Roundup: Some actual accountability

If there’s one committee of the House of Commons that I wish I could spend more time following, it’s the Public Accounts committee. It may not be one of the sexier committees tackling the hot issues of the day, but instead, it’s the heart and soul of what parliament is about – holding the government to account. Alas, my day-to-day work means that I don’t have the time to follow it like I did in years gone by, but I try to keep an eye on them when I can.

In the wake of the latest Auditor General’s report, the committee’s vice-chairs – NDP and Liberal, as the Conservatives chair this particular committee, as one might expect for a committee dedicated to holding the government accountable – are vowing that they will hold hearings on each chapter of the latest report (rather than just selected ones) because they are concerned about his level of frustration that departments aren’t keeping their focus on how services are delivered to citizens (rather than their own internal processes), and more than that, they plan to keep calling back senior civil servants to ensure that they’re shaping up. This can only be a good thing.

Over the past few years, that committee has been more stringent in ensuring that they get progress reports from departments on implementing recommendations from AG reports, but now it looks like they’re willing to go a bit further, which is encouraging. This is the kind of work that frankly, we don’t see enough of from MPs, so I’m glad it’s not only getting done, but getting a bit of attention. That can only bode well for parliamentary democracy.

Continue reading

QP: Fabrications and absences

While the PM was away in Scarborough to announce the government’s housing strategy — and to campaign for his candidate in the by-election there — Andrew Scheer introduced his party’s newest MP to the Chamber before things got underway, and fortunately Dane Lloyd didn’t try to struggle as he came in. Scheer led off, demanding that the PM condemn the “egregious crackdown on free speech” at Laurier University. With the PM away, Kirsty Duncan offered assurances that they want to assure freedom of speech and the protection of Charter rights. Scheer lamented that the PM just couldn’t denounce it — being cute because he knows he can’t refer to the PM being absent — and then he launched into a tired question about Bill Morneau’s asssets. Morneau got up and first wished the Speaker a Happy Birthday — and after the Chamber stood up for a quick rendition of the appropriate song, Morneau reminded the chamber that he worked with the Ethics Commissioner. Scheer then turned to worry about tax changes and the supposed “attacks” on local businesses, and Morneau gave him assurances that they had listened to Canadians. Alain Rayes got up next to make a pair of demands in French for all of Morneau’s assets, and he deflected by noting that the opposition didn’t want to recognize the good work of the government in strengthening the economy. Guy Caron was up next for the NDP and started off with mentioning the Auditor General’s concerns about CRA’s call centre, but started throwing all manner of accusations at the wall, so Diane Lebouthillier assured him that working for Canadians was highlighted in her mandate letter. Alexandre Boulerice gave much the same in French, and Lebouthillier again got up to assure him that they were going after tax havens, and they didn’t circulate misinformation, unlike the other side. Boulerice railed at the laundry list of apparent sins, and Lebouthillier reminded him that the previous government cut CRA but they were reinvesting. Caron went for one more round of the same, not that the response changed.

Continue reading

QP: Virtually ignoring the AG’s report

While the day got started with a report by the Auditor General, which in any other parliament would be the subject matter by which Question Period would be seized with. But not this parliament, at this particular time, with these particular denizens therein. Andrew Scheer led off, raising the AG’s concerns about the CRA’s call centre performance, and Justin Trudeau praised the report that would help them do better, which they intended to do, but it also reminded the House that the previous government cut services over a decade. Scheer switched to English and tried to turn this into a question about how Stephen Bronfman picked up the call to get his tax issues cleared — utterly false — and Trudeau repeated his previous answer in English. Excited, Scheer’s cadence got breathier as he raced through a scripted question on the Ethics Commissioner to clearing Bill Morneau to table Bill C-27 — which is utterly absurd procedurally — and Trudeau reminded him that they work with the Ethics Commissioner and take her advice. After another round of the same in French, Scheer stumbled through an accusation that the Liberals don’t follow rules, and Trudeau stuck to his points about the Commissioner. Guy Caron led for the NDP, railing about the revelations from the AG on the Phoenix pay system, to which Trudeau reminded the House that the system was brought in by the previous government — to much uproar — and listed off who they were working with. Caron railed that there should be a refund for the system, and Trudeau listed mistakes the previous regime made, and promised that they were working to fix it. Alexandre Boulerice, making a telephone hand gesture, mimed a call to the CRA, and Trudeau noted that they were working on fixing things after a decade of cuts. Nathan Cullen took over for a round of the same in English, and got much the same answer.

Continue reading

QP: Concerns over foreign fighters

The first day back from a constituency week, things were a bit delayed in getting started while new MP Richard Hébert was introduced to the Chamber — improperly, I might add, as he initially “struggled” before passing the bar, which is wrong. Only the Speaker is supposed to struggle before being taken to the chair, given the symbolism that in historical times, the Speaker had faced the wrath of the King, sometimes fatally so. This is not the case for an MP.

When QP got underway, Andrew Scheer led off, mendaciously framing a question about ISIS fighters, claiming that the government was welcoming back ISIS fighters with “reintegration services,” to which Trudeau gave some bland assurances that they were monitoring any foreign fighters returning. Scheer listed off ISIS atrocities before repeating his disingenuous framing device, and Trudeau listed services to deradicalize Canadians and noted that children who were in those situations need particular care. Scheer tried again in French, got the same answer, before changing the topic and noting that both the PM and finance minister were under investigation by the Ethics Commissioner, to which Trudeau shot back that the Conservatives were attacking the Commissioner and her integrity. Scheer then returned to the issue of the Paradise Papers and the bullshit assertion that Trudeau “pardoned” Stephen Bronfman on behalf of the CRA, and Trudeau assured him that CRA was looking into tax evasion. Guy Caron led off for the NDP, also railing about Morneau’s ethics filings, and Trudeau reminded him that they work with the Commissioner. Caron raised the fact that the postal workers union had alas raised the C-27 issue with the Commissioner months ago, as though that was of any consequences, and Trudeau reiterated his answer. Nathan Cullen got up to deliver the same again with added sanctimony, and Trudeau responded by lamenting that Cullen sat in the Chamber with him when the previous government attacked public institutions like the Ethics Commissioner and that was disappointed that the NDP would stoop so low. Cullen accused Trudeau of a cheap shot, and Trudeau made the accusation right back.

Continue reading

Roundup: Artificial deadline drama

It’s one of these kinds of stories that I’m already suspicious of – the kind that presuppose that the Senate is going to delay the course of legislation. And lo, the fact that there is a story with Bill Blair out there, shaking his finger at the Senate and warning them not to delay the marijuana legislation, is one that makes me roll my eyes because 1) the Bill still hasn’t passed the Commons, and may not yet for another week; and 2) I have heard zero plans from any senators that this is something that they intend to sit on until any deadlines pass or expire. In fact, I’ve heard pretty much the opposite – that to date, there is an extreme reluctance on the part of those making up the Independent Senators Group to delaying or being perceived to be delaying government bills, and they will provide the statistics to show that they pass bills faster than the House of Commons does as a way to prove that they don’t delay bills.

Oh, but what about the national anthem bill, which Conservative senators are sitting on and deliberately delaying? Well, that’s a private member’s bill, so it is at the mercy of Senate procedure, unlike a government bill – as the marijuana legislation is – which not only takes precedence over other business in the Senate, and which Senator Peter Harder, the Government Leader in the Senate – err, “government representative” could invoke time allocation on, and I’m sure that he would be able to get enough votes for it to pass (grumbling of Conservative senators aside). This having been said, I think that perhaps it may be pushing it for the government to insist that a major piece of legislation like the marijuana bill be passed by the Senate within three weeks given that they took much longer on it, and given that provincial governments have a lot to say on the matter – though I’m hearing that the Senate will likely sit a full week longer than the Commons will before they rise for the Christmas break, meaning that if the Commons passes it by this Friday, it would be four weeks for the Senate to pass it before the break, which is a long time for a bill in the Senate, but not unreasonable. And if the Commons was so concerned about how long it was taking, they would have picked up their own pace on the bill beforehand. They didn’t, and didn’t invoke time allocation on it thus far, meaning that this concern of Blair’s is artificial and used to create some faux drama. People aren’t stupid – creating a problem where one doesn’t exist is just as likely to backfire than it is to try and shame the Senate into doing your bidding.

Continue reading

Roundup: Mid-term check-in

Over in Maclean’s, John Geddes put together a deep dive into the current government’s midterm woes, and it’s well worth the read – and it’s a pretty long read too. But once you’re done (seriously, this post isn’t going anywhere), I would want to push back on some of the things that he highlights.

For starters, I think that there is something to be said for a government that is willing to walk back on bad promises, and they made a few. Most notably is electoral reform, and the fact that they could actually take the step of smothering it the cradle is actually something that they should be congratulated for. We dodged a bullet with that one, and I wish that my fellow journalists would get that through their heads. Likewise, Bardish Chagger taking back her plans to “modernise” the way that the House of Commons operates is similarly another dodged bullet – most of her plans were terrible and would make things worse, not better. Casting them as failures does a disservice to the fact that they backed down from bad promises. When it comes to Bill Morneau and his troubles, I think it also bears mentioning that the vast majority of the attacks against his tax proposals (and his own personal ethics situation) are largely unfounded, based on disingenuous framing or outright lies designed to try and wound him. The attacks have largely not been about the policies themselves (even though there were actual problems that should have been asked about more), and I think that bears some mention.

I also think that Geddes doesn’t pay enough attention to some of the backroom process changes that the government has been spearheading, particularly on the Indigenous files – many of the problems mentioned need to have capacity issues addressed before funding is increased because we have seen numerous examples of places where money was shovelled out without that capacity-building being done, and it made situations worse. Is it frustrating that some of this is going slowly? Yes. But some of the ground-up work of reforming how the whole system works, and ensuring that once more money flows that it can be spent effectively is something that we should be talking more about, because process matters. We simply don’t like to talk about it because we labour under this belief that nobody reads process stories, so we ignore them, which is why I think some of the calls about “failures” are premature or outright wrong – things are changing that we can’t immediately see. That doesn’t mean that changes aren’t happening.

Finally, there is a list of major legislation coming down the pipe, and I think it bears reminding that the focus on consultation before making some of these changes is as much about inoculating the government against criticism that was levelled against their predecessors as it was about trying to get some of this complex legislation right. Do they get it right all the time? No. There is a demonstrated record of barrelling ahead on things with good intentions and not properly thinking through the consequences *cough*Access to Information*cough* and when it blows up in their faces, they’re not really sure how to respond because they think that their good intentions count for something. I’m not sure that simply focusing on the perceived inexperience of ministers helps when it comes to trying to meaningfully discuss these issues, but here we are.

Continue reading

QP: Veteran benefits before reruns

Thursday before a constituency week, and not only were the benches starting to thing out, but Elizabeth May was the only leader present, not counting “parliamentary leader” Guy Caron. Conservative Quebec lieutenant Alain Rayes led off, railing about the news that elite soldiers who are ill or injured for more than six months will have their benefits cut off. Diane Lebouthillier — surprisingly (but with neither the veterans affairs minister or his parliamentary secretary present) — answered, saying that there was a six-month grace period, and they got a pay increase and have added benefits. Rayes repeated the question, and this time Kent Hehr, the former minister, offered assurances that veterans were a priority. Rayes offered some added sanctimony for the apparent callous treatment of said troops. Hehr repeated his answer, before Candice Bergen got up to repeat the question in English, and Lebouthillier got back up to repeat her previous answer, noting that the Chief of Defence Staff had reviewed the file. Bergen got back up to try and lump this with the other faux scandals, but Lebouthillier reiterated her answer. Guy Caron got up next, leading for the NDP, demanding to know if CRA had recouped $25 billion of it had simply been identified. Lebouthillier essentially confirmed the latter, saying that they were “on the way” to recouping it. Caron railed that KPMG’s clients were not being named and shamed on the CRA website, but Lebouthillier repeated her response. Alexandre Boulerice got up next to rail about what tax avoidance was considered abusive, but Lebouthillier praised the work that CRA was doing. Boulerice ranted about tax treaties, and Lebouthillier noted that those treaties are now the CRA is able to conduct investigations and lay charges.

Continue reading

Roundup: The stages of scandal

Kady O’Malley has a piece about the five stages of a Canadian political scandal, and wonders just where the current Bill Morneau imbroglio lies along it. While she’s probably not wrong in that it’s likely hovering near the end-point, I would like to just take a moment to point out that most of this whole affair has been fuelled by weak-sauce allegations and conflated facts, and this particular air of desperation as people keep flinging the equivalent of spaghetti against a wall in the hope that something inevitably sticks.

And there is a complete air of desperation in the latest developments in this case. Bill Morneau paying a $200 fine for failing to disclose his stake in the ownership structure of his French villa – he had disclosed the villa itself – was turned into wails that he was a law-breaker, or that the fine was somehow a sanction for a “conflict of interest” that was never a conflict. And the NDP tried to move a motion to get Bill C-27 withdrawn, because they sailed a conspiracy theory that somehow there was a conflict of interest with a bill that they opposed for ideological reasons, in order to come at a different angle of attack on it. And while is no actual conflict with the bill, it keeps being reported uncritically as though there were.

And that’s probably what gets me the most irritated about these so-called political scandals, is that many are started by poor reporting on thin facts that are designed to be sensational, with follow-ups that are bigger and bigger reaches to the point where it’s a series of mind-numbing conspiracy theories being floated, each of which get amplified in QP. For what? I’m failing to see how imaginary scandals are holding government to account. There are so many other issues that have substantive policy issues that should be debated or explored, and we keep chasing these non-stories because we think there’s blood in the water. But by all means, keep chasing this phantom menace. It’s doing our democracy wonders.

Continue reading

Senate QP: Sajjan is taking his time

After a terrible QP in the Other Place, it was hoped that things would be better in the Senate as Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan arrived to answer questions from his department. Senator Smith led off, worrying about the state of the planned purchase of Super Hornets and the possible purchase of used F-18s instead. Sajjan first stepped back to outline the problem of not being able to meet both NORAD and NATO requirements, and said that they will be filling the interim gap before they replace the whole fighter fleet. Smith wondered about the issue of newer versus older when it comes to the interim fighters, and Sajjan noted that they hoped for new, but would go for the same models that we currently use if necessary.

Senator Enverga asked about the situation in Iraq, and wondered about what our role was in the fight against ISIS if training was suspended. Sajjan said that they were assessing the situation given the changing situation on the ground in order to assess what the needs are now that Mosul has fallen.

Continue reading

Roundup: Abandoning a fiscal anchor

In yesterday’s National Post, economist Stephen Gordon cast a critical eye on the fall economic update and the government’s excuse for running deficits, and the decision to abandon the fiscal anchor of balanced budgets in favour of a declining debt-to-GDP ratio. And rather than worrying about the non-existent debt-bomb, Gordon is mostly looking for answers why the policy shifted post-election. Fair enough. (He also does the math on how much more a government can spend by shifting the fiscal anchors like the government did here).

Enter fellow economist Kevin Milligan, who digs through and finds an answer. Enjoy.

Continue reading