Roundup: Not all omnibus bills are abusive

As if we needed another excuse for the opposition to blow their collective gaskets, the Liberal budget implementation bill clocks in at around 300 pages, and touches on several different Acts. In other words, it’s an omnibus bill.

“Oh!” They cry. “You promised you wouldn’t use them.”

Err, they promised not to abuse them, and in fact were careful in their language so as to not promise that they would never be used, because anyone who knows a thing or two about the legislative process knows that sometimes omnibus bills are necessary, particularly when it comes to housekeeping bills that clean up language across several acts, for example. What separates a proper omnibus bills from abusive ones are the fact that they are around a common theme, and can be studied by a single committee. This is where the Harper bills failed the test – while they claimed that they were under a single theme (i.e. implementing programmes mentioned in the budget), they touched on all manner of subjects that were not all under the purview of the finance committee, and this is really the key. When they put in sections that rewrote the entire environmental assessment legislation – under the dubious rubric of doing it for the sake of stimulating resource projects and thereby the economy, this was not something that the finance committee could necessarily study, and certainly not when the hundreds of pages and tight time-allocated timelines meant no time to do proper study of the various and sundry provisions. That is abusive.

From everything I’ve seen of this new budget implementation bill, it certainly looks like everything is all related to fiscal matters and would be under the purview of the finance committee to study. Yes, it’s 300 pages, which shouldn’t be the determining factor, and this is more about the opposition torqueing the issue in order to make it look like the government was breaking a promise when in fact they’re not included the kitchen sink into the bills in order to bully them through with as little scrutiny as possible.

What disturbs me more is the fact that like prorogation, “omnibus” is becoming a dirty word because the previous government took it upon themselves to abuse the practice, while my media colleagues haven’t done enough to disabuse the notion that just because a practice has been abused that it’s not actually illegitimate in and of itself. Prorogation is a routine practice for breaking up a legislative session and hitting the reset button in terms of plans and priorities, while omnibus bills have their uses (as we’ve already established). Just because Stephen Harper abused them to his own ends – which is party didn’t seem to be railing about as they are with this current omnibus bill – it doesn’t mean they’re all bad. This shouldn’t be rocket science, and yet, civic illiteracy is rapidly determining the narrative.

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Roundup: MPs shouldn’t become social convenors

Sometimes when former politicians opine on their former profession, it can be insightful, and sometimes inspiring, but sometimes it can be gobsmackingly terrible. Former Ontario MPP and cabinet minister John Milloy ventures into the latter category with a piece in Policy Options on the “future of work” when it comes to parliamentarians. After Milloy correctly asserts that most parliamentarians don’t know their own job descriptions and that leaves them vulnerable to the machinations of unelected political staff, he veers off about how nobody trusts politicians anyway so their actual roles are becoming obsolete and hey, government is too slow to deal with policy in the modern world, so let’s turn our parliamentarians into social convenors.

No, seriously.

Apparently, the real drivers of change and action are service clubs, community groups and church organizations, so what parliamentarians should be doing is trying to bring those groups together to do stuff because they’re not community leaders anymore, so hey, they can be referees or coaches instead!

Head. Desk.

One would think that someone who used to be in elected politics like Milloy was would understand that the whole point of grassroots riding associations is to gather those kinds of voices around policy concerns, where they could help develop those into concrete proposals to bring to the party, or to communicate their concerns to the caucus (whether or not theirs is the elected MP in the riding). A properly run riding association has the hallmarks of service clubs or community groups because they provide both the social aspect around shared values, and work toward the care and feeding of political parties from the ground-up, the way that they’re supposed to. This is the kind of thing that we need to be encouraging if we want a properly functioning political system in this country. Instead, Milloy would see us let that atrophy and let outsiders shout from the side lines while the political staffers continue to consolidate power in the leaders’ offices. No, that’s not how politics are supposed to work. We can’t keep washing out hands of this and dismissing political organizations. Joining parties and getting involved is the way to make change happen, and as for MPs, we can’t just let this trend of self-made obsolesce go unchallenged. The “future of work” shouldn’t be irrelevance – it should be re-engaging with the system and actually doing their jobs. And shame on Milloy for abandoning his former profession to the wolves.

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Roundup: Stop coveting the CBO

Given the insanity taking place within the Trumpocalypse with the current debate over reforming their health insurance legislation, the Congressional Budget Office’s figures have been at the centre of the debate. Chris Selley penned a column yesterday to praise this island of sanity with the maelstrom, and wonders what a better funded Parliamentary Budget Officer could do in Canada.

To this, I must say nope. Nope, nope, nope.

Nope.

Why? Because we are already lousy with unaccountable officers of parliament who are usurping the role that MPs are supposed to be playing. As it stands, MPs have already started been fobbing their homework off onto the PBO, and then hiding behind his independent analysis and then using it as their cudgel. It is driven by the impulse that they don’t think they can win the debate on the issues, so they would rather have those officers win it for them, and the PBO is certainly no exception.

But independent officers are not infallible. That F-35 cost figures that Selley cites? While Kevin Page’s figures proved to be in the ballpark, his methodology was haphazard and any defence analyst you asked would tell you as much. And we’ve seen how the Auditor General’s report on the Senate was deeply flawed that both former Supreme Court Justice Ian Binnie and the lawyer that the Senate hired to review the report could scarcely believe it. And of course We The Media eat it up as well, because it’s “independent” and therefore believable, even when it may not actually be right, and the constant deference to these agents is actually harming democracy.

Yes, we have problems with government giving figures that are useable, and the previous government was masterful at changing the accounting rules constantly to keep everyone, PBO included, from trying to figure them out. That’s a problem, but it’s not one that we should expect the PBO to solve. Rather, MPs from all parties should be demanding clear figures, and should use their powers to compel disclosure, whether it’s on committees or Order Paper questions. The problem is that not enough MPs bother to do it, in part because they don’t actually know that their primary job is to hold the government (meaning Cabinet) to account. And simply excusing their ignorance and appointing an independent officer to do it for them doesn’t fix the problem – it exacerbates it.

Also, quit looking at Washington and thinking that we can import their institutions and practices into our system. I know the CBO was the thought when the PBO was created, but our systems are different, and you can’t just graft a similar model on. Stop trying. We have our own system and processes that we should be focusing on improving, and that starts with educating ourselves about our own processes.

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Roundup: MPs who don’t seem to get it

Before you ask, I don’t have a hot take for you on Trump’s executive order on Friday night (other than apparently, the inmates have taken over the asylum and there is nothing but a bunch of ham-fisted amateurs running the show now). And I didn’t find most of the hot takes circulating around to be terribly edifying either. But what I can talk about is Parliament, and the group of MPs who think they have the solution to changing it. They of course, are completely and utterly wrong. (But that’s why you read this blog anyway, right?)

Aaron Wherry apparently got a preview copy of the book and spoke to some of the MPs who co-edited the volume. Among them are Michael Chong – author of the woefully inadequate and hugely problematic Reform Act 2014 that creates more problems than it solves; Liberal Scott Simms (author of no particularly terrible bills that I can think of off-hand, but we’ll return to him in a moment), and NDP MP Kennedy Stewart, whose passion for democratic reform gave us e-petitions and an attempt to financially penalise parties who don’t run an adequate number of women in elections. Wherry’s premise of the piece – maybe it’s time to reform Parliament and not the electoral system?

The problem is, “reforming Parliament” is a bit of a mug’s game so long as MPs don’t actually know what their own job is – which is most of them, incidentally. And given what Wherry has mentioned in his preview of this forthcoming book, some of these MPs don’t know either. For example, Kenney Stewart is moaning that limited time that backbenchers have to table initiatives. If he needs a reason why, it’s because MPs aren’t lawmakers. That’s the government’s job. It’s the backbenchers’ job is to hold the government to account. You don’t do that when you’re spending your time and resources pursuing your own hobby horses and initiatives, and that’s a problem.

Scott Simms, meanwhile, wants to propose some mechanism for backbenchers from provincial legislatures to “pass motions for consideration by the House of Commons.” Err, really? Again, they have their own work of holding their own provincial governments to account, not to mention they have their own jurisdiction to worry about without meddling in the federal government’s. That’s why we have orders of government. Oh, and Chong? Worries that it’s not about how MPs are elected but what happens to them once they get to Ottawa. Of course, I’ve written time and again (and again, and again) about why his bill didn’t actually solve any problems, but in fact exacerbated them because the real problem is the way in which we select party leaders. He doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to fix that problem, or even public acknowledge that it’s at the root of the problems we have with our parliament currently.

Of course, it’s a good thing that there’s another book coming out before theirs which actually tells MPs what their jobs are and provides some clear-headed thinking about the system. (Yes, that was a shameless plug. You’ll be hearing a lot of them over the next few weeks).

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Roundup: Cullen’s silver-tongued swindle

It should not surprise me, but Nathan Cullen’s capacity for deceptive stunts continues to both amaze and gall me at the same time. Previously it was conning Maryam Monsef into his “proportional” electoral reform committee composition (which was not proportional, but a racket that was designed to merely look more “fair” but was in fact a calculated gambit to give the opposition a disproportionate say in the process), for which we got a report that was a steaming pile of hot garbage. With Karina Gould now in the portfolio again, Cullen now proposes that they “co-draft” an electoral reform bill.

No, seriously.

I cannot stress how bad of an idea this is for both of their sakes. For Gould, this is Cullen trying to swindle her like he did Monsef. He played her – and the public – in trying to push proportional representation and ended up recommending (along with Elizabeth May’s whole-hearted endorsement) one of the absolute worst possible electoral systems possible. And now he’s trying to ensure that she puts it into legislation for his party’s benefit. This has nothing to do with bills being drafted secretly “backrooms” (otherwise known as the Department of Justice under the cone of Cabinet confidence) or with the spirit of bipartisanship. This is about Cullen trying to manipulate the process.

If that weren’t bad enough, what is especially galling is that he’s undermining his own role as an opposition critic in the process. He is not a minister of the Crown. His role, therefore, is not to govern, but to hold those to account who do (–William Ewart Gladstone). This is an important job because parliament depends upon accountability. That’s the whole purpose behind having a parliament – to hold government to account. And it would be great if our opposition critics would actually take that job seriously rather than pretend they were ministers with their faux-bipartisanship and private members’ bills that cross the line when it comes to acceptable bounds of setting policy. It would be great if MPs actually did their jobs. Perhaps most troublesome in all of this is that Cullen is his party’s democratic reform critic. If he can’t grasp this most basic fundamental point of Responsible Government, then can we actually trust him on attempting to find a different voting system? I’m pretty sure the answer to that is no.

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Roundup: Debating useless rule changes

Yesterday was “debate the House rules” day in the Commons, and lo, there was some talk about eliminating Friday sittings again, which the opposition parties tend to be against, but fear the government will try to ram through anyway. And yes, we all know that Fridays are not like any other day, particularly because MPs need to get back to their ridings, but there are still debate hours that happen, and eliminating them means either making up for them elsewhere, or losing them altogether, after we’ve lost plenty of debate hours in the past number of years, all to be more “family friendly” with spring breaks and so on. Kady O’Malley followed the debate (I would have more if I didn’t have other deadlines to file), and some of the best and worst are below.

Eliminating whip/House leader-provided speaking lists absolutely needs to happen. It removes agency from MPs and is part of what has debased QP into this scripted farce and turned debate on legislation into nothing of the sort. If you take away the lists – and then ban the scripts – it will help to make the debate free-flowing once again rather than just exercises in reading speeches into the void.

Oh, the irony. The bitter, bitter irony.

I am dubious, as we would have people tabling all manner of nonsense to “prove” whatever they were saying in QP, almost all of it irrelevant. (Also, look up the story about the tabled hamburger from the Alberta legislature that they ended up preserving).

No. We do not need to privilege private members’ business any more than we already do. Most of it is out of hand, with useless and costly Criminal Code piecemeal amendments, more national strategies than you can shake a proverbial stick at, and even more bills to declare national days for every issue under the sun. The proliferation of PMBs is already out of hand, we don’t need to make it that much worse.

So…turning the summer break from three months to four? No. But do feel free to sit more days in January regardless.

Not unless we start insisting that supply days start being about actually debating supply once again.

Because Parliament is just a debating chamber for hobbyhorses? Because there isn’t actual work that needs to get done?

Not unless parties start agreeing that second reading debates be severely curtailed, and that debate on government bills can collapse relatively quickly. But seriously, committee work already happens while debates are going on in the Chamber so I don’t see the point of this. At all.

Amen.

Seriously. I can’t believe that this actually needs to be pointed out.

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Roundup: Say no to a Charter Rights Officer

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association is leading a push for the creation of an independent Charter Rights Officer for Parliament, and that sound you hear is my head hitting my desk over and over again. Because no. We don’t need yet another officer of parliament. We really, really don’t.

What we need is for MPs – particularly the opposition – to stand up and actually do their jobs, rather than fobbing off their homework onto yet another officer, who is accountable to nobody, whose reports they can then wield like some kind of a cudgel while not actually fulfilling their own responsibilities as parliamentarians (which, I will remind you once again, is to hold the government to account). The proliferation of officers of parliament has so diminished the capacity of the opposition to do their gods damned jobs in this country that it’s embarrassing, and since the inception of the Parliamentary Budget Office, it’s only become so much more egregious because now they can ignore the Estimates cycle entirely (despite controlling the public purse being the inherent definition of what MPs are supposed to do, and how they hold governments to account).

Oh, but it’s hard! Oh, but why not cede this to subject matter experts like lawyers and judges? Oh, why don’t we just start pre-referring all bills to the Supreme Court of Canada while we’re at it and turn the dialogue between the Court and Parliament into a game of “Mother May I?” Honestly, would it kill MPs to actually debate policy, which Charter compliance is a big part of? Parliament has responsibilities to fulfil. Why don’t we actually make them do their jobs rather than finding yet another excuse for them to avoid doing it?

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Roundup: Precious conformity

Conservative MP Garnett Genuis penned an analysis piece for Policy Options that tried to explain why MPs vote in lockstep, and it’s just so precious you can barely stand it. Genuis dismisses the talk of heavy-handed PMO and whips offices, and after some lengthy discussion, concludes that it’s the human nature of conformity that’s at play. His mode of analysis was the voting record on C-14, the highly contentious medical assistance in dying bill.

It’s not that Genuis doesn’t have some good – if somewhat infuriating points – in the piece, talking about how MPs are so busy with their constituency work that they just don’t have the time to sit down and study the legislation that they were elected to be considering. That one nearly made me blow a gasket, considering that constituency work isn’t actually part of an MP’s job description and its growing importance has come at the expense of their actual jobs of holding government to account. That Genuis uses it as an excuse for having MPs let the “experts” in their leaders’ offices tell them how to vote is utterly galling. I can see why they would use this excuse, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a good one or one that we should let them get away with (but then again, almost nobody knows what an MP’s actual job description is, least of all the MPs themselves, and yes, that is a Very Big Problem. His better points, however, included that sometimes it’s good for local nominations to see that an MP will be willing to break ranks from time to time, but it’s a mixed bag when they also need to be seen to have a united front with the party. It is a tension that he doesn’t delve deeply enough into.

But so much of his thinking is flawed, in part because he relies on the data of votes on a single contentious bill rather than a broader sample, which would produce a more thoughtful discussion, and also because he ignores the other incentives for why MPs will vote in lock-step. For some parties, like the NDP, the need for solidarity in all things means a much more conformist voting pattern in all things, and there is an internal culture of bullying to keep MPs in line so as not to be unseemly with dissent. With government backbenchers, there is the hope that toeing the line enough will earn you a post in cabinet or as a parliamentary secretary, because the ratio of cabinet-to-backbench seats is still too low in Canada to encourage a culture of more independent backbenchers in safer seats willing to do their job of holding government to account. There is also the pressure – which We The Media shamefully perpetuate – that you don’t want to be seen as breaking ranks lest it reflect poorly on the leader (though this seems to be a bit less so under Trudeau who has been vocal about encouraging more free votes). There is no discussion about the blackmail of a leader that can withhold their signature from an MP’s nomination papers during the next election (or whatever the mechanism is post-Reform Act, because there is no actual clarity in law there any longer). So yes, while there is a human tendency to conformity, it is informed by a whole lot of other factors that Genuis ignores, and that taints his analysis to a pretty fatal degree.

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Roundup: No, the LG can’t threaten the premier

Sometimes you see a terrible column, and sometimes there’s such a piece of hot garbage that you need to don a hazmat suit just to approach it and get hosed off afterward like you just came out of a leaking nuclear reactor. The Toronto Sun’s Christina Blizzard delivered one of those yesterday.

That’s right – this columnist thinks that the lieutenant governor should threaten Kathleen Wynne to shape up or she’ll dismiss her, because 167 years of Responsible Government was just a failed experiment. One lesbian first minister in this province and we’ve decided that it was too much – time to hand power back to the queen and be done with it.

You see! Voters can’t be trusted! Obviously we’d be better off under absolute monarchy again because they won’t let such terrible governments to let themselves get elected and then implement the agendas that they were elected on. It’s like the fanboys in the First Order who remember the good old days of the Galactic Empire and preferred it to the messy democracy of the New Republic.

It’s called confidence. Whichever leader in the legislature or Parliament that can command the confidence of the chamber gets to advise the LG/GG/queen on how to exercise the powers of state. Not a difficult concept.

It is utterly galling that a columnist can be so utterly ignorant of basic civics that this is the kind of utter bilge that they spew onto newsprint. We do have a problem with basic civic literacy in this country, and when you have columnists like this spreading complete nonsense out of some sense of partisanship, it gives a warped impression to people who read this and makes them believe that it’s actually normal and expected that the GG or the LG can boss around a government that you don’t like. No. Absolutely not.

So let me reiterate that Blizzard’s column is utter hot garbage. If the Sun had any shame, they’d pull it and apologise profusely for putting it out there, and Blizzard would be sent to a remedial civics course, but I doubt that’s going to happen because she’s just passionate about how bad Wynne is, or some bullshit excuse like that. So in the meantime, I’ll just leave this here:

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Roundup: Sound the independent thought alarm

Every time I read these headlines, I sigh and shake my head a little, because here we go again. “Indigenous Liberal MP breaks ranks with government on BC’s Site C Dam” it reads. The MP is Robert-Falcon Ouellette, and by “breaking ranks,” he has questions for the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans – who grants approvals for these kinds of things – and he plans to ask him in caucus next week. Oooh, someone had better sound the independent thought alarm!

It seems that most of my fellow journalists have forgotten that it’s the job of backbenchers – even those of the governing party – to hold the government (meaning cabinet) to account. They’re supposed to ask questions and to not just give them a pass. Ouellette is doing his job. But by sensationalizing it (which this headline clearly does), and portraying it as “breaking ranks” (which he’s not – there have been no votes that he’s gone off-side with) is both demeaning to his job, and it reinforces the notion that MPs are supposed to be drones parroting the lines of their leaders, which is absurd. Not only that, but We The Media nevertheless insist that MPs are supposed to do their jobs and represent their constituents and address issues and not just parrot talking points, and yet we call them out the moment that they do just that. Why? Seriously – why are we doing this? We’re actively being destructive to our democratic system when we pull this kind of nonsense. There are far better and more effective ways that this story could have been framed that don’t privilege party discipline (which again, not actually being broken here) and this notion that MPs must be in lockstep. It shouldn’t be that difficult to do. And yet here we are.

Honestly, we need to do better if we expect better democratic outcomes in this country. We are part of the problem, and we should stop being just that.

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