Roundup: Shadow ministers vs critics

Conservative leader Andrew Scheer is set to release his full critic list today, not only to be dubbed as a shadow cabinet, but with plans to style the critics as “shadow ministers.” Now, this is normally the kinds of British/Westminster nomenclature that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside, which is why I suspect that a fanboy like Scheer is doing it, but I would raise a particular note of caution – that unless Scheer plans to actually have his “shadow minsters” act in the way that Westminster shadow ministers actually operate, then it’s going to quickly come across as a twee affectation.

So what kinds of differences would matter between a British shadow minister and a Canadian critic? For one, it’s a far more institutionalised role, where a shadow minister plays the function of someone who is able to fill the cabinet role immediately if the government were to fall, rather than the kinds of placeholders that we’ve come to expect in Canadian critic roles. Shadow ministers, in my observation, tend to be in place for a fairly long time and develop expertise in the portfolio, and they have more structured time to visit the departments and get briefings from civil servants, which doesn’t seem to be the way that Canadian critics operate (who do get some briefings, but in my estimation, are not to the same level). Of course, one of the reasons why is that cabinet construction in the UK doesn’t have to deal with the same regional considerations that Canada does, so it’s far easier to have someone who was in a shadow cabinet position slide into cabinet, whereas in Canada, the federalist calculations may not work out.

Another key difference is that UK shadow ministers are not members of select committees, whereas in Canada, critics are leads for their party on standing committees. Why this is different is because in the UK, it not only lets the shadow minister spend more time with their portfolio, but it gives the committee members more independence because they don’t have the lead on the file shepherding them. Just by numbers alone, I’m guessing that this isn’t going to happen here (another advantage to the UK’s House of Commons having 650 members instead of 338). One could also remark that the current Conservative Party in Canada hasn’t demonstrated a great deal of willingness to give committees a great deal of independence (especially seeing as they turned them into branch plants of the ministers’ offices during the Harper years), but who knows? Maybe Scheer is more serious about it. But unless he wants to reform the way his critics operate, then I’m less sold on billing them as “shadow ministers.”

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Roundup: Disingenuous tax concerns

If there’s one thing that the federal government’s announced changes to small business tax rules for the purposes of closing tax avoidance loopholes has done, it’s stirred up a hornet’s nest of comments from the “Tax Bad! Hulk Smash!” crowd, who have come up with all manner of misleading talking points and crocodile tears, while interested parties (such as doctors and farmers) who have been using these loopholes to avoid paying taxes are crying poverty in the media, where there has been very little pushback from credible economists to these sob stories. Particularly galling are those who insist that the ability to engage in income splitting is somehow more virtuous because they’re small business owners, as though there hasn’t been a whole cohort of people who would love income splitting to allow their spouse to be a stay-at-home parent (which is a whole entire other public policy discussion about the value of women in the workforce).

And lo and behold, Jason Kenney decided to try to get his kicks in despite the fact that it’s a federal issue and he’s currently running in the provincial sphere. The problem? That he’s offering a completely disingenuous position.

And that’s the rub – these changes aren’t affecting struggling small business owners. They’re not affecting their ability to keep the business liquid, or to save for retirement, because those haven’t been affected (as we recall, Kevin Milligan has explained this several times). And for the “Tax Bad! Hulk Smash!” crowd to try and cast these changes in such a manner is utterly ludicrous. It’s an attempt to paint the Liberals with a brush of being job killers and high taxers, which is not what these changes are about. It’s about ensuring that people don’t avoid paying taxes by virtue of these measures, so unless they’re keen to promote other forms of tax avoidance or evasion, trying to close loopholes shouldn’t be treated as an added burden to people who are doing well for themselves.

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Roundup: Appointment backlog woes

The National Post has a really good piece looking into the current backlog of appointments and the effect it’s having on the functioning of government. It’s something that has been talked about a lot, but it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a good breakdown of those vacancies, and the effect that it’s having. It’s one of those subjects that sounds pretty easy to grumble about, but it’s also something that we should take a step back and realise that to a certain extent, the goals of reforming the appointments process has been laudable, and in many cases, overdue when it comes to increasing the level of diversity into these positions. Over the course of my reporting, a lot of civil society actors have praised the move (while still being concerned at the timeframe it took for getting the processes up and running) because they all know that the outcomes will inevitably be better over the longer term now that the bulk of positions aren’t simply being filled by straight white men.

That said, I also wanted to just put a bit of additional context around some of this backlog in saying that as much as the Conservatives are baying at the moon about some of these appointments right now, that they were no saints when it came to this sort of thing either, and reformed the appointment process for some of these positions themselves, creating massive backlogs in the process. The two that come to mind immediately are the Immigration and Refugee Board, where they took a functioning system and drove it to dysfunction when they changed that process to “de-politicise it” (with plenty of accusations that they just made the system easier to put their own cronies in) and turning a system where the optimal number of files was churning through into a massive backlog that they tried to blame their predecessors on (sound familiar?). The other was the Social Security Tribunal, which they completely revamped as part of their changes to the system overall, and I’m not sure it ever got fixed before they lost the election, only for the Liberals to turn around to reform the appointment process yet again. So yes, some of the backlogs are bad, but in some cases, ‘twas ever thus, and we should keep that in mind.

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Roundup: The Speaker’s clock

The CBC has a video segment released today talking to Commons Speaker Geoff Regan about the countdown clock in the Commons when it comes to things like Question Period, and how he enforces the 35-second rule for questions and answers.

While it’s a nice video explanation, and demonstrates that Regan will allow a few seconds’ grace when necessary, it does go to demonstrate part of what isn’t functioning with the way we’re doing things like Question Period – or even regular debate, for that matter. By enforcing strict clocks, we’ve incentivised a culture of filling that space rather than it being an upper limit. Even in QP, where it’s a simple yes-of-no question, the temptation to fill all 35 seconds with canned talking points usually wins out (though the three-word yes-or-no Mr. Speaker replies do occasionally happen and make my day). Also, the 35 second clock encourages ministers to read replies in order to ensure that they stay within the limit rather than going over – and that tends to lead to a greater reliance on talking points than substantive answers.

As I’ve written about several times, I think this video is a demonstration as to why we need to loosen the clock. I’ve also witnessed in Senate QP where there is no defined clock, where you can get far more substantive questions and answers (though the Senate Speaker does need to reign them in a bit – some senators will speechify during a question, and sometimes the visiting minister will ramble). But loosening the clock and empowering the Speaker to better manage that time – along with a ban on scripts – will go a long way to improving the flow of debate in the Commons, rather than the farce that we have today.

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Roundup: Caretakers and emergencies

The situation in BC, where there is an emergency situation of wildfires and evacuations in the midst of a change of government, can be pretty instructive as to how our system of government works. Right now, as with during an election period, the machinery of government goes into “caretaker” mode, and because Christy Clark remains the premier until the moment John Horgan is sworn in, she is able to respond to the situation as she is doing now.

This is why, after Clark’s visit to the lieutenant governor, the statement from the LG was that she “will accept her resignation,” not that Clark has resigned on the spot.

Why is this important? Because the Crown must always have someone to advise them, especially in circumstances like this. Add to that, we have a professional, non-partisan civil service means that they are already in place, and don’t need to have a massive new appointment spree to fill the upper layers like they do in the US. That means that they can respond to these kinds of situations, and while the caretaker government gives the orders, the incoming government’s transition team is being briefed so that they can handoff the files when they form government. It’s an elegant system that we’re lucky to have.

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Roundup: Trying to measure independence

As Senators have made their way back home for the summer, we’re having another round of them poking each other, like kids in the backseat of the car on a long trip, over just who are the “real independents” in the Senate. It’s getting a bit tiresome, especially with the Conservatives insisting that they’re the only ones because they vote against the government more often. The problem is that it’s a fairly flawed metric because they’re the Official Opposition and are supposed to vote against the government on a consistent basis. That doesn’t make them independent – it makes them the opposition.

The big problem with the metric about voting as a measure of independence ignores the broader procedural issues. If the government could really command the votes of its new independent appointees, then bills would be making it through the Senate a lot faster, and they’re not. The logistics of getting legislation through the chamber when you don’t have a whip who is organizing votes is one of the measures by which you can tell that these senators are more independent than the Conservatives in the Senate give them credit for. While the Conservatives, Senate Liberals and Independent Senators Group are getting better at organizing themselves in trying to come up with plans around who will be debating what bills when, the fact that the Government Leader in the Senate – err, “government representative,” Senator Peter Harder, refuses to negotiate with those groups to prioritize some bills over others, has been part of the reason why some bills went off the rails and took forever to pass. If he did negotiate, or could command votes to ensure that bills could be pushed through when needed, I would buy the argument that these senators aren’t really independent. The fact that there is this lack of coherence in moving legislation is one of the markers in the column of greater independence. This is also where the argument about the need for an Official Opposition kicks in.

While the dichotomy of strict Government/Opposition in the Senate has been upended with the new group of Independents, ending the duopoly of power dynamics that contributed to some of the institutional malaise around the rules, I will maintain that an Official Opposition remains important because it’s important to have some focus and coherence when it comes to holding the government to account. Simply relying on loose fish to offer piecemeal opinion on individual pieces of legislation or issues risks diluting the effectiveness of opposition, and it also means that there is less ideological scrutiny of a government’s agenda, which is also important. Partisanship is not necessarily a bad thing, and the Senate has traditionally been a less partisan place because there was no need for electioneering within its ranks. Trying to make it non-partisan will not make it better, but will make it less effective at what it does.

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Roundup: A wake-up call on court complacency

The Senate’s legal and constitutional affairs committee released their report on judicial delays yesterday, and while I haven’t made it through the whole report yet, I will say that the highlights are pretty eye-opening.

While you may think that the issue of judicial vacancies is top of mind, it’s actually the culture of complacency that has infected the court system, with inefficient processes, poor case management, an unwillingness by some judges to take their peers to task for granting repeated adjournments, and the list goes on. Yes, judicial vacancies are in there, and this government has excelled in delays for all manner of appointments (witness the backlog of nominations for Officers of Parliament, for example). It’s part of what the Supreme Court of Canada was hoping to get at with the Jordan decision (and may refine that somewhat more with the upcoming decision on Friday), but it’s clear that a lot of processes need to change.

I know there has been some work done, and I’ve written a bit about things like the move to do more summary judgments in some cases rather than going to full trial, and it can work. I just wrote a story last week where it did, and the biggest delay in the case was getting an actual hearing date. But some of the bigger problems remain structural, with things like inadequate mental health services that wind up processing these people through the courts rather than getting them proper treatment, or not having culturally appropriate services for Indigenous offenders which would do more to address their concerns and keep them from recidivism rather than keeping them cycling through the system (or out of jail entirely). Things like legal aid funding are also important to the smooth operation of the system, but one has to wonder if it’s not just giving the court system more resources, but also better drafting laws so that we deal with crime in a better way rather than just trying to look tough on the issues.

Anyway, what I’ve read so far looks good and resonates with what I’ve heard in my own justice reporting, so maybe, just maybe, this government can take some of the recommendations seriously and not just thank them, promise to consult further, and put it on a shelf.

(Incidentally, Christie Blatchford, who covers a lot of trials, is full of praise for the report).

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QP: Carbon taxes and foreign takeovers

On a sweltering day in Ottawa, things carried on as usual in the House of Commons. Andrew Scheer led off, railing about carbon taxes killing the manufacturing sector, never mind that in his Ontario example, it was a provincial carbon price. Justin Trudeau hit back with jibes that it was good to see that most of the aconservaties believed in the Paris Accords and that carbon pricing was good for the market. Scheer groused that they would meet the targets without a carbon price, before moving onto the Norsat sale and lack of a comprehensive security screening. Trudeau reminded him that they took the advice of national security agencies. Scheer took a second kick, needling that Trudeau admired Chinese dictatorship too much to care about national security, and Trudeau lashed back that partisan jibes like that were unworthy of this place. Denis Lebel was up next, demanding a non-partisan process to appoint parliamentary watchdogs, and Trudeau noted their new appointments and rattled off some of the diversity of the new reports. Lebel tried again in English, and got the same answer. Thomas Mulcair was up next, asking if the Der Spiegel article was true that the government was backing away from climate goals at the G20. Trudeau insisted that they have been climate leaders and pointed to examples. Mulcair pressed, and Trudeau was unequivocal that he did not say what was in the article. Mulcair then turned to the issue of court cases involving First Nations children and dialled up the sanctimony to 11, and Trudeau noted the memorandum of understanding he signed with the AFN this morning about moving forward on steps. Mulcair demanded that the NDP bill on UNDRIP be adopted, but Trudeau insisted they were moving forward in consultation (never mind that said bill is almost certainly of dubious constitutionality).

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Roundup: NDP catch the Corbynite smugness

It was a bit odd, yesterday, watching NDP MP Erin Weir stand up before Question Period to offer congratulations to UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn on his “success” during this week’s election, considering that Corbyn lost. Weir considered it an inspiration to their own leadership candidates, each of whom also offered variations thereof over social media. (Andrew Scheer, for the record, also tweeted encouragement to Theresa May for “strong stable leadership” – a veritable echo of Stephen Harper’s 2011 campaign slogan – only to see May’s fortunes crumble).

Of course, this NDP praise of Corbyn ignores the context in which he “won” (by which we mean lost) this week, and that was that Labour’s share of the vote and seat count went up in spite of Corbyn’s leadership and not because of it. Why? Because he’s been an absolute disaster as a party leader, and an even bigger disaster as opposition leader, and in many instances couldn’t even be bothered to do his job in trying to hold the government to account on matters of supply – an appalling dereliction of duty. And this is without getting into Corbyn’s record of being a terrorist sympathizer, someone who took money from Iran’s propaganda networks and whose activist base has a disturbing tendency to anti-Semitism.

Nevertheless, this “success” of Corbyn’s (and by “success” we mean he lost), Twitter was full of mystifying smugness from hard left-wing types, insisting that it meant that Bernie Sanders would have won the general election (never mind that he couldn’t even win the primaries). Yes, the fact that Corbyn managed to motivate the youth vote is something that will need study in the weeks to come, I’m not sure that we can discount the fact that there is a certain naïveté with the youth response to his manifesto promises that was full of holes, and there was a youth response to Sanders as well, which some have attributed to the “authenticity” of his being a political survivor. Can this translate into a mass movement? I have my doubts.

The smugness around his “win” (which, was in fact a loss) however, is a bit reminiscent of the NDP in 2011 when they “won” Official Opposition, and were similarly smug beyond all comprehension about it (so much so that they were going out of their way to break traditions and conventions around things like office spaces in the Centre Block to rub the Liberals’ noses in it). That we’re seeing more of this smugness around a loss make a return is yet another curiosity that I’m not sure I will ever understand.

This all having been said, here’s Colby Cosh talking about what lessons the UK election may have for Canada, including the desire to export brand-Corbyn globally.

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QP: Rage over $2000 worth of cardboard

With the weather finally taking a turn for the better, and the floodwaters across the river receding, things in the House of Commons carried on in the usual fashion. Rona Ambrose led off, wondering why the Infrastructure Investment Bank was necessary. Trudeau pointed out how they had consulted widely on the Bank, and that it was going to be helpful for growth. Ambrose called it a vanity project to help Bay Street and Wall Street friends, and made a dig about Broadway tickets along the way, and Trudeau reiterated the points about the need for infrastructure projects like the Bank would help provide. Ambrose brought up potential conflicts with the Bank, and Trudeau rebuffed by slagging off the previous government’s underfunding of infrastructure. Ambrose took another dig at the Broadway tickets, and Trudeau expounded on how great and important the play “Come From Away” is. For her final question, Ambrose asked about the government ordering cardboard cutouts of the PM — and made a bunch of lame puns along the way — and Trudeau said that individual missions abroad make their own decisions. Thomas Mulcair was up next, worried that the government hadn’t spelled out how private investors in the Infrastructure Bank would profit from their infrastructure. Trudeau talked about the great things that the Bank could invest in, but didn’t specify that there would be tolls on everything. Mulcair wondered how the Liberals would have reacted if the Conservatives promoted the idea, and Trudeau insisted that they consulted widely on the Bank, not just hedge funds. Mulcair changed topics and worried about tech stories that it was Jared Kushner who reached out to Trudeau to convince President Trump not to rip up NAFTA. Trudeau reassured him that they were working to strengthen trade and relations with the Americans. Mulcair went onto suggest that Trudeau was taking orders from Kushner, and Trudeau insisted that he was doing everything he could to resolve issues like softwood.

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