QP: All sound and fury

Caucus day, and all of the leaders were present, and just a few minutes before things got underway, Andrew Scheer went to the microphones in the Foyer to demand Bill Morneau’s resignation. So there’s that. Scheer led off, mini-lectern on desk, and he read some condemnation about Bill Morneau’s numeracy and economic prowess. Justin Trudeau offered a correction in return — lowered taxes, economic growth, more money for the vulnerable, and so on. Scheer switched to English to repeat the accusations, wondering why Morneau was still in cabinet, while Trudeau reminded him that the point of Prime Minister’s Questions was supposed to be about backbenchers asking the PM questions. Scheer the went into the disingenuous questions about the supposed ethical lapses, including the insinuation of insider trading, and Morneau got up to say that everything has been reported in the press, and if the opposition wants to make any clear accusations, they should do so in the House, and in the Foyer. Scheer tried twice more, and Morneau reiterated his counter demand. Guy Caron was up next, repeating the same insinuations and wondering why the PM wasn’t demanding a clear answer. Trudeau said that Caron obviously wasn’t listening, as he just answered. Caron tried again in English, with an added dollop of sanctimony, and Trudeau assured him that everyone was answering questions and then praised their economic growth record. Alexandre Boulerice listed all of the supposed ethical lapses, only louder and angrier, and Trudeau invited them to make their clear allegations outside of the Chamber. Nathan Cullen said that they had repeated the questions outside, and repeated the allegations, and Trudeau mocked the response with some added jabs at how badly they lost in the last election.

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Roundup: Foreign fighters and the fear industry

As the issue of returning jihadis continues to ramp up, with some frankly irresponsible journalistic stirring of pots along the way, it’s important that we take a breath and listen to some of the experts who study this kind of thing for a living.

To that end, Ralph Goodale was on CTV’s Question Period yesterday, talking about how it’s unlikely that most of those who return could be rehabilitated (which is assuming that those who return are hard-core jihadis and are not likely women and the children they had while over in there), which is again countered by yet other experts who say that it is possible to rehabilitate them, but it requires careful effort.

But the thing that we should be most aware of is the fact that there is an industry dedicated to fear in Canada, and we should be very cautious of feeding into it – especially if it’s simply for partisan point-scoring, or even for the sake of a sensational headline. And we are seeing a lot of this partisan point-scoring right now, with the Conservatives insisting that the government is being “soft on terror” by welcoming the worst murders back with hugs and government dollars for said rehabilitation, which is completely not the case – but hey, we’re in an era right now where the truth is hardly anywhere to be seen in the opposition benches as everything needs to be wrapped in a disingenuous and mendacious frame in order to amp up the drama, for the sake of sharing it on their social media channels, damn the consequences. And there are consequences, such as the reports of people trying to confront Trudeau about those returning jihadis during that swarming at the mall in Scarborough, no doubt whipped up by the fear industry. We should have a sense of responsibility around a serious topic like this, but I’m not seeing much of one.

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Roundup: Union concoctions and opportunism

In the event that you’ve tuned out of the Bill Morneau/Bill C-27 conspiracy theory – and if you have, I don’t blame you – there was a big fuss a few days ago made of the fact that the postal employees’ union made a big deal about trying to get the Ethics Commissioner to investigate this weeks ago, and now that Nathan Cullen managed to get Mary Dawson to turn her attention to it, they’re crowing with a bit of victory, and still demanding that the bill be withdrawn. Given how ludicrous the whole story remains – remember that government bills are tabled on behalf of the cabinet as a whole, and that ministers don’t sponsor bills because they have a personal interest in them, but rather because they need to answer on behalf of their departments – I’ve largely just rolled my eyes at ongoing coverage, but it was flagged to me a couple of times yesterday that Terence Corcoran wrote a piece about how this little episode proves some of the underlying dynamics behind this ongoing campaign against Morneau and his integrity – that it’s less about any actual ethical issues than it has been about trying to get him to withdraw Bill C-27, because it’s antithetical to the interests of unions and their desires to ensure that everyone has a defined benefit pension plan (even though the economics of that demand aren’t there, and that the actuarial tables will show that they haven’t been sustainable because people stopped smoking two packs a day and are now living longer).

The problem with Corcoran’s piece is that it really only applies to the NDP’s interests. After all, the Conservatives were talking about targeted benefit pensions for years, and were making moves in that direction, which is why Morneau, in his previous life, was talking about their virtues – a cardinal sin in NDP eyes. But for the Conservatives, this is simply a matter of opportunism – they think that they can wound him, and if they have to play along with the NDP to do it, so be it they will. And thus, we are enduring day after day of attacks in QP that are showcased with mendacious framing devices and disingenuous questions, unrelated facts arranged in ways to look damning, never mind that they don’t line up with reality or with our parliamentary norms (such as this absurd demand that the Ethics Commissioner should have somehow vetted this before the bill was tabled. That’s now how our system works, and it would have been a violation of cabinet secrecy and parliamentary privilege). But even as opportunistic as this is, one has to wonder how much longer this will last.

One of the most veteran reporters sat with me in QP yesterday, and asked me this very question – how long can they hope to stretch this story? There’s little basis to it, and yet day after day, they carry on with these absurd demands for information that are already publicly disclosed, and outrage that is running on fumes. Meanwhile, actual, verifiable problems that should be addressed are going unsaid, day after day. It’s a little mystifying when you actually stop to think about it.

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Roundup: Blame Dawson or the system?

As the Bill Morneau imbroglio starts to fade behind the outrage du jour, being the Paradise Papers, Andrew Coyne decided to take another crack at the issue, this time taking a swing at Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson and her handling – or mishandling – of the whole affair from the beginning. The problem of course is that Coyne’s piece relies heavily on commentary from local civically illiterate crank and guaranteed quote machine Duff Conacher, for whom everything is evil and wrong, and why he hasn’t yet been labelled a vexatious litigant by the courts is beyond me. Regardless, it cannot be denied that yes, Dawson herself is a problem, but not the only problem.

A few days ago, Andrew Potter wrote a piece in the Globe and Mail about the whole sordid history of why we have the Commissioner position in the first place, and why it has always been a problem. And he’s right in pointing out that the point of this position has been politicized from the beginning, but as with so many of our watchdog or “Independent Officer of Parliament” positions these days, they exist as much to deflect problems onto as they do to act as the instrument by which the opposition can use as both a cudgel to launch their attacks, and a shield to hide behind if there is any counter-fire.

And to that end, we can’t simply blame Dawson herself – as much as she is and always has been part of the problem. Much of that lies on MPs themselves, who created the regime, wrote rules that don’t include ethics guidelines, and when presented with the litany of problems with the legislation, shrug and make minor tweaks without addressing the big stuff. And it happens constantly, so when imagined scandals happen, they can scream and rail that just following the rules isn’t good enough, but that the alleged transgressor must have known better and should have exceeded them. Never mind that it’s a nonsense frame to put around issues, but these are also the same rules that those MPs put into place. Saying that the rules they created for themselves aren’t good enough is galling, and one has to constantly ask why they didn’t create rules that were good enough in the first place if they knew that there were problems – and yes, they did know, because Dawson herself identified them. It’s childish politics, and just manages to make a farce out of their feigned outrage (not surprisingly).

Meanwhile, Conacher managed to get a whole piece out of the Star by complaining that the government is wrong in saying there aren’t enough qualified candidates for the Ethics and Lobbying Commissioner positions because he applied for the Lobbying Commissioner position and hasn’t been chosen. Err, that may be a reflection on you, Duff, and this exercise in your ego may be part of the reason why you’re not chosen.

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Roundup: Paradise Papers problems

Big explosive revelations yesterday as the Paradise Papers were released – a major document dump on more offshore tax havens and those who use it. Canadian connections include the head of fundraising for the Liberal Party, Stephen Bronfman, whose family trust holds assets there, the family of a former senator, while three former prime ministers – Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin have tangential connections to accounts there, as does the Queen. And while headlines may describe Bronfman as a “close advisor,” the party is disputing that label.

The bigger concern seems to be that Bronfman’s long-time law firm lobbied successive governments against going after more offshore tax havens. (Funnily enough, it was the Conservatives who cut funding for CRA to do this kind of investigative work, while the Liberals reinvested in it). The question for the CRA in all of these revelations is whether these funds were managed in Canada – which would break the rules – or whether they were managed from their offshore locations. CRA, incidentally, says it won’t hesitate to investigate these new revelations, which is consistent with the messages we’ve been hearing from them since they got more money for this kind of work.

As for the Queen’s indirect involvement in this, investments made by her Duchy of Lancaster holdings have an indirect stake in a rent-to-own company accused of exploiting the poor by way of these offshore funds.

And now the political reaction. While the NDP will piously shout a chorus of “we told you that you should be going after offshore tax havens!” the Conservatives have already put out press releases describing this as having to do with cozy friends of the Liberals and that this is somehow hypocritical of their fighting for the middle class – never mind that I didn’t think that Mulroney was a Liberal, or the fact that most of these connections are fairly tangential and that there is no evidence of any wrongdoing. But hey, this is about “Liberal aristocracy” and not the “little guy” that they now profess to fight for. (Remember the days when the Conservatives were the party of Bay Street? Me neither).

And Question Period today? I can pretty much guarantee you that after Andrew Scheer makes his dig about Trudeau not standing up for people of faith after the Governor General’s speech the other night (and four days later, the pundits still haven’t gotten up off of their fainting couches from it), it will be endless rounds of questions about these “Liberal insiders” hiding money offshore, tying Bill Morneau to this by way of the Morneau Sheppel/Barbados conspiracy theory, and Diane Lebouthillier will be up constantly to say that this government is going after tax evaders where the previous government cut funding, and that “the net is closing.”

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Roundup: The stages of scandal

Kady O’Malley has a piece about the five stages of a Canadian political scandal, and wonders just where the current Bill Morneau imbroglio lies along it. While she’s probably not wrong in that it’s likely hovering near the end-point, I would like to just take a moment to point out that most of this whole affair has been fuelled by weak-sauce allegations and conflated facts, and this particular air of desperation as people keep flinging the equivalent of spaghetti against a wall in the hope that something inevitably sticks.

And there is a complete air of desperation in the latest developments in this case. Bill Morneau paying a $200 fine for failing to disclose his stake in the ownership structure of his French villa – he had disclosed the villa itself – was turned into wails that he was a law-breaker, or that the fine was somehow a sanction for a “conflict of interest” that was never a conflict. And the NDP tried to move a motion to get Bill C-27 withdrawn, because they sailed a conspiracy theory that somehow there was a conflict of interest with a bill that they opposed for ideological reasons, in order to come at a different angle of attack on it. And while is no actual conflict with the bill, it keeps being reported uncritically as though there were.

And that’s probably what gets me the most irritated about these so-called political scandals, is that many are started by poor reporting on thin facts that are designed to be sensational, with follow-ups that are bigger and bigger reaches to the point where it’s a series of mind-numbing conspiracy theories being floated, each of which get amplified in QP. For what? I’m failing to see how imaginary scandals are holding government to account. There are so many other issues that have substantive policy issues that should be debated or explored, and we keep chasing these non-stories because we think there’s blood in the water. But by all means, keep chasing this phantom menace. It’s doing our democracy wonders.

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QP: Numbered company vs numbered company

With it being Hallowe’en, we all braced ourselves for terrible themed references and questions. All of the leaders were present, as was Bill Morneau, so it was likely to be another repetitive day. Andrew Scheer led off in French, mini-lectern on desk, raising the comments of the former Commons law clerk about Bill Morneau’s affairs, and Justin Trudeau first noted that the rules were followed, and then reminded them that previous ministers in the former government had similar arrangements. Scheer tried again in English, and got the same response with a more pointed dig at his Scheer’s own financial arrangements. Scheer returned to French to first say that he disclosed his holdings (as did Morneau — seriously), and tried again, and this time Trudeau was far more pointed about the Conservatives attacking the integrity of the Commissioner, and listed the other officers and judges that they attacked while in office. Scheer raised Morneau’s numbered companies, and Trudeau reiterated his previous answer in English. Scheer tried to land a blow about how this was not about the Commissioner but about Morneau himself, but Trudeau decided to go all the way to reminding his opposites that they were the only party to have been found in contempt of Parliament. Guy Caron was up next for the NDP, and raised their demand for the Ethics Commissioner to come before committee, to which Trudeau said that he welcomed any attempt to tighten rules. Linda Duncan was up next, and demanded that the “loopholes” be tightened, for which Trudeau said that the two ministers who held assets indirectly no longer did — pointing to Morneau and Jody Wilson-Raybould. Duncan turned to the issue of methane emissions, and Trudeau pointed out that they were making progress while still growing the economy. Caron tried again in French, and got much the same answer.

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Roundup: There is no conflict with Bill C-27

Of the many Morneau Shepell conspiracy theories going around the past few weeks, the one that probably irritates me the most is the Bill C-27 iteration, especially in the way that fellow reporters and pundits will opine on the topic. The theory goes that Bill Morneau is allegedly in an “apparent” conflict of interest because a) when he was with Morneau Shepell, he advocated for the creation of targeted benefit plans; b) when he became finance minister, he sponsored Bill C-27, An Act to amend the Pension Benefits Standards Act, 1985, which allows for the creation of targeted benefit plans in federally regulated sectors, and c) because he still had shares in Monreau Shepell (albeit indirectly) that it would enrich him if the bill passed, and hey, the share price of Morneau Shepell went up when the bill was tabled (never mind that it returned to its former price weeks later). It’s all ludicrous when you actually understand what’s going on, but since the NDP proffered this latest theory as part of Morneau’s alleged misdeeds, it’s been repeated uncritically, and it’s starting to get on my nerves.

First of all, last I checked people get into politics all the time to advance issues that they care about, and Morneau was a recognized expert on pensions. And pension reform was one of the things he was charged with undertaking when he became finance ministers. The pension debate has been going on for years, and targeted benefit plans are a recent iteration that several groups, including CARP, have been advocating for. Now, the NDP are opposed to them because they think that everyone should get a defined benefit plan like was the case in the 1950s, never mind that the actuarial tables don’t actually support them anymore, given that people stopped smoking two packs a day and dying early. (No, seriously – talk to an economist and they’ll tell you that this is a real thing). And Morneau Shepell is just one company that deals with administering these kinds of plans, and C-27 would not mandate them – it would simply give federally regulated industries the option to use them.

But the bigger issue is this notion that it was somehow inappropriate for Moneau personally to sponsor the bill. The problem? That ministers don’t sponsor bills as individuals. Government legislation is put forward on behalf of the government – meaning Cabinet as a whole. A minister sponsors the bill as the office holder because they have to answer for how this bill affects their departments, and in this case, it’s the Department of Finance. If there was a cabinet shuffle tomorrow and someone else became finance minister, it wouldn’t affect the bill because the office holder sponsors it to respond on behalf of the department. It has little to do with Morneau himself, and ministers don’t sponsor bills because they’re interested in the subject matter. (Note: This is why it’s a problem that there is no Government Leader in the Senate to sponsor government bills introduced in the Senate). Trying to say that it was inappropriate for Morneau to sponsor this bill, or that it can’t go ahead under his name, is civically illiterate nonsense, and reporters should know this. But they don’t.

As for Morneau’s shares, if they had been in a blind trust, we would likely still be having this conversation because he would have still been making money on them if they increased in value as they were gradually divested at a pace nobody would know about. A blind trust is not some panacea, but people have glommed onto it like some kind of ethical talisman. That’s likely why Mary Dawson said that an ethics screen was a more appropriate mechanism, and lo, it was established; likewise, it’s why she was apparently surprised by Moreau’s decision to divest his shares – because it’s unnecessary, but a number of pundits have declared that this is the thing to do without necessarily thinking it through. Also, Dawson didn’t say she was “concerned” about C-27, or that she was about to launch an investigation into it – she said she would follow-up with Morneau, and I’m pretty confident that she is going to come back and say that there is no actual issue here.

And this is partially why I’m getting tired of this constant wailing and gnashing of teeth about Morneau’s “apparent” conflicts – because if you actually stop to think about them, there are no apparent conflicts. The “appearance” of conflict has been put forward by people lining up information in a way that looks bad in order to make political gain, and We The Media have been repeating it uncritically rather that running it through a bullshit filter and declaring that yup, this is bullshit. (Most especially the attempts to drag the Bank of Canada and the Bombardier loan into this). But there is also some Tall Poppy Syndrome at work here (Morneau’s wealthy? Well we couldn’t have that!), and this urge by some of the punidtariat to moralize without thinking through the facts, while at the same time the Twitter mobbing ramps up. We really haven’t been doing our jobs here.

My last thought on this is that this is really endearing the Ethics Commissioner position for someone to apply for it. Given the strict requirements, and the fact that this latest episode has demonstrated that MPs can’t get their act together on their own ethics regime (seriously – they adopted this system, refused to change it when the flaws were pointed out, and then turn around an insist that the it’s not enough to just follow the rules that they put into place), I’m increasingly having a hard time imagining someone wanting to take on this job. We may wind up with Mary Dawson in this job forever.

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Roundup: Not headed for a debt bomb

In light of the fall economic update, and the myriad of concerns about the level of the deficit and lack of a plan to get to balance in the near term, economist Kevin Milligan took us all to school over Twitter yesterday. The main message – that it’s not 1995, and we can’t keep talking about the deficit as though it were.

Later on, Milligan took exception to the notion that the government has backtracked on their tax reform promises and made the situation worse. Not so, he tells us.

So there you have it. Armchair punditry on deficits or tax changes (even from some economists) doesn’t necessarily stack up.

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Roundup: Economic update choices

The fall economic update was released yesterday, and while the rapid pace of economic growth has meant more revenues and a smaller deficit, it also means that the government isn’t going to put too much more effort into getting back to balance anytime soon, keeping the focus on reducing the debt-to-GDP ratio instead (which is going down faster). Instead, finance minister Bill Morneau insisted that they would be “doubling down” on investing in the middle class, mostly by indexing the Canada Child Benefit to inflation earlier than planned, as well as enhancing the Working Income Tax Benefit (and I will note that this part of his speech seemed to be one where Morneau acknowledged that singletons existed and needed a hand up too). There was some additional programme spending in there as well (for more, the National Post outlines eight things in the update).

https://twitter.com/LindsayTedds/status/922923497008984065

While the economy is growing at an enviable pace, it could put the government and the Bank of Canada in a bind as the need to start withdrawing stimulus measures comes to the forefront, and deciding whether fiscal or monetary policy should make the first move. There is also a marked shift between last year’s update and this year’s in that the focus is moving away from longer-term goals to short-term ones (and that could be political reality setting in). Critics accuse the government of using the update to try and change the channel on the recent headlines around Bill Morneau’s assets and disclosures, while Andrew Coyne gives his signature scathing look at the choices of the deficits, and around the rapid growth in government spending.

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