Roundup: Feeding the fear industry

The Conservatives’ final Supply Day motion of the year, and they chose to use it to both demand that the government bring any returning ISIS fighters to Canada to justice, while simultaneously condemning them for the Omar Khadr settlement – you know, the issue that they were going to hammer the government hard on back in September which didn’t materialize.

As you can expect, the arguments were not terribly illuminating, and lacking in any particular nuance that the topic should merit, but that’s not exactly surprising. Still, some of the lines were particularly baffling in their ham-fistedness.

Amidst this, the CBC published a piece about Canada’s refusal to engage in extrajudicial killings of our own foreign fighters out of the country, asking lawyers whether Canadian law actually prevents it, which not unreasonably has been accused of creating a debate out of nothing.

And this is really the key point. Treating issues like this one in a ham-fisted manner, whether it’s with a Supply Day motion designed to fail, or a debate created out of nothingness, is playing into the fear industry that we really should be trying to avoid. This is not the kind of nuanced debate that we should be having, which hurts everyone in the long run.

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Roundup: Freeland brings the vague

The morning belonged to Chrystia Freeland yesterday, starting with her speech on NAFTA renegotiation at the University of Ottawa, followed by her appearance before the Commons trade committee to answer questions – however vaguely – about what the country’s priorities were. And while she did list ten things that Canada is looking for (compared the American wish list of 100 items), she didn’t bow to opposition pressure to negotiate in the media, or to lay out which of the items on that list were merely for show, whether that’s the proposed chapter on gender or Indigenous issues. It was driven home several times that yes, Supply Management is going to be defended (no matter how many times the different opposition parties have tried to play the game that only they truly love the system). And as for talk about things like harmonizing regulations – a constant promise that never seems to make much progress no matter which government is in power in either country – it has become clear that this is something that the government began doing their homework on since Trump began raising trade issues in the 2016 US election.

Meanwhile, Paul Wells evaluates Freeland’s deliberate vagueness in what she was trying to convey about the talks, while Andrew Coyne wonders if the Canadian government’s wishlist isn’t a deliberate attempt to sandbag the talks from the start, possibly in the hopes of keeping things status quo.

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Roundup: Prepping for trade talks

Starting this week, it looks like it’s going to be all NAFTA, all the time, as trade talks get underway. Chrystia Freeland is kicking things off with a speech in Ottawa today, urging support for an overhaul, before she goes before a parliamentary committee about the government’s priorities (which I’m sure there will be a certain amount of vagueness about because I’m sure she’s not looking to negotiate in the media). While Freeland and Justin Trudeau have been making noises about labour and environmental standards of late, the red line will likely remain a dispute resolution mechanism, given our disadvantages with American litigiousness and their compliant courts.

In light of these talks, here’s a look at how the benefits are often invisible to Canadians, how populism is affecting negotiations – particularly among the Americans, and how energy could be an area where NAFTA does a great deal of good – assuming that it gets to the table this time around. Here is a look at the lead US negotiator, and how various groups back here in Ottawa are lobbying the government ahead of negotiation. And no examination of the negotiations would be complete without a reminder of previous trade talks with the US, going as far back as pre-Confederation times.

Meanwhile, John Geddes sets the stage for the talks, while Andrew Coyne makes the point that Canada’s leverage in these talks is the ability to walk away, seeing as we survived without free trade for 120 years and we can do it again.

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Roundup: Freeland articulates her vision

Foreign Affairs minister Chrystia Freeland gave her major foreign policy speech yesterday in the House of Commons, and the theme was basically that we can’t rely on the Americans anymore, so it’s time to step up more, and that includes hard power. That also means more spending on the military, some of which is there and waiting to actually be spent once we get some of our procurement issues sorted, but that particular speech is later today as the Defence Policy Review is finally unveiled. (And incidentally, on Friday, Marie-Claude Bibeau will unveil our feminist foreign aid policy). It was noted by a couple of people, chiefly among them Paul Wells, that we really should have a major foreign policy speech every year or so, and this is certainly a better indication of where the government’s thinking is at.

This was not the case with the previous government, and it’s certainly worth noting. That this government actually uses the time allotted for statements by ministers is a good thing, as the constant eschewing of Parliament in favour of human backdrops in some alternate location was insulting.

Meanwhile, Stephanie Carvin offered some cogent analysis over Twitter, so here you go:

You can also find Carvin’s thoughts in expanded form here. For some more analysis on the speech, read Paul Wells for some more context around the points Freeland made in the speech, Susan Delacourt on the jabs made at the Trumpocalypse, and Stephen Saideman for some more foreign and defence policy angles.

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Roundup: Wrongheaded notions about party policy-making

Over at Policy Options yesterday, Stephen Harper’s former policy director, Rachel Curren, lamented the policy-making process of the Conservative Party, sighing about the fact that the majority of the leadership candidates were just retreads of Harper-era policies. But sweet Rhea mother of Zeus was her op-ed full of so many mistruths about the Westminster parliamentary system, that my head about exploded.

While Curran was disingenuous about how the Conservatives were the party of grassroots policy-making that the Liberals were top-down (that has not been the case until they changed their policy process just last year, which is a problem), the crux of her article rested on this notion that the party needed some outside policy groups or think-tanks to do the heavy policy lifting for them because they were just too cautious a group to do it otherwise.

No.

The notion that it’s not the role of the party itself to engage in policy development, but rather to fight and win elections, is complete and utter bullshit. Likewise, it’s not up to the civil service to come up with policy either – they can offer advice and options for implementation, but political policy is certainly not their job.

It is absolutely the role of the grassroots to engage in policy development because that’s their job. Politics is supposed to be about bottom-up engagement, both in terms of policy development and in the selection of candidates (and removal of incumbents when necessary). And what utterly boggles my mind is the notion that Curran is peddling that we should take away what little power the grassroots has left and pass it off to these third-party think-tanks that can access the kind of funding that parties can’t, and have little accountability. If we take this away from the grassroots, then what good are they? Continuing the farce of our illegitimate leadership selection process to coronate unaccountable presidential figures who can then dictate top-down policy and control over the party (and if you don’t think they’re not dictating policy, then why the hell are they running on it in this gong show of a leadership contest)? These contests actively disenfranchise the grassroots (despite all appearance to the contrary), so taking away what policy powers they have left leaves the grassroots with what? Being donors with no say in what they’re donating to? How is that any way to run our political system?

This kind of stuff infuriates me because it’s not the way politics is supposed to happen. The grassroots are supposed to be empowered, and leaders are supposed to be responsive to them – not the other way around like it is now. It’s a problem and it’s one we need to fix, and hey, I just happened to have written a book all about these kinds of issues, which I would suggest that Curran read, because she might learn a thing or two.

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Roundup: Neglecting our Canadian Sovereign

It was Victoria Day yesterday, which is a uniquely Canadian holiday that both celebrates the “mother” of Confederation, Queen Victoria, as well as acts as the official birthday of the Canadian monarch (no matter when their natural person’s birthday is). You might find it strange to find that in his message for Victoria Day, the Governor General didn’t reference the Queen of Canada at all, but rather the forthcoming Sapphire Jubilee and her being the first British monarch to achieve it.

Why does this matter? Because the Queen of Canada is a separate legal entity from the Queen of the United Kingdom, and because the holiday celebrated the Queen of Canada’s official birthday. Now, there were quibbles with my tweet pointing out the fact that the GG made the omission, but I maintain that the bigger point stands.

And Lagassé is correct in that – the emphasis is curious, and part of a troubling trend from the Canadian government, which has only exacerbated since the Liberals came to power.

While the Conservatives did a lot to bring some of the focus back to the Canadian monarchy after a couple of decades of neglect and the conscious effort to “Canadianize” a number of institutions by dropping their Royal monikers (like the Royal Canadian Navy being changed into “Maritime Command” for example, until the Conservatives restored its original name), they too did their own damage to the institution, primarily when they made the utterly boneheaded decision to pass legislation that when it came to changing the line of succession to include female heirs and those who are Catholics, they merely assented to British legislation rather than amending it in Canada. In other words, they turned what was control over our own Crown and Sovereign, and undid all of the progress we’ve made since the Statute of Westminster in 1931, when the Canadian Crown became separate from the UK Crown, and turned us essentially into Tuvalu when it comes to our relationship with the Crown, and thus far, the Courts have sided with the government when it comes to the challenges of this legislation, because the appreciation of the distinction and the role of the Canadian Crown remains largely ignorant to the vast majority of Canadian society, the judiciary included. (Incidentally, that was another bill that the Commons passed at all stages with no debate, and while it was debated in the Senate rather than veto it and tell the government that the proper way to change the law of succession is by way of constitutional amendment).

Meanwhile, the current government hasn’t named a new Canadian Secretary to the Queen since the last one retired, and has been letting the republican bureaucrats in the Department of Canadian Heritage run roughshod over the relationship with the Royal Family. And because the vast majority of Canadians don’t know any better, we’re slowly killing our distinct Crown and turning ourselves back into a mere colony. So yeah, it does matter that the GG couldn’t get this very basic thing right, and we should be upset about it.

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Roundup: Expulsion isn’t rocket science

All day, we’ve been told that Senate clerks are “scouring the constitution” to find a “loophole” that will allow them to expel Senator Don Meredith, and even when they get former law clerks on television who’ve said clearly that yes, the Senate can do this, they still try to go “a ha, but they never did with…” name a scandalous former Senator, and in those cases, they resigned before the Senate had a chance to expel them. Suffice to say, a whole lot of reporters are being deliberately obtuse in order to create a false sense of drama around this.

The simple fact of the matter is that Parliament is self-governing, and it has the powers it needs to expel members if need be. Those are parliamentary privileges, and they have been exercised in the past in the Commons, as James Bowden’s research has shown, and those privileges would indeed extend to the Senate. It’s not sexy or rocket science, but people need to calm down and let the process work itself out.

Adam Dodek says that the Senate needs to move quickly on dealing with Meredith if they hope to regain the public trust. And that may be the case, but we also don’t want to be too hasty, given the ham-fisted and poor manner in which the suspensions of Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau were handled, and the truth of the matter is that the Senate is on March break. The ethics committee is coming back a week early to deal with the matter, so they are moving quickly but they can’t simply act rashly and in the heat of the moment, which I think will be the danger in order to keep from invoking the ire of an impatient public, egged on by a media demanding that the story move ahead quickly before people lose interest.

Meanwhile we’re also seeing a lot of second-guessing about the role that Meredith played within the Independent Senators Group, and how he was described as having a “leadership position” within it. Indeed, Meredith was elected to one of four “coordinating positions” within the nascent quasi-caucus, in its early days after the first round of independent appointments when the group was still getting on its feet and Meredith had more legislative experience than most of the members of the group. That being said, he had very little actual standing within the group and was certainly not viewed as any kind of actual leader by anyone I’ve spoken to. I have sympathy for their position that he was innocent until proven guilty and that it took the Senate Ethics Officer two years to reach her conclusions, but on the other hand, we could still see this train on the tracks. It’s too bad the ISG didn’t insulate themselves a little better from this, but in all, I don’t think the damage looks as bad from out here.

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Roundup: Carrying Russia’s water

The big story that had a number of people salivating yesterday was the screaming headline in the Globe and Mail that Chrystia Freeland knew her grandfather was the editor of a Nazi newspaper, which Freeland’s own uncle had researched, and to whom Freeland had contributed assistance to. VICE printed their own version of the story, making it clear that Russian officials have been shopping this story around for a while – remember that Freeland is persona non grata in Russia and target of sanctions – and added a tonne of context to the circumstances that Freeland’s grandfather would have found himself in, most of which was absent from the Globe piece because, well, it’s less sensational that way. And then cue some of the bellyaching that Freeland’s office wasn’t very forthcoming about some of this information when asked, the accusations that this somehow undermines her credibility, and whether or not this should be properly characterised as a smear when most of the facts are, in broad strokes, true (though again, context mitigates a lot of this).

The Russian connection, however, is what is of most concern to observers. Professor Stephen Saideman for one is cranky that the Globe very much seems to be compromising its editorial standards and is now carrying Russia’s water for the sensationalism and the sake of clicks. Terry Glavin is even more outraged because of the ways in which this plays into Russian hands, and any belief that we’re immune to the kinds of machinations they’ve exhibited in destabilizing the American electoral process (and now administration) and what they’re up to with far-right parties in Europe should be cause for concern. And to that end, Scott Gilmore says that we can’t expect to be immune from these kinds of Russian attacks. So should we be concerned? By all appearances, yes. And maybe we should remember that context is important to stories, and not the sensationalism, because that’s where the populist outrage starts to build, causing us bigger headaches in the long run.

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Senate QP: Freeland digresses

Senate ministerial Question Period this week hosted special guest star Chrystia Freeland, the foreign affairs minister, and there would be no shortage of questions for her to field. Senator Carignan led off, asking about international treaty obligations with regard to the question of legalizing marijuana. Freeland first gave effusive thanks to the chamber for their invitation and their work on CETA before turning to the question at hand, saying that they were considering it in consultation with partners, given that several US States have legalized marijuana, and some countries like Uruguay were also considering the issue.

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Roundup: A painful lesson in committee cooperation

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

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

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

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

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