American outlets that won’t offer pushback to their points that are factually wrong, which they wouldn’t get in Canada. Certainly Rosemary Barton wouldn’t abet the same kind of disingenuous commentary that Michelle Rempel pushed, and I think that’s also part of what we should take away from the exercise, beyond the fact that this performative outrage could backfire and cause problems with NAFTA in the age of the Uncertainty Engine taking more cues from Fox & Friends than he does with his officials.

Meanwhile, Paul Wells sees little trouble for Liberals in the polls post-Khadr settlement, so it seems like there’s little backlash (as those who were against Khadr seem unlikely to change their votes). Kady O’Malley meanwhile wonders if dragging the Americans into the Khadr file isn’t going too far.

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Roundup: Promised term-limits?

In yesterday’s Hill Times, the question of promised term-limits for Harper appointees in the Senate was discussed, with a variety of responses in return. Some confirmed that they had agreed to an eight-year limit and would try to hew to it, while others said that it was some great myth that they agreed to such a limit when they were appointed, and expressed bafflement as to where the media got such an idea. (Hint: A bunch of senators said that they agreed to it, including Senators Wallin and Duffy). And while some of those senators noted that things changed, and that it wasn’t a realistic promise to keep if it wasn’t applied evenly, I would also add that it would have been an unconstitutional promise (if indeed they had made it).

While there is some fairly clichéd grumbling about how terrible it is that some senators are appointed for thirty-some year terms, the concept of term limits in the Senate is generally a bad one for a number of reasons. First of all, most terms that have been bandied about are too short to be effective. The Senate is the institutional memory of Parliament, given that we have a fairly low rate of incumbency and a high rate of turnover in the House of Commons. Eight year terms are not only too low for much in the way of memory (twelve being better), the bigger problem with eight-year terms is that it would allow a prime minister with two majority mandates to completely turn over the composition of the Chamber, which is a Very Bad Thing when much of the raison d’être of the Senate is to be a check on a majority PM.

The other, bigger point, about having a Senate where they are appointed to age 75 and are difficult to remove is that the tenure allows for institutional independence. If you have term limits – especially shorter ones – it means that you stand a greater likelihood that senators start trying to curry favour with the government toward the end of their term so that they can get some kind of post-senatorial appointment, whether it’s a diplomatic posting or heading a tribunal. By ensuring that they stay until the mandatory retirement age, it means that they aren’t going to be trying to leverage their position for post-senatorial employment because they will beyond the age by which any federally appointed positions will have them. That’s an important consideration that often gets overlooked.

While this debate around whether these senators did or didn’t agree to such a term limit, there is no enforcement mechanism, and as stated earlier, it was an unconstitutional promise so it should be considered moot. As to the point as about senators with very long tenures, that remains something that the government that did the appointing can be held to account for (and indeed should be) if they consistently appoint young senators.

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Roundup: The fount of Canadian honours

A particular thread that I forgot to talk about last week was about the new GG, and one of the important things that the office does, which is to be the conduit by which the country’s honours system works. It’s a pretty important function of the office which has been encroached upon my MPs and in particular the Prime Minister in recent years, and yes, that is a problem.

The Queen is the fount of honours in Canada, but politicians have been trying to get in on the game. Stephen Harper created a “teaching award,” and Trudeau has been talking about creating some kind of medal on his own as well, while there have been partisan spats about the Thérèse Casgraine award, or the John Diefenbaker award, and whichever party in power “forgetting” to award it, and on it goes. But part of leaving those kinds of decisions up to Rideau Hall is that it keeps the awards from taking on a partisan taint. With the Prime Minister’s Awards for Teaching Excellence, there was a lot of difficulty getting nominees under Harper because many people didn’t want to be associated with him, which is a fair point – the award should be politics-neutral, but associating it with the head of government as opposed to the Queen means not only that there’s a whiff of partisanship, but that the PM would use the awards as a bit of reflected glory. That’s generally something we try to avoid in our system, which is also why we ensure that it’s not the prime minister’s face on postage stamps or first in line in our embassies, but rather the Queen. It’s why the civil service swears their oaths to the Crown and not the government of the day as well – because we keep them above the partisanship of the day, and it keeps them from developing cults of personality (as much as is possible, but the age of celebrity politics is certainly challenging this notion). Suffice to say, we should be aware that the duties of honours rests with the Crown and with the GG for a reason, and we should frown on more attempts by politicians to horn in on them.

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