Roundup: The fount of Canadian honours

A particular thread that I forgot to talk about last week was about the new GG, and one of the important things that the office does, which is to be the conduit by which the country’s honours system works. It’s a pretty important function of the office which has been encroached upon my MPs and in particular the Prime Minister in recent years, and yes, that is a problem.

The Queen is the fount of honours in Canada, but politicians have been trying to get in on the game. Stephen Harper created a “teaching award,” and Trudeau has been talking about creating some kind of medal on his own as well, while there have been partisan spats about the Thérèse Casgraine award, or the John Diefenbaker award, and whichever party in power “forgetting” to award it, and on it goes. But part of leaving those kinds of decisions up to Rideau Hall is that it keeps the awards from taking on a partisan taint. With the Prime Minister’s Awards for Teaching Excellence, there was a lot of difficulty getting nominees under Harper because many people didn’t want to be associated with him, which is a fair point – the award should be politics-neutral, but associating it with the head of government as opposed to the Queen means not only that there’s a whiff of partisanship, but that the PM would use the awards as a bit of reflected glory. That’s generally something we try to avoid in our system, which is also why we ensure that it’s not the prime minister’s face on postage stamps or first in line in our embassies, but rather the Queen. It’s why the civil service swears their oaths to the Crown and not the government of the day as well – because we keep them above the partisanship of the day, and it keeps them from developing cults of personality (as much as is possible, but the age of celebrity politics is certainly challenging this notion). Suffice to say, we should be aware that the duties of honours rests with the Crown and with the GG for a reason, and we should frown on more attempts by politicians to horn in on them.

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Roundup: A Northern SCC justice?

The government announced yesterday that they have begun the process for searching for the next Supreme Court of Canada justice, which it should be noted is almost record-breaking in how fast they got this particular process started, as normally it takes them six months to a year to get a process even started, by which time the vacancy has happened and terms need to be extended (which isn’t possible in this case). And while this is notable in and of itself, there was something else notable – that they are explicitly looking for a justice from either the West or the North.

Why this is important is because it seems to demonstrate that they learned their lesson from the previous SCC appointment process, when they toyed with finding a justice who was not from Atlantic Canada despite it being a traditionally Atlantic Canadian seat that was vacant, and there was some pretty big uproar which they tried to pooh-pooh with talking points about how some of those federalist notions were perhaps a bit archaic and they were trying to find a bilingual justice (which was difficult for that region, even more so if they were trying to find someone Indigenous or a person of colour). That will be less of a problem in the West, but the fact that they also mentioned the North is a bit curious.

As it stands, some territorial cases, particularly at the appeal level, are heard in courts in provinces like BC or sometimes Ontario, because there simply aren’t enough judges and infrastructure in place to do the job up North. And while it’s not necessary that one be a judge to get a Supreme Court nomination (they must be a member of the bar, but can come from private practice or even a law school), it is a bit peculiar that they have expanded their search in such a way. It is the first time that such a consideration has been made, which is no doubt part of this government’s constant attempts to pat themselves on the back, and their language about the “custom of regional representation” still sounds a bit like they’re making it out to be less of an important deal than it is, which is a problem because the principles of federalism are a pretty big deal given how this country works. I would say that it also raises the possibility of raising hackles in the West because it could open them up to accusations that they’re depriving the West of representation on the Court (the West typically has two seats, one of which is currently held by Justice Brown from Alberta, so no, Alberta has no room to raise a fuss), but one could imagine that BC would very well make an issue of it if they felt like it. Granted, if they do find someone from the North, it could provide some greater perspective on the Court – or it could simply be yet another reason for back-patting. We’ll find out in a few months’ time when the decision is made. (And for the record, the plan is to name the new Chief Justice after the vacancy is filled).

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Roundup: A lack of scrutiny

While again noting that I don’t often write about provincial matters, sometimes they can be a microcosm or a vanguard of broader themes happening in different legislatures across the country, including the federal parliament, and this item out of Queen’s Park raises alarm bells because it is a telling sign. The province’s Financial Accountability Office – the provincial equivalent of the Parliamentary Budget Officer – tabled his annual report that essentially states that there’s not enough scrutiny happening within the legislature. And yes, that’s a very big problem.

While I am a bit surprised that his office is being underutilized, the fact that backbenchers aren’t doing the work of scrutinizing the actions of Cabinet – particularly on budget matters – is not unique to the province. Here in Ottawa, we see too many instances of MPs passing the Estimates with the barest of glances, and when ministers appear before committee to discuss them, they are generally bombarded with questions about issues of the day rather than what’s in the Estimates. That most of the scrutiny of the Estimates now happens in the Senate is Ottawa’s saving grace – something that provinces like Ontario can’t claim.

Part of the problem is that our civic literacy has so degraded that most MPs or their provincial counterparts (MPPs, MLAs, MNAs – style them how you will) don’t understand that their actual constitutionally mandated job is to hold the government to account by means of controlling the public purse. That, by definition, means scrutinizing budgets, the Estimates, and the Public Accounts. That MPs and their provincial counterparts don’t want to do that job – or at the very least are ignorant that it’s their responsibility – has meant the creation of more Officers of Parliament like the PBO, and the FAO in Ontario, to do that homework for them, and that’s a huge problem for the health of our democracy. But so long as MPs and their counterparts opt to stick their heads in the sand and play American lawmaker, spending all of their time and energy on private members’ business (when they’re not cheerleading for their particular leader), then our system suffers for it as governments aren’t held to account properly.

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Roundup: Clarity is not an appeal

With another court case involving First Nations children, you’d expect there to be a bunch of hue and cry, and there certainly has been, but I wonder how much of it is actually misplaced. In this case, the government is seeking clarity from the court on a couple of aspects of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal decision on applying Jordan’s Principle, which is not an appeal. I’ve seen all manner of people, from reporters to advocates on Twitter railing that the government is appealing the decision. Asking for clarity is not an appeal.

If you actually read the story, they have legitimate concerns about the restrictions around case conferencing and on timelines in the decision, both of which seem to be pretty fair concerns to have given that both ministers are medical doctors and have expertise in what these issues mean. And I fail to see how getting clarity is trying to find a loophole to get out of the decision – it doesn’t track with either the promises, the investments made, or the fact that the whole file is more complex than many of the advocates would let on. You can’t simply pour money into a system that doesn’t have the capacity to absorb it and distribute it effectively, and you can’t just wave a magic wand into a jurisdictional minefield like this particular decision addresses and expect that everything will always have the best outcome by sheer force of willpower, especially when there are areas that are unclear to players involved.

The fact that I’ve been a justice reporter for the past couple of years means that I’ve been exposed to a lot of the sensitivities involved in complex cases, and this certainly qualifies, despite what certain advocates and opposition MPs would have one believe. Outrage that the government is going to court isn’t necessarily warranted, and most of the time, it’s been pretty disingenuous, whether it’s on this case, or in assessing the damages in the Sixties Scoop class action, where again advocates, opposition MPs, and even reporters characterized it as an appeal when it wasn’t an appeal – it was the next stage in a process where they needed to determine damages on a case-by-case basis rather than simply mailing out cheques. Not every time the government goes to court is nefarious, and people need to calm down because there is a lot of crying wolf going on that’s helping nobody, most especially the people who these decisions are supposed to benefit.

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Roundup: Provocative boilerplate

The House of Commons has risen for the summer, but how long it stays risen could be the big question as the Senate has two bills on its plate that they could send back to the Commons. The first of those is the budget implementation bill, after the Commons rejected their amendment. What inflamed tensions however was the boilerplate language that it was rejected for infringing on the rights and privileges of the Commons.

The fact that this is boilerplate eluded many Senators (and yours truly), given that it seemed to be yet another provocation given some of the underlying tensions in the current dispute. Yes, the language comes from Section 80(1) of the Standing Orders, but given that the Senate is trying to assert its independence and authority, the words seemed particularly targeted in this instance, especially as the Prime Minister rather dubiously claimed that the Senate has no ability to amend or reject budget bills when their only actual limitation is that they can’t initiate them.

Having received this rejection, the Senate decided to leave it overnight to think it over, and with luck, tempers will cool and they’ll get the better sense that this is boilerplate straight from the appendix of Beauchesne’s Parliamentary Rules and Forms, 5th edition, that that it likely wasn’t meant as a slight or a provocation. (Probably. But given how ham-fisted and tone-deaf the House Leader has a tendency of being, this isn’t a guarantee). It’s possible that cooler heads will prevail and they will defer rather than letting it ping-pong.

The more contentious bill may in fact be Bill S-3, which amends the Indian Act to remove gender-based discrimination, but the Commons rejected the Senate amendments that would eliminate other forms of discrimination. This particular bill may wind up being more problematic because it’s not a money bill and there is a bigger point of principle about discrimination and rights which a lot of senators get very exercised about (rightfully), and Indigenous senators in this case are particularly sensitive to. There have been suggestions that some are proposing a conference between the chambers to resolve the potential impasse, but we are not there yet.

Part of the calculation is that because the Commons has risen, a game of chicken is now being declared, where they are essentially daring senators not to recall them to deal with these amendments, and like Peter Harder has been doing, there will be all kinds of voices going on about the expense of such a recall. I think it’s overblown, but it wouldn’t be the first time that the Commons has used such a tactic to try and force the Senate’s hand into backing down on passing bills at the end of the sitting.

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Roundup: Changing the face of the bench

The Globe and Mail has an interesting read about the way in which the current government is making a concerted effort to appoint more women to the bench as it (slowly) makes its judicial appointments. While the numbers of women appointed are disproportionate to the numbers that have applied, that seems less concerning to me because it has been shown that fewer women will apply to positions like these because they tend to downplay their own qualifications (just as with trying to get more women to run for public office). I also think that the justice minister has a point when she says that part of the reason for so few appointments being made from visible minorities is in part because there are too few applying, and too few in the justice system as a whole. I also look to something that Senator Jaffer said to me in a piece I wrote for the Law Times about the judicial appointments issue, which is that for many of the appointment committees, they don’t tend to look beyond their own boxes when they make recommendations, so we see fewer women and visible minorities being put forward, and that proactive approaches have been shown to be needed in the past. This government seems to be willing to go some of the distance in bridging that gap, but as always, more work needs to be done, and yes, it’s taking far too long in most of the cases.

What does bother me is the notion that by appointing women and minorities is that this is simply about quotas, and it’s the exact same things we’ve been hearing in the past couple of weeks with regards to people making their evaluations of the federal cabinet, and the quiet clucking of tongues when they go “rookie, diversity hire, not very competent.” Never mind that in many cases, much of the judging is harsh, unfair to the person or the situation they were put into, or deliberately misconstrued to present a worse picture than what actually happened (such as with Maryam Monsef). Never mind the fact that if none of these people are given a chance as rookies, they won’t actually get experience. And yes, some of them are performing poorly (and even more curiously, the ones who I think actually are having problems are the ones who are never the ones being written about). But hearing the constant quota refrain is getting tiresome to read about.

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Roundup: Not a real QP fix

Earlier in the week, the NDP put a motion on the Order Paper that they plan to use for a future Supply Day. The text of it, presented in the NDP House Leader Murray Rankin’s name reads as thus:

May 9, 2017 — Mr. Rankin (Victoria) — That Standing Order 11(2) be replaced with the following: “The Speaker or the Chair of Committees of the Whole, after having called the attention of the House, or of the Committee, to the conduct of a Member who persists in irrelevance, or repetition, including during responses to oral questions, may direct the Member to discontinue his or her intervention, and if then the Member still continues to speak, the Speaker shall name the Member or, if in Committee of the Whole, the Chair shall report the Member to the House.”

As Kady O’Malley points out, this would actually be a binding Supply Day motion, as it involves the Commons moving changes to its own rules, and the effect of which is to give the Speaker much more power to police answers given by enhancing the orders around irrelevant or repetitive answers. And on paper, it sounds great. I’m just not sure that this will work in practice.

For starters, this is attacking a mere fraction of the actual problem that we face in the House of Commons. It’s not just the answers that are lacking – it’s the questions (which are as repetitive and irrelevant as the answers), and in many cases, they’re not actually questions, but meandering speeches disguised as rhetorical questions, or non sequitur accusations for which there can be no answer. Empowering the Speaker alone will not solve the problem – the whole ecosystem in the House of Commons needs to change, which means banning scripts, loosening up the clock, and doing away with the established speaking lists. The rigid structure and scripted nature is now all about creating a buffet of media clips, and simply empowering the Speaker to compel answers by means of naming and shaming is not going to fix the underlying problems.

The second problem is that this is something that can very quickly be abused. In fact, you can guarantee that if this were implemented that the very first series of questions that the Opposition would ask would be a trap for the Prime Minister – as much of a trap as their constant questions on Wednesday about the Ethics Commissioner investigation were. That Trudeau refused to step into said trap was a political calculation that has endeared nobody in the whole sordid affair, and everyone came off looking petty. Compelling the PM to walk into traps on a daily basis will quickly become a major problem.

A third major concern is that enforcement of this rule change is going to cause all manner of problems if the opposition doesn’t see the Speaker enforcing this to their liking. Accusations of favouritism or partisanship will soon flow, and there will be tears and recriminations. Nobody will win. So while I appreciate the sentiment of this motion, and would agree with it to a very limited degree, until we get the bigger and more important changes, this simply becomes a bigger problem than the one they’re trying to solve.

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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: Earnest Scott Simms

As is becoming a daily occurrence, we have yet another voice weighing in on the Standing Orders debate, and this time, it’s the mover of the motion that’s causing so much Sturm und Drang in the House of Commons (and the Procedure and House Affairs committee) right now – Scott Simms. Simms, I believe quite earnestly, insists that we need to give reform a chance, and he lists all of the wonderful things he hopes to happen out of Bardish Chagger’s discussion paper, and I believe he’s earnest because he has recently co-edited a book on parliamentary reform with noted notoriously wrong-headed would-be reformers Michael Chong and Kennedy Stewart.

Of course, nothing in these proposals will fix what ails parliament, and will only create more problems than it solves. We’ve established this time and again, and I’ve written a book to this effect, but the problems are not structural. MPs, however, don’t necessarily see that because they’re trapped in a sick and dysfunctional parliamentary culture and looking around for fixes, they see some levers that look easy to pull, never mind that those levers will make things worse. Digging into the underlying cultural problems are harder to see and do, and that’s why MPs have been assiduously avoiding them, but we shouldn’t let them get away with it. Granted, it would be far more helpful if more members of the media could see that fact as well and not get lured by the shiny reform ideas that keep getting floated around, followed by the drama of the outrage, which is all too easy to get sucked into. Because who doesn’t love drama?

So with all due respect to Simms, no, the time for being open-minded about these reform ideas has passed. We’ve lurched from one bad reform idea to another for the past half century (century if you want to count the granddaddy of all disastrous reforms, which the Liberals promulgated in 1919 when they changed the leadership selection process) and things haven’t gotten any better. It’s time to take that hard look at where things are situated, and means slapping MPs’ hands away from those shiny, easy-looking levers. It’s time to have a meaningful re-engagement with the system, and nothing in these discussion paper ideas does that. In fact, it does the opposite.

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Roundup: Sticking to vapid promises

Because I’m not ready to let go of this topic of the Liberals plans around the Standing Orders, Maclean’s had an interview with deputy House Leader Kevin Lamoureux about why the government is so keen on trying to make these changes. Lamoureux has two answers – that the rules should be modernized (with no explanation as to why), and that they made an election promise to do so. Oh, and some too-cute-by-half insistence that even if they changed Question Period that Trudeau would show up more than once a week, despite the fact that he promised in that same election that he wanted to be out on the road more than just being stuck in Ottawa. So yeah, that seems to indicate that he’s looking for an excuse to only be there one day a week.

As with electoral reform, the Liberals came out early on with this facile talking point about the need to “modernize.” There’s no justification as to why or no explanation as to what’s not working (just the rather pedestrian observation that it’s not – draw your own conclusion) and then doing some jazz hands and saying “modernize!”

And like with electoral reform, promising “modernization” without saying why, is kind of a stupid promise, and you know how I feel about stupid promises – they should be owned up to as being stupid before they are broken. In this case, I’m not sure if it was just the vapid need to promise to modernize everything, or if they think there’s a real issue that they want to solve – regardless of what it is, it’s obvious that anything they’ve proposed to date won’t actually solve the problems that they have because the problem is cultural in this place, and the way to solve it isn’t by changing the rules that they’re proposing to. Either way, they need to say “Stupid promise. Real life proved to be different than we imagined it was,” and abandon these plans in favour of maybe, just maybe, tackling the deeper cultural issues that are the real cause of dysfunction in our Parliament.

Meanwhile, I was on AM 770 in Calgary yesterday to talk about my Maclean’s op-ed on the fact that we don’t need to modernize the House of Commons, which you can listen to here.

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