Roundup: More tax change caterwauling

Another day, and more moaning about the proposed small business tax changes, which have now been equated to “class warfare”! Yes, a pair of tax lawyers wrote in the Financial Post yesterday about how the ability for small business owners to split their income with stay-at-home spouses was great policy because it was first proposed back in 1966. I kid you not. Fortunately, economist Kevin Milligan is back after a few days offline, and can help sort some of this out.

And then there’s this kind of silly thinking:

Government is not a business. It cannot be run like one, no matter how many times people like to chant it as a slogan. It fundamentally does not operate in the same way, nor can it ever run in even approximately the same way. The absolute fundamental principles do not translate because government has no bottom line. The sooner people grasp this, the sooner we may have more rational discussions on how to better operate government in a sane and rational manner.

Meanwhile, Andrew Coyne is unconvinced by all of the caterwauling about the proposed changes, not seeing the moral advantage that small businesspeople are apparently owed, and suggests instead that the incentives to incorporate be reduced by bringing the topline personal income tax rate and the small business rate closer together.

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Roundup: Prepping for trade talks

Starting this week, it looks like it’s going to be all NAFTA, all the time, as trade talks get underway. Chrystia Freeland is kicking things off with a speech in Ottawa today, urging support for an overhaul, before she goes before a parliamentary committee about the government’s priorities (which I’m sure there will be a certain amount of vagueness about because I’m sure she’s not looking to negotiate in the media). While Freeland and Justin Trudeau have been making noises about labour and environmental standards of late, the red line will likely remain a dispute resolution mechanism, given our disadvantages with American litigiousness and their compliant courts.

In light of these talks, here’s a look at how the benefits are often invisible to Canadians, how populism is affecting negotiations – particularly among the Americans, and how energy could be an area where NAFTA does a great deal of good – assuming that it gets to the table this time around. Here is a look at the lead US negotiator, and how various groups back here in Ottawa are lobbying the government ahead of negotiation. And no examination of the negotiations would be complete without a reminder of previous trade talks with the US, going as far back as pre-Confederation times.

Meanwhile, John Geddes sets the stage for the talks, while Andrew Coyne makes the point that Canada’s leverage in these talks is the ability to walk away, seeing as we survived without free trade for 120 years and we can do it again.

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Roundup: The downside of leaks

The thing that had everyone’s tongue wagging yesterday was the release of those Trump Transcripts™ detailing calls to Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, and the inevitable Canada angle in which Trump says that there’s no problem with Canada, that they don’t even think about us. Some friend and neighbour.

All joking aside, this piece by Andrew MacDougall explaining how readouts of calls with foreign leaders work is crucial reading to understanding why it’s important for diplomacy that world leaders be allowed to have open and frank conversations without these kinds of details leaking out. While yes, these Trump leaks are more about the damage to his domestic agenda, they’re not revealing much about him that we don’t know already, but it remains an issue that it sets a very bad precedent, and that could have bigger and worse repercussions down the road, not only for the ability of politicians to speak freely to one another, but also for the likelihood of there being note takers in the room with Trump in the future, and neither is a good thing.

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Roundup: Rural nomination angst

In yesterday’s Hill Times, a few would-be Liberal candidates in rural ridings are talking about how they want nominations to start sooner than later, citing the challenges of rural life when it comes to door-knocking – owing to the difficulties of travel in the winter, the best time for them to meet constituents is in the summer and autumn. Hence, they want the nomination process to be over before summer 2018, so that they have a long lead-time to do the campaigning in large rural ridings – something that is less of an issue in urban ridings.

As far as suggestions go, it’s not a terrible one. I think that parties should have a fairly long lead-up with a nominated candidate, particularly in unheld ridings, so that they can do the work of grassroots engagement and get people involved in the process. This also being said, in a riding that has an incumbent, you also don’t want to run the nomination too early because an open nomination is also a way to hold that incumbent to account by their grassroots members, so if you hold the nomination too early, you don’t get as much of their tenure to judge them by. I know that some Liberals are agitating to have their nominations protected, while Conservatives have a threshold system in place to protect their nominations (which I am less keen on because it can short-circuit accountability), but I also know that the Liberals haven’t made up their minds how they’re dealing with nominations for 2019, which boggles the mind. Of course, this is part of the fallout of their wholesale party constitution rewrite (which, I will remind you, centralised even more power in the leader’s office at the expense of the grassroots), so we’ll see how they decide to deal with this, and how much lip-service they pay to the grassroots while still keeping their newly acquired centralized power. Suffice to say, nominations remain the most important part of our democratic process, so watching a party flail about it is never a good thing.

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Roundup: PBO’s platform peril

Now that the budget implementation bill has passed, the Parliamentary Budget Officer is in the midst of transforming into yet another unaccountable Officer of Parliament that will have a broad mandate and few checks on his actions, given that the government backed down on their attempts to limit the scope of his work. What they didn’t limit was the giving the PBO the mandate to cost election promises by other parties, despite his objections to doing so, and so now his office is being forced to figure out just how they’ll do it. The legislation does make it clear that he’s only to cost individual promises, not their whole campaign, but it’s going to be an enormous amount of work that will be used even more as a cudgel than his work already is, and we can expect an election period being filled with taunts of “See, the PBO says that your plans will cost more than you say and he’s independent,” with the unspoken “Nya, nya!” in there. Oh boy. Anyway, Jennifer Robson has a few more thoughts on the issue.

The bit about a common baseline is possibly important, given that economist Stephen Gordon has been trying to match Liberal election promises to the current budget framework and has found the task to be nigh impossible.

Enforcing common costing baselines may sound like a good idea, but it does make me nervous about campaigns devolving into accounting exercises at the expense of other considerations, including accountability, and that we’ll have repeats of 2008, when we had clear platform commitments shrugged off by reporters going “it’s just so complicated” when a) it wasn’t, and b) it reinforces this “math is hard” narrative that does nobody any favours. But maybe that’s just me.

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Roundup: A northern populism

Every time I see someone writing about Canadian populist movements and the dismissive concerns that it could never happen here, I always shake my head because it does happen. To an extent, we are living through it right now. The Canadian Press has been doing some surveys to try and discover what the “northern populism” might look like, and while it’s not quite the same as the forces that brought Donald Trump into power, it nevertheless exists here.

Part of the difference we see is that in Canada, those populist forces are less white than they are in the States or in Europe, but the focus remains the same, which are the perceived ills of the liberal (big or small L, take your pick) “elites.” It’s not a secret that the way that Conservatives like Jason Kenney targeted ethno-cultural minority communities was by focusing on socially conservative issues, whether it was their reticence to embrace same-sex marriage, or things like marijuana, those were cues that helped them tap into those communities the ways that other populist movements haven’t, who are too busy dog-whistling to appeal to the more blatant racists. And while there are those undercurrents in Canadian populist movements, for which things like immigration remains a bugaboo, Canadian conservatives have managed to tap into a particular vein of “it’s not our immigrant community that’s the problem, it’s those other immigrants that are,” and that set up a kind of justification that “hey, we can’t be racists because these immigrants don’t approve of that immigration policy,” never mind that yes, immigrants can be intolerant of other racial or ethno-cultural minority groups that aren’t their own.

But populism is not a spent force in Canada. We saw how it operated with Rob Ford, and it’s alive and well in Alberta as they try to harness it into an anti-NDP political party. To an extent, the federal Conservatives and NDP have largely abandoned their own ideological underpinnings to be right or left-flavoured populists, and yes, there is a great deal of populist rhetoric underpinning the Liberal electoral platform, with appeals to this nebulous middle class that has no data to back up their claims (like stagnant wages for one spectacular example). Was Justin Trudeau able to harness it more effectively than his opponents? Yes. Does that mean that the scourge of populism that gave the Americans the Trumpocalypse is absent here? Not at all. That the composition is slightly different is an academic difference, but not reassuring in the least.

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Roundup: Stop berating members for doing their jobs

It’s not often that I write about provincial matters, and especially not from Manitoba, but this one I felt like I should make a remark because of the way in which the story is framed, which infuriates me to no end. The headline is “Stephen Fletcher criticizes his own government’s bill in Manitoba.” Fletcher, a former Conservative MP and one-time cabinet minister, is currently an MLA in the province, and a backbencher in the governing caucus.

Because I know that the vast majority of Canadians didn’t get a quality civics education, let me spell it out – it’s a backbencher’s job to hold the government to account. Yes, even if they’re from the same party. And in this case, Fletcher had concerns about a bill and has been asking questions about it at committee meetings late into the night. In other words, he’s doing his job. We should be encouraging this.

But what does the local Canadian Press reporter ask the premier? Whether Fletcher should be removed from caucus.

Great Cyllenian Hermes, luck-bringing messenger of the deathless gods, give me strength before my head explodes.

We The Media keep insisting that we want more independent elected officials, and we constantly fetishise things like free votes, and the moment an MP or MLA starts asking tough questions of their own party or steps out of line, we freak out and start wondering if the leader is losing control of their party, or in this case, whether they need to be kicked out of the party. In this particular case, the article goes on to say that this is the first crack in party unity. Are you kidding me?

When we elect members under the First-Past-the-Post system, we are imbuing them with individual agency. That’s why we elect them to single seats and not giving votes to parties to apportion those seats out to their MPs. We privilege the independence of MPs and empower them to do their jobs. Whether or not they choose to do so is the bigger part of the battle, because of the pressures of looking like a team player, but We The Media make it worse because we pull bullshit like this all the time. Our insistence on these ridiculous narratives and demands that our elected members all act in lockstep constantly while at the same time demanding independence is doing the system in. It’s driving the need for message control which is poisoning our democracy, because our own journalists have a tendency to be too ignorant of how the system is supposed to work.

Let MPs and MLAs do their actual work of holding governments to account, and stop causing trouble. Seriously. You’re actively hurting democracy with this kind of bullshit.

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Roundup: On foreign money in federal elections

Yesterday I mentioned a certain moral panic disguised as “journalism” authored by former Calgary Herald opinion editor Licia Corbella when it came to accusations about foreign money trying to influence the 2015 election. Anyone reading the piece should have clued into the fact that it was a hit-job, from the sympathetic portrayal of Joan Crockatt, the lack of corroborating evidence, the one-sided sources, oh, and the fact that it repeated the canard that the Tides Foundation was some kind of influence clearing house without actually digging into those numbers beyond their top-lines. And too many outlets ran with the story as is on the first day, and really only started to question it yesterday. VICE did a pretty good takedown of the claims, and when some of the other outlets started asking questions about that “report” with the accusations, the excuses for why it couldn’t be produced were…dubious to say the least.

This notion that there is a problem with foreign money influencing elections via third parties is also dubious, and while the Commissioner of Elections said he wanted the legislation tightened during a Senate committee hearing, a former lawyer form Elections Canada disputes some of the Commissioner’s interpretation of the law.

If more people had closely read Corbella’s piece in the first place, I think we could have avoided the pile on of hot takes that swiftly resulted on Monday. As a columnist, Corbella was a known fabulist, which is why this piece of “journalism” should have been treated with utter suspicion from the start.

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Roundup: Wrongheaded notions about party policy-making

Over at Policy Options yesterday, Stephen Harper’s former policy director, Rachel Curren, lamented the policy-making process of the Conservative Party, sighing about the fact that the majority of the leadership candidates were just retreads of Harper-era policies. But sweet Rhea mother of Zeus was her op-ed full of so many mistruths about the Westminster parliamentary system, that my head about exploded.

While Curran was disingenuous about how the Conservatives were the party of grassroots policy-making that the Liberals were top-down (that has not been the case until they changed their policy process just last year, which is a problem), the crux of her article rested on this notion that the party needed some outside policy groups or think-tanks to do the heavy policy lifting for them because they were just too cautious a group to do it otherwise.

No.

The notion that it’s not the role of the party itself to engage in policy development, but rather to fight and win elections, is complete and utter bullshit. Likewise, it’s not up to the civil service to come up with policy either – they can offer advice and options for implementation, but political policy is certainly not their job.

It is absolutely the role of the grassroots to engage in policy development because that’s their job. Politics is supposed to be about bottom-up engagement, both in terms of policy development and in the selection of candidates (and removal of incumbents when necessary). And what utterly boggles my mind is the notion that Curran is peddling that we should take away what little power the grassroots has left and pass it off to these third-party think-tanks that can access the kind of funding that parties can’t, and have little accountability. If we take this away from the grassroots, then what good are they? Continuing the farce of our illegitimate leadership selection process to coronate unaccountable presidential figures who can then dictate top-down policy and control over the party (and if you don’t think they’re not dictating policy, then why the hell are they running on it in this gong show of a leadership contest)? These contests actively disenfranchise the grassroots (despite all appearance to the contrary), so taking away what policy powers they have left leaves the grassroots with what? Being donors with no say in what they’re donating to? How is that any way to run our political system?

This kind of stuff infuriates me because it’s not the way politics is supposed to happen. The grassroots are supposed to be empowered, and leaders are supposed to be responsive to them – not the other way around like it is now. It’s a problem and it’s one we need to fix, and hey, I just happened to have written a book all about these kinds of issues, which I would suggest that Curran read, because she might learn a thing or two.

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Roundup: The curious PCO-PBO turf war

There is an interesting piece out from Kathryn May on iPolitics about the turf war going on between the Privy Council Office and the Parliamentary Budget Officer, and how that is playing out in the provisions of the budget implementation bill that would create an independent PBO. The PBO blames senior bureaucrats for trying to hobble its future role, and much of it seems to be down to an existential difference of opinion, between whether or not the PBO should exist to give advice to parliamentarians, or to be a watchdog of the government. PCO takes the view that the PBO was designed to offer advice and independent analysis, while the first PBO, Kevin Page, was certainly taking the latter view, which his successor has largely followed suit with. One of the other interesting notes was that the public service would rather the PBO act in more of a fashion like the Auditor General, where he goes back to departments with his figures to check for factual errors, and that it gives them a chance to respond to the report, rather than feeling like they are being constantly “ambushed.”

I am of the view that we run the risk of creating bigger problems if we continue to give the PBO too broad of a mandate, while being unaccountable and only able to be terminated for cause, meaning seven year terms by which they can self-initiate all manner of investigations with no constraints. That will be a problem, given that we already have at least one Independent Officer of Parliament who is going about making problematic declarations and giving reports of dubious quality without anyone calling him to task on it (and by this I mean the Auditor General). And I do think that PCO has a point in that the intent of the PBO was to give independent analysis, particularly of economic forecasts, and I do think that there is some merit to the criticisms that Kevin Page had become something of a showboat and was far exceeding his mandate before his term was not renewed. We have a serious problem in our parliament where we are handing too much power to these independent officers (and other appointed bodies for that matter) while MPs are doing less and less actual work – especially the work that they’re supposed to be doing.

While PCO says that the provisions in the budget bill were to try to “strike a balance” with the role of the PBO, I fear that he’s already become too popular with the media – and by extension the general public – to try and constrain his role, and the government will be forced to back down. Because We The Media are too keen to be deferential to watchdogs (like the Auditor General) and not call them out when they go wrong (like the AG did with the Senate report), I fear that the pattern will repeat itself with the PBO, as it already is with the demands from the pundit class that he be given overly broad powers with his new office. Because why let Parliament do the job it’s supposed to do when we can have Independent Officers do it for them?

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