QP: A smarmier version of Matlock

The first proto-Prime Minister’s Questions of the New Year, with Justin Trudeau finally in town on a Wednesday, and Andrew Scheer was once again no longer present. That left Lisa Raitt to leave off, who was worried that offshore investment into marijuana companies was not the front companies for organised crime. Trudeau stumbled off the block, and gave his worn points about why they are legalising marijuana. Raitt called out the talking points, but along the way, equated former Liberal fundraisers with organised crime, but Trudeau didn’t vary his response. Alain Rayes was up next, and in French, accused Liberal fundraisers of trying to line their pockets though cannabis and accused the government of interfering with debate in the Senate,  it Trudeau stuck to his points in French. Rayes tried again, and this time, Trudeau said that they could assure people that they were not letting organised crime into the system. Rayes went one last round, asserting that legalised marijuana was somehow the new Sponsorship Scandal, but Trudeau reminded him that the previous prohibition model failed. Guy Caron was up next, and kept on the same line of attack, highlighting tax havens, and this time, Trudeau picked up some notes to say that they have been coming to agreements with provinces to provide transparency on corporations and that they were doing background checks on any significant investment in cannabis companies. Caron went again in French, railing about Liberals and tax havens, but Trudeau repeated the assurances in French. Pierre-Luc Dusseault asked the same question again, to which Trudeau assured him that they had an information network to combat tax avoidance and evasion, and when Peter Julian asked one more time, Trudeau picked up his notes again to assure him that there would be mandatory security checks with companies.

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Roundup: Romanticizing a political “success” story

It’s not a secret that Globe and Mail editorials have a tendency to be terrible, but one yesterday was particularly misinformed to the point of being criminally negligent. The subject? That politics needs more Ruth Ellen Brosseaus. The thrust of the piece is that politics doesn’t need more lawyers or titans of industry, but plucky individuals with a common touch. What they completely ignore is how much support the party gave Brosseau to turn her from the assistant manager of a campus bar who spent part of the campaign in Vegas (who never actually went to her riding during the campaign) into the eventual NDP House Leader that she is today.

To wit, after the 2011 election, the party sequestered Brosseau, put her through intense French immersion to get her proficiency in French back up to an acceptable level for the francophone riding that she was accidentally elected into during the Orange Wave, and then carefully kept her away from the media except for select clips to show how great her French was. Her early interventions in the Commons were brutal – I recall one particularly memorable nonsense question in QP about how, as a busy single mother, she didn’t have time to worry about all of the Conservatives scandals. Riveting stuff. She was given a deputy portfolio that kept her very constituency bound, and again, she was largely kept away from the media spotlight for four years, and when she was in the media, it was for personality pieces and not policy. During the last election, the party put her forward to every outlet conceivable to showcase her personality and endear her to voters, and she did win again. And good for her.

But what the Globe piece misses entirely is that plucky everywoman Brosseau was given a hell of a lot more support than any other candidate or MP gets, because they wanted to rehabilitate her image, and to demonstrate that they didn’t make a mistake in putting her name on the ballot in the manner that they did. And sure, maybe we need plenty of everyperson candidates, but we also do need lawyers and corporate types who have policy experience as well, because part of the danger of just nominating your everyperson candidate is that it puts them in the position to be the puppets of party apparatchiks run out of the leader’s office. We already have too much central control in politics, and there is a real danger that candidates who are unprepared for political life will become fodder for those machinations, which will do no favour to our political system. So sorry, Globe editorial board – maybe you need to do a little more homework before you file a piece like this.

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QP: Listing numbered companies

As the Centre Block was getting all dressed up for the arrival of the President of Colombia, all of the leaders, permanent or “parliamentary,” were in the Chamber and ready to go. Andrew Scheer led off, mini-lectern on desk, leading off with the Globe & Mail story about four other cabinet ministers who apparently own stocks outside of a blind trust — because the Globe is now the opposition research bureau. Justin Trudeau reminded him that everyone worked with the Ethics Commissioner, and that all of the arrangements matched those used by the previous, Conservative finance minister. Scheer demanded to know who they were, and Trudeau tutted that in order to avoid slinging mud, they relied on the Commissioner to offer guidance. Scheer switched to French to ask the same thing, and got the very same response. Scheer tried again in French, and Trudeau praised the advice of the Commissioner. Scheer tried one last time in English, but had a hard time keeping a straight face as he demanded the names. Trudeau instead responded with a lecture about the need for opposition in a healthy democracy, but they had a Commissioner to keep everyone from slinging mud. Guy Caron was up next to lead for the NDP, and offered some added sanctimony with his demands for the names. Trudeau noted that they were willing to go above and beyond the rules, and that the personal attacks were a distraction from the good news about the economy. After another two rounds of the same, in both English and French, Hélène Laverdière raised the nuclear weapon ban treaty and the Nobel Peace Prize, and the government’s refusal to sign it. Trudeau praised the work of the Prize winners, and noted that they were taking leadership with the fissile materials ban, which included nuclear and non-nuclear states.

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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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