Roundup: All abuzz about Netflix

It’s probably not a big surprise that the story for which the most ink (physical or digital, take your pick) was spilled yesterday were the culture policy changes that Mélanie Joly announced, punctuated by the grand announcement that Netflix had committed to spending half a billion dollars over five years on Canadian productions. But in there was also news that there would be no big bailout for the news media in this country, and there would be some funding boosts for the Canada Media Fund, the Canada Music Fund and the Canada Book Fund, and a creative export strategy, along with previously announced reforms of the Copyright Board.

Suffice to say, there’s a fair amount of grumbling from traditional broadcasters that Neflix is essentially getting away with murder, not bound by the same CanCon obligations of traditional broadcasters, nor are other Internet giants like Google and Facebook being asked to contribute to the same content creation funds that traditional media are. And there is some pretty legitimate concerns about this announced Netflix deal because it’s pretty opaque – Netflix will continue to be able to operate as a black box when it comes to their subscriber data, and while Sean Casey went on Power & Politics to insist that the $500 million was new money (given that Netflix had previously told Parliament that they were already spending “hundreds of millions of dollars” in Canada), it really doesn’t seem like that’s anything new given that previous statement. Netflix also says that the money isn’t coming from the recent rate-hike in Canada, but that’s not washing with a number of people. The Financial Post has a fairly comprehensive look at the announcement here, including the fact that the announcement seems to leave a lot of the heavy lifting into the future, which probably shouldn’t be a surprise.

I do think it should be incumbent upon us to remember that Netflix has not been a net benefit to the cultural sector in Canada. The late Denis McGrath used to refer to them as a “parasite” on the Canadian broadcast sector because they put no money into the production of shows that they streamed, encouraging the cord-cutting that starved the very platforms who produced those shows that they later streamed of funding. It’s a complex problem, and a handful of Netflix originals aren’t going to be the panacea for the Canadian film and television industry. If anything, it may hasten the decline.

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QP: Local businesses for local people

With Justin Trudeau off to the United Nations for the rest of the week, we weren’t expecting fireworks, but rather the continued caterwauling about the proposed tax changes, that are sure to doom the whole economy. Andrew Scheer led off, worried about what the tax changes would do to “local businesses,” coincidentally the very new campaign that his party has launched. Bill Morneau reminded him that the changes were about ensuring that the wealthiest Canadians couldn’t use these mechanisms to pay less tax. Scheer talked about two local craft brewers who were “middle class,” and Morneau quipped that he was sure that Scheer was happy to defend the wealthiest Canadians. Scheer wondered how many jobs these measures would create, but Morneau stuck with his points. Alain Rayes then picked up the line of questioning in French, and Morneau insisted, in French, that he was listening and would ensure that the system was fair. After another round of the same, Thomas Mulcair rose for the NDP, worried that th government was looking to do away with the “bilingual bonus” in the public service, to which Dominic LeBlanc assured him that they would ensure a bilingual public service. Mulcair pressed in French, and got much the same response. Mulcair moved onto the topic of Canadians being barred from entering the US post-marijuana legalisation, to which Ralph Goodale reminded him that we can’t dictate to the Americans who they let into their country. Mulcair then asked about cannabis edibles, and Goodale assured him that work was ongoing.

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Roundup: Picking the overseers

The composition of the forthcoming National Security Committee of Parliamentarians has been brewing under the surface for a while now, given that the legislation has taken a long time to get through Parliament, but it looks like more consternation is on the way. The NDP have complained to the National Post’s John Ivison that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has asked for four names from their caucus for consideration on the committee, and that the PM would pick one, as is his right under the Act. The reason, according to the PMO, is to try and build a committee reflective of Canada – so essentially that it’s not all straight, white men looking at national security issues from that particular lens – and that would be a very easy thing to do. And the NDP’s one and only pick for their party’s representative on the committee, Murray Rankin, is just that – a straight, white man who happens to be eminently qualified for the role. And so Mulcair is, as he so often does, pitching a fit about it.

I’m a bit torn on the outrage here because as much as this is being spun as Trudeau having contempt for Parliament and being a Harper-esque figure in that regard, this is exactly how he drafted the legislation and how it passed, so unlike many of the tactics that Harper employed, he was upfront about his plans how he planned to achieve them. Now, granted, many of Trudeau’s plans and promises have been utterly boneheaded (see: electoral reform, “modernizing” the House of Commons, his “benign neglect” of the Senate, etcetera, etcetera), but he generally hasn’t tried to stealthily undermine the institutions or actively firebomb them. So there’s that. Also, this is how our system of government tends to work – a prime minister who enjoys the confidence of Parliament makes the appointment, and is judged on the quality of them both by Parliament and the electorate. And I get why he would want to ensure a diverse committee makeup, and not want to necessarily have to rely on his own party members to make up the more diverse members of the committee, but rather share that load between all of the parties. Nevertheless, there is something unseemly about not letting opposition parties choose their own representatives (though I hardly imagine that the members he chooses would be any friendlier to him and his agenda than one that the opposition party leader would choose). On the other hand, selection powers can be abused, and things done for ostensibly good reasons (like diversity) can have all kinds of unintended consequences. But in the meantime, this will start to look like yet another self-inflicted wound for Trudeau.

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Roundup: Brown’s creepy town hall

A story out of Brockville yesterday is a bit disconcerting, where local Conservative MP Gord Brown held a town hall in the community about the Omar Khadr settlement, saying that he wanted to get people’s views because everywhere he went, it was all people would ask about. He also claimed that it “wasn’t a partisan issue,” but I would be willing to bet actual money that the way in which Brown presented the case was through a deeply partisan lens, regurgitating the party’s disingenuous talking points and legal prevarications that distort the crux of the matter. And what disturbs me the most is that listening to the reactions in the write-up of the event, it starts sounding an awful lot like a Two Mintues Hate than anything, where people recited the completely wrong tropes about Khadr’s situation and situation as it regards the rule of law. It was at least heartening that a local lawyer turned up at the event, brandishing a copy of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and laying down the law about why there was a settlement, and it’s quite the photo that ran with the piece – but I doubt that it would change very many minds, considering the distortions that are continually spread by the partisans (on all sides, to be completely fair, given that many a Liberal partisan conveniently forgets the roles that Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin played in this). Nevertheless, the fact remains that holding a town hall on this issue is deeply creepy.

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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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