Roundup: The good and bad of new Senate rules

The Senate adopted a change to their rules this week, which changed the definition of a caucus so that it no longer depends on being affiliated with a party registered with Elections Canada, but can instead be any nine senators who want to affiliate themselves. The immediate upside of this is that it formalizes the break between the Conservative and Liberal duopoly that has dominated the Chamber for much of its history, and will grant actual formal status to the Independent Senators Group that the majority of the crossbench appointments have affiliated themselves with. Breaking the duopoly is good, because some of the past abuses in the Chamber were enabled by it – why come down hard on the rules when you’ll be the one to benefit from them next, when it’s “your turn” after all?

But where things go from here is where things get a bit more fraught. Senator Peter Harder, the Government Leader – err, “representative,” is pleased as punch by this development because it creates more independence that moves in line with his vision of a chamber without partisan affiliation, where he can then recruit and co-opt senators to his caucuses at will. The notion that it gives senators the freedom to associate themselves in whatever configuration they choose – and usually people’s first idea is on regional lines – is fraught because it takes apart the Westminster model of government and opposition, which is fundamental to our system of government. The ability to have a coherent opposition is an important one, and if the Senate breaks up into interest groups, that makes coherent opposition more difficult, and generally makes it more difficult to hold a government to account – especially if those interest groups start agitating for their own particular special interests rather than having a big enough tent to encompass a multitude of views and regional dynamics within it, like we do now. If we let the Senate devolve into a collection of interest groups, what does that do about its ability to hold government to account, or to actually push back against bad legislation in a coherent manner when it counts to do so? While there is room to grow in the Chamber to permanently fit three or four different caucus groups, we should beware having too many factions. If some of those factions should choose to remain partisan, that shouldn’t be discouraged either – politics is partisan, and the Senate is a political body. That it is appointed, however, means that in most cases, the partisanship is more muted because they aren’t vying for re-election, which is as it should be. But while there are positive outcomes from this rule change, we should keep an eye on it so as to ensure that it doesn’t become abused, especially by those who would exploit the lack of coherent opposition for their own benefit.

Meanwhile, Paul Wells has a good read on the Senator Stephen Greene ouster, and how the two approaches to dealing with this new independent Senate – charm from Trudeau, discipline from the Conservatives – isn’t really working.

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Roundup: Butchered applause lines

Now that the French “debate” has passed, it looks like today is the day that Kevin O’Leary will announce his candidacy for the Conservative leadership – something most of the other candidates will probably welcome given that it will divert everyone’s attention from the embarrassing debacle that was the “debate,” and I do use the term loosely. As with previous events in this contest, there was no debate, just a line-up of talking points, only this time it was mostly in mangled French, some of which was utterly incomprehensible.

Not to say that there wasn’t some artificial drama during the horror show. Kellie Leitch in full butchered French and Steven Blaney both had their sight set on Maxime Bernier and attacked him out of the gate (while Erin O’Toole, in very slow sentences, pleaded with them not to fight), and for the first 45 minutes at least, all anyone could talk about was supply management, before the moved onto softwood lumber – because apparently dairy and forestry are Quebec’s only two industries. And then when it came to questions of national security, it was all manner of fumbled pearl-clutching (and it was like you could watch them grasping for that strand of pearls and missing it every time) as a number of them insisted that they were for immigration but wanted to ensure that they weren’t letting in terrorists. Brad Trost decided to go full-Trump and declare that we ban immigration from “pro-radical Islamist” regions (but don’t worry, he doesn’t hate all immigrants – he married one!).

If you’re looking for a professional evaluation of everyone’s proficiency in French, CBC assembled an expert panel to grade everyone, and based on my own personal observations, Lisa Raitt did better than most expectations (but was still mostly reading her responses), and Chris Alexander, for all of his other weaknesses in this race, had one of the best grasps of the language of any of them. Rick Petersen, the other also-ran who doesn’t have a seat, also had a really great grasp of French and was one of the only people speaking off the cuff – doubly impressive given that he’s an Anglo and not Francophone. And as for Deepak Obhrai, people keep saying “points for trying!” or “At least he showed up, unlike O’Leary!” well, there were actual times when he was just uttering phonetic gibberish – and pointing while doing it.

But, as Martin Patriquin writes, none of this is going to matter after a few hours today because once O’Leary is in the race, none of it is going to matter.

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Roundup: The importance of measuring outcomes

The site went live yesterday, and immediately it became the subject of mockery because it asked questions related to outcomes rather than simplistic questions about which system of counting votes one preferred. Of course, focusing on the proportionality of votes to seats fixates on a facile notion of “representation” while ignoring the substance of what those votes actually mean, the effect on accountability, and the effect on our overall system of government. No, it won’t mean that whoever gets 50 percent of the votes will get 50 percent of the power. That’s a wrong-headed notion that ignores the ways in which our system operates currently, and the various roles that MPs have versus ministers.

Anyway, here’s Phil Lagassé explaining why the questions are the way they are (which are not some kind of People magazine pop-psychology quiz like Nathan Cullen constantly derides them as), and no, it’s not about ensuring that the fix is in for whatever the Liberals want – it’s designed to see what kinds of outcomes people are looking for and then working backwards to find an electoral system that favours those outcomes, and anyone who thinks that you can focus on electoral reform without looking at outcomes is deluding themselves.

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Roundup: Civilian control – it’s a Thing!

Over the past couple of weeks, as the government’s “interim” fighter acquisition plans were announced and the fallout has been filtering down since. I’ve seen a lot of fairly disturbing commentary around it, not just from some of the usual ass clowns on social media, but I’ve also seen it in the House of Commons. No less than Rona Ambrose told the Prime Minister that the government needs to get out of the way of military procurement decisions and let the military decide what it needs or wants.

Nope. So much nope.

In case Ambrose or anyone else has forgotten, in a liberal democracy we insist on civilian control of the military. That’s kind of a big thing, and as Stephen Saideman points out, it’s a central ingredient and necessary thing for democracy. And it’s not just this attitude creeping out in Canada, but we’re seeing it in spades in the United States right now as Donald Trump is looking to put former military members into cabinet who haven’t passed their designated “cooling off” period yet.

It’s also why I get annoyed by these stories about how the government’s plans and policies are characterised as “contradicting” the head of the Royal Canadian Airforce, for example. The problem with these kinds of headlines is that if you’ve at all paid attention to the Canadian Forces for the past number of years, you’ll see that they will always say that they have the resources at hand to do the job they’re asked to do. If the government says that 65 new planes are enough, well, then the RCAF will make sure that 65 planes are enough, no matter how much they might like or need more. Plenty of stories filtered out during the air mission in Iraq about how the RCAF was managing it despite their budget constraints, and it was a lot do to with cannibalising training budgets and so on to ensure that those missions that were being asked of them still flew, and they did it without public complaint. (Never mind that they were concerned about the declining readiness of the fleet at the time, but they still had a job to do that was being asked of them, so they made it work).

We need to remember that governments set policies, and they are held to account for the policies they set, but it’s not up to the military to tell us what that policy should be. We’ve had procurement problems in the past where the military were allowed to set their own parameters and went wild looking for the biggest and the best kit available, and boondoggles resulted. So yes, the government can set its own policies and align procurement to match it. That’s fine. And we can hold them to account for that policy on any number of metrics. But we should really refrain from that metric being “the military said the old policy was fine” because of course they were going to say that. It’s also not their job to be yet another cudgel for opposition parties to wield and then hide behind like they do with every other institution and officer of parliament. Civilian control matters. Let’s remember to treat it that way.

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Roundup: Pushing more policy to the courts

There’s this terrible idea that keeps circling, and here it comes again, which is the idea that we should enshrine environmental rights in the constitution. David Suzuki is going around trying to make this happen once again, concerned that like the coming Trumpocalypse in the States, that one bad election in Canada and any progress we’ve made on environmental laws would be set back. And while this kind of thinking – insulating environmental laws in a more robust constitutional framework – sounds good on its face, its proponents need a good smack upside the head.

Why? Because this is a democracy, and what they are trying to do is take the environment out of the role of the government, and put it in the lap of the courts. No longer should the people decide on an important area like the environment, but instead, we’ll ensure that unelected judges with no accountability are the ones who are now determining policy. Add to that, I’m not sure that the courts have the competency to do be making these kinds of policy determinations, and yes, that is an issue that this proposal doesn’t seem to talk about. It’s disturbing that Suzuki and his ilk are trying to diminish the role of democracy in favour of a more technocratic approach to government, no matter how much importance one places on environmental policy. We have a system of government which is supposed to hold the government of the day to account, and usually it’s pretty successful. It held the Conservatives to account after they abused the public trust on things like the environment file, and were duly punished for it at the ballot box, and when you look at recent elections like that in the Yukon where the environment was apparently an issue, the party that was more reluctant to take action was punished for it. You don’t need to yet again turn everything over to the courts in order to take action – just mobilize enough popular support to the cause. It can and does happen, but to simply suggest that politics has failed and the courts should handle it is the kind of thinking that makes me really, really uncomfortable because of where it leads.

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Roundup: A warning or a betrayal?

Justin Trudeau made some comments to Le Devoir about the reduced sense of urgency around electoral reform, and a bunch of people – notably the NDP – freaked out. Trudeau said:

Under Stephen Harper, there were so many people unhappy with the government and their approach that people were saying, ‘It will take electoral reform to no longer have a government we don’t like’. But under the current system, they now have a government they’re more satisfied with and the motivation to change the electoral system is less compelling.

And then comes the parsing of the rhetoric – is he trying to walk back on his election promise that 2015 was the last election under first-past-the-post, or is he trying to give signals to the electoral reform committee as they begin to draft their report after their summer of consultations across the country? To the NDP (and Ed Broadbent of his eponymously named Institute), Trudeau’s comments are a betrayal because to them, he can only deliver proportional representation or bust. Their working premise is that Trudeau was saying that because the system elected Liberals it’s fine, but when it elected Conservatives, it was broken. But I’m not sure that’s what Trudeau was actually saying, because the prevailing popular discussion pre-election was that reform was needed because any system that delivered Conservative majorities was deemed illegitimate – one of those kinds of talking points that gives me hives because it presumes that electoral reform needs to be done for partisan reasons. And to that extent, Trudeau is right, that the sense of urgency has decreased because the Conservatives are no longer in power, so there’s less clamour for it to happen. There is also the theory that what Trudeau was signalling was that there are degrees of acceptable change, and that without as much broad support that smaller change like ranked ballots could be something he would push through (seeing as we all know that the committee is going to be deadlocked).

Kady O’Malley, on the other hand, thinks that Trudeau is signalling to the NDP and Greens that they should be willing to compromise on PR during the committee deliberations, or he’ll deem it a stalemate and either walk away or put it to a referendum, where it would almost certainly be doomed. Rona Ambrose says that it could signal that Trudeau is backing down, which the Conservatives would like (and to be perfectly honest, I would too because the system is not broken and electoral reform is a solution in search of a problem). That he may have found the excuse to back down and admit this election promise is a failure – and then move on – would be the ideal move in my most humble opinion.

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Roundup: The outsider instinct

Over in the National Post, Michael Den Tandt offers the theory that Donald Trump and his excesses have poisoned the well for other “outsider” candidates worldwide, and that his flash-over-substance style will make others take a second look. Citing the Conservative party leadership in Canada, Den Tandt supposes that this dooms a potential candidacy by Kevin O’Leary, just as Boris Johnson basically outsidered-himself out of the running to be prime minister in the UK – but I’m not sure that I buy the premise of the argument.

I think that there remains a hankering for outsider candidates despite Trump, and that that precisely because he’s poisoned the well that we’ll continue to see these kinds of players railing against the establishment. As is playing out in the Conservative leadership race here, we’ll see more candidates establish themselves as outsiders struggling against the party “elites” because that’s the narrative that has been blown wide open in recent years. (See: Kellie Leitch and Brad Trost). Den Tandt acknowledges that Tony Clement dropped out because he was unable to attract donors for being too conventional and too much an established politician, which I think is part of what blows his whole thesis out of the water. It wasn’t that Clement got in the race too soon, it’s that this notion of needing to find an “outsider” is a particularly strong influence in the zeitgeist right now, especially for conservatives who feel that the establishment has been letting them down, that it hasn’t gotten them where they need to be (witness how Harper’s incrementalism has largely been undone in a matter of months, if you don’t count the permanent fiscal chokehold that the GST cut has put into place). I think it’s why Leitch is taking the Ford Brothers/Nick Kouvalis route of yelling “gravy train,” and why Maxime Bernier is playing entirely against the rest of the party’s established policies and is getting attention for it. Everyone wants to play against the establishment and they are looking for the right way to do it. I don’t think we’ll have another Donald Trump – it would be hard to get that kind of unconstrained id and utter narcissism in a single package again – but I think there is absolutely going to be yet more people trying to find the right balance. I’m not sure it’ll be as successful in Canada as it might be in the States (particularly as our system is not really broken like theirs is), but the impulse to find that outsider is still pervasive, and it will be felt in the race here.

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Roundup: Anxiety and resentment

As the United States continues to be subjected to demagoguery in their electoral gong show, Bill Morneau is warning about “canary in the coal mine” that Trumpism is representing, which can be echoed in other places with the Brexit vote or the rise of Bernie Sanders on the left in the US. Morneau attributes it to anxiety and resentment over the belief that globalisation is not benefitting the majority of citizens (never mind that $400 flat panel televisions are totally not the benefit of global trade, but just a coincidence. Oh, wait…) Morneau pegs his solutions in terms of what his government is doing with their “inclusive growth” agenda, and mentions their higher taxes on the one percent in order to pay for the enhanced child benefit payments and their plans to overhaul the CPP, along with infrastructure spending, but it seems to me that it’s only half the battle, and that we need some greater financial economic amongst the general public to see just what the benefits of global trade are, and that they’re not just benefitting the super-rich.

We need talk about things like the “Iowa car crop” to educate people about how trade benefits them in ways that they don’t think about – like hey, food prices are at something approaching an all-time low thanks to trade, and cars and electronics continue to fall in price and we have devices nowadays that would be considered magical just a few decades ago, at price points that are unimaginable for their complexity. But none of this fits into the narratives of resentment that people stoke for political benefit, and that’s a problem. It’s also a problem with that narrative is used to fuel anti-establishment sentiments that only serve to poison the well against the way governments function, and that’s going to start biting back in a very big way before too long in the States, as people demanding wholesale dismantling of the state start reaping what they’ve sown – particularly as it comes wrapped in Trump’s message and his attempts to delegitimise the results of the election before they’ve happened already. It’s a dangerous game that they’re playing, and it needs to be stopped, but anyone who does is “biased” and “protecting the status quo,” and where do you go from there? I wish I knew.

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Roundup: About those revocations…

Everyone has been making a big deal about citizenship revocation lately, particularly post-Maryam Monsef birthplace revelation, but as it turns out, the situation is not as black-and-white as presented, particularly in some media depictions like this one from CBC. So the former chief of staff for the department sent out a tweet-storm of context and correction that is worth reading, and shows why it’s wrong to conflate that issue with the other revocations that are taking place. This is also interesting context to add to the questions that John McCallum faced in Senate QP last week where he stated that he’d look into a moratorium on these revocations that are happening without much in the way of due process or an appeal mechanism, but it does shape the issue in a different fashion, so again, it does give pause as to what the moratorium being demanded is really asking for. It’s something to keep an eye on, but for now, here’s that boatload of context for consideration.

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Roundup: The new Senate hurdles

Just how MPs should deal with an increasingly independent – and assertive – Senate is the question posed by former MP Bryon Wilfert and his firm partner Paul Hillier, and it’s a question that I’m really not sure that Justin Trudeau adequate considered when he embarked on this path to modernization. While they note that no longer having senators in caucus limits the closed-door opportunity to hear and debate government proposals, I will state that they overplay the concern about the ability to whip those votes. There has never been any formal power to whip senators’ votes, but they relied primarily on sentimentality or affiliation, and sometimes senators went along, and sometimes they very much didn’t. That’s one of the reasons why there remains a bit of a taint around the post-2008 Harper appointees, because most of them came in being told that they could be whipped, and they behaved as though they could – up until fracture points around the contentious bill C-377, and then they rebelled against their Senate leadership (and it’s not a coincidence that Marjory LeBreton resigned as Government Leader shortly thereafter). They also point to the very real problem that with so many new MPs, and with the Liberal senators no longer in caucus, the personal relationships between parliamentarians that would normally exist no longer do, and that does start to exacerbate the problem of driving legislation through the Senate.

Where I see their proposed solution as being problematic is the suggestion that committee chairs be the new agents to set the legislative pace and of trying to build consensus. Why I think this is a problem is that the point of committees is to hold the government to account, which is why ministers are so frequently called to appear before them. If the chair is acting as the agent of the government, rather than of the committee itself, it creates something of a conflict in their roles. As well, many of the committee chairs are from the Conservatives (not that the Senate Liberals are the same party as the government, but there is an assumption of greater sympathy despite the fact that the relationship has been pretty testy to date). Trying to co-opt those chairs into being government agents to drive consensus would seem to be antithetical to the purposes of having an opposition, and its accountability functions. It also puts those chairs in the awkward position of having stakeholder groups trying to court them in order to get their support in rounding up senators to support the bills – groups that would also want to come before committee to plead their cases when the bills get to said committees, which again presents a bit of a conflict. If anything, I do think this highlights the value of having caucuses for organisational purposes, and arranging these meetings – and yes, the Independent Senators Group could possibly host these same kinds of stakeholder discussions without trying to come to an internal consensus, allowing their members to make their own minds up (and to date, they have operated on a rule that anyone trying to get support does so outside of their meeting room). It will continue to take getting used to, but it will continue to take some serious thought about what roles we’re asking people to take on within the chamber in order to get bills passed.

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