Roundup: Urgent investigations

With more video evidence that purports to show Canadian-made LAVs being used in Saudi Arabia against their minority Shia population, Foreign Affairs minister Chrystia Freeland has ordered an “urgent investigation” of the claims. At the same time, we’re getting some pretty usual reaction from the various opposition parties and their supporters, that portray the Liberals as being wide-eyed naïfs who had no idea that these vehicles could ever be used for such purposes.

While it’s easy for the woke supporters of opposition parties to try and paint the Liberals as cynics on the issue, this ignores the very real fact that every party in the election was gung-ho about living up to this contract with the Saudis, and insisting that it would go ahead no matter what, because they wanted those jobs – particularly at the General Dynamics plant in London, ON. The fact that the opposition parties, while doing their jobs of holding government to account, are nevertheless speaking out of both sides of their mouths on this issue. It’s also easy to give facile talking points about how terrible Saudi Arabia’s human rights record is without going into the genuine strategic reasons why they’re an ally in the region, and why that complicates and adds a truckload of nuance into the relationship. And as we’ve discussed before, there is no “nice countries only” option when it comes to having an arms industry, and if you think that we can preserve those jobs without getting our hands dirty in the process, well, real life doesn’t work like that. There are trade-offs to be made, and we should be trying to have an honest discussion about it and what those trade-offs are. This chirping, like from our woke tweeter, is not an adult conversation, and does nothing to reflect the reality of the situation in any way.

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Roundup: A swiftly-moving “stalled” bill

An odd narrative has been developing over the past few days about the budget implementation bill being “stuck” in the Senate, and that senators there are “holding it up” as the sitting days in the Commons tick down. And I’m really not sure where this impression comes from because the bill has only been there since Tuesday.

Quite literally, the bill was passed in the Commons on Monday, read in at First Reading in the Senate on Tuesday, passed Second Reading on Wednesday, and had the minister appear at committee on Thursday, and it was later that day that the motion to split the bill was voted on. (The Senate didn’t sit on Friday, for the record). If anyone can please explain how this is “holding it up” or “stuck,” I’m frightfully curious as to how exactly it works.

Justin Trudeau, meanwhile, went on The West Block yesterday and reiterated his praise for the Senate’s work and saying that he expected that this particular attempt to “alter” the budget bill is just “growing pains.” Err, except by altering, they are simply trying to split one section out so that it gets further study, so that the rest of the budgetary elements can get passed, while the section that does need further study gets it. That’s not exactly a major alteration, and they’re not looking to kill that section of it either – just ensure that it’s going to work like it’s supposed to. But then Trudeau insisted that it’s a well-established practice that the Senate always defer to the Commons on money bills.

The hell it is. Constitutionally, the Senate can’t initiate money bills, but that doesn’t mean they simply defer on all of them. Hell, the very first bill they passed in the current parliament were the Supplementary Estimates (which is a money bill), and lo, they had to send it back to the Commons because they forgot to attach a crucial financial schedule to it. Should they have deferred to that flaw? Yes, the Commons is the confidence chamber, and the chamber of “democratic legitimacy,” but Trudeau is conflating a number of different things here, and it’s a bit disappointing because he should know better.

And I will remind everyone that this current Senate, no matter how many bills it sending back with amendments, is still nowhere near as “activist” as the Senate was in the Mulroney days, where they forced him to an election over the free trade agreement and to use the constitutional emergency powers to appoint an additional eight senators in order for him to get the GST passed. The current iteration of the chamber, while they are sending more bills back with amendments, will inevitably defer. That the government is accepting many of those amendments shows that perhaps *gasp!* it was flawed legislation to begin with (not that the Harper government using its illegitimate whip over their senators to pass bills made them any better, because their court record shows they weren’t).

But if we could have fewer terribly media headlines putting forward a patently false narrative about what’s going on in the Senate right now, that would be grand.

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Roundup: Stop berating members for doing their jobs

It’s not often that I write about provincial matters, and especially not from Manitoba, but this one I felt like I should make a remark because of the way in which the story is framed, which infuriates me to no end. The headline is “Stephen Fletcher criticizes his own government’s bill in Manitoba.” Fletcher, a former Conservative MP and one-time cabinet minister, is currently an MLA in the province, and a backbencher in the governing caucus.

Because I know that the vast majority of Canadians didn’t get a quality civics education, let me spell it out – it’s a backbencher’s job to hold the government to account. Yes, even if they’re from the same party. And in this case, Fletcher had concerns about a bill and has been asking questions about it at committee meetings late into the night. In other words, he’s doing his job. We should be encouraging this.

But what does the local Canadian Press reporter ask the premier? Whether Fletcher should be removed from caucus.

Great Cyllenian Hermes, luck-bringing messenger of the deathless gods, give me strength before my head explodes.

We The Media keep insisting that we want more independent elected officials, and we constantly fetishise things like free votes, and the moment an MP or MLA starts asking tough questions of their own party or steps out of line, we freak out and start wondering if the leader is losing control of their party, or in this case, whether they need to be kicked out of the party. In this particular case, the article goes on to say that this is the first crack in party unity. Are you kidding me?

When we elect members under the First-Past-the-Post system, we are imbuing them with individual agency. That’s why we elect them to single seats and not giving votes to parties to apportion those seats out to their MPs. We privilege the independence of MPs and empower them to do their jobs. Whether or not they choose to do so is the bigger part of the battle, because of the pressures of looking like a team player, but We The Media make it worse because we pull bullshit like this all the time. Our insistence on these ridiculous narratives and demands that our elected members all act in lockstep constantly while at the same time demanding independence is doing the system in. It’s driving the need for message control which is poisoning our democracy, because our own journalists have a tendency to be too ignorant of how the system is supposed to work.

Let MPs and MLAs do their actual work of holding governments to account, and stop causing trouble. Seriously. You’re actively hurting democracy with this kind of bullshit.

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Roundup: Senator Greene’s grievous error

The strange fascination with Senator Stephen Greene’s ouster from caucus has consumed far too much time and attention, and yet things keep cropping up that demand a response. Today it was his op-ed in the National Post describing what happened, and then he dropped this little gem at the end of his piece.

No. Greene is completely and utterly wrong.

The Senate may not be the confidence Chamber – that is rightfully the House of Commons – but that doesn’t mean that the Senate doesn’t play an accountability role because the whole point of Parliament is to hold the government to account. The Senate is part of Parliament. This is elementary civics for a Westminster democracy.

The way in which the Senate exercises its accountability role is different from the Commons, but it exists nevertheless. It’s not a copy of the Commons’ processes either, nor can it be redundant because composition matters. Sober second thought is actually a form of accountability that relies on checking government legislation from a less partisan lens that is removed from the grasping for votes that afflicts most MPs, for whom populist considerations can blind them to bad policy – something the Senate can call out by virtue of the fact that they’re not seeking re-election.

That institutional independence – not seeking re-election, tenured so that they can’t be easily removed by the government of the day, given job security until age 75 so that they’re not compromising themselves in seeking post-Senate employment – it all adds up to the ability to hold the government to account in a way that the House of Commons simply cannot do. That’s why the Senate has the unlimited veto power that it does – because sometimes a government with a majority will pass blatantly unconstitutional legislation because it’s politically popular to do so, but as we all know, populism is not democracy, and the Senate safeguards that principle. That is an accountability function.

That Greene is unable to make that distinction is a problem, and it’s especially a problem because he’s been leading the charge with the modernisation push in the Upper Chamber, and his is a vision that is looking to see partisan caucuses diminishing. As I’ve said on numerous occasions, the ability to have a coherent opposition in the Senate is a key Westminster feature and a guarantor off accountability, which simply cannot be done effectively if the Chamber is a collection of 105 loose fish. That the Senate is more vigorously examining and amending legislation now is not a bad thing, but we are probably at the peak of what we can or should be expecting in terms of activism without senators engaging in overreach. But to think that this isn’t accountability is simply ignorant.

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Roundup: Seriously, stop calling it cash-for-access

Apparently we’re still on this bizarre witch hunt against Liberal Party fundraisers, because I’m guessing we have little else to obsess over right now. Best of all, we’re now inventing conspiracy theories, like how the head of drug company Apotex is apparently fundraising because his company is both lobbying the government (as a drug company does) and because they’re involved in a lawsuit, and no said company head isn’t the company’s lobbyist, but yet these connections are being drawn by both media and echoed by the opposition, and I shake my head wondering people in their right mind think this is some kind of a scandal or breach of ethics. You really think the federal government is going to throw a lawsuit because they got a $1500 donation? Really? Honestly?

That media – and in particular the Globe and Mail continues to characterise this as “cash for access” is bizarre. Sure, your “average family” isn’t going to pay $3000 to meet a minister, but why would they? I mean, seriously? What would be the point? And it’s not like they don’t do other events either, and we’ve previously established that this is a government that loves its consultations, so it’s not like you couldn’t have your say. It’s inventing a problem that doesn’t actually exist. Do you think ministers shouldn’t attend fundraisers at all? Do you think that they can be bought for $1500? How about $500? $100? And they’re not hiding these fundraisers either. VICE asked for the list, and lo and behold, it was provided. But here’s the most bizarre part of all – mere months ago, the Globe declared that the federal system was the best in the country and urged provinces to all adopt it (while in the midst of their zeal against the much more dubious practices that were taking place in Ontario where ministers were soliciting donations from the stakeholders lobbying them, which is not what is happening at the federal level).

Meanwhile, the president of the Liberal Party wrote a response to the Globe, but they wouldn’t publish it, so it’s on their website. Howard Anglin expands on his criticism of the reporting on fundraisers, and defends our system as being clean on the whole, and seriously, this is getting tiresome.

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Roundup: The price of everything and the value of nothing

We’re into that part of summer where the news is so thin that we’ve turned to cheap outrage to get to some headlines. Combing through expense reports, many a reporter is simply putting a big number up on a headline and clutching their pearls about it, never mind that there’s no context around those figures, and that in most cases they’re actually reasonable. And lo, we look small town cheap, like backwater rubes as we continue to insist that our politicians subsist on stale bread and shaving water lest they look like they’re too good for the rest of us.

What is possibly worse is the fact that there is constant apology rather than defending any of the spending. Was the cost of Jane Philpott’s car service unreasonable? That’s debatable, and I’m dubious that the fact that the owner of the service was a campaign volunteer will gain much traction with the Ethics Commissioner. Catherine McKenna at least defended the use of a photographer at COP21 (and no, it’s not the media’s job to take photos that the government can later use for their own promotional need), but instead of media questioning the return that they got for them (Jen Gerson noted on Power & Politics that the quality of the photos she’d seen were questionable and the photographer hired had credentials that may not have been suitable for the task), we just get performed outrage at the dollar value.

In this he’s exactly right – this is made worse by politicians essentially cannibalizing one another to score points rather than saying “Whoa there, let’s stop and think about this for a minute. Maybe these are reasonable expenses.” No. Instead it’s this game of tit-for-tat, Conservatives getting back at the Liberals for pointing out their own spending excesses when they were in government, and the NDP simply being sanctimonious and smug. The Globe and Mail’s editorial on the subject is right – we are spending too much time on the nickel-and-diming and the cheap theatre of performed outrage rather than on the actual scrutiny of government spending, and this may be related to the absolute dysfunction of the Estimates process in parliament (noting that parliamentarians themselves let it get this bad rather than push back on successive governments that caused this problem, and performing cheap outrage is easier). On the other hand, we’ve reached the point where we are living out that Oscar Wilde quote about a cynic being “A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Reporters rushing to put up that headline number with no context attached have done the system a disservice. Insisting that everyone post receipts will only make things worse, and will only hasten the race to the bottom where MPs will be fighting for re-election on the backs of what brand of toilet paper they bought for the constituency office and whether it was on sale that week or not. We need to draw a line somewhere, before we both paralyze the discourse and make politics so unattractive to anyone who wants to serve the public that they won’t bother. We’re our own worst enemies, and we help nobody in feeding this populist noise.

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Roundup: “Hot lesbian” pinkwashing

By now, you’ve probably heard about that ostensibly pro-oilsands ad that proclaimed that lesbians are hot, and it’s better to use oil from Canada, where they’re considered hot, than from Saudi Arabia, where they would be executed, and it being accompanied by an image taken from Orange is the New Black. And his apology and attempts to walk back from how particularly boneheaded the whole idea was to begin with. (Seriously, his sputtering about what he considers to be “hot” is both hilarious and sad at the same time). As well, the fact that he didn’t use two men to make the same point is entirely because he was conscious that the same message wouldn’t have the same effect on his target audience (because let’s face it, the idea of guys kissing isn’t as titillating to the general public as the idea of two women). What hasn’t been really explored in all of this, however, is this increasing tendency toward pinkwashing, particularly from the political right, as an excuse for xenophobia.

If you’re not familiar with the term pinkwashing, it’s generally used to show how some modicum of LGBT rights is a contrast to the death sentence that can be associated with homosexuality in certain parts of the world, usually as a way of deflecting attention from other problems. A famous example is the way that Israel uses Tel Aviv Pride to deflect criticism of their other human rights problems, and there was a tonne of pinkwashing done in the wake of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando as a pretext to condemning so-called Islamist terrorism (never mind that the same people spouting this pinkwashing ignore their own homophobic records. Who cares if we want to take away their civil rights – we don’t want to execute them, is generally how the argument goes, as though that’s really the choice that the LGBT community wants to be faced with). And this lesbian ad isn’t even the first time that this argument has been used – the Erza Levant brainchild Ethical Oil tried similar arguments a couple of years ago to little avail.

Suffice to say, while the mainstream media did jump all over these ridiculous lesbian ads, the criticisms tended to focus on the surface images of photogenic actresses and the fact that it ignores that there are still problems in this country where the GBLT community is concerned, the fact that there was no discussion about pinkwashing was disappointing, because this increasing tendency (particularly from the alt-right and Trump supporters) to use the queer community as some kind of shield to justify their xenophobia is tiresome and needs to be called out for what it is. These ads provided a good opportunity to do so, but that opportunity was largely squandered.

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Roundup: Another incoming mass appointment

The government’s permanent Senate appointment board is set to get underway “within days” to get to work on filling the remaining 19 vacant Senate seats, but if you listen very carefully, you can hear my alarm going of that the way they appear to be planning to do this is a Very Bad Idea. Specifically, it certainly looks like the plan is to appoint all 19 in one fell swoop by the fall, and I cannot stress enough how much of a really, really bad thing this is. It’s like nobody learned any of the lessons from the glut of 18 panic appointments in 2008, and how badly that stressed the Senate in its ability to absorb that many new members at once, and the fact that it had a negative effect on their independence because it meant that the government at the time pretty much controlled them and exercised a heavy whip hand because there wasn’t time to let them integrate at their own pace. The seven appointments made this spring, without a government or caucus to guide them, put them on a steep learning curve and left them with little in the way of logistical support for setting up their offices, which isn’t exactly ideal either. That Peter Harder has now created for himself a new quasi-whip (ahem, styled “government liaison”) that has the capacity to help them with some logistics issues, barring the Independent Working Group being in a position to offer that support as well if they are in a position to do so, may wind up being one less stressor for the individual appointees, but that still doesn’t neglect the fact that mass appointments are bad for the system. Because of the nature of the Senate, it works best when individual vacancies are filled as they happen, and that those new senators gradually get up to speed, given the unique way that the chamber operates, and that really is a process that can take two or three years to get fully into it. But the government sitting on the appointment process as long as it has, in order to do these appointments in one fell swoop, is a problem, and it’s yet another problem of their own making, which is a consistent pattern when it comes to the Senate. It’s one thing I hope that does come out of this Federal Court challenge to Senate vacancies – that there is a declaration that sets a time limit for when vacancies must be filled, so that it cuts down on future mass appointments, on top of ensuring that those regions have their proper representation as they are guaranteed under the Constitution, because yes, these things do matter.

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Roundup: To give or not to give Sophie resources

At his session-ender press conference, Trudeau highlighted three carefully chosen accomplishments, gave no additional clarity on the missing and murdered Indigenous women file, and didn’t commit to an open process for fighter procurement. All of that was par for the course, given that it was a lot of back-patting, but also a reminder that there is still a lot of work ahead, and he doesn’t want to look like he’s patting himself on the back too much. What I found more curious was in response to a question that he said that his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, should be able to have resources to carry out the duties that she has set about to undertake, but that he also doesn’t want to create a formal role for prime ministerial spouses going forward so that there is no obligation for the future. There is a certain amount of sense to this position, but it’s a very fine line to walk. Currently, she has one assistant and is given help from PMO staff on an ad hoc basis, as needed. Speculation with the staffing changes made to the household, particularly around nannies, has to do with creating space on the staff for an additional assistant for Grégoire Trudeau, but we have yet to see that materialise. None of it answers the specific existential question however on the role that prime ministerial spouses play. The reluctance to create an official position is a good instinct to have, especially because it bears reminding again and again that we are already a constitutional monarchy, and we have a royal family to take on these particular roles. In fact, the GG and his spouse also take on these kinds of feel-good roles in the absence of a more present royal family, which leaves very little room for a prime ministerial spouse to take it on. What they have to trade in – particularly Grégoire Trudeau – is a kind of celebrity status, especially as the previous few prime ministerial spouses haven’t had much in the way of a career of their own, and for Grégoire Trudeau, it has become her career to be a public speaker at events and for particular charity groups – and there’s nothing wrong with that. It nevertheless makes for a sticky situation with who pays for the help that such a career entails, particularly if it becomes an important optical consideration that she not be paid for the work (and if she were paid, even on a cost-recovery basis, one can already imagine people hissing “how dare she!” on accepting money from charities no matter that it’s the cost of doing business and standard practice). So we are between that proverbial rock and hard place. I don’t have a solution to offer either than to say that there is no winning, and it now becomes a way of finding the least unpalatable option, and that may wind up being what Trudeau is signalling – resources but the explicit rule that this is not formalising the role in any way. His reminding people that we have a royal family for these kinds of things wouldn’t hurt either so that we can stop this constant “First Lady” talk.

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Roundup: Big tent divisions

There was an interesting and perhaps somewhat revealing interview in The Hill Times yesterday where openly gay MP Rob Oliphant let it be known that despite the outward acceptance of LGBT issues in the Liberal Party, it is not a universally held opinion, and that there are still undercurrents of the “love the sinner, hate the sin” attitude that still reside within some of its members. As an example, MP John McKay – a noted evangelical Christian – was quoted as saying that his feelings about same-sex marriage haven’t changed, even though he considers the issue settled. It’s that line between tolerance and acceptance, and Oliphant rather adroitly points out that the line is still there within his own caucus. It also seems to me to be a kind of oblique explanation for why the government wound up taking such a tough line on the assisted dying bill – to the point that they would rather see it go back to the Supreme Court of Canada in order to suffer a defeat and be “forced” to deal with the issue as it was originally laid out in the Carter decision rather than to go along with it on their own. There are other lines within the party where Trudeau has forced the issue with his candidates and caucus, such as abortion (McKay being an opponent, as was Lawrence MacAulay until Trudeau’s edict), and it would seem that the same line is being threaded with the assisted dying issue. The difference is that with this one, Trudeau did not force the issue with his caucus and insist that this is a Charter issue that they will be whipped on (never mind that the Carter decision very clearly stated that yes, this is a Charter issue and this is why the current law is not adequately ensuring access for these Canadians with grievous and irremediable suffering). And it did seem that it was originally going to be the case where this was going to be a whipped vote on Charter lines, but he backed away from that under some public pressure from the media. How much of that was from push-back from the caucus and the broader party membership remains to be seen, but it would seem that the attempt to create the broadest possible tent is forcing some uncomfortable compromises, and in this case, Trudeau made the calculation that this wasn’t a battle he was willing to fight within his own base, never mind that he had the Charter argument right there. Instead, we are left with an inadequate law that will be challenged again (and one hopes not at the expense of another suffering family), and the reminder that while the public face of the Liberal Party is one of progressivity, there remains a social conservative undercurrent of the party that the leader’s declarations haven’t entirely done away with.

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