Roundup: Commence the negotiations

We’re still talking NAFTA? Of course, we’re still talking NAFTA, as negotiations actually get underway today, so that’s exciting. If you need any more background (on top of what’s been said for the past several days) here’s a look at why Chrystia Freeland’s list of demands – especially around local procurement and labour mobility – might be a tough sell in the States, while the proposed chapters on gender and Indigenous issues are likely to be seen as simply expressions of the Trudeau government’s values. And while there aren’t any expectations that these negotiations will be easy, given that Trump is an Uncertainty Engine, trade experts are pointing out that Canada has more leverage than we think we do.

Meanwhile, Paul Wells had plenty to say about the past couple of days:

This particular observation strikes me as so utterly unsurprising. (Seriously, MPs – you can do better):

And one more, because seriously:

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Roundup: Suspicions about political donations

The Star has a story that shows how a recently appointed judge made donations to the Liberal Party in the past couple of years – $1800 worth over the two fiscal years, in part by attending a fundraising dinner. And after it lays out all of his donations, the story leaves us with this: “It is not unusual for judicial appointees to have made political donations, nor does it break any rules.” Which makes me wonder why they’re making a) an issue out of it, and b) framing the story in such a way that it gives the impression that he bought his appointment, because that’s exactly what the headline screams. Emmett Macfarlane sees an issue, but I’m having a hard time buying it.

Part of my issue is the fact that we’re already at a crisis point in this country when it comes to grassroots democratic engagement, and this current media demonization of any political fundraising hurts that. The more we demand that anyone who has made donations be excluded from jobs, the worse we make the political ecosystem as a whole. Sure, once they’ve been appointed they shouldn’t make further donations – that’s fair. But the fact that he didn’t even make the maximum allowable donation over those two years, and the fact that the amount he’s donated is a couple of billable hours for him, is hardly worth getting exercised over. This isn’t America – we don’t have big money buying candidates here, nor do we have the spectre of elected judges that are entirely interested in getting re-elected. And, might I remind you, the previous government appointed Vic Toews and most of Peter MacKay’s wedding party to the bench, which seems far bigger of an ethical breach. The current government has reformed the judicial advisory committees to broaden the scope of who they’re considering, and considering how slowly the process is going, it’s not believable that they’re simply going through the party donor rolls to find a match. And while Macfarlane insists that it’s not about the dollar amount, but the perception of bias, I am very bothered by the way in which stories like this are framed adds to that perception. It’s driving the perception, not the other way around, and that is a problem when it comes to trying to fix the actual things that are breaking down about our democracy.

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Roundup: An astronaut for GG?

Despite some MPs are agitating for the next Governor General to be Indigenous, it looks like it’s going to be Julie Payette, former astronaut. Payette is a woman and francophone, which fulfils the Anglophone/Francophone alternation that has been the pattern since we started naming our own Governors General, and the government’s desire to have more women in top spots. That she’s not Indigenous will be criticised by some, but I suspect that it may actually avoid other headaches because I do wonder if an Indigenous GG may not find themselves in an inherent conflict of interest given the relationship with the Crown that Indigenous people have which is as sovereign people in a treaty relationship, and being the Queen’s representative has the possibility of being far more complicated once you dig into it. As well, there would likely be pressure on an Indigenous GG from other Indigenous communities to exert influence on the government, given that the understanding of Responsible Government and heeding the advice of the government of the day isn’t all that well understood, and would lead to a lot of disappointment. Meanwhile, here’s Philippe Lagassé on some other aspects of the GG that are worth thinking about.

While Paul Wells has a great piece about the message being sent with Payette’s appointment, Lagassé also makes a good point about how her appointment is being framed.

And this comment from Denise Donlon seems to sum up a lot of the sentiment I’ve seen:

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Roundup: Trudeau’s missing electoral reform link

Apparently, we’re going to prosecute the demise of electoral reform yet again, after Justin Trudeau was asked about it in his end-of-sitting press conference yesterday. Trudeau, to his credit, was a bit more frank and earnest than he has been on this in the past, and laid out how he had always been in favour of ranked ballots because they eliminate the need for strategic voting, and the opposition was so solidly in their own camps – the NDP for Proportional Representation and the Conservatives for status quo with the added kicker of demanding a referendum – that Trudeau ended up pulling the plug, because he sees PR as bad for the country (he’s not wrong) and referendums even more problematic (again, their track records globally right now are not good).

Of course, everyone freaked out about this answer, and starting howling and frothing at the mouth about how much he’d betrayed them with this promise. Of course, per his promise he did draw up a committee and consult, but he pulled the plug before changing the system.

Part of the problem – aside from the fact that it was a stupid promise to begin with – was that the Liberals on the electoral reform committee didn’t make the case for ranked ballots, nor did they call any witnesses to put forward that position, and apparently disinvited the ones who had already been invited. Having listened to the eager faces on the committee, I’m not entirely convinced that this was simply a cynical ploy the whole time, but I do think a great deal of naïveté was at play, where they were trying to be open-minded – something none of the other parties could say, as they did their utmost to stack the process from the beginning, both with the torqued composition of the committee itself, to the selection of witnesses, to the so-called “consensus” in the report (which was hot garbage, let me reiterate).

The fact that the Liberals played coy about their Trudeau’s preference was certainly a problem. Maybe it’s because they were trying to avoid the myth going around that ranked ballots were “First-past-the-post on steroids,” a characterization based on the analysis of a single poll of second-choice votes of the 2015 election, which was neither authoritative, nor did it take into account the fact that it didn’t produce such a result in Australia, and yet this notion hovered in Canadian media for months. So the handling of this whole affair continues to mystify, but for the love of all the gods on Olympus, can we just bury it already?

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QP: Final accusations of the spring

One what was almost certainly the final sitting day (for real!), and after a number of statements for National Aboriginal Day (to be renamed next year), QP was on. Andrew Scheer led off, worrying that the changes to national security laws will make things too difficult for CSIS to do their jobs, per the fears of a former director. Justin Trudeau assured him that they we getting the balance right of safety and protecting rights. Scheer worried that security was being watered down, and Trudeau reiterated that they were getting the balance right. Scheer then changed to the issue of taxes and demanded he listened to the Liberal senators and stop the escalator taxes on beer and wine, and Trudeau reminded him that they lowered taxes on the middle class. Scheer railed about how they were hiking taxes on ordinary people (and no, cancelling a bunch of tax credits does not equal raising taxes), and Trudeau reiterated his response. For his final question, Scheer spun up a hyperbolic rant about all of the awful things the government has done, and Trudeau responded with a list of accomplishments and promises kept. Thomas Mulcair was up next, accusing the government betraying their promises to Indigenous people, and Trudeau assured him that they were committed to reconciliation and the relationship. Mulcair accused the government of breaking their promises on Access to Information, and Trudeau hit back that the NDP were completely absent on the transparency file. Mulcair worried about the Infrastructure Bank and the spectre of user fees, and Trudeau reminded him that they were looking for new ways to invest in the things Canadians need. For his final question, Mulcair railed about fundraisers, and Trudeau said that they were raising the bar and were exhorting the opposition to do the same.

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QP: Tired jabs and deficit questions

Nearly all the desks were filled on what was possibly the final QP of the spring. Andrew Scheer led off, concerned about the “astronomical” debt the Liberals were leaving behind (which, in absolute terms, is one of the envies of the world because it’s quite low). Justin Trudeau reminded him that they won the election on promises to invest. Scheer tried again, giving a lame “budgets don’t balance themselves” quip, and Trudeau again reminded him that they needed to invest after the previous government didn’t and hey, lower taxes for the middle class and the Canada Child Benefit. Scheer railed about all of the new taxes being levied (most of which were not new taxes but cancelled tax credits that had little efficacy), and the PM reiterated that he lowered taxes. Scheer jabbed that Trudeau had never been part of the middle class, and Trudeau hit back that boutique tax credits and lower taxes on the wealthiest didn’t help those who needed it the most. Scheer then turned to the new national security bill, saying it removed needed tools for law enforcement agencies. Trudeau noted that they were balancing community safety with rights and freedoms, and that they welcomed recommendations for amendments. Thomas Mulcair was up next, grousing that the government broke their promise on allowing Access to Information requests to ministers offices and the PMO. Trudeau simply noted that they made the biggest reforms to the bills and increased proactive disclosure. Mulcair tried again with added mocking, but Trudeau didn’t budge, and Mulcair then railed that they kicked journalists out of a party fundraiser. Trudeau reminded him that they have raised the bar on transparency and that other parties weren’t doing. Mulcair tried again in French, but Trudeau’s answer didn’t change.

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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: Freeland articulates her vision

Foreign Affairs minister Chrystia Freeland gave her major foreign policy speech yesterday in the House of Commons, and the theme was basically that we can’t rely on the Americans anymore, so it’s time to step up more, and that includes hard power. That also means more spending on the military, some of which is there and waiting to actually be spent once we get some of our procurement issues sorted, but that particular speech is later today as the Defence Policy Review is finally unveiled. (And incidentally, on Friday, Marie-Claude Bibeau will unveil our feminist foreign aid policy). It was noted by a couple of people, chiefly among them Paul Wells, that we really should have a major foreign policy speech every year or so, and this is certainly a better indication of where the government’s thinking is at.

This was not the case with the previous government, and it’s certainly worth noting. That this government actually uses the time allotted for statements by ministers is a good thing, as the constant eschewing of Parliament in favour of human backdrops in some alternate location was insulting.

Meanwhile, Stephanie Carvin offered some cogent analysis over Twitter, so here you go:

You can also find Carvin’s thoughts in expanded form here. For some more analysis on the speech, read Paul Wells for some more context around the points Freeland made in the speech, Susan Delacourt on the jabs made at the Trumpocalypse, and Stephen Saideman for some more foreign and defence policy angles.

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Roundup: The difficulty with tracking spending

The Parliamentary Budget Officer’s latest analysis shows that it’s difficult to track budgetary spending commitments because they don’t often line up with the Supplementary Estimates. And yes, this is a problem. The solution is something that the government has already committed to, which is to reform the Estimates process. Right now, it is out of sync with the budget, where the Estimates need to be out before the beginning of the new fiscal year, but there is no set time for the budget to be released, meaning that the allocation of budget dollars happens before Parliament sees the budget. Later allocations to match the budget are supposed to then show up in the Supplementary Estimates, but as the PBO shows in his analysis, that’s hard to track. And even harder to track is whether those Estimates wound up being spent properly because the accounting systems used between the Estimates and the Public Accounts at the end of the fiscal year no longer match up, so tracking those dollars is also near-impossible. This has been an ongoing problem for decades, and the Liberals were elected on a promise to fix this problem. They have started to, but in recent months, the Treasury Board president, Scott Brison, says he has encountered resistance from the civil service when it comes to how they time things, and he’s trying to fix it. So that’s the hope, anyway.

What I hope comes from this exercise, however, is increased pressure on Brison and the government to carry on with reforming the Estimates cycle so that it better matches the budget cycle, and that the Estimates match the Public Accounts at the end of the year so that money can actually be tracked. What I hope doesn’t happen is for this to turn into calls to turn over yet more power and authority for scrutinizing the estimates to the PBO because that’s the whole raison d’etre of MPs, and they should be demanding that it be in a format that they can use and understand.

And while we’re on the subject of the PBO, here’s Kevin Milligan on the proposed amendments to the new PBO legislation, and why he still has concerns (as I do) about creating a massively powerful Officer of Parliament with no oversight or accountability.

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Roundup: An unconstitutional motion

As stated for their upcoming Supply Day motion (currently scheduled for Monday, the Conservatives have drafted a resolution that would see the House of Commons express non-confidence in Minister Sajjan and Minister Sajjan alone. It’s the kind of thing that makes me want to bash my head into a wall before my head explodes because it’s so very boneheaded from start to finish.

First of all, you should read this post by James Bowden, who takes apart the motion to and shows that it is unconstitutional. What is more interesting is the fact that the NDP tried this tactic before when Rona Ambrose was minister of the environment, and the Speaker ruled it out of order then, just as Speaker Regan should this time. Why? Because one of the fundamental tenets of Responsible Government is that of Cabinet solidarity. Cabinet lives and dies as a single body – there is no dispensation given to ministers we like, or to simply cull the prime minister from the rest of them in these kinds of votes. It’s an important feature of why the system works the way it does, and trying to cherry pick it for the sake of political tactics makes one a bit queasy because this is our very system of government that we’re talking about and they should bloody well know better.

Look, I get that they’re trying to exploit what they see as low-hanging fruit with Sajjan, but along the way, they’ve been dangerously blurring the lines of civil-military relations by asserting that the troops want him gone (do they aside from a few cranks? Never mind that it’s not these soldiers’ call), and by referencing Sajjan’s actions in military terms rather than political ones. Trying to use the term “stolen valour” is also offensive, not only because it’s generally reserved for someone who dons a uniform or medals without having been in combat (which is not the case with Sajjan), but because they’re co-opting it from the military for political benefit. But now they’re trying to go against the fundamentals of Responsible Government to score what they hope will be a cheap win.

That Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition is trying to burn the system to the ground to score a couple of points is a very serious problem, and one indicative of a party that is more focused on populist spin than they are in being principled. It’s  a disturbing pattern, and one that they should knock off before they go too far down this garden path.

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