Roundup: Media as government whip

The fact that a couple of Liberal backbenchers are expressing reservations about the government’s proposed tax changes to private corporations has journalists salivating about caucus divisions – again.

Never mind that we’ve seen several examples of MPs going against the government in this current parliament – sometimes en masse (like with the genetic privacy bill), and time after time, Justin Trudeau doesn’t rise to the bait, and yet We The Media continue to try to make an issue out of it. Never mind that backbenchers holding their own government to account is how things are supposed to work in a Westminster system, because that’s their job as MPs, the media tends to remain focused on this narrative that all MPs should be in lockstep with their leadership, especially when they form government. No. That’s not true at all. And yet, Power & Politics spent several blocks on this very notion, especially with the interview with MP Wayne Long (not that there was sufficient pushback against Long’s positions, especially because lower tax rates for self-incorporation are not supposed to be a reward for risk, nor did his assertions about these tax rates being responsible for the current economic growth make any logical sense). What was notable in the eyes of the producers was that a government MP was going against the grain, and that needs to be An Issue.

As for Bill Morneau, he seems to have finally clued in that his communications plan for these changes has been nothing short of an omnishambles and is promising better information out this fall as consultations wrap up, but it’s almost too late at this point, considering the loads of utter nonsense coming out from the business community and how much traction it’s getting.

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Roundup: Disingenuous tax concerns

If there’s one thing that the federal government’s announced changes to small business tax rules for the purposes of closing tax avoidance loopholes has done, it’s stirred up a hornet’s nest of comments from the “Tax Bad! Hulk Smash!” crowd, who have come up with all manner of misleading talking points and crocodile tears, while interested parties (such as doctors and farmers) who have been using these loopholes to avoid paying taxes are crying poverty in the media, where there has been very little pushback from credible economists to these sob stories. Particularly galling are those who insist that the ability to engage in income splitting is somehow more virtuous because they’re small business owners, as though there hasn’t been a whole cohort of people who would love income splitting to allow their spouse to be a stay-at-home parent (which is a whole entire other public policy discussion about the value of women in the workforce).

And lo and behold, Jason Kenney decided to try to get his kicks in despite the fact that it’s a federal issue and he’s currently running in the provincial sphere. The problem? That he’s offering a completely disingenuous position.

And that’s the rub – these changes aren’t affecting struggling small business owners. They’re not affecting their ability to keep the business liquid, or to save for retirement, because those haven’t been affected (as we recall, Kevin Milligan has explained this several times). And for the “Tax Bad! Hulk Smash!” crowd to try and cast these changes in such a manner is utterly ludicrous. It’s an attempt to paint the Liberals with a brush of being job killers and high taxers, which is not what these changes are about. It’s about ensuring that people don’t avoid paying taxes by virtue of these measures, so unless they’re keen to promote other forms of tax avoidance or evasion, trying to close loopholes shouldn’t be treated as an added burden to people who are doing well for themselves.

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Roundup: The “nice countries only” option

In the wake of news that Saudi Arabia has, rather unsurprisingly, used Canadian-built LAVs against its own civilians, former Liberal cabinet minister Irwin Cotler is calling on the government to end arms sales to that country. Part of the problem here is that it means a lot of lost jobs in economically vulnerable areas of the country (where these jobs are really the only thing that is keeping that region from being devastated), and the fact that there seems to be this notion that we can only sell arms to nice countries. That notion came up in last night’s NDP leadership debate in Victoria, where the three participants all gave variations of “we should only sell to nice countries,” which is unrealistic. Stephanie Carvin made this point over Twitter a couple of days ago, and it deserves a second look.

And that last point is the most salient – nobody wants to make hard choices, especially when it means lost jobs and economically devastating a region that each party covets (and make no mistake – all parties supported these jobs during the election, which makes it hard for them to be suddenly concerned about these sales to Saudi Arabia now, when they were all rooting for them when votes were on the line).

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Roundup: Crawling to the finish line

It’s finally here! The end of the interminable Conservative leadership contest, and its byzantine rules and its ongoing bastardization of the Westminster system’s actual method of selecting party leaders that ensures accountability. No, we are due for yet another presidentalizing leader who has been campaigning on policy planks inappropriately (that is the grassroots membership’s job), and one who could very well have very little caucus support and all of the associated problems that come with that.

But before we get to that final vote tabulation, here we got with all of the pre-analysis and last-minute profiles. Éric Grenier traces the path to victory for the various Conservative leadership candidates, Andrew Coyne remarks that the lack of star power meant debates over ideas (err, not really). Kevin O’Leary’s campaign chair, Mike Coates, walks us through what happened during those five months and why O’Leary dropping out was the best for all involved. Susan Delacourt wonders if the Conservatives will emerge from their time with an interim leader having learned any lessons that the Liberals took almost a decade in opposition to learn.

And then there are the last-minute analyses of the various candidates. John Ivison notes Bernier’s capacity to come back from a past of blunders, along with the lack of policy from candidates like Scheer and Raitt, and Chong’s playing the role of Cassandra. Chris Selley takes a look at O’Leary and Leitch and notes that there wasn’t an appetite for a Canadian Trump-like figure, while Anne Kingston wonders if Leitch’s campaign didn’t actually reveal true Canadian values, that rejected her particular brand of messaging.

Meanwhile, at the “convention” itself, the Conservatives have decided to be petulant and make Liberal observers pay for tickets rather than follow tradition and allow a small number in, in exchange for similar rights at Liberal Party conventions. (The NDP, incidentally, still got free admission for their observers, proving that complete dickishness is still alive and well in the post-Harper era.) Here’s a look at Maxime Bernier’s riding, which is not as big-C Conservative as people might think. Bernier’s campaign took on some of Kevin O’Leary’s campaign staff, and it cost them a lot more money because of the rates they were being paid. Andrew MacDougall wonders if the Liberals will deploy attack ads against the new leader right away just like the Conservatives did to them.

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Roundup: The hole that the Forces find themselves in

While I noted that this was certainly used as an attempt to change the channel during QP yesterday, I wanted to spend a couple of more minutes talking about the big defence policy teaser that Harjit Sajjan gave yesterday, which basically made the perennial statement that the previous government didn’t do a very good job, which is why we’re in such a terrible mess. All governments say this, and future governments will too. And while Conservatives in my reply column get indignant, and while Rona Ambrose emailed her own fact-check, it too contains a lot of rose-coloured history.

Ambrose mentions things like the Leopard 2 tanks (the decision to purchase which were questioned considering it’s obsolete Cold War era technology bought for a counter-insurgency war), the Cyclone helicopters (which were problem-plagued and didn’t even have shielded electronics, which were easily knocked out by the radar on our frigates), the new Arctic Offshore patrol ships (known affectionately as “slushbreakers” because they can’t even cut through the ice in a gin and tonic and yet they’re supposed to be used for Arctic operations), and then there are the supply ships which they cancelled, leaving us with no supply capacity in our navy. So yeah, they did so much with their investment in the military.

Much of the reaction to Sajjan’s speech was that yes, we’re in a hole, but the government hasn’t committed to reinvesting either. Partly they have, with the earmarked dollars that will follow once there is a plan in place. That plan will be part of the actual rollout of the Defence Policy, and the prime minister acknowledged in QP yesterday that investment in the military would follow the policy, and yes, the policy is important to have in place first because it’s hard to plan to spend if you don’t know why you’re spending or what the plan is for our Forces to be doing. So it makes sense to wait for a plan before there are dollars to follow it. It should also be noted that this government is not following the more recent trend of putting all of its plans in the budget, so we may yet so more dollars flowing (but it remains to see how many dollars, considering the fiscal situation).

All of this being said, we will still need to acknowledge that funding likely won’t be enough to completely get things back on the right track, and that complaints about underfunding will continue into future. This new funding likely won’t even get us close to our 2 percent of GDP NATO target (not that such a target counts for a lot). Suffice to say, I’m not sure that any party should be patting themselves on the back.

For some more reaction here’s Dave Perry on Power Play, and Stephen Saideman offers his thoughts on the teaser here.

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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: A petulant motion

The degradation of Supply Day – otherwise known as “opposition day” – motions continues apace as the NDP have chosen to be completely petulant about their day today, using their motion to get the House to say that the government misled them on their promise to end First-past-the-Post and call on the government to apologise. It’s petty and cheap, and it’s going to be no fun for the Liberals on House duty to have to eat some of their own words on the need for electoral reform, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that this is not what an opposition day motion is supposed ot be doing.

As a quick refresher, the purpose of Supply Days is for the opposition to demonstrate why the government should be denied supply – meaning the money that they want to spend to run the government. In other words, the day is to be spent arguing about why the government shouldn’t be spending money they’re asking taxpayers for. It’s part of the job of the House of Commons in holding the government to account by controlling the purse strings, which government can only spend with their approval. But that’s not how it works anymore. Now, it’s any topic under the sun.

The Conservatives have been engaging in their own shenanigans with supply days, arguing one this week that was supposed to be about getting the government to agree not to tax health and dental benefits, but because they wanted it to be defeated, they got cute with the wording so as to proclaim that Canadians were too burdened with taxes and so on, knowing the government wouldn’t support it. And when they defeated it, they took to Twitter and QP to decry the government not ruling out taxing these benefits despite the fact that they had stated clearly that they would not. But hey, why not play silly buggers with parliament’s time?

Even worse than motions designed to get the government to vote it down by using cute language are the “mom and apple pie” motions designed to get the government to support them in the hopes of embarrassing them into taking action on a file, and as happened so often during the Conservative years, the government would support the motion, pat themselves on the back, and then do nothing while the NDP howled about it to little effect. It was a government that had no shame, but it was a too-cute-by-half motion to start with.

Like Philippe Lagassé says, less theatrics, more accountability. And that’s exactly what we’re not seeing in any of these motions, when it’s the fundamental job of every MP in the Commons.

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Roundup: A painful lesson in committee cooperation

News broke yesterday morning that rogue Liberal backbencher Nate Erskine-Smith had been reassigned from the public safety committee by the party whip, and immediately everyone was all “uh oh, this is totally because he spoke out against his party.” Yes, Erskine-Smith has been making all kinds of waves, talking about his disagreement with the approval of the Kinder Morgan pipeline, advocating for the decriminalisation of all illegal drugs to treat them as a public health as opposed to a criminal law issue, and most recently, prostrating himself before his electorate to decry his government’s decision to abandon electoral reform (and using the curious tactic of using language that both undermines his government’s legitimacy and advocates for a system that undermines the very agency he has as an MP to stand apart from his party, but whatever).

Of course, it also appears that none of those commenters from the peanut gallery actually bothered to read the story about why Erskine-Smith was yanked from the committee, and it had little to do with his outspokenness than the fact that he was overly naïve as a newbie MP if trying to make parliament a nicer place. In this case, he wanted to operate by consensus on the committee and tried to get the other parties onside for amending the bill on establishing a national security committee of parliamentarians. The problem was that in the process, he was manipulated by Tony Clement into deleting some of his government’s own provisions because, you know, consensus and working together! So yeah, painful lesson, and maybe he’ll learn to be a little less trusting the next time. I get that you want parliament to be a nicer place and politics to be done better, but if you’re not careful, your opponents will (metaphorically) shiv you because they have their own goals, and they don’t necessarily want to buy into your platform. And let’s not forget that the competition of ideas is part of what keeps our system vital and accountable.

Of course, the fact that the whip could take this step has the usual suspects up in arms about how too much power is in the hands of the leader (by way of the whip), and the standard calls about reforming committees were trotted out. The Liberal Party’s promises on committee reform – more resources, electing chairs by secret ballot, and ensuring parliamentary secretaries are no longer voting members – were pretty much accomplished, but Conservative leadership candidate Michael Chong has his own reform ideas (try to look surprised), but reading them over, I have doubts. In particular, his plan to take away the power to assign MPs to committees and replacing it with a secret ballot process is dubious, in particular because a) I can’t imagine trying to count those ballots, b) it won’t solve the problems of MPs all trying to get onto the “sexier” committees while leaving some of the less exciting ones to be scrounging for members, c) critics – which the leader assigns – are on those committees, so for a party like the NDP, the secret balloting process would be useless, and d) this is a typical Chong suggestion of a solution in search of a problem. MPs like to bitch and moan about being assigned to committees they don’t like, but rarely actually ask for committee assignments, nor do they seem to have an appreciation that sometimes the party has to spread out their talent to places where it’s needed as opposed to where MPs want to go.

I’m also not keen on Chong’s plan to merge five committees to bring down the total number because there’s no actual need. We have 338 MPs and we don’t have a super-sized cabinet with a bloated parliamentary secretary brigade to match it, and in the previous parliament, they already reduced committees from 12 to 10 members apiece. There are enough MPs to go around, and merging the mandates of committees overloads them rather than letting them undertake studies of their own accord, which they should be doing. There’s no real crisis of overloading MPs with work right now (which was not always the case), so this particular suggestion seems gratuitous.

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Roundup: Revisionist history mythologizing

The electoral reform committee was back yesterday and the “star” witness was former NDP leader Ed Broadbent, currently heading the institute that bears his name. If you’ve been out of the loop, Broadbent is an unabashed supporter of Proportional Representation, and figures that Mixed-Member Proportional is the cat’s pyjamas, and proceeded to regale the committee with any number of ludicrous statements about both the current system and the purported wonders of MMP, and then delivered this particular gem: that MMP would have spared the west the National Energy Programme in the 1980s.

I. Can’t. Even.

The amount of mythologizing around the NEP in this country borders on psychosis. There was a time not so long ago that people also caterwauled that a Triple-E senate would also have prevented the NEP, with no actual proof that would be the case if you actually stopped to think about what would be involved in creating such an institution (particularly the imposition of party discipline because if you think you would be electing 105 independent senators, you’re even more delusional than the premise of the question belies). Most of these mythologies around the NEP forget that there was a history involved with global energy crises, broad support in the rest of the country, and that it was a global recession that happened around the same time that was largely responsible for the economic collapse that ensued as opposed to the NEP itself, but the two became conflated in the minds of most people. It didn’t happen in a vacuum or because Pierre Elliot Trudeau simply rubbed his hands and tried to come up with a diabolical plan to screw the West. For Broadbent to suddenly claim that a PR system would have ensured more regional voices at the table and common sense would have prevailed is simply revisionist history combined with the kind of unicorn logic that his preferred voting system would have been responsible only for the good things in history and never the bad. It’s egregious bullshit and needs to be called out as such.

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Roundup: The Brexit fallout

So, Brexit. If you missed how it all went down, here’s the recap of the evening’s events, a look at the Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty regarding an exit from the EU, a look at other countries who may be next, and speculation about how the Queen is faring in the face of this result. There’s a look at the divisions within the UK, and what psychology tells us about feelings toward immigration and how that influenced the referendum vote. And of course, what the Brexit could mean for the Canada-EU trade agreement, seeing as the UK was one of the driving forces behind this agreement. The results of that referendum seem to have made Quebec sovereigntists chippy about the 50-percent-plus-one threshold, while Jason Kenney’s tweets once the results were announced raised a number of eyebrows. The Prime Minister, however, assures us that our economy is strong enough to be able to withstand the market storms triggered by this event. (And do check out Maclean’s full package of excellent Brexit pieces here).

And then there’s the reaction. Doug Saunders notes that this is the first time that a far-right movement and its xenophobia has won a majority vote in a Western Nation, while Scott Gilmore notes that the Brexit could take a multitude of different forms. Andrew Coyne takes the events as a cautionary tale of countries engaging in self-harm. Paul Wells writes about the case that the EU needs to make for itself in the face of referenda like these, while Andrew MacDougall notes that this referendum, along with the Trump phenomenon in the states, is showing the power of demagoguery over fact and expert advice, which is probably the scariest part of this whole sad and sordid affair.

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