Roundup: Harder’s shrouded call for time allocation

Government Leader in the Senate – err, “government representative” Senator Peter Harder is back at it again, reviving his terrible idea of a Senate business committee, and putting out a piece about how great it would be. Just imagine, he says – ensuring that there are fewer gaps between interventions on bills will mean that Canadians can follow the debate more easily! It will safeguard substantive debate! The unspoken issue here is that it won’t let someone, probably the Official Opposition in the Senate, to delay debates.

In other words, Harder not only wants a committee to time allocate all government bills in the Senate, he wants to delegate the authority to do this time allocation to a particular clique who will do the dirty work for him (because as we’ve seen time and again, he’s loathe to do the actual negotiation of debate timetables with the other caucus groups as it is). This should, of course, be concerning to everyone because the Senate doesn’t debate bills like the House of Commons does, nor should it. The way the rules are currently structured maximise the rights of individual senators to speak to any bill or motion before the Senate, and it gives them an opportunity to carefully draft responses to the matter that were just given before them, rather than, as the Commons does, simply have them draft generic speeches that will then be read into the record (unless you’ve got someone adept enough to speak extemporaneously for their allotted time, which happens not at all in the Commons, and very rarely in the Senate). There is no actual demonstrated need for this – there isn’t any kind of crisis of bills not passing the Senate, and the few bills that are being deliberately delayed are either private members’ bills (which Senate rules don’t allow for time allocation), or it’s because the newer senators haven’t learned the procedural tactics that are letting the Conservative senators take as many adjournments on debate as they can. It’s a temporary problem that Harder is misdiagnosing and is looking to wield a sledgehammer to fix, completely unnecessarily.

As I’ve argued before, any gamesmanship that the Conservatives are playing is leaving the Senate vulnerable to arguments like Harder is making to need these kinds of time allocation measures – and they should be aware that they’re making Harder’s arguments for him. But it’s an unnecessary proposal that Harder is making, and one that not only misunderstands how things work in the Senate, but it will have consequences and it will diminish, rather than enhance, the debate. But we have a rich tradition of tinkering with the rules and making things worse off as a result that Harder is playing right into.

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Roundup: Draft climate legislation revealed

The government unveiled their draft legislation for carbon pricing mechanisms, largely as the backstop for those provinces whose governments are toeing the agreed-upon line, and it includes both pricing incentives for those who can get 30 percent below the national standards, as well as the ability for the federal government to directly reimburse individuals for their carbon payments rather than just returning it all to provincial coffers and letting the provincial government figure it out.

Energy economists Andrew Leach and Trevor Tombe dig into the announcements a bit more.

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Roundup: The authentic Andrew Scheer

It’s year-end interview time, and Andrew Scheer gave a couple yesterday that gave me a bit of pause. First was his interview in the National Post, where off the bat, he lays out this gem: “I am younger, I am modern and I have a different take on Conservative principles than my predecessors.” But does he lay out what that different take is? Nope. Scheer says that he can offer “authenticity” like a Bernie Sanders or Ron Paul, which is…curious. He’s spent the week talking about how middle class he is, unlike Justin Trudeau. This immediately elicited some reminders from Twitter – that the only job he held outside of politics was working at his friend’s insurance company for six months, that he got elected at 25 and has a $3 million pension by age 38; his political career includes being Speaker and Leader of the Opposition, each of which comes with an official residence and a driver. So he’s authentically middle class. Later, Scheer talked about how he’s spent the past six months “setting down markers” about the Conservative approach. Markers like putting everything in a disingenuous or outright mendacious frame and treating people like idiots? Okay, then.

Meanwhile, over on CTV’s Power Play (starts at 8:15), Scheer went on about how Conservatives do better when they present a positive approach (which I totally see with the aforementioned disingenuous and mendacious manner in which they go about their role), and then added this: “We are actually more caring than Liberals because we actually care about results, and they just like to send signals and show their good intentions and they don’t care about what actually benefits people.”

That’s…interesting. Because immediately preceding that was Scheer was outright virtue signalling about free speech on university campuses (which, I will add, is an issue that the alt-right has weaponized, and Scheer is playing directly into it). And if you look at the Conservative record over the past decade, it’s replete with sending signals that didn’t actually benefit people, whether it was tough-on-crime legislation that was either unconstitutional or created backlogs in the court system (as mandatory minimum sentences did), or gutting environmental laws (which only ended up in litigation and didn’t get any further projects approved), or their actions in making cuts to show that they had a paper surplus (which led to the massive gong show that is Shared Services Canada and the Phoenix pay system fiasco, not to mention the loss of capacity in a number of other departments). All of it was the very signalling that they criticize the Liberals for. So you’ll forgive me if I find Scheer’s particular assertions to be a bit unconvincing.

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Roundup: Mary Dawson delivers a spanking

Outgoing Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson released her report on the Prime Minister’s vacation to the Bahamas and the Aga Khan’s private island there last Christmas, and she determined that he had indeed broken four sections of the code. Reaction was swift – Trudeau quickly called a press conference to apologise and try and to take full responsibility, but stumbled in some of his responses. And soon after, both Andrew Scheer and Jagmeet Singh called their own press conferences to condemn Trudeau and to rail about how out of touch he is, and so on.

First things first: The Canadian Press has five items of note from the report, and John Geddes offers three items of his own. Hay is being made – particularly from certain opposition politicians – that Trudeau is the first PM to have been found guilty of breaking these conflict of interest laws, but it’s worth bearing in mind that this current conflict of interest regime is only a decade old, and it’s not a lot of time for which there to be much to compare to. Aaron Wherry parses the report here, while Paul Wells offers his own bigger-picture look as to why this all matters.

This all having been said, I’m trying to digest the substance of the report, and some of it does rankle with me a bit, in particular the way in which Dawson parses how a friendship with someone like the Aga Khan should unfold, given the position that he holds. I also wonder if better context should have been applied to just what his Foundation’s dealings with the Canadian government are, because actual private interests aren’t being advanced here – nobody profits from this. A lot of what the Foundation does with Canadian aid money is do things like provide school books to Syrian refugees in camps in the Middle East, where they have the networks to deliver them. This isn’t nearly the same thing as accepting gifts from businessmen whose private interests and personal profits may rely on decisions made by the Canadian government, and I wonder if it’s helpful to treat those as being on an equal playing field. (Then again, maybe it is. I’m not an expert in this).

A couple of other thoughts – It is fair to ask why Trudeau and his team, who can be so focused on optics at times, were so blind to this one. But given that they’ve scored more than a few own-goals this last year with bad communications plans, that’s becoming clear that they’re not the masters at this that they sometimes appear to be. As for the lack of penalties in the Conflict of Interest legislation, we have to bear in mind that these are political actors that we are discussing, and merely naming and shaming them does have political consequences. If we got into games of demanding financial penalties or that public office holders be jailed for breaches, we change the political calculus of this ethics regime, and it would become an even bigger gong show than it is now, not to mention that it would make cooperation even less likely if they think there’s a jail sentence attached. And finally, there is a lot of smug sanctimony going around, but some caution had best be exercised, particularly by members of the opposition, when it comes to how the Aga Khan is portrayed in this. The Ismaili community already has their backs up over how he has been characterised to date, and those opposition parties could find themselves alienating an important voting bloc if they’re not careful.

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Roundup: Will American tax changes affect us?

With the excitement building over that coming US tax cut legislation (if one can call it that), we have already started seeing reaction here in Canada about how we should react, and while there has been some predictable demands that we start cutting our own corporate taxes yet again, others have called for a more pragmatic approach. In the Financial Post, Jack Mintz foretold doom for our economy in the face of these changes. With that in mind, Kevin Milligan tweeted out some thoughts:

It also hasn’t gone unnoticed that these changes will create all manner of new loopholes around personal incorporation to avoid paying income taxes – kind of like Canada has been cracking down on this past year. Imagine that.

To that end, Milligan offered a few more thoughts about the experience around implementing these kinds of changes.

Meanwhile, my Loonie Politics column looks at whether the process used by that American tax bill could happen in Canada. Short answer: no.

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Roundup: The existential threat to parliament nobody notices

After stories about how some MPs – both Conservative and Liberal – used the Canada Summer Jobs programme to funnel those job grants to anti-abortion and anti-gay organisations, the government has made a few tweaks to the programme so that any organisation that is looking for grants needs to sign an affirmation that they will agree to comply with Charter values, as well as its underlying values including
“reproductive rights, and the right to be free from discrimination on the basis of sex, religion, race, national or ethnic origin, colour, mental or physical disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression.” And while that’s all well and good, they didn’t fix the glaring problem with this system – the fact that it’s MPs who are signing off on these grants.

No. Seriously, no.

This is antithetical to the whole point of Parliament. Parliament is about holding the government (meaning Cabinet) to account, and part of that is by controlling the public purse. MPs don’t give out money – they ensure that the government can only spend it wisely. By Service Canada sending lists of groups recommended to receive funding, and then having the MPs validate and recommending more or fewer jobs through the group, or whether to fund them at all, it goes beyond accountability and into disbursing funds which is not the role of an MP. At all.

And what really burns me is that nobody sees this. We have become so civically illiterate that a practice that is a direct existential challenge to a thousand years of parliamentary history doesn’t merit a single shrug. No, instead, it’s become part of this expectation that MPs should be “bringing home the bacon” to their ridings. It’s why MPs shouldn’t be making funding announcements for the government – that’s the role of Cabinet ministers (and I will allow parliamentary secretaries under protest because it’s hard for cabinet to be everywhere), but that’s it. Having MPs make announcements “on behalf of” ministers is a betrayal of the role that MPs play with respect to ministers, which is to hold them to account, even if they’re in the same party. This is cabinet co-opting MPs, and in the case of these job grants, laundering their accountability so that nobody can actually be held to account for when funding goes to groups that are contrary to the values of the government of the day. But nobody cares – not even the journalist who wrote the story about the changes.

If only someone had written a book about this kind of thing…

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Roundup: The Order Paper is not a race

The House of Commons has risen for the season, but still has a number of bills on the Order Paper slowly working their way through the process. And as usually happens at this time of year, there are the big comparisons about how many bills this government has passed as compared to the Conservatives by this point. But those kinds of raw numbers analyses are invariable always flawed because legislation is never a numbers game, but is qualitative, as is the parliamentary context in which this legislating happens.

Part of the difference is in the set-up. Harper had five years of minority governments to get legislation in the wings that he couldn’t pass then, but could push through with a majority. He went from having a Senate that he didn’t control and was hostile to his agenda to one where he had made enough appointments (who were all under the impression that they could be whipped by the PMO) that it made the passage of those bills much swifter. And they also made liberal use of time allocation measures to ensure that bills passed expeditiously. Trudeau has not had those advantages, most especially when it comes to the composition of the Senate, especially since his moves to make it more independent means that bills take far longer than they used to, and are much more likely to be amended – which Trudeau is open to where Harper was not – further slowing down that process, particularly when those amendments are difficult for the government to swallow, meaning that they have taken months to either agree to them or to come up with a sufficient response to see them voted down. And then there are the weeks that were lost when the opposition filibustered the agenda in order to express their displeasure with the initial composition of the electoral reform committee, the first attempt to speed through legislation, and the government’s proposal paper to “modernize” the operations of the Commons. All of those disruptions set back legislation a great deal.

This having been said, Trudeau seems to remain enamoured with UK-style programming motions, which he may try to introduce again in the future (possibly leading to yet more filibustering), because it’s a tool that will help him get his agenda through faster. So it’s not like he’s unaware that he’s not setting any records, but at the same time, parliament isn’t supposed to be about clearing the Order Paper as fast as possible. Making these kinds of facile comparisons gives rise to that impression, however, which we should discourage.

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Roundup: Site C reluctance and costs

The BC government announced yesterday that they were going to reluctantly go ahead with the Site C dam project, which disappointed a great many people, not the least of which was the provincial NDP government’s Green Party allies (but not, apparently, to the point of withdrawing confidence, because they still have to get their self-interested electoral reform referendum up and running, and they certainly don’t want to jeopardise that). Oh, and true to form, it’ll cost even more than originally anticipated. Because of course it will. And while I can’t speak to some of the issues with some of the First Nations in the area, some of those cost issues were explored, particularly in this analysis, I also found the arguments of Blair King, who deals with contaminated sites for a living, to be particularly instructive on the issue, both in terms of the costs of remediating the work already done on the site, as well as the fact that other alternatives are simply not going to replace what the dam can do, particularly in the issues of night use for electric vehicles and the seasonal disparity of solar generation with usage – and certainly not for the same costs.

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Roundup: Romanado’s version

A little over 24 hours after the allegations between Liberal MP Sherry Romanado and Conservative MP James Bezan ricocheted around the Hill, CTV got an exclusive interview with Romanado, and it’s eye-opening in how the accounts differ, particularly around the apology itself. In particular, Romanado disputes that Bezan had made attempts to apologize earlier – something she would have welcomed – and noted that she was blindsided by his public apology in the Commons on Monday morning considering that she was in her office when it happened, and only later made her statement to try to correct what she felt was wrong information.

The biggest takeaway from the interview (which I would encourage you to watch, despite the fact that it’s 20 minutes long) is the fact that in her estimation, Bezan broke the confidentiality of the mediation process by putting out his statement on Monday afternoon – something she respected up until that point, which is partially why she had been blindsided. She also notes that while others are accusing her of making a partisan issue out of it, she had plenty of opportunity to do so beforehand while she respected the confidentiality of the grievance process, and her “reward” for this affair is to be inundated with trolls over social media who have been replete with lewd suggestions about threesomes. As well, other MPs have come to her to recount their own experiences that they won’t come forward with.

There were a few other points of note in the interview – that what people will say was a bad joke felt to her like she was being undermined in front of stakeholders and treated like a sexual object, which made her job as parliamentary secretary harder to do. As well, she has been asked directly by young women who want to get involved in politics if they will be sexually harassed on the Hill, and she has told them unfortunately yes. There need to be conversations about what goes on and how to prevent it, but as this experience shows, it certainly appears that Bezan may have been engaging in some damage control that further sought to undermine Romanado, which is sadly the kind of cynical manoeuvres that happen here far too often.

Meanwhile, Susan Delacourt calls out those who would use sexual harassment allegations for political purposes, going back to the initial incident of those two Liberal MPs booted from caucus, while Robyn Urback argues that a bad joke is not really the same as the same kinds of allegations of sexual harassment that other women are coming forward about.

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Roundup: Feeding the fear industry

The Conservatives’ final Supply Day motion of the year, and they chose to use it to both demand that the government bring any returning ISIS fighters to Canada to justice, while simultaneously condemning them for the Omar Khadr settlement – you know, the issue that they were going to hammer the government hard on back in September which didn’t materialize.

As you can expect, the arguments were not terribly illuminating, and lacking in any particular nuance that the topic should merit, but that’s not exactly surprising. Still, some of the lines were particularly baffling in their ham-fistedness.

Amidst this, the CBC published a piece about Canada’s refusal to engage in extrajudicial killings of our own foreign fighters out of the country, asking lawyers whether Canadian law actually prevents it, which not unreasonably has been accused of creating a debate out of nothing.

And this is really the key point. Treating issues like this one in a ham-fisted manner, whether it’s with a Supply Day motion designed to fail, or a debate created out of nothingness, is playing into the fear industry that we really should be trying to avoid. This is not the kind of nuanced debate that we should be having, which hurts everyone in the long run.

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