Roundup: Leaking cabinet confidences is a Big Deal

I will readily admit that I haven’t been keeping as close of an eye on the whole drama surrounding the suspension of Vice-Admiral Mark Norman from the post of vice-chief of defence staff, and the alleged leaks surrounding the contract to refit a supply ship for our navy (which currently has none, thanks to consistently bungled procurement processes). It wasn’t until this particular walkthrough from Murray Brewster that the elements of the story all started to crystalize, in part because we finally got some more details about just what was being alleged thanks to a judge ordering the release of information. Over the past couple of days, the extent of those backchannel conversations with certain shipyards and their aim – to use media leaks to publicly pressure the government to go a certain route when they were resistant – may seem like pretty insider stuff, but it actually has some pretty broad implications for our entire Westminster-system of government.

While you may have certain pundits who bemoan the case against Norman is thin gruel, especially in light of the whole lack of convictions in the ClusterDuff affair, I have to say that leaking cabinet confidences is probably a little more significant. As noted parliamentary scholar Donald Savoie notes in this piece, Cabinet secrecy underpins our entire system of government because it relies on government to act with one voice, and to stand and fall in unison rather than with ministers as individuals. Cabinet solidarity is a Thing, and it’s an important Thing. Cabinet secrecy ensures that there can be a full airing of views and that it’s not just a focus group for the prime minister, and this extends to the advice that the civil service is able to provide. There needs to be a certain amount of secrecy to that advice so that there can be a meaningful back-and-forth of ideas and discussion before a political decision can be taken, and then held to account.

What Norman allegedly did was to use his position as a servant of the Crown, who swore an oath to the Queen and not the government of the day, to further his own interests. He was taking the political decision, and allegedly leaking those cabinet confidences in order to force the situation toward his desired outcome. That not only violates the roles of the civil service (and military by extension), but it undermines cabinet government. We The Media may grouse about the extent to which things are declared cabinet confidence, but it is important – particularly because this government is practicing cabinet government more than its predecessors have been, or even many of the provinces. I’ve had conversations with current ministerial staff here who used to work at Queen’s Park who have attested that cabinet government is real here, unlike Ontario, where it was all controlled from the centre. Leaking confidences undermines this, and it is a serious matter – not just the thin gruel that some would have us believe.

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Roundup: Exit O’Leary

So the big news, in case you missed it, was that Kevin O’Leary dropped out of the Conservative leadership race hours before the final debate, and endorsed Maxime Bernier (never mind that Berier just weeks ago referred to him as a “loser”). And that they came to a late-night agreement, but O’Leary’s team still sent out fundraising pleas the next morning, hours before the announcement. Oh, and the ballots have already been mailed out with O’Leary’s name on them (and any votes he gets will just fall off and second choices will be counted instead, given that this is a ranked ballot). O’Leary cites winnability, and the fact that he can’t win Quebec (just like everyone has been saying the whole time), so that’s why he’s going to Bernier (who, incidentally, may also not be able to win more than his particular corner of Quebec given his ideological hostility to much of what they seem to hold dear).

In the wake of the departure, here is some reaction from O’Leary’s campaign manager, Michael Chong, CBC’s poll analyst Éric Grenier, and Paul Wells delivers a signature thumping that you really need to read.

As for that debate, or “debate” as it should more properly be known (as with any of them held in this leadership contest), it was a weird mix of pointed attacks on perceived rivals, along with sucking up to others to try and win second-place support on those ranked ballots, because they very well know that it could be their path to victory. Some of the pointed attacks were expected – toward Kellie Leitch for fostering the image that the party is intolerant to the immigrants in suburban ridings that they rely on for electoral victory, and toward perceived front-runner Maxime Bernier. The one that was most surprising – and galling, to be frank – was Erin O’Toole going after Andrew Scheer because he became Speaker in 2011 and was apparently too busy “hosting functions at Kingsmere” than being “in the trenches” with the rest of the party (never mind that O’Toole wasn’t even an MP yet at the time).

The one thing that did irritate me the most, however, was the continued fetishism of private sector experience as somehow being a qualifier for political leadership, never mind that there is zero crossover between the two. With O’Leary now gone from the race, you had this mad scramble to try and claim this particular tin crown, and it was pretty sad. Rick Peterson was loudest – having never stood for office before – while Andrew Saxton, O’Toole and Bernier all tried to pile onto claiming their own experience. Government and business do not operate the same way. You cannot run a government like a business because there is no “bottom line.” Trying to claim some kind of credit for “making payroll” is meaningless noise in politics. The sooner you realise this, the sooner you can have a proper debate about issues.

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Roundup: Copping to privilege is not excusing it

Earlier in the week, Justin Trudeau was asked by VICE about the problem of people getting criminal records for pot possession when decriminalization is around the corner, and he related a story about how his late brother was once charged with possession and their father, with his influence and connections, was able to make those charges go away. And then the opposition went crazy with it.

Of course, Raitt is missing the point in that it wasn’t that Trudeau is endorsing one set of rules for the elites and one for everyone else. (Raitt, of course, is trying to use the “Trudeau is an elite and I’m just a Regular Girl™” line as her campaign platform, which is getting pretty tired). He’s acknowledging that the current system ensures that kind of outcome, which is why he’s looking to change it.

Thomas Mulcair, of course, couldn’t wait to rail about the “abject hypocrisy” of it all, and to repeat his demands that the government immediately put through decriminalization until legalization is sorted, as though this was something that the PM could just snap his fingers and do.

But no, that’s not how this works. Mulcair has been in politics to know this, which makes his concern trolling all the more disingenuous.

If you wanted a measure that could be implemented right away, then the provinces could opt not to pursue charges for simple possession (which I think is pretty much what is going on in most cases), because they’re the ones who have jurisdiction for the administration of justice and who can set their own prosecutorial guidelines. They could instruct their Crown prosecutors not to pursue simple possession charges – but that’s the provinces’ call, not the PM’s – again, making Mulcair’s calls disingenuous. Decriminalization also doesn’t serve the stated purpose of legalization, which is to regulate sale to keep it out of the hands of children and to combat the black market. But I’m sure we’ll be hearing about this for the next few days, unless the Trumpocalypse and the brewing trade war consumes the news cycle today.

Update: I am informed by lawyers that I’m on the wrong track, that the federal prosecution service deals with drug offences and that simple possession charges are still common among minorities and marginalized groups. So mea culpa on that one.

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Roundup: Ontario’s “basic income” scheme a bit suspect

The province of Ontario decided that it was going ahead with a three-year pilot project around basic incomes in three municipalities around the province – Hamilton, Thunder Bay, and Lindsay, each testing different circumstances and local conditions. But there are problems with the way this is all designed, which Kevin Milligan (who has been studying this issue) outlines:

In other words, this isn’t really basic income, which makes it all that much harder to actually evaluate its efficacy, and if it’s not displacing existing welfare or benefit programmes, then it’s not really recouping those costs which makes this hideously expensive. And that’s really been the biggest problem with basic income proposals – the cost. While the idea is that they would displace current benefit programmes, there is less money to be had in cutting the red tape and bureaucracy than one might think, and I’m pretty sure that Bill Gates’ idea of taxing robots to pay for basic income for the workers they displace isn’t really feasible either.

Oh, and then there are the political considerations.

With an election not too far off in this province, we’ve seen a few moves by this government to try and out-left the NDP in places, hoping to cobble together the same sort of winning voter base that they managed to in their last election, and which their federal counterparts similarly managed in 2015. While I get the merits of basic income, I remain dubious of its feasibility, especially when this pilot project appears to be so poorly designed. But then again, I’m not an economist.

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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: Harder seeks sympathy

I have to wonder if Government Leader in the Senate – err, “Government Representative” – Senator Peter Harder is starting to get a bit nervous about the viability of his proposal to reform the Senate rules, as he has started reaching out to sympathetic voices in order to give him some attention on the pages of the newspaper. We’ve seen two such examples in recent days, with a wholly problematic column from John Ibbitson over the weekend in the Globe and Mail, and now some unwarranted praise from Harder’s old friend from their mutual days in the Mulroney government, retired senator Hugh Segal. While Ibbitson’s column was a complete head-scratcher if you know the first thing about the Senate – they don’t need to “prove their value” because they do so constantly (hell, the very first bill of this parliament they needed to send back because the Commons didn’t do their jobs properly and sent over a bill missing a crucial financial schedule, but hey, they passed it in 20 minutes with zero scrutiny). And it was full of praise for the process of Bill C-14 (assisted dying), which is Harder’s go-to example of how things “should” work, which is a problem. And Segal’s offering was pretty much a wholesale endorsement of Harder’s pleading for a “business committee” to do the job he’s apparently unable to do through simple negotiation, so that’s not a real surprise either. But as I’ve written before, the Senate has managed to get bills passed in a relatively timely manner for 150 years without a “Business committee” because its leadership knew how to negotiate with one another, and just because Harder is apparently not up to that task, doesn’t mean we should change the rules to accommodate him.

Meanwhile, there is some definite shenanigans being played by the Conservatives in the Senate in their quest to have an inquiry into the Bombardier loan, and their crying foul when it wasn’t immediately adopted, and wouldn’t you know it, they had a press release ready to go. Conservative Senator Leo Housakos was called out about this over the weekend by Independent Senator Francis Lankin, and while Housakos continues on his quest to try and “prove” that the new appointees are all just Trudeau lackeys in all-but-name, Housakos’ motion may find its match in Senator André Pratte, who wants to expand it to examine other loans so as not to play politics over Bombardier. No doubt we’ll see some added fireworks on this as over the week as the Senate continues its debate.

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Roundup: Chagger doubles down – again

Oh, Bardish Chagger. So very earnest in her desire to try and change the Standing Orders to try and prevent the excesses and abuses of the Conservative era that she’s ready to be her most ham-fisted in order to get it done. In an interview with The West Block this weekend, she said that she wasn’t going to hand over a veto to the Conservatives about these reforms, which means she’s doubling down about ensuring that any rule changes happen by consensus, and so I guess we’ll see the filibuster carry on in committee, and yet more egregious privilege debates and various other procedural shenanigans by the other opposition parties in the hopes that she backs down. So far, that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen.

If I had my druthers, I would tell Chagger to stick to two simple points – omnibus bills, and prorogation. And specifically, the proposal to restore prorogation ceremonies, and take those two suggestions to the opposition parties, and just get them to agree to those. Those are the only two suggestions that are workable and doable (and prorogation ceremonies are in fact something that I recommend restoring in The Unbroken Machine), because that’s rolling back a change that happened in order to “streamline” things a couple of decades ago, and it’s a necessary tool for transparency and accountability. And omnibus bill restrictions are an obvious change that anyone can see as being necessary after the abuses of the 41st parliament.

But as I’ve stated before, on numerous occasions, any other suggestion that Chagger makes in her discussion paper is unnecessary and will cause more harm than good, because the underlying changes that need to happen are cultural, not structural. The problem is that it’s hard to sell MPs on this, especially when they keep using the phrases “modernize” and “21st century workplace” as though the terms meant something. And she keeps using them. Over. And over. And over. And it’s driven me to the point of complete distraction. But because Chagger is doubling down, I have the sinking feeling that it’s going to be yet another week of apocalyptic language and procedural gamesmanship and nothing will get done. Because that’s the state of things right now, and no amount of rule changes will actually fix that.

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Roundup: Not another special committee

And so the filibuster over potential changes to the Standing Orders rolls on, with no end in sight. Opposition House leaders presented an open letter yesterday calling for a new special committee to examine the issue with an eye to ensuring that it only comes out with recommendations achieved by consensus, but I’m not sure how bright of an idea that really is. After all, they’ll demand that it be composed in a similar manner to the Electoral Reform committee (to be faux-“proportional” and to get buy-in from the Bloc and Elizabeth May, naturally), and they’ll spend months and months hearing all kinds of expert testimony about how great parliamentary or legislative rules are in other countries only to doubtlessly come up with some the same kind of non-consensus that the ERRE report did, that every party will walk away from.

Bardish Chagger isn’t backing down, incidentally, and keeps insisting she wants a dialogue but won’t commit to consensus, probably because a) the committee look into making the Commons more “family friendly” wound up being a bust – which is for the best, really; and b) because she wants to try and fulfil the half-baked election promise about doing some kind of parliamentary reform, never mind that no reform is actually necessary of the kind that she’s proposing (with the exception of restoring prorogation ceremonies – that one we do need).

But I will reiterate yet again that our problem is cultural. Looking at rule changes won’t fix the underlying cultural problems, and this will be just another months-long waste of time when what all parties need to be doing is getting back to the core of Westminster parliamentarianism, and doing the sensible things of banning scripts and speaking lists, throwing out the time limits that obligate MPs to fill the time rather than engaging in spontaneous debate, and actually taking the legislative process seriously, which means ending the insane (and inane) focus on endless Second Reading debate. Repeating the ERRE exercise for the Standing Orders is just a black hole to be avoided, and all parties should back away from this fight (especially the Liberals).

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Roundup: May’s problematic proposals

Green Party leader Elizabeth May decided to weigh in on the Standing Orders debate yesterday with a proposal paper of her own, considering Government House Leader Bardish Chagger’s proposal to have been an earnest trial balloon that has now blown up in her face and in need of moving on. May’s didn’t object to some of Chagger’s proposals, but came up with a few of her own, some of which are of dubious merit.

To start off with, however, May lards her paper up with a bunch of constitutional canards, such as the fact that political parties don’t appear in the constitution. If you hear the sound of my head banging on the desk, it’s because May is privileging the written Constitution Act as opposed to the unwritten constitutional conventions which are just as valid and just as important to our system of government, and are in fact foundational because that’s how our system of Responsible Government is expressed, and parties are foundational to that system. Just because they don’t appear in writing doesn’t mean they’re absent from our constitutional framework – they are fundamental to it, and May (and the scholars she cites) are simply obtuse to not recognise that fact. May then insists that the Westminster system has been distorted by parties gaining power and with presidential leaders, but rather than actually diagnosing where the problem is – the bastardized way in which we conduct leadership contests – she instead retreats to her usual hobbyhorse of the electoral system, which would not in fact solve any of the problems she identifies.

But if you make it past her civically illiterate pap, she digs into the suggestions with the most notable one being that she wants more concentrated sittings – five-and-a-half days a week for three to four weeks at a stretch, then three to four weeks back in the riding, insisting that this is also better from an emission standpoint since MPs would be travelling less. But where her logic here falls apart is saying that given this would stress families more that making it more attractive for families to relocate to Ottawa might be a consideration – but unless the families go back-and-forth on the three-to-four week rotations, being even more disruptive to children’s schools – then there is simply falls apart on the face of it. She also proposes that staffers be given compensatory time off instead of overtime, which seems far more unfair to these staffers considering that the work doesn’t stop when MPs are back in their ridings, and you’re forcing people (many of them younger) to work even more than they already do with less time off as a bit cruel.

May also proposes that a UK-style Fixed-term Parliaments Act be adopted, which officially makes her wilfully blind to the problems that it’s causing to Westminster’s operations, and the fact that it reduces the ability to hold a government to account because it requires a two-thirds vote to call an early election beyond a non-confidence vote with a simple majority. I get that she wants this to force parties to come to different coalition arrangements, but when accountability suffers, that’s a huge problem. But as with most of her suggestions for “improvement,” May is more concerned with her own partisan intransigence than she is with actual Westminster democracy, which is why I find her entire paper to be of dubious merit.

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Roundup: Staffers defend Canadian presidentialism

Andrew Coyne’s column on reverting to a system of caucus selection of party leaders got a lot of pushback over the Twitter Machine on Saturday, and curiously, those most in favour of retaining our current bastardized system of membership-selection were those who currently or formerly worked in the PMO (as well as a couple of current leadership candidates who don’t currently have seats in the House of Commons, which isn’t surprising seeing as they’d be excluded from such an exercise and well, they have egos to stroke given their current leadership ambitions).

And this presidentialization creep is what really gets under my skin, because it’s those who benefit from unearned power – the people in the PMO (less kids in short pants these days than they were under the previous government) who are the most ardent defenders of the system, and using this faux democratic mandate of the 150,000 “supporters” of the party as justification. What none of them bring up is the fact that the PM is unaccountable to those members in any real sense, and certainly unaccountable to the caucus he leads, and that’s a very big problem. And no, a system like that proposed in Democratizing the Constitution of membership selection/caucus removal would never work in practice because unless the method of selection matches the method of removal, there is a legitimacy problem, not to mention this is what happened with both Greg Selinger in Manitoba and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, and look at where both of them are today. It’s not pretty, and it’s bad for our Westminster system. Caucus selection is really the system we need to revert to if we want accountable leaders and empowered MPs who aren’t being cowed by centralized leaders and their staffers, and we won’t get that now, especially if those staffers are all over the Twitter Machine trying to defend their turf.

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