Roundup: Ethics committee theatre incoming

We can look forward to a heap of bad political theatre next week as the Commons’ ethics committee plans to sit on Tuesday and Wednesday in order to demand that the PM appear before them to answer questions in regards to the Ethics Commissioner’s report into his Xmas vacation with the Aga Khan, and to hear from the now-former Commissioner on the report the following day. And you can expect that it’s going to be nothing short of howls of sanctimonious indignation. Oh, and there may be legitimate procedural roadblocks to their plans given that the report hasn’t been presented to the Commons yet, according to a former Commons procedural clerk.

Regarding the demands that Trudeau appear, it would be highly unlikely that the Liberals on the committee will let that go ahead (and they have the votes to block it if necessary). And if the Conservatives cry foul, they can turn around and point to the fact that they blocked an attempt by the committee in the last Parliament to have Stephen Harper appear before them to answer questions related to the ClusterDuff Affair, and fair is fair, besides which, Trudeau has answered in Question Period and the media on this issue. And really, why would a PM expose himself to an hour of MPs trying to play Matlock, asking questions that are all traps designed to get him to incriminate himself, and then baying at the moon when he refuses to answer. It would be worse than the performances we see in Question Period these days (which are generally terrible), and we’d get the same quality of answers from Trudeau, which will be some fairly pat and trite lines unless they trip him up (which is the whole point).

Oh, one might say (and Althia Raj did on Power & Politics last night), if they want to show that this is really a new era of accountability and transparency, they it might be in their best interests to go ahead and have him go before the committee, to which I remind people what happened when Thomas Mulcair appeared before a committee to answer questions related to the satellite offices issue. Mulcair blustered, obfuscated, and then proffered a fiction that Conservatives did it too (they didn’t – the “evidence” was a riding office and a party office in the same mini-mall but several doors down from one another, but hey, they were on the same sign by the parking lot), and as he did so, all of his partisans flooded social media praising that “this is what accountability looks like.” I’m not really sure that this is the kind of thing we want to revisit.

As for Dawson’s appearance, it’s “as an individual” since she will be officially retired by then, and we can imagine that it will be much the same – each side fishing for a media clip that fits their established narrative, which they will then flood social media with – assuming that she can answer, given the procedural issue identified. And we can imagine how many questions about Bill Morneau will be asked, followed by the Liberals asking how many investigations she conducted on Conservative ministers, and on and on it will go. It won’t be a constructive use of anyone’s time, but why does that matter when you’ve got cheap political theatre to perform?

Speaking of Dawson, here’s her exit interview with the Globe and Mail in which she defends how much time she took to write that report, confirms that she didn’t discuss Bill C-27 with Morneau (never mind that doing so would violate cabinet confidence and cabinet secrecy – funny how the Globe continually ignores that fact), and defends the advice she gave to Morneau about a blind trust (“You know what the hell’s in there. That’s a defect on a blind trust”).

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Roundup: Embattled ministers sticking it out

With three cabinet ministers currently “embattled” (to various degrees), Aaron Wherry wondered about the drop-off in actual ministerial resignations, and found the comparison to the days of Brian Mulroney, who was far quicker to accept resignations than is customary these days. Mulroney came to regret this, mind you, but it can’t be denied that the demands for resignations have never left us, and in fact are pretty rote performance by this point. That the Conservatives made their demand for Bill Morneau’s resignation without any real damning evidence as to why it’s necessary has made it seem as unserious as it actually is, making it harder for them in the future to make a legitimate demand.

But with that having been said, I’m going to say that there’s something that Wherry has left out in his analysis, which is the way in which Cabinets are constructed is a different calculation now than it was in Mulroney’s day, and that matters. Back then, the dominant concern was federal construction, so while you had to ensure that you had enough ministers from certain regions, and some token diversity in terms of religious or cultural background, with a woman or two in the mix, it was easier to swap out white men for one another when it came to accepting resignations and replacing them. That’s not really the case right now. Trudeau’s pledge for a gender-balanced cabinet that is also regionally representative as well as diverse in terms of race and ethnicity means that there are far fewer options for replacing ministers when it comes time to either accepting resignations, or swapping them out for fresh blood. What that ends up doing is creating an incentive for a prime minister to stick by an “embattled” minister (though I’m not sure just how serious any of the allegations against any of the current ministers really is – the attacks against Morneau are largely baseless, while Lebouthillier has done her due diligence with regard to the AG’s report and has technically been correct in what she’s said regarding the disability tax credit; Hehr, meanwhile, has been chagrinned but I’m not sure there is a cardinal sin here in the grand scheme of things). Sure, there will be a few tough days in the media, but eventually, when there turns out to be nothing to what is being said, the storm passes. It passed with Harjit Sajjan and Maryam Monsef (who was given a promotion for sticking with the flaming bag of dog excrement that was the electoral reform file), and I’m pretty sure it’ll pass for the current three. Until Parliament itself is more diverse than it is now, the demands for a representative Cabinet means that there are fewer options available for a Prime Minister to accept a resignation. What it does mean, however, is that they need to get a bit better around communications and managing the issues that do come up, but also seems to be a recurring theme with this government.

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QP: Lebouthillier has had enough of your accusations

With Justin Trudeau on his way back from China, and Andrew Scheer again absent, it was left up to Lisa Raitt to once again carry the day. Raitt led off, concerned about tax changes affecting small businesses, and demanded specifics. Dominic LeBlanc reminded her that they were cutting small business taxes, and details on income sprinkling would come before January 1st. Raitt then mocked the government for spending on advertising, to which Scott Brison got up to remind her that when she was in government, they spent a lot more on advertising, while the current government changed the rules to ensure that it wouldn’t be partisan. Raitt raised the concerns of small business owners in New Brunswick communities she visited, and LeBlanc, himself from the province, noted that the member of that riding had already made those concerns known and the government was listening. Alain Rayes was up next to offer the concern trolling on small business taxes in French, and LeBlanc assured him that they listened to concerns before they are implemented. Rayes tried again, and LeBlanc assured him the details would be known shortly. Guy Caron was up next for the NDP, and railed about the American decision to declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel, and wanted louder condemnation from the Canadian government. Mélanie Joly assured him that they were allies of Israel and that the status of Jerusalem could only be determined in larger negotiations. Hélène Laverdière tried again in English, and got the same answer from Joly in English. Caron was back up, and referred to the Auditor General’s report on the CRA and wondered when they would be accountable to Canadians. Diane Lebouthillier listed off the measures that were being undertaken to correct the situation, and Caron tried again in English, and Lebouthillier repeated her response.

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Roundup: A revealing confession

When I saw the initial tweet, I can’t tell you how hard my eyes rolled, precisely because this sort of shtick is David Akin’s specialty – asking non-sequitur questions at inappropriate moments to try and generate a different headline, oftentimes to manufacture outrage (and oftentimes to the detriment of other reporters who had serious questions to ask when questions were limited). And some of the reactions to said tweet were pretty great too.

But reading Trudeau’s response, it was a bit of a warning klaxon for me, because of how this has been quietly playing out over the course of the past couple of years in the ways that Trudeau and his government has been trying to “reform” the way that business happens in the House of Commons – you know, to “modernize” the way that it functions.

…As we look at electoral structures, which is one of the questions that was specifically asked, we’ve had a certain level of discussions around electoral and democratic reform in Canada that leave me looking to the mother of all parliaments. Obviously, the U.K. does a significantly better job than us in programming legislation and getting that through the House. I think there is issue to admire on that. On the other hand, we were glad to adopt the prime minister’s question period model from the U.K. I think there’s lots to draw on when you look at our democratic structures from the mother of all parliaments.

The two key takeaways there are programming legislation, and prime minister’s questions. This isn’t the first time that programming motions have come up – back in the spring, the opposition filibustered the government over a proposal to include programming motions as part of Bardish Chagger’s “discussion paper” on suggested changes to procedure, and it seems that Trudeau hasn’t given up on the notion. I know that some people like programming motions because it helps create more orderly debates, and helps to move legislation though the chamber a lot more swiftly. But that’s partially why I’m not a huge fan of it, because creates the default assumption that the Commons is there to process legislation instead of holding government to account. Granted, we’ve gotten a bit dysfunctional in our parliament because opposition parties (and the NDP in particular) have an inability to let debate collapse in a reasonable timeframe which brings up the need for time allocation, and programming motions are just that – time allocation for all stages of a debate as it gets tabled. We should be trying to get parliament back to a better state of debate rather than resorting to programming, because that will help snuff out what little life remains in our parliament – it will make the speeches that much more rote and pro forma rather than having a miniscule chance for actual debate. As for PMQs, Trudeau’s grand experiment with it here has not proven to be that illuminating, and has instead created a perverse incentive for the Conservatives to instead bombard him with the same question eleventy times than to use it productively, and even when backbenchers do ask varied questions, they get mere platitude responses rather than substantive ones. It’s not like the UK’s, and so I find Trudeau’s response to Akin far more dubious as a result.

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QP: Return of the tax changes

While the prime minister remained in China, Andrew Scheer was finally back in the Commons for QP for the first time this week. After a moment of silence for the anniversary of the École Polytechnique massacre, Scheer led off, mini-lectern on desk, and he read a statement about violence against women. In response, Maryam Monsef rose to give her own statement about the importance of the day and the remembrance of the victims. Scheer then turned to the “attack on small business” by new rules not being fully outlined until the budget. Dominic LeBlanc, who this morning revealed that he was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukaemia, reminded him that small business taxes was being reduced and the new rules around private corporations were not about small businesses. Scheer trotted out the torqued 73 percent tax rate line (only applicable to those private corporations making over 100,000 under certain conditions in Ontario), and LeBlanc called him out for using a phoney example. Alain Rayes took over in French, offering the same concerns, and LeBlanc assured him that they listened to small business owners and they were acting on their concerns. Rayes tried again, but LeBlanc launched into a praise for small business tax cuts. Guy Caron was up next for the NDP, worrying that not taxing internet giants was hurting Canadian content creators — specifically community newspapers. Mélanie Joly said that they would work with stakeholders to strengthen local journalism. Caron tried again in English, and Joly listed investments made today and promised to help with transition to digital. Tracey Ramsey was up next, demanding transparency on the list of priorities with trade with China. Marie-Claude Bibeau, curiously, rose to read a statement on the importance of trade, but done under Canadian values. Ruth Ellen Brosseau asked the very same question again in French, and got much the same answer.

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QP: Decrying a fictitious pardon

While Justin Trudeau remained away at the APEC summit, and with Andrew Scheer elsewhere — despite having been present for caucus just hours before — it was up to Lisa Raitt to lead off QP, and demanded to know if Liberal fundraiser Stephen Bronfman was under CRA investigation for his inclusion in the Paradise Papers. Diane Lebouthillier simply stated that they were treating tax evasion seriously and had invested in fighting them. Raitt stated that since the PM assured reporters that he was satisfied with Bronfman’s explanation, she accused him of interfering with the investigation.  No change in Lebouthillier’s answer. Raitt then, incredulously, declared that the PM had “pardoned” Bronfman and railed about separate rules for Liberals than anyone else. Lebouthillier reminded her that she can’t comment on individual cases, but hey, the Conservatives didn’t treat this like a priority. Alain Rayes tried the same lines again in French on two separate occasions, but Lebouthillier remained unmoved, adding in some points about good economic news. Guy Caron was up next, noted his party’s call to bring Bronfman and former Senator Leo Kolber before committee and demanded to know if the Liberals would support them. Lebouthillier assured him that CRA now has the capability to check every tax return. Alexandre Boulerice repeated the question in French, got much the same reply, adding that committees are the masters of their own destiny. Boulerice selectively quoted a couple of Liberal MPs who had noted that there was no demonstrated illegality in the papers, and Lebouthillier repeated the points about investment in the CRA. Caron got back to demand the government change the law to close loopholes, but Lebouthillier reiterated the billion-dollar investment in CRA.

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Roundup: Not seeing the cannon fodder

After thinking a bit more about it, and seeing some of the reaction over the Twitter Machine over the weekend, I find myself coming back to Chantal Hébert’s weekend column about Trudeau treating his rookie ministers like cannon fodder, and I really have a hard time with it. Part of why I have difficulty is because it ignores some of the actual day-to-day realities as to why there were so many rookies in cabinet, which was that there were not a lot of veterans to choose from, and in order to maintain regional and gender balance, while still ensuring that you had enough veterans to do the other jobs of being a party in power, like having committee chairs who had some experience, then of course you were going to have rookies in cabinet. As well, the fact that Trudeau is behaving far more in the ethos of government by cabinet than his predecessor means that some of these rookies are going to be saddled with responsibility (and yes, this is a far less centrally-controlled cabinet, as I’ve spoken to staffers who used to work at Queen’s Park and have regaled us with the vast differences between how things operated between them).

I also find the implicit notion that it’s young women ministers being thrown under the bus to be a problem, because I’m not so sure we’d hear the same complaints if it were a male minister who has been handed a tough file and it doesn’t go according to the expectations of the pundit class. Yes, Joly made a bad call with Madeleine Meilleur, but I would hardly call Joly incapable, and she is juggling a lot of other files on her plate at the moment. She’s not incompetent, and Trudeau hasn’t thrown her under any bus. Maryam Monsef? She handled a file that was basically a flaming bag of dog excrement and managed to come out intact with a promotion to a line department with a hefty agenda (whereas “Democratic institutions” is a make-work project with staff assigned from PCO). Monsef did her job, better than most people give her credit for, and the fact that the Rosemary’s Baby that was electoral reform got smothered in the cradle is not a black mark on her because she didn’t micromanage the committee. The fact that the Liberals on that committee dropped the ball and didn’t make their own case, and in fact let themselves be railroaded by the other parties is not Monsef’s fault (though one has to wonder how much blame to assign to her for letting Nathan Cullen manipulate her into accepting the “proportional” nonsense in committee make-up that doomed it). If anyone blames Karina Gould for electoral reform being cancelled, they’re the ones at fault – not Gould. Trudeau made that call (rightfully), and has taken his lumps for it. And if Hébert or anyone else (like Ed Broadbent for one) thinks that these poor young women should have been either kept out of cabinet instead of being given difficult files and a chance to prove themselves because they’re women, then I think that’s a bigger problem. I’m not seeing any cannon fodder – just some ministers doing their best with some of the problems handed to them.

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Roundup: Constituent consultation

In another instance of MPs breaking ranks, Conservative MP Scott Reid bucked the party by opting to vote to send the marijuana legalization bill to committee on second reading. Reid notes that he has favoured legalization since 2000, and it also didn’t escape anyone’s notice that his riding is home to a major medical marijuana factory which is also looking to scale up for the recreational market.

Of course, Reid is putting this with conditions, which is that he wants amendments to the bill at committee, which includes raising the legal age to 21 (because that will totally help kill the black market), and allowing communities to maintain their own prohibitions (again, good luck with the black market). More interestingly is the fact that Reid is promising a “constituency referendum” on whether or not he should vote for the bill at third reading.

It’s this referendum that I have questions about, but Reid points out in his statement that he has done this thrice before, so I’m not sure by what method he did (phone poll? Online voting?) and it’s more indicative of the Reform Party era where this sort of thing was promised a lot, and then rapidly fell into disuse because it’s not easy to organize, especially on a consistent basis with the volume of legislation that can pass through the Commons in any given session. Nevertheless, it’s novel and likely riddled with problems, and I’m not sure I would want to see MPs doing it on a regular basis because part of why we elect them in the way we do is for their judgment in a representative democracy. But…it’s novel.

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Roundup: Backloading the spending with good reason

Yesterday was the big day, and the Defence Policy Review was released, which by all accounts was a fairly comprehensive look at what the vision of the Forces should be for the next twenty years, complete with an extra $62 billion in defence spending over those two decades, plus more cyber warfare and drones, more ships, and more fighters along the way. The hitch? That most of that spending won’t start rolling out until after the next election, which could be a problem. The other hitch? That the way these things works means that it couldn’t actually start rolling out until then anyway owing to the way that these things work, and yes, the Liberals meticulously costed their plans with five different accounting firms looking over the numbers and ensuring that both cash and accrual accounting methodologies were included. (One defence analyst did note that this funding means that existing commitments that were made but not funded are actually being accounted for and funded under this new model). These accounting considerations are worth noting, and economist Kevin Milligan explains:

Meanwhile, John Geddes casts a critical eye at the promises for future spending, while former Navy commander Ken Hansen offers his insider’s perspective on the document and its contents. Stephen Saideman takes a higher-level perspective including looking at whether the consultation process leading up to the report was followed (and it seems to be the case).

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QP: A furious rewrite of the scripts

With the news that Madeleine Meilleur had withdrawn her name from consideration for Language Commissioner just before QP, you could almost hear the furious rewriting of question scripts. In fact, I saw pages deliver new scripts to MPs just before everything got underway. Andrew Scheer led off, raising her withdrawal, and wanted an assurance that future appointments would have cross-party support. Justin Trudeau responded with praise for his new open and transparent process. Scheer shifted topics to the risk profile of the Infrastructure Bank, and Trudeau praised the commitment to $180 billion in new Infrastructure that the Bank would leverage private sector dollars to help with. Scheer repeated the question in French, insinuating that this was about Liberal millionaire friends, and Trudeau reiterated his points on the need for the Bank. Scheer then moved to the issue of a public sex offender registry, and Trudeau insisted that they took the protection of families seriously, and it was up to police to advise the public. Scheer demanded that Trudeau reject the advice of bureaucrats to not make a registry public, but Trudeau stuck to his points. Thomas Mulcair was up next, noting the presence of a Hiroshima survivor and demanded the government join nuclear disarmament talks in New York. Trudeau said that they were taking meaningful steps which included rallying states for the support of a fissile material cut-off treaty and getting tangible results. Mulcair pressed, and Trudeau noted that the treaty Mulcair demanded we sign onto didn’t include nuclear states, so it was somewhat useless. Mulcair moved onto criminal records for simple possession while marijuana legalisation in the pipeline, and Trudeau returned to his well-worn talking points about decriminalisation not protecting children or taking profits away from the black market. Mulcair asked again, louder, and Trudeau held firm.

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