Roundup: Leaking cabinet confidences is a Big Deal

I will readily admit that I haven’t been keeping as close of an eye on the whole drama surrounding the suspension of Vice-Admiral Mark Norman from the post of vice-chief of defence staff, and the alleged leaks surrounding the contract to refit a supply ship for our navy (which currently has none, thanks to consistently bungled procurement processes). It wasn’t until this particular walkthrough from Murray Brewster that the elements of the story all started to crystalize, in part because we finally got some more details about just what was being alleged thanks to a judge ordering the release of information. Over the past couple of days, the extent of those backchannel conversations with certain shipyards and their aim – to use media leaks to publicly pressure the government to go a certain route when they were resistant – may seem like pretty insider stuff, but it actually has some pretty broad implications for our entire Westminster-system of government.

While you may have certain pundits who bemoan the case against Norman is thin gruel, especially in light of the whole lack of convictions in the ClusterDuff affair, I have to say that leaking cabinet confidences is probably a little more significant. As noted parliamentary scholar Donald Savoie notes in this piece, Cabinet secrecy underpins our entire system of government because it relies on government to act with one voice, and to stand and fall in unison rather than with ministers as individuals. Cabinet solidarity is a Thing, and it’s an important Thing. Cabinet secrecy ensures that there can be a full airing of views and that it’s not just a focus group for the prime minister, and this extends to the advice that the civil service is able to provide. There needs to be a certain amount of secrecy to that advice so that there can be a meaningful back-and-forth of ideas and discussion before a political decision can be taken, and then held to account.

What Norman allegedly did was to use his position as a servant of the Crown, who swore an oath to the Queen and not the government of the day, to further his own interests. He was taking the political decision, and allegedly leaking those cabinet confidences in order to force the situation toward his desired outcome. That not only violates the roles of the civil service (and military by extension), but it undermines cabinet government. We The Media may grouse about the extent to which things are declared cabinet confidence, but it is important – particularly because this government is practicing cabinet government more than its predecessors have been, or even many of the provinces. I’ve had conversations with current ministerial staff here who used to work at Queen’s Park who have attested that cabinet government is real here, unlike Ontario, where it was all controlled from the centre. Leaking confidences undermines this, and it is a serious matter – not just the thin gruel that some would have us believe.

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Roundup: Copping to privilege is not excusing it

Earlier in the week, Justin Trudeau was asked by VICE about the problem of people getting criminal records for pot possession when decriminalization is around the corner, and he related a story about how his late brother was once charged with possession and their father, with his influence and connections, was able to make those charges go away. And then the opposition went crazy with it.

Of course, Raitt is missing the point in that it wasn’t that Trudeau is endorsing one set of rules for the elites and one for everyone else. (Raitt, of course, is trying to use the “Trudeau is an elite and I’m just a Regular Girl™” line as her campaign platform, which is getting pretty tired). He’s acknowledging that the current system ensures that kind of outcome, which is why he’s looking to change it.

Thomas Mulcair, of course, couldn’t wait to rail about the “abject hypocrisy” of it all, and to repeat his demands that the government immediately put through decriminalization until legalization is sorted, as though this was something that the PM could just snap his fingers and do.

But no, that’s not how this works. Mulcair has been in politics to know this, which makes his concern trolling all the more disingenuous.

If you wanted a measure that could be implemented right away, then the provinces could opt not to pursue charges for simple possession (which I think is pretty much what is going on in most cases), because they’re the ones who have jurisdiction for the administration of justice and who can set their own prosecutorial guidelines. They could instruct their Crown prosecutors not to pursue simple possession charges – but that’s the provinces’ call, not the PM’s – again, making Mulcair’s calls disingenuous. Decriminalization also doesn’t serve the stated purpose of legalization, which is to regulate sale to keep it out of the hands of children and to combat the black market. But I’m sure we’ll be hearing about this for the next few days, unless the Trumpocalypse and the brewing trade war consumes the news cycle today.

Update: I am informed by lawyers that I’m on the wrong track, that the federal prosecution service deals with drug offences and that simple possession charges are still common among minorities and marginalized groups. So mea culpa on that one.

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Roundup: Harder seeks sympathy

I have to wonder if Government Leader in the Senate – err, “Government Representative” – Senator Peter Harder is starting to get a bit nervous about the viability of his proposal to reform the Senate rules, as he has started reaching out to sympathetic voices in order to give him some attention on the pages of the newspaper. We’ve seen two such examples in recent days, with a wholly problematic column from John Ibbitson over the weekend in the Globe and Mail, and now some unwarranted praise from Harder’s old friend from their mutual days in the Mulroney government, retired senator Hugh Segal. While Ibbitson’s column was a complete head-scratcher if you know the first thing about the Senate – they don’t need to “prove their value” because they do so constantly (hell, the very first bill of this parliament they needed to send back because the Commons didn’t do their jobs properly and sent over a bill missing a crucial financial schedule, but hey, they passed it in 20 minutes with zero scrutiny). And it was full of praise for the process of Bill C-14 (assisted dying), which is Harder’s go-to example of how things “should” work, which is a problem. And Segal’s offering was pretty much a wholesale endorsement of Harder’s pleading for a “business committee” to do the job he’s apparently unable to do through simple negotiation, so that’s not a real surprise either. But as I’ve written before, the Senate has managed to get bills passed in a relatively timely manner for 150 years without a “Business committee” because its leadership knew how to negotiate with one another, and just because Harder is apparently not up to that task, doesn’t mean we should change the rules to accommodate him.

Meanwhile, there is some definite shenanigans being played by the Conservatives in the Senate in their quest to have an inquiry into the Bombardier loan, and their crying foul when it wasn’t immediately adopted, and wouldn’t you know it, they had a press release ready to go. Conservative Senator Leo Housakos was called out about this over the weekend by Independent Senator Francis Lankin, and while Housakos continues on his quest to try and “prove” that the new appointees are all just Trudeau lackeys in all-but-name, Housakos’ motion may find its match in Senator André Pratte, who wants to expand it to examine other loans so as not to play politics over Bombardier. No doubt we’ll see some added fireworks on this as over the week as the Senate continues its debate.

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Roundup: It’s not really a $300/tonne price

A “secret memo” has been floating around from a couple of different news organizations, which purports to claim that a $300/tonne carbon price would be required to reach our emissions reduction targets, and of course, opponents of carbon pricing are lighting their hair on fire and saying “See! The Liberals are trying to destroy the energy industry!” And so on. Except that’s not what it says. It says that if no other measures were taken, that’s what the carbon price would be, but those are the only measures we’re taking. We’re doing a bunch of things with regulations and other programmes, not to mention that carbon prices can be the incentive by which industries will innovate and look for ways to reduce their emissions as it becomes a price incentive. You know, a free market mechanism instead of the heavy hand of government regulation. Regardless, the National Post version of the story has a bunch of perspective sauce, much of it courtesy of Andrew Leach, and I’ll leave you with some of his added Twitter commentary on the matter, much of it directed to Jason Kenney and Brian Jean in Alberta who are using this as “proof” that carbon pricing is ineffective and/or some nefarious scheme.

https://twitter.com/andrew_leach/status/847623276482281472

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Roundup: Dealing with problematic senators

While the focus one on one senator’s words regarding residential schools yesterday, a bombshell dropped late in the day with the Senate Ethics Officer’s report into allegations that Senator Don Meredith had an inappropriate sexual relationship with a 16-year-old girl, and that will no doubt fill the airwaves tomorrow. But while everyone is baying for blood, let me offer a few bits of context.

First, with Senator Beyak and her remarkably clueless statements about residential schools, no, the government cannot ask for her resignation as the NDP are demanding they do. The Senate has institutional independence in order to act as a check on government, so they are powerless. As for the demands that the Conservatives kick her out of caucus, that might do more harm than good because at least within a caucus, she can be managed and hopefully do less harm, and perhaps guided into some education on the subject rather than simply cutting her loose and empowering her to keep making this an issue. And while I think her statement is odious, I also don’t think she meant malice by it, but rather that she is utterly clueless by virtue of framing the issue entirely through her Christianity, and that’s a world view that she’s entitled to hold, no matter what we may think of it. (And seriously, don’t make her a martyr for her religious beliefs). So while I get that there are a lot of people who want to perform outrage and demand her head, I think everyone needs to calm down a little and think through what they’re demanding.

As for Meredith, the report now goes to the Senate ethics committee, but given that the Senate isn’t sitting for the next two weeks, we’ll have to be patient. There are already demands that he be removed, but without a criminal conviction, that’s very difficult to do, and the police opted not to charge him for this (possibly because the complainant stopped cooperating with the police, but I’m not 100 percent sure on that fact, so take it with a grain of salt). With the Ethics Officer’s report, however, one could hope that the police could reopen their investigation. That said, removing a sitting senator without a criminal conviction is almost impossible. There is the possibility that the Senate could vote unanimously to declare his seat vacant, but it’ll be a high bar for other senators to reach that point, because they’re going to want to ensure that he gets due process (which Senators Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau were not necessarily given at the time of their expulsion). But one can be sure that the Senate will want to take their time and deliberate on this one, so while it’s possible that we’ll see a suspension motion when they return, it could be a while before they decide on how to deal with him on a longer-term or permanent basis.

And barring that, maybe the Senate needs to consider a policy of phasing out certain senators…

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QP: KPMG and conspiracy theories

With the benches mostly full, the Chamber was ready to begin the grand inquest of the nation. After a moment of silence for an RCMP officer who lost his life in a car accident in Quebec, Rona Ambrose led off, asking whether the PM had answered questions from the Ethics Commissioner on his Christmas holiday. Trudeau simply stated that he was happy to answer the Commissioner’s questions. Ambrose pressed on the accountability angle, and Trudeau expounded upon the responsibility to Canadians and openness and transparency, but that was all. Ambrose pivoted to the lack of judicial appointments affecting the criminal justice system, for which Trudeau noted the appointments have been made, and noted the new process that was ensuring that more women, visible minorities and Indigenous get appointed. Ed Fast was up next, back from recovering from a stroke, and he demanded the government’s figures on the costs of carbon pricing. Trudeau welcomed him back but chided him for not understanding the new economy. Fast brought up hydro rates in Ontario, but Trudeau was unmoved, taking shots at the previous government’s record. Thomas Mulcair was up next, demanding action on tax havens, and wondered when the budget was. Trudeau noted the commitment to tax fairness, by didn’t give the date. Mulcair railed about KPMG and different rules for the rich, and Trudeau reminded him that they were engaged on the file. Mulcair demanded criminal charges, and Trudeau again reminded him that the file was still being investigated. Mulcair worried about CRA-funded advertorials, for which Trudeau reminded him that they employ a broad range of ways to communicate to Canadians.

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Roundup: Worst instincts for second-choice votes

As the Trumpocalypse serves up another “totally not just Muslims” travel ban south of the border, immigration references in the Conservative leadership race are certainly starting to pick up steam. Maxime Bernier started dropping not-so-coded references to “radical proponents of multiculturalism” who want to “forcibly change” the cultural character of the country (no, seriously), while Kellie Leitch offers up some of the questions her “values test” would include. Because you know, it’s totally not like people aren’t going to lie about the obvious answers or anything. Meanwhile, Deepak Obhrai says that statements like Leitch’s is creating an environment that could get immigrants killed, in case you worried that things aren’t getting dramatic. Oh, and to top it off, Andrew Scheer has a “survey” about terrorism that he wants people to weigh in on, and it’s about as well thought-out as you can expect.

https://twitter.com/maximebernier/status/838578590954446848

While John Ibbitson writes about how the Conservative leadership candidates’ anti-immigrant rhetoric is a path to oblivion for the party, I would also add this Twitter thread from Emmett Macfarlane, which offers up a reminder about how our immigration system in this country actually works, because facts should matter in these kinds of debates.

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Roundup: A reasonable plea for restitution

Retired Senator Sharon Carstairs is looking to be reimbursed for some $80,000 in legal fees after being caught up in the Auditor General’s report on expenses, and it’s a tale that exposes how shabbily many senators were treated in the wake of that report. To recap, that AG report essentially made up a bunch of rules that did not exist, particularly around how many days a year constituted “primary residency,” which Carstairs got caught up in. And in a rush to show the public that they were taking this report seriously, the Senate turned over the report directly to the RCMP, and Carstairs was left trying to keep her reputation intact, hence retaining counsel and trying to explain that she hadn’t broken any rules.

What needs to be repeated again with this story is just how problematic that AG report was. When the Senate later retained its own counsel to go over that report to see if they should try to sue any of the senators who had refused to repay or seek arbitration for the identified sums (which included Carstairs), that legal review laid bare the arbitrary rules that the AG imposed as part of his review, and essentially how shoddily it was done. And I know several senators who simply opted to pay back the sum rather than keep fighting it because they wanted it to go away – Carstairs refused, and it looks like she’s going to be punished for it, whether financially with the loss (the maximum reimbursement for legal fees under Senate rules is generally $25,000), but also with the loss of reputation. I would hope that the Senate has had enough time since the audit that they can now revisit this case and offer the apology and what restitution they can, and admit that they were hasty in their actions because they were trying to appease a public that was baying for blood post-Duffy, for what good it did them. I would also hope that more of my media colleagues would also start calling out the AG for the problems in his report when cases like Carstairs’ come up again in the media, but I suspect that won’t happen, as we pay far too much deference to him as being untouchable and infallible, when clearly that’s not the case.

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Roundup: Estimates still a mess

The Main Estimates were released yesterday in advance of the budget, and if you don’t know why this is a bad thing that keeps happening, then you need a better understanding of why this is such a big deal in our parliamentary system. The Estimates are the way in which parliament authorizes the government to spend money, and they should be there for MPs to scrutinize before the money goes out the door. The problem is that we’ve divorced the estimates from the budget cycle, which means that they are now documents that reflect the status quo of the previous year rather than any new measures, and we have to wait for the Supplementary Estimates to be tabled later in the year. With the Main Estimates reduced to a formality, it’s reduced any study of the Supplementary Estimates to a kind of shrug and quick vote to pass, leaving the Senate to do any actual scrutiny, which is a problem. Why? It’s the job of MPs to hold government to account by controlling the public purse – hence the Estimates – and if they can’t do that, they can’t do their jobs. To make this worse, successive governments have allowed the accounting of the Estimates to become virtually unreadable, and when the Public Accounts are released a year later – which shows how that money was spent – they’re reported in a different accounting system, so you can’t really track if money was properly spent or not. It’s an abomination to how parliament is supposed to work (and yes, this is one of those things I talk about in The Unbroken Machine).

To their credit, the Liberals have vowed to fix this, and Scott Brison seems to be at least showing a bit of contrition and frustration that fixing this is taking so long. Part of this is bureaucratic, with departments not speeding up their processes. Part of this is political, where the Commons hasn’t amended the Standing Orders to allow the Estimates to be tabled by May 1st instead of March 1st so that it can follow the budget. But seriously – this is actually the most important job of MPs, and they have shown a complete disregard for this for years now. Their most fundamental duty is to control the public purse and the Estimates are the heart of that process, and they can’t be arsed to take them seriously. Watching them speed through Estimates votes without proper scrutiny happens more often than not, and we saw last year a case where they voted through a flawed version of the bill that the Senate caught and had to send back. It’s a disgrace, and while I applaud Brison for trying to make changes, the fact that the rest of the Commons can’t get on board is utterly shameful.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg has a good look at the country’s fiscal picture in the lead up to the budget, while Paul Wells gets more hints about the budget, which looks to be a lot more wait-and-see given the unfolding Trumpocalypse south of the border.

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QP: Vote for my bill

Despite being in town (and just having a completed a call with the White House), Justin Trudeau was absent for QP today, for which I will scowl. Thomas Mulcair was still away as well, part of the GG’s state visit to Sweden, leaving only Rona Ambrose the only major leader present. She led off, trolling for support for her private member’s bill on mandatory sexual assault training for judges — something that is not asking about the administrative responsibilities of the government. Jody Wilson-Raybould said that it was an important topic and that she would review the bill as it came to the Commons. After another round of asking in French and repeating the answer in English, Ambrose raised the case of Justin Bourque to demand that consecutive sentencing laws remain in place. Wilson-Raybould reminded her that they are conducting a broad-based review, and that there are already the highest mandatory penalties on the books for murder. Ambrose asked about that Chinese company that bought that nursing home chain and wondered if they figured out the ownership yet, but Navdeep Bains repeated this assurances from yesterday about the review of the sale. Ambrose finished off her round asking about the government refusing to release information on their carbon price cost projections, and Catherine McKenna reminded her that there are also costs for not tackling climate change. Nathan Cullen led off for the NDP, spinning a small conspiracy theory about fundraising by the chairman of Apotex, for which Bardish Chagger reminded her that the Lobbying Commissioner found nothing amiss. Karine Trudel asked the same in French, got the same answer, and then spun another question about the government’s ethics, and Chagger reiterated her same points. Nathan Cullen then railed about the government caring only about billionaires and not average Canadians, and Chagger chastised him for ignoring the ways in which the government has been listening to Canadians.

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