Because apparently this Jaspal Atwal issue refuses to die, the Conservatives have decided to spend today’s Supply Day motion demanding that the Prime Minister instruct the National Security and Intelligence Advisory to attend the public safety committee and give the MPs there the same briefing he allegedly gave journalists (on background). Or else.
That’s right – in order to overplay their hands, they’re openly threatening to force some forty hours’ worth of votes on the Estimates as consequence for defeating this motion – because that doesn’t come across as petulant or childish. And while they couch it in the fact that they have a responsibility to hold the government to account – which they do – they’ve also been demonstrably obtuse about this whole affair. The different versions of what happen are not impossible to reconcile – they are, in fact, eminently reconcilable. The PM has defended the facts put forward by the senior officials, and have stated that they did not put him up to it. Media outlets have since dribbled out versions of “reviewing my notes” and toning down some of their reporting of what was actually said to show that it wasn’t actually as inflammatory as initially reported as (because by the point at which it initially happened, they were focused more on wedging it into the narrative they had all decided on rather than acknowledging what was happening on the ground if it didn’t fit that frame). Nobody has acted responsibly in this – the government, the opposition, or the media. And digging in to entrench the narrative that somehow we have damaged relations with India (not true, unless you’ve conveniently forgotten the fiction about how it led to new tariffs) and that the trip was some giant disaster (forget the investments or the constructive conversations with Indian officials) is just making it all worse for everyone.
The bigger issue, however, is the fact that this committee is not the venue for this conversation to happen, and MPs are kidding themselves if they think it is. We have the National Security Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians to review this kind of intelligence data in confidence, and then issuing a report on what was said. Commons committees have been down this road before, and have actively damaged our national security and intelligence agencies because they can’t help themselves, and now they’re demanding the chance to do it yet again. There are proper ways to hold the government to account. This planned stunt and threat is not it.
Parliament is simply not equipped to deal with these inquiries. That is why we have NSICOP. I think the CPC is right to demand answers, but wrong in their choice of forum.
In the hours that the drama around Patrick Brown was playing out, another accusation was levelled over Twitter, this time around Liberal cabinet minister Kent Hehr, which seems mostly to involve lewd suggestions he made to female staffers in private during his time as an MLA in Alberta. When news of that reached Davos, Justin Trudeau said he would follow-up and have an answer before they left the country. And just before the plane took off, we had our answer – Hehr had tendered his resignation from cabinet, and during his “leave of absence,” Kirsty Duncan would take over his responsibilities while an investigation was carried out. Hehr remains in caucus, no doubt pending the results of that investigation. Maclean’s spoke with Hehr’s accuser here.
Statement from Kent Hehr: he’ll stay on as Liberal MP for Calgary Centre. “I encourage all women have felt uncomfortable or who have experienced harassment of any kind to continue to come forward. It is never okay." pic.twitter.com/s9A9iC8kfj
Politically, it’s fraught for Trudeau given that both of his Calgary MPs – both of them veterans of the Alberta Liberal Party – have been taken down by allegations of sexual misconduct. And in a related story, the investigation promised into Kang’s actions has not contacted one of his accusers, however many months later, and that goes for both federal and provincial investigations.
Speaking of Brown, here’s a detailed look at how Wednesday night played out, and some further conversations with his accusers. One of Brown’s (former) deputy leaders called the incident a “hiccup,” and later had to apologize for it.
Meanwhile, Supriya Dwivedi talks about politics’ #metoo moment, and the fact that the Bro Code is breaking down, while Aaron Wherry talks about how #metoo has arrived on Parliament Hill. Chris Selley looks at the path ahead for the Ontario PC party in Brown’s demise, and it’s a messy path given the rules in the party’s constitution, with just four months to go before the election.
After a week away, Justin Trudeau was back in the Commons after a week away, and Andrew Scheer was also back, as the final sitting days of 2017 ticked down. Scheer led off, mini-lectern on desk, and he raised the current investigations by the Ethics Commissioner, and concern trolled that they wouldn’t be completed before her term was up. Trudeau noted that he had recused himself from any discussions around the Commissioner, but he was confident that the House Leader would do a good job. Scheer, breathily racing through his script, worried that MPs would not be consulted or have a chance to vet the new appointee, but Trudeau reiterated that he had confidence in the House Leader. Scheer moved onto the backlog of veterans awaiting disability benefits, to which Trudeau noted that while the previous government closed veterans officers, they were reopened under the current government along with new investments. Scheer insisted that this was solely the problem of the current government, to which Trudeau said that veterans had abandoned hope of getting help under the previous government while they were coming forward now that the current government was reaching out and reinvesting. Scheer tried to then wedge this into a “mean-spiritedness” onto the disability tax credits, and Trudeau assured him that they were looking at the issue carefully to ensure that Canadians were getting the benefits they deserved. Guy Caron was up next for the NDP, and he too returned to the issue of the backlog of veterans benefits, and Trudeau reiterated that these were applications by those who had previously given up hope. Irene Mathyssen and demanded to know if the new veterans disability plan would be released before the House rises, and Trudeau offered assurances that they were taking the issue seriously. Caron turned to demand a Netflix tax and defend the press, and Trudeau insisted that they would not raise taxes on Canadians. Pierre Nantel was up next to demand the same Netflix tax in French, and Trudeau assured him that no Quebec demanded that he raise their taxes.
As we head into the final week of the Commons’ sitting for 2017, there have been a couple of recurring themes in the past few weeks that could each use some good dose of Stephanie Carvin. The first issue remains that of returning foreign fighters, and the way in which the Conservatives keep repeating in Question Period that the Liberal strategy is apparently “poetry and podcasts,” which a) nobody has seriously suggested, and b) deliberately confuses preventative deradicalization programmes with those geared toward rehabilitating those who have returned from foreign warzones who may not have been active combatants (most of whom are dead by this point).
And then there is the Prime Minister’s trip to China, where a free trade deal wasn’t secured, which Carvin is an acknowledged China sceptic about from a national security standpoint, particularly because China doesn’t like to play fair, and will use tactics that include imprisonment and de facto hostage-taking in order to try and get their way in trade disputes.
A free trade agreement with China has been discussed publicaly as a human rights vs trade issue. I think there is a third dimension that needs to be considered: national security. Thanks for having me on, @CochraneCBC. #cdnnatsec#cdnfphttps://t.co/5nUPWsJf28
While the prime minister remained in China, Andrew Scheer was finally back in the Commons for QP for the first time this week. After a moment of silence for the anniversary of the École Polytechnique massacre, Scheer led off, mini-lectern on desk, and he read a statement about violence against women. In response, Maryam Monsef rose to give her own statement about the importance of the day and the remembrance of the victims. Scheer then turned to the “attack on small business” by new rules not being fully outlined until the budget. Dominic LeBlanc, who this morning revealed that he was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukaemia, reminded him that small business taxes was being reduced and the new rules around private corporations were not about small businesses. Scheer trotted out the torqued 73 percent tax rate line (only applicable to those private corporations making over 100,000 under certain conditions in Ontario), and LeBlanc called him out for using a phoney example. Alain Rayes took over in French, offering the same concerns, and LeBlanc assured him that they listened to small business owners and they were acting on their concerns. Rayes tried again, but LeBlanc launched into a praise for small business tax cuts. Guy Caron was up next for the NDP, worrying that not taxing internet giants was hurting Canadian content creators — specifically community newspapers. Mélanie Joly said that they would work with stakeholders to strengthen local journalism. Caron tried again in English, and Joly listed investments made today and promised to help with transition to digital. Tracey Ramsey was up next, demanding transparency on the list of priorities with trade with China. Marie-Claude Bibeau, curiously, rose to read a statement on the importance of trade, but done under Canadian values. Ruth Ellen Brosseau asked the very same question again in French, and got much the same answer.
It’s probably not a big surprise that the story for which the most ink (physical or digital, take your pick) was spilled yesterday were the culture policy changes that Mélanie Joly announced, punctuated by the grand announcement that Netflix had committed to spending half a billion dollars over five years on Canadian productions. But in there was also news that there would be no big bailout for the news media in this country, and there would be some funding boosts for the Canada Media Fund, the Canada Music Fund and the Canada Book Fund, and a creative export strategy, along with previously announced reforms of the Copyright Board.
Suffice to say, there’s a fair amount of grumbling from traditional broadcasters that Neflix is essentially getting away with murder, not bound by the same CanCon obligations of traditional broadcasters, nor are other Internet giants like Google and Facebook being asked to contribute to the same content creation funds that traditional media are. And there is some pretty legitimate concerns about this announced Netflix deal because it’s pretty opaque – Netflix will continue to be able to operate as a black box when it comes to their subscriber data, and while Sean Casey went on Power & Politics to insist that the $500 million was new money (given that Netflix had previously told Parliament that they were already spending “hundreds of millions of dollars” in Canada), it really doesn’t seem like that’s anything new given that previous statement. Netflix also says that the money isn’t coming from the recent rate-hike in Canada, but that’s not washing with a number of people. The Financial Post has a fairly comprehensive look at the announcement here, including the fact that the announcement seems to leave a lot of the heavy lifting into the future, which probably shouldn’t be a surprise.
I do think it should be incumbent upon us to remember that Netflix has not been a net benefit to the cultural sector in Canada. The late Denis McGrath used to refer to them as a “parasite” on the Canadian broadcast sector because they put no money into the production of shows that they streamed, encouraging the cord-cutting that starved the very platforms who produced those shows that they later streamed of funding. It’s a complex problem, and a handful of Netflix originals aren’t going to be the panacea for the Canadian film and television industry. If anything, it may hasten the decline.
In the pages of the Hill Times, recently retired Liberal Senator George Baker opined that he thinks the Senate needs written guidelines to restrict how bills can be amended or defeated. Currently, there is the constitutional provision for an unlimited veto, and a general principle followed by senators that they don’t defeat (government) bills unless it’s a Very Serious Matter because they know they’re not elected and don’t have a democratic mandate to do so. And as much as I appreciate the learned wisdom of Senator Baker (and his retirement is a tremendous loss for the institution), I’m going to solidly disagree with him on this one.
For one, our institutions in their Westminster model are predicated on their flexibility, which allows for a great deal of evolution and adaptability, and adding too many written guidelines to hem in powers – powers that were given to the institution for a reason – rankles a bit because there will always be situation for which those powers may become necessary to use. Too many guidelines, especially when it comes to amendment or veto powers for a body for whom that is their entire purpose, takes away their power and ability to do the jobs that they are there to do in the first place. As with the constant demands for a Cabinet manual to spell out the powers of the Governor General, it’s the first step in removing discretionary power, and giving political actors (especially prime ministers) ways to go around the other constitutional actors, be they the Senate or the Governor General, which is something that should worry every Canadian. As well, codifying those powers opens up the possibility of litigation, and you can bet that our friends at Democracy Watch are salivating for any chance at all to start suing the Senate based on their not living up to whatever guidelines are drawn up, thus further imperilling the exercise of parliamentary privilege and the separation of powers between Parliament and the courts. So no, I don’t think written guidelines are needed, nor would they be helpful. At least not from where I’m sitting.
Meanwhile the Senate’s Internal Economy Committee members published an open letter to Senator Peter Harder in response to his Policy Options op-ed on independent oversight for the Senate. Suffice to say, they weren’t fans. (My own response to Harder can be found here).
Open letter from the Senate’s internal economy committee to Senator Harder re: his @IRPP piece on Senate oversight. They’re not fans. pic.twitter.com/hHFOyJCXqs
Following 95 percent results on both Progressive Conservative and Wildrose Alliance party referendums, it looks like the new United Conservative Party in Alberta is a go, with the big question being who will be the interim leader while they formalize the process and start an actual leadership selection process. And hey, that could mean some internecine warfare right off the start. The death of the PC party in that province is a bit of an odd thing, but not entirely out of keeping with Alberta’s political history of single-party dynasties for long runs that eventually peter out and die, but what is left in the wake will be the big question.
A fun part of Alberta political history is how quickly parties have folded up shop after losing power.
Where the more centrist voters will go is the big question, because I’m not entirely certain that they’ll all migrate to the UCP, especially with the Wildrose component playing such a big role in it. While Jason Kenney spent the last year trying to convince people that a PC and a Wildrose vote would equal two against the NDP, I’m not sure the math is actually that solid. Why? Aside from the fact that it glosses over some of the history of the last provincial election, what the merger papers over in particular is the growing gap between rural and urban voters in the province, where riding redistribution has meant that the gerrymandered rural ridings no longer hold the weight that they once did. Make no mistake, there was a very big urban/rural divide between the PC and Wildrose parties, and much of that is along the social conservatism issue. Wildrose voters weren’t only outraged about the fiscal profligacy of later PC governments as they were about the fact that they capitulated on social issues, particularly around LGBT rights that they remain firmly opposed to. It’s why they pushed Danielle Smith out of the party (leading her to cross the floor to Prentice’s PCs at the time), and Jason Kenney and Brian Jean are going to have a hell of a time trying to square this particular circle when they try to build their “free enterprise coalition” as though the social conservative issues won’t rear their heads. What this merger may end up doing is regenerating the centrist parties in the province (take your pick between the Alberta Liberals, who have a new, credible leader, and the Alberta Party) now that the amorphous, centrist PC party is no more.
In yesterday’s Hill Times, the question of promised term-limits for Harper appointees in the Senate was discussed, with a variety of responses in return. Some confirmed that they had agreed to an eight-year limit and would try to hew to it, while others said that it was some great myth that they agreed to such a limit when they were appointed, and expressed bafflement as to where the media got such an idea. (Hint: A bunch of senators said that they agreed to it, including Senators Wallin and Duffy). And while some of those senators noted that things changed, and that it wasn’t a realistic promise to keep if it wasn’t applied evenly, I would also add that it would have been an unconstitutional promise (if indeed they had made it).
While there is some fairly clichéd grumbling about how terrible it is that some senators are appointed for thirty-some year terms, the concept of term limits in the Senate is generally a bad one for a number of reasons. First of all, most terms that have been bandied about are too short to be effective. The Senate is the institutional memory of Parliament, given that we have a fairly low rate of incumbency and a high rate of turnover in the House of Commons. Eight year terms are not only too low for much in the way of memory (twelve being better), the bigger problem with eight-year terms is that it would allow a prime minister with two majority mandates to completely turn over the composition of the Chamber, which is a Very Bad Thing when much of the raison d’être of the Senate is to be a check on a majority PM.
The other, bigger point, about having a Senate where they are appointed to age 75 and are difficult to remove is that the tenure allows for institutional independence. If you have term limits – especially shorter ones – it means that you stand a greater likelihood that senators start trying to curry favour with the government toward the end of their term so that they can get some kind of post-senatorial appointment, whether it’s a diplomatic posting or heading a tribunal. By ensuring that they stay until the mandatory retirement age, it means that they aren’t going to be trying to leverage their position for post-senatorial employment because they will beyond the age by which any federally appointed positions will have them. That’s an important consideration that often gets overlooked.
While this debate around whether these senators did or didn’t agree to such a term limit, there is no enforcement mechanism, and as stated earlier, it was an unconstitutional promise so it should be considered moot. As to the point as about senators with very long tenures, that remains something that the government that did the appointing can be held to account for (and indeed should be) if they consistently appoint young senators.
Despite some MPs are agitating for the next Governor General to be Indigenous, it looks like it’s going to be Julie Payette, former astronaut. Payette is a woman and francophone, which fulfils the Anglophone/Francophone alternation that has been the pattern since we started naming our own Governors General, and the government’s desire to have more women in top spots. That she’s not Indigenous will be criticised by some, but I suspect that it may actually avoid other headaches because I do wonder if an Indigenous GG may not find themselves in an inherent conflict of interest given the relationship with the Crown that Indigenous people have which is as sovereign people in a treaty relationship, and being the Queen’s representative has the possibility of being far more complicated once you dig into it. As well, there would likely be pressure on an Indigenous GG from other Indigenous communities to exert influence on the government, given that the understanding of Responsible Government and heeding the advice of the government of the day isn’t all that well understood, and would lead to a lot of disappointment. Meanwhile, here’s Philippe Lagassé on some other aspects of the GG that are worth thinking about.
The Queen holds the powers of command in chief, and the Commander-in-Chief is a rank bestowed on the GG by the Sovereign.