Roundup: Not all omnibus bills are abusive

As if we needed another excuse for the opposition to blow their collective gaskets, the Liberal budget implementation bill clocks in at around 300 pages, and touches on several different Acts. In other words, it’s an omnibus bill.

“Oh!” They cry. “You promised you wouldn’t use them.”

Err, they promised not to abuse them, and in fact were careful in their language so as to not promise that they would never be used, because anyone who knows a thing or two about the legislative process knows that sometimes omnibus bills are necessary, particularly when it comes to housekeeping bills that clean up language across several acts, for example. What separates a proper omnibus bills from abusive ones are the fact that they are around a common theme, and can be studied by a single committee. This is where the Harper bills failed the test – while they claimed that they were under a single theme (i.e. implementing programmes mentioned in the budget), they touched on all manner of subjects that were not all under the purview of the finance committee, and this is really the key. When they put in sections that rewrote the entire environmental assessment legislation – under the dubious rubric of doing it for the sake of stimulating resource projects and thereby the economy, this was not something that the finance committee could necessarily study, and certainly not when the hundreds of pages and tight time-allocated timelines meant no time to do proper study of the various and sundry provisions. That is abusive.

From everything I’ve seen of this new budget implementation bill, it certainly looks like everything is all related to fiscal matters and would be under the purview of the finance committee to study. Yes, it’s 300 pages, which shouldn’t be the determining factor, and this is more about the opposition torqueing the issue in order to make it look like the government was breaking a promise when in fact they’re not included the kitchen sink into the bills in order to bully them through with as little scrutiny as possible.

What disturbs me more is the fact that like prorogation, “omnibus” is becoming a dirty word because the previous government took it upon themselves to abuse the practice, while my media colleagues haven’t done enough to disabuse the notion that just because a practice has been abused that it’s not actually illegitimate in and of itself. Prorogation is a routine practice for breaking up a legislative session and hitting the reset button in terms of plans and priorities, while omnibus bills have their uses (as we’ve already established). Just because Stephen Harper abused them to his own ends – which is party didn’t seem to be railing about as they are with this current omnibus bill – it doesn’t mean they’re all bad. This shouldn’t be rocket science, and yet, civic illiteracy is rapidly determining the narrative.

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QP: Proto-PMQs, take two

Question Period was late today, due to Malala Yousafzai’s address to parliament, and was the only item on the Order Paper for the day. Meanwhile, not all leaders bothered to show up either. Rona Ambrose led off, mini-lectern on desk, lamenting new taxes and the plan to increase user fees in the budget bill. Justin Trudeau insisted that they were proud of their choices and the ways they are helping the middle class. Ambrose spun the question as taxing time-off, and Trudeau responded by praising their decision to offer free passes to national parks this year. Ambrose spun it about camping — as those fees are going up — but Trudeau reiterated his response. Ambrose then asked whether the government planned to pass her bill on sexual assault training for judges, and Trudeau noted his support for survivors, but he also respects Parliament and the work of committees, and he looked forward to those discussions. Ambrose pressed, and Trudeau noted that it was important that they appointed more women to the bench, which they were doing. Alexandre Boulerice led off for the Liberals, railing about the omnibus nature of the budget implementation bill. Trudeau insisted that it was not an abuse of omnibus legislation, all items were included in the budget. Nathan Cullen repeated the question in English, got much the same response, then Cullen railed about the provisions around the PBO. Trudeau noted that it would make him a full Officer of Parliament with greater independence. Boulerice repeated it in French, and got much the same answer.

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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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Senate QP: Morneau talks growth

After a length delay owing to a snap vote in the Commons, Senate QP finally got underway with special guest star, finance minister Bill Morneau. Senator Smith led off, worrying that for an “innovation budget,” it wasn’t doing enough for promoting business investment I order to promote innovation. Morneau responded by reminding Smith that the fundamental challenge they were trying to address was slow growth, and noted that the reduction of unemployment was a sign that their plan was working, creating a level of optimism that would attract future growth. Smith insisted that they should be lowering taxes and giving an EI break for hiring younger people, but Morneau wasn’t sold on Smith’s logic, pointing out flaws with this argument around corporate tax rates and said that they were on track for a higher level of growth.

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QP: Bonuses, modernization, and vacations

While there was nothing else on his calendar to indicate why he should be absent, the PM nevertheless was. Rona Ambrose led off, incredulous that the PM was frustrated with Bombardier for their bonuses when he negotiated the deal with no strings. (Note: He didn’t actually negotiate it). Navdeep Bains rebutted that it was a repayable loan with clear strings around protecting jobs. Ambrose railed that the budget nickel-and-dimes Canadians in the face of this, to which Bains insisted that they had a plan around jobs, and touted the job creation numbers. Ambrose and Bains went another round of the same, before Ambrose switched to French to give it yet another round in the other official language. Bains responded in kind, albeit a little more awkwardly, before Ambrose moved onto the topic of changing the Standing Orders, for which Bardish Chagger trotted out her lines about “modernizing” the House of Commons. Thomas Mulcair took up the topic and wondered how Chagger feels having to cover for the PM. Chagger stood up to give earnest praise about being part of a government that consults and listens to Canadians. Mulcair asked in French, and Chagger praised the “new approach” in French in return. Mulcair turned to the Prime Minister’s “illegal vacation” and revelations about payments related to it, for which Chagger asserted that the PM needs to be in constant contact with his office even when out of the country. Mulcair and Chagger then went around for another round of the same.

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QP: Outrage theatre, part eleventy

While Justin Trudeau just got off the plane from Madagascar and wasn’t in the Commons for QP, neither was his counterparts from the Official Opposition. Denis Lebel led off, worrying about the statement that Trudeau had made about Castro’s passing, and if he regretted them. Stéphane Dion rose to reply, and he mentioned that similar statements were made by other leaders, and they were trying to support the Cuban people by not focusing on old antagonism. Lebel demanded the official statement on the website be changed to use stronger language, and Dion said that they were using Canada’s relationship to better the lives of Cubans and that they desired for Cuba to be a democracy. Lebel asked again in English and got the same response. Peter Kent go up to go another round, worrying that the PM had never met with Castro’s victims, and Dion assured him that they were supporting the people of Cuba rather than the regime. Kent demanded that condolences be sent to said victims, but Dion listed the other world leaders who made similar statements. Thomas Mulcair was up next, and worried that the government was reneging on the promise to be rid of First-Past-the-Post. Maryam Monsef said that she was waiting for the report of the committee but would not move ahead unless there was the broad support of Canadians. Mulcair raised the StatsCan report on sexual assault in the military, and Harjit Sajjan reiterated that they had zero tolerance for it and still had work to do. Nathan Cullen was up next, accusing Monsef of undermining the committee’s work on TV over the weekend, and Monsef reminded him that she was there to talk about C-33. Cullen groused some more about the lack of commitment to propositional representation, but Monsef reiterated that she was waiting for the committee report.

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QP: Trudeau “on bended knee”

With the Prime Minister off in Argentina, neither Rona Ambrose nor Thomas Mulcair bothered to show up for QP either today, leaving Elizabeth May the only leader in the Commons – and she’d already used up her question for the week. Denis Lebel led off, lamenting the lack of create jobs and accused the government of “showing their cards” when it comes to talking about NAFTA — err, except that they haven’t actually said anything other than they are willing to come to the table. Navdeep Bains rose to reply that there are nine million American jobs tied to trade with Canada, and that they are looking out for Canada’s interests. Lebel repeated the exact same question in English, and Bains expanded on the size of the trading relationship between Canada and the US. Lebel moved onto the softwood lumber agreement, and Bains assured him that they were working hard on the deal. Candice Bergen picked up and railed about how naive the PM was for “waving the white flag” on NAFTA (again, not sure how exactly he did that), and Bains kept up his reassurances that they wanted to protect Canadian jobs under the agreement. Bergen then demanded that the government press for TPP to move ahead at the APEC summit in Peru, and Bains gave a dig about how the Conservatives negotiated TPP in secret while the Liberals were being transparent about it. Nathan Cullen led off for the NDP, accusing the government of “decision-based evidence-making” when it comes to electoral reform, and Maryam Monsef said that she was eagerly awaiting the committee report. Cullen claimed that the new survey the government was planning to roll out was to dissuade people from proportional representation, but Monsef insisted that they just wanted to hear from more people. Alexandre Boulerice asked the same again, only angrier and in French, but Monsef kept her happy talking points about being committed to the file and that she was waiting for the committee report.

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QP: Questions about NAFTA

While Justin Trudeau was off in Cuba, and after Rona Ambrose walked in her party’s newest MP, Glen Motz, she led off Question Period by wondering why the government would be so quick to be willing to renegotiate NAFTA. Navdeep Bains responded, talking about how they were looking to protect and advance Canada’s interests. Ambrose then moved onto the Infrastructure Bank, and wondered who would be backstopping overages, and Marc Garneau got up to praise how great infrastructure spending was, but didn’t really answer the question. Ambrose then moved onto Keystone XL and lamented that the PM was “silent” and misled energy workers. Jim Carr stood up to reassure her that they still supported it and the approvals were still in place, but the company themselves had to reapply to the US. Ambrose switched to French to return to the NAFTA question, and Bains repeated his earlier answer in English. Ambrose then pivoted again to UNRWA funding, accusing the government of using those funds to put Israeli citizens at risk. Marie-Claude Bibeau said that they were ensuring that there were robust controls, but they preferred Palestinian children in schools than on the streets.  Thomas Mulcair lamented instances of surveillance of journalists and demanded a full national public inquiry. Ralph Goodale insisted there were no ongoing operations, and they welcomed input from journalists and lawyers on improving the law. Mulcair switched in French to demand concrete steps to protect freedom of the press. Goodale insisted that there was no argument, that they had appropriate safeguards and were open to input on improving the law. Mulcair then switched to the issue of softwood lumber as part of trade deals, and Bains assured him that they were looking to protect Canadian interests. Mulcair switched to English to press the issue, and Bains insisted that they were looking for Canadian jobs.

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Roundup: Smart, engaged, and too free for comfort

It’s not the first piece that raises these questions, and I’m sure it won’t be the last, but I am starting to become a bit weary of the constant think-pieces that considers it a terrible woe that Justin Trudeau is putting smart and accomplished people in the Senate without the yoke of party discipline to constrain them. And lo, Chris Waddell’s over on iPolitics raises many of these same questions, worried about the lack of a democratic mandate (hint: It’s something called Responsible Government) and being fuzzy on the way the Senate actually operates.

Do Canadians want a more activist Senate composed of people who, while accomplished, have no democratic mandate to act? Do we want to see anyone who was not elected to office regularly rejecting or amending legislation passed by elected representatives? If so, on what basis should they do that? Their personal opinions? The views of others? If so, whose views?

In short, a) the democratic mandate comes from the constitution and our system of Responsible Government, where the government that holds the confidence of the Chamber can make such appointments and be responsible for making them; b) This fear that the Senate will suddenly start rejecting bills is nonsense. They’re aware of their role and the fact that they’re not elected, and they tend to exercise their powers with a little too much restraint if you ask me; c) They should do so on the basis of the constitution and whether it’s bad legislation. And yes, elected representatives do pass bad bills where Senators actually read them and find out that hey, it’s a bad bill and needs to be either amended, delayed, or outright stopped; d) Why does a party whip make the Senate rejecting or amending bills any more legitimate than if they do so on the basis of their lifetime of expertise in a given field or based on concerns that aren’t related to whether it’ll get them elected the next time around? Because seriously, that’s part of what “sober” in “sober second thought” means – having a more critical eye that isn’t just about trying to appease the public for short-term electoral gain when there could be bigger things at stake.

Senators don’t just review legislation. They can introduce bills as well — but without a party infrastructure to push such bills through the Senate and then get the attention of the Commons, how many of those bills will be debated in the House, let alone passed?

Yes, they can introduce bills, but they tend to introduce very few, and even fewer of them get very far because they are at the bottom of the list of the Senate’s priorities. And they can get into the Commons by the very same process they do right now – an MP sponsors it, and it goes through on the Order of Precedence. Party infrastructure has nothing to do with it (though the Conservatives did try some shenanigans by all signing up to sponsor Liberal Senate bills in the hopes of delaying and killing them, only to attach their names to bills that were never going anywhere and could backfire on said MPs in that it looked like they were putting their names behind things like stopping the seal hunt, which is political poison). Senate bills are considered Private Members’ Business. This isn’t rocket science.

Once appointed, senators can self-identify the issues they want to pursue in office. Simply by doing that, they make travel costs and expenses incurred in pursuit of those issues Senate business — expenses they can claim, in other words. But those issues are never earmarked by elected officials — so what makes them important enough to be paid for by taxpayers?

Despite the attention paid to Senators’ expenses of late, I’m not overly moved by this line of concern. Without electoral constituencies to concern themselves with, Senators adopt causes, and those causes usually wind up being reflected in committee studies, bills, and reports. And as we’ve found, from both Justice Binnie’s report and the Duffy trial, there are questions raised when Senators start claiming anything as “Senate business,” and yes, there is much more transparency now than there was before, and more rules and reporting yet to come.

Perhaps the fact that we lack answers to these questions of substance is the reason why the Trudeau government has passed just one bill through the Commons for Senate consideration in the five months since it was elected — legislation tabled last December giving it the authority to spend money.

Nope. Nope, nope, nope. This is utterly specious. The government has only passed one bill because they’ve only introduced seven thus far, and are taking them one at a time. That bill was spending estimates, and it had to go through, and lo, the Senate found that the Commons ballsed it up by sending an incomplete bill to them, missing the actual spending schedules. You know, doing their job of oversight when MPs couldn’t be bothered as they passed it at all stages in the span of a few minutes. So if anything, it’s a sign that the Senate is necessary and doing their jobs. Can we please stop this insistence that the only way we want smart and engaged people to have a hand in the parliamentary process is if it’s under the whip? The Senate isn’t a confidence chamber. The pundit class should know these basic facts.

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