Roundup: Neglecting our Canadian Sovereign

It was Victoria Day yesterday, which is a uniquely Canadian holiday that both celebrates the “mother” of Confederation, Queen Victoria, as well as acts as the official birthday of the Canadian monarch (no matter when their natural person’s birthday is). You might find it strange to find that in his message for Victoria Day, the Governor General didn’t reference the Queen of Canada at all, but rather the forthcoming Sapphire Jubilee and her being the first British monarch to achieve it.

Why does this matter? Because the Queen of Canada is a separate legal entity from the Queen of the United Kingdom, and because the holiday celebrated the Queen of Canada’s official birthday. Now, there were quibbles with my tweet pointing out the fact that the GG made the omission, but I maintain that the bigger point stands.

And Lagassé is correct in that – the emphasis is curious, and part of a troubling trend from the Canadian government, which has only exacerbated since the Liberals came to power.

While the Conservatives did a lot to bring some of the focus back to the Canadian monarchy after a couple of decades of neglect and the conscious effort to “Canadianize” a number of institutions by dropping their Royal monikers (like the Royal Canadian Navy being changed into “Maritime Command” for example, until the Conservatives restored its original name), they too did their own damage to the institution, primarily when they made the utterly boneheaded decision to pass legislation that when it came to changing the line of succession to include female heirs and those who are Catholics, they merely assented to British legislation rather than amending it in Canada. In other words, they turned what was control over our own Crown and Sovereign, and undid all of the progress we’ve made since the Statute of Westminster in 1931, when the Canadian Crown became separate from the UK Crown, and turned us essentially into Tuvalu when it comes to our relationship with the Crown, and thus far, the Courts have sided with the government when it comes to the challenges of this legislation, because the appreciation of the distinction and the role of the Canadian Crown remains largely ignorant to the vast majority of Canadian society, the judiciary included. (Incidentally, that was another bill that the Commons passed at all stages with no debate, and while it was debated in the Senate rather than veto it and tell the government that the proper way to change the law of succession is by way of constitutional amendment).

Meanwhile, the current government hasn’t named a new Canadian Secretary to the Queen since the last one retired, and has been letting the republican bureaucrats in the Department of Canadian Heritage run roughshod over the relationship with the Royal Family. And because the vast majority of Canadians don’t know any better, we’re slowly killing our distinct Crown and turning ourselves back into a mere colony. So yeah, it does matter that the GG couldn’t get this very basic thing right, and we should be upset about it.

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Roundup: Removing a senator over dinner

It started with a dinner invitation. The Prime Minister invited all of the senators who had thus-far sponsored government legislation to dinner to thank them for their contribution and to, presumably, talk about Senate modernization, and how it was taking shape. One of those senators was a sitting Conservative, Senator Stephen Greene, who had sponsored Bill S-4, on a tax agreement between Taiwan and Israel. The Conservative Senate leader, Senator Larry Smith, decided that if Greene was going to dine with the Prime Minister, that he was out of the caucus. Greene said fine – I’m going to be an Independent Reform Senator.

Part of Smith’s impetus for this move is because the Conservatives in the Senate are trying to preserve the Westminster role of opposition in the Upper Chamber, and that’s not a small thing. And there is a push, led by those like the Government Leader – err, “representative,” Peter Harder, to try and do away with the traditional roles of government and opposition, so that you have one big body of independents, which some of us have a problem with.

The other part of the context here is that Greene has been pushing for reforms in the Senate that would do away with partisan caucuses, and this would have been the final straw for Smith.

I will add that I do think that there is a problem with trying to eliminate the roles of government and opposition in the Senate, and I do think it’s problematic that the government is getting independent senators to sponsor legislation – particularly government legislation, and most especially budget bills. Those should be shepherded by ministers, which the Government Leader should be as opposed to this farcical “government representative” nonsense. Co-opting independents in this way has been problematic not only from a procedural and accountability framework (because ministers should be able to answer on behalf of cabinet when they sponsor such bills), but we have had several instances of independent senators sponsoring these bills with the intent to move amendments to them right away, which complicates their role in sponsoring and defending those bills. Part of this is the growing pains associated with the new reality of the Senate, but it’s also a reflection of this stubborn refusal by the PM to properly appoint a Government Leader who is the point of accountability in the Senate under our system of Responsible Government. Harder is not that, and it is a problem, and what happened to Greene is a fracture point in this bigger issue.

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QP: Refusing an answer

On a busy caucus day, with most of the benches full, it was a question as to how much cheap outrage would be wrought in QP. Rona Ambrose led off, railing about the Infrastructure Bank, to which Justin Trudeau insisted that people were eager for infrastructure investment. Ambrose moved onto Bombardier and the loan given to them despite the misgivings about their governance. Trudeau noted that they gave a repayable loan I order to guarantee good paying jobs. Ambrose changed topics again, denouncing government plans to gut a private member’s bill on bail reform (which, I will note, the legal community is against), and Trudeau insisted that he felt for ten widow of the constable the bill was named after, which was why he was pleased the committee took the study of the bill seriously. Ambrose was outraged, but Trudeau reiterated his response. Ambrose gave it an angry third try, but didn’t get a different response. Thomas Mulcair was up next, worrying about media reports that a former Ontario Liberal cabinet minister was going to be named as the new Official Languages Commissioner. Trudeau noted that there was an independent process, but didn’t confirm or deny the story, only that there would be an announcement in the coming days and weeks. Mulcair tried again, got the same answer, and then moved onto the job postings for the Infrastructure Bank, which has not yet been created. Trudeau simply talked about the need for new infrastructure, but didn’t address the concerns. Mulcair railed about the problem, and Trudeau noted the broad consultations that they undertook with the design of the Bank.

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Roundup: Premature ministerial assessments

As we approach the mid-point of the current government’s mandate, we’re seeing a few pieces about how terribly underperforming the cabinet is, and the problem with hiring rookies for the sake of diversity is that they’re basically all incompetent. Given the two pieces we saw over the weekend, from John Geddes and John Ivision respectively, I have to say that I’m a little disappointed in the shallowness of the analysis of both.

Part of the problem is that we don’t often elect a group of subject matter experts and can expect to slot them into cabinet slots and let them thrive. Electoral politics doesn’t really work that way, and this isn’t a technocracy. This isn’t America, and Cabinet posts are as much a question of political management than they are about anything else, and sometimes when you try to slot in someone you think is a subject-matter expert, you wind up with problems. It’s fairly rare that we have health ministers who are doctors, sometimes for good reason, but this government managed to find a good fit with Dr. Jane Philpott, who has managed to deal with some pretty hefty files from the day she was appointed. Appointing a former soldier like Sajjan, however, can be really problematic for the defence portfolio because it creates some awkward expectations, particularly with regard for expectations around the minister’s loyalties (not to mention that it makes a hash of the line we draw in our system between civil-military relations). But that doesn’t mean that putting a young and dynamic go-getter into a cabinet portfolio despite a lack of subject-matter expertise is a no-go. Sometimes a government has limited options when they win power.

I also think that some of Geddes’ analysis was heavy-handed. I doubt that Sajjan will carry this Operation Meduda baggage with him for very long, and I have said time and again that Maryam Monsef was not demoted – she went from a make-work portfolio with a handful of PCO staff to assist her, to a line department with an ambitious mandate. That’s fairly significant. Yes, this government has spent a lot of time consulting, but that has a lot to do with the way the previous government operated, and they came in on a promise of being different. Have things been slow to roll out? Great gods on Olympus yes, have they ever. Does that really amount to a pile of broken promises? No, and I think we can still afford to be patient on a number of files. But I also don’t think that Ivison’s call for prorogation, a complete reset of the agenda and a vast cabinet shuffle are the answer either. I think it’s a vast overreaction to a problem of perception and inflated expectations. Governing is difficult business, and things take time to get right. Just because previous governments rammed things through in haste doesn’t mean that every government needs to, particularly when they have an eye on long-term change.

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Senate QP: Freeland digresses

Senate ministerial Question Period this week hosted special guest star Chrystia Freeland, the foreign affairs minister, and there would be no shortage of questions for her to field. Senator Carignan led off, asking about international treaty obligations with regard to the question of legalizing marijuana. Freeland first gave effusive thanks to the chamber for their invitation and their work on CETA before turning to the question at hand, saying that they were considering it in consultation with partners, given that several US States have legalized marijuana, and some countries like Uruguay were also considering the issue.

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QP: A scrappy anniversary

At long last, all leaders were in the Commons, and Rona Ambrose led off by immediately demanding that the PM stop meeting with billionaires and restoring those boutique tax cuts that the government got rid of. Justin Trudeau reminded her of the tax cuts they made across the board to the middle class. Ambrose worried that the new mortgage housing rules hurting families. Trudeau replied that he was bringing investment into the country and listed the companies that have been moving more operations to Canada. Ambrose went another round in French, and Trudeau listed the ways in which they’ve helped families. Ambrose moved onto the issue of the healthcare accord, decrying waitlists. Trudeau said that Canadians expect healthcare dollars to be spent on healthcare. Ambrose then moved onto the “carbon fuel tax” impacting Alberta, but Trudeau hit back that the last government couldn’t get Alberta’s resources to markets after a decade in power. Thomas Mulcair was up next, decrying a Bill Morneau fundraising event in Halifax which he called “cash for access.” Trudeau insisted that the rules were already the most stringent and they followed them. Mulcair moved onto healthcare funding and the lack of an accord with the provinces, and Trudeau reiterated his previous answer about ensuring dollars are properly spent. Mulcair then moved onto a pair of questions on electoral reform and demanded a proportional system. Trudeau recalled when Mulcair was afraid the Liberals would ram though a new system, and that it was curious that Mulcair was demanding they do just that.

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QP: Woe be the small business

While nearly all of the leaders were present today, it was the Prime Minister who was absent today (though he did show up for votes afterward), so when Rona Ambrose led off with another disingenuous questions about taxes, Bill Morneau stood up to remind her that they lowered taxes on millions of households. Ambrose then decried Trudeau meeting with billionaires and demanded that he instead reverse tax increases on small businesses. Morneau reminded her that those taxes went down, and that those meetings were bringing investment to Canada, such as with Thompson Reuters opening that new tech centre in Toronto. Ambrose closed with another overwrought lament about the plight of families, while Morneau responded with a list of the measures they implemented to help families. Denis Lebel took over, and lamented that the federal government was getting too involved in provincial jurisdiction around healthcare. Carolyn Bennett took the question, and reminded him that Jane Philpott was meeting with her provincial counterparts and they waned results for their transfers. Lebel tried again, and Bennett hit back with Maxime Bernier’s plan disband all health transfers. Thomas Mulcair stood up for the NDP, and decried “cuts” to healthcare — despite the fact that there aren’t any. Bennett noted that there was no cut, and reminded Mulcair that his election promise of increased health transfers with a balanced budget would have resulted in cuts across the board. Mulcair tried again, got much the same reply. Mulcair tried to insist that the government was confusing competence with jurisdiction with health spending, and Bennett laid out the divisions. Mulcair demanded that the Prime Minister meet with the premiers to discuss health funding, to which Bennett said there would be a meeting soon.

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Roundup: Approval voting and numbers with meaning

While everyone has been enthralled with the electoral reform debate (no, not really), and been gripped with substance over process (no, not really), there was an op-ed in the Citizen last week that I never really had a chance to talk about amidst a number of other things going on, so I thought I’d take a moment now to address it. The issue: the electoral system known as “approval voting.”

So what is it? Basically you take the same ballot you have now, and you mark it for as many people as you want to. Supposedly this discourages strategic voting because you can vote more than once and can vote for both the person your heart wants to vote for, as well as the one you hope to defeat the person in there now. And okay, sure, it’s simple, and sure, it gives you that emotional thrill about being able to vote for more than one person (which I don’t think is that big of a concern for most people, but maybe I’m wrong), and if you do something silly like vote for everyone on the ballot (because they’re all winners for participating?), then it basically cancels out the vote and doesn’t come out any worse off. But I keep going back to the basic question: what problem is this trying to solve?

If that problem is the emotional dissatisfaction with electoral outcomes, then I’m not sure that this is the problem that we should be addressing, and I also have to wonder about the unintended consequences of picking such a system. And what could those be? Really, the quality of the data that an election produces, and what that data tells us about the election. Because believe it or not, that actually matters. What percentage a candidate received matters a lot. It gauges support, it sends a message about how solid or tenuous their support is, and about how much support their rivals have, which could mean clues for them as to how to better organise in the following election, and who to target. If the number of votes cast is divorced from the number of electors, what kind of message are we able to send? That would seem to be a pretty important consideration to me, and to a lot of people running, I would imagine.

I also have an issue with how this portrays what a vote means. In our system currently – and yes, this electoral system purports to keep the system otherwise intact, along the lines of “one simple trick to make the system more emotionally satisfying!” – when you cast a ballot it is to decide who will sit in the seat that represents your geographic area. And this is where a lot of electoral reform nonsense falls apart – it becomes about feelings rather than the fact that there is one seat and you have to help decide who fills it. How casting votes for multiple people to fill that one seat seems to defeat the purpose in many ways, and admission that it’s too difficult to make a decision so let’s cop out and muddle it so that I don’t feel so bad when I do it. But democracy is about making choices, and we should make it clear that it’s what it is, and just what that choice is (i.e.: Who is filling this one seat, rather than who is going to form a government, because that is decided once a parliament has been assembled). We’re not making that clear, and we’re constantly talking in terms of horse race numbers and leadership politics, and not about the actual choice that faces people, and I think this is something we should be paying more attention to, and being more vocal and precise about, so that we don’t wind up with yet more pie-eyed schemes that are designed to make us feel better while not actually doing what we’re supposed to. And this isn’t something that I’m seeing in the discussions on electoral reform – just a lot of pouting about “fairness” based on made-up numbers that don’t actually mean anything, and approval voting would make the numbers that do mean something, mean even less.

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Roundup: Fundraising moral panic

In case you missed it, the moral panic over the past week or so is ministerial fundraisers, first in Ontario (and to a certain extent BC), but that’s bled over in to the federal sphere, because apparently we were afraid of missing out. And don’t forget, the federal rules are already pretty strict, with corporate and union donations already been banned and the contribution limit is pretty small (and when it comes to leadership contests, the Conservatives and NDP conspired to screw the Liberals, who were mid-contest at the time, but that’s beside the point). The point is that there’s a lot of unnecessary tut-tutting, particularly around a perfectly legal private fundraiser that the Minister of Justice is holding at a Toronto law firm. “Oh,” they say. “Some of these lawyers may want to be judges one day.” And this is the point where I look at people who say that straight in the face and ask if they really think that a federal judicial appointment can be bought for $500. Really? Seriously? Even on the issue of legal contracts, the minister can recuse herself if said law firm bids. There are processes around this kind of thing. The Ethics Commissioner said that there is no apparent conflict of interest here, but that doesn’t stop people from crying “money for access!” And when you have people like Duff Conacher going on TV and decrying that limits should be $100 because that way it’s equal for everyone, you have to wonder if that logic extends to not everyone can have nice things, so we should ban them so that it’s fair for everyone. Also, if you lower the limit too low, then people start looking for other ways to raise money, and all you have to look to is Quebec, where their strict donation regime became quickly susceptible to corruption. Of course, Conacher won’t be satisfied by any ethics regime unless he’s in charge of the parliamentary thought police, and frankly, anyone who quotes him in one of these stories becomes suspect because it means they’re going for cheap outrage. Are there bigger problems of perception in places like Ontario, where there aren’t any donation limits? Yes, indeed. But that’s not the case federally, and the minister is following the rules. Frankly, I’m not fussed that the PM is shrugging this off because honestly, this isn’t something that we should be lighting our hair on fire about.

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Roundup: The modernization agenda

Conservative Senator Thomas McInnis, chair of the new modernisation committee, took to the op-ed pages of the Chronicle Herald to talk about just that – their process of modernising the Upper Chamber by non-constitutional means. While much of the op-ed is pretty standard stuff, he did say a couple of things that intrigued me, so I’ll make brief mention of them. First is that as they contemplate changes and incorporating the increasing number of independent senators, that they need to recognise that since the Senate is not a confidence chamber, it doesn’t need to organise itself on party lines in the same way that the Commons does. This is an important point, because as much as it is an important concept to have a government and opposition side in our Westminster system of government, the role of the Senate means that it doesn’t need to hew as closely to that model. Now, I do still think that the Government Leader in the Senate should have remained a cabinet minister for the sake of there being someone who can answer for the government in the chamber, as well as to properly shepherd government legislation through the Chamber (the minister-in-all-but-name model that Harper used for Claude Carignan was very much a poor idea that limited the exercise of Responsible Government), the fact that the Senate is not a confidence chamber does blunt my criticisms to an extent. McInnis also dropped hints about one of the modernisation committee’s goals being to strengthen the role of being an “effective” representative for regions and provinces. This is interesting because I do wonder if it means that there will be a push to form regional caucuses within the Senate, as is occasionally brought up. I’m not sure how it would really work – essentially having four or five party-like structures (Ontairo, Quebec, the Maritimes, and the West each being 24-seat regional divisions, plus the additional six seats for Newfoundland and Labrador and one each for the territories could either fold into one of the other regional caucuses or forming a caucus of their own), and how they would then translate that into the committee memberships and so on, but it is an idea that has been mentioned before, so we’ll see what kind of appetite there is for it, or if the new Independent Working Group will hold more sway in terms of keeping the current structure but giving more power to independent senators for committee memberships and the like. With there being no opposition MPs from the whole of the Atlantic provinces, this is where the Senate’s regional role becomes more important – and they have been flexing those muscles when ministers have appeared before them in the new Question Period format – but it remains to be seen how this will translate into workable reforms. Suffice to say, these are conversations that are being had, and we’ll see what the committee reports back in the weeks ahead.

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