Senate QP: McKenna dissembles

After another day of tedium in the Other Place, the Senate paid host to Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, to answer questions about her portfolio. Senator Larry Smith started off, with a question about the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and grumbled that Canadian dollars were going to projects not subject to upstream and downstream tests while Canadian pipeline projects were. McKenna first praised the made-in-Canada climate plan before noting that they ensured their planned reforms to the environmental assessment project needed to ensure that trust was rebuilt. Smith worried about the government sending mixed messages in investing in projects that don’t have the same regulation or restrictions as at home, worrying that it would impact assessments here. McKenna noted that pipeline projects in Canada were approved, that Energy East was a market decision, then turned to meetings she has been having with stakeholders to get growth in Canada while respecting the environment.

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Roundup: Trying to score dangerous points

In amidst all of the really bad takes on Governor General Julie Payette’s commentary the other night, I find myself more than a little horrified that the Conservatives have decided to play political games around this. More specifically, they are attacking Payette obliquely by directing their comments at the prime minister, who didn’t leave well enough alone when he said it was great that the GG stood up for science. And great that she did, but this was also in the context of there being a willingness to torque the comments into a bit of a scandal, and to blow them completely out of proportion.

So what did the Conservatives do? It started with a Members’ Statement before QP, where MP Ziad Aboultaif denounced the supposed attack by the PM on people of faith (which isn’t what happened), and was followed up by a Facebook post by Andrew Scheer who said much the same thing – entirely ignoring that Trudeau is a practicing Catholic who has been public about the value that he places on his faith.

But what irks me the most about all of this is that it’s an example where our elected officials keep being cute about our most vital institutions – the Crown – and politicising them in subtle ways. When the Conservatives were in power, it was aggressively giving things a royal re-brand (which, don’t get me wrong, I’m in favour of), but the manner in which it was handled, along with the abdication on the opposition benches of similarly owning the fact that this country is a constitutional monarchy, allowed the media to paint the exercise as a Conservative nostalgia for the days of colonialism, and to tar the whole of our monarchical institutions with a partisan taint. And I fear that Scheer is going down the same path here in trying to stir up controversy around these largely innocuous statements by the GG in order to try and whip up his base. It’s a very dangerous game, especially because Scheer and his entourage have proven themselves to be ham-fisted in pretty much everything that they do, and that increases the chances of this blowing up in everyone’s faces, and the very last thing we need to do is try to politicize the Crown or the GG in this country. So seriously – knock it the hell off. This is not something that’s worth scoring a few cheap partisan points off of. You’ll only hurt everyone in the process.

Meanwhile, Colby Cosh has made one of the only reasonable takes on the Payette comments in noting that we don’t have rulebooks for Governors General, so they should stick to principles about appearing to arbitrate impartially, particularly because of the powers she possesses. And he’s right. And I would also add that it’s why I find the furore overblown – the existence of climate change and evolution are not partisan issues in Canada, so she’s not actually crossing any partisan lines in her comments. My own weekend column delves further into that aspect, as well as the reminder that she’s not actually a figurehead like so many of the pearl clutchers seem to be demanding from their fainting couches.

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Roundup: Say no to written guidelines

In the pages of the Hill Times, recently retired Liberal Senator George Baker opined that he thinks the Senate needs written guidelines to restrict how bills can be amended or defeated. Currently, there is the constitutional provision for an unlimited veto, and a general principle followed by senators that they don’t defeat (government) bills unless it’s a Very Serious Matter because they know they’re not elected and don’t have a democratic mandate to do so. And as much as I appreciate the learned wisdom of Senator Baker (and his retirement is a tremendous loss for the institution), I’m going to solidly disagree with him on this one.

For one, our institutions in their Westminster model are predicated on their flexibility, which allows for a great deal of evolution and adaptability, and adding too many written guidelines to hem in powers – powers that were given to the institution for a reason – rankles a bit because there will always be situation for which those powers may become necessary to use. Too many guidelines, especially when it comes to amendment or veto powers for a body for whom that is their entire purpose, takes away their power and ability to do the jobs that they are there to do in the first place. As with the constant demands for a Cabinet manual to spell out the powers of the Governor General, it’s the first step in removing discretionary power, and giving political actors (especially prime ministers) ways to go around the other constitutional actors, be they the Senate or the Governor General, which is something that should worry every Canadian. As well, codifying those powers opens up the possibility of litigation, and you can bet that our friends at Democracy Watch are salivating for any chance at all to start suing the Senate based on their not living up to whatever guidelines are drawn up, thus further imperilling the exercise of parliamentary privilege and the separation of powers between Parliament and the courts. So no, I don’t think written guidelines are needed, nor would they be helpful. At least not from where I’m sitting.

Meanwhile the Senate’s Internal Economy Committee members published an open letter to Senator Peter Harder in response to his Policy Options op-ed on independent oversight for the Senate. Suffice to say, they weren’t fans. (My own response to Harder can be found here).

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Senate QP: Grave fears of the Trumpocalypse

For the final ministerial Senate QP of the year, with special guest star Environment Minister Catherine McKenna. Senator Carignan led off asking about whether she would advocate for natural gas as a transitional measure away from coal, and the development of shale gas reserves as the Obama administration did. After a bit of a preamble, McKenna noted that they were in a transitional phase which won’t happen overnight, and that while they approved an LNG project in BC, they approach each project on its own to evaluate the science of their impact while at the same time looking for opportunities to market our resources.

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Roundup: Questions about fundraising

This whole fundraiser headache just won’t go away, and at this point, I just want to bang my head against a wall because all sides are just making this whole situation way more needlessly gross than it needs to be. At his end-of-year press conference yesterday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that at fundraisers, people do talk to him about stuff and he listens, but that doesn’t really influence his decision-making. And I’m a little queasy about everyone labelling this as “lobbying” because that has a fairly specific term and any actual lobbyists need to be registered, which the party makes an effort to screen them out of these events. According to the opposition, this was “bragging” as opposed to the reality that when you’re the PM, people will want to tell you stuff all the time, so unless the suggestion is that he doesn’t attend fundraisers any longer, then I’m not sure how you stop people from taking that opportunity to try and tell the PM their great idea/issue they’re passionate about that he could totally do something about/etc. The NDP are vowing to introduce a bill to put the government’s ethical guidelines into legislation, but how do you legislate the “appearance” of conflict of interest? It’s a subjective measure that the media and the opposition have been torqueing with no actual demonstrated quid pro quo (and no, insinuation based on coincidental timing is not actually proof of quid pro quo), and I’m not sure what they’re exactly suggesting they give the Ethics Commissioner power to do when it comes to regulating said appearance of conflict, but giving yet more power to an unaccountable officer of parliament rankles on me even more.

And then there’s the Trudeau Foundation. After they embarked on new fundraising efforts because of low interest rates were hitting their ability to do their work, and lo, they suddenly have new donors, some of them Canadians with foreign connections. This apparently is a sign of a conspiracy that people are somehow trying to curry favour with the Prime Minister, despite the fact that he has severed his ties to the Foundation before this happened. (Apparently this too goes into “appearance” of conflict where none actually exists). Oh, and it’s also apparently suspicious that some companies have increased their lobbying of a new government. Because it’s not like you want to get your points to the new people in charge when you’re looking to change policies that the previous government implemented (or refused to). That’s kind of how lobbying works. It’s not necessarily nefarious.

And to tie this all off, the Globe and Mail ordered polling on “cash for access” fundraising (never mind that what happens at the federal level bears no resemblance to what went on in Ontario), and wouldn’t you know, most people don’t like it. And half of respondents think that you can buy government influence for $1500? Honestly? This is the media not doing our jobs to show how government works, but is just reinforcing stereotypes about crooked politicians being on the take. It’s kind of gross, and we should be better than this.

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Roundup: Seriously, stop calling it cash-for-access

Apparently we’re still on this bizarre witch hunt against Liberal Party fundraisers, because I’m guessing we have little else to obsess over right now. Best of all, we’re now inventing conspiracy theories, like how the head of drug company Apotex is apparently fundraising because his company is both lobbying the government (as a drug company does) and because they’re involved in a lawsuit, and no said company head isn’t the company’s lobbyist, but yet these connections are being drawn by both media and echoed by the opposition, and I shake my head wondering people in their right mind think this is some kind of a scandal or breach of ethics. You really think the federal government is going to throw a lawsuit because they got a $1500 donation? Really? Honestly?

That media – and in particular the Globe and Mail continues to characterise this as “cash for access” is bizarre. Sure, your “average family” isn’t going to pay $3000 to meet a minister, but why would they? I mean, seriously? What would be the point? And it’s not like they don’t do other events either, and we’ve previously established that this is a government that loves its consultations, so it’s not like you couldn’t have your say. It’s inventing a problem that doesn’t actually exist. Do you think ministers shouldn’t attend fundraisers at all? Do you think that they can be bought for $1500? How about $500? $100? And they’re not hiding these fundraisers either. VICE asked for the list, and lo and behold, it was provided. But here’s the most bizarre part of all – mere months ago, the Globe declared that the federal system was the best in the country and urged provinces to all adopt it (while in the midst of their zeal against the much more dubious practices that were taking place in Ontario where ministers were soliciting donations from the stakeholders lobbying them, which is not what is happening at the federal level).

Meanwhile, the president of the Liberal Party wrote a response to the Globe, but they wouldn’t publish it, so it’s on their website. Howard Anglin expands on his criticism of the reporting on fundraisers, and defends our system as being clean on the whole, and seriously, this is getting tiresome.

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Roundup: Referendum lies and demagoguery

So, the electoral reform committee was back again yesterday, and they heard from two academics – one was an avid proponent of proportional representation that Elizabeth May fangirled over so hard, while the other was a former Quebec MNA who spearheaded that province’s failed attempt at moving to a multi-member PR system. There wasn’t much takeaway from either, other than Arend Lijphart (the former of the two) was a big fan of multi-member ridings in Canada (because apparently the problem of enormous rural ridings escapes him), and the fact that he felt that we should avoid a referendum because like Brexit, it would fall victim to demagoguery and “outright lies.”

To which I immediately have to ask – whose lies? The proponents of the status quo, or those of the advocates of PR? Because having seen both in the state of the debate so far, they’re equally odious. How about the lies that majority governments formed under our system are “illegitimate?” Because Lijphart was peddling that one. Or the lies about “38 percent of the vote gets 100 percent of the power”? Because a) the popular vote figure doesn’t actually exist (it’s a logical fallacy based on a misreading of our elections as a single event when they’re 338 separate but simultaneous events), and b) even in proportional systems, parties don’t get a share of power equal to their share of the vote, particularly if they are not part of the governing coalition and even if they are, the “share” of power will not be equal to their vote share. How about the lies about how voter turnout will suddenly blossom under PR? Because research has demonstrated that the most increase we might see is maybe three percent (because declining turnout in Western democracies is a widespread problem that has nothing to do with the electoral systems but rather a great many other factors). How about the common lies of PR advocates that votes are “wasted” and that they don’t count if the person they voted for doesn’t win, and that they system is so unfair? Are those lies any better than the ones about how a PR system would turn us into Israel or Italy and we would have nothing but unstable governments, and the sun would become black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon become as blood? Or are the lies that PR advocates tell okay because they’re well intentioned and lies about a future full of rainbows, gumdrops and unicorns better than lies about doom and destruction? Is pro-PR demagoguery morally superior to the demagoguery of status-quo doomsayers? That’s what I’d like to know.

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Roundup: Looking beyond mediocrity

It’s Manning Networking Conference time again, and with a leadership contest in the offing, you can bet that some possible leadership hopefuls are starting to lay out a few markers (even if Nigel Wright wants them to focus more on policy). Jason Kenney is again “contemplating” a run after apparently recovering from burnout after the election (and it does bear noting that he’s only just started showing up to QP again). Peter MacKay thinks that the Conservatives can beat Trudeau of they’re smart about it, while others like Michael Chong and Diane Watts think the party needs to do better on issues like the environment. But all eyes, of course, were on Kevin O’Leary, who said a few outrageous things as he is wont to – that he wants a national referendum on pipelines, that he thinks it should be the law that a prime minister has to have run a business before they can lead the country, or that he thinks the party system is becoming doomed in the wake of a mass populist movement where people wants politicians to solve their problems regardless of political brand or label. Of the many things he did say, one that I thought merited a little more attention was his calling out the Conservatives for having become a party of mediocrity, and I do think that’s true, as it built itself around the personal brand of Stephen Harper post merger. Despite the NDP using phrases like “Bay Street buddies” in their references to the Conservatives over the past decade, there was really very little of that kind of branding to the party. It wasn’t about wealth (despite their policies actually benefitting the wealthy) or aspiration, or even markets once you really broke it down, but rather about this attempt to appeal to the suburban nuclear family in all of its messaging and the way it built programmes (but again, while they appeared to be for these suburban masses, the benefits disproportionately went to the top). Harper himself cultivated the image of being some minivan driving hockey dad, despite the fact that he was both a career politician, and it soon became clear that his kids weren’t much into hockey either (though his son was apparently quite the volleyball player, for what it’s worth). For O’Leary, whose brand is about greed being good, and a certain conspicuousness to his wealth, it’s pretty much anathema to the suburban image that Harper was crafting, and that his ministers followed suit in embodying. The closest they got to any Bay Street types was Joe Oliver, but he again was less about materialism or consumerism than he was about parroting approved Harper talking points. It is interesting that this is something that O’Leary has picked up on and would certainly be pushing back on should he decide to go ahead and pursue a leadership bid, because that would certainly be a radical shake-up for the party.

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Roundup: Mindless populism leading the way

As Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall has made his voice heard in recent weeks in the lead-up to his re-election campaign, and the Conservatives in Ottawa have taken up his banner on all manner of topics, it is the issue of carbon pricing that is driving home a few truths about both Wall and the Conservative Party. While there is talk about setting a baseline $15/tonne carbon price nationally, which can be implemented either by carbon tax (per BC) or cap-and-trade (per Ontario and Quebec), Wall is adamant that he doesn’t want it imposed on his province, and is going so far as to suggest that any “national carbon tax” (which, let’s be clear, it is not what is being discussed) would be exempt from SaskPower because it’s a provincial Crown corporation. And in the House of Commons, former Speaker Andrew Scheer gave a ridiculous and gobsmackingly boneheaded Members’ Statement on Monday which mocked the notion of a “carbon tax” (which, again, not on the table) as a market mechanism, and tried to apply it to other forms of taxation, generally making a fool out of himself in the process. But if you listen to what both Wall and Conservatives like Scheer are saying, it becomes obvious that intelligent, principled conservatism in this country has pretty much gone the way of the Dodo, and that we are left with right-flavoured populism in its wake. Because seriously, an actual conservative thinker would look at a carbon price, and using whichever mechanism (but likely an actual carbon tax), use that in order to encourage the market to find their own ways to reduce their carbon emissions. In fact, it’s what the oil sector has been demanding for years now, and they’ve even built carbon pricing into their books while they waited for some kind of direction as to just how much it would be and by what mechanism it would be applied. But rather than having an actual conservative government that would take this tool to and use the market to innovate and achieve the desired end (being lower carbon emissions), you have a bunch of populists in both Saskatchewan and Ottawa who howled instead about a fictional “job-killing carbon tax” and who held their breath and stamped their feet rather than dealing with the problem of carbon emissions for an entire decade. So while the Conservative Party starts to re-examine itself in advance of its leadership contest, perhaps this is something that they should consider – a return to actual conservative principles rather than this populist noise, which resulted in a decade of poor economic decisions (like lowering the GST), incoherent policy decisions, and as we can see here, childish tantrums to what should be an actual conservative approach to solving problems.

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Roundup: Looking forward to the first QP

It’s the first full sitting of the new parliament, which includes the first Question Period of the new session. Hooray! It’s going to be exciting, but there remains so much to be seen, so it’s hard to pre-judge the whole thing. Not to mention, the Liberals are keen to change the rules around QP by the New Year, so what happens this week may be a glimpse into a future that never will be. Will Speaker Regan enforce his heckle ban? Will MPs respect it? While Kady O’Malley offers a preview of what to expect, and the rest of the Ottawa Citizen staff gives their expectations for some of the match-ups, I’ll offer a few of my own observations. First of all, the first few QPs of any new parliament aren’t likely to be exciting because, frankly, everyone’s still a bit sanctimonious at this point. There’s all this hope and optimism, and of course they’re going to be civil and constructive because why wouldn’t they be? It’s also early enough that there really haven’t been too many screw-ups or missteps by the new government yet, so there’s not too much for the opposition to sink their teeth into just yet. We’ll see if Trudeau is going to show up, and how many questions he’ll answer, seeing as he plans to change the rules so that he’ll only be required to show up one day per week (but answer all questions on that day). As for some of these match-ups the Citizen staff came up with, well, it’s pretty obvious that they didn’t really watch QP in their last parliament because some of their descriptions and predicted “winners” are complete nonsense. Advantage Irene Mathyssen over Kent Hehr? Seriously? Mathyssen who reads her questions with sheets of legal-sized paper in front of her face is more impressive than Hehr, who has years of provincial experience? Sorry, no. Cullen as a “strong performer?” Seriously, did anyone actually listen to him ask questions in the last parliament? Because he didn’t so much ask questions as give soliloquies as to how terrible the government was with no actual question asked. Not sure how that makes him a “strong performer.”

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