While the prime minister was off meeting with the premiers and Indigenous leaders, it was also a Supply Day where the Conservatives were demanding an extension of the consultation period for the proposed tax changes. Andrew Scheer led off, mini-lectern on desk, and read his concerns about “local businesses” in French, and how tax changes would doom them. Bill Morneau reminded him that they were listening to Canadians and would ensure that their concerns were being heard. Scheer switched to English to demand that the government vote for their opposition motion on extending the consultation period. Morneau instead listed the five things they’ve heard that they plan to address. After another round of the same from Scheer and Morneau, Gérard Deltell got up to ask in French about the verification of the plans, and Morneau reminded him that they were looking for a fairer system that would encourage investment. Deltell railed that the measures would kill small businesses, but Morneau repeated that they were listening to the consultations. Alexandre Boulerice led for the NDP, railing about Netflix and tax avoidance by big corporations and tax havens, and Diane Lebouthillier reminded him that they were indeed going after tax evaders. Boulerice asked again in English, and Morneau deployed his worn tax fairness talking points. Linda Duncan was up next and raised the concerns laid out in the Environment Commissioner’s reports, and Catherine McKenna listed a number of measures that they were taking. Robert Aubin repeated the question in French, and McKenna reiterated her response in French.
Scheer leads off with concern about how tax changes will hurt local businesses for local people. #RoystonVasey#QP
In the wake of the installation ceremony for Her Excellency, the Right Honourable Julie Payette, Justin Trudeau was not in the Commons for QP, leaving only Andrew Scheer as the leader of note present. Scheer led off, mini-lectern on desk, reading about shock and sadness for the terrorist act in Edmonton over the weekend, and asked for a minister to update the House on the situation. Ralph Goodale read a statement of condemnation for the action and congratulations to the Edmonton Police Service for their actions, and updated on the injured. Scheer then read similar sentiments for the shooting in Las Vegas — minus the part about condemning global terror — and Chrystia Freeland responded with condolences and notes that one Canadian was confirmed killed and consular services were working to help victims and their families. (A second Canadian was later confirmed as having been killed). Scheer then moved onto the proposed tax changes, and Bill Morneau assured him that they were listening and would make changes to the proposals. Maxime Bernier was up next, saying that Morneau was not listening, and then raised the Morneau-Shepell conspiracy theory, and Morneau insisted that they were listening, which was why they engaged in consultations. After another round of the same in French, Alexandre Boulerice railed about the situation in Catalonia, but rather than answer, Bardish Chagger got up to read a statement of congratulations about Jagmeet Singh’s leadership victory. Boulerice asked again, and this time Chrystia Freeland said that Canada was hoping that Spain would act in a democratic manner. Pierre Nantel was up next, railing about the Netflix deal as selling out Canadian culture amidst a rate hike, and Mélanie Joly insisted that it was a good deal and was the first stage in modernising our cultural policies. Nantel and Joly went another round in English, not that the question or answer changed.
A particular thread that I forgot to talk about last week was about the new GG, and one of the important things that the office does, which is to be the conduit by which the country’s honours system works. It’s a pretty important function of the office which has been encroached upon my MPs and in particular the Prime Minister in recent years, and yes, that is a problem.
The Queen is the fount of honours in Canada, but politicians have been trying to get in on the game. Stephen Harper created a “teaching award,” and Trudeau has been talking about creating some kind of medal on his own as well, while there have been partisan spats about the Thérèse Casgraine award, or the John Diefenbaker award, and whichever party in power “forgetting” to award it, and on it goes. But part of leaving those kinds of decisions up to Rideau Hall is that it keeps the awards from taking on a partisan taint. With the Prime Minister’s Awards for Teaching Excellence, there was a lot of difficulty getting nominees under Harper because many people didn’t want to be associated with him, which is a fair point – the award should be politics-neutral, but associating it with the head of government as opposed to the Queen means not only that there’s a whiff of partisanship, but that the PM would use the awards as a bit of reflected glory. That’s generally something we try to avoid in our system, which is also why we ensure that it’s not the prime minister’s face on postage stamps or first in line in our embassies, but rather the Queen. It’s why the civil service swears their oaths to the Crown and not the government of the day as well – because we keep them above the partisanship of the day, and it keeps them from developing cults of personality (as much as is possible, but the age of celebrity politics is certainly challenging this notion). Suffice to say, we should be aware that the duties of honours rests with the Crown and with the GG for a reason, and we should frown on more attempts by politicians to horn in on them.
With the news that Madeleine Meilleur had withdrawn her name from consideration for Language Commissioner just before QP, you could almost hear the furious rewriting of question scripts. In fact, I saw pages deliver new scripts to MPs just before everything got underway. Andrew Scheer led off, raising her withdrawal, and wanted an assurance that future appointments would have cross-party support. Justin Trudeau responded with praise for his new open and transparent process. Scheer shifted topics to the risk profile of the Infrastructure Bank, and Trudeau praised the commitment to $180 billion in new Infrastructure that the Bank would leverage private sector dollars to help with. Scheer repeated the question in French, insinuating that this was about Liberal millionaire friends, and Trudeau reiterated his points on the need for the Bank. Scheer then moved to the issue of a public sex offender registry, and Trudeau insisted that they took the protection of families seriously, and it was up to police to advise the public. Scheer demanded that Trudeau reject the advice of bureaucrats to not make a registry public, but Trudeau stuck to his points. Thomas Mulcair was up next, noting the presence of a Hiroshima survivor and demanded the government join nuclear disarmament talks in New York. Trudeau said that they were taking meaningful steps which included rallying states for the support of a fissile material cut-off treaty and getting tangible results. Mulcair pressed, and Trudeau noted that the treaty Mulcair demanded we sign onto didn’t include nuclear states, so it was somewhat useless. Mulcair moved onto criminal records for simple possession while marijuana legalisation in the pipeline, and Trudeau returned to his well-worn talking points about decriminalisation not protecting children or taking profits away from the black market. Mulcair asked again, louder, and Trudeau held firm.
Yesterday the National Post reported that the government is planning on sending a postcard to every household in the nation and asking them to head to a website to answer questions about their democratic values. Immediately the Twitter-verse went into full-snark mode, wondering why the government would do this rather than hold a referendum, and wondering at the cost of such an exercise, but there were a few phrases that struck me as I read it, and that goes back to the fact that they’re asking Canadians what values they’re looking for in their voting system as opposed to asking them to choose a system. Why does that matter? Because it basically allows the government to justify whatever decision they end up making by selling it as living up to the greatest number of the “values” they got feedback on. And when the committee report comes back a deadlock with several dissenting reports (as it inevitably will), the government will be further empowered to finally suffocate the whole ill-fated enterprise and list all of the ways the current system conforms to the majority of the “values” that they polled Canadians on, and lo, we shall never speak of this again. Or something like that.
Meanwhile, PEI had their plebiscite on electoral reform and with a stunningly low voter turnout of 36 percent even with several days of voting, lowering the age to 16, and giving people a myriad of options to vote including online, it came down to several preferential rounds where Mixed-Member Proportional won a very narrow 52 percent win. This again translated into two very different sets of reactions – elation from the PR crowd for whom this validates their crusading on the topic, never mind that the mandate for said system is really, really weak (between the low turnout and the fact that it took several drop-off rounds to get that bare majority vote), or the fact that the plebiscite was by definition non-binding and there is more than enough opportunity for the government to get out of it (and really, I’m not sure that such a low vote is mandate enough to make such an important change). The other reaction was a sense of somewhat smugness from proponents of a referendum on electoral reform at the federal level, basically telling their opponents (who insist that such a referendum would favour the status quo) that they’re wrong. But if you think about it, such a low turnout and the fact that MMP barely squeaked past may indeed be an indication that there was more of a desire for the status quo than is being acknowledged. Nevertheless, both groups are going to be insufferable for days to come.
After yesterday’s fiscal update and everyone being revved up in the morning caucus meetings, it was close to a full house in the Commons for QP today with all leaders present. Rona Ambrose led off, describing the fiscal update as a “nightmare” of no jobs and higher taxes. Justin Trudeau reminded her that they lowered taxes on the middle class and that their infrastructure investments would create jobs. They went for another round of the same, and then Ambrose moved onto the planned closure of the Vegreville immigration processing centre. Trudeau responded with some bland points about the aid they’ve given to Alberta, but didn’t really answer the question. Ambrose then moved onto brandishing the name Kathleen Wynne as a segue to fundraising issues. Trudeau responded with the bland assurances about federal rules being the toughest and they were respecting them. Ambrose raised the issue of their ethical guidelines, and Trudeau assured her that they were following those guidelines. Thomas Mulcair read out the ethics section of the ministerial mandate letters, and Trudeau repeated that they were open, accountable and were accessible to all Canadians. Mulcair repeated him in French, and Trudeau insisted that they were open with their fundraisers. Mulcair asked Trudeau about the electoral reform townhall he head and what system got the most support — fishing for endorsement of PR. Trudeau didn’t take the bait, and praised consultations with Canadians on the subject. Mulcair came out and said that PR was reported to be the preferred system and why wasn’t he listening to “evidence” on the system. Trudeau gave some bland assurances that they were listening about the best way to reform the electoral system.
Half of the leaders were present in the Commons today, and after some tributes for the late Jim Prentice from all parties and a moment of silence, QP got underway. Rona Ambrose, mini-lectern on desk, asked about the size of the deficit, which is more than had been promised. After a quick rebuke about making investments, Justin Trudeau gave a tribute to Prentice of his own. Ambrose was concerned that jobs were not being created and demanded that he stop spending and focus on jobs instead. Trudeau noted that the Conservative approach didn’t create growth, while he was cutting taxes for the middle class. Ambrose then mischaracterized a whole list of things as taxes before decrying the possibility of a Netflix tax. Trudeau repeated his response about cutting taxes on the middle class. Denis Lebel was up next, decrying the lack of a softwood lumber agreement and how it was hurting families. Trudeau responded with the list of ways they are helping families. Lebel doubled down on the softwood lumber agreement, and Trudeau agreed that they were concerned about the file, but the former government’s broken relationship with the Americans didn’t help. Peter Julian led off for the NDP, demanding money for home care while mischaracterizing the changes to health care escalators. Trudeau reminded him that the Harper approach to healthcare was to write a check and not ensure that the money was spent on healthcare. Julian demanded that the health transfer escalator remain at six percent for another year, but Trudeau was not responsive to his logic. Brigitte Sansoucy repeated both questions again in French, and got much the same response from Trudeau in French.
It happened on Thursday, but I’m still fuming about it. Power & Politicsinterviewed 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.
It was very nearly a full house, and all of the leaders were present and ready to go. Rona Ambrose, mini-lectern on neighbouring desk, led off by concern trolling about the government trying to control the debate — as though her government was blameless on that front. Justin Trudeau rose to respond, noting that sixteen amendments were made to C-14 during the committee stage and that it was a free vote on the bill, while mentioning the deadline. Ambrose then moved onto the first of many demands for a referendum on electoral reform, for which Trudeau gave some standard lines about Canadians demanding change for the system. Ambrose accused the government of trying to rig the process and that they had hired a proponent of ranked ballots, but Trudeau responded with platitudes about a more inclusive process. Denis Lebel was up next to concern troll about Liberal party members being “muzzled” on C-14 debates last weekend, and Trudeau insisted that they had frank discussions including the ministers. Lebel worried about the provinces with C-14, and Trudeau insisted that the bill was largely based on the Quebec model. Thomas Mulcair was up next, and rises the Environment Commissioner’s report on toxic substances not being reported to Health Canada. Trudeau thanked the Commissioner for her report, and said that they would implement her recommendations. Mulcair then moved to a declaration that C-14 was unconstitutional, and Trudeau gave the standard responses. Mulcair demanded that the bill be referred the Supreme Court, but Trudeau reiterated the deadline debate. Mulcair pivoted again and demanded immediate decriminalisation of marijuana, for which Trudeau chided him for his desire to do an end-run around parliamentary process and that decriminalisation wouldn’t keep it out of the hands of children.
Amidst all of the continued and sustained howling by the Conservatives for an electoral reform referendum, and the interminable bellyaching about the composition of the parliamentary committee and how it doesn’t let the NDP game the system in their favour, the Ottawa Citizen commissioned Stewart Prest to write a pair of op-eds about the reform process and the problems it faces, and to debate between the usefulness of a referendum or a citizens’ assembly. On the former point it’s fairly uncontroversial – that the Liberals won’t be able to get broad-based buy-in unless they can get more than one party on-side, but we’re not having any discussions about ideas because all we’re hearing is howling and bellyaching. Prest’s latter point, however, is the much more troublesome one, because I have a great deal of scepticism about citizens’ assemblies, particularly based on what happened in Ontario. Prest touches on the two main criticisms, both of which need to be expanded upon – that they are easy to manipulate, and that they undermine our representative democracy. On the former point, the outcomes of these assemblies tends to be overly complicated and shiny, what with STV in BC and MMP in Ontario. That there is a pro-reform bias to these assemblies is in and of itself a problem (not to mention that the pro-reform narrative, no matter who it comes from, is ripe with dishonesty particularly as it comes to the status quo), but that the lack of civic literacy on the part of the participants makes it easy for them to fall into the thrall of the various “experts” that steer them to the various options. As for the latter point, I do think it’s a problem that we entrust these very big decisions to a group of randoms with no legitimacy. (If you bring up the Senate’s legitimacy, I will remind you that their authority comes from the constitution and that their appointments are based on the Responsible Government principle that they are made by a government with the confidence of the Chamber). It does diminish our representative democracy because the inherent message is that politics is not to be left up to the politicians, which is a sad kind of cynicism. We elect our MPs for a reason. While I could be convinced as to the merits of a referendum because it would legitimise a decision of this magnitude made by our elected officials, to pass off that decision to yet another body is to again this same kind of buck-passing that has made it acceptable for us to insist that the Supreme Court now do our legislating for us instead of MPs, or officers of parliament to do the role of opposition instead of MPs. Why? Because it’s easier for the elected to hide behind the unelected to avoid accountability, and the public laps it up because they’re not elected so they must have superior opinions, freed from the grasping for re-election. So no, I don’t really see the merit in citizen assemblies as an end-run around democracy, and I think it needs to be called out more loudly.