Roundup: Jean’s version

Yesterday finally saw that long-anticipated Daniel Jean appearance before the Commons public safety committee, and it was…not explosive. Much of it was simply reiterating everything we’ve heard before – that Jean was sensitive to misinformation that was appearing in media outlets that suggested that RCMP and CSIS didn’t take Jaspal Atwal’s appearance seriously, that there was a possibility this was an attempt to embarrass the Canadian government into looking like they didn’t take Khalistani separatists seriously, and that Jean himself suggested the briefing and PMO simply providing him with a list of journalists to reach out to. And when the Conservatives demanded to know about the “rogue elements in the Indian government” or “conspiracy theory” allegations, Jean corrected that he didn’t say those things.

Now, some of the journalists involved in the briefing are disputing a few details, and in particular the notion that Jean had suggested that perhaps Indian intelligence was involved (which he denied yesterday). And there remains this concern trolling that senior bureaucrats don’t normally go to the media like this so he “must have” been put-up to it by PMO, which I’m not really sure is the case, particularly because as we heard in later releases about Jean’s briefing, and in his testimony yesterday, he highlighted the use of “fake news” and propaganda by hostile outlets, which is why we wanted to correct them as a neutral third-party. This is not really a widespread concern just a few years ago, particularly given the way that it was seen as interfering with elections and whatnot, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he wanted to be more proactive about it.

Of course, the real hitch in all of this is that some of the sensationalized reporting around the original briefing, coupled with the torque applied to it by Andrew Scheer and company to the point where the story being proffered in the House of Commons didn’t match reality (which is Scheer’s stock in trade these days) have spun this whole narrative beyond what was a “faux pas,” per Jean. And when Jean’s narrative didn’t match Scheer’s, it was Scheer who tried to insist that Trudeau spoke about the “rogue elements” (he never did – he very studiously avoided any specifics and only said that he supported what Jean said), and that it was up to Trudeau to provide clarity for his apparent contradictions when he didn’t actually make any – it was Scheer himself who put forward a false narrative and has been caught with his pants down over it. But let’s also be clear – a lot of the reporting around this has not been stellar either, between sensationalization and omitting of aspects (like his concern about the misinformation being fed to Canadian media), coupled with a refusal to call Scheer out on his disingenuous framing of the whole thing, has led these false narratives to grow out of control. And they keep getting dragged on longer by things like yet more false claims being piled on, such as with the chickpea tariffs and the allegedly cancelled meeting that never existed, but do we call it out? Not until days later. And some journalists should own up to their role rather than get their backs up (like they did yesterday) so that we can move on from this whole incident because we really do have better things to discuss.

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Roundup: No knockout punch from Dawson

As expected, former Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson’s appearance at the Commons ethics committee yesterday was a show for the cameras. Throughout the hearing, opposition MPs kept trying to get Dawson to insist that it was a big deal that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau violated conflict of interest rules, and she kept rebuffing them, not giving them the clip that they were looking for. Because really, ever since former Auditor General Sheila Fraser remarked that the Liberals “broke every rule in the book” when it came to the Sponsorship Scandal, reporters and partisans have been trying desperately for another officer of parliament to give them a similar line (kind of like how everyone keeps looking for a “knockout punch” in a leadership debate that won’t ever come). Dawson also wouldn’t play ball when it came to the Conservatives trying to insist that the PM repay all of the costs of the vacation, and in fact seemed to defend some of them, so too bad for that attempted clip.

That’s not to say that there wasn’t some value in the exercise. For example, while the PM and Dawson will dispute the extent of Trudeau’s friendship with the Aga Khan for the purposes of the Act, had she agreed that they were close personal friends, Trudeau would have been found to have contravened the Act in another fashion when he sat in on two meetings related to the Aga Khan Foundation (even though she didn’t find that he unduly influenced those meetings based on his relationship). Nevertheless, the “friends” exception in the legislation was cause for some level of debate and indeed consternation among MPs, but it’s something that Dawson thinks they might as well just get rid of in the statute.

And amending the Act was part of the discussion as well, both with regard to closing loopholes, and the discussion on penalties. Regarding loopholes, Dawson said that she needed to interpret that Morneau was within his rights to indirectly hold his shares in holding companies because she had previously recommended that said loophole be closed (and, shockingly, MPs ignored the suggestion). If she suddenly interpreted the legislation differently, that would have been a problem, hence her need to apply the law in a consistent manner. Regarding penalties, Dawson said that she feels that naming and shaming political figures is punishment enough, which didn’t sit well with MPs who wanted a sliding scale of penalties to demonstrate the severity of the offence. (Andrew Coyne also advocates “meaningful penalties” but won’t say what qualifies). The problem with this, of course, is that it turns any violation into a political circus as MPs fall all over themselves to demand the stiffest possible penalties for their opponents in order to score points, ignoring that the whole exercise is one designed for political consequences, which Trudeau has and continues to face. The other aspect is that greater penalties also create the conception that these are criminal sanctions, which the opposition has already been exploiting with language about how Trudeau “broke federal laws” to give the impression that he has committed a criminal offence (which he has not). Changing the rules to encourage this kind of demagoguery doesn’t help our ethics system in the slightest, and would probably do far more harm than good in the interest of scoring a couple of cheap points.

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Roundup: Turning down the committee

It was pretty much as expected. The Commons ethics committee met yesterday and the opposition MPs assembled pleaded with the Liberal majority on the committee to think of the children – err, I mean, think about the meaning of holding the government to account when it came to the demand to call for the PM to appear to answer questions about the Ethics Commissioner’s findings regarding his vacation to the Aga Khan’s island. I will grant that the Liberals could have insisted that they go in camera for this, but didn’t. Rather, they simply said that, having read the report, and taking into account that the PM had apologised, answered questions in the media, and would be answering questions in QP on this topic, that it was enough. And so the motion was defeated 6-3, which surprised no one.

From the arguments presented, there is a little more that we could dig into. For example, Nathan Cullen said he wanted the PM’s suggestions on how to improve the rules – but if he cared about those, he would have taken the many suggestions that Mary Dawson has been making over the past decade and implemented those, but he, nor his party, nor any parliamentarian, has been keen to do that. And his worrying that the PM is ultimately accountable to parliament is true, but that ultimately means that if Cullen is so concerned, he can move a motion of non-confidence in the PM on the NDP’s next Supply Day and try to convince the Liberal ranks of the merits of his argument. As for the Conservatives, they seemed far more interested in seeing some grovelling the PM, and demanding that he repay the full cost of the trip (which would include the Challenger and security costs), never mind that during the Harper era, his “reimbursement” for his own private trips was supposed to be at economy fares, but nobody could find fares as low as the ones he was repaying (and there were several incidents of party stalwarts getting subsidized airfare improperly). And that whole incident nearly six years ago when they wanted Harper to appear to answer questions on the ClusterDuff Affair? Well, that was then and this is now, and Trudeau promised to be more open and transparent. (Err, remember when Stephen Harper rode into office on the white horse of accountability and transparency? Yeah, me neither).

And while opposition staffers chirp at my on the Twitter Machine about how it’s the role of MPs to hold the government to account – true – and that a committee setting is less theatrical than QP – not true – I will reiterate that the point of this exercise is not actually about accountability, but rather about gathering media clips under the protection of parliamentary privilege. If you think there would be sober questions asked, and that this would be a serious exercise in accountability, then you’re sorely mistaken. It remains a political calculus, and Trudeau has determined that it’s not worth it to spend an hour having the most torqued accusations hurled at him in the hopes that something sticks, and hoping for that “gold” clip that they can share around social media. If we’re going to lament the lack of accountability, then everyone needs to take a share of responsibility there – not just the PM.

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Roundup: The emancipation of Lynn Beyak

Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, along with his Senate caucus leader, Senator Larry Smith, announced last night that troublesome Senator Lynn Beyak had been kicked out of caucus after she refused to remove blatantly racist “letters of support” from her website. In true Scheer form, he not only didn’t effectively manage the situation, but waited until there was a media storm before he backed down, just as he did with deciding not to give any more interviews to Rebel Media post-Charlottesville, or having to back down somewhat on his campus free-speech zealotry in the wake of another incident (though he did get back on that bandwagon again after the whole Lindsay Sheppard incident).

While this move was met with a number of people saying “better late than never,” I’m not so sure. In fact, I think that he’s just created a monster now that Beyak no longer has any kind of adult supervision. Indeed, I suspect that he’s just made a martyr out of Beyak, who can now claim that she’s a victim of “political correctness run amok,” and she will quickly attract a group of odious racists and free speech absolutists, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility that she’ll be yet another Jordan Peterson-like figure (though likely without the need for the Patreon account, given her Senate tenure).

But that Senate tenure is exactly why this situation should have been better managed, and why expelling her from caucus was possibly the wrong thing to do. At least inside of caucus, she could have been managed, and if they had been on the ball, they should have had a better handle on what she was posting to her website and had it locked down long before now, using whatever means of coercion are available to party and Senate caucus leadership. After all, taking her off of committees didn’t seem to do the trick, but I’m not sure what kinds of measures they were using to manage her once that happened, if any. And that’s key, because as someone who has institutional independence and can’t be fired, managing her was the best possible thing that they could have done rather than letting her continue to court racists. (This being said, the fact that she was viewed as a Pollyanna figure by some of her fellows was probably why they didn’t think they needed to manage her as closely, and look what happened as a result).

Beyak is likely to continue to sit as a non-affiliated Senator, as we can be assured that the Independent Senators Group will want nothing to do with her, especially as they have a new rule that means that they need to have a two-thirds vote to admit her into their caucus. While people will howl for her to resign, I sincerely doubt that she will, given that she’ll have a new crowd of adherents that will flock to her now. She can’t be expelled from the Senate unless she’s convicted of a serious crime or is found to be in violation of Senate ethics rules, and there’s nothing to suggest that she would be (not to mention that there will be great reluctance to push her out for what she’s said, no matter how odious it may be, because free speech is greatly valued in the Senate). Trying to have her charged with hate crimes isn’t likey to work as I doubt she meets the bar for that, and dragging her before the Human Rights Tribunal will make her an even bigger martyr with the free speech absolutists. And so now we’ll be stuck with her until February 2024, because the party leadership couldn’t figure out how to properly manage a problem like her. Well done, guys.

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Roundup: Cozy think tank takedowns

Over on Maclean’s yesterday was a longread “exposé” of Canada 2020 as an arm of the federal Liberal party which is exerting all manner of influence, and how potentially inappropriate that may be. But after reading the piece, I found it less a convincing exploration of the think tank than it was simply a recitation of names with “links” to the Liberals, followed by Duff Conacher’s railing about how awful it all is.

Pro tip: If your story relies on Duff Conacher’s analysis of government misdeeds, then it’s probably not worth reading. Conacher is a noted crank who has a history of distorting issues and losing court battles, and who has a number of particularly harmful ideological agendas that involve the destruction of the Canadian Crown, the Westminster system, making all prerogatives justiciable, and one supposes the installation of a Parliamentary Thought Police with himself at the head. (Note: I have had to quote Conacher for stories in the past, but have limited those interactions to narrow questions of ethics legislation rather than the breadth of topics that other rely on his analysis for, just as Anne Kingston does here). In other words, it’s the laziest possible journalist trick in Canada if you want to write a story that makes any government look bad, and you won’t get any meaningful analysis of the issue.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t questions that can be raised about Canada 2020’s cozy relationship with the Liberal Party – but I would say that it’s in all likelihood no more nefarious than the kinds of ideological alignment between something like the Fraser Institute and the Conservative Party, and it’s no more incestuous than the Broadbent Institute is with the NDP (to the point where Broadbent’s PressProgress “news” service is simply a branch of the party’s opposition research bureau).

Part of the problem is that political parties in Canada have looked south with this particular kind of envy about the think tank networks in Washington as something that should be emulated, without necessarily realizing that the American think tank network is intrinsically linked to the fact that their civil service is far more partisan than Canada’s, and that the usual cycle is for parties who aren’t in power to send their senior staffers to bide their time in said think tanks, and when they return to power, they fill their upper civil service ranks from those think tanks, while those who’ve lost power fill their own think tank ranks, and on it goes. That’s not how things work in Canada, and the need for said think tanks is not the same. There has also been talk from some partisans about how they need these think tanks to help them develop policies, as thought that wasn’t the job of the parties’ grassroots membership. So I do think we need to rethink the whole “think tank” system in Canada writ-large and what parties are expecting of them – especially when it comes to policy development – but I’m not sure that this story is doing that job.

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Roundup: An indefensible communications strategy

If you’ve been wondering what the Conservative communications strategy around the planned changes to private corporation taxation, then it’s your lucky day as VICE got a copy of the talking points and then fact-checked them. In short, it’s predicated on a combination of extreme cases, lies of omission, and misdirection – so pretty much what you’d expect if you’ve been paying attention these past few weeks.

All of this is being further exacerbated by a growing number of Liberal MPs who have become victim to their own government being unable to actually articulate what these changes really mean and who have come up with a communications strategy that is more interested in sloganeering than it is on correcting the active misinformation campaign that has been going on, and which isn’t actually fighting back against said misinformation through a series of pointed questions like “How exactly is income sprinkling the thing that’s spurring entrepreneurship/growth/investment?” like keeps being brought up, or “You read the proposal where reinvesting in the business isn’t being additionally taxed, right?” And while sure, there may be some issues with family farms when it comes to capital gains for passing it on from generation to generation, or with the potential compliance burden to ensuring that any of these ongoing measures are actually above-board, those aren’t what we’re hearing. Instead, it’s this nonsensical braying about how small business “deserves” these tax breaks for “risk” (false – risk was never why these differential tax breaks were introduced, but rather, a lower small business tax rate was introduced in 1972 because at the time, they had difficulty getting bank loans). Braying that nobody is pushing back against, and that’s part of the problem.

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Roundup: Trudeau laying in the Senate bed he made

There is a renewed round of wailing and gnashing of teeth about the Senate feeling it oats and flexing its muscles, and yesterday it was the Prime Minister doing it. Apparently deliberating and amending bills is fine unless it’s a budget bill, in which case it’s a no go. The problem with that is that of course is that a) there is no constitutional basis for that position, and b) if the whole point of Parliament is to hold the government to account by means of controlling supply (meaning the public purse), then telling one of the chambers that it actually can’t do that is pretty much an existential betrayal. So there’s that.

But part of this is not so much about the actual issue of splitting out the Infrastructure Bank from the budget bill – which Senator Pratte, who is leading this charge, actually supports. Part of the problem is the principle that the Senate isn’t about to let the Commons push it around and tell them what they can and can’t do – that’s not the Commons’ job either. As Kady O’Malley delves into here, the principle has driven the vote (as has the Conservatives doing their level best to oppose, full stop). But some very good points were raised about the principle of money bills in the Senate, and while they can’t initiate them, that’s their only restriction, and they want to defend that principle so that there’s no precent of them backing down on that, and that’s actually important in a parliamentary context.

As for this problem of Trudeau now ruing the independent Senate that he created, well, he gets to lie in the bed that he made. That said, even as much as certain commenters are clutching their pearls about how terrible it is that the Senate is doing their constitutional duties of amending legislation and sending it back, it’s their job. They haven’t substituted their judgment for those of MPs and killed any government bills outright and have pretty much always backed down when the Commons has rejected any of their amendments, and that matters. But it’s also not the most activist that the Senate has ever been, and someone may want to look to the Eighties for when they were really flexing their muscles, enough so that Mulroney had to use the emergency constitutional powers to add an extra eight senators to the Chamber in order to pass the GST – which was a money bill. So perhaps those pearl-clutchers should actually grab a bit of perspective and go lie down on their fainting couch for a while.

On the subject of the Senate, it’s being blamed for why the government hasn’t passed as many bills in its first 18 months as the Harper government had. Apart from the fact that the analysis doesn’t actually look at the kinds of bills that were passed (because that matters), the reason why things tend to be slow in the Senate is because the Government Leader – err, “representative” – Senator Peter Harder isn’t doing his job and negotiating with the other caucuses and groups to have an agenda and move things through. That’s a pretty big deal that nobody wants to talk about.

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QP: Pipelines and weed puns

It was Justin Trudeau’s first day back since the Francophonie and since Castro’s death, and one just knew that it was going to be everyone’s preoccupation. Rona Ambrose led off on the subject of pipelines, the big announcement coming after the markets close, and she wanted assurances that he would ensure that any approved pipelines get built. Trudeau started off by reminding the Commons that strong environmental protections were fundamental to economic growth, and that was a principle he was following. Ambrose then moved to the Castro issue, wondering what he was thinking of when praising him. Trudeau reminded her that whenever he travels, he always brings up human rights and he did in Cuba as well. Ambrose repeated the question in French, got the same again, and then moved onto the allegation that Bill Blair was hitting up marijuana lobbyists for donations. Trudeau fell back to the talking points about the rules, and when Ambrose raised that he admitted to talking up investment at his own fundraisers, Trudeau wasn’t moved, and stuck to praising the rules that were being followed. Thomas Mulcair was up next, insinuating that there was someone with canola interests at a fundraising dinner. Trudeau noted the widespread concern about the canola restrictions and his government secured market access for all farmers. Mulcair asked about the Blair fundraiser in French, Trudeau gave the rules points in French, and then Mulcair moved onto the Kinder Morgan process, calling it a betrayal. Trudeau noted the consultations they had with all sides, and that they were in the balance between a party that wants blanket approvals and another party that wants all things shut down. Mulcair went another round in French, and got the same answer.

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QP: Outrage theatre, part eleventy

While Justin Trudeau just got off the plane from Madagascar and wasn’t in the Commons for QP, neither was his counterparts from the Official Opposition. Denis Lebel led off, worrying about the statement that Trudeau had made about Castro’s passing, and if he regretted them. Stéphane Dion rose to reply, and he mentioned that similar statements were made by other leaders, and they were trying to support the Cuban people by not focusing on old antagonism. Lebel demanded the official statement on the website be changed to use stronger language, and Dion said that they were using Canada’s relationship to better the lives of Cubans and that they desired for Cuba to be a democracy. Lebel asked again in English and got the same response. Peter Kent go up to go another round, worrying that the PM had never met with Castro’s victims, and Dion assured him that they were supporting the people of Cuba rather than the regime. Kent demanded that condolences be sent to said victims, but Dion listed the other world leaders who made similar statements. Thomas Mulcair was up next, and worried that the government was reneging on the promise to be rid of First-Past-the-Post. Maryam Monsef said that she was waiting for the report of the committee but would not move ahead unless there was the broad support of Canadians. Mulcair raised the StatsCan report on sexual assault in the military, and Harjit Sajjan reiterated that they had zero tolerance for it and still had work to do. Nathan Cullen was up next, accusing Monsef of undermining the committee’s work on TV over the weekend, and Monsef reminded him that she was there to talk about C-33. Cullen groused some more about the lack of commitment to propositional representation, but Monsef reiterated that she was waiting for the committee report.

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Roundup: And the Tony for outrage goes to…

I really didn’t want to have to write about this, but it managed to suck up all of the oxygen in the news cycle this weekend, and I feel compelled to once again say something that I really didn’t want to, but lately this seems to be my lot in life. I’m talking about the whole Trudeau/Castro statement, and how very tiresome that pile-on soon became. Forgetting of course that nobody’s hand are clean in the game of international diplomacy, and for some reason nobody is allowed to speak ill of the dead unless it’s Fidel Castro, Trudeau’s comments weren’t sufficiently scolding enough of his legacy – never mind that he has a personal family connection there, and he has to be pragmatic about relations as he walks the line between needing new markets with American protectionism on the rise and economic liberalisation slowly happening in that country. And when pressed, Trudeau made no bones about the fact that Castro was a dictator while still explaining making the statement that he did. Nevertheless, I will hasten to add that Trudeau’s statement has nothing on the leftist paeans being sung to Castro that I’m finding all over my Facebook timeline, praising his stand against Imperialism and how the love of his people protected him from CIA assassins, and so on. (And these are from the same kinds of people who considered Stephen Harper a dictator, so seriously, chill out). And then there was the digging up of statements that Stephen Harper had made after the deaths of the likes of the King of Saudi Arabia (“desired peace”) and Hugo Chavez, and lo, no outright condemnations in either of those statements. Should Trudeau have said something more? Probably. But I do get that he’s trying to walk a very fine line.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, people took to social media to bombard us with endlessly with the instantly tiresome meme of #Trudeaueulogies, while the whole of the Conservative leadership race decided that they too needed to take to social media to perform some outrage for us, demanding that Trudeau not go to the funeral, and beating at their breasts, wailing and gnashing their teeth about how terrible it was that he didn’t mention the executions or the persecution of gays, and it was like every single one of them was vying for a Tony award. And then they all emailed party members trying to crassly try to fundraise on this issue. Honestly, it’s just so tiresome because it’s just so transparently performative.

Meanwhile, John Geddes talks to a historian about the legacy of Pierre Trudeau and Castro with Canada-Cuba relations. Terry Glavin thinks that this proves that Trudeau is as vacuous as most people seem to think, while Charlie Gilles calls Trudeau’s statement “egregious whitewashing.”

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