Roundup: A revealing confession

When I saw the initial tweet, I can’t tell you how hard my eyes rolled, precisely because this sort of shtick is David Akin’s specialty – asking non-sequitur questions at inappropriate moments to try and generate a different headline, oftentimes to manufacture outrage (and oftentimes to the detriment of other reporters who had serious questions to ask when questions were limited). And some of the reactions to said tweet were pretty great too.

But reading Trudeau’s response, it was a bit of a warning klaxon for me, because of how this has been quietly playing out over the course of the past couple of years in the ways that Trudeau and his government has been trying to “reform” the way that business happens in the House of Commons – you know, to “modernize” the way that it functions.

…As we look at electoral structures, which is one of the questions that was specifically asked, we’ve had a certain level of discussions around electoral and democratic reform in Canada that leave me looking to the mother of all parliaments. Obviously, the U.K. does a significantly better job than us in programming legislation and getting that through the House. I think there is issue to admire on that. On the other hand, we were glad to adopt the prime minister’s question period model from the U.K. I think there’s lots to draw on when you look at our democratic structures from the mother of all parliaments.

The two key takeaways there are programming legislation, and prime minister’s questions. This isn’t the first time that programming motions have come up – back in the spring, the opposition filibustered the government over a proposal to include programming motions as part of Bardish Chagger’s “discussion paper” on suggested changes to procedure, and it seems that Trudeau hasn’t given up on the notion. I know that some people like programming motions because it helps create more orderly debates, and helps to move legislation though the chamber a lot more swiftly. But that’s partially why I’m not a huge fan of it, because creates the default assumption that the Commons is there to process legislation instead of holding government to account. Granted, we’ve gotten a bit dysfunctional in our parliament because opposition parties (and the NDP in particular) have an inability to let debate collapse in a reasonable timeframe which brings up the need for time allocation, and programming motions are just that – time allocation for all stages of a debate as it gets tabled. We should be trying to get parliament back to a better state of debate rather than resorting to programming, because that will help snuff out what little life remains in our parliament – it will make the speeches that much more rote and pro forma rather than having a miniscule chance for actual debate. As for PMQs, Trudeau’s grand experiment with it here has not proven to be that illuminating, and has instead created a perverse incentive for the Conservatives to instead bombard him with the same question eleventy times than to use it productively, and even when backbenchers do ask varied questions, they get mere platitude responses rather than substantive ones. It’s not like the UK’s, and so I find Trudeau’s response to Akin far more dubious as a result.

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Roundup: The AG’s disastrous advice

The Senate’s internal economy committee is signalling that they are looking into setting up an independent audit committee, and my alarm bells are going off so hard right now because if they follow the path that the Auditor General wants them to go down, then they are risking serious damage to our entire parliamentary system. And no, I’m not even exaggerating a little bit. You see, Michael Ferguson wants to ensure that if there are any senators on this independent committee, that they are in the minority and not in a position to chair it, because that would mean they’re still writing their own rules. And the answer to that is of course they’re writing their own rules. They’re Parliament. Parliament is self-governing. In fact, it’s not only ignorant but dangerous to insist that we subject our parliamentarians to some kind of external authority because that blows parliamentary privilege out of the water. If you don’t think that Parliament should be self-governing, then let’s just hand power back to the Queen and say “thank you very much, your Majesty, but after 168 years, we’ve decided that Responsible Government just isn’t for us.” So no, let’s not do that, thanks. And it’s not to say that there shouldn’t be an audit committee, and Senator Elaine McCoy has suggested one patterned on the one used in the House of Lords, which would be five members – three senators, plus an auditor and someone like a retired judge to adjudicate disputes, but the Senate still maintains control because Parliament is self-governing. It allows outsiders into the process to ensure that there is greater independence and which the senators on the committee would ignore at their peril, but the Senate must still control the process. Anything less is an affront to our democracy and to Responsible Government, and I cannot stress this point enough. Ferguson is completely wrong on this one, and senators and the media need to wake up to this fact before we really do something to damage our parliamentary institutions irreparably (worse than we’re already doing).

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Roundup: Counter-radicalism and reality checks

In the wake of the Aaron Driver near-miss last week, public safety minister Ralph Goodale is set to announce that the government is moving ahead with a counter-radicalization programme, but it looks like the details are still a little ways out. That said, Goodale has been pretty frank that our current counter-radicalisation programmes have little coherence and that’s what he aims to fix over the course of this year. And while we get the musings about what kind of leader Trudeau will be in the face of terrorism, we get his former foreign policy advisor Roland Paris reminding us of what he has done to date (which is not nothing, as his critics have stated). More importantly, however, we need to remind ourselves of the reality of the situation, and for that, I would turn your attention to Stephanie Carvin’s piece in this weekend’s Globe and Mail, which explains why counter-terrorism and counter-radicalism is not as easy as you might think, and provides a good reality check for the kinds of rhetoric out there, and why saying things like “connecting the dots” isn’t actually helpful to any kind of conversation around the subject.

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Roundup: Send in the narcissistic clowns

It happened on Thursday, but I’m still fuming about it. Power & Politics interviewed a couple of would-be Senate candidates based solely on what I’m guessing is the sheer power of their narcissism, and not once was the actual Senate itself brought up for discussion. It was pretty much inevitable that this would happen – the moment the government announced that they would allow their advisory committee to allow self-applicants into the process, you were guaranteed to find a bunch of people who felt that somehow they had the right stuff to be a senator, and lo and behold, these people have been making themselves known, like the one guy from PEI who is going around and door knocking to get people to sign a petition about how swell he would be as a senator, never mind that a) it’s not how this works, and b) if he’s so keen about knocking on doors, maybe he should seek a party nomination to run to be an MP. Just maybe. Or the woman in Nova Scotia who thinks that just because she’s championed a couple of petitions to twin highways that she has the right stuff to be in the Senate. Never mind that neither of them have any particular policy expertise that they want to bring to the job. Never mind that both of these clowns are way too young to even be contemplating a position that is generally seen as a way that allows people who have excelled in their fields to contribute to public service as their careers are winding down. They feel that because they’re honest and have integrity (and really, who doesn’t think that they do), that makes them good material for the Senate. Okay, then.

What burns me the most, however, is the way that the media treats the narcissistic clowns and uses this as some kind of human interest story rather than to demonstrate that the Senate is actually pretty serious business. Not once were these wannabes asked what they think the Senate actually does, and how exactly they plan to contribute to a chamber that is full of subject-matter experts. None of them were asked if they know how the legislative process works, though they seemed to think that they had ample time for on-the-job training (and to a certain extent yes, that may be the case, but generally you would have some kind of other expertise going into this rather than you think you’ve got a good character). And by treating the Senate seriously in that you’re not asking people who think they should populate it about the chamber itself, it betrays the fact that We The Media seem to have learned nothing about it despite all the stories about it over the past two or three years, from the ClusterDuff fiasco to the solid debates that were had over the assisted dying bill. And that’s really sad, because you would have hoped that we would have learned something about how interesting and vital a place it is in our democratic process, but no, we remain fixated on spending scandals (for whose coverage and pearl-clutching was hugely out or proportion to what had actually taken place for most senators), and not on the actual work of the chamber, and we are all poorer for it.

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Roundup: Big tent divisions

There was an interesting and perhaps somewhat revealing interview in The Hill Times yesterday where openly gay MP Rob Oliphant let it be known that despite the outward acceptance of LGBT issues in the Liberal Party, it is not a universally held opinion, and that there are still undercurrents of the “love the sinner, hate the sin” attitude that still reside within some of its members. As an example, MP John McKay – a noted evangelical Christian – was quoted as saying that his feelings about same-sex marriage haven’t changed, even though he considers the issue settled. It’s that line between tolerance and acceptance, and Oliphant rather adroitly points out that the line is still there within his own caucus. It also seems to me to be a kind of oblique explanation for why the government wound up taking such a tough line on the assisted dying bill – to the point that they would rather see it go back to the Supreme Court of Canada in order to suffer a defeat and be “forced” to deal with the issue as it was originally laid out in the Carter decision rather than to go along with it on their own. There are other lines within the party where Trudeau has forced the issue with his candidates and caucus, such as abortion (McKay being an opponent, as was Lawrence MacAulay until Trudeau’s edict), and it would seem that the same line is being threaded with the assisted dying issue. The difference is that with this one, Trudeau did not force the issue with his caucus and insist that this is a Charter issue that they will be whipped on (never mind that the Carter decision very clearly stated that yes, this is a Charter issue and this is why the current law is not adequately ensuring access for these Canadians with grievous and irremediable suffering). And it did seem that it was originally going to be the case where this was going to be a whipped vote on Charter lines, but he backed away from that under some public pressure from the media. How much of that was from push-back from the caucus and the broader party membership remains to be seen, but it would seem that the attempt to create the broadest possible tent is forcing some uncomfortable compromises, and in this case, Trudeau made the calculation that this wasn’t a battle he was willing to fight within his own base, never mind that he had the Charter argument right there. Instead, we are left with an inadequate law that will be challenged again (and one hopes not at the expense of another suffering family), and the reminder that while the public face of the Liberal Party is one of progressivity, there remains a social conservative undercurrent of the party that the leader’s declarations haven’t entirely done away with.

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QP: Referenda and farm protests

After the machinations around the government’s climb down on their electoral reform committee and the subsequent Conservative apoplexy, it was likely to be a more tense day in QP. Here was my prediction:

Rona Ambrose led off by quoting Trudeau from a press conference earlier this morning in saying that referenda are often used to stop things, and declared it arrogant. Maryam Monsef said the time was to move past process and get onto the actual debate. Ambrose said that the NDP and the Liberals were taking the right to determine their voting system away from Canadians. Monsef praised their cooperation and doing politics differently. Ambrose repeated the question, and Monsef praised the work of the committee in engaging Canadians and bringing recommendations back to the Commons. Alain Rayes was up next, decrying the “backroom deal” with the NDP (which doesn’t appear to have been a deal considering the NDP seemed genuinely surprised that the government climbed down), and got the same lines from Monsef. Rayes gave one more demand for a referendum, and got much the same answer. Marjolaine Boutin-Sweet noted the farm protest happening outside, and demanded action on the issue of diafiltered milk. Jean-Claude Poissant noted that the government supported Supply Management and would protect it. After another identical round from Boutin-Sweet, Tracey Ramsay decried the TPP while asking the very same questions about diafiltered milk. Poissant gave the same assurances of support for Supply Management.

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Roundup: A vote for support

We have the motion on the Order Paper now for the debate and eventual vote on the newly refocused mission in Syria and Iraq, and to the relief of those of us who care about things like Crown Prerogative and the powers of the executive, it’s crafted simply in the language of supporting the mission. This is critical, because asking for authorisation is a giant can of worms that nobody really should want to even contemplate opening, but even with this language, it’s going to cause headaches going forward. To recap, asking for authorization is something that launders the prerogative and thus the government’s accountability. When something goes wrong, they can shrug and say “the House voted for the mission,” and to varying degrees, the Harper government did this, particularly with relationship to Afghanistan. These non-binding votes are a rather unseemly bit of political theatre that purports to put the question to MPs – because apparently they need to have buy-in when we send our men and women in uniform into danger, or some such nonsense – and it gives parties like the NDP a chance to thump their chests about peacekeeping and pandering to pacifistic notions (and does anyone seriously buy that nobody is trying to stop the flow of money, arms and fighters to ISIS without Canada butting to the front of the line to finger-wag at them?), and parties like the Conservatives a chance to rail that they were doing so much more when they were in charge (when they weren’t), or when they were in charge, to pat themselves on the back for everything they were doing (when really, it tended to be a bare minimum at best, or a symbolic contribution at worst). Of course, all of this could be done with a simple take-note debate without a vote, which is how it should be, because a vote implies authorisation, and that’s how the NDP have read each and every vote in the past, and they will loudly remind everyone in QP and elsewhere about it. Trudeau has been trying to keep expectations measured by saying that they recognise the role of the executive in making these decisions – but he went and proposed a vote anyway, muddling the role of MPs in this situations like these. That role, to remind you, is to hold the government to account, so if you’re going to have a vote on a military mission, then one might as well make it a confidence vote because foreign policy and control of the military is at the heart of the Crown’s powers. (These authorisation votes that aren’t confidence measures are playing out in the UK right now, which is making a mess of their own system, for the record). Trudeau should have known better than to continue this pattern of confusion and left it at a take-note debate, like it should be. A vote, whether it’s an actual authorisation or just a declaration of support, only serves to make the waters murky, which we need our governments to stop doing before they do lasting harm to our system of Responsible Government.

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Roundup: 100 days without unicorns

We have reached 100 days since the election, so expect to find any number of analyses and think-pieces about the “milestone,” like this one here from CBC. The Canadian Press had their enumerated list of what promises have been kept, what hasn’t (like promised gun-marking measures), and what’s in progress, which is handy to have. And while Trudeau has come out and said that perhaps they won’t meet the deficit targets made during the election, the economy being what it is, hay is certainly being made over it – particularly from the Conservatives, who have pounced on that singular National Bank forecast that said that perhaps the deficit will surpass $90 million over four years. Of course, nobody knows if that will be the case, particularly if the stimulus the government is pouring into the economy does manage to kickstart growth, and when the economy grows, deficits shrink on their own. That said, everybody leaping onto this report before we’ve even seen a budget is pretty ridiculous. The NDP’s release on the 100 days, however, was a bit more…fanciful. It contained a laundry list of woe, from their mischaracterisation of the tax cut, the fact that other promised spending hasn’t happened yet, the continued deliberate conflation of signing versus ratification of the TPP, the lack of new GHG targets or action on legalising marijuana – all giving the impression that such things can happen at the snap of a finger, without debate, without a budget, and apparently all by Order-in-Council rather than with legislation in many cases, is a bit ridiculous. The only valid point they do make is about parliamentary secretaries and committees (and as discussed earlier in the week, their own record of centralisation in this area is nothing to be proud of). The fact that they came out with such a list full of dubious complaints seems to be a return to true third-party status, where they can rail into the wind without the benefit of a reality check, belies a particular lack of lessons having been learned in the previous election or self-awareness about what they’re saying. Nobody is expecting them to roll over and applaud the government – but at least make the criticisms valid ones, rather than complaining that they didn’t have enough unicorns in the parade. The opposition has a serious job in holding the government to account. It’s a pity that our two main opposition parties seem incapable of taking that job seriously, as demonstrated yesterday.

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Roundup: Carrying on the co-opting

Justin Trudeau and three ministers announced the new plan to fight ISIS yesterday, and while the CF-18s are coming home in two weeks, the surveillance and refuelling planes will remain along with triple the number of special forces trainers, plus ministerial advisors in Iraq and capacity building in neighbouring Jordan and Lebanon, along with a lot more humanitarian assistance on the ground, and small arms and ammunition to our Kurdish allies. Its’ an approach that the Americans praised (despite Rona Ambrose’ dire warnings), but there is something that is troubling, which is the fact that Justin Trudeau has declared that he will still call a vote on the matter in the House of Commons. Why is this important? Because it has to do with the practice of Responsible Government. Under our system, the government – meaning the cabinet – takes a decision, and the Commons gets to hold them to account for it. But what Stephen Harper decided to start doing back in 2006 is to put things which are normally the prerogative of the Crown – things like military deployments – to a vote in the Commons, for purely political reasons. Part of those reasons were about trying to drive a wedge in the Liberal ranks over the mission in Afghanistan, and he did it very effectively. The other part was that it gave him political cover. When things went wrong, and they did, his ministers stood up to remind the House that they voted for that Afghan mission. Because that’s what insisting on votes does – it co-opts the House’s accountability role, and launder’s the government’s prerogative so that they can help avoid being held to account. It was bad enough that the Harper government, it’s worse that the Trudeau government, which says a lot of good things about restoring the proper functioning of our parliamentary system, to not do so in this case – especially after saying that he understands the role of the executive in military matters, and then goes on to promise a vote anyway. (I would also add that it’s mind-boggling that the NDP would continue to insist on a vote despite the fact that it co-opts them, but mind-boggling is what a lot of their positions tend to wind up being). One imagines that the language of the vote will be one which simply expresses support in the mission rather than has the language of authorisation, as Harper did with the previous Iraq vote, but it’s still terrible all around, not only for optics, but the proper functioning of our system of government.

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