Roundup: The cause, not the cure

The particular turmoil of the Ontario Progressive Conservative leadership is difficult to turn away from, particularly given that right now it’s grappling with a fairly fundamental point about what is ailing our Westminster parliamentary system, which is the way in which we choose our leaders. Andrew Coyne lays it out really well in his latest column, which notes that another leadership contest won’t solve the party’s problems precisely because it’s the cause of those problems. And Chris Selley notes that with the inclusion of Doug Ford in this new race, that system of leadership selection is just as likely to result in a civil war within the party as it will do for anything else. (On a side note, Selley’s piece notes how Ford is attracting the evangelical endorsements in such an eerily Trump-like way).

Another point that Coyne gets to is this particular fetishization of the membership figures that Brown was able to attract to the party, but it ignores the fact that most of those who are signing up memberships have little connection to the party itself, and are little more than tools to be used by the leadership winner who sold them those memberships. And the point that I would add is that these memberships don’t actually strengthen the party because they’re being used to justify central control by the leadership rather than being a vehicle by which the riding associations are interlocutors between the grassroots and the caucus. These “rented” memberships are meaningless and do little to enhance the party, the way the chatter would otherwise suggest. If anything, they weaken the meaning of what the grassroots is supposed to represent. That’s why we need to get back to the proper working of a Westminster system, and restore caucus selection, so that we can reinvigorate the meaning of the grassroots.

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Roundup: Kellie Leitch’s long farewell

The news went around last night that former Conservative leadership candidate and now backbench denizen, Dr. Kellie Leitch, has decided that she won’t run again in 2019. She is not the first current Conservative facing a nomination challenge not to run again, and there has been a whisper campaign going around that the leader’s office is organizing this push for contested nominations, leading to at least one other MP opting not to run (and in that case, there were some fairly large questions looming around why an Ontario staffer was choosing to contest the nomination of an Alberta riding that he didn’t live in). Despite this, the writing was on the wall, and Leitch’s disastrous leadership campaign sealed her fate.

With this in mind, I have to say that I’m a little troubled by some of the characterisations in John Ivison’s piece about Letch’s decision. In particular, he describes how Leitch, a progressive Conservative (and I have heard this from a number of conservative operatives, many of whom are gay, who had nothing but high praise for the good doctor in the years before her leadership bid), had fallen “under the spell” of Nick Kouvalis, who apparently convinced her to tack alt-right if she wanted to win the leadership. Considering that Kouvalis was in and out of positions of authority in the campaign after his need to go to rehab partway through, I think this perhaps gives him a little too much credit for Leitch’s series of bad decisions. She saw something in the Trump victory and the lead up to it and thought that she would be able to tap into that, and miscalculated the differences in how it manifests between our two countries. At least she’s owning up to that and not giving more tears about how she was wrong to do it (like she did with the Barbaric Cultural Practices Tip Line). And it’s not like she didn’t have other blind spots, like the utter lack of EQ when it comes to dealing with people on a personal level (and I had one Conservative commentator refer to her on background as a “psychopath” that people would never warm up to, and lo, they did not).

The other thing that I will note that Leitch’s run did was reiterate for me just how broken our country’s leadership selection process has become. She never would have made the calculation if she didn’t think she could mobilise a voter base outside of the caucus, courting the ugly side of populism. Meanwhile, swaths of ostensible NDP and Green voters took out Conservative memberships in order to ensure that Leitch didn’t win, and while she didn’t get more than seven percent of the vote, the putative favourite of those temporary Conservatives, Michael Chong, didn’t do as well as Brad Trost (who is also facing a nomination challenge and may himself soon declare that he too won’t run again if the pattern holds). Taking out party memberships for the sole purpose of ensuring someone you don’t like doesn’t get in is nothing short of perverse in terms of the meaning of what those memberships are supposed to hold, and it demonstrates how the process is hopelessly broken. Leitch would never have become such a caricature under a proper caucus-driven leadership selection system.

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Roundup: The existential threat to parliament nobody notices

After stories about how some MPs – both Conservative and Liberal – used the Canada Summer Jobs programme to funnel those job grants to anti-abortion and anti-gay organisations, the government has made a few tweaks to the programme so that any organisation that is looking for grants needs to sign an affirmation that they will agree to comply with Charter values, as well as its underlying values including
“reproductive rights, and the right to be free from discrimination on the basis of sex, religion, race, national or ethnic origin, colour, mental or physical disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression.” And while that’s all well and good, they didn’t fix the glaring problem with this system – the fact that it’s MPs who are signing off on these grants.

No. Seriously, no.

This is antithetical to the whole point of Parliament. Parliament is about holding the government (meaning Cabinet) to account, and part of that is by controlling the public purse. MPs don’t give out money – they ensure that the government can only spend it wisely. By Service Canada sending lists of groups recommended to receive funding, and then having the MPs validate and recommending more or fewer jobs through the group, or whether to fund them at all, it goes beyond accountability and into disbursing funds which is not the role of an MP. At all.

And what really burns me is that nobody sees this. We have become so civically illiterate that a practice that is a direct existential challenge to a thousand years of parliamentary history doesn’t merit a single shrug. No, instead, it’s become part of this expectation that MPs should be “bringing home the bacon” to their ridings. It’s why MPs shouldn’t be making funding announcements for the government – that’s the role of Cabinet ministers (and I will allow parliamentary secretaries under protest because it’s hard for cabinet to be everywhere), but that’s it. Having MPs make announcements “on behalf of” ministers is a betrayal of the role that MPs play with respect to ministers, which is to hold them to account, even if they’re in the same party. This is cabinet co-opting MPs, and in the case of these job grants, laundering their accountability so that nobody can actually be held to account for when funding goes to groups that are contrary to the values of the government of the day. But nobody cares – not even the journalist who wrote the story about the changes.

If only someone had written a book about this kind of thing…

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Roundup: The Order Paper is not a race

The House of Commons has risen for the season, but still has a number of bills on the Order Paper slowly working their way through the process. And as usually happens at this time of year, there are the big comparisons about how many bills this government has passed as compared to the Conservatives by this point. But those kinds of raw numbers analyses are invariable always flawed because legislation is never a numbers game, but is qualitative, as is the parliamentary context in which this legislating happens.

Part of the difference is in the set-up. Harper had five years of minority governments to get legislation in the wings that he couldn’t pass then, but could push through with a majority. He went from having a Senate that he didn’t control and was hostile to his agenda to one where he had made enough appointments (who were all under the impression that they could be whipped by the PMO) that it made the passage of those bills much swifter. And they also made liberal use of time allocation measures to ensure that bills passed expeditiously. Trudeau has not had those advantages, most especially when it comes to the composition of the Senate, especially since his moves to make it more independent means that bills take far longer than they used to, and are much more likely to be amended – which Trudeau is open to where Harper was not – further slowing down that process, particularly when those amendments are difficult for the government to swallow, meaning that they have taken months to either agree to them or to come up with a sufficient response to see them voted down. And then there are the weeks that were lost when the opposition filibustered the agenda in order to express their displeasure with the initial composition of the electoral reform committee, the first attempt to speed through legislation, and the government’s proposal paper to “modernize” the operations of the Commons. All of those disruptions set back legislation a great deal.

This having been said, Trudeau seems to remain enamoured with UK-style programming motions, which he may try to introduce again in the future (possibly leading to yet more filibustering), because it’s a tool that will help him get his agenda through faster. So it’s not like he’s unaware that he’s not setting any records, but at the same time, parliament isn’t supposed to be about clearing the Order Paper as fast as possible. Making these kinds of facile comparisons gives rise to that impression, however, which we should discourage.

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Roundup: A cynical membership ploy

Oh, Alberta politics. For the place where I first got cut my political chops, you continue to fill me with such…outrage, particularly with how you’ve so bastardized the way in which leadership contests are supposed to run. The former Progressive Conservative party was a good example of how our system could be so debased as to turn those leadership contests into quasi-primaries that they became a direct election of the premier through instant party memberships, and usually block votes to groups such as teachers, for whom leaders like Alison Redford became indebted to. This time, it’s the antics of the upstart Alberta Party that has me fuming.

For those of you who don’t know, the Alberta Party is a centrist party of mostly hipsters and academics that aims to try and find the sweet spot of the province’s political pulse, while also not being associated with the heretofore tainted Liberal brand. (Disclosure: I was friends with one of the leadership hopefuls in the previous contest, and am friends with a previous candidate for the party in the last election; both, incidentally, are academics). And with the demise of the amorphous PC brand and its quasi-centrism in favour of Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party and its decidedly more right-leaning brand, there is optimism within the Alberta Party that hey, maybe they can attract some of the former PC types fleeting for greener pastures. And so with that in mind, the current leader (and up until a week ago, holder of their only seat in the legislature, until an NDP defector joined the ranks) decided he was going to resign.

But – and here’s the catch – he just might run for the position again. And admitted yesterday that his resignation is a ploy to drive party memberships. And this is the part that makes me crazy, because it reinforces this sick notion that has infected our body politic that the only real reason that the grassroots membership exists any longer is for the purpose of leadership contests. And while sure, that’s important, it continues do drive this growing push that makes these contests into quasi-presidential primaries that centralises power in the leader’s office because the selection (and subsequent ability to remove said leader) rests outside of the caucus – though I will grant you that for Greg Clark, that was a caucus of one until just now.

And I get that at this point, the Alberta Party is one that isn’t as centrally-driven as other parties, and where there is trust in candidates about policy matters that they’re not just parroting talking points (so says my friend who ran for them), and that’s great. But it’s also indicative of a party without seats (which they had none until the last election), and without a taste of power. But it nevertheless follows the pattern that memberships – which Clark is trying to drive – is all about the leadership, and not about the nominations, or the grassroots policy development, or being the interlocutor between civic life and the legislature. And if they do manage to attract a bunch of former PCers, that could be either great for them, or their own demise as that party’s former culture takes over the party (which isn’t necessarily a great thing). It’s a risky move that Clark made, and it may present a change for the political landscape…or it becomes one more cynical exercise in bastardizing the meaning of grassroots party memberships. I guess we’ll have to see.

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Roundup: A reminder of why debate matters

While I haven’t been following the trial in Sudbury around those non-criminal bribery charges related to the provincial by-election, aside from Chris Selley’s columns on the topic, it was something that he tweeted from the courtroom yesterday that piqued my interest because it’s something I deal with a fair amount in writing both about law and politics. Part of the issue raised is that these sections of the law that the trial is proceeding under have never been tested before.

We see these kinds of bills passed not infrequently federally that are passed at all stages with no debate. This is usually where the Senate picks up the slack and does the actual heavy lifting, but not always. Sure, there are a few bills that are relatively non-contentious, related to national parks and such (to think of an example or two off the top of my head), but some that matter – like the changes to royal succession in Canadian law – got no debate in the Commons despite it being a fairly fundamental problem that the law as passed effectively reduced Canada’s status to that of a colony once again.

But the point I make is that the courts will often turn to Parliament for guidance in what it is they should be interpreting. That means looking to debates and committee transcripts to try to divine just what it is that Parliament intended when they passed the bill so that the judge can rule one way or the other in clarifying the meaning. And if you have no such debates – like in this Ontario statute – well, that’s a real problem. It’s also a reason why I will frequently harp on why the Senate matters so much is because they not only will offer some debate in instances where the Commons offers none, but it’s where committee testimony becomes most crucial, especially when it comes to hearing from witnesses that people object to (as happened with the trans rights bill) – because they want it on the record that they heard and dismissed these concerns should they eventually be litigated.

Parliament is supposed to matter, and MPs (and MPPs in this particular instance) do themselves and the province or country they serve a real disservice when they don’t do the job of putting things on the record. And I’ll say that the issue going on in Ontario right now with the bubble law around abortion clinics is another such issue. The provincial Progressive Conservatives offered to pass the bill at all stages – eager to get it off the agenda so that it minimizes the divisions in their ranks on the issue, and the Liberals refused, wanting instead to hear from those it affects. While the cynical calculation is that this is the Liberals playing politics – and to an extent it really is – it’s also the responsible thing to do, so that we get some debate and testimony on the record, so that when this legislation is inevitably challenged, there is a record for the courts to turn to. And yes, that matters beyond the petty politicking.

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Roundup: No, you don’t need a protected nomination

Apparently at the Liberal caucus retreat last week, the subject of the nomination process for the next election came up, and of course, MPs have plenty to say. Not that they’re telling the media, and while this Hill Times piece ended up being pretty thin gruel, mostly retreading their story on the push for protected nominations from early in the summer, I will use it as a chance to re-up my previous piece in Maclean’s about why protected nominations are a very bad thing in our system of government.

I’m sure all MPs like to think that they have very busy and important work to do in Ottawa (and they do!) and that means that they really can’t spare the time and attention that an open nomination would mean, but open nominations are not only a way to engage with the grassroots at the riding level, they’re also an important way of holding the incumbents to account within the party ranks, rather than simply at the ballot box. This means that there are multiple levels of accountability, which is a good thing for democracy. And I get that they need to be careful to delineate their work as MP and as the local party candidate, and that there are an increasing number of rules to enforce the separation between the two, but if they’re doing a good job, then it shouldn’t be too difficult to maintain a healthy membership base that will support them. In fact, I would be concerned if my local MP couldn’t maintain a healthy membership base in the riding association because that means that those grassroots members are not being engaged and that is a very big problem for democracy. In other words, don’t ignore your grassroots, and if you are as an MP, then that means you’re not doing your job.

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Roundup: Disappointment and disengagement

Yesterday being the UN International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, The Walrus had Robert Jago write a polemic about the sense of betrayal that some Canadian Indigenous people are feeling about the current Liberal government, which promised much but appears to have delivered little. While one could easily argue that much of the litany of complaints are cherry-picking examples and casting some of them in an uncharitable light – many of the promised changes haven’t happened yet because they are complex and systemic, which coupled with a slow-moving bureaucracy that resists change by its very nature, and that means that things take time, not to mention that consultations per Section 35 of the Constitution add time to the process, especially when the government is committing to rebuild many of them from the ground-up. While it’s all well and good to complain that they haven’t poured more money into the system, there are just as many valid reasons for pointing out that pouring money into a broken system is just as likely to exacerbate problems than it will to have any meaningful impact, and we have seen numerous instances of just that – adding money where there is no capacity to effectively spend it has added to burdens being faced by some of these communities.

This, however, wasn’t what bothered me about Jago’s piece, but rather, his recounting of his dipping his toe into the political process and then walking away from it. Buoyed by the soaring Trudeau rhetoric, Jago took out a party membership, tried to get involved, found the party too remote and unresponsive and quickly walked away from the convention he was supposed to attend. What irks me about this is that while I do understand that the disappointment-based disengagement is a Thing, and there is a whole Samara Canada study on the topic, is that this kind of narrative is self-justifying, and Jago goes on a tangent about resistance by refusing participation. Why I find it a problem is that change is difficult, and it generally requires a lot more organisation and agitation within the system than he seems to have offered.

The civics lessons that we’re not taught in this country should include the lesson that if you want to make change, you need to be involved in the process, which means taking out party memberships and organise, organise, organise. Because we’re not taught this, it’s allowed central party leadership, in every party, to amass a great deal of power that leaches power away from the grassroots, and a grassroots that doesn’t know any better doesn’t jealously guard that power. It’s why the Liberals voted overwhelmingly for a new party constitution that absolutely kneecapped the rights of the grassroots in that same convention that Jago refused to attend – because they no longer know their rights, and a slick leader managed to convince them to turn over that power to “modernise” things. And that’s why the party needs active and organised grassroots members to push back and reclaim that power. Walking away at the first sign of resistance just allows the central leadership to hold onto that ill-gotten power. It’s going to take time and a hell of a lot of organisation on the part of grassroots members if we want to start rebalancing the power in this country, but if everyone walks away at the first bit of disappointment, then the party leaders have already won.

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Roundup: Caretakers and emergencies

The situation in BC, where there is an emergency situation of wildfires and evacuations in the midst of a change of government, can be pretty instructive as to how our system of government works. Right now, as with during an election period, the machinery of government goes into “caretaker” mode, and because Christy Clark remains the premier until the moment John Horgan is sworn in, she is able to respond to the situation as she is doing now.

This is why, after Clark’s visit to the lieutenant governor, the statement from the LG was that she “will accept her resignation,” not that Clark has resigned on the spot.

Why is this important? Because the Crown must always have someone to advise them, especially in circumstances like this. Add to that, we have a professional, non-partisan civil service means that they are already in place, and don’t need to have a massive new appointment spree to fill the upper layers like they do in the US. That means that they can respond to these kinds of situations, and while the caretaker government gives the orders, the incoming government’s transition team is being briefed so that they can handoff the files when they form government. It’s an elegant system that we’re lucky to have.

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Roundup: Challenging an unconstitutional law

The saga of Steven Fletcher in Manitoba continues to fascinate and enrage me. The now-former member of the province’s PC caucus, and one-time federal Conservative cabinet minister, has not only run up against a very problematic expulsion from caucus because he dared to have differing opinions (which I wrote about in my column), but now it appears that Fletcher is planning to challenge the province’s law that bans floor-crossing. Not that he wants to cross the floor, but the fact that the law is on the books.

In case it’s not clear, the very notion of a legislated ban on floor-crossing should be unconstitutional. Apparently, Manitoba’s not the only province to have this either – New Brunswick has a law on the books that requires floor-crossers to reimburse their former party for election expenses, which is also legally dubious. The history of these laws is also circumspect at best – in Manitoba, it was allegedly cashing in on the anger around David Emerson crossing the floor to become a federal Conservative cabinet minister in 2006, while in New Brunswick, it was the angry response to a husband-and-wife MLA couple crossed from the provincial Conservatives to the Liberals. The Manitoba case has the added factor that it was an NDP government at the time, and the NDP are particularly hostile to floor-crossers, which one suspects has to do with the fact that they are a party that is big on solidarity and being in constant lock-step, and they aren’t very tolerant of their members stepping out of line. They’re also much more wrapped up in their party identity, which is part of why these laws are such a problem.

The thing with our electoral system is that it gives individual agency to MPs. They are elected as individuals, to fill a single seat in the House of Commons in a separate election. That’s why a general election is 338 separate elections federally, or however many seats are in that province’s legislature during their elections. MPs are not elected a party vote which then gets allocated to that seat, and this is important. Because we elect MPs as individuals, regardless of whatever party colours they may be wearing, it empowers them to make their own decisions in Parliament (or their provincial legislature), and that includes the ability to cross the floor when their conscience is so moved. It’s not a bug in our system – it’s a feature because it means that the individual is more powerful than the party. The NDP doesn’t like this line of thinking at either level of government, and apparently the provincial Liberals in Manitoba are also under the misguided notion that it’s “unconstitutional” (which it most certainly is not). I’m glad that Fletcher is planning to challenge the law, because it is an affront to Westminster democracy. And when it does get struck down, I hope it serves as a warning to other provinces, or the federal NDP in their perpetual quest to enact such laws.

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