Roundup: What vice-regal appointment process?

Prime minister Justin Trudeau made two notable vice-regal appointments yesterday – new lieutenant governors for both Newfoundland and Labrador and British Columbia, both women (the first for Newfoundland and Labrador). While the new BC LG is the chair of Vancouver’s YWCA, the new Newfoundland  and Labrador LG is former cabinet minister Judy Foote, which seems like a curiously partisan appointment for a position such as this – especially when Trudeau keeps going out of his way to ensure that there are “independent, non-partisan” appointment processes to other key positions, most especially senators.

The point that none of the stories on these appointments made yesterday was that since Trudeau came to power, he dismantled the process that Stephen Harper put into place to find new vice-regal appointments in a depoliticized fashion. The Harper-era Vice Regal Appointments Committee was headed by the Canadian Secretary to the Queen, had two permanent members, and then had additional ad hoc members for whichever province or territory they had to search for candidates from in order to get the local perspective. Short lists were forwarded to the PM, and for the most part, they were appointments without partisan histories (though the last Manitoba LG appointment was the wife of a former provincial politician it does bear noting). When he came in, Trudeau and his people said that the system was working well, and that they were likely to continue it. Except they didn’t. They replicated portions of it for their Senate nomination committee, but dismantled the Vice-Regal Appointments Committee after they let the memberships lapse, including the post of Canadian Secretary to the Queen (which remains vacant to this day). And the only reason anyone can figure out as to why is because it was simple antipathy to the Harper government, regardless of whether the idea worked. Instead, appointments are made in a black box, and Foote’s appointment seems to indicate that he’s willing to let partisans into these posts in contrast with others.

And don’t get me wrong – I have nothing against Judy Foote personally, and I’m sure she’ll do a fine job, but the whole thing is a bit odd in the context of every other appointment process that Trudeau has put into place (which are interminable and can’t fill any position in a timely manner, Supreme Court of Canada excepted). There was a system that worked. What Trudeau has done instead makes no sense at all.

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Roundup: The big Mali announcement

The formal announcement was made yesterday – six helicopters (two medical evac, four armed escorts) and approximately 250 personnel are headed to Mali as part of UN peace operations, and while this initial deployment covers off for German and Dutch forces that are pulling out, time there will be spent evaluating other ways that Canada can help build capacity in the country, which will involve training troops from other countries. While there have been some 162 peacekeeper deaths so far in Mali, all but four of those are from less advanced militaries than Canada’s, and the four Western countries’ deaths were related to a helicopter accident and not hostile actions. Chrystia Freeland did a great interview that helps lay out more of the details as to why Mali and why it’s taken so long.

Opposition reaction has been swift, and a bit curious. The Conservatives are demanding a debate and a vote on the deployment (reminder: a vote is wholly inappropriate because it launders the accountability that the government should be held to regarding the mission), while the NDP keep pointing out that this will not fulfil all of the government’s peacekeeping promises (not that they have claimed that it would), while demanding more details. Former senator Roméo Dallaire says that this is a good deployment, and reiterates that Canadians training troop-contributing nations and mentoring those forces will help to modernize peacekeeping.

In terms of hot takes, John Ivison sticks to the point that this is a political move by the government designed to help them get their UN Security Council seat as opposed to having anything to do with national security – err, except that peacekeeping isn’t supposed to be about national security. That’s kind of the point.

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Roundup: Expat voting rights on the line

Coming up this week is a Supreme Court of Canada hearing that I’m going to play the role of bad guy with, which is the challenge around expat voting rights in Canadian elections. And by playing the villain, I’m firmly in the camp that I think it’s perfectly acceptable that their right to vote in a Canadian election lapses after about five years, because our electoral system is based on local riding elections. If you don’t live in a riding, and haven’t for years, then your vote soon becomes meaningless because you are essentially voting for a local representative whom you’re not familiar with, with local issues you’re not impacted by, and generally you’re voting for a leader, which isn’t how our system works.

And I know, these expats challenging the law feel like their citizenship is being devalued, but their connection to the riding they’re supposed to be voting in grows ever more tenuous, even if their connection to Canada as a whole doesn’t – but it’s about mechanics. There are complaints that the five-year cut-off is arbitrary, and to an extent it is, but that said, the constitutional rule is that an election must be held within five years of the preceding one (despite the fact that our later fixed-election-date laws tend to operate on four-year cycles – yet another Americanism that we need to disavow because it hasn’t done anything constructive for our system and rather has created a whole new set of ways in which incumbent governments can try to manipulate the field). It makes it reasonable to make it five years, then, in terms of when voting rights lapse when one is absent from a riding.

The way I think about it is that these particular limits make our voting rights more protected, rather than devaluing citizenship. If you’re voting for a riding that you have no connection to, how is that upholding the integrity of the electoral process in that riding? It means that for those who are voting within that riding, it maintains that there is that special connection between the voters in the riding and those who are elected to represent them. You’re unlikely to be paying taxes if you’ve been away that long, so it’s not like a taxation-without-representation issue either, and most likely, those expats are voting in their new host countries by this point as well. Votes should mean something, and in Canada, that means a connection to a specific riding, which we shouldn’t take for granted.

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Roundup: Giving the PBO confidential data

In his report to parliament about the latest federal budget this past week, the Parliamentary Budget Officer made note that some of the information that they requested was given to them on a confidential basis – in order for them to check the maths, but not report on it public (at least for the time being). It’s a bit of an oddity that the PBO says it puts them in an awkward position, and it also raises questions about the government’s commitment to transparency.

Recently, the Department of National Defence gave the same kind of confidential information to the PBO regarding its 20-year expenditure plan, which one suspects may have to do with either sensitivities in the procurement process (remember that they have been insisting on particular secrecy declarations for those involved in the process), or not wanting to tip their hands on how they’re planning on rolling out their procurement just yet. Maybe. The government says that the budget information that was confidential was because it related to departments or Crown corporations whose information had not been approved by Treasury Board or vetted for release, which makes a certain amount of sense, and does give rise to concerns that the real stumbling block is the bureaucracy and not the government. Backing up this supposition has been complaints that Treasury Board president Scott Brison has made around his difficulty in getting departments onside when it comes to the process of reforming the Estimates, so that they reflect the budget rather than the previous fall economic update and subsequently relying on Supplementary Estimates in order to “correct” the spending plans to reflect said budget (and part of that problem has been ever-later budget releases that come after the statutory Estimates tabling dates). And our civil service, for all of the plaudits it gets internationally, is sclerotic and resistant to change, often exacerbating the “culture of secrecy” around any kind of transparency (though one also has to factor in a certain amount of incompetence around that secrecy – sometimes they’re not being secret for the sake of secrecy, but because they’re simply unable to find needed information).

There have been complaints from the pundit class that the Liberals have subverted the PBO in this manner of giving confidential information, but I’m not sure that I’m ready to go there. They could have simply stonewalled, forcing an escalation of tactics, but they didn’t. They wound up caving and giving the PBO way too much authority and way, way too broad of a mandate when they reformed his office and turned him into an Independent Officer of Parliament, and I will reiterate that they did turn over the information. The question is does this start a pattern, or is this a kind of temporary status while they continue to push the departments into making this kind of data available in a timelier manner, much like the Estimates? I’m not willing to make a final pronouncement just yet, but I am going to consider this notice, and will keep an eye on how this progresses (particularly because I do think Estimates reform is vitally important to Parliament, and if we have the same kinds of problems, then it’s a sign that there’s a systemic issue that needs to be dealt with).

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Roundup: Caucus leaks from sore Liberals

There was a very curious piece in yesterday’s Hill Times that offered leaks from the Liberal caucus room – leaks which have been rare over the past couple of years, but then again, Jane Taber has retired from journalism, so perhaps not everyone has gotten around to finding someone to call when they want to gripe. In this particular instance, the chair of the Liberals’ rural caucus allegedly raised the notion that he didn’t feel his constituents were properly consulted on upcoming gun control legislation, and Trudeau allegedly chastised him in return, given that this was a campaign commitment and they have consulted for two years and there’s not much more consultation that they can do. (And really, the notion that this government has been paralyzed by consultation is not too far from the truth).

Now, I get that rural Liberals are nervous – the institution of the long-gun registry in the 1990s did serious damage to their electoral chances that they only just recovered from in this last election cycle, and these MPs would like to keep their seats in the next election, thank you very much. But at the same token, I’m not going to be too sympathetic to this notion that Trudeau’s response to them is going to create some kind of chill in the caucus room. You’re grown-ups, and sometimes things get a bit heated, particularly when it looks like there’s some pretty serious foot-dragging going on that could affect promises being kept, while the party is already on the defensive for other promises not kept (however justified it may have been not to keep them – looking at you in particular, electoral reform).

I was also curious by the tangent that this piece took regarding the fact that Gerald Butts and Katie Telford also routinely attend caucus meetings, which tend to be reserved only for MPs (and once upon a time, senators) to hash things out behind closed doors and to have full and frank discussions with one another. And there was talk about how under Chrétien or Martin, senior staff were not there, but under the Harper era, they often were, if only to take notes and ensure that there was follow-up on items that were brought forward. And if that’s all that Butts and Telford are doing, then great – that may be a good way to ensure that everyone is on the same page. But it does feed into the notion that Butts is the real brains of the operation and that he’s the one running the show. Take that for what you will.

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Roundup: The obtuse Atwal angles

Because the Jaspel Atwal story refuses to go away, due to equal parts of inept messaging by the government and obtuseness on the parts of both the opposition and much of the media, it seems like we should dig into a few more aspects of it. If you haven’t yet, read John Ivison’s column that threads the needle on just what the senior bureaucrats were warning about with regard to the possibility of “rogue elements” in India’s government, and the invitation that MP Randeep Sarai extended to Atwal while Atwal was already in the country. If more people read this, we would have far fewer of the questions we’re hearing about how both “versions” of the incident can be true. And hey, people familiar with both Indian politics and security services are adding that this is more than plausible.

In the meantime, opposition parties are trying to use their parliamentary tools to continue to make hay of this. Ralph Goodale got hauled before the national security committee yesterday, and he was unable to give very many answers – completely understandably – and suggested that MPs use the new National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians to discuss classified issues like this. It didn’t stop the opposition from trying to call the National Security Advisor to committee, but that was blocked. But as Stephanie Carvin points out below, MPs are not great at this kind of thing, and risk doing even more damage (and We The Media aren’t helping).

In case you were wondering why the Conservatives dropped their planned Supply Day motion to try and wedge the government over support for a united India as a pretext to bash the Atwal issue some more, they faced an outcry of Sikhs in Canada and backed down (but are insisting that the motion is still on the Order Paper and can be debated on a future Supply Day).

In the meantime, India raised their tariffs on imports of pulses, and suddenly every single Canadian pundit joined the Conservatives in blaming it on Trudeau’s India trip and the Atwal accusations. Not one of them noted that India is having a bit of a domestic crisis with its farmers, and there is a global glut of pulse crops, which is depressing prices (for which India is trying to boost domestic production). But why look for facts when you can try to wedge it into a narrative you’ve already decided on? Cripes.

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Roundup: The IRB’s crushing backlog

Some fairly big news out of the Immigration and Refugee Board, which has decided that they will forgo the legislated timetables for hearing cases, and just hear them in the order that they were received. This after they have run out of internal solutions to manage the ballooning caseload of arrivals crossing the border trying to flee the Trumpocalypse to the south of us, while being under-resourced and understaffed because this government has proven itself utterly incapable of making necessary appointments in a timely manner (Supreme Court of Canada excepted), and this is the mess we find ourselves in as a result.

Now, it needs to be reiterated that the IRB has a long history of problems in managing its backlog, and that it’s not just this current government that has been a problem, but the previous one as well, where they took a system that had an optimal number of cases churning through the system (essentially, there was no actual backlog) and threw a spanner in the works by deciding that they needed to reform the appointment process to involve an exam (which critics at the time declared was because they wanted to stuff it with their cronies). The result of this was a sudden backlog of files that they decided to try and tackle by legislating yet more changes to the system including new timelines, but if memory serves, those changes were criticised as not giving most refugee claimants time enough to get all of their documents in order or get a lawyer that they can trust to help them with their cases, particularly because many of these claimants are traumatized when they arrive and distrusting of authority; the end-result of that was going to mean yet more appeals and court challenges, because they also put in systems that tried to limit those as well. I’m not sure ever got that backlog cleared before the current government decided to reform that appointment process yet again, and here we are, broken process and a system struggling under its own weight, and awaiting yet more promised reforms that have yet to materialize. Slow clap to successive governments for continually dropping the ball on this file.

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Roundup: The existential threat to parliament nobody notices

After stories about how some MPs – both Conservative and Liberal – used the Canada Summer Jobs programme to funnel those job grants to anti-abortion and anti-gay organisations, the government has made a few tweaks to the programme so that any organisation that is looking for grants needs to sign an affirmation that they will agree to comply with Charter values, as well as its underlying values including
“reproductive rights, and the right to be free from discrimination on the basis of sex, religion, race, national or ethnic origin, colour, mental or physical disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression.” And while that’s all well and good, they didn’t fix the glaring problem with this system – the fact that it’s MPs who are signing off on these grants.

No. Seriously, no.

This is antithetical to the whole point of Parliament. Parliament is about holding the government (meaning Cabinet) to account, and part of that is by controlling the public purse. MPs don’t give out money – they ensure that the government can only spend it wisely. By Service Canada sending lists of groups recommended to receive funding, and then having the MPs validate and recommending more or fewer jobs through the group, or whether to fund them at all, it goes beyond accountability and into disbursing funds which is not the role of an MP. At all.

And what really burns me is that nobody sees this. We have become so civically illiterate that a practice that is a direct existential challenge to a thousand years of parliamentary history doesn’t merit a single shrug. No, instead, it’s become part of this expectation that MPs should be “bringing home the bacon” to their ridings. It’s why MPs shouldn’t be making funding announcements for the government – that’s the role of Cabinet ministers (and I will allow parliamentary secretaries under protest because it’s hard for cabinet to be everywhere), but that’s it. Having MPs make announcements “on behalf of” ministers is a betrayal of the role that MPs play with respect to ministers, which is to hold them to account, even if they’re in the same party. This is cabinet co-opting MPs, and in the case of these job grants, laundering their accountability so that nobody can actually be held to account for when funding goes to groups that are contrary to the values of the government of the day. But nobody cares – not even the journalist who wrote the story about the changes.

If only someone had written a book about this kind of thing…

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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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