Roundup: Leaking cabinet confidences is a Big Deal

I will readily admit that I haven’t been keeping as close of an eye on the whole drama surrounding the suspension of Vice-Admiral Mark Norman from the post of vice-chief of defence staff, and the alleged leaks surrounding the contract to refit a supply ship for our navy (which currently has none, thanks to consistently bungled procurement processes). It wasn’t until this particular walkthrough from Murray Brewster that the elements of the story all started to crystalize, in part because we finally got some more details about just what was being alleged thanks to a judge ordering the release of information. Over the past couple of days, the extent of those backchannel conversations with certain shipyards and their aim – to use media leaks to publicly pressure the government to go a certain route when they were resistant – may seem like pretty insider stuff, but it actually has some pretty broad implications for our entire Westminster-system of government.

While you may have certain pundits who bemoan the case against Norman is thin gruel, especially in light of the whole lack of convictions in the ClusterDuff affair, I have to say that leaking cabinet confidences is probably a little more significant. As noted parliamentary scholar Donald Savoie notes in this piece, Cabinet secrecy underpins our entire system of government because it relies on government to act with one voice, and to stand and fall in unison rather than with ministers as individuals. Cabinet solidarity is a Thing, and it’s an important Thing. Cabinet secrecy ensures that there can be a full airing of views and that it’s not just a focus group for the prime minister, and this extends to the advice that the civil service is able to provide. There needs to be a certain amount of secrecy to that advice so that there can be a meaningful back-and-forth of ideas and discussion before a political decision can be taken, and then held to account.

What Norman allegedly did was to use his position as a servant of the Crown, who swore an oath to the Queen and not the government of the day, to further his own interests. He was taking the political decision, and allegedly leaking those cabinet confidences in order to force the situation toward his desired outcome. That not only violates the roles of the civil service (and military by extension), but it undermines cabinet government. We The Media may grouse about the extent to which things are declared cabinet confidence, but it is important – particularly because this government is practicing cabinet government more than its predecessors have been, or even many of the provinces. I’ve had conversations with current ministerial staff here who used to work at Queen’s Park who have attested that cabinet government is real here, unlike Ontario, where it was all controlled from the centre. Leaking confidences undermines this, and it is a serious matter – not just the thin gruel that some would have us believe.

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Roundup: Not another special committee

And so the filibuster over potential changes to the Standing Orders rolls on, with no end in sight. Opposition House leaders presented an open letter yesterday calling for a new special committee to examine the issue with an eye to ensuring that it only comes out with recommendations achieved by consensus, but I’m not sure how bright of an idea that really is. After all, they’ll demand that it be composed in a similar manner to the Electoral Reform committee (to be faux-“proportional” and to get buy-in from the Bloc and Elizabeth May, naturally), and they’ll spend months and months hearing all kinds of expert testimony about how great parliamentary or legislative rules are in other countries only to doubtlessly come up with some the same kind of non-consensus that the ERRE report did, that every party will walk away from.

Bardish Chagger isn’t backing down, incidentally, and keeps insisting she wants a dialogue but won’t commit to consensus, probably because a) the committee look into making the Commons more “family friendly” wound up being a bust – which is for the best, really; and b) because she wants to try and fulfil the half-baked election promise about doing some kind of parliamentary reform, never mind that no reform is actually necessary of the kind that she’s proposing (with the exception of restoring prorogation ceremonies – that one we do need).

But I will reiterate yet again that our problem is cultural. Looking at rule changes won’t fix the underlying cultural problems, and this will be just another months-long waste of time when what all parties need to be doing is getting back to the core of Westminster parliamentarianism, and doing the sensible things of banning scripts and speaking lists, throwing out the time limits that obligate MPs to fill the time rather than engaging in spontaneous debate, and actually taking the legislative process seriously, which means ending the insane (and inane) focus on endless Second Reading debate. Repeating the ERRE exercise for the Standing Orders is just a black hole to be avoided, and all parties should back away from this fight (especially the Liberals).

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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: Staffers defend Canadian presidentialism

Andrew Coyne’s column on reverting to a system of caucus selection of party leaders got a lot of pushback over the Twitter Machine on Saturday, and curiously, those most in favour of retaining our current bastardized system of membership-selection were those who currently or formerly worked in the PMO (as well as a couple of current leadership candidates who don’t currently have seats in the House of Commons, which isn’t surprising seeing as they’d be excluded from such an exercise and well, they have egos to stroke given their current leadership ambitions).

And this presidentialization creep is what really gets under my skin, because it’s those who benefit from unearned power – the people in the PMO (less kids in short pants these days than they were under the previous government) who are the most ardent defenders of the system, and using this faux democratic mandate of the 150,000 “supporters” of the party as justification. What none of them bring up is the fact that the PM is unaccountable to those members in any real sense, and certainly unaccountable to the caucus he leads, and that’s a very big problem. And no, a system like that proposed in Democratizing the Constitution of membership selection/caucus removal would never work in practice because unless the method of selection matches the method of removal, there is a legitimacy problem, not to mention this is what happened with both Greg Selinger in Manitoba and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, and look at where both of them are today. It’s not pretty, and it’s bad for our Westminster system. Caucus selection is really the system we need to revert to if we want accountable leaders and empowered MPs who aren’t being cowed by centralized leaders and their staffers, and we won’t get that now, especially if those staffers are all over the Twitter Machine trying to defend their turf.

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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: The vacuous pleas to change the Standing Orders

As the procedural warfare over the government’s proposed changes to the Standing Orders drags on, my patience for the government’s digging in their heels and insisting on “modernizing” things are increasingly absurd. To wit, Liberal MP Scott Simms – who is behind the motion to fast track this study, which touched off this warfare in the first place – tried to defend his positon last night, and I just want to bang my head into a wall for a while over the vacuousness of his justifications.

You say that now, but Trudeau has long promised that he wants to be out glad-handing among Canadians instead of being in the Ottawa bubble, so you’ll excuse me if I treat this with suspicion. Meanwhile, there’s nothing stopping him from answering all of the questions one day a week if he wants without needing to change the Standing Orders to do it.

If there is one bit of discourse that I would ban from Canadian politics, it’s the insistence that we can always come up with some new Made in Canada Solution™ to any problem that vexes us. It’s a bullshit sentiment, especially because in this case, the system is already made in Canada and fits the unique circumstances of our parliament as it differs from Westminster. Trying to import other Westminster-isms and mapping them onto our parliament and calling it “Made in Canada” is a fool’s game at best, because our political cultures are quite different. Sure, PMQs sounds like a good idea, but they don’t have desks, don’t use scripts, have a more generous timer, and they have a debating culture that can use wit and self-deprecating humour rather than constant unctuous sanctimony and robotic reliance on scripted talking points like we get here. You can’t just map PMQs here without recognizing the cultural changes. That likely applies to their scheduling motions, while the problem in Canada is more that we have House Leaders of dubious competence as opposed to unworkable rules.

This is specious. If government wants to get their bills passed, they need to convince the Commons. That’s how it works. Meanwhile, the fact that they didn’t get much passed without time allocation (which is not closure, and I want to smack people who confuse the two) is again due to inept House Leadership, not the rules.

Meanwhile, as the Conservatives froth at the mouth at the idea of a once-a-week PMQs, they not only forget that it was all Harper could bother to show up for toward the end of his mandate, and the fact that they voted for Michael Chong’s proposals around exploring this very idea. Oops.

But you know, they have some more outrage to perform.

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Roundup: Budget madness, 2017 edition

So, there was a budget yesterday, but not an exciting one. It’s a lot of vision, not a lot of numbers, mostly fleshing out last year’s budget without a lot of new money, but hey, “innovation!” Oh, and no pathway to balance, but hey, debt-to-GDP remains stable, which is what counts.

But I’ll leave the analysis to some people who are more qualified than I.

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Roundup: Candour versus transparency

The government announced yesterday that their proposed changes to the Access to Information Act won’t be coming as quickly as promised because they “wanted to get it right.” Now far be it for me to be completely cynical about this in asserting that they never intended to fulfil this promise, because I’m not entirely sure that’s the case, but I will also say that any Conservative crowing about how terrible the Liberals are for this delay *cough*Pierre Lemieux*cough* needs to give their head a shake because the Liberal have already made changes that far exceed what the Conservative did on this file. This all having been said, Howard Anglin makes some interesting points about this, and whether it’s desirable for them to go ahead with some of these changes.

As much as my journalistic sensibilities want greater transparency, I also do feel a great deal of sympathy for the point about candour. Having too many things in the open has had an effect on the operation of parliament and times where parties could quietly meet and come to a decision with little fuss has turned into a great deal of political theatre instead (which is one reason why I’m wary of opening up the Board of Internal Economy too much). We want functional institutions, and that does require candour, and not all desires to keep that candour and ability to speak openly from being public is more than just a “culture of secrecy” – there is a deal of self-preservation involved. While it would be nice if we could wave a magic wand and the line by which this tension is resolved would be clearly demarcated lines, but that’s not going to happen. This is going to be muddled through the hard way.

Meanwhile, Susan Delacourt writes about that culture of secrecy that exists within the capital – an even within Cabinet jealously guarding information – and how it’s an ongoing fight to keep from letting that culture keep going unchallenged.

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Roundup: Backbenchers already have jobs

There were a couple of competing tweet storms that went out yesterday – one from Alex Usher, who seems to think that maybe backbench MPs should consider their jobs to be part-time and take on a second job, and Emmett Macfarlane, who (correctly) thinks that idea is a bunch of bunkum.

As Kady O’Malley points out, it’s not actually against the rules.

And hey, there’s even an academic study that shows that the public (at least in the UK) isn’t too keen on backbenchers taking on second jobs.

I’m going to assume that much of Usher’s position comes from ignorance, because let’s face it – most people, including most MPs, don’t know what an MP’s job description is supposed to be. (Hint: It’s holding the government to account). But because most MPs don’t know that’s their main job, many of them spend their days burning their time and energy doing things like writing up and promoting a dozen private members’ bills that will never see the light of day, or crusading for causes that are as much about getting their own face in the news than they are about helping those in need (or maybe I’m just cynical). The point, however, is that if Usher thinks MPs are bored and in need of something to do, I would suggest that those MPs should actually be doing their jobs, and if they’re actually doing it right, then they shouldn’t be bored. They especially shouldn’t be bored if they’re doing their jobs correctly and not just reading scripts into the record prepared by the leader’s office (and to be fair, there are a few MPs who don’t, even though they’ll still rely on prepared speeches). If we carry on with this path of making MPs obsolete by turning them into drones then sure, I can see Usher’s point, but the answer is not to let them take on outside work. The answer is for them to actually learn their own jobs and do them. Parliament would be vastly improved if that were actually the case.

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Roundup: Government vs opposition duties

While I’ve written on the topic before, comments made by Government House Leader Bardish Chagger on her tabled “discussion paper” on trying to make the House of Commons more “efficient” really rankled over the weekend. In particular, Chagger said the proposals were trying to find the balance between the government’s “duty to pass legislation and the opposition’s right to be heard.”

No. Just no. And here’s Philippe Lagassé to explain why.

The whole point of Parliament is not to ensure that government passes legislation. The point is to hold it to account, and that often means slowing it down and ensuring that it doesn’t overstep its bounds, which it is wont to do. Already it’s a problem that government backbenchers don’t do their duty and due diligence when it comes to keeping a check on the government – most are happy to toe the line in order to be considered for a cabinet post, which is a problem in and of itself, and we’ve seen this attitude of being “team players” amplify in the last number of years, particularly after the minority government years, when message discipline became paramount above all else, which is why I worry about how the backbenches will react to this proposition by the government. Will they willingly surrender their responsibilities of accountability because they want to be seen as being onside with Cabinet (particularly after the recent defeats of cabinet on those private members’ bills and Senate public bills?) Maybe.

What worries me more is the way that Chagger phrased the opposition’s “right to be heard.” We’re seeing increasingly that with this government and their insistence on constant broad consultations, they will listen, then go ahead with their original plans. I worry that this is how they are starting to feel about parliament – that they’ll hear the concerns of the opposition or the Senate, and then bully through regardless. Parliament is not a focus group to “consult” with, and I’m not sure that they’re quite getting that, particularly given Chagger’s statement. Accountability is not just politely listening, and the opposition is not there to just deliver an opposing viewpoint. There needs to be a tension and counter-balance, and right now I’m not sure that this government quite gets the need for that tension, particularly when they keep mouthing platitudes about working together collaboratively and whatnot. Then again, I’m not sure that the opposition necessarily gets the extent of their responsibilities either, which is depressing. Regardless, Chagger’s case for these reforms is built on a foundation of sand. Most should be fully opposed and defeated soundly for the sake of the very existential nature of our parliament.

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