Roundup: The abuse of “appearance”

Breaking! Ethics Commissioner wants to talk to Bill Morneau about that share sale! To which I immediately yawn and say, “Yeah, and?” Because we are beyond the point where any of these stories are actually advancing the story in a substantive manner, and we’re well past innuendo, and are now onto a full-on pile-on in the attempts to make something, anything, stick.

This attempt to try and create some issue around insider trading has been nothing short of ludicrous because none of the facts bear the slightest scrutiny, nor does any of their internal logic hold-up in the face of the other allegations. If he was really interested in “insider trading” (which isn’t actually possible from his position), why wouldn’t he wait to sell those shares until he tabled Bill C-27 and Morneau Shepell’s share prices spiked (temporarily)? But really, none of it makes adds up, and Andrew Coyne constructed a pretty good takedown of the allegation here. And Mary Dawson saying she’ll give Morneau a call sounds pretty pro forma here, given that this is in response to yet another of Nathan Cullen’s demands that she look into his dealings in the vague hope of her finding something, anything, that Cullen can use to any tactical advantage. But as both the opposition and some of the more mediocre journalists in the Gallery continue to carry on this campaign, it has the very definite potential to backfire – especially as Morneau is taking the gloves off now that his father is being dragged into the fray. As Terrence Corcoran points out, the Conservatives are the ones who are now acting unethically, not Morneau (and I’m sure you could add a couple of aforementioned journalists to this list, because their reporting on this has been anything but responsible).

But when this short thread from Howard Anglin was pointed out last night, it became clear to me where the real problem lies.

The problem here is not Bill Morneau – it’s Justin Trudeau, and the high-minded language he put into the mandate letters about being seen to be conduct the affairs without the appearance of conflict. What that turned out to be was an invitation for abuse. Because of the word “appearance,” all that anyone – opposition MP or mediocre journalist trying to make a big score – has to do is line up unrelated or conflated facts in a completely disingenuous manner and say “See! It looks like a conflict! This goes against the mandate letter!” Never mind that none of the allegations, whether it’s the cash-for-access (which wasn’t really cash for access) caterwauling months ago, or this Morneau nonsense now, bear up under the slightest bit of scrutiny – they are simply counting on it being the appearance of a conflict, and crying foul. We’re no longer dealing with issues of substance, but rather, the manufacture of optics in deliberately dishonest ways, because Justin Trudeau gave them an open invitation to. This is the state of our democratic discourse at the end of 2017. We should be embarrassed.

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Roundup: The disingenuous framing of a committee report

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

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

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

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

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

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QP: The non-existent plan for a non-existent tax

Despite it being a Thursday, the only leader in the Commons was Elizabeth May — because reasons. Candice Bergen led off, demanding an admission that the government ignored American warnings about the Norsat sale. Navdeep Bains assured her that they followed the process and took the advice of our security agencies, who did consult. Bergen wasn’t buying it, but Bains reiterated his point about the process before touting improved economic progress thanks to their being open to trade. Bergen then accused the government of proposing an internet tax, which was entirely disingenuous because it wasn’t the government who floated the idea — it was a committee of backbenchers. Mélanie Joly assured her they would not levy such a tax. Alain Rayes asked the same again in French, got the same answer, and then reiterated the Norsat question in French. Bains repeated his previous points in French, reading from a prepared response. Matthew Dubé led for the NDP, wondering when reforms to the Anti-terrorism Act would finally be tabled. Ralph Goodale assured him that new legislation was on the way. Dubé switched to English to ask again, adding in a clause about lawful access. Goodale accused him of trying to spook people with innuendo, and that the legislation would keep Canadians safe while protecting their privacy rights. Brian Masse raised the Norsat sale, and Bains repeated his same answer. Alexandre Boulerice then raised a question of an EI case, and Jean-Yves Duclos asked him to forward him the details so that he could look into it.

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QP: Monsef gets her elbows up

After a busy morning swallowed whole by the electoral reform committee report, it would be understandable for there to be some exasperation among all MPs. Rona Ambrose was the only major leader present, and she led off QP by demanding that the recommendation for a referendum be respected. Maryam Monsef said that she has received the report and would be reviewing it, and noted that there was no consensus and that it showed it was a huge challenge. Ambrose repeated the question in French, and this time Monsef praised the need for a values-based conversation. Ambrose hammered on the referendum issue, overplaying the strength of the referendum recommendation, and Monsef said that the committee didn’t give them an answer on the question they asked them. Ambrose claimed that it was because the PM didn’t think that people were smart enough, and Monsef said that the only recommendation of the committee was to have a referendum on the Gallagher Index. Ambrose switched to World AIDS Day for her final question and the need for stable funding. Carolyn Bennett responded that they recognised the need for stable funds, and the extended transitional funding to groups while they worked to reform the funding system. Alexandre Boulerice demanded a proportional voting system, and Monsef said that the answer of “choose your own adventure” was not an answer. When Boulerice cast aspersions on the planned national online consultation, Monsef retorted that he didn’t know the questions on it, so he was prejudging it. Nathan Cullen took over and returned to demands for proportionality, and Monsef returned to the Gallagher Index burn. Cullen groused further, and Monsef touted the new online digital engagement tool.

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QP: A hyperbolic nightmare

After yesterday’s fiscal update and everyone being revved up in the morning caucus meetings, it was close to a full house in the Commons for QP today with all leaders present. Rona Ambrose led off, describing the fiscal update as a “nightmare” of no jobs and higher taxes. Justin Trudeau reminded her that they lowered taxes on the middle class and that their infrastructure investments would create jobs. They went for another round of the same, and then Ambrose moved onto the planned closure of the Vegreville immigration processing centre. Trudeau responded with some bland points about the aid they’ve given to Alberta, but didn’t really answer the question. Ambrose then moved onto brandishing the name Kathleen Wynne as a segue to fundraising issues. Trudeau responded with the bland assurances about federal rules being the toughest and they were respecting them. Ambrose raised the issue of their ethical guidelines, and Trudeau assured her that they were following those guidelines. Thomas Mulcair read out the ethics section of the ministerial mandate letters, and Trudeau repeated that they were open, accountable and were accessible to all Canadians. Mulcair repeated him in French, and Trudeau insisted that they were open with their fundraisers. Mulcair asked Trudeau about the electoral reform townhall he head and what system got the most support — fishing for endorsement of PR. Trudeau didn’t take the bait, and praised consultations with Canadians on the subject. Mulcair came out and said that PR was reported to be the preferred system and why wasn’t he listening to “evidence” on the system. Trudeau gave some bland assurances that they were listening about the best way to reform the electoral system.

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QP: Tributes for Prentice

Half of the leaders were present in the Commons today, and after some tributes for the late Jim Prentice from all parties and a moment of silence, QP got underway. Rona Ambrose, mini-lectern on desk, asked about the size of the deficit, which is more than had been promised. After a quick rebuke about making investments, Justin Trudeau gave a tribute to Prentice of his own. Ambrose was concerned that jobs were not being created and demanded that he stop spending and focus on jobs instead. Trudeau noted that the Conservative approach didn’t create growth, while he was cutting taxes for the middle class. Ambrose then mischaracterized a whole list of things as taxes before decrying the possibility of a Netflix tax. Trudeau repeated his response about cutting taxes on the middle class. Denis Lebel was up next, decrying the lack of a softwood lumber agreement and how it was hurting families. Trudeau responded with the list of ways they are helping families. Lebel doubled down on the softwood lumber agreement, and Trudeau agreed that they were concerned about the file, but the former government’s broken relationship with the Americans didn’t help. Peter Julian led off for the NDP, demanding money for home care while mischaracterizing the changes to health care escalators. Trudeau reminded him that the Harper approach to healthcare was to write a check and not ensure that the money was spent on healthcare. Julian demanded that the health transfer escalator remain at six percent for another year, but Trudeau was not responsive to his logic. Brigitte Sansoucy repeated both questions again in French, and got much the same response from Trudeau in French.

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Roundup: Unger vs Black

Further to Senator Black’s resignation from the Conservative caucus, we have a couple of reactions – first, an interview with Black by Jen Gerson, in which Black expresses his excitement for the “uncharted territory” of greater independence in the Senate. Second, a somewhat bitter response from fellow “elected” Alberta Senator Betty Unger, who repeats some of Senator Plett’s accusations about Black’s attendance, and goes on to assert that senators should be in a caucus to give them some kind of accountability. Oh, and then there’s Kady O’Malley, who notes the “disappointment” of Senator Tannas in his response to Black’s decision, in which she reminds them in her own Pollyana-ish way that yes, they can still work together even if they’re no longer in caucus together.

Among the responses are some particular problems with the conceptions of how a caucus can and should operate, and part of that stems from the fairly unique situation of how the Senate was being run under the Harper government. Unger is correct in that being part of the national caucus brings more perspectives and allows more participation (which is one of the reasons why Trudeau’s decision to banish senators from his caucus was short-sighted), but her conception of caucus providing “checks and balances” to senators is a bit mystifying, particularly considering that there is little that a caucus could do to actually control a senator given that they have institutional independence under our constitution. Sure, they can threaten them with being removed from a committee or from participating in travel, but that’s the extent of it, and if a senator feels a particular conviction on an issue, then that’s a risk they can and have taken before.

As for Black, being part of a caucus in the Senate doesn’t mean that he is forced to toe any particular party line, whether they achieve consensus on a position or not. Granted, since he has been in the Senate, it was operating in a more tightly controlled environment because the Conservatives had largely trained their new senators to believe that this was the norm, that they could be whipped, along with some cajoling about how they needed to go along with things under the rubric of “you want to support the prime minister, don’t you?” And that would usually cow them into line, never mind that there are no actual levers of power for a government to assert in the Senate. Black and Unger both have always been in the Senate where they were told that there was this expectation, and now that they are in opposition and the party is in a leadership convention, they are suddenly finding themselves without that same comfortable feeling of obligation to the person who appointed them (never mind their “elected” status – it certainly didn’t mean anything for their “elected” predecessor Bert Brown, who insisted that senators had to dance with the one who brought them). Black obviously decided that he felt freer in this environment and wanted to push it further. That’s his prerogative; Unger feels the need for structure, and that’s legitimate, so long as she knows that she has that institutional independence and that there is no such thing as caucus control for a senator (and I’m not sure that she does, given her Senate “upbringing”).

But honestly – between the fetishisation of “independence” and the wrong-headed notion of “checks and balances” that don’t actually exist, neither are really on the side of the angels on this one.

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Roundup: Gratuitously rejecting amendments

It sounds like deliberations in the Commons justice committee are going about as well as expected, as they reject dozens of amendments related to the medical assistance in dying bill. It should be noted that they’re rejecting amendments from all sides – both the Conservative ones aimed at introducing further restrictions (which should probably just invoke the Notwithstanding Clause along with them because of how they further impede the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in Carter), and those NDP, Bloc and Green amendments that would make the legislation more permissive, and it sounds like only a couple of minor amendments have been accepted – one Liberal, one Conservative, both fairly technical. All of this is making be believe that we may be headed for a showdown with the Senate, as it sounds increasingly like they are unhappy with the current state of the bill and have grave concerns that it doesn’t meet the constitutional tests laid out in the Carter decision. This could make for a very interesting few weeks ahead if senators decide to dig in their heels – particularly Senate Liberals, who are likely to very clearly demonstrate their independence from the Liberals in the Commons as they take opposition positions on this government bill. We’ll see how far they’re willing to push it, whether they will amend the bill and send it back to the Commons, and if the government decides to push back or not, or accept the judgment of the Senate in its more independent state (as Trudeau has insisted he’s looking to make a reality). More likely, we’ll be subjected to weeks of pundits baying at the moon because how dare the unelected Senate dare to challenge elected MPs even though that’s the whole point of the institution in our constitution. I can hardly wait for that fun to start. Meanwhile, Aaron Wherry looks at how MPs are dealing with this issue in terms of consulting with their constituents for the upcoming free vote, and how their own religious convictions play into it. Of course, MPs always like to say all manner of things about what their constituents say and believe (and it almost always just happens to line up exactly with their party’s talking points, as if by magic), and given how completely spineless most MPs tend to be on tough issues like this, we’ll see how they wind up deciding when the final vote comes down.

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Roundup: Right vs privilege confusion

The government announced its intention to introduce new gun control legislation in the fall that will be “common sense,” designed to reduce red tape, but would include some new measures like mandatory safety courses and bans on firearms restrictions on those who have been convicted of domestic abuse. In particular, the government was motivated to ensure that those Swiss assault rifles are no longer prohibited, concocting a rather fanciful notion that owners of those weapons – which were reclassified as restricted – would somehow wind up in jail, though that has never happened with a gun reclassification before. Still, it was enough to rile up their gun enthusiast base. More troubling, however, was the fact that the minister referred to gun ownership as a “right,” which it most certainly is not in Canada. The Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that gun ownership in Canada is a privilege and not a right. When asked about this contradiction, the minister stated that “it’s a right that has responsibilities, it’s a privilege.” Which of course makes absolutely no sense at all because it’s one or the other, and the Supreme Court has already ruled.

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Roundup: Distraction sauce on the satellite offices

The Commons Board of Internal Economy met yesterday, briefly, but came to no resolutions about NDP satellite offices because an hour before the meeting, the NDP delivered more documents that the committee didn’t have time to consider. And meanwhile, Peter Julian put on a big dog and pony show about the “Kangaroo Court” that is the Board, and how they want it opened up, and so on. And that’s really where the whole narrative falls apart. This tactic of releasing more documents just before the meeting smacks to me of the same thing they tried when Mulcair was called before committee, where they produced untranslated documents – something they know won’t be distributed (and usually they are the first to complain, given their Quebec-heavy caucus). And then they want the doors thrown open, so that they can put on the same demonstration of obfuscation and bafflegab that Mulcair did at committee, where he not only talked around his answers, but made untrue allegations under the protection of parliamentary privilege (lest we forget the falsehoods about Conservatives co-locating party and MP offices), all the while every NDP staffer was on Twitter proclaiming that “this is what transparency looks like.” Indeed it was. That they rather transparently want to do the very same thing at Internal Economy makes it seem all the more reasonable for the other parties to say no. Thrown into this are their demands that the Auditor General audit everybody – in order to spread blame around – and demands that Internal Economy be blown up and replaced with a more open body (thus providing yet another ground for partisan showmanship, and depriving MPs and administration a place for full and frank discussion about administrative matters) all smacks of one thing – distraction sauce. Delicious, delicious distraction sauce. You’ll pardon me if I prefer my sauce on the side.

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