Roundup: Trying to measure independence

As Senators have made their way back home for the summer, we’re having another round of them poking each other, like kids in the backseat of the car on a long trip, over just who are the “real independents” in the Senate. It’s getting a bit tiresome, especially with the Conservatives insisting that they’re the only ones because they vote against the government more often. The problem is that it’s a fairly flawed metric because they’re the Official Opposition and are supposed to vote against the government on a consistent basis. That doesn’t make them independent – it makes them the opposition.

The big problem with the metric about voting as a measure of independence ignores the broader procedural issues. If the government could really command the votes of its new independent appointees, then bills would be making it through the Senate a lot faster, and they’re not. The logistics of getting legislation through the chamber when you don’t have a whip who is organizing votes is one of the measures by which you can tell that these senators are more independent than the Conservatives in the Senate give them credit for. While the Conservatives, Senate Liberals and Independent Senators Group are getting better at organizing themselves in trying to come up with plans around who will be debating what bills when, the fact that the Government Leader in the Senate – err, “government representative,” Senator Peter Harder, refuses to negotiate with those groups to prioritize some bills over others, has been part of the reason why some bills went off the rails and took forever to pass. If he did negotiate, or could command votes to ensure that bills could be pushed through when needed, I would buy the argument that these senators aren’t really independent. The fact that there is this lack of coherence in moving legislation is one of the markers in the column of greater independence. This is also where the argument about the need for an Official Opposition kicks in.

While the dichotomy of strict Government/Opposition in the Senate has been upended with the new group of Independents, ending the duopoly of power dynamics that contributed to some of the institutional malaise around the rules, I will maintain that an Official Opposition remains important because it’s important to have some focus and coherence when it comes to holding the government to account. Simply relying on loose fish to offer piecemeal opinion on individual pieces of legislation or issues risks diluting the effectiveness of opposition, and it also means that there is less ideological scrutiny of a government’s agenda, which is also important. Partisanship is not necessarily a bad thing, and the Senate has traditionally been a less partisan place because there was no need for electioneering within its ranks. Trying to make it non-partisan will not make it better, but will make it less effective at what it does.

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Roundup: Exit Meredith, at long last

It is perhaps not entirely surprising, but it seems that soon-to-be former Senator Don Meredith had the tiniest shred of shame left in him after all, and he announced yesterday that he would be resigning from the Senate. Well, sort of. He wrote a letter where he implied that he was resigning but didn’t actually say it, and made himself out to be a hero for not putting the Senate through a Constitutional challenge around its powers to expel a member. It took calls to Meredith’s lawyer to confirm that yes, he was resigning, and then more calls to confirm that yes, the letter stating that had been sent to the Governor General (who has to get it and then inform the Senate Speaker of that fact) but just hadn’t arrived during the evening political shows.

So now there are a couple of questions remaining. One of them is what happens to the two ongoing investigations into harassment in his office, which would normally be suspended given that they are considered moot given that he’s no longer there. That could change, however, if the Senate Ethics committee decides to let them continue in order for everything to be aired. Given the current mood, that may still happen.

The other question, and we’ll hear no end of sanctimony about it, is about Meredith’s pension. That’s the one thing that most reporters immediately glommed onto yesterday, because of course they did. Apparently, Treasury Board gets to make this call, and they’ve apparently reached out to PMO on the issue, so I’m sure we’ll get some kind of a political determination around it within a couple of days. At that point, we’ll see if Meredith decides that it’s a fight he wants to take on, despite the fact that he’ll have popular opinion against him. He may, however, have the law on his side, but more to the point, the desire to preserve one’s pension has been a driving force for getting bad actors to resign gracefully. Taking that option away will disincentivise future bad actors to do so, which is a bigger problem long-term than the public outrage about this one public figure.

Meanwhile, this means that the Senate’s powers to expel one of its own members will remain untested, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’m not sure that it’s preferable for them to have gone ahead with it, even as a test case, given the historical message that it sends. Regardless, here’s James Bowden laying out the case for why the Senate does have the power to expel its own members, should it become necessary once again in the future.

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Roundup: Premature ministerial assessments

As we approach the mid-point of the current government’s mandate, we’re seeing a few pieces about how terribly underperforming the cabinet is, and the problem with hiring rookies for the sake of diversity is that they’re basically all incompetent. Given the two pieces we saw over the weekend, from John Geddes and John Ivision respectively, I have to say that I’m a little disappointed in the shallowness of the analysis of both.

Part of the problem is that we don’t often elect a group of subject matter experts and can expect to slot them into cabinet slots and let them thrive. Electoral politics doesn’t really work that way, and this isn’t a technocracy. This isn’t America, and Cabinet posts are as much a question of political management than they are about anything else, and sometimes when you try to slot in someone you think is a subject-matter expert, you wind up with problems. It’s fairly rare that we have health ministers who are doctors, sometimes for good reason, but this government managed to find a good fit with Dr. Jane Philpott, who has managed to deal with some pretty hefty files from the day she was appointed. Appointing a former soldier like Sajjan, however, can be really problematic for the defence portfolio because it creates some awkward expectations, particularly with regard for expectations around the minister’s loyalties (not to mention that it makes a hash of the line we draw in our system between civil-military relations). But that doesn’t mean that putting a young and dynamic go-getter into a cabinet portfolio despite a lack of subject-matter expertise is a no-go. Sometimes a government has limited options when they win power.

I also think that some of Geddes’ analysis was heavy-handed. I doubt that Sajjan will carry this Operation Meduda baggage with him for very long, and I have said time and again that Maryam Monsef was not demoted – she went from a make-work portfolio with a handful of PCO staff to assist her, to a line department with an ambitious mandate. That’s fairly significant. Yes, this government has spent a lot of time consulting, but that has a lot to do with the way the previous government operated, and they came in on a promise of being different. Have things been slow to roll out? Great gods on Olympus yes, have they ever. Does that really amount to a pile of broken promises? No, and I think we can still afford to be patient on a number of files. But I also don’t think that Ivison’s call for prorogation, a complete reset of the agenda and a vast cabinet shuffle are the answer either. I think it’s a vast overreaction to a problem of perception and inflated expectations. Governing is difficult business, and things take time to get right. Just because previous governments rammed things through in haste doesn’t mean that every government needs to, particularly when they have an eye on long-term change.

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Roundup: Your quarterly QP hand-wringing

After QP started getting rowdy and loud again in the past week, both in the feigned outrage over the calculated overblowing of the Sajjan situation and Trudeau’s Wednesday proto-PMQs that have given the opposition the chance to be extra vocal in expressing their displeasure of him, we have seen the return of the navel-gazing about what to do about QP. Aaron Wherry muses about the lack of answers despite more questions directed to the PM, while Penny Collenette compares the QP flaying of Sajjan to Senator Don Meredith hiding from the public eye to prove the point about how QP is better because it’s public.

Lagassé raises an important point here – Sajjan is a minister and QP is a forum to hold him to account. Meredith is a senator and not a representative of the government in that chamber. Just as we don’t hold backbenchers up to scrutiny in QP, we also don’t hold individual senators up to the same scrutiny in that Chamber’s version, which is an important distinction. As well, the process around Meredith has been quite public, from the release of the Ethics Officer’s report, to the Ethics Committee’s response and their own report recommending his expulsion (including the legal advice of the Senate Law Clerk). While Sajjan has been exposed to questions about his apparent self-aggrandisement (which, I will remind you, is not actually “stolen valour” as the Conservatives would term it, as that is largely reserved for those who put on a uniform or medals that they didn’t earn – something Sajjan certainly has earned), there has been nothing public in the way of an explanation from Sajjan – only a series of apologies (which, I will grant you, have taken personal responsibility, which not everyone in politics does). While I have a great deal of respect for Collenette, she is comparing apples to hedgehogs.

As for the latest bout of hand-wringing about the state of QP and the terrible decorum in the place, I will point to something that John Ibbitson said on CBC News Network’s Sunday Scrum yesterday – that while MPs could certainly empower the Speaker to crack down harder on it and have him start naming MPs and expelling them from the chamber for their behaviour, MPs don’t actually want to do that. QP is the way it is because that’s what MPs want. I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing either – politics needs some theatre, but what we need in this country is some good theatre, rather than this scripted junior high gymnasium play that the history teacher wrote. There are changes that need to happen to make QP better, like eliminating scripts and speaking lists, loosening the clock, and empowering the Speaker to police answers, but so far, MPs have been deaf to those suggestions. So long as they remain so, things will continue in their sad state.

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Roundup: The hole that the Forces find themselves in

While I noted that this was certainly used as an attempt to change the channel during QP yesterday, I wanted to spend a couple of more minutes talking about the big defence policy teaser that Harjit Sajjan gave yesterday, which basically made the perennial statement that the previous government didn’t do a very good job, which is why we’re in such a terrible mess. All governments say this, and future governments will too. And while Conservatives in my reply column get indignant, and while Rona Ambrose emailed her own fact-check, it too contains a lot of rose-coloured history.

Ambrose mentions things like the Leopard 2 tanks (the decision to purchase which were questioned considering it’s obsolete Cold War era technology bought for a counter-insurgency war), the Cyclone helicopters (which were problem-plagued and didn’t even have shielded electronics, which were easily knocked out by the radar on our frigates), the new Arctic Offshore patrol ships (known affectionately as “slushbreakers” because they can’t even cut through the ice in a gin and tonic and yet they’re supposed to be used for Arctic operations), and then there are the supply ships which they cancelled, leaving us with no supply capacity in our navy. So yeah, they did so much with their investment in the military.

Much of the reaction to Sajjan’s speech was that yes, we’re in a hole, but the government hasn’t committed to reinvesting either. Partly they have, with the earmarked dollars that will follow once there is a plan in place. That plan will be part of the actual rollout of the Defence Policy, and the prime minister acknowledged in QP yesterday that investment in the military would follow the policy, and yes, the policy is important to have in place first because it’s hard to plan to spend if you don’t know why you’re spending or what the plan is for our Forces to be doing. So it makes sense to wait for a plan before there are dollars to follow it. It should also be noted that this government is not following the more recent trend of putting all of its plans in the budget, so we may yet so more dollars flowing (but it remains to see how many dollars, considering the fiscal situation).

All of this being said, we will still need to acknowledge that funding likely won’t be enough to completely get things back on the right track, and that complaints about underfunding will continue into future. This new funding likely won’t even get us close to our 2 percent of GDP NATO target (not that such a target counts for a lot). Suffice to say, I’m not sure that any party should be patting themselves on the back.

For some more reaction here’s Dave Perry on Power Play, and Stephen Saideman offers his thoughts on the teaser here.

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Roundup: Wise asses and the Wise Owls

The snickering and childish guffaws that accompanied the news that the Senate released a children’s book-style brochure about the Senate was predictable. Every single wise ass in the pundit sphere threw in their two cents, many of them in the tiresome form of children’s book verses of their own, detailing how sordid those awful owls really are, and aren’t we clever for subverting this book? Others decried the (meagre) expenses and time used to create such a brochure, never mind that these very same pundits kept wondering aloud why the Senate never promotes itself or its good works. And while a more grown-up brochure was also produced alongside it, nary a soul mentioned that one.

I will be the first to say that The Wise Owls is not without its flaws, particularly in how they allegorically depict how and why the Senate came about. It was not because the House of Commons wasn’t working, and it’s particularly disingenuous to suggest that was the case. The general audience brochure has a more accurate take on that history, but I will also add that one of the problems with that brochure is that it places the legislative role of the Senate above all others under the heading that “Senators are lawmakers.” The abuse of the term “lawmakers” in the Canadian context rankles me because it’s an Americanism owing to how their system works, while our parliamentarians in our system are about holding the government to account, and legislating they do is a by-product of that as opposed to their raison d’être.

Nevertheless, some of the reactions to the book have also been particularly problematic, from Elizabeth May complaining that it’s not good democratic education because it implies that those responsible for sober second thought are wiser than those who are elected, to journalists like Justin Ling, who complain that the message to children is that your elected officials can’t be trusted.

Putting aside the potential that this is petty jealousy – after all, it would seem to be the media’s job to keep telling people that our elected officials are not to be trusted – these complaints ignore the fact that the entire Westminster system is predicated on that very fact – that while it’s all well and good to have elected officials, we still need safeguards against the excesses of populism. It’s why we have a monarch who is a disinterested party that can hit the reset button in times of crisis. It’s why we have an upper chamber that is appointed and not pandering for votes and has the institutional independence to speak truth to power. It’s why our courts don’t rely on judges to tailor their verdicts with an eye toward keeping the public favour in order to seek re-election. The very foundation of our system is that sometimes elected officials need to be reined in, and not by yet more elected officials. It shouldn’t be scandalous that this very same message is what this book exposes children to.

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Roundup: Not the cures for what ails the Commons

The latest round of Barish Chagger versus the opposition House Leaders started up yet again yesterday, and while my thoughts will be out in my next Loonie Politics column (up later today), I figured I’d take the opportunity to respond to Andrew Coyne’s musings about this latest round.

To wit, of his seven proposed reforms, Coyne only gets about three of them right – re-empowering the Speaker with regard to doing things like splitting out omnibus bills, restoring the various party caucuses’ ability to choose their leaders rather than the party memberships, and to ban scripts from the House of Commons (while ripping out the desks and implementing benches instead, Westminster-style), and letting the cameras get wide shots and reactions while they’re at it – something I too would agree with.

But then Coyne starts veering off into problematic territory. Turning over control of prorogation to the House of Commons is a Very Bad Idea because it fundamentally undermines the point of prorogation, which is that it allows the government to control its own agenda. It’s not up to the Commons to decide when the government needs to come up with a new list of priorities, and giving them the power to determine when they can hit the reset button throws that relationship out of balance – not to mention the lack of logic in requiring a supermajority to prorogue when they can declare non-confidence with a simple majority. Likewise, limiting the use of confidence undermines the whole bloody system and is utterly boneheaded.

Halving the size of cabinet? While the current Ministry has far less fat than previous ones, I think this has more to do with Coyne’s personal bugaboos about Cabinet construction in Canada than it does the problem with not having enough backbenchers in this country that diminished hope for a cabinet post allows for greater independence. Insisting that ministers answer questions put to them rather than fobbing them off to a junior? It’s less of an issue now than it used to be, but while we could theoretically empower the Speaker to insist, I worry that this becomes open to abuse (not to mention the fact that their refusal to answer is fodder for We The Media in holding them to account).

Of course, Coyne caps it off with his biggest eye-roller of all – that proportional representation will be the cure for all of our parliamentary ills. It won’t be of course, and will simply create a host of new problems (the extent of which depends greatly on just how the proportional system is constructed), but we’ve had experience with minority parliaments before. It didn’t make MPs more cooperative – it simply entrenched positions even harder, which a state of permanent minority or coalition government is all the more likely to do. So while Coyne is on the right path on a few ideas, his problematic or outright dangerous ideas outweigh the good.

Kady O’Malley, meanwhile, goes through a point-by-point deconstruction of the complaints that Michelle Rempel made over Twitter on Sunday night with regard to what she felt the imposition of a weekly Prime Ministers Questions would do, particularly around the media cycle, and while I’m no real fan of imposing a PMQ here (precisely because the rest of our debating culture is so bastardized that it would just make these problems even worse), O’Malley makes some particularly good points about why the opposition shouldn’t be overplaying their hands on this one.

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Roundup: Seriously, civilian control of the military is a Thing

If three incidents makes a trend, then we may have a serious problem with civil-military relations on our hands in this country. After the allegations that Mark Norman leaked Cabinet confidences to publicly pressure the government to run a procurement his way, and calls by soldiers in uniform for the defence minister to resign, we now have a retiring general who wants less political control over combat missions (on top of greater resources). Because apparently civilian control over the military isn’t a Thing and we should just let them run their own show.

Oh, wait. This is a problem because it’s looking to weaken that civilian control. No one can deny that there were a lot of problems with the way that things were run in Afghanistan because of some rather spectacular bureaucratic bungling, but that doesn’t mean that we should simply turn over operational control to the military. Madness – and coups – lie that way. And if serving members of our military can’t see that, then we have a serious problem on our hands.

Meanwhile, as Harjit Sajjan issued yet another apology for characterizing his role in Operation Medusa, we also saw a letter released from General Fraser on Sajjan’s role was at the time. The more that this drags on, and the more we hear military voices chirping on about this, the more I’m seeing another problem with the way in which Sajjan was given the role as minister, while he was still an active member of the Canadian Forces Reserves (and indeed, the point was made upon his appointment that he had to resign because he was still technically subordinate to the Chief of Defence Staff owing to his rank). This is a problem for civilian control of the military, when we put recently retired members into the civilian role of oversight – they’re too close to the culture for one, and as we’re seeing with this particular incident, the soldiers still serving have different expectations of the minister because they’re still seeing him through the lens of being a “good soldier” rather than a politician, which he is now. We’re also seeing this problem in the States with appointments of recently retired military personnel into Trump’s cabinet, where they are blurring lines around civilian control. And We The Media aren’t helping by treating Sajjan as a former soldier instead of a politician in how this whole thing is being handled, which is only amplifying the problems. Neither, frankly, are the Conservatives, who keep trying to insist that the military be left to handle their own procurement (particularly around fighter jets), apparently forgetting about the problems they had with those same files when they were in government when the military’s wish lists were unrealistic, and the fact that just turning it over again undermines civilian control. This is really serious business, and I fear that we’re letting this get out of hand, with not enough voices pushing back against this creeping problem.

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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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