Roundup: Fallout from the Stanley decision

The verdict in the Gerald Stanley trial came down late Friday night, and the Saskatchewan farmer was found not guilty in the shooting death of 22-year-old Colten Boushie for the same kinds of actions that a white person would not have been shot at for. That the jury did not contemplate a manslaughter conviction instead of second-degree murder is the more puzzling aspect of the verdict, and why there is such a cry about racism in the justice system – especially since the defence counsel was able to successfully challenge any of the potential Indigenous jurors and wind up with an all-white jury, which is when the family knew that the fix was in, and that this was not doing any favours to the cause of reconciliation, nor for faith in the justice system for people who aren’t white.

The PM and justice minister tweeted that more needs to be done when it comes to ensuring that there is justice for Indigenous people in this country, leaving some Conservative observers a little aghast that they got involved. That said, the wording was carefully chosen in order to not criticise the jury itself, or promise that there would be an appeal or some kind of attempt to overturn the verdict. That’s probably a good thing overall, while it acknowledges that there is a problem and that the government is aware of it, and it’s worth nothing that the government is talking about this situation where there is a good chance that they wouldn’t have just a couple of years ago. Meanwhile, this hasn’t stopped the Conservatives from accusing the government of “political interference” with the courts (never mind how many times they criticised court decisions, especially by the Supreme Court of Canada, while they were in power). But what can be done? Well, there is already an ongoing review of the criminal justice system that this government has undertaken (but is very, very slow about rolling out any concrete measures about), so we can be sure that this will be part of it. But better resourcing the justice system is something that they need to confront, which means hiring more Crown attorneys, and giving them more time and resources to tackle cases is going to be part of the solution as well (and we can all think of a number of high profile cases in recent years that the Crowns have utterly ballsed up). And indeed, in this case, there were apparently questions going in as to whether the Crown attorney in this case was capable of handling a trial like this. But this is also a provincial issue as well. Ontario is working on a strategy about getting more Indigenous representation on juries, but its report is already more than a year overdue. The Boushie family has arrived in Ottawa to meet with ministers, so one suspects we may hear more later in the day.

And there has been no dearth of commentary around this case already. Lawyer David Butt talks about the need to limit the peremptory challenges that allowed Stanley’s defence lawyer to create an all-white jury. Defence Lawyer Allan Rouben suggests that maybe it’s time to loosen the rules that forbid jurors from discussing what happens during deliberations. Tammy Robert reminds us that no, you can’t shoot someone to protect your property in Canada. Robert Jago says that the trial and verdict show that the attitude remains that Indigenous people are simply animals that Canadians are taught to fear.

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Roundup: Protected nominations and the suffocation of the grassroots

Oh, Liberals. You’ve really gone and done it again, haven’t you? All of your grand talk about respecting parliament, and now you’ve decided that you’re going to go and protect the nominations of your incumbent MPs, so long as they meet a set of criteria that, while better than nothing, is not all that onerous. Never mind that four years ago, it was all about how open nominations were about community leaders devoted to community service, but now? Now it’s about ensuring that your MPs simply have a big enough war chest and participate in a bare minimum of door knocking over the course of a year. You’d think that with this list of requirements, ensuring that there still remains an actual nomination process wouldn’t be too difficult – after all, if the excuse is that they’re so busy in Ottawa that they can’t be also running for their old jobs, then ensuring that they’re still doing the work that would be associated with a nomination process seems like a pointless self-inflicted black eye, no?

I’m not going to re-litigate this too much, but I wrote about why protected nominations are a Bad Thing in Maclean’s last year, but it really boils down to one basic concept – accountability. The biggest reason to ensure that there are open nominations is to ensure that a riding can hold their incumbent to account without needing to vote for another party to do so. Protecting nominations removes more power from the grassroots party members and enshrines it in the leader’s office, which is exactly the opposite of what should be happening. (And yes, Trudeau has centralized a hell of a lot of power, especially after pushing through the changes to the party’s constitution). And by imposing those thresholds to ensure that the nomination is protected, it creates incentive for the incumbent MP to treat that riding association like a personal re-election machine, rather than a body that holds that MP to account at the riding level.

To be clear, this isn’t just a Liberal problem. The Conservatives also set a fairly high bar to challenge incumbent nominations, some of which we’ve seen in recent weeks, but that’s been accompanied by rumblings that some of these challenges have been stickhandled out of the leader’s office, which is even more distressing for grassroots democracy. The erosion of grassroots democracy is a very real crisis in our political system, but most people don’t understand what these changes mean, more content to chide the Liberals for broken promises about open nominations than be alarmed at what the bigger picture result is. It’s a pretty serious problem, and it’s bigger than just a broken promise.

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Senate QP: Sajjan is taking his time

After a terrible QP in the Other Place, it was hoped that things would be better in the Senate as Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan arrived to answer questions from his department. Senator Smith led off, worrying about the state of the planned purchase of Super Hornets and the possible purchase of used F-18s instead. Sajjan first stepped back to outline the problem of not being able to meet both NORAD and NATO requirements, and said that they will be filling the interim gap before they replace the whole fighter fleet. Smith wondered about the issue of newer versus older when it comes to the interim fighters, and Sajjan noted that they hoped for new, but would go for the same models that we currently use if necessary.

Senator Enverga asked about the situation in Iraq, and wondered about what our role was in the fight against ISIS if training was suspended. Sajjan said that they were assessing the situation given the changing situation on the ground in order to assess what the needs are now that Mosul has fallen.

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Roundup: The needless drama over the Status of Women chair

The news yesterday that the Liberals on the Commons standing committee on the status of women walked out rather than vote on the Conservatives’ choice for chair, Rachael Harder, certainly had a bit of drama to it, but underneath that surface-level bit of excitement, so much of this story defies sense.

For starters, it makes no sense that the Conservatives would name their chosen critic for the portfolio to be the committee chair. Why? Because a committee chair is supposed to be a somewhat more neutral figure who presides over the meetings in order to maintain decorum, decide on questions of order and procedure, and only vote in the event of breaking a tie. These are qualities that a critic should be dealing with. No, a critic should be doing the work of leading the questions of witnesses and doing the work of holding the government to account. That is not the chair’s job. Furthermore, if Andrew Scheer is going to insist on calling his critics “shadow ministers,” then perhaps he should actually treat them as such which means not having them on committees at all – and yes, the semantic difference is important. If you want to implement a shadow ministerial system then start behaving like that’s what they are. Otherwise, changing their nomenclature is nothing more than a twee affectation that he shouldn’t get so uppity about (and he has been).

Meanwhile, for the rest of the day, the Conservatives tried to spin this as a distraction from the tax change proposals that they are otherwise getting hammered on when they put her up for the position of chair knowing full well that this would be an issue. The NDP were out on Monday afternoon in the Foyer decrying this possibility and they went ahead with it. They created their own distraction and then tried to spin it as the Liberals using it as such. The Liberals didn’t create this drama, so you can’t accuse them of creating something from nothing.

The Conservatives have three members on the committee – Harder, Karen Vecchio, and Martin Shields, and if it makes no sense to put the critic in the role of chair, then why not put Vecchio forward? Is it because she isn’t looked kindly upon by Campaign Life Coalition? I would have thought her more than capable of the role otherwise, which is why this mystifies me unless this is something that the Conservatives were looking to try and force a confrontation of some variety by putting forward a critic and then candidate for Chair that would deliberately offend the sensibilities of the other parties – something that you shouldn’t be doing in a committee setting because committees, as the lifeblood of parliament, are supposed to be less partisan and more collegial.

This is just one more example of how the current iteration of the Conservative party doesn’t seem to know what it’s doing. Since Scheer took over the leadership, there seems to have been a sudden loss of know-how amongst the party’s senior staffers and they’re making all manner of really dumb tactical mistakes. You also have to wonder how much of this is also because the party had spent their nine years in power trying to burn down many of the norms of our parliamentary system and treating the institutions with utter disdain, and now that they’re back in opposition, they have simply lost the capacity to engage with them properly, leading to these kinds of mindless choices that just shoot themselves in the foot. It’s not promising for a party that is supposed to be considered a government in waiting.

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Roundup: Gallagher and the electoral reform garbage fire

Yesterday’s release of the electoral reform committee report was a giant headache for all sorts of reasons – the way in which the majority report was cute in their recommendations, the Gallagher Index nonsense, Monsef’s being cute in reply to the ways in which both the Conservatives and NDP were over-reading their own report, and the repeated demands that the Prime Minister respect his ill-considered promise that 2015 would be the last election under First-Past-the-Post. It was an utterly exasperating day.

While are all aware that I am team status quo because the system is not broken and any problems are not the result of the electoral system, I will offer a few observations. Number one is that the Gallagher Index is one of those devices favoured by poli sci undergrads, electoral reform nerds, and sore losers to “prove” that their preferred system is “mathematically” better than others, but it’s predicated on a couple of false notions – that in evaluating the current system that it’s a single event when it’s actually 338 separate events; and that the translation of votes to seats in this as-close-to-perfect proportion is actually desirable when it is in fact distorting the meaning of the vote itself. When we vote under our system, we are making a simple decision on who fills an individual seat, and because there are more than two candidates (and we don’t use run-off elections), it tends to rely on a plurality result rather than a simple majority. When you start demanding proportionality, you distort the meaning of that simple decision, and yes, that is actually a problem. That the report wanted a system with an Index of 5 or less, that’s not actually a simple choice of one or two systems. (If you want an explanation of the math, read this thread). Simulations of the Index under the Canadian system can itself be distortionary because of the regional nature of our elections, which why some use a “composite” Index that can produce different results from a strictly national Index figure when you try to correct for those.

The NDP/Green “supplemental report,” aside from being nigh-unreadable for all of its collection of demonstrably false talking points, recommends either an MMP system or this “Rural-Urban Proportional,” but in order to get their Index scores below 5, it means a large number of new seats particularly for MMP, while the RUP concept in and of itself is unlikely to be considered constitutional – using two separate electoral systems depending on your geography is unlikely to pass the Supreme Court of Canada smell test, but this is a decision they wanted to put on the government without that particular context. It’s all well and good to wave your hands and say you want a more proportional system, but designing one that works for Canada’s particular geography and constitutional framework is not as easy as it sounds, nor does it actually respect what you’re actually voting for. And so long as the loudest voices on this file are mired in sore loserism who figure that it’s the system that’s keeping them down and not the fact that they simply don’t have policies and candidates that can appeal more broadly, we’re going to continue to be mired in debates based on a load of utter nonsense. But hey, the government needs to make it look like they’re going to keep trying to tackle this file for another few months before they give up rather than just smothering this Rosemary’s Baby in its crib right now like they should, and just take their lumps for a foolhardy promise.

And if you won’t take my word for any of this, here’s Kady O’Malley evaluating the report, what happened today, and the trap that the NDP and Greens may be setting for themselves. Meanwhile, The Canadian Press’ Baloney Meter™ asserts that Trudeau’s election promise was “full of baloney,” while it can credibly be pointed to the fact that they acknowledged the need for consultations which gave wiggle room.

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Roundup: Two yays and a nay

The government announced its decisions on three pipelines yesterday – no to Northern Gateway (and a tanker ban on the north coast of BC was also reaffirmed), but yes to Kinder Morgan expansion and Line 3 to the United States. There are a lot of people not happy on either side – the Conservatives are upset that Northern Gateway also didn’t get approved, saying this was just a political decision, and the NDP and Greens (and the mayor of Vancouver) unhappy about the Kinder Morgan announcement, Elizabeth May going so far as to say that she’s willing to go to jail for protesting it.

None of this should be a surprise to anyone, as Trudeau has pretty much telegraphed these plans for weeks, if not months. And as for the critics, well, Robyn Urback makes the point that I do believe that Trudeau was going for:

In fact, Trudeau said as much yesterday in QP when he noted that they were sitting between a party demanding blanket approvals on everything, and another party opposed to approving anything, so that was where he preferred to be. He’s spending some political capital on this decision, including with some of his own caucus members who are not fans of the Kinder Morgan expansion, but he has some to spare, so we’ll see whether he’s picked up any support in the west, or lost any on the west coast when this all blows over.

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Roundup: Dragging in the GG

The performative outrage against Trudeau’s Castro comments reached a new low yesterday with the announcement that the Governor General would be attending the commemoration in Havana as the Canadian representative. Despite not being a leadership candidate (thus far), Conservative MP Michelle Rempel took to Twitter to perform some more outrage, and dropped these particular gems.

It wasn’t so much that my head exploded. More like a piece of my soul died in utter exasperation because I know for a fact that she knows better. Misrepresenting the role of the Governor General is a particularly terrible thing to do, particularly giving the impression that you can write to him (or worse, the Queen) and he’ll somehow override the Prime Minister and the government of the day for your own partisan benefit. No, it doesn’t work that way, and its antithetical to the entire foundation of our system of government. And giving your follows completely the wrong impression about how Responsible Government works for the sake of some temporary passing performative outrage for the issue of the day is particularly heinous because it poisons the well. And this is what trying to stir up populist outrage does – it poisons the well for all of politics, particularly when you misrepresent things for temporary advantage. I get that there is political theatre, and that in the age of social media you need to be performative to a degree, but for the love of all the gods on Olympus stop undermining the whole system. When you stir up this hornet’s nest, it will come and bite you just as much as it does the government of the day, and we will all be left with a giant mess like we’re seeing south of the border. This is not something we want to import or emulate, no matter how many points you think it will win you temporarily. Only madness lies along this path, and the damage is insidious and incalculable, particularly when it comes from people who actually know better. It’s not a game. Stop treating it like it is.

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QP: Outrage theatre, part eleventy

While Justin Trudeau just got off the plane from Madagascar and wasn’t in the Commons for QP, neither was his counterparts from the Official Opposition. Denis Lebel led off, worrying about the statement that Trudeau had made about Castro’s passing, and if he regretted them. Stéphane Dion rose to reply, and he mentioned that similar statements were made by other leaders, and they were trying to support the Cuban people by not focusing on old antagonism. Lebel demanded the official statement on the website be changed to use stronger language, and Dion said that they were using Canada’s relationship to better the lives of Cubans and that they desired for Cuba to be a democracy. Lebel asked again in English and got the same response. Peter Kent go up to go another round, worrying that the PM had never met with Castro’s victims, and Dion assured him that they were supporting the people of Cuba rather than the regime. Kent demanded that condolences be sent to said victims, but Dion listed the other world leaders who made similar statements. Thomas Mulcair was up next, and worried that the government was reneging on the promise to be rid of First-Past-the-Post. Maryam Monsef said that she was waiting for the report of the committee but would not move ahead unless there was the broad support of Canadians. Mulcair raised the StatsCan report on sexual assault in the military, and Harjit Sajjan reiterated that they had zero tolerance for it and still had work to do. Nathan Cullen was up next, accusing Monsef of undermining the committee’s work on TV over the weekend, and Monsef reminded him that she was there to talk about C-33. Cullen groused some more about the lack of commitment to propositional representation, but Monsef reiterated that she was waiting for the committee report.

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Roundup: Beware blinkered history

There is always a danger in trying to look for lessons from history when you do so selectively. This is the case with a column by William Watson in today’s Ottawa Citizen. Watson – an economics professor at McGill and not a parliamentary observer, it should be noted – dug through the 1917 Hansard to look over the debates on bringing in income tax (remember, this was the “temporary” wartime measure that was introduced and then eventually became a permanent thing), and discovered that lo, the debate was so much more serious then and nothing like things are today, ergo Parliament was better in 1917 than it is today.

And then I bashed my head against my desk for a while.

This is what happens when you take a look at a narrow slice of history without actually looking at the broader context or picture. It’s easy to take a single debate and declare a golden age because hey, the government of the day was giving complex answers to complex questions, but that’s not to say that there weren’t antics that took place. Remember that this was not far removed from the days when MPs would light firecrackers and play musical instruments to disrupt the other side during debate. Hell, I was speaking to a reporter who was in the Gallery during WWII, and she said that there was far less professionalism in those days, and MPs who got bored would often break into song during debate. This was also the era before TV, before the proceedings were recorded in audio or video and able to be checked, so we don’t know what the transcriptionists missed. It was also an era where I’m sure that time limits for questions and answers were looser than they are now, and where MPs weren’t playing up for the cameras. Does that make it better? Maybe, maybe not. Parliament was also composed entirely of white men, mostly of a professional background – does that make things any better? You tell me. Parliament had very different responsibilities in those days as well, and government was much, much smaller. Patronage ruled the day, and government was more involved in direct hires of the civil service rather than it being arm’s length. Is this something we want to go back to? Watson kind of shrugs this important distinction off because they had more meaningful exchanges about income tax.

Declaring simply that Parliament was composed of “intelligent, informed adults” in 1917, and the implication that it is not so today, is a grossly blinkered view of history and of civics. I will be the first to tell you that the state of debate today is pretty abysmal when it mostly consists of people reading statements into the record, talking past one another, but that doesn’t mean that MPs aren’t intelligent or informed. Frankly, it seems like Watson is longing for the days of the old boys’ club if you read some of his nostalgic commentary. I’m not sure that’s proof that things were better then, and it certainly should be a caution about taking a blinkered view of history.

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Roundup: Harder’s budget request

Peter Harder is asking the Senate for a budget of $800,000 to hire nine people to assist in his “government representative duties.” While I’m not opposed to the dollar figure, I’m a bit curious about why nine staff, but let’s back up first to the precedent that is guiding this whole exercise, being Stephen Harper’s fit of pique when Marjory LeBreton resigned as Government Leader in the Senate. By that point, Harper was being badgered and hectored daily about the ClusterDuff incident, as well as Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau, and he decided that his next Government Leader, Claude Carignan, was not going to be put into cabinet so as to give the appearance of distance. Of course, it was only the appearance, as Carignan was a minister in every respect but name, including being sworn into the Privy Council (necessary to get the briefing books to answer on behalf of the government in Senate QP). But because he wasn’t a minister, he couldn’t get funding from PCO for staff and needed activities, so Carignan went to the Senate and asked for a bigger budget, and he got it, hiring a staff of 14. With Trudeau now being fairly cute with the way he is handling the “government representative” file – Harder being sworn into Privy Council and able to attend cabinet meetings – the government decided that with the Carignan precedent, Harder can simply ask the Senate for the budget he needs. Now, he is getting some pushback about getting a budget without attendant responsibilities, such as answering in QP. They referred the decision to a subcommittee (that still hasn’t been filled), but I do wonder why nine. I can understand an admin staff, a policy person or two, a comms person, but without a caucus to manage, what exactly is so labour intensive about “shepherding the government’s agenda”? That’s a bit of time management, introducing the odd debate on government legislation, but what else would he be required to do? So perhaps we’ll get some answers, but it does seem a bit odd to me.

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