Elizabeth May has tabled yet another Private Members’ Bill which she is flogging before the media tomorrow, and this time it’s about one of the necessary steps to restore some of the necessary balance to our Westminster system of democracy. In this case, it is specifically to do with limiting the power of the party leader to sign off on nomination papers, which has become a kind of blackmail tool that leaders have increasingly employed to keep their caucus in line. It’s a valiant effort on May’s part, and props to her for giving it a go, but let’s step back for a moment and remember a few things.
Because it seems that the NDP haven’t had their fill of amateurish stunts yet, they have decided to try to haul the Speaker of the Senate and the Leader of the Government in the Senate to a Commons committee to discuss the Senate’s budget allocations. Apparently they think that the Senate isn’t actually a separate institution of Parliament, but just an arm of the government. Err, except that it isn’t. Here’s the thing that the NDP doesn’t seem to be grasping – aside from the basic constitutional position that the Senate holds within our system of government – and that’s the fact that two can play that game. While the Senate may not be able to initiate money bills, they can certainly amend them, or hold them up in committee indefinitely. And if the NDP wants to get cute and try to make the Senate put on a little dog and pony show for the committee in order to justify their spending, well, the Senate can do the very same thing, and question the basic budget allocation for the Commons and MPs expenses. While the NDP might bring up the few cases of improper residency expenses and travel claims that took to the media spotlight a couple of months ago, Senators could do the very same thing, and in fact, have a better case than the MPs would. You see, the Senate’s expenses are far more transparent than those of the Commons. Senators submit their travel claims to quarterly reports, have their expense claims posted publicly, and even their attendance is recorded and publicly available. That’s how all of this came to light in the media – because journalists checked it out. (Well, a certain Senator who shall remain nameless also leaked a number of things because of internecine warfare, but that’s another story). But MPs are not subject to the same levels of public scrutiny that Senators are, and if the NDP really want to down this route, then I don’t see why the Senate shouldn’t call Speaker Scheer and the various party leaders before the Senate’s national finance committee to justify their own expenditures. After all, they’re not public, and these are public funds that they’re expecting to spend, so it would be in the interest of sober second thought that these Senators very closely examine this spending and ensure that it’s in the public interest for the Commons to get these allocations. And it was only a couple of years ago that improper housing claims by a number of MPs were brought to light, and well, the Senate may need to ensure that this kind of thing isn’t going on again. You know, for the sake of the public. You see where I’m going with this? There’s a word that the NDP should learn – it’s “bicameralism.” They may not like it, but it exists for a very good reason, and they should educate themselves before they decide they want to get cute.
After much anticipation, the Speaker delivered his ruling on the whole Warawa privilege complaint. The verdict – no prima facia breach of privilege, but MPs need to grow up and behave like MPs. In other words, the lists the whips provide are just suggestions, and the Speaker can choose to ignore those lists if he sees fit, but that means that MPs need to want to participate in the debate, not simply assume that they have that spot and that he’ll wait for them to use it, or that someone else won’t be interested instead. Some MPs responded here and here, Aaron Wherry parses the meaning of the ruling, and John Ivison gives his own take of the ruling.
This all having been said, let me offer my own two cents – that this is a good first step, but that it really does fall on MPs to make the change they want to see. And unfortunately, because there is such a reliance on scripts, that we’re unlikely to see too much uptake on this invitation by the Speaker for MPs to behave like MPs. We’re going to see almost no uptake by the NDP, because in their need for uniformity, nobody wants to speak out be anything other than unanimous, as that would be unseemly. The Liberals already have far less of a firm hand on the whip, which means the real test of this change is going to come from the Conservative backbench – how many of them will want to do their actual jobs as an MP and hold the government to account rather than just suck up and support blindly, how many of them want to ask questions of substance during QP rather than deliver a fawning tribute or a thinly veiled attack on the opposition in the form of a question, and how many of them will want to eschew the “carbon tax” talking points and the likes while still ensuring that they have their say and are not being punished for not following those talking points. We will have to see how many of them are prepared to take that step and show that integrity and respect for parliamentary democracy.
Party leader for less than a week, and Justin Trudeau decides to get up to a little bit of (well-intentioned) mischief. When the Conservatives decided that Monday was going to be a Liberal opposition day, Trudeau and company decided to put it to good use – to debate a motion that would see the Standing Orders changed to that Members’ Statements would be put into a strict alphabetical rotation in order to guarantee that every single MP would get their turn to deliver one (note: this would not include ministers, as they get their own allotted time for statements after QP daily), and that the whip’s office couldn’t deny them that spot if they disagreed with the content of their statement. For the Liberals, it’s no big deal because it’s pretty much what they do already in their own caucus, but more importantly, if they can get the ten Conservative backbenchers who have now added their voices to Mark Warawa’s privilege motion about being muzzled with regards to those statements to add just a couple more MPs to their numbers, well, it could embarrass the government. Not that the government couldn’t conceivably whip such a vote – it is an opposition day motion and not private members’ business, after all – but it would make them look even more foolish in light of the privilege motion, and would increase the pressure that it faces from its own backbench. (Note: Yes, I will add my customary finger-wag that this is not an opposition day motion that demonstrates why the government should be denied supply, which is the point of opposition days in the supply cycle. And the Liberals, with their cudgel of the tariff increases, could very easily do a proper opposition day motion, but they didn’t).
Congratulations, Liberals and “supporters” — you’ve just elected the most unaccountable leader in Canadian political history! Give yourselves a round of applause!
But wait, you might say. Didn’t the party throw open the doors to let in all kinds of new ideas and to allow the broadest level of participation in Canadian history? Well, maybe, but when you think about it, not really. Remember, this was a leadership convention and not a policy convention, despite what some of the contenders seemed to believe. And according to the party’s new rules, only paid-up members and not the new “supporters” get to vote on policy, or the “new ideas” that the party hopes to attract, so really, throwing open the doors so to speak didn’t really produce new ideas. What it did do was populate the party’s database, so that they can hope to turn those 300,000 new “supporters” into potential donors and maybe members. Maybe.
The government is updating their citizenship guide, and while people are going to criticise it, I’m going to say that it’s a good thing that they actually devote a page to the fact that we’re a constitutional monarchy, and that they talk about the fact that Elizabeth II is the Queen of Canada. Not enough people realise what living in a constitutional monarchy means, even though it’s at the very heart of our political system. It would also be nice if we could stop acting horrified every time this government points out that basic fact because guess what – we’re a constitutional monarchy, and it’s actually a pretty good system. (It’s also too bad that the reporter in this story referred to Elizabeth II as the “Queen of England” – never mind that there hasn’t been a Queen of England since 1707). As well, they’ve done a pretty good job with the paragraph on the rights of gays and lesbians in this updated guide. Of course, it’s too bad that they’ve also included other bits of politicking with their references to human trafficking, polygamy and marriage fraud – current bugaboos of the government.
There’s been a lot of attention paid in the past day about MPs feeling muzzled in the wake of Mark Warawa’s motion on sex-selective abortions being deemed non-voteable by committee, and his being denied a promised Members’ Statement, during which he had planned to raise the issue. Now, of course we know why the heavy hand of the PMO has come down on this issue – because they’re tired of having to defend against the constant accusations that the government has a pro-life hidden agenda, and the opposition parties are happy to keep this agenda off the floor by agreeing that it shouldn’t be voteable, by whichever excuse they find most convenient.
After two days of arguments at Federal Court, the judge there will deliberate on whether he should be providing clarity to the mandate of the Parliamentary Budget Officer – and no, it’s not a cut-and-dried question. As lawyers for the Speaker asserted, it is a matter for Parliament to decide upon – and remember, Parliament is actually the highest court of the land – and Parliamentarians should not be going to the courts every time the government doesn’t turn over its numbers. And while Page’s request for clarity was just that – clarity – there are some inescapable and fundamental issues at the heart of the matter, and that is that MPs themselves have abdicated their role as guardians of the public purse. While journalists and the public hail Page as being a hero, what’s missing is that he has been saddled with the role of “watchdog” because MPs have decided they’d rather have him do their homework for them, because math is hard, and they can then invoke the magical talisman that is his independence to prove that the government is in the wrong with its numbers. That Thomas Mulcair sent along his own lawyer as an interested party is part of what muddies this issue and makes it look partisan – because Mulcair and company want Page and his successors to do the dirty work for them. This is not really an issue about the government arguing against the fiscal oversight position that they created, but about Parliament itself, and whether or not MPs on both sides of the aisle can take their own jobs seriously. That they are placing all of the emphasis on Page and his office to do their work for them is an indictment that they continue to refuse to.
It’s Budget Day, everyone! And in what looks to be an otherwise stay-the-course budget, it appears that the big shiny object is going to be…cheaper hockey equipment. Because that matters more than anything else, and Stephen Harper must solidify his credentials as the Hockeyest Prime Minister in the history of ever! Okay, so it’s actually lowering one specific tariff, but still. Meanwhile, Les Whittington gives the five myths of Conservatives budget making. Scott Brison finds a “leaked” copy of Flaherty’s budget speech.
MPs of all stripes – including a few Conservatives – were criticising Flaherty’s move in calling Manulife Financial to stave off a mortgage war. More surprisingly is that one of his own cabinet colleagues, Maxime Bernier, was publically critical. It remains to be seen if this will be treated as a case of “Mad Max” being a maverick, or if this is a breach of cabinet solidarity, Bernier not being a “team player,” and he’ll be bounced out of cabinet – yet again. Andrew Coyne finds the irony in Flaherty lecturing people about taking on too much debt considering how much he added to the national debt.
It seems that Peter Penashue accepted 28 different improper or illegal donations during the last election, and overspent his campaign by $47,000. You know, small change, and apparently he keeps claiming that it’s not his fault. Err, except that he signed off on all of it, and as the former Chief Electoral Officer said, those signatures mean something, and when the Elections Commissioner completes his investigation, this may yet result in criminal charges – albeit not before the by-election will be called, unfortunately. Laura Payton asks the outstanding questions about what happened in the Labrador election, and Peter Penashue’s resignation – most of it revolving around the money (most of which came from the party itself, it seems). Meanwhile, the former leader of the Newfoundland and Labrador Liberals has announced that she will contest the nomination for the Labrador by-election. She may yet have to battle Todd Russell for that nomination if he decides to throw his hat back in the ring.