Roundup: Demands for MP parental leave

Some MPs are looking for changes to the Parliament of Canada Act in order to better accommodate parental leaves, given that they have no provision for them, and MPs start getting salaries clawed back if they miss more than 21 sitting days. (Mind you, records of those absences aren’t made public, so we have no way of checking). And while I’m sympathetic to the notion that there is no parental leave, I find myself sighing because there is this constant need by MPs and the press to describe Parliament as a “workplace,” and try and ham-fistedly force a number of hackneyed comparisons to justify it.

No. Parliament is not a “workplace.” And MPs most certainly are not employees.

I understand that it’s a job that’s not the friendliest for new parents. And I get that there is this desire to get younger voices into parliament, and there is a need to facilitate them, which is great. But I get very, very nervous every time MPs start talking about how they want to start changing things to make the place more “family friendly,” because every time they’ve done that to date, they’ve made things worse. Eliminating evening sittings to be more “family friendly” had a devastating effect on collegiality because MPs no longer ate together three nights a week. Now they’re looking to avoid coming to Ottawa altogether, instead appearing by videoconference instead, and no doubt they’ll demand to be able to vote remotely as well. And that is a bridge too far.

When you get elected, it’s to do the job in Ottawa. Work in the riding is secondary to your role as an MP, and that role is to hold government to account. Meeting constituents, while good small-p politics, is a secondary consideration to your duties. And the added danger in appearing remotely is not only a further breakdown in what remains of collegiality, it’s that the lack of facetime with other MPs and with witnesses who appear at committees means that there is no ability to forge connections or have off-script conversations, which are the lifeblood of politics. You need to show up to do the job. Your job is to be in Ottawa to vote and be seen voting, and to attend debate and committees. You knew that when you ran for office, and you knew that when you decided to have a child while in office. Trying to do this job remotely means that soon every MP will start to demand it, until the Commons is reduced to a small cadre of people there to fulfil quorum while everyone else attends to the “very important business” in their ridings.

The other point is that these MPs are not lacking in resources when it comes to finding childcare solutions – they are very well compensated, and can afford options that most Canadians can’t. That does matter in the equation, and why my sympathy has its limits.

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Roundup: No conflict to investigate

For all of the ink spilled and concerns trolled in Question Period, the Morneau-Shepell conspiracy theory is turning into a big fat zero for the Conservatives. Why? It seems that for all of the “appearance of conflict of interest” that they’re trying to drum up and selective laying out of facts in true conspiracy theory style (with the added cowardice of hiding behind the so-called “experts” who laid them out in committee testimony), the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner herself is shrugging it off.

“There does not appear to be reasonable grounds at this time for the Commissioner to launch an examination under the Conflict of Interest Act or an inquiry under the Conflict of Interest Code for Members of the House of Commons,” said the Commissioner’s spokesperson, and added that they won’t bother investigating investigate “if there is no specific information to suggest that a provision of the Act or the Code may have been contravened.”

And guess who isn’t putting up any specific information that would suggest an actual conflict of interest? The Conservatives. They’re still “gathering information,” which is cute, because why bother filing anything formally when you can make all manner of accusations and cast as much aspersion as possible under the protection of the privilege of the House of Commons, that will be reported uncritically? After all, this is “just politics,” and you can worry about the “appearance” of conflicts all you want on flimsy to no evidence, while facing no consequences whatsoever. It’s tiresome, but it’s the kind of sad drama that we seem to be subsisting on rather than substantive debate on the issues and the actual concerns that appeared around those tax proposals. Such is the sad state of affairs these days.

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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.

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Roundup: The question of the Speaker

The mounting speculation in BC is now starting to focus on the race for Speaker in the legislature – or rather, the lack of a race. Word has it that the Liberals plan on putting no one forward, and the NDP/Greens are making similar noises as well. The lack of a Speaker could mean that the legislature winds up being dissolved and heading back to an election, as precedent from Newfoundland would indicate. But if, by some miracle, the Lieutenant Governor manages to cajole the legislature into at least trying to attempt to elect a Speaker (by trying to avoid a new election at all costs), then there is the possible situation that the Liberals could put forward one of their own, and if Clark is defeated on a confidence vote, have that Speaker then resign and force the NDP to put forward one of their own, which again shifts the balance to 43-43, and possibly hastening the demise of a possible NDP government.

What this means is that Christy Clark is not out of cards to play yet, and that no these are not tricks or games – they’re legitimate exercises of parliamentary authority, and I cannot stress enough that Clark is a very skilled retail politician. She has made the right moves about sounding like she’s willing to do a spell in opposition, and that she’s not looking to go to an election right away, but she can very easily turn around and say that she tried to be reasonable and they didn’t take yes for an answer on any number of issues, and the deadlock would quickly turn into dissolution where she has an NDP-Green agenda laid out before her that she can pick apart in an election campaign. Any suggestion that she simply bow out gracefully and turn over the keys remains premature, and the insistence that an NDP government is inevitable is counting chickens before they’ve hatched. Just because most of the pundit class doesn’t have an understanding of how the system works and the options available to Clark, doesn’t mean that she’s done for. I suspect there will be many surprises left to come, all sold with her skill and charm.

Meanwhile, Clarks’ former press secretary notes that the deal the Green signed actually weakened their ability to exert influence. Andrew Coyne pens a satirical letter from “political strategists” offering cynical (but not necessarily wrong) advice. Colby Cosh looks at the looming Speaker drama and the many other hurdles that would wreck an NDP government, giving it 22 months.

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Roundup: Senator Greene’s grievous error

The strange fascination with Senator Stephen Greene’s ouster from caucus has consumed far too much time and attention, and yet things keep cropping up that demand a response. Today it was his op-ed in the National Post describing what happened, and then he dropped this little gem at the end of his piece.

No. Greene is completely and utterly wrong.

The Senate may not be the confidence Chamber – that is rightfully the House of Commons – but that doesn’t mean that the Senate doesn’t play an accountability role because the whole point of Parliament is to hold the government to account. The Senate is part of Parliament. This is elementary civics for a Westminster democracy.

The way in which the Senate exercises its accountability role is different from the Commons, but it exists nevertheless. It’s not a copy of the Commons’ processes either, nor can it be redundant because composition matters. Sober second thought is actually a form of accountability that relies on checking government legislation from a less partisan lens that is removed from the grasping for votes that afflicts most MPs, for whom populist considerations can blind them to bad policy – something the Senate can call out by virtue of the fact that they’re not seeking re-election.

That institutional independence – not seeking re-election, tenured so that they can’t be easily removed by the government of the day, given job security until age 75 so that they’re not compromising themselves in seeking post-Senate employment – it all adds up to the ability to hold the government to account in a way that the House of Commons simply cannot do. That’s why the Senate has the unlimited veto power that it does – because sometimes a government with a majority will pass blatantly unconstitutional legislation because it’s politically popular to do so, but as we all know, populism is not democracy, and the Senate safeguards that principle. That is an accountability function.

That Greene is unable to make that distinction is a problem, and it’s especially a problem because he’s been leading the charge with the modernisation push in the Upper Chamber, and his is a vision that is looking to see partisan caucuses diminishing. As I’ve said on numerous occasions, the ability to have a coherent opposition in the Senate is a key Westminster feature and a guarantor off accountability, which simply cannot be done effectively if the Chamber is a collection of 105 loose fish. That the Senate is more vigorously examining and amending legislation now is not a bad thing, but we are probably at the peak of what we can or should be expecting in terms of activism without senators engaging in overreach. But to think that this isn’t accountability is simply ignorant.

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Roundup: May’s problematic proposals

Green Party leader Elizabeth May decided to weigh in on the Standing Orders debate yesterday with a proposal paper of her own, considering Government House Leader Bardish Chagger’s proposal to have been an earnest trial balloon that has now blown up in her face and in need of moving on. May’s didn’t object to some of Chagger’s proposals, but came up with a few of her own, some of which are of dubious merit.

To start off with, however, May lards her paper up with a bunch of constitutional canards, such as the fact that political parties don’t appear in the constitution. If you hear the sound of my head banging on the desk, it’s because May is privileging the written Constitution Act as opposed to the unwritten constitutional conventions which are just as valid and just as important to our system of government, and are in fact foundational because that’s how our system of Responsible Government is expressed, and parties are foundational to that system. Just because they don’t appear in writing doesn’t mean they’re absent from our constitutional framework – they are fundamental to it, and May (and the scholars she cites) are simply obtuse to not recognise that fact. May then insists that the Westminster system has been distorted by parties gaining power and with presidential leaders, but rather than actually diagnosing where the problem is – the bastardized way in which we conduct leadership contests – she instead retreats to her usual hobbyhorse of the electoral system, which would not in fact solve any of the problems she identifies.

But if you make it past her civically illiterate pap, she digs into the suggestions with the most notable one being that she wants more concentrated sittings – five-and-a-half days a week for three to four weeks at a stretch, then three to four weeks back in the riding, insisting that this is also better from an emission standpoint since MPs would be travelling less. But where her logic here falls apart is saying that given this would stress families more that making it more attractive for families to relocate to Ottawa might be a consideration – but unless the families go back-and-forth on the three-to-four week rotations, being even more disruptive to children’s schools – then there is simply falls apart on the face of it. She also proposes that staffers be given compensatory time off instead of overtime, which seems far more unfair to these staffers considering that the work doesn’t stop when MPs are back in their ridings, and you’re forcing people (many of them younger) to work even more than they already do with less time off as a bit cruel.

May also proposes that a UK-style Fixed-term Parliaments Act be adopted, which officially makes her wilfully blind to the problems that it’s causing to Westminster’s operations, and the fact that it reduces the ability to hold a government to account because it requires a two-thirds vote to call an early election beyond a non-confidence vote with a simple majority. I get that she wants this to force parties to come to different coalition arrangements, but when accountability suffers, that’s a huge problem. But as with most of her suggestions for “improvement,” May is more concerned with her own partisan intransigence than she is with actual Westminster democracy, which is why I find her entire paper to be of dubious merit.

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Roundup: About that two percent

Part of the preoccupying discussion over the weekend has been comments that Donald Trump made regarding the two percent of GDP spending target as a NATO obligation, and his threats to be less responsive to the alliance unless countries pony up to that level. Never mind that it’s not an actual obligation (Article 5 – the notion that an attack on one member country is an attack on all – is the actual core of the alliance), it’s become a fixation, and that could be a problem for Canada, no matter the fact that we actually show up and do the heavy lifting. To translate heavy lifting, it means that we haven’t been afraid of doing the dirty work, and getting involved in the actual fighting, as with Afghanistan, in part because we have a system of government that allows the government of the day to authorise it without bogging it down in legislative votes or in coalition negotiations where the reluctance to put troops into harm’s way means that most NATO countries wind up deploying troops with very restrictive caveats as to what they can and can’t do, and deploying them to areas where they are less likely to see active combat. (This, incidentally, is generally another caution about PR governments, but I’m sure there are those who would say that this is a feature and not a bug. Those people would be overly idealistic). That heavy lifting should count for something beyond just spending levels.

Paul Wells walks us through some of the history of the two percent target, and why it’s a poor measure of results, as well as some theorizing about why Donald Trump is fixating on that target as much as he is. Likewise, NATO scholar Stephen Saideman engages in some two percent myth-busting here. And Philippe Lagassé offers some additional thoughts about those spending targets and what could be a better measure.

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Roundup: The spectre of a Leitch Party

A rather remarkable exchange happened during Trudeau’s visit to Nunavut when he was pressed about his electoral reform promise. Trudeau responded to his questioner “Do you think Kellie Leitch should have her own party?” and laid out a realistic case where parties like that can hold enough seats to affect the balance of power in a parliament. His questioner was taken aback and “respectfully disagreed,” which isn’t surprising because the narrative we are always given when it comes to proportional representation is that it will give us nice left-wing coalition governments forever, which is certainly not the case, and we need to challenge that particular narrative more often, and to point to what’s happening in Europe right now. And to be honest, I’m glad that Trudeau is being a bit more forceful on this point about the potential rise of extreme parties and that such a system would be bad for Canada. Big tent parties have done a lot for this country, and have moderated a lot of regional tensions within them.

Of course, Trudeau bringing up Leitch in such a manner could have unintended consequences of its own.

In a not unrelated note, Michelle Rempel was at an immigration conference in Montreal, and she noted her frustrations in bashing her head against her own party as much as she was with the Liberals that she is critiquing. And she made some very salient points in here about how we can’t pretend that we’re immune to populist rhetoric in this country, because we have a history of it bubbling up (hello 1993 election) and the sentiments still exist here where you have groups of disenfranchised people looking to blame Others. And this brings us back to why changing our electoral system to give incentives to these elements to form their own parties and try to win seats that they can use to leverage power is a very real and present danger. Add to that, there are concerns from experts in the field that the anti-immigrant rhetoric in the States is bubbling up here and fuelling a rise of racism in this country because it’s being seen as more socially acceptable.

So do we change our system to incentivise these voices to better organise and try to win themselves political leverage? Or do we do we maintain institutions and practices that have been successful in dispersing these elements because they know that there is no pathway to victory by pursuing it? It seems to me that it’s a fairly simple answer.

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Roundup: Suggested cures for journalism

After six months of study and deliberation, Public Policy Forum came out with its report and recommendations on the state of media and democracy, and came up with a handful of recommendations for things like a tax credits, creative commons licensing, clear mandates for the CBC, the creation of a particular extension of The Canadian Press to cover local news like city halls and court cases in smaller communities, and most controversially, a $100 million fund to help legacy media, well, cope with the new digital environment. Many journalists pooh-poohed much of this, and turned up their noses at the notion of the fund, particularly if it were to be administered by government. Paul Wells summed everything up pretty well with this fairly brilliant column here. And Chris Selley made a few trenchant observations over the Twitter Machine.

(Note that for years, the GLBT Xtra chain – that I used to write for – subsidized their operations by running a phone dating service, and they more recently replaced that by running a hookup site).

I’m not going to pretend that I have any answers here, but I will express a bit of frustration with people who insist that if we just produce better journalism that people will want to pay for it again. Given the way that we have acclimatised people to getting it online for free (remember, newspapers used to do that as “advertising” their paper subscriptions) and this pervasive (and wrong) notion that “information wants to be free,” I think it’s more than just producing better journalism that people will want to pay for. It’s especially insulting when I see people like Paul Godfrey showing up on TV to say that when he’s one of the people who is hollowing out the very papers that he owns as he collects millions of dollars in bonuses. It’s hard to produce good journalism when you have no one to produce it, and those who are left are overloaded trying to do the work of three or four people.

The other thing that bothers me is when people say “look at how subscriptions went up in the States recently!” it’s also because they went through a batshit crazy election and are in the middle of an utter meltdown of their democratic institutions. That’s not happening here (though Trudeau’s popularity has prompted a few outlets, like the BBC, to hire a couple of journalists in Canada given the new interest here), and we are constantly dealing with the false notion that Canadian politics is boring, and that there’s no real stories here. Not to mention, we have a tenth of their population, so we’re dealing with an order of magnitude of difference when it comes to market as well.

So while I’m not sure I have any answers, “just do better” is more of a slap in the face than it is a solution to what is ailing the industry.

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Roundup: Leitch the desperate, hollow shell

Apparently we’re still talking about Kellie Leitch and her “anti-Canadian values” screening, because why not? The Canadian Press kicked off the day by putting Leitch’s assertion that it would be akin to “asking some simple questions” to their Baloney Metre™, and lo and behold, the experts they spoke to pretty much laughed it out of the room, earning Leitch’s supposition a rare “full of baloney” rating. It seems that “a few simple questions” just teaches people how to lie to give the “right” answers, and that proper interviews with people trained to know whether people are lying is so prohibitively expensive that it’s never going to happen. So there’s that. Much later in the day, Jason Kenney decided to weigh in from Alberta, and pretty much eviscerated Leitch by saying that this position is a new one for her that she never articulated before in cabinet or caucus, and that she doesn’t understand the nuance around the issue. But then again, we’ve pretty much established that Leitch lacks any real semblance of emotional quotient or self-awareness, so her inability to grasp nuance should not be a surprise to anyone.

Meanwhile, Peter Loewen reminds us that we’re not as perfectly tolerant as we like to believe, and he has the data to prove it, which is why Leitch’s message will find a home in places. Scott Reid looks over the record of Leitch’s campaign manager, who helped Rob Ford get elected, and notes that by this point, Leitch is less of a candidate than a strategy in human form (which is kind of what Jason Kenney is hinting at when noting that this position is all new for Leitch). Paul Wells notes the low ceiling for the kind of rhetoric that Leitch is now taking on, and while he sees the strategic value in such a position, he also offers some ideas for better choices than Leitch. Tabatha Southey offers her particular acid take on the Leitch situation, and her insistence on digging so much that she is in danger of becoming a mole person. And of course, there’s the At Issue panel looking at Leitch as well.

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