QP: Concern trolling about the Commissioner

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.

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Roundup: A couple of reality checks

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.

Let’s hope that the opposition has a chance to listen to some of what Carvin has to say before they ask some more…dubious questions this week.

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QP: Return of the tax changes

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.

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Roundup: All abuzz about Netflix

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.

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Roundup: Say no to written guidelines

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).

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Roundup: The great Alberta merger

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.

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.

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Roundup: Promised term-limits?

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.

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Roundup: An astronaut for GG?

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.

While Paul Wells has a great piece about the message being sent with Payette’s appointment, Lagassé also makes a good point about how her appointment is being framed.

And this comment from Denise Donlon seems to sum up a lot of the sentiment I’ve seen:

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Roundup: Lighting a fire under the minister

It’s been a year since the Supreme Court of Canada decision in Jordan, which set upper limits for trial delays, and so The Canadian Press had a couple of good pieces on it today, both looking at the fallout in terms of what needs to change in the justice system, as well as looking at the numbers of cases that have applied or been granted a stay of proceedings owing to delays that have been deemed unreasonable. I will note that while justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould says that the decision “lit a fire” under her, she’s been agonizingly slow in responding.

I write a lot for the Law Times, and I talk to a lot of players in the legal community, and there has been a sense of mystification as to what all of the delays are. The fact that it took her a year to start the process of reforming how judges are appointed was baffling, and that slowed down the process for making said appointments – especially as some of the committees advising on appointments still aren’t up and running, six months later. While more appointments are finally being made, it’s taken a long time and it’ll take even longer for those judges to be fully prepared and worked into the system.

There is the legislation that has been coming out in drips and drabs. For example, they made a big deal about a bill that would finally equalise the age of consent for gay sex, but then abandoned said bill to roll those provisions into a larger bill on doing away with “zombie laws” that have been struck down but remain on the books. How much time and energy was spent on that abandoned bill? We keep hearing about the big promised justice reforms promise – looking at the Criminal Code, sentencing, bail, the works, but we’re nearly two years in, and there’s still no sign of them. Yes, they’re big files, but this is nearly the halfway point in the mandate, and big, complicated files like that are going to take time to get through Parliament – especially in the more independent Senate where they will face pushback from law-and-order Conservatives who are looking to hold onto the “reforms” of the previous government.

And then there are the whispers about Wilson-Raybould’s office. There is a constant churn of staff, but not before great delays when it comes to actually filling positions, like the judicial affairs advisor – a pretty key role that took months and months to fill. And if these kinds of necessary staffing decisions are taking forever, what does that mean for the managerial skills of the minister? There are whispers in the legal community, and they’re not too flattering. So when Wilson-Raybould says that Jordan lit a fire under her, one shudders to think about the pace of progress had it not.

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Roundup: Rural nomination angst

In yesterday’s Hill Times, a few would-be Liberal candidates in rural ridings are talking about how they want nominations to start sooner than later, citing the challenges of rural life when it comes to door-knocking – owing to the difficulties of travel in the winter, the best time for them to meet constituents is in the summer and autumn. Hence, they want the nomination process to be over before summer 2018, so that they have a long lead-time to do the campaigning in large rural ridings – something that is less of an issue in urban ridings.

As far as suggestions go, it’s not a terrible one. I think that parties should have a fairly long lead-up with a nominated candidate, particularly in unheld ridings, so that they can do the work of grassroots engagement and get people involved in the process. This also being said, in a riding that has an incumbent, you also don’t want to run the nomination too early because an open nomination is also a way to hold that incumbent to account by their grassroots members, so if you hold the nomination too early, you don’t get as much of their tenure to judge them by. I know that some Liberals are agitating to have their nominations protected, while Conservatives have a threshold system in place to protect their nominations (which I am less keen on because it can short-circuit accountability), but I also know that the Liberals haven’t made up their minds how they’re dealing with nominations for 2019, which boggles the mind. Of course, this is part of the fallout of their wholesale party constitution rewrite (which, I will remind you, centralised even more power in the leader’s office at the expense of the grassroots), so we’ll see how they decide to deal with this, and how much lip-service they pay to the grassroots while still keeping their newly acquired centralized power. Suffice to say, nominations remain the most important part of our democratic process, so watching a party flail about it is never a good thing.

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