Senate QP: Sajjan is taking his time

After a terrible QP in the Other Place, it was hoped that things would be better in the Senate as Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan arrived to answer questions from his department. Senator Smith led off, worrying about the state of the planned purchase of Super Hornets and the possible purchase of used F-18s instead. Sajjan first stepped back to outline the problem of not being able to meet both NORAD and NATO requirements, and said that they will be filling the interim gap before they replace the whole fighter fleet. Smith wondered about the issue of newer versus older when it comes to the interim fighters, and Sajjan noted that they hoped for new, but would go for the same models that we currently use if necessary.

Senator Enverga asked about the situation in Iraq, and wondered about what our role was in the fight against ISIS if training was suspended. Sajjan said that they were assessing the situation given the changing situation on the ground in order to assess what the needs are now that Mosul has fallen.

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Roundup: Divisions of Power at the Council

With the Council of the Federation meeting today in Edmonton, they had a pre-meeting yesterday with some Indigenous leaders – others having opted not to join because they objected to it being “segregated” from broader Council meeting. While I can certainly see their point that they want to be full partners at the table, I have to wonder if this isn’t problematic considering some of the issues that the Council has to deal with – NAFTA renegotiations, inter-provincial trade, marijuana regulations – things that don’t really concern First Nations but that premiers need to hammer out. Two groups did meet – the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples (which generally deals with off-reserve and urban Indigenous Canadians) and the Native Women’s Association of Canada, citing successful talks, while the Assembly of First Nations, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, and Métis National Council stayed out of it.

While I’m sympathetic to these Indigenous groups’ desire to have full-fledged meetings with premiers, I’m not sure that the Council is the best place to do it, because they’re not an order of government so much as they’re sovereign organisations that have treaty relationships. While some of their concerns overlap, they don’t have the same constitutional division of powers as the provinces, so a meeting to work on those areas of governance can quickly be sidelined when meetings stay on the topics where areas do overlap with Indigenous groups, like health or child welfare, while issues like interprovincial trade or harmonizing regulations would get left at the sidelines as they’re not areas in which Indigenous governments have any particular constitutional stake. And yes, we need more formalized meetings between Indigenous leaders and premiers, I’m not sure that simply adding them to the Council achieves that, whereas having separate meetings – as was supposed to happen yesterday – would seem to be the ideal forum where they can focus on issues that concern them. Of course, I could be entirely wrong on this and missing something important, but right now, I’m struggling to see how the division of powers aligns in a meaningful way.

Oh, and BC won’t be at the Council table as NDP leader John Horgan is being sworn in as premier today, even though he could have scheduled that date earlier so that he could attend (seeing as this meeting has been planned for months).

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Roundup: The curious PCO-PBO turf war

There is an interesting piece out from Kathryn May on iPolitics about the turf war going on between the Privy Council Office and the Parliamentary Budget Officer, and how that is playing out in the provisions of the budget implementation bill that would create an independent PBO. The PBO blames senior bureaucrats for trying to hobble its future role, and much of it seems to be down to an existential difference of opinion, between whether or not the PBO should exist to give advice to parliamentarians, or to be a watchdog of the government. PCO takes the view that the PBO was designed to offer advice and independent analysis, while the first PBO, Kevin Page, was certainly taking the latter view, which his successor has largely followed suit with. One of the other interesting notes was that the public service would rather the PBO act in more of a fashion like the Auditor General, where he goes back to departments with his figures to check for factual errors, and that it gives them a chance to respond to the report, rather than feeling like they are being constantly “ambushed.”

I am of the view that we run the risk of creating bigger problems if we continue to give the PBO too broad of a mandate, while being unaccountable and only able to be terminated for cause, meaning seven year terms by which they can self-initiate all manner of investigations with no constraints. That will be a problem, given that we already have at least one Independent Officer of Parliament who is going about making problematic declarations and giving reports of dubious quality without anyone calling him to task on it (and by this I mean the Auditor General). And I do think that PCO has a point in that the intent of the PBO was to give independent analysis, particularly of economic forecasts, and I do think that there is some merit to the criticisms that Kevin Page had become something of a showboat and was far exceeding his mandate before his term was not renewed. We have a serious problem in our parliament where we are handing too much power to these independent officers (and other appointed bodies for that matter) while MPs are doing less and less actual work – especially the work that they’re supposed to be doing.

While PCO says that the provisions in the budget bill were to try to “strike a balance” with the role of the PBO, I fear that he’s already become too popular with the media – and by extension the general public – to try and constrain his role, and the government will be forced to back down. Because We The Media are too keen to be deferential to watchdogs (like the Auditor General) and not call them out when they go wrong (like the AG did with the Senate report), I fear that the pattern will repeat itself with the PBO, as it already is with the demands from the pundit class that he be given overly broad powers with his new office. Because why let Parliament do the job it’s supposed to do when we can have Independent Officers do it for them?

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QP: Rage over $2000 worth of cardboard

With the weather finally taking a turn for the better, and the floodwaters across the river receding, things in the House of Commons carried on in the usual fashion. Rona Ambrose led off, wondering why the Infrastructure Investment Bank was necessary. Trudeau pointed out how they had consulted widely on the Bank, and that it was going to be helpful for growth. Ambrose called it a vanity project to help Bay Street and Wall Street friends, and made a dig about Broadway tickets along the way, and Trudeau reiterated the points about the need for infrastructure projects like the Bank would help provide. Ambrose brought up potential conflicts with the Bank, and Trudeau rebuffed by slagging off the previous government’s underfunding of infrastructure. Ambrose took another dig at the Broadway tickets, and Trudeau expounded on how great and important the play “Come From Away” is. For her final question, Ambrose asked about the government ordering cardboard cutouts of the PM — and made a bunch of lame puns along the way — and Trudeau said that individual missions abroad make their own decisions. Thomas Mulcair was up next, worried that the government hadn’t spelled out how private investors in the Infrastructure Bank would profit from their infrastructure. Trudeau talked about the great things that the Bank could invest in, but didn’t specify that there would be tolls on everything. Mulcair wondered how the Liberals would have reacted if the Conservatives promoted the idea, and Trudeau insisted that they consulted widely on the Bank, not just hedge funds. Mulcair changed topics and worried about tech stories that it was Jared Kushner who reached out to Trudeau to convince President Trump not to rip up NAFTA. Trudeau reassured him that they were working to strengthen trade and relations with the Americans. Mulcair went onto suggest that Trudeau was taking orders from Kushner, and Trudeau insisted that he was doing everything he could to resolve issues like softwood.

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QP: Bitching about Broadway

While it was attempting to snow outside in Ottawa, and while the business of the day in the Chamber was an unconstitutional Supply Day motion, it was a pretty grim day in the capital. When Question Period came about, Rona Ambrose led off, mentioning the flooding in Quebec and elsewhere, and asked for an update on the assistance that the government was providing. Justin Trudeau noted that their thoughts are with those affected, and that to date, 1,650 troops have been deployed to assist. Ambrose then returned to the issue of Harjit Sajjan and the lack of explanation for his embellishment. Trudeau noted that he has full confidence in Sajjan, and that he was proud of Sajjan’s work, then got a dig in about Conservative under-funding that was a challenge for him. Ambrose ladled on some fairly smarmy sanctimony about how she was sure the Minister would never embellish while he was in uniform, and Trudeau brushed this concern off. Ambrose switched topics — finally — and brought up the Infrastructure Bank and the connection to companies like Blackrock. Trudeau noted previous underinvestment in infrastructure, and that they were going to lead to good jobs with their plans. Ambrose railed that there were obvious conflicts of interests with the Infrastructure Bank, but Trudeau stuck to his good news talking points. Thomas Mulcair was up next, giving a slow-talking, serious-sounding question about calling an inquiry into Afghan detainees. Trudeau noted that six separate inquiries had been conducted and the NDP ducked out on one of them. Mulcair switched to French to ask again, and got much the same answer. Mulcair switched to the flooding, and Trudeau noted that he went to sites to help fill sandbags. Mulcair demanded federal support, and Trudeau noted that they already had it.

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Roundup: Your quarterly QP hand-wringing

After QP started getting rowdy and loud again in the past week, both in the feigned outrage over the calculated overblowing of the Sajjan situation and Trudeau’s Wednesday proto-PMQs that have given the opposition the chance to be extra vocal in expressing their displeasure of him, we have seen the return of the navel-gazing about what to do about QP. Aaron Wherry muses about the lack of answers despite more questions directed to the PM, while Penny Collenette compares the QP flaying of Sajjan to Senator Don Meredith hiding from the public eye to prove the point about how QP is better because it’s public.

Lagassé raises an important point here – Sajjan is a minister and QP is a forum to hold him to account. Meredith is a senator and not a representative of the government in that chamber. Just as we don’t hold backbenchers up to scrutiny in QP, we also don’t hold individual senators up to the same scrutiny in that Chamber’s version, which is an important distinction. As well, the process around Meredith has been quite public, from the release of the Ethics Officer’s report, to the Ethics Committee’s response and their own report recommending his expulsion (including the legal advice of the Senate Law Clerk). While Sajjan has been exposed to questions about his apparent self-aggrandisement (which, I will remind you, is not actually “stolen valour” as the Conservatives would term it, as that is largely reserved for those who put on a uniform or medals that they didn’t earn – something Sajjan certainly has earned), there has been nothing public in the way of an explanation from Sajjan – only a series of apologies (which, I will grant you, have taken personal responsibility, which not everyone in politics does). While I have a great deal of respect for Collenette, she is comparing apples to hedgehogs.

As for the latest bout of hand-wringing about the state of QP and the terrible decorum in the place, I will point to something that John Ibbitson said on CBC News Network’s Sunday Scrum yesterday – that while MPs could certainly empower the Speaker to crack down harder on it and have him start naming MPs and expelling them from the chamber for their behaviour, MPs don’t actually want to do that. QP is the way it is because that’s what MPs want. I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing either – politics needs some theatre, but what we need in this country is some good theatre, rather than this scripted junior high gymnasium play that the history teacher wrote. There are changes that need to happen to make QP better, like eliminating scripts and speaking lists, loosening the clock, and empowering the Speaker to police answers, but so far, MPs have been deaf to those suggestions. So long as they remain so, things will continue in their sad state.

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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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QP: Questionable claims about Sajjan

For Star Wars Day (“May the 4th be with you”), it was unfortunate that the prime minister was absent, as he was busy meeting his Irish counterpart in Montreal.

Rona Ambrose led off, reading some sanctimonious disappointment in the defence minister. Harjit Sajjan noted that he apologies, and launched into a sales pitch for his forthcoming defence review.

Ambrose railed that Sajjan behaved like a politician — because that’s what he is — but Sajjan stuck to assurances that he was looking after the troops. Ambrose turned to tax benefits for those serving in Kuwait, and Sajjan said that they would ensure that they would have the necessary benefits owed to them and they were ensuring fair compensation rules were in place. Ambrose accused him of misleading the House on the issue, and Sajjan spoke about fixing the immediate problem, and there was a difference between tax-free benefits and hardship allowance. Ambrose then turned to defence funding, and demanded Sajjan’s resignation. Sajjan said they were putting the Canadian Forces onto a sustainable footing. Ambrose cherry-picked past defence spending of the previous government (ignoring that many of those procurements, like the helicopters, were badly bungled), and Sajjan expounded upon the non-partisan advice they got on the defence file and that they were moving ahead to recapitalise the Forces.

Nathan Cullen led off for the NDP, but when he talked about the government “polishing a turd” of political fundraising, the Speaker was unamused and went to the next name on the list.

That was Alexandre Boulerice who railed about finalising rules, and Karina Gould assured him they were tabling rules for more transparency. Boulerice then railed about handcuffing the PBO, and Bardish Chagger said they were making him more independent but were open to amendments. Cullen was back up to ask the same in English, and Chagger repeated her answer.

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QP: Attempting a defence pivot

After the introduction of the five new MPs who won the recent by-elections — who were introduced into the Commons in the proper fashion (which doesn’t always happen), and QP got off to a very delayed start. Rona Ambrose led off, worrying that Harjit Sajjan didn’t attend a veterans dinner to apologise to them personally. Justin Trudeau noted that Sajjan unveiled the new defence policy today, and slammed the previous government for not spending enough on the military, to many cries of outrage by the Conservative. Ambrose railed about how the Liberals don’t respect the troops, but Trudeau insisted that his government was going to fix the problems of the previous government. Ambrose concerned trolled about Sajjan’s reputation with the troops, and Trudeau accused them of talking a good game with supporting the troops but not following through. Ambrose tried again, and Trudeau insisted that they were leading the way with restoring the Forces. Ambrose tried another helping of concern trolling, and got the same answer. Thomas Mulcair was up next, concerned about our dropping World Press Freedom index ranking and wanted protection for sources. Trudeau said that they believed in that protection, and Mulcair dropped mention of the VICE journalist fighting the RCMP in court, before barrelling along to his prepared question about the old Bill C-51. Trudeau noted the report released and that they would change the legislation in the coming months. Mulcair then called on Trudeau to personally call Putin about gay men being persecuted in Chechnya, but Trudeau did not commit to doing so, just to better sponsorship for LGBT refugees fleeing persecution. Mulcair accused the government of not doing enough, particularly with emergency visas, and Trudeau spoke about the need for permanent solutions to help refugees, not temporary ones.

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Roundup: Wise asses and the Wise Owls

The snickering and childish guffaws that accompanied the news that the Senate released a children’s book-style brochure about the Senate was predictable. Every single wise ass in the pundit sphere threw in their two cents, many of them in the tiresome form of children’s book verses of their own, detailing how sordid those awful owls really are, and aren’t we clever for subverting this book? Others decried the (meagre) expenses and time used to create such a brochure, never mind that these very same pundits kept wondering aloud why the Senate never promotes itself or its good works. And while a more grown-up brochure was also produced alongside it, nary a soul mentioned that one.

I will be the first to say that The Wise Owls is not without its flaws, particularly in how they allegorically depict how and why the Senate came about. It was not because the House of Commons wasn’t working, and it’s particularly disingenuous to suggest that was the case. The general audience brochure has a more accurate take on that history, but I will also add that one of the problems with that brochure is that it places the legislative role of the Senate above all others under the heading that “Senators are lawmakers.” The abuse of the term “lawmakers” in the Canadian context rankles me because it’s an Americanism owing to how their system works, while our parliamentarians in our system are about holding the government to account, and legislating they do is a by-product of that as opposed to their raison d’être.

Nevertheless, some of the reactions to the book have also been particularly problematic, from Elizabeth May complaining that it’s not good democratic education because it implies that those responsible for sober second thought are wiser than those who are elected, to journalists like Justin Ling, who complain that the message to children is that your elected officials can’t be trusted.

Putting aside the potential that this is petty jealousy – after all, it would seem to be the media’s job to keep telling people that our elected officials are not to be trusted – these complaints ignore the fact that the entire Westminster system is predicated on that very fact – that while it’s all well and good to have elected officials, we still need safeguards against the excesses of populism. It’s why we have a monarch who is a disinterested party that can hit the reset button in times of crisis. It’s why we have an upper chamber that is appointed and not pandering for votes and has the institutional independence to speak truth to power. It’s why our courts don’t rely on judges to tailor their verdicts with an eye toward keeping the public favour in order to seek re-election. The very foundation of our system is that sometimes elected officials need to be reined in, and not by yet more elected officials. It shouldn’t be scandalous that this very same message is what this book exposes children to.

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