Roundup: Begun, this wine trade war has

The dispute between the NDP governments of Alberta and BC picked up intensity as Alberta decided to ban future purchases of BC wine within the province – without the consultation of groups like Restaurants Canada – and everyone is demanding that Justin Trudeau step in and do something. Anything. Never mind that Trudeau did just days ago tell audiences in Edmonton and Nanaimo that the pipeline was approved and that it was going to get built, and that it was part of the deal that came with stronger environmental laws.

There are a couple of problems in all of this. For one, there’s nothing for Trudeau to actually do at this point – BC hasn’t done anything yet besides put out a press release, and they actually can’t do anything. There’s nothing they’re actually doing at this point for Trudeau to step in and stop. It’s all just rhetoric at this point. And ultimately, this is all politicking, because Rachel Notley needs an enemy to fight against to show Jason Kenney’s would-be voters that she’s doing the job, and John Horgan is holding onto power only with the support of the three Green MLAs in his province, and he needs to keep them happy, so he’s making noises to do so. Add to that the federal Conservatives are amping up the rhetoric to try and “prove” that Trudeau isn’t really on the side of the industry, or that he’s secretly hoping that these delays will make Kinder Morgan think twice about the project like what supposedly happened with Energy East (never mind that what happened with Energy East had more to do with Keystone XL being put back on the table and being the better option for TransCanada to pursue), everyone is trying to score points. So, until there’s something that Trudeau can do, maybe everyone should hold their gods damned horses and not make the situation worse.

Incidentally, Jagmeet Singh has been dodging questions on this very issue, trying to play his own politics while other levels of NDP government battle it out. So there’s that.

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Roundup: What Stephen Harper knew

Some more explosive revelations last night, as Maclean’s acquired and published the internal emails of the Conservative campaign team when it came to their dealing with the matter of Rick Dystra’s nomination in the midst of his allegations that he sexually assaulted a staffer in 2014. Shortly after that was released, statements were put out by Ray Novak and then Stephen Harper himself to give their own versions of what they knew and the decisions they took at the time, and why they justified keeping Dykstra on (though he eventually lost his seat in the election).

Amidst all of this, Jen Gerson has a very incisive column on the culture of politics, where sex and booze are the comforts of people away from their homes and families in a cloistered environment that has a frat-boy air to it all. And why nobody acts when it comes to allegations that “everyone knows” about, such as those related to Patrick Brown, is in part because gossip is part of that culture, and where information is power, compounded by the tribalism that comes with partisans who want to protect their own – while spreading dirt about their enemies – makes it difficult to know what to take seriously (and which is why the Erin Weir situation is probably an overreaction, whether justified or not). It’s a worthwhile read that tries to put the past couple of weeks in some better context than we’ve been getting with piecemeal stories coming out, and discussions around the environment on the Hill that don’t take cultural context into consideration as to why it persists beyond just simple power imbalances.

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Roundup: Duffy’s privilege problems

At long last, the Senate has responded to Senator Mike Duffy’s lawsuit against it, and is asking the Ontario courts to remove it from the suit because of parliamentary privilege. This was to be expected, and I’m surprised it took this long, but here we are. Duffy’s lawyer says that he’ll fight it, of course, but he’s going to have an uphill battle because this is very much a live issue.

For a refresher as to why this matters as an issue of privilege is because it’s about the ability of the Senate to discipline one of its own members. This is especially important because the Senate is a self-governing body of Parliament, and because it’s appointed with institutional independence and security of tenure in order to ensure that there is that independence. In other words, the Senate has to be able to police its own because there’s no one else who can while still giving it the ability to be self-governing (as we explored in great detail over the Auditor General’s desire to have an external audit body oversee the chamber’s activities). And indeed, UOttawa law professor Carissima Mathen agrees that it would be odd for the Senate not to have the power to suspend its own members, and raises questions about whether it’s appropriate for the judiciary to interfere in this kind of parliamentary activity. (It’s really not).

The even bigger complicating factor in this, of course, is that NDP court case trying to fight the House of Commons’ Board of Internal Economy decision around their satellite offices. The Federal Court ruled there that it’s not a case of privilege (which is being appealed), and Duffy’s former lawyer, Donald Bayne, said that this is a precedent in their favour while on Power & Politics yesterday. And he might have a point, except that the Commons’ internal economy board is a separate legislative creature, whereas the Senate’s internal economy committee is a committee of parliament and not a legislative creation. This is a Very Big Difference (and one which does complicate the NDP case, to the point that MPs may have actually waived their own ability to claim privilege when they structured their Board in such a fashion – something that we should probably retroactively smack a few MPs upside the head for). I don’t expect that Duffy will win this particular round, meaning that his lawsuit will be restricted to the RCMP for negligent investigation, but even that’s a tough hill to climb in and of itself. He may not have much luck with this lawsuit in the long run.

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Roundup: Unifying the prohibitions across departments

The federal government has issued new guidelines for foreign intelligence likely obtained through torture, so that it now covers the Canadian Forces, the Canadian Security Establishment, and Global Affairs Canada. This means that they are prohibited from using such information, except if it’s going to save lives either from an imminent terrorist attack or protecting Canadian troops on an overseas mission. This appears to harmonize direction handed down earlier to the RCMP, CSIS, and CBSA, so that all national security agencies (which are now under the same parliamentary oversight regime and will soon be under an independent arm’s length national security oversight regime) will have the same rules and restrictions. For some, it’s reassuring that the government is taking the issue seriously, but for others, the caveat isn’t good enough, and they need to issue a full prohibition, no caveats, no exceptions, full stop. Stephanie Carvin has more reaction to the announcement here:

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Roundup: Let’s not lobotomize the GG

There have been so, so many bad takes on the whole issue of Her Excellency Julie Payette’s speech to scientists last week, but there’s one published by the National Post yesterday that was so terrible, that Paul Wells’ incredulous reaction is something that matches my own. Fraser Valley University history professor Barbara Messamore writes that Julie Payette should be a scripted automaton because that’s the role that Governors General are expected to be.

No. Absolutely not.

This is the kind of thing that drives me completely insane. This constant need to keep politics as tightly scripted and lifeless as possible is part of what is killing our democracy, and it’s telling that so many people flocked to the unscripted (and unhinged) Donald Trump because of his “authenticity.” And to demand this of a vice-regal position is completely overkill. I also continue to boggle at the number of pundits who think that Payette somehow was commenting on live issues under debate. I’ve asked, and yet no one can point to where any of our mainstream parties are denying climate change, or who support creationism in our school curricula. They don’t exist in Canada, which is why the insistence that these are somehow issues under debate is baffling.

But beyond that, I find it unfathomable that we would want brilliant and accomplished individuals for the role, given the immense power at their disposal (should they choose to set off a constitutional crisis to exercise most of it), or the tough decisions that may be asked of them in any number of post-election scenarios, while we simultaneously demand that they be utterly vacuous so as not to cause problems. But while Payette may have rankled the delicate sensibilities of some, she also did not cross a partisan line which is what matters in this situation. Why we should force her to lobotomise herself for the sake of smiling and waving and mouthing beige platitudes makes no sense. If that’s what we want, then why not simply put some bilingual starlet in the role so that she can look good in photos and can smile and wave to her heart’s content? Why bother looking for someone accomplished if we’re not going to let them speak or exercise the judgment that we ask of them when it counts? If we let Payette continue to go unscripted, could she make a mistake? Maybe. She’s human. But it keeps her authentic and the reflection of her true self and intellect, and that to me is far more important than the fact that she may bruise a few feelings from time to time. We’re grown-ups. We should be able to handle the odd bump, and it’s far better than the alternative.

Meanwhile, Michael Coren defends Her Excellency’s “mocking” of religion from his own religious perspective, and he calls out the Conservatives’ attempts to make political hay out of this, which he deems akin to “prayer abuse” – something refreshing amidst days of fainting couches and clutched pearls.


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Roundup: Those amended tax proposals

Bill Morneau unveiled his latest tweaks to his tax change proposals in New Brunswick today, and it looks like a pretty serious attempt to continue to close the avenues for tax avoidance by means of using Canadian-Controlled Private Corporations, while at the same time trying not to completely dissuade the use of those corporations to help businesses save for rainy days or mat leaves, etcetera – in other words, that he’s taken the concerns seriously. So here are economists Lindsay Tedds and Kevin Milligan to break down the new proposals.

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Roundup: Shadow ministers vs critics

Conservative leader Andrew Scheer is set to release his full critic list today, not only to be dubbed as a shadow cabinet, but with plans to style the critics as “shadow ministers.” Now, this is normally the kinds of British/Westminster nomenclature that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside, which is why I suspect that a fanboy like Scheer is doing it, but I would raise a particular note of caution – that unless Scheer plans to actually have his “shadow minsters” act in the way that Westminster shadow ministers actually operate, then it’s going to quickly come across as a twee affectation.

So what kinds of differences would matter between a British shadow minister and a Canadian critic? For one, it’s a far more institutionalised role, where a shadow minister plays the function of someone who is able to fill the cabinet role immediately if the government were to fall, rather than the kinds of placeholders that we’ve come to expect in Canadian critic roles. Shadow ministers, in my observation, tend to be in place for a fairly long time and develop expertise in the portfolio, and they have more structured time to visit the departments and get briefings from civil servants, which doesn’t seem to be the way that Canadian critics operate (who do get some briefings, but in my estimation, are not to the same level). Of course, one of the reasons why is that cabinet construction in the UK doesn’t have to deal with the same regional considerations that Canada does, so it’s far easier to have someone who was in a shadow cabinet position slide into cabinet, whereas in Canada, the federalist calculations may not work out.

Another key difference is that UK shadow ministers are not members of select committees, whereas in Canada, critics are leads for their party on standing committees. Why this is different is because in the UK, it not only lets the shadow minister spend more time with their portfolio, but it gives the committee members more independence because they don’t have the lead on the file shepherding them. Just by numbers alone, I’m guessing that this isn’t going to happen here (another advantage to the UK’s House of Commons having 650 members instead of 338). One could also remark that the current Conservative Party in Canada hasn’t demonstrated a great deal of willingness to give committees a great deal of independence (especially seeing as they turned them into branch plants of the ministers’ offices during the Harper years), but who knows? Maybe Scheer is more serious about it. But unless he wants to reform the way his critics operate, then I’m less sold on billing them as “shadow ministers.”

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Roundup: A complex figure

I really didn’t want to write about this topic, and yet we’re swarming with stories and thinkpieces about it, so in the interest of that, I’ll say a few words, however clumsy and inexpert. On the subject of Sir John A. Macdonald and the current vogue of removing his name from things, I find myself annoyed by so much of it. Part of it is because the sudden rush to start doing this smacks of the me-tooism that so often plagues our political discourse, especially on the left or “progressive” side of things. Having a discussion about Macdonald and his role in the cultural genocide of Indigenous people is not the same thing as removing Confederate monuments in the United States, and yet there is a kind of equivalency being proffered, including by a number of self-righteous activists. They’re different conversations, and trying to equate them does nobody any favours.

Second, Macdonald is a complex figure on pretty much every level. While there has been increasing agitation in his role in promulgating residential schools, or the much-repeated quote about reducing food aid to starving First Nations on the prairies following the collapse of buffalo herd populations, all of that all of this ignores context. While people keep insisting that Macdonald was the architect of genocide, any reading of history that I’ve done is that Macdonald was trying to prevent it, having seen what happened south of the border. The problem is that there was little conception as to how to go about doing it, and there was a great deal of political opposition to his doing do, when there were a great many voices who would have preferred that they starve. That Macdonald mitigated these calls and actually did deliver food aid (which was something that governments were certainly not in the business of in the 1800s), and tried to come up with plans to get them to transition to farming once they couldn’t hunt bison any longer (which didn’t take), and to give them the vote in order to involve them in the political life and decision-making of the country despite that they didn’t own land and would otherwise not eligible under the existing electoral laws of the time (leading to howls that he was giving them “special” rights, which subsequent Liberal governments stripped) – it all should mean something. Yes, what we recognise now as being cultural genocide was an attempt at staving off actual physical genocide. It’s why Macdonald created the Northwest Mounted Police – to ensure that there were orderly treaties rather than the mass slaughter done by the Americans in order to clear lands for settlement. We know this now as the violence of colonisation, while it was trying to do this without the loss of life in the United States is a complicating factor.

So yeah, Macdonald is complex, and you can’t just mark him down in the column of “racist promoter of genocide” and leave it at that, which is why we need conversations about history, but most of what passes for it over social media, between the woke voices crying genocide and their opponents decrying the erasure of history, is not a proper conversation. It also requires a recognition that history is an evolving process, and that adding voices to the narrative isn’t erasing it – it’s adding to it, even if it makes the picture more complicated (not that I’m seeing a desire for nuance on either side). And we’re going to have a lot more conversations about this going forward, if this guide of problematic figures is anything to go by. But given the state of the debate right now, I don’t have high hopes that it’ll be constructive in the immediate term.

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Roundup: Mike Duffy, white knight

Oh, Senator Mike Duffy. For his suffering, he has decided to launch a $7.8 million lawsuit against the RCMP, the Government of Canada, and the Senate itself. It’s not just about the two years of suspension without pay, or the reimbursement or legal fees, or indeed about the further clawbacks of his salary that the Senate undertook for his abuse of expense claims, or about the lost income from speaking fees that he could have claimed had he not been dragged through the process. No, Duffy is so concerned about the lack of Charter rights for those who work on the Hill that he’s willing to take on this multi-million-dollar lawsuit for the principle of the matter.

Such a hero.

Now, I will be the first to admit that yes, the way in which Duffy’s suspension handled was hugely problematic, and that his rights to due process were trampled on because of political expediency, it cannot be argued that the Senate was illegitimate in the way it acted because as a self-governing parliamentary body, the Senate not only has the ability to police its own, it is in fact the only body that can police its members because of parliamentary privilege and institutional independence.

While Duffy’s lawyer was effusive in his characterisation of Duffy’s acquittal, I’m not sure that it completely passes the smell test – Duffy was found not to have met the criminal test for fraud and breach of trust, but you cannot say that no rules were broken. The Senate has pointed to numerous examples where this was the case and fined him appropriately, and while he claims that the rules were too loose and vague, that is certainly not the case with all of his rejected claims. And it will raise questions if this suit goes ahead because the judge’s ruling was indeed problematic (and I know for a fact that there are other judges on that same bench who were not keen on it), and without an appeal being raised, that could raise more questions with this trial – if it goes to trial.

Of course, we can’t deny that perhaps Duffy is looking for a settlement of a couple of million dollars, but I’m not sure that of the parties involved, the Senate would bite and go for it. They are still pretty sore about the whole thing and are keen to continue to prove that they are taking a hard line to those who abuse it. I would wager that they are more likely to fight this to the bitter end on principle, come what may.

Meanwhile, Susan Delacourt sees an odd parallel between Duffy and Omar Khadr in that their rights were violated (which is a bit of a stretch, legally speaking), while Christie Blatchford suggests that perhaps Duffy is indeed owed something because his rights to due process were robbed.

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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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