Roundup: Leaking cabinet confidences is a Big Deal

I will readily admit that I haven’t been keeping as close of an eye on the whole drama surrounding the suspension of Vice-Admiral Mark Norman from the post of vice-chief of defence staff, and the alleged leaks surrounding the contract to refit a supply ship for our navy (which currently has none, thanks to consistently bungled procurement processes). It wasn’t until this particular walkthrough from Murray Brewster that the elements of the story all started to crystalize, in part because we finally got some more details about just what was being alleged thanks to a judge ordering the release of information. Over the past couple of days, the extent of those backchannel conversations with certain shipyards and their aim – to use media leaks to publicly pressure the government to go a certain route when they were resistant – may seem like pretty insider stuff, but it actually has some pretty broad implications for our entire Westminster-system of government.

While you may have certain pundits who bemoan the case against Norman is thin gruel, especially in light of the whole lack of convictions in the ClusterDuff affair, I have to say that leaking cabinet confidences is probably a little more significant. As noted parliamentary scholar Donald Savoie notes in this piece, Cabinet secrecy underpins our entire system of government because it relies on government to act with one voice, and to stand and fall in unison rather than with ministers as individuals. Cabinet solidarity is a Thing, and it’s an important Thing. Cabinet secrecy ensures that there can be a full airing of views and that it’s not just a focus group for the prime minister, and this extends to the advice that the civil service is able to provide. There needs to be a certain amount of secrecy to that advice so that there can be a meaningful back-and-forth of ideas and discussion before a political decision can be taken, and then held to account.

What Norman allegedly did was to use his position as a servant of the Crown, who swore an oath to the Queen and not the government of the day, to further his own interests. He was taking the political decision, and allegedly leaking those cabinet confidences in order to force the situation toward his desired outcome. That not only violates the roles of the civil service (and military by extension), but it undermines cabinet government. We The Media may grouse about the extent to which things are declared cabinet confidence, but it is important – particularly because this government is practicing cabinet government more than its predecessors have been, or even many of the provinces. I’ve had conversations with current ministerial staff here who used to work at Queen’s Park who have attested that cabinet government is real here, unlike Ontario, where it was all controlled from the centre. Leaking confidences undermines this, and it is a serious matter – not just the thin gruel that some would have us believe.

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Roundup: Ontario’s “basic income” scheme a bit suspect

The province of Ontario decided that it was going ahead with a three-year pilot project around basic incomes in three municipalities around the province – Hamilton, Thunder Bay, and Lindsay, each testing different circumstances and local conditions. But there are problems with the way this is all designed, which Kevin Milligan (who has been studying this issue) outlines:

In other words, this isn’t really basic income, which makes it all that much harder to actually evaluate its efficacy, and if it’s not displacing existing welfare or benefit programmes, then it’s not really recouping those costs which makes this hideously expensive. And that’s really been the biggest problem with basic income proposals – the cost. While the idea is that they would displace current benefit programmes, there is less money to be had in cutting the red tape and bureaucracy than one might think, and I’m pretty sure that Bill Gates’ idea of taxing robots to pay for basic income for the workers they displace isn’t really feasible either.

Oh, and then there are the political considerations.

With an election not too far off in this province, we’ve seen a few moves by this government to try and out-left the NDP in places, hoping to cobble together the same sort of winning voter base that they managed to in their last election, and which their federal counterparts similarly managed in 2015. While I get the merits of basic income, I remain dubious of its feasibility, especially when this pilot project appears to be so poorly designed. But then again, I’m not an economist.

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QP: Proto-PMQs, take two

Question Period was late today, due to Malala Yousafzai’s address to parliament, and was the only item on the Order Paper for the day. Meanwhile, not all leaders bothered to show up either. Rona Ambrose led off, mini-lectern on desk, lamenting new taxes and the plan to increase user fees in the budget bill. Justin Trudeau insisted that they were proud of their choices and the ways they are helping the middle class. Ambrose spun the question as taxing time-off, and Trudeau responded by praising their decision to offer free passes to national parks this year. Ambrose spun it about camping — as those fees are going up — but Trudeau reiterated his response. Ambrose then asked whether the government planned to pass her bill on sexual assault training for judges, and Trudeau noted his support for survivors, but he also respects Parliament and the work of committees, and he looked forward to those discussions. Ambrose pressed, and Trudeau noted that it was important that they appointed more women to the bench, which they were doing. Alexandre Boulerice led off for the Liberals, railing about the omnibus nature of the budget implementation bill. Trudeau insisted that it was not an abuse of omnibus legislation, all items were included in the budget. Nathan Cullen repeated the question in English, got much the same response, then Cullen railed about the provisions around the PBO. Trudeau noted that it would make him a full Officer of Parliament with greater independence. Boulerice repeated it in French, and got much the same answer.

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Roundup: May’s problematic proposals

Green Party leader Elizabeth May decided to weigh in on the Standing Orders debate yesterday with a proposal paper of her own, considering Government House Leader Bardish Chagger’s proposal to have been an earnest trial balloon that has now blown up in her face and in need of moving on. May’s didn’t object to some of Chagger’s proposals, but came up with a few of her own, some of which are of dubious merit.

To start off with, however, May lards her paper up with a bunch of constitutional canards, such as the fact that political parties don’t appear in the constitution. If you hear the sound of my head banging on the desk, it’s because May is privileging the written Constitution Act as opposed to the unwritten constitutional conventions which are just as valid and just as important to our system of government, and are in fact foundational because that’s how our system of Responsible Government is expressed, and parties are foundational to that system. Just because they don’t appear in writing doesn’t mean they’re absent from our constitutional framework – they are fundamental to it, and May (and the scholars she cites) are simply obtuse to not recognise that fact. May then insists that the Westminster system has been distorted by parties gaining power and with presidential leaders, but rather than actually diagnosing where the problem is – the bastardized way in which we conduct leadership contests – she instead retreats to her usual hobbyhorse of the electoral system, which would not in fact solve any of the problems she identifies.

But if you make it past her civically illiterate pap, she digs into the suggestions with the most notable one being that she wants more concentrated sittings – five-and-a-half days a week for three to four weeks at a stretch, then three to four weeks back in the riding, insisting that this is also better from an emission standpoint since MPs would be travelling less. But where her logic here falls apart is saying that given this would stress families more that making it more attractive for families to relocate to Ottawa might be a consideration – but unless the families go back-and-forth on the three-to-four week rotations, being even more disruptive to children’s schools – then there is simply falls apart on the face of it. She also proposes that staffers be given compensatory time off instead of overtime, which seems far more unfair to these staffers considering that the work doesn’t stop when MPs are back in their ridings, and you’re forcing people (many of them younger) to work even more than they already do with less time off as a bit cruel.

May also proposes that a UK-style Fixed-term Parliaments Act be adopted, which officially makes her wilfully blind to the problems that it’s causing to Westminster’s operations, and the fact that it reduces the ability to hold a government to account because it requires a two-thirds vote to call an early election beyond a non-confidence vote with a simple majority. I get that she wants this to force parties to come to different coalition arrangements, but when accountability suffers, that’s a huge problem. But as with most of her suggestions for “improvement,” May is more concerned with her own partisan intransigence than she is with actual Westminster democracy, which is why I find her entire paper to be of dubious merit.

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QP: Bombardier bonus brouhaha

Starting off the last two-week stretch before the Easter Break, there remained a number of empty desks in the Commons, but all leaders were in attendance, so there was that. Rona Ambrose led off, asking about the possibility of radicalized workers at the Montreal airport. Justin Trudeau assured her that they were working diligently to assure her that they were taking security seriously. Ambrose switched to English to demand those workers be fired (which I’m not sure is his call), and Trudeau reminded her that they were supporting law enforcement agencies who were keeping us safe. Ambrose then switched to the compensation of Bombardier executives, and Trudeau acknowledged that the government gave a loan, but he was pleased to see they were reconsidering that decision. Ambrose switched to English to ask again, and got much the same response. For her final question, Ambrose railed about the loss of tax credits in the light of those Bombardier bonuses, and Trudeau latched onto the transit tax credit portion of the question and noted it was the only thing the previous government did for transit and his government was doing more. Thomas Mulcair was up next, returning to the Bombardier bonuses, to which Trudeau stressed that they made a loan, and again reiterated that he was happy they were changing course on those bonuses. Mulcair switched to French to rail about the lack of job guarantees, and Trudeau insisted that the loan would protect jobs. Mulcair switched to the issue of emissions targets, and Trudeau insisted they were committing their promise to reduce them. Mulcair went for a second round in French, noting that Environment Canada has said that they wouldn’t be able to meet the Harper targets, while Trudeau retorted that the analysis was based on the previous government’s actions, not those of his government.

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Roundup: It’s not really a $300/tonne price

A “secret memo” has been floating around from a couple of different news organizations, which purports to claim that a $300/tonne carbon price would be required to reach our emissions reduction targets, and of course, opponents of carbon pricing are lighting their hair on fire and saying “See! The Liberals are trying to destroy the energy industry!” And so on. Except that’s not what it says. It says that if no other measures were taken, that’s what the carbon price would be, but those are the only measures we’re taking. We’re doing a bunch of things with regulations and other programmes, not to mention that carbon prices can be the incentive by which industries will innovate and look for ways to reduce their emissions as it becomes a price incentive. You know, a free market mechanism instead of the heavy hand of government regulation. Regardless, the National Post version of the story has a bunch of perspective sauce, much of it courtesy of Andrew Leach, and I’ll leave you with some of his added Twitter commentary on the matter, much of it directed to Jason Kenney and Brian Jean in Alberta who are using this as “proof” that carbon pricing is ineffective and/or some nefarious scheme.

https://twitter.com/andrew_leach/status/847623276482281472

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Roundup: Sticking to vapid promises

Because I’m not ready to let go of this topic of the Liberals plans around the Standing Orders, Maclean’s had an interview with deputy House Leader Kevin Lamoureux about why the government is so keen on trying to make these changes. Lamoureux has two answers – that the rules should be modernized (with no explanation as to why), and that they made an election promise to do so. Oh, and some too-cute-by-half insistence that even if they changed Question Period that Trudeau would show up more than once a week, despite the fact that he promised in that same election that he wanted to be out on the road more than just being stuck in Ottawa. So yeah, that seems to indicate that he’s looking for an excuse to only be there one day a week.

As with electoral reform, the Liberals came out early on with this facile talking point about the need to “modernize.” There’s no justification as to why or no explanation as to what’s not working (just the rather pedestrian observation that it’s not – draw your own conclusion) and then doing some jazz hands and saying “modernize!”

And like with electoral reform, promising “modernization” without saying why, is kind of a stupid promise, and you know how I feel about stupid promises – they should be owned up to as being stupid before they are broken. In this case, I’m not sure if it was just the vapid need to promise to modernize everything, or if they think there’s a real issue that they want to solve – regardless of what it is, it’s obvious that anything they’ve proposed to date won’t actually solve the problems that they have because the problem is cultural in this place, and the way to solve it isn’t by changing the rules that they’re proposing to. Either way, they need to say “Stupid promise. Real life proved to be different than we imagined it was,” and abandon these plans in favour of maybe, just maybe, tackling the deeper cultural issues that are the real cause of dysfunction in our Parliament.

Meanwhile, I was on AM 770 in Calgary yesterday to talk about my Maclean’s op-ed on the fact that we don’t need to modernize the House of Commons, which you can listen to here.

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Roundup: What to do about Beyak?

The CBC caught up with Senator Lynn Beyak yesterday, and she essentially doubled down on her insistence that she’s said nothing wrong about residential schools, and then compounded the whole thing by insisting that she’s been “suffering with” these residential school survivors because she lives in the area with them and she once went on double dates with an Aboriginal fellow. The mind boggles.

So with this having been said, and Beyak insisting that she’s not going anywhere, people are starting to wonder what’s next (as they demand her resignation, if not from the Senate then at least the Aboriginal Peoples committee). Let’s deconstruct this a little first, shall we?

To start off with, as a member of the committee, Beyak is not really making decisions around Indigenous policy in this country, as some people are suggesting. The government – meaning Cabinet – still makes that policy, and the Senate and in particular the committee does their due diligence in holding them to account. They’re not actually making policy themselves. Add to that, Beyak is one vote out of fifteen (remember that committees in this current session are now oversized because that was how to add in new independent members without a prorogation to reset committee selection), so her vote is even more diluted than it would be in a regular parliamentary session. And given that her views are off-side with her own party’s, it’s not like she’s really going to be the swing-vote in any case. So let’s calm down about that. While the committee chair has suggested that Beyak step aside, it’s not really her call as to whether Beyak is a member or not – that’s up to caucus leadership (or in the case of the Independent Senators’ Group, they volunteered for committee assignments), and there’s nothing the Chair can do about it. But if the Conservative Senate leadership is aware that Beyak being on that committee is a problem, they can probably arrange to have her rotated off of it (if not right away, then certainly when the committees reset at the next prorogation).

Some people has suggested that Beyak be kicked out of Conservative caucus, but I’m less certain that that’s a good idea. For one, her being in caucus allows the Conservative leadership to maintain some level of control over her, and if she’s forced out, where is she going to go? The ISG, where she can look at Senator Murray Sinclair every organizing meeting?

As for the comparisons between Beyak and Senator Don Meredith – because people have been making them – it’s a specious comparison that needs to stop. He’s broken ethics rules (and possibly the law), whereas Beyak’s crime is wilful ignorance. That’s not actually illegal or against the ethics code, and no, you can’t expel her for it. What they can do, however, is maybe consider a policy of phasing her out – making it as unrewarding as possible for her to be there that she eventually leaves. It’s an inexact science, particularly for someone as clueless as Beyak, and this whole episode should serve as one more reminder as to why it’s important to take some care in choosing who to appoint, because they’ll be there for a long time with little recourse for removal (and Stephen Harper quite obviously was not taking care).

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Roundup: The Luddite debate

The NDP held their second leadership debate yesterday in Montreal on the theme of youth, and the first part of the event went pretty much as expected. All four candidates went on endlessly about the need for free tuition without actually seeming to grasp the underlying issues with such a pledge – not only that in Canada, this is an area of provincial jurisdiction (and no, it’s not as easy as giving the provinces a whack of cash and telling them “this is for free tuition!” because watch what happens when you start putting strings on provincial spending), and the fact that there are always limited resources no matter how you slice it. That means that if you’re offering free tuition, that tends to mean you either need to raise the bar for entrance to universities so that it’s higher and weeds people out, or you water everything down and the quality of the education you’re offering for free declines because systems have only so much capacity and you’re not going to find an infinite number of good profs who are willing to make the smaller salary dollars you’re able to offer in order to keep tuition free for all. It’s basic economic theory.

The other issues paid a great deal of lip service were precarious work, and automation, and while there was a lot of talk about it, I’m not sure there were a lot of answers. Just decrying precarious work doesn’t mean that the government has the power to mandate that there be full-time employment, especially when the problem is in part because of demographics (as in, there aren’t enough Boomers retiring fast enough for jobs to be taken up by Millennials in a serious capacity) and the fact that the economy is restructuring itself and we haven’t arrived at sustainable models for a number of fields yet, particularly when some of those jobs bump up against other Millennial maxims like “information wants to be free” and nobody wanting to have to pay for content that they nevertheless want to be paid to create. But this also fits in with the question of automation, which the candidates didn’t have much to answer with either.

Being worried about automation while at the same time insisting that you want “value-added” jobs and the kinds of manufacturing jobs that we saw in the fifties and sixties is kind of like the Trump promise to return to coal-fired electricity, which no longer makes sense in the age of cheap natural gas. Those kind of jobs aren’t going to exist because there’s no economic rationale for them, particularly when our economy is moving more toward being service-based. Not to mention, automation is largely taking over the most menial of tasks, which is why it’s not a bad thing that it’s happening. And sure, there are differing ways to deal with it, from skills retraining (as the Liberals are trying to move toward with aspects of their new budget) to basic income (which Guy Caron is proposing), but that may not in the end be feasible. But you can’t just say that you’ll ban automation or tax it in the hopes of supporting displaced workers, while at the same time demanding greater innovation because things don’t work that way. Innovation will demand disruption, which these candidates seem to want do avoid. If things did with without disruption, we’d still all be labouring on farms. And that’s why I found the leadership candidates to be largely unconvincing on this topic. It is an issue we’ll have to deal with, but you can’t just wish for old manufacturing jobs to come back as the answer. It’s not going to happen.

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QP: The perpetual call for lower taxes

While the PM off in Houston, the benches were a little emptier today. Rona Ambrose led off, worrying that the government wasn’t doing enough to cut taxes in the face of the Trumpocalypse — assuming that anyone can actually decipher what signals are actually being given there. Scott Brison responded, citing the tax cuts and Canadian Child Benefit that have lifted children out of poverty. Ambrose demanded lower taxes and less red tape, to which Navdeep Bains listed the stats on job creation and the number of companies expanding investing or expanding in Canada. Ambrose asked for the same as it comes to small business, and Bardish Chagger relayed her government’s concern for those small businesses are looking to help them succeed. Alain Rayes worried about tax burden being passed onto his daughter with higher deficits, to which Scott Brison reiterated his previous comments in French. Rayes asked again about small businesses in French, and Chagger gave a more truncated version of her previous response in French. Matthew Dubé led off for the NDP, worrying about Quebeckers being turned away from the US border, to which Ahmed Hussen said that he couldn’t speak to individual cases, but they need to raise concerns with American authorities. Dubé changed to English to demand an end to the safe third country agreement, but Hussen reminded him that the UNHCR still considers the States a safe country. Tracey Ramsey worried about auto parts rules under NAFTA, which Chrystia Freeland assured her that it was her priority to fight those American rules. Ramsey demanded to know what the government planned to bring up in trade negotiations, but Freeland chastised Ramsey for trying to get her to negotiate in the media.

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