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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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: Recall legislation nonsense

Over at Loonie Politics, fellow columnist Jonathan Scott wonders if recall legislation might not be a good thing for ethical violations, and cites the examples of Senators Don Meredith, Lynn Beyak, and a York Region school trustee who used a racial slur against a Black parent. While I’m suspicious about recall legislation to begin with, two of the examples are completely inappropriate, while the third was an example of someone who resigned a few days later, making the need for such legislation unnecessary in the first place.

Recall legislation for senators is a bit boggling, first of all, because they weren’t elected to the position, and they have institutional independence so that they can speak truth to power and have the ability to stop a government with a majority precisely so that they can hit the brakes on runaway populism if need be. Recall legislation would be fed by that similar populist sentiment, which is a problem. I’m also baffled, frankly, how anyone could conceivably consider Meredith and Beyak in the same sentence. Meredith abused his position to sexually lure a minor, while Beyak said some stupid and odious things under the rubric of religious sentiment (i.e. at least some residential school survivors stayed Christians, so that apparently justifies everything). The two are not comparable, nor is Beyak’s example any kind of an ethical violation, nor am I convinced that it’s an offence worthy of resignation because at least there’s the possibility that she can learn more about why what she said was so wrong-headed. Sure, people are upset with it, while others are performing outrage over social media because that’s what we do these days, but trying to channel that sentiment into recall legislation raises all kinds of alarm bells because even if you had a fairly high bar or findings from an ethics officer to trigger these kinds of recall elections (and the suggested 2500 signatures of constituents is too low of an added bar), temporary performed outrage demanding action this instant would be constantly triggering these kinds of fights. If you think there are too many distractions in politics to the issues of the day, this would make it all the worse.

As for Meredith, while he is too shameless to resign of his own accord, the rest of the Senate is not likely to let this issue slide for too long. The only question is really how effectively they can implement a system of due process by which Meredith can plead his case before them and respect the rules of natural justice before they hold a vote to vacate his seat based on the findings of the Senate Ethics Officer. Demanding recall legislation after a story is only a couple of days old is the height of foolishness. The Senate doesn’t sit for another two weeks, which is time that frankly they’ll need to get their ducks in a row so that they don’t come back half-cocked and try and ham-fist the process like they did with Duffy/Wallin/Brazeau back in the day. Meredith will get his due, and we won’t need the threat of ridiculous legislation to try and keep politicians in line.

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Roundup: Nomination shenanigans?

It looks like there are some shenanigans in Liberal nomination races for a couple of those upcoming by-elections, and as many a pundit has been saying today, Liberals gonna Liberal. And you can pretty much chalk this up to one more great big disappointment between the lofty Liberal rhetoric about valuing open nominations and then doing shady things like they have with the nominations in both Saint-Laurent and with Markham-Thornhill.

Part of what doesn’t make sense from an optics perspective is the sudden rush to call the last two by-elections for the two most recently vacated seats. In both Ottawa-Vanier and the two Calgary seats, there has been plenty of lead-time and nominations happened with nary a peep, but in the last two, the sudden rush has meant problems. With Markham-Thornhill, they retroactively cut off membership sales, which is presumed to help the “chosen” candidate, former PMO staffer Mary Ng. Ng’s campaign says they lost hundreds of registered members too, but again, this is about optics. Meanwhile in Saint-Laurent, a current Montreal borough mayor was declared not to have passed the green-light committee but they refuse to say why, which is seen as clearing the path for “star candidate” Yolande James (though there is still one other candidate, so it’s not an acclamation). But while they may have reasons for not greenlighting said borough mayor, the fact that they refuse to say why is again a nightmare for optics when this is supposed to be the party of openness, transparency and open and fair nominations.

Part of why this is such a disappointment is because we really need to push back from party leaders’ interference in nomination races if we want to restore the balance in our politics. That’s not to say that there shouldn’t be safety mechanisms in the event of hijacked nominations (because there absolutely should be), but those mechanisms shouldn’t be the leader’s office. A strong grassroots is essential in our system, and with every time that the leaders and their offices interfere (because they feel emboldened to thanks to the bastardized system of leadership selection that we’ve come to adopt and go full-bore on at every single opportunity), we choke off the most fecund part of our democracy. Shenanigans and the apparently hypocrisy of proclaiming open nominations while appearing to play favourites undermines the bottom-up practice of politics, and it’s something we as Canadians need to push back against in every party.

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