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: A ham-fisted trap for the Senate

While Government Leader in the Senate – err, “Government Representative” Senator Peter Harder continues his tour of sympathetic media (the latest being the CBC), crying about how the Conservatives are holding government legislation “hostage” and how he needs to have the rules of the Senate changed, he and his team have been doing everything they can to destroy what collegiality exists with the Senate through ham-fisted procedural moves of their own.

The bill in question is C-4, which is the stated repeal of anti-union bills passed by the Conservatives in the previous parliament, and naturally they would be putting up a fight, tooth-and-nail, to keep their old legislation. Not surprising, but also a doomed fight. The bill was on track to pass the Senate this week, when Harder’s deputy, Senator Bellemare, announced that they would be calling a vote on it before Thursday, claiming that they had the support of all senators to do so, when in fact they didn’t. Reminder: the bill was on track to pass, as the Conservatives had exhausted their abilities to delay it. By pulling this manoeuvre, Bellemare basically sabotaged the working relationship between the caucuses in order to maybe shave a day or two from the bill. Maybe. Rather than letting it go through, she (and by extension Harder) turn it into a fight over procedure and sour feelings. Why? So that they can turn around and whine some more to the media that the political caucuses in the Senate are not working with them and are being obstructionist, therefore “proving” that they need these proposed rule changes that Harder wants. Harder, meanwhile, gets to look like he’s the victim and just trying to be reasonable when he’s the one who hasn’t been negotiating with the other caucuses this whole time.

What gets me is just how obvious he’s being about it. Well, obvious to someone who knows what’s going on in the Senate, but most people don’t, and he’s keen to exploit the fact that the general public – and indeed most journalists – aren’t paying attention, and he can use that to his advantage. None of their actions make sense if they actually wanted a working relationship with other senators and to try and get those bills they’re suddenly so concerned with (despite the fact that they have done nothing so far to try and move them along), which makes it all the plainer to see that this latest effort has nothing to do with trying to get bills passed in the Senate, and more to do with changing the rules in order to advantage his position.

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Roundup: Manning and the Populists

It’s the Manning Centre conference here in Ottawa, which is the “conservative Woodstock,” as they say, and is pretty much were all of the small-c conservatives come to network, only this year, in the midst of the Trumpocalypse happening south of the border, the flavour of this year’s conference has changed, with much more pandering to the fringe elements, catering to overblown fears of Islamic terrorism and the kinds of populist demagoguery that are suddenly in vogue. Oh, and all fourteen Conservative leadership candidates are also there, and hey, they had a little debate, which allowed them a bit more freedom to actually debate in small groups, but most of it was still their canned talking points, so take it for what it’s worth.

As for conference programming, here’s Kady O’Malley’s recap of the first half including Preston Manning’s speech, and her assessment that fears of a Trumpist takeover appear to be more overblown, as many of the demagogic panels have had less than spectacular attendance. John Geddes recaps the moments of the leadership debate that had the biggest sparks. Geddes also has a conversation with Manning about populism and how it’s shaping debates right now.

Andrew Coyne warns Conservatives at the Manning Conference about the siren song of populist demagoguery. Chris Selley looks at that demagoguery up close in the panel on the “Islamist extremist menace” at the Conference, calling it bonkers. John Ivison looks at the dynamic Kevin O’Leary is bringing to the Conference and the race, and the outsized role he is starting to play, building an “Anyone but O’Leary” vibe. Paul Wells notes the changes in the Conference’s tenor over the years as a result of the political culture of followership, eager to imitate the perceived leaders of their pack.

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Roundup: Tracking the dissenters

The CBC’s Éric Grenier has posted an analysis of free votes in the Commons in the current parliament, determining which party’s MPs dissent the most often. Part of this kind of analysis bothers me in part because it’s quantitative rather than qualitative, in part with how it was carried out. Rather than actually going through each vote to see a) what kind of vote it was, and b) the substance of the vote, he relied on the measure of how the cabinet voted to determine if it was a whipped vote or not, which is a poor measure, seeing as this would capture all manner of procedural votes (albeit, there haven’t been nearly as many in the current parliament as there were in the previous one). I’m not sure that there are any particular surprises in here in that the Liberals have been given a freer hand with their free votes, which was largely the case with the Conservatives in the previous parliament as well – having a majority usually lets a give their backbenchers a little added room to blow off a bit of steam when necessary. It’s also not unexpected in the fact that the Liberals are a party that doesn’t have a core ideology that they feel compelled to adhere to in the way that most Conservatives and the NDP most certainly do. It also shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that leadership candidates in the Conservatives are breaking ranks more often, given that they’re trying to put their own stamp on the party, so this is their latitude to start doing that. And as for the top “dissenting” voters, the top two are Liberals Nathaniel Erskine-Smith and Robert-Falcon Ouellette, who have a history of being a bit…naïve, if I may be blunt, in some of the positions they’ve taken to date. Erskine-Smith, if you recall, recently got pulled from a committee because his attempts to do more consensus-building wound up getting him manipulated by Tony Clement into voting against his own party’s interests when it came to amendments to a government bill, and Ouellette is often seen saying…not terribly thought-out things in the media. So, does it surprise me that they’re the two who voted against their party the most? No, not really. But Grenier doesn’t have any kind of context around this numbers, and that’s all he does – post numbers because he’s the numbers guy, which can be interesting in reporting, but it also only tells a fraction of the actual story, which is why stories like these do rub me the wrong way.

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Roundup: Cullen’s silver-tongued swindle

It should not surprise me, but Nathan Cullen’s capacity for deceptive stunts continues to both amaze and gall me at the same time. Previously it was conning Maryam Monsef into his “proportional” electoral reform committee composition (which was not proportional, but a racket that was designed to merely look more “fair” but was in fact a calculated gambit to give the opposition a disproportionate say in the process), for which we got a report that was a steaming pile of hot garbage. With Karina Gould now in the portfolio again, Cullen now proposes that they “co-draft” an electoral reform bill.

No, seriously.

I cannot stress how bad of an idea this is for both of their sakes. For Gould, this is Cullen trying to swindle her like he did Monsef. He played her – and the public – in trying to push proportional representation and ended up recommending (along with Elizabeth May’s whole-hearted endorsement) one of the absolute worst possible electoral systems possible. And now he’s trying to ensure that she puts it into legislation for his party’s benefit. This has nothing to do with bills being drafted secretly “backrooms” (otherwise known as the Department of Justice under the cone of Cabinet confidence) or with the spirit of bipartisanship. This is about Cullen trying to manipulate the process.

If that weren’t bad enough, what is especially galling is that he’s undermining his own role as an opposition critic in the process. He is not a minister of the Crown. His role, therefore, is not to govern, but to hold those to account who do (–William Ewart Gladstone). This is an important job because parliament depends upon accountability. That’s the whole purpose behind having a parliament – to hold government to account. And it would be great if our opposition critics would actually take that job seriously rather than pretend they were ministers with their faux-bipartisanship and private members’ bills that cross the line when it comes to acceptable bounds of setting policy. It would be great if MPs actually did their jobs. Perhaps most troublesome in all of this is that Cullen is his party’s democratic reform critic. If he can’t grasp this most basic fundamental point of Responsible Government, then can we actually trust him on attempting to find a different voting system? I’m pretty sure the answer to that is no.

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Roundup: Chong’s solutions seeking problems

While Conservative leadership hopeful Michael Chong is trying to run a campaign based on actual ideas rather than cheap slogans, it needs to be pointed out that not all of his ideas are good ones. The latest example is his plans to stop the “abuse of parliament,” taking a few gratuitous swipes at the legacy of Stephen Harper along the way. The problem is that, like his ill-fated Reform Act of 2014, Chong has a bunch of solutions in search of problems. In this case, he wants to look at the issue of prorogation.

Did Stephen Harper abuse prorogation to avoid a confidence vote? Yes. Did he later abuse it in a much more cavalier fashion by phoning up the GG on New Year’s Eve in order to prorogue parliament for the duration of the Vancouver Olympics? Absolutely. Is changing the rules, or “establishing a new constitutional convention” the answer to what happened? Absolutely not. (Also, I’m trying to think of when Liberal governments prorogued parliament to avoid non-confidence votes or debates over scandals at the federal level, as he alleges, but I’m drawing a blank).

The problem with trying to ensure that a PM can’t shut down parliament to avoid a vote of non-confidence is that the alternatives are always worse. Chong proposes that Parliament sit an additional two days to deal with unfinished business and votes before dissolution or prorogation is granted, but this is inherently problematic. Aside from the fact that it gives no time for bills to pass with proper scrutiny, it sets up a situation where a government that has lost the confidence of the chamber has a grace period for pushing through legislation, regulation, or Orders in Council. That’s a problem. The demand that Parliament meet two weeks after a general election (rather than six to eight weeks) is also mystifying. I know that Mark Jarvis and company thought it was a swell idea in their Democratizing the Constitution book, but what problem is it solving? It’s a major logistical challenge to get 338 MPs to Ottawa in two weeks, get them offices, orientation sessions, oaths sworn, and a cabinet chosen and sworn in, not to mention the entire transition of a government and writing a Throne Speech in two weeks. The rush to test the confidence of the new chamber is a bit of a false premise considering that barring the formation of a coalition government, it’s a pro forma exercise. If the GG is genuinely concerned that the PM won’t have confidence, he or she either won’t appoint them as PM, or he or she won’t start signing Orders-in-Council or making appointments until that confidence is tested. It does absolutely nothing to rein in the power of the PMO or to hold a government more accountable. If anything, it would lead to bigger problems because as the saying goes, haste makes waste, and this is a lot of unnecessary haste.

If you want something that will have a more meaningful impact on the practice of prorogation, then restore the tradition of a prorogation speech, which forces a government to justify why it’s doing so in a public manner and to explain their accomplishments rather than just being able to phone up the GG when Parliament isn’t sitting. (More on this in my forthcoming book). It will have a greater impact than anything that Chong suggests with this plan.

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Roundup: Not a looming crisis

Everyone spent yesterday lighting their hair on fire based on this “buried” government report that was full of scary numbers, like growing deficits going out to 2050 that reached the $1 trillion mark, and wasn’t this just the sign of how reckless Liberal spending was, and so on. The headline in fact read “looming fiscal crisis.” The Conservatives in particular tried to push some rather questionable narratives about how much better fiscal managers they were, complete with a little chart that was a work of fiction that Dame Barbara Cartland would be proud of.

Of course, it’s all complete and utter twaddle. For one, the report points to the fact that the debt-to-GDP ratio continues to decline, which means that the economy is growing and the deficit is not proportionally. That is a big deal. And if you believe that the Conservatives would have a trillion-dollar surplus in the same amount of time, give your head a shake because they not only built their “balanced” budget on a foundation of sand in 2015, but they continued to insist that they would cut taxes rather than let surpluses accumulate (and hey, remember how their desire to cut the GST in a hurry left them with a deficit before the 2008 financial crisis even hit? Yeah. Prudent fiscal management there, what with the desire to put populism before good economics). Not to mention, as Andrew Coyne points out, the whole exercise was just that – a paper exercise based on a number of projections on a spreadsheet, not an actual economic forecast, which you wouldn’t actually do for 40 year timelines because that’s literally crazy-talk.

The question becomes, however, does this become a narrative that hangs around the Liberals’ necks like an albatross? They’re already using it as showing why they’re taking a harder line against the provinces demands for increased healthcare spending, and about approaching new spending with caution. But it also lends credence to their project for trying to restructure the economy to kick-start growth that is otherwise sluggish. Will it work? It remains to be seen. But without trying to sound like some kind of apologist, would it kill a single journalist writing the stories around said report to mention the debt-to-GDP ratio? Provide some actual context for those numbers, rather just present the scary trillion-dollar deficit figure and brand it a looming crisis, when it very clearly is not? But that might require something other than the usual kinds of cheap outrage that our journalism tends to peddle, making us all the poorer for it.

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Roundup: For fear of Mary Dawson

It was a day of juvenile finger-pointing as the big headline from the Globe and Mail was that the Ethics Commissioner said that she plans to speak to Justin Trudeau and Bill Blair about allegations that certain fundraisers may have breached conflict of interest laws, based entirely on innuendo from the Globe (which then gets repeated in Question Period, and that gets written up, and when the Globe adds another new piece of unproven innuendo the next morning, the cycle starts over again). Trudeau’s response? Bring it on – I’ve done nothing wrong.

So where are we? Because I’m not sure at this point. Do we insist that the PM and ministers no longer fundraise? Because that’s happening is that the party is capitalising on their “celebrity” for higher-level fundraisers, which is basic economics. They’re more in demand, so you send them to the higher-priced fundraisers. Should they be disallowed because someone would try to talk to them about their particular hobby-horses? As though they wouldn’t if they met them in the grocery store or on the street? Because I’m not sure that it’s actually lobbying activity, despite the label that has been slapped onto it by the bulk of the media and the opposition, looking to score some points on this. Does this mean that the whole of cabinet should be encased in these bubbles where nobody can talk to them? If the fear is that they get “exclusive” access, the government is quick to point out that they’ve accused of consulting too much and that there are plenty of other opportunities. If the worry is that it’s because they’re rich that they get access, again I’m not seeing the issue because you’re not buying influence for $1500. “Oh, you’re buying good feeling and they’ll think to pick up the phone and call you the next time something comes up” is the latest excuse I’ve heard, and I rolled my eyes so hard that it almost hurt. Honestly? Especially with the accusations that they’re buying the influence of “good feelings” donating to the Trudeau Foundation, which the PM severed his connections to and which provides scholarships? And if the charge is that because many of these rich business people are of Chinese descent, again, I’m not actually seeing any real issue here. They accuse one businessman of donating who had interests in canola that the Chinese government restricting and then Trudeau got it resolved. Conspiracy! Err, except that was the concern of every single gods damned canola farmer in this country so singling out one Chinese-Canadian starts to smack of veiled racist sentiment.

Once again, I’m waiting for someone to show me where there’s smoke, let alone fire. I mean, other than that sickening smell of people who’ve lit their own hair on fire over this. And I would be willing to bet that Mary Dawson is going to shrug and say “they haven’t broken any rules, but I want you to turn over more power to me” like she does all the time.

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Roundup: A new Supreme Court appointment

The government announced their new pick for the Supreme Court of Canada, and lo and behold, it’s Justice Malcolm Rowe of the Newfoundland & Labrador Court of Appeal. It’s a little unexpected considering what they were signalling in terms of looking for more diversity on the bench, but they managed to find a bilingual justice in Newfoundland & Labrador, and they get to pat themselves on the back for making the first appointment to the top court from that province, so they’ve made history! Also, they’ve respected the constitutional convention around the regional composition of the court, and for that, the Conservatives have declared victory – because it was totally their non-binding supply day motion that forced the government’s hand! (Also, appointment panel head Kim Campbell seemed pleased that this was the choice from the short list that they submitted).

So Atlantic Canada is happy, and the government is making a big deal out of its new process including transparency by publishing the application form that Rowe submitted with his answers to a number of questions around his thoughts on significant decisions that he has been a part of, and his thoughts on the role of the judiciary in the legal system, which is unprecedented. As well, next week both the justice minister and Campbell will face a parliamentary committee to explain their choice (thus preserving the committee role of holding cabinet to account), to be followed by a Q&A session with Rowe to be led by a law professor with both MPs and Senators asking the questions. So transparency without devolving into an American-style “confirmation” process. At this rate, Rowe should be on the top court by early November, which means he’ll have missed about half of the fall session of the court (which isn’t as bad as the vacancy issue caused by the Nadon appointment where the court sat 8 in a number of cases). Of course, Rowe’s answers are already provoking some criticism, though it’s not necessarily shared by all members of the legal community. (Incidentally, you can see Carissima Mathen’s Power Play interview on the appointment here).

So what of the signals the government was sending that they wanted an Indigenous judge, preferably a woman? Well I do think reality did set in when they faced pressure from their Atlantic caucus and the premiers to ensure that the seat remained an Atlantic one. It may well have been them floating a trial balloon about abandoning the convention, but it may also have been a warning. There are two more seats opening up in the next few years (barring deaths or retirements), being Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin (a Western seat) and Justice Rosalie Abella (an Ontario seat), and in both of those cases, the government is saying to the legal community that there had damn well better be some more diverse, bilingual candidates ready to fill those seats when the time comes – something that was more difficult to find in Atlantic Canada owing to their demographics. We’ll see in the next few years, of course, but I think the warning has been delivered.

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Roundup: A dying brand of politics

As tributes to Jim Prentice continue to roll in, we see one in particular from Michael Den Tandt, who says that the particular blend of civility and competence that Prentice had is becoming a fading quality in politics, not only looking south of the border to the giant tire fire that they call their presidential election, but also toward the Conservative leadership race in this country. Why is it fading? Because that kind of politics isn’t selling to the angry populist wave that seems to have captured so many imaginations, and in that race, it’s less Maxime Bernier who is capturing that angry populism (despite his claiming the “Mad Max” label by being “mad” about so many government problems) than it is by Kellie Leitch and her campaign manager, Nick Kouvalis. And case in point, Leitch officially launched her campaign on the weekend (remember, it was just an exploration beforehand), and lo, was it full of angry populist rhetoric that doesn’t make a lot of sense when you actually listen to it. Leitch continues to insist that she’s not anti-immigrant – she just goes about completely mischaracterising this country’s immigration system (you know, which the government that she was a part of had an opportunity to apparently do something about over the last decade and apparently didn’t), and pits “good” immigrants against “bad” ones – which, to be fair, is something Jason Kenney got really good at over his time as the cultural outreach guy in the Conservative party. Suffice to say, here are Justin Ling’s tweet’s from Leitch’s launch, and if it sounds like her going down the angry populist checklist, it’s because that’s what it pretty much is – which lends a little more credence to what Den Tandt was saying about Prentice’s breed of politician fading away.

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