Roundup: Harder seeks sympathy

I have to wonder if Government Leader in the Senate – err, “Government Representative” – Senator Peter Harder is starting to get a bit nervous about the viability of his proposal to reform the Senate rules, as he has started reaching out to sympathetic voices in order to give him some attention on the pages of the newspaper. We’ve seen two such examples in recent days, with a wholly problematic column from John Ibbitson over the weekend in the Globe and Mail, and now some unwarranted praise from Harder’s old friend from their mutual days in the Mulroney government, retired senator Hugh Segal. While Ibbitson’s column was a complete head-scratcher if you know the first thing about the Senate – they don’t need to “prove their value” because they do so constantly (hell, the very first bill of this parliament they needed to send back because the Commons didn’t do their jobs properly and sent over a bill missing a crucial financial schedule, but hey, they passed it in 20 minutes with zero scrutiny). And it was full of praise for the process of Bill C-14 (assisted dying), which is Harder’s go-to example of how things “should” work, which is a problem. And Segal’s offering was pretty much a wholesale endorsement of Harder’s pleading for a “business committee” to do the job he’s apparently unable to do through simple negotiation, so that’s not a real surprise either. But as I’ve written before, the Senate has managed to get bills passed in a relatively timely manner for 150 years without a “Business committee” because its leadership knew how to negotiate with one another, and just because Harder is apparently not up to that task, doesn’t mean we should change the rules to accommodate him.

Meanwhile, there is some definite shenanigans being played by the Conservatives in the Senate in their quest to have an inquiry into the Bombardier loan, and their crying foul when it wasn’t immediately adopted, and wouldn’t you know it, they had a press release ready to go. Conservative Senator Leo Housakos was called out about this over the weekend by Independent Senator Francis Lankin, and while Housakos continues on his quest to try and “prove” that the new appointees are all just Trudeau lackeys in all-but-name, Housakos’ motion may find its match in Senator André Pratte, who wants to expand it to examine other loans so as not to play politics over Bombardier. No doubt we’ll see some added fireworks on this as over the week as the Senate continues its debate.

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Roundup: Dealing with problematic senators

While the focus one on one senator’s words regarding residential schools yesterday, a bombshell dropped late in the day with the Senate Ethics Officer’s report into allegations that Senator Don Meredith had an inappropriate sexual relationship with a 16-year-old girl, and that will no doubt fill the airwaves tomorrow. But while everyone is baying for blood, let me offer a few bits of context.

First, with Senator Beyak and her remarkably clueless statements about residential schools, no, the government cannot ask for her resignation as the NDP are demanding they do. The Senate has institutional independence in order to act as a check on government, so they are powerless. As for the demands that the Conservatives kick her out of caucus, that might do more harm than good because at least within a caucus, she can be managed and hopefully do less harm, and perhaps guided into some education on the subject rather than simply cutting her loose and empowering her to keep making this an issue. And while I think her statement is odious, I also don’t think she meant malice by it, but rather that she is utterly clueless by virtue of framing the issue entirely through her Christianity, and that’s a world view that she’s entitled to hold, no matter what we may think of it. (And seriously, don’t make her a martyr for her religious beliefs). So while I get that there are a lot of people who want to perform outrage and demand her head, I think everyone needs to calm down a little and think through what they’re demanding.

As for Meredith, the report now goes to the Senate ethics committee, but given that the Senate isn’t sitting for the next two weeks, we’ll have to be patient. There are already demands that he be removed, but without a criminal conviction, that’s very difficult to do, and the police opted not to charge him for this (possibly because the complainant stopped cooperating with the police, but I’m not 100 percent sure on that fact, so take it with a grain of salt). With the Ethics Officer’s report, however, one could hope that the police could reopen their investigation. That said, removing a sitting senator without a criminal conviction is almost impossible. There is the possibility that the Senate could vote unanimously to declare his seat vacant, but it’ll be a high bar for other senators to reach that point, because they’re going to want to ensure that he gets due process (which Senators Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau were not necessarily given at the time of their expulsion). But one can be sure that the Senate will want to take their time and deliberate on this one, so while it’s possible that we’ll see a suspension motion when they return, it could be a while before they decide on how to deal with him on a longer-term or permanent basis.

And barring that, maybe the Senate needs to consider a policy of phasing out certain senators…

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Roundup: The phantom lobbying menace

You can already hear the grumblings over social media over the headline: “As senators become more independent, meetings with lobbyists hoping to take advantage tripled in 2016.” And immediately most people go “Ooh, lobbyists are bad, so this sounds like a terrible thing.” It’s not actually true, but it’s something we’re probably going to have to unpack a little better rather than cause some mass panic (once again) about how the newly “empowered” Senate is going to be the death knell for democracy in this country, or some other such nonsense.

For starters, not all lobbying is bad. With strict rules in this country around reporting and gifts, this isn’t like the free-for-all that we’ve seen in places like Washington, where lobbyists were meeting with Congressmen in the steam room of the Capitol Hill gym, or taking them on private plane rides and giving them holidays, or showing up on the floor of the House to watch them cast votes, all while funnelling money into their re-election campaigns. While I believe they tightened some of those rules down south, we simply don’t have that kind of lobbying culture here in Canada, so get that out of your minds first of all. Secondly, Senators in Canada don’t have re-election campaigns to finance, so the influence that lobbyists can try to gain with financial incentives of one variety or another are also non-existent here, so once again, don’t try to map an Americanism onto the process here. Third, lobbying is not all corporate influence. A lot of lobbyists represent charities or non-profits, so best to keep that in mind when you see the numbers grouped together.

Meanwhile, as for what they hope to achieve, well, remember that despite the newfound “independence” of the Senate, its powers are still fairly limited. Those hoping to use this newfound power to amend more bills or delay others will find that when it comes to any amendments, they would still need to be accepted by the House of Commons, and there has been very little acceptance so far of most amendments sent back by the Senate unless it’s a glaring error. And as for delays, if it’s a government bill there are tools like time allocation and closure to force them through the system. Just because Government Leader in the Senate – err, “government representative” – Senator Peter Harder hasn’t yet availed himself of those tools doesn’t mean he can’t or won’t. So really, your mileage with how effective lobbying efforts will be will certainly vary.

The uptick in lobbying is not unexpected now that the usual central channels for information flow have been disrupted. That’s to be expected, so this increase is hardly nefarious. I’m more concerned with cabinet ministers lobbying individual senators than I am actual lobbyists, to be honest, since those meetings are less open and transparent, and they have a lot more power to grant political favours. So really, let’s stay calm about this headline, but keep an eye on things nevertheless. Trudeau’s plans for a “more independent” Senate are certainly proving the rule around unintended consequences.

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Roundup: A commissioner’s overreach

Forgive me for going super parliamentary wonk for a minute, but this Colby Cosh column in the National Post has me a bit inspired. The issue (and I suggest you read the piece first) is about how interim PC leader Ric McIver was fined by the province’s ethics commissioner for asking a question in QP that could be seen to relate to his wife’s business and basically asking the government for things that could benefit said business. It was later pointed out that only the Speaker can censure a member for things they’ve said, and McIver is launching a court challenge to that effect.

As an officer of parliament, can the commissioner punished an MLA when he’s protected by parliamentary privilege? I’m not actually sure that she can because typically such a commissioner’s ambit is the behaviour of a sitting member when it comes to things like accepting gifts, or ensuring that there are no conflicts of interests in dealings, but I have yet to hear a reasonable case why speech in the Chamber would be covered under that. After all, if he’s asking questions that relate to his wife’s business, then it should be the job of the government to point that out in their responses. This is why they have research departments, after all ­– to fight fire with fire when necessary. Having the premier point out that he seems to be asking for his wife’s benefit would likely embarrass him out of pressing the matter, no? No need for an independent officer of the assembly to step in there.

But I’m also bothered by the fact that this is going to a court challenge, because that’s straying awfully close to that line around interfering in the operations of the legislative branch of government, and parliaments are self-governing. That’s kind of the point – subjecting them to the courts would basically put the Queen back in charge of things, which is not what anyone is after. I’m not sure that a judge should be figuring out the rules of the assembly when it comes to the powers of the commissioner on their behalf. If there is a grey area around what the commissioner’s powers are, it should be up to the assembly – whom the office of the commissioner is a creature of – to make that determination. Anything less is unacceptable when it comes to the supremacy of parliament, which is kind of a big deal, especially when we’re seeing the Auditor General federally trying to over assert his own power in regards to the Senate. We don’t need a bad precedent being set in Alberta that would have terribly ricochet effects elsewhere in our confederation.

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Roundup: A jobs crisis report rooted in fancy

The Conservatives released their Alberta Jobs Taskforce report yesterday – a make-work project to make it look like they were paying attention to the plight of the province’s resource-driven downturn, never mind that it wasn’t going to actually do anything because they’re not in government. The eleven recommendations that it came up with were…ambitious. I won’t say magic (such as the Ontario NDP’s Hydro plan, also released yesterday, relied on), but I will say that it relies a lot on wishing and hoping instead.

To start off with, the top recommendation is to eliminate the proposed carbon tax – which is provincial jurisdiction, not federal, to be clear – and to reduce corporate and small business taxes along with reversing CPP contribution increases. These are typical Conservative bugaboos, so it’s not a surprise we would see these recommendations. “Reducing red tape” for resource projects? It’s like the Conservatives forgot that when they tried to do that when they were in office, it backfired on them and created even bigger headaches as the lack of due diligence, particularly around dealing with First Nations, landed them in court numerous times. Encourage retraining? Provincial jurisdiction. Review EI to “improve efficiency”? You mean like their ham-fisted attempt at doing that a couple of years ago that cost them every Atlantic Canadian seat that they had? Recommendation five is particularly interesting because it calls on both a) reducing red tape for starting small businesses while b) creating tax credits to hire unskilled workers. Ask any small business and they’ll tell you the worst red tape is the complex tax code, so asking for the creation of yet more tax credits is to work against the first demand. Coherence! Implement programs to encourage hiring of recent graduates (sounds like big government), while increasing financial literacy across Canada? Erm, how does that actually help youth? I don’t get the connection. Lower interprovincial trade barriers? Well, considering that every government has tried doing that since 1867, and that the Conservatives didn’t make any tangible progress in their nine years in office, I’m not sure that Alberta hurting now is going to suddenly fixate everyone to solve that problem. Adjust domestic policy to the new Trumpocalypse reality? Seriously? There is no policy coherence coming from the States, so how can Canada “adjust” to it? Reform credentials-matching for new immigrants and the Temporary Foreign Workers Programme? Again, if it were easy, the Conservatives would have done it when they were in power. And finally, balance the budget? How does this solve Alberta’s job woes? Oh wait, it doesn’t. It’s just yet another Conservative bugaboo that they’re trying to hit the government with, using Alberta’s jobs crisis as the cudgel.

I’m sure that they spent time on this, but honestly, I’m less than impressed with the suite of recommendations. The lack of coherence and insistence that nigh-intractable problems should be solved now when they haven’t been for decades is more than fanciful.

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Roundup: A hopeless court case

It’s one of the most predictable performative dances in Canadian politics, which is that when you lose at politics, you try to drag it to the courts to fight your battles for you. In this, case, a UBC professor (and local Fair Vote Canada) president wants to launch a Charter challenge around electoral reform. And in order to do that, he’s talking about getting pledges of around $360,000 in order to get through the legal process.

The problem? This is an issue that has already been litigated and lost. The Supreme Court of Canada refused to hear the appeal of the case that arose out of Quebec, which means it’s considered settled. The current electoral system is legal, it is constitutional, and while you get the odd prof here and there who tries to make an argument to the contrary, it’s settled law. And unlike some of the reversals we’ve seen the courts make over prostitution or assisted dying, there has been no great groundswell change in society that would justify the court in re-litigating the matter. In other words, he’s trying to raise money from people who are desperate to find a lifeline now that their political solution is gone that this is basically a scheme for lawyers to take their money.

This tendency to try and use the courts to overturn political decisions is a growing one, but it’s the same mentality as people who write to the Queen when they lose at politics. Have we had cases where governments have passed bad legislation and the courts have overturned it? Certainly. But political decisions are not bad legislation, and it’s not up to the courts to force governments to adopt what some people consider to be more favourable outcomes. It’s called democracy, and we have elections to hold governments to account for their political decisions. It’s also why I’m extremely leery of people calling for a cabinet manual, because it means that more groups will start trying to litigate prerogative decisions, and that’s not a good thing. It’s time these PR proponents let it go and try to fight it again at the next election. Oh, but then it might become clear that this really isn’t an issue that people care all that much about. Shame, that.

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Roundup: Tough on the mentally ill

Yesterday, news came out that Vincent Li (now known as Will Baker) was given an absolute discharge; he of course was the man who beheaded someone on a Greyhound bus in 2008 while in the midst of a psychotic episode due to undiagnosed schizophrenia. He was later deemed not criminally responsible because, as stated, he was not in his right mind when the incident happened, and has since received treatment and is unlikely to reoffend. And predictably, social media lit up with outrage, particularly from the Conservatives who declared this an absolute travesty and an insult to the family of Li’s victim, Tim McLean, and how this “proved” that our justice system cared more about the rights of criminals than it did the victims. Rona Ambrose brought this up in QP a few days ago, when Li’s release was pending, and not once did she mention the fact that he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and was found not criminally responsible. (In his response, Justin Trudeau didn’t either, for the record).

But here’s the really galling part. Just days ago, Ambrose and many of these very same Conservatives were all over social media for #BellLetsTalk Day, talking about how important it is to take away the stigma of mental illness. And now here’s Li, who is as much a victim in this as McLean was because he was mentally ill, and the Conservatives are considering him to be an unrepentant murderer because of his mental illness.

So what is it? Are you serious about having adult conversations about mental illness, even when it’s inconvenient to your political agenda of being “tough on crime” (never mind that the courts established that he wasn’t criminally responsible because he was mentally ill)? Or are you going to insist that people who were mentally ill and have received treatment remain locked up in perpetuity, thus “proving” why people with mental illnesses should be stigmatized and marginalized from society? Because it’s one or the other. You’re all looking like a bunch of hypocrites right now, and like you were lying to the Canadian public when you wanted to #BellLetsTalk about mental illness.

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Roundup: O’Leary’s debate debut

Saturday night was another Conservative leadership “debate,” and again I use the term loosely because there was very little debating going on. Yes, this particular event did offer more chances for rebuttal, but given that it was staged and structured like the most boring academic conference ever (all it was missing was a line-up at the floor mic for people to give fifteen minute speeches in the guise of asking questions to the panel), we still didn’t get a lot of candidates challenging one another. Not that it didn’t happen – it did, but most of the candidates spent their time taking shots at either Kevin O’Leary (particularly deriding him as not being a Conservative), and Maxime Bernier (most especially around his ideas about equalisation, which, to be fair, are a bit daft).

Going after Bernier may not seem like the think you would expect, but he has been leading the race in terms of fundraising, which is not an insignificant thing. One does have to wonder, however, if there are enough self-described libertarians in the Conservative Party to give him the edge he needed. Bernier, incidentally, says he was being attacked because his opponents are afraid of his position on equalisation. And to be fair, he’s probably right, but not for the reason he thinks, but rather because it has the potential to severely damage the party in the more “have not” provinces of the country, most especially in Atlantic Canada, where they already have zero seats.

As for O’Leary, this was his first real event on the campaign, and he didn’t exactly sparkle, but he did stand out from his competitors a few times, both when he refused to criticise the country’s justice system, pointing to his experience abroad, and in the kinds of shots he took at the current government, which were of a more brash tone than other candidates were taking. He also played his ethnic cards, saying he would consider it a personal failure if Lebanese Canadians didn’t all take out party memberships and declaring that he “owns the Irish vote.” Okay then. Will his brashness that help him? Maybe, considering how very milquetoast most of his competition has been, and the crowd who laps up this populist demagoguery seems to love people who “tell it like it is.” O’Leary, meanwhile, shrugged off the attacks and kept his cool, and didn’t take the bait and made a point of directing his attacks to Trudeau (and premiers Wynne and MacNeil) instead of his fellow candidates.

And the rest? Lisa Raitt had her best night ever, possibly bolstered by the fact that it was a bit of a hometown crowd for her, and she seems to be making her working-class roots that much more of her narrative, but I’m still having a hard time seeing what kind of direction she proposes to lead the party in other than “I’m everything Trudeau is not.” Also, props for bringing up that Globe and Mail piece on “unfounded” sexual assault rates and challenging the government to do something about it. Brad Trost and Pierre Lemieux were laughable, Chris Alexander seemed to be doing a lot of “me too” to the points of other candidates – most especially Raitt – but had nothing really new to say. Andrew Scheer made a point of being parochial, Michael Chong remains the grown-up at the table which probably dooms his campaign, and for as middle-of-the-road as he is, everyone was quoting Erin O’Toole’s big line of the night saying “We don’t beat the celebrity-in-chief with another celebrity-in-chief.” The problem is that nobody quoted the second half of his statement where he brought up Robert Stanfield as the model to follow. Remember Stanfield? Who never beat the celebrity PM of his day (being Pierre Elliott Trudeau) and who never became prime minister? Yeah, not sure that was the wisest analogy. Also, O’Toole kept making Silence of the Lambs references, but completely wrong ones. He thought he was being funny by calling all 32 Atlantic Canadian Liberal MPs “lambs” who were “silent,” when Silence of the Lambs is about a cannibal and a serial killer. Not sure that was appropriate. Oh, and about eight or nine candidates need to drop out by oh, yesterday, because at this point, they’re going to start doing more damage than good.

Meanwhile, Peter MacKay says that Leitch’s immigration policy is going to damage the party, while Michelle Rempel lists the things she’s looking for in making a decision about a leadership candidate (and spoiler: Kevin O’Leary wouldn’t make the cut).

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Roundup: Chong’s solutions seeking problems

While Conservative leadership hopeful Michael Chong is trying to run a campaign based on actual ideas rather than cheap slogans, it needs to be pointed out that not all of his ideas are good ones. The latest example is his plans to stop the “abuse of parliament,” taking a few gratuitous swipes at the legacy of Stephen Harper along the way. The problem is that, like his ill-fated Reform Act of 2014, Chong has a bunch of solutions in search of problems. In this case, he wants to look at the issue of prorogation.

Did Stephen Harper abuse prorogation to avoid a confidence vote? Yes. Did he later abuse it in a much more cavalier fashion by phoning up the GG on New Year’s Eve in order to prorogue parliament for the duration of the Vancouver Olympics? Absolutely. Is changing the rules, or “establishing a new constitutional convention” the answer to what happened? Absolutely not. (Also, I’m trying to think of when Liberal governments prorogued parliament to avoid non-confidence votes or debates over scandals at the federal level, as he alleges, but I’m drawing a blank).

The problem with trying to ensure that a PM can’t shut down parliament to avoid a vote of non-confidence is that the alternatives are always worse. Chong proposes that Parliament sit an additional two days to deal with unfinished business and votes before dissolution or prorogation is granted, but this is inherently problematic. Aside from the fact that it gives no time for bills to pass with proper scrutiny, it sets up a situation where a government that has lost the confidence of the chamber has a grace period for pushing through legislation, regulation, or Orders in Council. That’s a problem. The demand that Parliament meet two weeks after a general election (rather than six to eight weeks) is also mystifying. I know that Mark Jarvis and company thought it was a swell idea in their Democratizing the Constitution book, but what problem is it solving? It’s a major logistical challenge to get 338 MPs to Ottawa in two weeks, get them offices, orientation sessions, oaths sworn, and a cabinet chosen and sworn in, not to mention the entire transition of a government and writing a Throne Speech in two weeks. The rush to test the confidence of the new chamber is a bit of a false premise considering that barring the formation of a coalition government, it’s a pro forma exercise. If the GG is genuinely concerned that the PM won’t have confidence, he or she either won’t appoint them as PM, or he or she won’t start signing Orders-in-Council or making appointments until that confidence is tested. It does absolutely nothing to rein in the power of the PMO or to hold a government more accountable. If anything, it would lead to bigger problems because as the saying goes, haste makes waste, and this is a lot of unnecessary haste.

If you want something that will have a more meaningful impact on the practice of prorogation, then restore the tradition of a prorogation speech, which forces a government to justify why it’s doing so in a public manner and to explain their accomplishments rather than just being able to phone up the GG when Parliament isn’t sitting. (More on this in my forthcoming book). It will have a greater impact than anything that Chong suggests with this plan.

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Roundup: Cancelling trips never contemplated

At the risk of this becoming a media criticism blog, I have to take exception to the big Globe and Mail story that they were pushing all weekend, about how Justin Trudeau was not going to attend the Trump inauguration in January.

I. Can’t. Even.

https://twitter.com/journo_dale/status/818130285397245955

Seriously. Canadian prime ministers never go to inaugurations. The protocol people in Washington make it pretty clear that they don’t want heads of government or heads of state to attend. This is not a scandal. Nor does it have anything to do with Trudeau’s decision to go on his little cross-country tour. The rest of the piece is fairly hysterical about the tour, and Trudeau not going to Davos, Switzerland either, and then meanders into the fact that the US ambassador was recalled on inauguration day.

Um, guys. This is routine. They are almost always recalled, and then it takes them months and months to get new ambassadors approved by the US Senate. Remember how it took Obama nine months to get Ambassador Jacobson here? And how we were worried that it meant that he was mad at us or something? And then it took another several months between Jacobson and Heyman? Yeah. This is not out of the ordinary. Yes, Heyman has been very popular, but did you honestly think that Trump would keep an Obama fundraiser in the post after he took office? And more to the point, would it kill our political reporters to have a sense of history and perspective in their stories, rather than trying to make everything some kind of proto-scandal? It’s not only wrong, but it’s dull. We can do better.

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