QP: Poetry and cheap theatre

While both Justin Trudeau and Andrew Scheer were present, in advance of the government’s apology to persecuted LGBT Canadians, Bill Morneau held a brief press conference an hour before Question Period to say that he couldn’t be in attendance that day, but he refuted the Conservative insinuations being made that he was engaged in insider trading, and suggested that they make the allegations in a forum not protected by parliamentary privilege.

Scheer led off, mini-lectern on desk, and read some propaganda about CSIS warnings that ISIS was training operatives to come back to Canada, and railed about the government paying for reintegration rather than focusing on security. Trudeau assured him that they took security seriously, and had a broad range of tools to do so. Scheer listed the tough measures the previous government took while accusing the current one of relying on “poetry and podcasts,” which set Trudeau off, and he listed off the Islamophobia and rhetoric that lost the Conservatives the last election. When Scheer tried again, angrier in tone (but still not rid of his smirk or breathy delivery), Trudeau said that it was clear that Stephen Harper’s Conservative parties was alive and well, and he wished them luck with that plan. Scheer then pivoted to whether the PM had trust in Bill Morneau, and Trudeau listed off the great things that Morneau had done. When Scheer listed off the disingenuous items he was attempting to brand Morneau with — including the insinuations of insider trading — to which Trudeau went into lecture mode, saying that they expect the opposition to raise substantive issues but are only getting personal attacks, and the way to judge if there was any substance to them is whether they would repeat them outside the Chamber. Guy Caron was up next for the NDP, and raised the possibility of another Ethics Commissioner investigation, to which Trudeau reiterated that it was too bad they were resorting to personal attacks. After another round of the same, Nathan Cullen got up and laid out a charge of insider trading, uttering the words themselves, but Trudeau basically tut-tutted the exchange and listed accomplishments. Cullen amped up his sanctimony, and Trudeau reminded him that the Ethics Commissioner exists to keep these issues out of the political fray.

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Roundup: A modest peacekeeping package

At long last, Justin Trudeau delivered what the government had long-promised when it came to how Canada was going to fulfil its pledge around peacekeepers for the UN. Err, well, sort of. You see, while Trudeau said that the 600 troops would all roll out eventually, for the time being, we’re doing more of the work of capacity building, training, and getting more women involved, plus a new rapid-response air deployment of heavy-lift capability and weaponized helicopters that will include some 200 personnel. And no, we’re not sending troops to Mali. More significantly, perhaps, was the initiative on ending the use of child soldiers, which helps to fulfil some of the long-time work of retired general and Senator Roméo Dallaire.

At this point, the peanut gallery erupted into how the government’s mandate tracker would rate this promise as not having really been kept, but I have to wonder if that’s being unfair given the situation. We’ve heard for two years, since the initial pledge was made, that traditional peacekeeping was dead, and we needed to do something else, and lo, the government listened, consulted, and came up with a package of items – and funds – that will help with the real work of building capacity where it doesn’t exist currently. And listening to Dallaire on Power & Politics, he made the notion that it’s not really about committing another battalion of troops, because they have those – it’s about ensuring that they have the capacity to deal with the situation on the ground, and if Canada can help with that, is that not the better use of our time, money, resources, and personnel? Or do we demand 600 troops + 150 police in x-country that is just the right level of dangerous in order to check off a box and say “promise kept”? I’m not sure. We’ll see how the international community reacts, but so far the word out of the UN has been fairly positive (though it sounds like France may be a bit ticked that we’re not going to Mali). But maybe I’m wrong and we should have just sent them to Mali. I do think that we need to be a bit more nuanced in our understanding, and as with many things, people underestimate the need for capacity building at home and abroad, and it does seem to be something that this government is trying to address in one form or another. (For another take, here’s Stephen Saideman and his lukewarm feelings toward the announcement).

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Roundup: Digs at the current leader

The NDP had their final official leadership debate yesterday in Vancouver, and it was about as exciting as any of their debates have been so far. But scratching beneath the surface, there was an undercurrent that was playing out which was deeply critical of the way that the party has been run under the leadership of Thomas Mulcair, and why they planned to fix it.

One of the points that was noted several times by both Guy Caron and Charlie Angus was that the caucus was being underutilised when it comes to outreach, and furthermore, Angus was very critical about the way in which the grassroots membership was being taken for granted and dictated to rather than giving input into the process. While this is really par for the course in pretty much all parties these days, thanks to top-down leadership styles brought on by the fact that we now run leadership contests as presidential primaries in this country (and the fact that these very same candidates are playing into it with competing policy platforms that were developed by their own teams rather than the grassroots membership), the fact that they hammered away at the caucus being underutilised was something that stuck out for me, because it certainly implies that Mulcair has been running a party-of-one (and yes, those are shades of Stephen Harper you’re seeing). But while Angus and Caron talked about not enough effort being made to translate what was going on in the House of Commons to their base, one has to wonder how they plan to remedy that, and whether we’re going to see an explosion of YouTube clips of MP speeches (which are generally terrible recitations of scripts into the record) attached to more fundraising demands, demonstrating the “good work” that they’re doing in Ottawa.

Meanwhile, here’s Éric Grenier’s analysis of the various endorsements of the candidates, and what the breakdown of them looks like regionally, while Jagmeet Singh dropped a new policy proposal of decriminalising all illicit drug possession as a harm reduction measure, much as Portugal did.

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Roundup: Commence the negotiations

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

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

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

And one more, because seriously:

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Roundup: Crawling to the finish line

It’s finally here! The end of the interminable Conservative leadership contest, and its byzantine rules and its ongoing bastardization of the Westminster system’s actual method of selecting party leaders that ensures accountability. No, we are due for yet another presidentalizing leader who has been campaigning on policy planks inappropriately (that is the grassroots membership’s job), and one who could very well have very little caucus support and all of the associated problems that come with that.

But before we get to that final vote tabulation, here we got with all of the pre-analysis and last-minute profiles. Éric Grenier traces the path to victory for the various Conservative leadership candidates, Andrew Coyne remarks that the lack of star power meant debates over ideas (err, not really). Kevin O’Leary’s campaign chair, Mike Coates, walks us through what happened during those five months and why O’Leary dropping out was the best for all involved. Susan Delacourt wonders if the Conservatives will emerge from their time with an interim leader having learned any lessons that the Liberals took almost a decade in opposition to learn.

And then there are the last-minute analyses of the various candidates. John Ivison notes Bernier’s capacity to come back from a past of blunders, along with the lack of policy from candidates like Scheer and Raitt, and Chong’s playing the role of Cassandra. Chris Selley takes a look at O’Leary and Leitch and notes that there wasn’t an appetite for a Canadian Trump-like figure, while Anne Kingston wonders if Leitch’s campaign didn’t actually reveal true Canadian values, that rejected her particular brand of messaging.

Meanwhile, at the “convention” itself, the Conservatives have decided to be petulant and make Liberal observers pay for tickets rather than follow tradition and allow a small number in, in exchange for similar rights at Liberal Party conventions. (The NDP, incidentally, still got free admission for their observers, proving that complete dickishness is still alive and well in the post-Harper era.) Here’s a look at Maxime Bernier’s riding, which is not as big-C Conservative as people might think. Bernier’s campaign took on some of Kevin O’Leary’s campaign staff, and it cost them a lot more money because of the rates they were being paid. Andrew MacDougall wonders if the Liberals will deploy attack ads against the new leader right away just like the Conservatives did to them.

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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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Roundup: Changing the face of the bench

The Globe and Mail has an interesting read about the way in which the current government is making a concerted effort to appoint more women to the bench as it (slowly) makes its judicial appointments. While the numbers of women appointed are disproportionate to the numbers that have applied, that seems less concerning to me because it has been shown that fewer women will apply to positions like these because they tend to downplay their own qualifications (just as with trying to get more women to run for public office). I also think that the justice minister has a point when she says that part of the reason for so few appointments being made from visible minorities is in part because there are too few applying, and too few in the justice system as a whole. I also look to something that Senator Jaffer said to me in a piece I wrote for the Law Times about the judicial appointments issue, which is that for many of the appointment committees, they don’t tend to look beyond their own boxes when they make recommendations, so we see fewer women and visible minorities being put forward, and that proactive approaches have been shown to be needed in the past. This government seems to be willing to go some of the distance in bridging that gap, but as always, more work needs to be done, and yes, it’s taking far too long in most of the cases.

What does bother me is the notion that by appointing women and minorities is that this is simply about quotas, and it’s the exact same things we’ve been hearing in the past couple of weeks with regards to people making their evaluations of the federal cabinet, and the quiet clucking of tongues when they go “rookie, diversity hire, not very competent.” Never mind that in many cases, much of the judging is harsh, unfair to the person or the situation they were put into, or deliberately misconstrued to present a worse picture than what actually happened (such as with Maryam Monsef). Never mind the fact that if none of these people are given a chance as rookies, they won’t actually get experience. And yes, some of them are performing poorly (and even more curiously, the ones who I think actually are having problems are the ones who are never the ones being written about). But hearing the constant quota refrain is getting tiresome to read about.

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Roundup: Not a real QP fix

Earlier in the week, the NDP put a motion on the Order Paper that they plan to use for a future Supply Day. The text of it, presented in the NDP House Leader Murray Rankin’s name reads as thus:

May 9, 2017 — Mr. Rankin (Victoria) — That Standing Order 11(2) be replaced with the following: “The Speaker or the Chair of Committees of the Whole, after having called the attention of the House, or of the Committee, to the conduct of a Member who persists in irrelevance, or repetition, including during responses to oral questions, may direct the Member to discontinue his or her intervention, and if then the Member still continues to speak, the Speaker shall name the Member or, if in Committee of the Whole, the Chair shall report the Member to the House.”

As Kady O’Malley points out, this would actually be a binding Supply Day motion, as it involves the Commons moving changes to its own rules, and the effect of which is to give the Speaker much more power to police answers given by enhancing the orders around irrelevant or repetitive answers. And on paper, it sounds great. I’m just not sure that this will work in practice.

For starters, this is attacking a mere fraction of the actual problem that we face in the House of Commons. It’s not just the answers that are lacking – it’s the questions (which are as repetitive and irrelevant as the answers), and in many cases, they’re not actually questions, but meandering speeches disguised as rhetorical questions, or non sequitur accusations for which there can be no answer. Empowering the Speaker alone will not solve the problem – the whole ecosystem in the House of Commons needs to change, which means banning scripts, loosening up the clock, and doing away with the established speaking lists. The rigid structure and scripted nature is now all about creating a buffet of media clips, and simply empowering the Speaker to compel answers by means of naming and shaming is not going to fix the underlying problems.

The second problem is that this is something that can very quickly be abused. In fact, you can guarantee that if this were implemented that the very first series of questions that the Opposition would ask would be a trap for the Prime Minister – as much of a trap as their constant questions on Wednesday about the Ethics Commissioner investigation were. That Trudeau refused to step into said trap was a political calculation that has endeared nobody in the whole sordid affair, and everyone came off looking petty. Compelling the PM to walk into traps on a daily basis will quickly become a major problem.

A third major concern is that enforcement of this rule change is going to cause all manner of problems if the opposition doesn’t see the Speaker enforcing this to their liking. Accusations of favouritism or partisanship will soon flow, and there will be tears and recriminations. Nobody will win. So while I appreciate the sentiment of this motion, and would agree with it to a very limited degree, until we get the bigger and more important changes, this simply becomes a bigger problem than the one they’re trying to solve.

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Roundup: Premature ministerial assessments

As we approach the mid-point of the current government’s mandate, we’re seeing a few pieces about how terribly underperforming the cabinet is, and the problem with hiring rookies for the sake of diversity is that they’re basically all incompetent. Given the two pieces we saw over the weekend, from John Geddes and John Ivision respectively, I have to say that I’m a little disappointed in the shallowness of the analysis of both.

Part of the problem is that we don’t often elect a group of subject matter experts and can expect to slot them into cabinet slots and let them thrive. Electoral politics doesn’t really work that way, and this isn’t a technocracy. This isn’t America, and Cabinet posts are as much a question of political management than they are about anything else, and sometimes when you try to slot in someone you think is a subject-matter expert, you wind up with problems. It’s fairly rare that we have health ministers who are doctors, sometimes for good reason, but this government managed to find a good fit with Dr. Jane Philpott, who has managed to deal with some pretty hefty files from the day she was appointed. Appointing a former soldier like Sajjan, however, can be really problematic for the defence portfolio because it creates some awkward expectations, particularly with regard for expectations around the minister’s loyalties (not to mention that it makes a hash of the line we draw in our system between civil-military relations). But that doesn’t mean that putting a young and dynamic go-getter into a cabinet portfolio despite a lack of subject-matter expertise is a no-go. Sometimes a government has limited options when they win power.

I also think that some of Geddes’ analysis was heavy-handed. I doubt that Sajjan will carry this Operation Meduda baggage with him for very long, and I have said time and again that Maryam Monsef was not demoted – she went from a make-work portfolio with a handful of PCO staff to assist her, to a line department with an ambitious mandate. That’s fairly significant. Yes, this government has spent a lot of time consulting, but that has a lot to do with the way the previous government operated, and they came in on a promise of being different. Have things been slow to roll out? Great gods on Olympus yes, have they ever. Does that really amount to a pile of broken promises? No, and I think we can still afford to be patient on a number of files. But I also don’t think that Ivison’s call for prorogation, a complete reset of the agenda and a vast cabinet shuffle are the answer either. I think it’s a vast overreaction to a problem of perception and inflated expectations. Governing is difficult business, and things take time to get right. Just because previous governments rammed things through in haste doesn’t mean that every government needs to, particularly when they have an eye on long-term change.

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Roundup: Tough on the mentally ill

Yesterday, news came out that Vincent Li (now known as Will Baker) was given an absolute discharge; he of course was the man who beheaded someone on a Greyhound bus in 2008 while in the midst of a psychotic episode due to undiagnosed schizophrenia. He was later deemed not criminally responsible because, as stated, he was not in his right mind when the incident happened, and has since received treatment and is unlikely to reoffend. And predictably, social media lit up with outrage, particularly from the Conservatives who declared this an absolute travesty and an insult to the family of Li’s victim, Tim McLean, and how this “proved” that our justice system cared more about the rights of criminals than it did the victims. Rona Ambrose brought this up in QP a few days ago, when Li’s release was pending, and not once did she mention the fact that he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and was found not criminally responsible. (In his response, Justin Trudeau didn’t either, for the record).

But here’s the really galling part. Just days ago, Ambrose and many of these very same Conservatives were all over social media for #BellLetsTalk Day, talking about how important it is to take away the stigma of mental illness. And now here’s Li, who is as much a victim in this as McLean was because he was mentally ill, and the Conservatives are considering him to be an unrepentant murderer because of his mental illness.

So what is it? Are you serious about having adult conversations about mental illness, even when it’s inconvenient to your political agenda of being “tough on crime” (never mind that the courts established that he wasn’t criminally responsible because he was mentally ill)? Or are you going to insist that people who were mentally ill and have received treatment remain locked up in perpetuity, thus “proving” why people with mental illnesses should be stigmatized and marginalized from society? Because it’s one or the other. You’re all looking like a bunch of hypocrites right now, and like you were lying to the Canadian public when you wanted to #BellLetsTalk about mental illness.

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