Roundup: More tax change caterwauling

Another day, and more moaning about the proposed small business tax changes, which have now been equated to “class warfare”! Yes, a pair of tax lawyers wrote in the Financial Post yesterday about how the ability for small business owners to split their income with stay-at-home spouses was great policy because it was first proposed back in 1966. I kid you not. Fortunately, economist Kevin Milligan is back after a few days offline, and can help sort some of this out.

And then there’s this kind of silly thinking:

Government is not a business. It cannot be run like one, no matter how many times people like to chant it as a slogan. It fundamentally does not operate in the same way, nor can it ever run in even approximately the same way. The absolute fundamental principles do not translate because government has no bottom line. The sooner people grasp this, the sooner we may have more rational discussions on how to better operate government in a sane and rational manner.

Meanwhile, Andrew Coyne is unconvinced by all of the caterwauling about the proposed changes, not seeing the moral advantage that small businesspeople are apparently owed, and suggests instead that the incentives to incorporate be reduced by bringing the topline personal income tax rate and the small business rate closer together.

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Roundup: The downside of leaks

The thing that had everyone’s tongue wagging yesterday was the release of those Trump Transcripts™ detailing calls to Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, and the inevitable Canada angle in which Trump says that there’s no problem with Canada, that they don’t even think about us. Some friend and neighbour.

All joking aside, this piece by Andrew MacDougall explaining how readouts of calls with foreign leaders work is crucial reading to understanding why it’s important for diplomacy that world leaders be allowed to have open and frank conversations without these kinds of details leaking out. While yes, these Trump leaks are more about the damage to his domestic agenda, they’re not revealing much about him that we don’t know already, but it remains an issue that it sets a very bad precedent, and that could have bigger and worse repercussions down the road, not only for the ability of politicians to speak freely to one another, but also for the likelihood of there being note takers in the room with Trump in the future, and neither is a good thing.

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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: Imagining something we already have

Two different reality shows have been made pitches about televising the renovations to 24 Sussex, and some of their reasons for doing so are frankly appalling. On the one hand, one can see the temptation of such a project, both in terms of the drama, the fact that the constant conversation and hate-watching would drive the ratings, or the possibility of some form of public accountability where people would see on their screen what their millions of dollars of tax dollars are paying for (and before you say anything else, I am very dubious about that  $38 million figure being thrown around, because it likely involves a bunch of security bells and whistles that the RCMP have thrown into it that may not actually be necessary but are a bunch of “nice to haves” while they’re blue-skying). And while that’s all well and good, one of the proponents, Lynda Reeves went and put her foot in it.

We already have our “White House equivalent,” and that’s Rideau Hall. It’s where the Head of State resides when she’s in the country, and where her representative lives and conducts his work. And I know that this may be hard for someone like Reeves to grasp, but the prime minister is not a president. He is the head of government, the “first among equals” of the Cabinet, and most emphatically not the head of state. He may have an official residence, but he doesn’t require the equivalent of a White House because his job is not the same, and he has two official offices – one in Langevin Block, and the other in Centre Block (with a temporary replacement being constructed in the West Block as we speak for the decade where the Centre Block will be out of commission). He doesn’t need a live-work space like the White House is.

It’s this kind of intellectual and cultural laziness that is the exact same as people who refer to Sophie Gregoire Trudeau as the “First Lady” when she very much is not. We don’t have a First Lady or a First Family because we have a monarchy, and those roles belong to the Royal Family. The closest thing we have to a “First Lady” other than the Queen (or Prince Philip if you want to qualify the spouse of the Head of State in such a role) is actually the Chatelaine of Rideau Hall, which is the title given to the spouse of the Governor General when the spouse is a woman (which I suppose would be châtelain when the GG is a woman with a male spouse).

So no, Lynda Reeves, we don’t need a symbol similar to the American White House because we already have one. And if we want Canadians to have an image in mind when they close their eyes and imagine what the equivalent is, there are plenty of photos to choose from. Here’s one:

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Roundup: The question of the Speaker

The mounting speculation in BC is now starting to focus on the race for Speaker in the legislature – or rather, the lack of a race. Word has it that the Liberals plan on putting no one forward, and the NDP/Greens are making similar noises as well. The lack of a Speaker could mean that the legislature winds up being dissolved and heading back to an election, as precedent from Newfoundland would indicate. But if, by some miracle, the Lieutenant Governor manages to cajole the legislature into at least trying to attempt to elect a Speaker (by trying to avoid a new election at all costs), then there is the possible situation that the Liberals could put forward one of their own, and if Clark is defeated on a confidence vote, have that Speaker then resign and force the NDP to put forward one of their own, which again shifts the balance to 43-43, and possibly hastening the demise of a possible NDP government.

What this means is that Christy Clark is not out of cards to play yet, and that no these are not tricks or games – they’re legitimate exercises of parliamentary authority, and I cannot stress enough that Clark is a very skilled retail politician. She has made the right moves about sounding like she’s willing to do a spell in opposition, and that she’s not looking to go to an election right away, but she can very easily turn around and say that she tried to be reasonable and they didn’t take yes for an answer on any number of issues, and the deadlock would quickly turn into dissolution where she has an NDP-Green agenda laid out before her that she can pick apart in an election campaign. Any suggestion that she simply bow out gracefully and turn over the keys remains premature, and the insistence that an NDP government is inevitable is counting chickens before they’ve hatched. Just because most of the pundit class doesn’t have an understanding of how the system works and the options available to Clark, doesn’t mean that she’s done for. I suspect there will be many surprises left to come, all sold with her skill and charm.

Meanwhile, Clarks’ former press secretary notes that the deal the Green signed actually weakened their ability to exert influence. Andrew Coyne pens a satirical letter from “political strategists” offering cynical (but not necessarily wrong) advice. Colby Cosh looks at the looming Speaker drama and the many other hurdles that would wreck an NDP government, giving it 22 months.

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Roundup: Not a real QP fix

Earlier in the week, the NDP put a motion on the Order Paper that they plan to use for a future Supply Day. The text of it, presented in the NDP House Leader Murray Rankin’s name reads as thus:

May 9, 2017 — Mr. Rankin (Victoria) — That Standing Order 11(2) be replaced with the following: “The Speaker or the Chair of Committees of the Whole, after having called the attention of the House, or of the Committee, to the conduct of a Member who persists in irrelevance, or repetition, including during responses to oral questions, may direct the Member to discontinue his or her intervention, and if then the Member still continues to speak, the Speaker shall name the Member or, if in Committee of the Whole, the Chair shall report the Member to the House.”

As Kady O’Malley points out, this would actually be a binding Supply Day motion, as it involves the Commons moving changes to its own rules, and the effect of which is to give the Speaker much more power to police answers given by enhancing the orders around irrelevant or repetitive answers. And on paper, it sounds great. I’m just not sure that this will work in practice.

For starters, this is attacking a mere fraction of the actual problem that we face in the House of Commons. It’s not just the answers that are lacking – it’s the questions (which are as repetitive and irrelevant as the answers), and in many cases, they’re not actually questions, but meandering speeches disguised as rhetorical questions, or non sequitur accusations for which there can be no answer. Empowering the Speaker alone will not solve the problem – the whole ecosystem in the House of Commons needs to change, which means banning scripts, loosening up the clock, and doing away with the established speaking lists. The rigid structure and scripted nature is now all about creating a buffet of media clips, and simply empowering the Speaker to compel answers by means of naming and shaming is not going to fix the underlying problems.

The second problem is that this is something that can very quickly be abused. In fact, you can guarantee that if this were implemented that the very first series of questions that the Opposition would ask would be a trap for the Prime Minister – as much of a trap as their constant questions on Wednesday about the Ethics Commissioner investigation were. That Trudeau refused to step into said trap was a political calculation that has endeared nobody in the whole sordid affair, and everyone came off looking petty. Compelling the PM to walk into traps on a daily basis will quickly become a major problem.

A third major concern is that enforcement of this rule change is going to cause all manner of problems if the opposition doesn’t see the Speaker enforcing this to their liking. Accusations of favouritism or partisanship will soon flow, and there will be tears and recriminations. Nobody will win. So while I appreciate the sentiment of this motion, and would agree with it to a very limited degree, until we get the bigger and more important changes, this simply becomes a bigger problem than the one they’re trying to solve.

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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: Chagger doubles down – again

Oh, Bardish Chagger. So very earnest in her desire to try and change the Standing Orders to try and prevent the excesses and abuses of the Conservative era that she’s ready to be her most ham-fisted in order to get it done. In an interview with The West Block this weekend, she said that she wasn’t going to hand over a veto to the Conservatives about these reforms, which means she’s doubling down about ensuring that any rule changes happen by consensus, and so I guess we’ll see the filibuster carry on in committee, and yet more egregious privilege debates and various other procedural shenanigans by the other opposition parties in the hopes that she backs down. So far, that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen.

If I had my druthers, I would tell Chagger to stick to two simple points – omnibus bills, and prorogation. And specifically, the proposal to restore prorogation ceremonies, and take those two suggestions to the opposition parties, and just get them to agree to those. Those are the only two suggestions that are workable and doable (and prorogation ceremonies are in fact something that I recommend restoring in The Unbroken Machine), because that’s rolling back a change that happened in order to “streamline” things a couple of decades ago, and it’s a necessary tool for transparency and accountability. And omnibus bill restrictions are an obvious change that anyone can see as being necessary after the abuses of the 41st parliament.

But as I’ve stated before, on numerous occasions, any other suggestion that Chagger makes in her discussion paper is unnecessary and will cause more harm than good, because the underlying changes that need to happen are cultural, not structural. The problem is that it’s hard to sell MPs on this, especially when they keep using the phrases “modernize” and “21st century workplace” as though the terms meant something. And she keeps using them. Over. And over. And over. And it’s driven me to the point of complete distraction. But because Chagger is doubling down, I have the sinking feeling that it’s going to be yet another week of apocalyptic language and procedural gamesmanship and nothing will get done. Because that’s the state of things right now, and no amount of rule changes will actually fix that.

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Roundup: A hopeless court case

It’s one of the most predictable performative dances in Canadian politics, which is that when you lose at politics, you try to drag it to the courts to fight your battles for you. In this, case, a UBC professor (and local Fair Vote Canada) president wants to launch a Charter challenge around electoral reform. And in order to do that, he’s talking about getting pledges of around $360,000 in order to get through the legal process.

The problem? This is an issue that has already been litigated and lost. The Supreme Court of Canada refused to hear the appeal of the case that arose out of Quebec, which means it’s considered settled. The current electoral system is legal, it is constitutional, and while you get the odd prof here and there who tries to make an argument to the contrary, it’s settled law. And unlike some of the reversals we’ve seen the courts make over prostitution or assisted dying, there has been no great groundswell change in society that would justify the court in re-litigating the matter. In other words, he’s trying to raise money from people who are desperate to find a lifeline now that their political solution is gone that this is basically a scheme for lawyers to take their money.

This tendency to try and use the courts to overturn political decisions is a growing one, but it’s the same mentality as people who write to the Queen when they lose at politics. Have we had cases where governments have passed bad legislation and the courts have overturned it? Certainly. But political decisions are not bad legislation, and it’s not up to the courts to force governments to adopt what some people consider to be more favourable outcomes. It’s called democracy, and we have elections to hold governments to account for their political decisions. It’s also why I’m extremely leery of people calling for a cabinet manual, because it means that more groups will start trying to litigate prerogative decisions, and that’s not a good thing. It’s time these PR proponents let it go and try to fight it again at the next election. Oh, but then it might become clear that this really isn’t an issue that people care all that much about. Shame, that.

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