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.

Continue reading

Roundup: Senator Greene’s lament

Conservative-turned-independent Senator Stephen Greene took to the pages of the National Post yesterday to decry Andrew Scheer’s plans to return the Senate to a more partisan institution by making partisan appointments, should he ever form a government and be in a position to do so. Much of Greene’s op-ed makes a series of good points, but at the same time, I find myself a bit leery of his particular conclusion that partisanship is a bad thing period. I agree with his points that a too-partisan Senate can simply act as a rubber stamp, which there were many cases that it appeared to during the later Harper years, when they had a comfortable majority in the Upper Chamber and simply went on neglecting needed appointments while letting their caucus be whipped into continued votes in support of legislation, no matter how flawed.

Where Greene’s analysis falls down, however, is the fact that while the tendency in a more partisan Senate to whip votes means there is less pushback against the government of the day, it fails to take into account that to a great degree, it’s not so much the final vote that matters in the bigger picture than what goes on the record. Courts rely on the parliamentary record to help determine what parliament’s intentions were when they are asked to interpret the law, and in cases where opposition parties in the Senate are unable to get enough votes to push through amendments to a bill, they can at least attach observations to it, and ensure that their objections are on the record – something the courts find valuable. The other aspect is that having senators in the caucus rooms provides a great deal of perspective to MPs because the Senate is the institutional memory of Parliament. Not having those voices in the caucus room, behind closed doors, can mean even more power for the leader because there are fewer people who aren’t constrained by the blackmail powers of that leader to not sign nomination forms, for example, who can push back and who can offer the cautions to the other MPs when the leader is overstepping their bounds. Not having those voices in the caucus room diminishes them, which is something that the Liberals have been dealing with (while Trudeau’s office centralizes yet more power as a result).

Greene also doesn’t seem to appreciate the fact that not having party caucuses in the Senate means that opposition is harder to organize, thereby advantaging the government of the day. It also makes ideological scrutiny of government legislation more difficult because a chamber of independents, especially when you have a mass appointed by a government on ideologically similar lines. That is an underappreciated element of the Westminster structure in the Senate that most modernization proponents continually overlook.

While I sympathise with many of his points, and I do recognise that there have been problems with how the Senate has been operating for the better part of a decade, partisan caucuses weren’t the sole cause of those problems. Breaking up the two-party duopoly has been a boon to the Chamber’s governance and management, and that’s why having a “crossbencher” component has proven to be extremely valuable. But doing away with party caucuses entirely is short-sighted, and causes more problems than it solves.

Continue reading

Roundup: The Canadian pathology meets Rolling Stone

Justin Trudeau was on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine yesterday, which set off the Canadian Twitter sphere along its usual predictable paths. Journalists sniffed at the overly fawning tone of the piece (dismissing it as “political fan fiction”), while also pointing out the factual errors in the piece (apparently, Trudeau leads the “Liberty Party”) and ranking its cringe-worthy moments. The woke crowd railed about how Trudeau really isn’t progressive and how much of a terrible promise-breaking failure he is. And the Conservatives, predictably, acted with usual partisan disdain, so much that it strained credulity (Lisa Raitt in particular took the bizarre track of insisting that this was more damaging to coming NAFTA negotiations than her fellow MPs racing to American media outlets to decry the Khadr settlement). So, really, it was a fairly standard day of social media faux outrage.

This all having been said, the one thing that kept going through my head while this was all going on was just how perfectly this whole thing fit into the particular Canadian pathology of demanding approval from the Americans – especially when it comes to our artists or actors. Until they’ve decamped for the States and make it there, we largely tend to treat them with disdain, that they’re some kind of Podunk bush leaguers who obviously aren’t successful enough to have left Canada yet. And yet, the moment they do go to the States and make it big, we turn around and go all tall poppy syndrome on them and tear them apart for thinking that they’re better than us, and how dare they. And this whole Trudeau-Rolling Stone thing smacked of that entirely. The Americans are noticing him, so yay, we’re on the world stage, let’s mark the occasion by writing wire stories about the story and magazine cover, but how dare he seek the spotlight, and how dare they comment on his looks, and how dare they write a puff piece, etcetera, etcetera. Same pathology entirely. It’s boring, guys. Get a grip.

Meanwhile, here’s Robert Hiltz to throw some more cold water on the whole thing.

https://twitter.com/robert_hiltz/status/890217322966904832

https://twitter.com/robert_hiltz/status/890217785137274880

https://twitter.com/robert_hiltz/status/890218700128874496

Trudeau, incidentally, also appeared on the West Wing Weekly podcast, and John Geddes dissects Trudeau’s responses and what they all portend.

Continue reading

Roundup: The great Alberta merger

Following 95 percent results on both Progressive Conservative and Wildrose Alliance party referendums, it looks like the new United Conservative Party in Alberta is a go, with the big question being who will be the interim leader while they formalize the process and start an actual leadership selection process. And hey, that could mean some internecine warfare right off the start. The death of the PC party in that province is a bit of an odd thing, but not entirely out of keeping with Alberta’s political history of single-party dynasties for long runs that eventually peter out and die, but what is left in the wake will be the big question.

Where the more centrist voters will go is the big question, because I’m not entirely certain that they’ll all migrate to the UCP, especially with the Wildrose component playing such a big role in it. While Jason Kenney spent the last year trying to convince people that a PC and a Wildrose vote would equal two against the NDP, I’m not sure the math is actually that solid. Why? Aside from the fact that it glosses over some of the history of the last provincial election, what the merger papers over in particular is the growing gap between rural and urban voters in the province, where riding redistribution has meant that the gerrymandered rural ridings no longer hold the weight that they once did. Make no mistake, there was a very big urban/rural divide between the PC and Wildrose parties, and much of that is along the social conservatism issue. Wildrose voters weren’t only outraged about the fiscal profligacy of later PC governments as they were about the fact that they capitulated on social issues, particularly around LGBT rights that they remain firmly opposed to. It’s why they pushed Danielle Smith out of the party (leading her to cross the floor to Prentice’s PCs at the time), and Jason Kenney and Brian Jean are going to have a hell of a time trying to square this particular circle when they try to build their “free enterprise coalition” as though the social conservative issues won’t rear their heads. What this merger may end up doing is regenerating the centrist parties in the province (take your pick between the Alberta Liberals, who have a new, credible leader, and the Alberta Party) now that the amorphous, centrist PC party is no more.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

Roundup: PBO’s platform peril

Now that the budget implementation bill has passed, the Parliamentary Budget Officer is in the midst of transforming into yet another unaccountable Officer of Parliament that will have a broad mandate and few checks on his actions, given that the government backed down on their attempts to limit the scope of his work. What they didn’t limit was the giving the PBO the mandate to cost election promises by other parties, despite his objections to doing so, and so now his office is being forced to figure out just how they’ll do it. The legislation does make it clear that he’s only to cost individual promises, not their whole campaign, but it’s going to be an enormous amount of work that will be used even more as a cudgel than his work already is, and we can expect an election period being filled with taunts of “See, the PBO says that your plans will cost more than you say and he’s independent,” with the unspoken “Nya, nya!” in there. Oh boy. Anyway, Jennifer Robson has a few more thoughts on the issue.

The bit about a common baseline is possibly important, given that economist Stephen Gordon has been trying to match Liberal election promises to the current budget framework and has found the task to be nigh impossible.

Enforcing common costing baselines may sound like a good idea, but it does make me nervous about campaigns devolving into accounting exercises at the expense of other considerations, including accountability, and that we’ll have repeats of 2008, when we had clear platform commitments shrugged off by reporters going “it’s just so complicated” when a) it wasn’t, and b) it reinforces this “math is hard” narrative that does nobody any favours. But maybe that’s just me.

Continue reading

Roundup: Trudeau laying in the Senate bed he made

There is a renewed round of wailing and gnashing of teeth about the Senate feeling it oats and flexing its muscles, and yesterday it was the Prime Minister doing it. Apparently deliberating and amending bills is fine unless it’s a budget bill, in which case it’s a no go. The problem with that is that of course is that a) there is no constitutional basis for that position, and b) if the whole point of Parliament is to hold the government to account by means of controlling supply (meaning the public purse), then telling one of the chambers that it actually can’t do that is pretty much an existential betrayal. So there’s that.

But part of this is not so much about the actual issue of splitting out the Infrastructure Bank from the budget bill – which Senator Pratte, who is leading this charge, actually supports. Part of the problem is the principle that the Senate isn’t about to let the Commons push it around and tell them what they can and can’t do – that’s not the Commons’ job either. As Kady O’Malley delves into here, the principle has driven the vote (as has the Conservatives doing their level best to oppose, full stop). But some very good points were raised about the principle of money bills in the Senate, and while they can’t initiate them, that’s their only restriction, and they want to defend that principle so that there’s no precent of them backing down on that, and that’s actually important in a parliamentary context.

As for this problem of Trudeau now ruing the independent Senate that he created, well, he gets to lie in the bed that he made. That said, even as much as certain commenters are clutching their pearls about how terrible it is that the Senate is doing their constitutional duties of amending legislation and sending it back, it’s their job. They haven’t substituted their judgment for those of MPs and killed any government bills outright and have pretty much always backed down when the Commons has rejected any of their amendments, and that matters. But it’s also not the most activist that the Senate has ever been, and someone may want to look to the Eighties for when they were really flexing their muscles, enough so that Mulroney had to use the emergency constitutional powers to add an extra eight senators to the Chamber in order to pass the GST – which was a money bill. So perhaps those pearl-clutchers should actually grab a bit of perspective and go lie down on their fainting couch for a while.

On the subject of the Senate, it’s being blamed for why the government hasn’t passed as many bills in its first 18 months as the Harper government had. Apart from the fact that the analysis doesn’t actually look at the kinds of bills that were passed (because that matters), the reason why things tend to be slow in the Senate is because the Government Leader – err, “representative” – Senator Peter Harder isn’t doing his job and negotiating with the other caucuses and groups to have an agenda and move things through. That’s a pretty big deal that nobody wants to talk about.

Continue reading

Roundup: The disingenuous framing of a committee report

As you may have heard, the Heritage Committee released their long-awaited study on suggested ways to help the local media landscape in Canada. And I’m not here to talk about that, however, but rather how the narrative got completely spun into “Netflix tax!” or “Internet tax!” which wasn’t exactly what they were proposing either. Still, it became a convenient cudgel by which to try and bash the government with.

And that’s the bigger problem with this whole affair – that a committee report is being used to paint the government when it’s backbenchers who are on the committee. That separation between government (meaning Cabinet) and a committee of the legislature is important, and conflating the two is being wilfully disingenuous and makes the problem of not understanding how our parliament works even worse.

Paul and Aaron both have some very valid points. When the opposition frames it as “Netflix tax!” it’s sadly how most media will report it as well, and I didn’t see a lot of corrections going on about what the report actually said, and that’s a problem. But Aaron also has the point about how the media loves to jump on differences of opinion in parties, but when the parties themselves frame the issue, the media often gets swept up in those narratives.

Remember when there were those Conservative backbenchers trying to float some backdoor abortion legislation or motions that the government distanced themselves from but the NDP screamed bloody murder about hidden agendas and so on? This is not far from the same thing. And they know they’re being disingenuous, but they’re doing it anyway, no matter how much they’re actually damaging the perceptions of the institution.

That said, I could be really mean and point out that it may be hard for the Conservatives to tell the difference between backbenchers on a committee and the government seeing as during their decade in office, they essentially turned the committees into branch plants of the ministers’ offices with parliamentary secretaries ringleading the show and completely destroying their independence…but maybe I won’t.

Continue reading

Roundup: More BC Speaker cautions

The question of the Speaker of the BC Legislature remains up in the air, and continued word is that the Liberals are keeping their own out of the race lest they lose another seat as they test the confidence of the legislature, and with the Greens ruling out one of their own as well, that leaves the NDP left holding the bag when it comes to electing a Speaker. They’re obviously reluctant to do so, but it also reduces their chances of toppling the government and installing one of their own. And with that reality in mind, there is dark talk about the NDP turning the Speaker into a partisan if that happens.

This kind of comment is a real problem, because in a Westminster system, the conventions are the rules. And when people don’t see an issue with the Speaker breaking the convention that they only vote to break a tie, and in a manner that either keeps debate going or to preserve the status quo, demanding that an NDP Speaker topple the Clark government is a very big problem.

And if an NDP Speaker is elected but doesn’t opt to topple the government (and they very well should not for the sake of our system), it could leave Clark with little ability to govern, especially when it comes to passing supply, but that could be exactly what Clark is waiting for – an ability to go back to the electorate with great public regret. That said, she is under no obligation to simply accept defeat and turn over power to the NDP, especially with a precarious situation (signed confidence agreement or not).

I will add that the BC Liberals are under no obligation to put forward a name for Speaker. Federally, the Conservatives served two minority terms under Peter Milliken, a Liberal Speaker, with no ill-effect. So no, nothing is over or settled on this yet.

Continue reading

QP: Scheer’s debut reading

The day after the Conservative leadership results, the seating plan had changed to give front-row seats to most of the failed candidates, with Rona Ambrose to sit next to Scheer for the next few weeks. As well, the PM was still in Rome, and would not be here to spar with Scheer on his first sitting day in the new job. Scheer led off, mini-lectern on desk, and launched into a rant in French about how the previous Trudeau government hurt his generation, and asked a rhetorical question about why the government was hurting Canadians. Bill Morneau first offered congratulations to Scheer for his election, and then reminded him that the economy was on the rebound. Scheer switched to English by reading complaints about people being nickled and dimed, to which Morneau repeated his congratulations in English and the positive economic indicators. When Scheer read questions about hiked taxes, Morneau reminded him that the first thing they did was lower taxes for the middle class. Scheer then changed topics and read a question about one of the surveillance planes in Iraq being withdrawn. Harjit Sajjan noted that Canada increased their contributions, and that rebalancing forces was a constant exercise. Scheer repeated his question in French and got the same answer. Irene Mathyssen was up for the NDP, railing about the Infrastructure Bank as a source of user fees. Amarjeet Sohi assured her the Bank was there to invest in the Infrastructure deficit. Alexandre Boulerice asked again in French, and Sohi reminded him that the Bank would be accountable to Parliament. Boulerice then switched to the question of lifetime pensions for wounded veterans, to which Sajjan insisted that they still planned to implement the pension. Mathyssen asked again in English, and Sajjan repeated that further details would be released later in the year.

Continue reading