Roundup: An involuntary nomination

The outcome at the Status of Women committee was not unexpected, had as much sulking and grousing as was to be expected. In a public and not secret vote, the Liberals and NDP members of the committee rejected the Conservatives’ choice of Rachael Harder to chair the committee, and when the Liberals nominated Karen Vecchio in her place, Vecchio tried to back out but was overruled, and those same Liberal and Conservative members voted her in.

And then the bellyaching began. A sour press release was issued about how this was somehow about “bullying and intimidation” of some poor young woman (which is a ridiculous characterisation), but that they would accept the democratic will of the committee. And the pundit class took to Twitter to decry how bizarre it was that a woman was being forced to take the chair of a committee that she didn’t want. I’m not exactly sympathetic to these cries, because this is what happens when you try to pull a stunt for the sake of being a provocateur, as Scheer is trying to do, but you don’t have the votes to back it up. Oh, and then they tried to wedge this into the frame of it being a distraction from the tax proposals, when it shouldn’t need to be said that this was a distraction of the Conservatives’ own making, owing to their particular tactical ineptitude.

Meanwhile, Liberals took to tweeting about how this would have made Harder Andrew Scheer’s “spokesperson” on the committee, which is bizarre and wrong – the chair is the committee’s spokesperson. It’s baffling that they would try to spin it in this fashion. Then again, one shouldn’t be surpised given how badly this whole affair has been for people describing how things work in Parliament. And it shouldn’t surprise me, and yet here we are, that not one journalist writing about this story, nor any pundit commenting on it, remarked about the fact that it makes no sense to put your critic forward as committee chair. None. The chair’s role is to be neutral, to run the meeting, arbitrate rules disputes and to ensure that witnesses and questioners stay within their timelines. They’re not supposed to vote unless it’s to break a tie, which shouldn’t happen very often given the numbers at play. Why would you want your critic – your point person in holding the government and in particular that associated minister, to account – to be hobbled in this way on committee, is baffling. It’s utterly incomprehensible if you follow the basics of how parliament is supposed to work. And yet nobody saw fit to call Scheer out on this fact. These details matter.

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Roundup: Butts/Bannon brouhaha

Tongues were set wagging in the Nation’s Capital yesterday when The New Yorker claimed that Justin Trudeau’s principle secretary, Gerald Butts, had struck up a friendship with Donald Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon, of Breitbart fame. Apparently, Bannon sees Butts as the left-wing version of himself, or something, and Butts allegedly told him that there’s nothing more populist than a rich guy raising taxes on the wealthy. And while everyone clamoured for some kind of confirmation out of PMO, getting non-denials from official sources, and “it’s just business” from the less official sources, none of the Canadian stories that I read stopped at the part where the New Yorker piece claimed that Trudeau reversed a polling slump by pushing through these tax measures. While I will readily admit that most polling stories give me hives, especially two years out from an election, I can’t for the life of me recall this having happened – Trudeau’s poll numbers have remained stubbornly high, and only really dipped a little when Andrew Scheer won the Conservative leadership, because at that point there was an actual face that people could put to the poll questions (never mind that questions related to which leader one would vote for are illegitimate given our system of government). Trudeau putting forward these tax changes were the first piece of legislation that they tabled, and while it took a while to actually pass (during which time a budget had also been tabled and passed), it had no actual effect on his polling numbers. Where the New Yorker got this particular tidbit is mystifying to me, and why Canadian outlets didn’t call bullshit on this – and subsequently look side-eye at the other claims in the piece – is similarly baffling.

Of course, the story would not be complete without Thomas Mulcair coming out to theatrically demand that Butts disavow this “friendship” given all of the drama around racism and white nationalism in the States over the past few days. The problem of course is that a) Butts is not an elected official, and b) there are NAFTA talks underway, and it would be really bad form for our government to so blatantly thumb our noses at the Americans in this way. Keeping a working relationship going would seem to be the most prudent course of action – but that never seem to be the course that Mulcair advocates.

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Roundup: The “good parts” of populism?

I will confess that the eleventy different appearances on every conceivable political show over the past week by Preston Manning to coincide with his eponymous institute’s networking conference over the weekend has had me a bit preoccupied. Everyone is eager to talk about the rise in populism, and whether Trumpism will make its way to Canada in a more visible form (not that we haven’t seen in here before already, with Rob Ford as the most obvious example), but what gets me is when Manning starts waxing about harnessing the “good parts” of populism rather than the ugly side that has led to things like Brexit and the Trumpocalypse, and he goes on at length about history of prairie populism and how he perceives that to be a positive thing. Granted, his particular perspective on that is more than a little biased, considering that his father’s brand of prairie populism made him premier of Alberta for a number of years, and Manning’s crafting that into the Reform Party got him to Ottawa for several more years. But reading some of the accounts of some of that prairie populism years later – in particular this account of the rise of the CCF in Saskatchewan and how they became another craven political party by the time of Tommy Douglas’ provincial demise – makes me think of growing up gay in Alberta, where that “prairie populism” left its mark in a province that was far less socially progressive and with parties that were less willing to be so, being dragged kicking and screaming to the Supreme Court of Canada. I didn’t grow up seeing the “good” side of prairie populism, which is why I struggle to reconcile with Manning trying to find the good parts of populist sentiment to embrace. I am having a hard time trying to find the “good parts” of breeding cynical distrust in institutions, and this narrative of “pure” people versus “corrupt elites,” and in waging wars against the media that follows that narrative’s lead. You wouldn’t think that politicians would want to play with the fire that is distrust, and yet they keep reaching for the lighter. I think Manning may be playing things a bit too optimistically, and may be a bit too naively, for my comfort level.

Chris Selley looks at the Manning Conference and some Conservative behaviour in recent weeks, and wonders if the party no longer stands for anything other than a series of shared grievances as opposed to some actual policy or ideology. (One could argue that they ditched ideology a while ago and have simply become right-flavoured populists, made most especially manifest when they went ahead with the GST cut that every single economist told them not to do). Kady O’Malley leaves us with a warning about drawing too many conclusions based on the Manning Conference’s schedule alone rather than the discussions that people were having on the floor of the event, which not only saw some of its biggest draw ever, but also seemed to be very much more about the leadership race than it was about those panels about “radical Islamic terrorism” and so on.

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Roundup: Manning and the Populists

It’s the Manning Centre conference here in Ottawa, which is the “conservative Woodstock,” as they say, and is pretty much were all of the small-c conservatives come to network, only this year, in the midst of the Trumpocalypse happening south of the border, the flavour of this year’s conference has changed, with much more pandering to the fringe elements, catering to overblown fears of Islamic terrorism and the kinds of populist demagoguery that are suddenly in vogue. Oh, and all fourteen Conservative leadership candidates are also there, and hey, they had a little debate, which allowed them a bit more freedom to actually debate in small groups, but most of it was still their canned talking points, so take it for what it’s worth.

As for conference programming, here’s Kady O’Malley’s recap of the first half including Preston Manning’s speech, and her assessment that fears of a Trumpist takeover appear to be more overblown, as many of the demagogic panels have had less than spectacular attendance. John Geddes recaps the moments of the leadership debate that had the biggest sparks. Geddes also has a conversation with Manning about populism and how it’s shaping debates right now.

Andrew Coyne warns Conservatives at the Manning Conference about the siren song of populist demagoguery. Chris Selley looks at that demagoguery up close in the panel on the “Islamist extremist menace” at the Conference, calling it bonkers. John Ivison looks at the dynamic Kevin O’Leary is bringing to the Conference and the race, and the outsized role he is starting to play, building an “Anyone but O’Leary” vibe. Paul Wells notes the changes in the Conference’s tenor over the years as a result of the political culture of followership, eager to imitate the perceived leaders of their pack.

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Roundup: Is there a regional trade-off?

Canadian public affairs blog In Due Course published a piece on the weekend wherein Joseph Heath offers a few things to consider with how a Conservative party would deal with Quebec under a proportional representation system where the calculations are different. It’s interesting and he raises a lot of very good points. And predictably, proponents of PR went to question all of his points, particularly about the fortunes of the Bloc Québécois (and to a lesser extent the Reform Party) under the current first-past-the-post system.

The problem with cherry-picking individual election results like 1993 is that it doesn’t take a broader view of the system’s resilience as a whole. Over the longer term, regional parties in this country may do well for an election cycle or two at the most, but they have no capacity or room for growth, and that’s why the big-tent brokerage parties will always regain strength and power. What it also does is say that when these kinds of regional movements do take hold, that their grievances and desire to punish parties in power (which some Bloc votes have been about) is illegitimate.

Indeed, as Emmett Macfarlane points out here, focusing on geography misses the point when you look at how the big-tent parties are forced to craft policies that will appeal nationally and won’t explicitly write-off regions.

Coyne is also dismissive of “safe” ridings or regions, but I’m sure that we’ve seen time and again that there is almost no such thing as a “safe” seat or riding, particularly when there are swings in the public mood. Again, that’s not a bad thing, and one could argue that in a properly functioning House of Commons, “safe” seats can be a bulwark against too much power in the leadership because MPs with “safe” seats that have no prospect of getting into cabinet are more likely to push back against what they see as intrusions by the leader because they have little to lose. (Granted, this is more keenly demonstrated in Westminster because their leaders don’t have the ability to sign off on nomination forms like they do here, and their leadership selection process has been different until recently, but the point still stands).

Part of the problem here, which Coyne does admit, is that defenders of different systems are approaching the issues in different ways. But defenders of the current system don’t necessarily foresee a future dystopia as warning that if you’re looking for changes to the electoral system to fix what is perceived to be broken here, you’re going to find that it’s not actually going to fix things, and it certainly won’t result in this kind of democratic utopianism that most PR advocates proclaim.

There is also the fact, and I cannot stress this enough, that Canada is not the same as most other countries. While we are not Israel in terms of its politics, we are also not a Scandinavian country either, so expecting their results to translate here is just as much of an over-reach and a fiction.

That’s why we need to approach this very carefully. (Well, I say we need to smother the electoral reform consultations entirely, but that’s just me). Too many people are simply pointing to Norway or Sweden and saying “Look! See how great it is!” when they should also look at the vast dysfunction of Belgium (which is a far better analogy if you look at our systems and cultures), or even Australia, where their proportionally-elected Senate is an utter gong show. But cherry-picking data – on both sides – doesn’t actually help further the debate.

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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: Crying wolf on fundraising

I’m starting to feel like a bit of history repeating again as I get cranky over yet more clutched pearls about so-called “cash for access” or “pay to play” fundraisers, which are nothing of the sort. Cabinet ministers are not soliciting stakeholders for tens of thousands of dollars of donations to meet fundraising targets. This is a government whose penchant for consultation means that there are multiple avenues of access for said stakeholders that they need not pony up to ministerial shakedowns in order to get meetings. And this latest allegation, that somehow “communist billionaires” from China got preferential access for $1500 (they didn’t pay as they can’t donate since they aren’t Canadian citizens) stretches credulity, and taking the cake is this hysteria about a donation made to the Trudeau Foundation. You know, a foundation that the Prime Minister is not a part of, and is a registered charity, which the PM sees no enrichment from in the slightest. That wealthy donors also contributed to the foundation, a statue of Trudeau’s father (again, where is the actual enrichment?) and to law school scholarship at McGill (Trudeau did not go to McGill law school) doesn’t have any particular relevance to him or government business, so even on the face of it, where is the conflict of interest? And don’t tell me that there’s a “perception” because if you actually look at the facts and not just go “Hmm, Justin Trudeau…Trudeau Foundation… Yup, sounds fishy to me,” then you’d realise that this is bunk. But no. Here we are, yet again, trying to make hay over activities that are reported, above board, and not actual conflicts of interest beyond people yelling “smell test!” and “appearance!” with no actual facts. And let me again remind you that the Chief Electoral Officer himself noted that our current donation levels are fine, and lowering them will mean money starts to move underground, which we do not want. And if you bring up the Ethics Commissioner calling these events “unsavoury,” let me also remind you that she wants all gifts to MPs registered at an extremely low threshold, meaning a massive amount of more compliance paperwork which MPs themselves have balked at, and the Lobbying Commissioner’s investigation is because people have brought this to her attention, and it doesn’t mean that she has found anything amiss. Honestly, stop lighting your hair on fire over innuendo. You’re currently crying wolf, and when any real impropriety happens, you risk it being shrugged off after any number of previous false alarms.

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Roundup: Partisan crybabies and skewered straw men

As machinations and protestations go, the current drama in the Senate is starting to try my patience, particularly because so many of the players seem to be getting drawn off onto silly tangents at the expense of the bigger picture. In particular, the Conservative senators continuing to push this conspiracy theory that all new independent senators are just Liberals in-all-but-name is really, really throwing them off the message that Senator Peter Harder is trying to destroy the Westminster traditions of the Senate, and has a stated goal of removing any sense of official opposition from the Chamber. But when the complaints about Harder’s machinations are drowned out by their conspiracy theorizing, they’re only harming their arguments by making themselves look petty. And it is concerning what Harder has been up to, his latest move being a closed-door meeting for all senators to “discuss short-term and long-term government business.” Add to this are a number of the more established independent senators, who previously felt shut out, excusing Harder’s actions because he’s trying to bring them in, oblivious to the fact that this is how he’s trying to build his little empire.

Add to this conversation comes former senator Hugh Segal who penned an op-ed for the Ottawa Citizen, bravely skewering straw men all around him about those darned partisan senators not giving up committee spots to independent senators (when he knows full well that it’s an ongoing process and that committees don’t get reconstituted until after a prorogation), and coming to the defence of Harder, with whom he worked together all of those years ago during the Mulroney government before Harder transitioned to the civil service. Poor Peter Harder, whose budget has been cruelly limited by all of those partisan senators and how he can’t get the same budget as Leaders of the Government in the Senate past (never mind that Harder has no caucus to manage, nor is he a cabinet minister as the Government Leader post is ostensibly). Gosh, the partisan senators are just being so unfair to him. Oh, please.

So long as people are content to treat this as partisan crybabies jealously guarding their territory, we’re being kept blind as to what Harder’s attempts to reshape the Senate are going to lead to. His attempts to dismantle the Westminster structure are not about making the chamber more independent – it’s about weakening the opposition to the government’s agenda. Trying to organise coherent opposition amongst 101 loose fish is not going to cut it, and Harder knows it. The Senate’s role as a check on the government is about to take a serious blow so long as people believe Harder’s revisionist history and back-patting about how great a non-partisan Senate would be. Undermining parliament is serious business, and we shouldn’t let them get away with it because we think it’s cute that it’s making the partisans angry.

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Roundup: Trying to politicize the GG

In a move so stunningly boneheaded that I can scarcely believe it, the NDP have gone to Rideau Hall to ask the Governor General to wade in on the Senate residency issue – because there’s nothing like trying to politicise the GG to show that you mean business about a petty issue. It’s like Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition doesn’t have a clue about what Responsible Government – the central organising principle of our democratic system – actually means. Here’s a refresher for their edification – the Governor General acts on the advice of the Prime Minister because the Prime Minister holds the confidence of the House of Commons, which is the chamber elected for the purpose of granting or withholding said confidence. The entire history of the struggle for Responsible Government in the colonies that became Canada, back in the 1830s, was because they wanted to control the appointments made by the Crown, rather than leave it up to the colonial masters in the UK. The entire history of Canadian democracy rests on the fact that it’s the elected government that advises the Crown on who to appoint, and not the other way around. And yet the NDP seem to suddenly think it’s cool to ask the GG to weigh in on which appointments he thinks are okay or not. Charlie Angus may tell you that he’s asking for an explanation and that he’s not trying to draw the GG into the “scandal,” but with all due respect, that’s a load of utter horseshit and he knows it. He’s trying to get the GG to tell him that the PM is wrong so that he has “non-partisan” authority to make the claim for him; that’s never going to happen. Ever. It is assumed that the advice the PM gives the GG is legitimate because the PM has the confidence of the Commons. That means that the quality of that advice is a ballot box issue – if we don’t like it, we get to hold that PM and that government to account by voting them out. It is not up to the GG to veto it unless it’s so egregious that it’s a blatant violation of the constitution, at which point he refuses the advice and the Prime Minister is forced to resign. But as much as Charlie Angus might like to think that Mike Duffy is some unprecedented scandal that rocks the very legitimacy of the Upper Chamber (which they don’t believe is legitimate anyway, so this is grade-A concern trolling on his part), it’s not a constitutional crisis. It’s just not. Even if Harper’s advice was dubious, it was up to Duffy to ensure that he lived up to the terms of that appointment, and ensuing he was a proper resident of PEI – which essentially would have meant a hasty house sale in Ottawa, buying a year-round residence on the Island (and not a summer cottage) tout suit, and then maybe renting an apartment or buying a small condo near Parliament Hill as his Ottawa pied à terre, being a legitimate secondary residence. Duffy did not do that. He instead got political opinions to ensure that he was okay with the summer cottage and a driver’s licence and that’s it, when clearly that was not enough. He bears as much culpability in this as the PM for making the appointment – not the GG. Charlie Angus should be utterly ashamed for this blatant attempt to politicise the GG, but I’m pretty sure he’s incapable of shame.

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Roundup: A surprise trip to Iraq

John Baird quietly took a trip to Iraq along with is opposition critics, Paul Dewar and Marc Garneau, to meet with officials there and to pledge aid. James Cudmore looks at what Canada could contribute if we take the fight to ISIS, which could include special forces or aerial reconnaissance and support, but unlikely boots on the ground, as it’s politically unpalatable in an election year. Whatever we do, Harper has stated that it’ll be done on a tight budget because we really want to be cheap about fighting the kinds of grave threats that Harper is making them out to be.

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