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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Roundup: The measure of a political promise

There’s been a lot of hay made, ink spilled and electrons converted into pixels over the last 36 hours or so about the value of political promises, and how terrible it is when politicians break them. It makes people so cynical, and it’s no wonder that people hate politicians, and so on. We had Liberal MPs Nate Erskine-Smith and Adam Vaughan prostrating themselves about how sorry they are that the promise was broken, voter reform groups wailing about how terribly they’ve been betrayed, and columnists pontificated on broken promises (though do read Selley’s piece because he offers some great advice, not the least of which is telling PR advocates to tone down the crazy. Because seriously).

But in the midst of this, we had Conservative leadership candidates laying out a bunch of promises of what they would do if they a) won the leadership, and b) won the next general election, and some of those promises were hilariously terrible. For example, Maxime Bernier thinks it’s cool to freeze equalization payments so that the federal government can tell provinces how they should be managing their own fiscal houses, or Andrew Scheer saying that he would enshrine property rights by using a novel approach to amending the constitution through the back door, as though the Supreme Court of Canada would actually let that pass.

And while everyone was tearing their hair out over Trudeau’s “betrayal” and “lies,” what were these two other, equally implausible promises as Trudeau’s on electoral reform, met with? A few pundits tweeted “good luck with that” to Scheer. And that was about it. So forgive me while I try to calibrate my outrage meter on political promises here, as to which ones we should take seriously and which ones we know are bad or wholly improbable but can safely laugh off.

To be clear – I’m not looking to give Trudeau a free pass on this one, and I’ve written elsewhere that I think he needs to own up to the fact that it was a bad promise made when he was a third-place party who were blue-skying a number of things. And I think that it should give parties and candidates pause so as to caution them against being overly ambitious in what they promise (preferably, though, without draining all ambition out of politics). But come on. Let’s have a sense of proportion to what just happened here.

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Roundup: The “dangerous” Senate

Remember last week when John Ivison had that ridiculous column about the Senate apparently becoming such a terrible beast that the finance minister was being forced to change his upcoming budget to placate them, and then Andrew Coyne got the vapours about it? Yeah, well, over in the Vancouver Sun, they found a couple of people for whom that Ivison column made them utterly hysterical that they made it the BC angle. And as much as I like Peter O’Neil, who wrote the piece, it was really terrible and didn’t appear to challenge any of these so-called experts at all, or even what Ivison wrote – it took Ivison as gospel and went to town with it, despite the fact that it was torqued and wrong.

The “experts” consulted were a former BC Liberal leader, a law professor, and a recycled quote from the current BC premier. Said former BC Liberal leader spins conspiracy theories that because BC only has six senators, it means that the other senators are going to sneakily start amending bills to funnel BC’s wealth eastward.

No, seriously. He actually said that.

The law professor? He asserts that, apparently based on the Ivison column, that the “half-reformed” Senate is emboldened to exercise its powers without correcting the institution’s “considerable faults,” which aren’t. Never mind that we haven’t actually seen much in the way of them being so “emboldened” other than the fact that they’ve found legitimate flaws in government legislation and insisted that it be either corrected or removed. You know, like they’re supposed to because that’s the whole raison d’etre of the institution. And Christy Clark? She simply asserts that the Senate doesn’t work now. Erm, except that it actually seems to be considering that they’ve catching flaws in government legislation and dealing with it. Seems to be working to me.

Part of the problem with the framing of the article as well is the fact that it is coming from this particular grievance-based claim that BC is underrepresented in the Senate because it only has six seats when Ontario and Quebec each have 24. The flaw in this argument is that it ignores the regional construction of the Senate – it is not designed for provincial representation, but rather regional blocks – Ontario, Quebec, the Maritimes, and the West, with the territories and Newfoundland and Labrador each being additional regions unto themselves. The reason why it was designed with regional rather than provincial equality in mind was to provide a counterbalance to the representation-by-population of the House of Commons, and if you look at the populations of each regional bloc (Newfoundland & Labrador and the territories excepted), they are roughly analogous. That’s not a bad thing, but BC is acting a though the Senate was designed in another way, which it was not.

The problem with pieces like this one is that the important facts and context are left out. We are left with a few tantalizing quotes that crank the hysteria up to eleven, but there is no actual civic literacy to counter any of it, whether that’s out of ignorance or by design I can’t say. But it’s not edifying. It’s cartoonish, and in fact promotes an ugly cynicism about our institutions that creates bigger problems of perception that are not based on fact, and that’s a problem.

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Roundup: Annotating the 2016 Senate look back

The National Post had a look back over the changes made to the Senate over the past year, and a look at what’s coming up, so I figured I’d offer a few annotations along the way, because this is what we do here.

First of all, yes most of the new appointments came with small-l liberal values, and yes, that is a problem for the broader diversity of the chamber, which should have broad philosophical differences in it so that a more effective opposition to government policy can be offered. And as one Senator also said to me, it would be great if the next round didn’t all come from the social sciences. Because yeah, that too is another noticeable similarity. The Independent Senators’ Group also says that they won’t all vote together unless it’s an issue of Senate rules or logistics. This immediately prompted one of the most partisan of partisan defenders to leap to the attack.

I’m going to give some of these votes a pass because the bulk of the new senators are just that – new, and they haven’t had enough time to study up on the bills to come up with enough reasons to vote against them, other than perhaps for the sake of voting against them to show displeasure with the government. That these were mostly budget bills doesn’t really help Batters’ critique either because the Senate has to be careful with money bills, defeating them only on the most critical of issues which these budget bills were not. The rule of thumb is also that most senators become more independent with time, and these ones have barely managed to get their offices sorted, let alone figure out opposition stances.

There is but a brief mention under logistics that the Government Leader – err, “government representative” Senator Peter Harder says the “chamber will no longer be home to the government-versus-opposition Westminster-model,” but then leaves it at that. This is a very big deal, and one of the reasons why Peter Harder needs to be stopped. Throwing out the Westminster model in favour of 101 “loose fish” is a Very Bad Thing because it guts the effectiveness of the Senate as an accountability body, forcing it to rely either on subject-matter experts in the Chamber that may not disagree with the government, or by leaving independent senators vulnerable to the machinations of either Harder or government ministers promising favours. This, let me repeat, is a Very Bad Thing.

Finally, while it points out that senators have been more active in amending government bills, it requires a bit more context. Two of those bills, assisted dying and RCMP unionization, were born of Supreme Court of Canada decisions that the government of the day didn’t do a particularly thrilling job of drafting. The consumer protection aspects of Bill C-29? That was as much pressure from the Quebec Government as it was the Senate committee. And Bill S-3 on gender discrimination in Indian Act registration? Another bill stemming from a Supreme Court of Canada decision that was poorly drafted, but the fact that the government tabled the bill in the Senate instead of the Commons means that those flaws were exposed there first, and is not indicative of an overly aggressive Senate as it was a bad bill. Context matters, which this article doesn’t really get right.

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Roundup: Items left undebated

With the Commons now having risen for the holidays, there is another day or two left of work left in the Senate before they too head off for their holidays, but as Kady O’Malley points out, they are having a bit of a problem getting any bills that aren’t supply-related passed in any reasonable timeframe. The extent to which this is an actual problem just yet is up in the air – yes, fewer bills have passed to date in this current parliament, but some of them have been pretty major issues (like assisted dying), while we’ve also seen far less use of procedural tools like time allocation to ram through bills without sufficient time for debate or committee study. (We’re also not seeing massive omnibus bills being rammed through either, so points for that).

Part of the problem is simply that senators are letting items stand on the Order Paper in their name for weeks at a time, which is not uncommon in the Senate, but there has been little effort to move some of these pieces forward, and I’m not entirely sure why. In my own estimation, part of it has to do with the new normal in the Senate, where there is no longer a government caucus, and the Government Leader – sorry, “government representative” thus far hasn’t really been communicating much urgency on any particular bills so far as I can tell. Maybe I’m wrong, as I’m not privy to any discussions that he is having with other caucus leaders. Some of it I would imagine is delay engineered by some Conservative senators because they feel that measures were adopted too quickly by the House of Commons without what they would consider to be adequate scrutiny (which I would imagine the ostensible reason on holding up debate on the trans rights bill would be), while some of it is partisan stubbornness (like the bill to undo changes the previous government made to unions or citizenship revocation). Senator Peter Harder could start to invoke time allocation on those bills if he so chose, and with there now being enough non-aligned senators having been appointed to surpass the votes of the Conservatives in the Chamber, he may now be in a position to convince them that this is the way to go.

Time allocation is a tricky beast in the Senate, however, and while the previous government did not hesitate to use it in the Senate when they felt they needed to, it is a blunt instrument and Senators need to be careful that they’re not putting themselves in a position of being treated like backbenchers in the Commons. Part of what needs to happen is clear lines of communication between the government and senators who want to speak to bills so that they have timelines in mind (and to be fair, some of them may have a lot on their plates right now). But there shouldn’t be an expectation that bills need to be sped through the Senate just because they’re government bills – they already get priority in all aspects of the Senate process, but if there is a sense of urgency, that needs to be communicated.

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