Roundup: Bad takes versus obstinacy

The bad takes continue to roll in on the Canada Summer Jobs brouhaha – so many bad takes – all of them written by straight white men who can’t fathom that these “sincerely held” religious beliefs that women and LGBT people shouldn’t be allowed to have equal rights, are in fact actual points of contention rather than some kind of Liberal Party demand for ideological orthodoxy. There seems to be not a clue that the governing party’s values are such that they have the gall to suggest that if you believe that women or LGBT people don’t deserve equal rights and you actively campaign against those rights, then maybe you don’t need taxpayer funds.

This isn’t to say that the government has done a stellar job of communicating this effectively, nor have they done a great job in drafting the wording of this attestation they want groups to sign. That’s fair criticism, and even pro-choice groups are saying hey, maybe you should clarify that language a bit so that you’re not freaking out the religious groups, and of course, the minister is obstinately saying no, I’m good with the wording as it stands – and I’m sure that they’ll be true to form and back down and agree to amend the wording after they get in another two or three weeks of self-inflicted damage, particularly after a week or two of mind-numbingly repetitive questions in QP about how this is all about feeding Christians to the lions, or some such bullshit – but we’ll hear all about it, and the Liberals will let this self-inflicted damage carry on until then.

This having been said, I’m at the absolute limit of my patience over the assertion of the pundit class that “if it had come from Conservatives but in reverse, there would be an uproar across the land.” That’s a quote from Chantal Hébert on The National on Thursday night.

There was uproar when the Conservative defunded anything to do with abortion internationally, and if you remember then-Senator Nancy Ruth’s blunt advice to women’s groups to “shut the fuck up about abortion,” it was well-meaning advice to stop poking the bear (for which she was unfairly castigated and her words being taken entirely out of context). Let’s not pretend that outrage didn’t happen then. Meanwhile, there was a hell of a lot less outrage when the Conservative defunded any LGBT festival or group that used to be funded, and the one time that they did give tourism funds to Toronto Pride, they got so petty about damage control that they literally trotted out Brad Trost to ritually humiliate the Minister of State, Diane Ablonczy, in order to placate their social conservative base.

“Two wrongs don’t make a right!” was the common Twitter response to this, and no, they don’t. My point, however, is that every single government engages in this kind of thing based on their values, and we can’t pretend that they don’t, or that this isn’t unique to the Liberals, nor can we pretend that the Liberals are getting an easier ride than the Conservatives did, because there wasn’t that outrage across the land when LGBT groups lost funding, or when HIV/AIDS service organizations lost funding, or when the Harper government pissed away millions in funds from the Gates Foundation in HIV prevention because they engaged in petty bullshit around local politics over facilities. Some of us covered those fights, and they didn’t get weeks of coverage or a plethora of terrible hot takes in national newspapers because that government was petty and ideological as opposed to inept about their communications strategy like the current one is.

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Roundup: On Scheer’s tolerance

It’s been a day since the Globe and Mail interview with Andrew Scheer came out, and yet I haven’t been able to shake some of what he says in the piece, particularly about how his is supposedly the more “tolerant” party. In it, Scheer lists a couple of areas where he lists the virtues of his party’s tolerance – for anti-abortionist views, and his curious view about how to deal with the LGBT question with a party that welcomes social conservatives. On the former, Scheer used the opportunity to re-litigate the issue of trying to appoint Rachael Harder to the chair of the Status of Women committee (never mind that the committees are supposed to pick their own chairs, and that it made no sense to put the critic in the chair position, since the chair is ostensibly supposed to be neutral, which your critic should not be). Why is this example salient? Because it was an example of Scheer acting like a Dollarama knock-off brand provocateur, trying to deliberately set off the leftist opponents to demonstrate how intolerant lefties are in the style that the alt-right has become so fond of doing. Just because your party’s values include social conservatism doesn’t make you more tolerant, particularly given how they denounce other small-l liberal values as “virtue signalling” and so on. Having different values is why different political parties exist.

The part that stuck in my craw a little more was Scheer insisting that just because he doesn’t want to march in a Pride parade, it doesn’t mean that he’s not supportive, pointing to his motion to condemn Russia for the persecution of LGBT people in Chechnya, and the fact that he supported the apology to those persecuted LGBT Canadians. What gets me is that he’s patting himself on the back for the bare minimum – that people don’t deserve to die or be persecuted. But what this does is miss the difference between equality on paper, and substantive equality, and this is something that the Conservative government seemed to struggle with as well. We don’t want other countries to kill gays, but we won’t do anything to meaningfully advance their equality, so they can stay second-class citizens. Or as I sometimes darkly muse, why kill the gays outright when your systematic marginalizing of them drives them to depression, addiction, and suicide instead? And to make it clear, Scheer’s language of “tolerance” is just that – being seen to tolerate something that much of his party’s base finds distasteful, and tolerance is a far cry from respect. So you’ll forgive me if I find Scheer’s assurances that he is “supportive” to ring entirely hollow, because that’s not the language or actions of support.

Meanwhile, the Globe and Mail’s editorial board did call out Scheer for his contradictions in that interview, questioning whether he really is the right person for the job.

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Roundup: The coming Senate legislative crunch

While the legalized cannabis bill passed the House of Commons last night and is off to the Senate, questions about the kind of reception it will find there are sure to be buzzing about in the days to come. While the bill’s Senate sponsor wants a process akin to the medical assistance in dying bill to take place (something I find overzealous and ignores the context of what happened then), it’s unlikely to happen that way, and we may see the Conservatives in the Senate trying to dig their heels in. But it’s still early days, so we’ll see.

With this in mind, I wanted to turn to Kady O’Malley’s Process Nerd column yesterday, where she looked at how the Senate could gum up the government’s end-of-season legislative plan, as they try to push through a number of bills before the Commons rises in just under three weeks. The Senate is already seeing a growing backlog of bills on its Order Paper (a function I’m told has to do largely with the Government Leader in the Senate – err, “government representative” and his unwillingness to negotiate with the caucuses in there on timelines), and will likely sit up to the 22nd to try and get most of them passed. But what O’Malley described in the refusal by the Senate to engage in pre-study of the budget implementation bill as being a sign that of uncertainty, I will note that the circumstances around this demand for pre-study were unusual from a procedural standpoint. As he outlined in his speech against the pre-study motion, Senate Liberal leader Joseph Day pointed out that the point of pre-study is for the Senate to do a parallel committee process and send recommendations to the Commons before they complete their own study so that they have the chance to make amendments that the Senate proposes at that time. The problem is that this particular bill had already reached Report Stage in the Commons before the motion to pre-study was moved in the Senate by Senator Harder, meaning that the opportunity to offer amendments had already passed, and there was no actual cause for pre-study, and what Harder was looking to do was short-circuit Senate procedure for his own scheduling purposes, and well, the Liberals were having none of it. And in the end, neither were the Conservatives and several of the Independents.

And this is one of the things that I think O’Malley missed in her column – that part of the problem in the Senate right now is that the leadership (meaning Senator Harder) is not exactly doing the government any favours with his inability to manage the legislative agenda in that chamber, especially when he tries to do an end-run around the rules to suit his purposes. It will be a problem if he keeps this up, because the veterans in that chamber won’t stand for it.

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Roundup: Phoenix transactions and rules culls

Public services minister Carla Qualtrough sent a letter to public servants apologizing for continued Phoenix pay problems as the number of backlogged transactions reaches 520,000. But that’s what I think needs to be highlighted here – these are transactions, not public servants being affected, which we don’t have a clear number on. Part of why there are so many backlogged transactions – and likely to be growing for the short term – is because the new collective agreements came into force, which add new complications to the ongoing transactions, so while those get sorted, the backlog may continue to loom large. Apparently, there was also a recent chance in how these were being addressed, so we’ll see how much of an effect that has on the outstanding transaction total.

Meanwhile, public service union PIPSC is calling on the government to cull the number of convoluted pay rules that are currently clogging the system, but this is one of those issues where I’m not sure that they may be a wee bit disingenuous. PIPSC maintains that it’s all Treasury Board’s fault that there are so many rules, because they’re the ones who ensure there are all of the exceptions around overtime or acting status, and so on, and that they should be the ones to do the cull. But as Kathryn May points out, there is a reluctance to do this, even by means of special negotiations, because the unions are very touchy about any particular changes that they might see as rolling back any employee’s rights or benefits. And if you don’t think the reluctance is real, if memory serves, the last public service strike happened when the government wanted to phase out some old classifications with few employees in them, and the unions balked. (I also seem to recall that the deal they ended up getting was possibly worse off to save these obsolete classifications, which soured many of the public servants that I knew on the whole thing). So yeah, there are problems with the vast number of pay rules in place, and that has certainly had a detrimental effect on the whole Phoenix pay system, but I think that if the unions aren’t engaging in any self-reflection over this, then that may be adding to the problems.

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Roundup: A cynical membership ploy

Oh, Alberta politics. For the place where I first got cut my political chops, you continue to fill me with such…outrage, particularly with how you’ve so bastardized the way in which leadership contests are supposed to run. The former Progressive Conservative party was a good example of how our system could be so debased as to turn those leadership contests into quasi-primaries that they became a direct election of the premier through instant party memberships, and usually block votes to groups such as teachers, for whom leaders like Alison Redford became indebted to. This time, it’s the antics of the upstart Alberta Party that has me fuming.

For those of you who don’t know, the Alberta Party is a centrist party of mostly hipsters and academics that aims to try and find the sweet spot of the province’s political pulse, while also not being associated with the heretofore tainted Liberal brand. (Disclosure: I was friends with one of the leadership hopefuls in the previous contest, and am friends with a previous candidate for the party in the last election; both, incidentally, are academics). And with the demise of the amorphous PC brand and its quasi-centrism in favour of Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party and its decidedly more right-leaning brand, there is optimism within the Alberta Party that hey, maybe they can attract some of the former PC types fleeting for greener pastures. And so with that in mind, the current leader (and up until a week ago, holder of their only seat in the legislature, until an NDP defector joined the ranks) decided he was going to resign.

But – and here’s the catch – he just might run for the position again. And admitted yesterday that his resignation is a ploy to drive party memberships. And this is the part that makes me crazy, because it reinforces this sick notion that has infected our body politic that the only real reason that the grassroots membership exists any longer is for the purpose of leadership contests. And while sure, that’s important, it continues do drive this growing push that makes these contests into quasi-presidential primaries that centralises power in the leader’s office because the selection (and subsequent ability to remove said leader) rests outside of the caucus – though I will grant you that for Greg Clark, that was a caucus of one until just now.

And I get that at this point, the Alberta Party is one that isn’t as centrally-driven as other parties, and where there is trust in candidates about policy matters that they’re not just parroting talking points (so says my friend who ran for them), and that’s great. But it’s also indicative of a party without seats (which they had none until the last election), and without a taste of power. But it nevertheless follows the pattern that memberships – which Clark is trying to drive – is all about the leadership, and not about the nominations, or the grassroots policy development, or being the interlocutor between civic life and the legislature. And if they do manage to attract a bunch of former PCers, that could be either great for them, or their own demise as that party’s former culture takes over the party (which isn’t necessarily a great thing). It’s a risky move that Clark made, and it may present a change for the political landscape…or it becomes one more cynical exercise in bastardizing the meaning of grassroots party memberships. I guess we’ll have to see.

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QP: Decrying a fictitious pardon

While Justin Trudeau remained away at the APEC summit, and with Andrew Scheer elsewhere — despite having been present for caucus just hours before — it was up to Lisa Raitt to lead off QP, and demanded to know if Liberal fundraiser Stephen Bronfman was under CRA investigation for his inclusion in the Paradise Papers. Diane Lebouthillier simply stated that they were treating tax evasion seriously and had invested in fighting them. Raitt stated that since the PM assured reporters that he was satisfied with Bronfman’s explanation, she accused him of interfering with the investigation.  No change in Lebouthillier’s answer. Raitt then, incredulously, declared that the PM had “pardoned” Bronfman and railed about separate rules for Liberals than anyone else. Lebouthillier reminded her that she can’t comment on individual cases, but hey, the Conservatives didn’t treat this like a priority. Alain Rayes tried the same lines again in French on two separate occasions, but Lebouthillier remained unmoved, adding in some points about good economic news. Guy Caron was up next, noted his party’s call to bring Bronfman and former Senator Leo Kolber before committee and demanded to know if the Liberals would support them. Lebouthillier assured him that CRA now has the capability to check every tax return. Alexandre Boulerice repeated the question in French, got much the same reply, adding that committees are the masters of their own destiny. Boulerice selectively quoted a couple of Liberal MPs who had noted that there was no demonstrated illegality in the papers, and Lebouthillier repeated the points about investment in the CRA. Caron got back to demand the government change the law to close loopholes, but Lebouthillier reiterated the billion-dollar investment in CRA.

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QP: A promise that action is being taken

While the Prime Minister was off to the APEC Summit, the rest of the leaders were present in the Commons for what was likely to be a repeat of yesterday’s gong show. Andrew Scheer led off, mini-lectern on desk, and in French, he read a condemnation of the prime minister’s silence on tax havens, demanding to know when he knew about his fundraiser’s offshore holdings (which said fundraiser disputed). Diane Lebouthillier listed off the measures that the government has taken to combat tax evasion — a billion dollar investment in the CRA, which has led to 980 investigations, 42 criminal investigations of structures abroad, a list of pending criminal charges, and billions in potential recoveries. Scheer reiterated it in English, got the same answer, and when Scheer gave his standard disingenuous talking points about the government going after small businesses while leaving their wealthy friends alone, Lebouthillier reminded them that when they were in power, they didn’t treat tax evasion as a priority. Alain Rayes took over, gave some hand-waving about the Sponsorship Scandal (no, seriously), and Lebouthillier reiterated her list. Rayes complained that CRA wouldn’t publish the tax gap data, and Lebouthillier listed even more facts about combatting tax evasion. Guy Caron was up next, demanding the government stop defending the CRA. Lebouthillier made a quip that she had more expertise than Caron did about fishing (which I’m not sure translated as well in English), and gave her usual rebuttal. Alexandre Boulerice demanded action against tax havens, and Lebouthillier reminded him that it was a priority in her mandate letter, which is why they hired auditors to tackle four jurisdictions per year. Boulerice demanded renegotiated tax treaties, and Lebouthillier listed more actions yielding results. Caron got back up to repeat the demand for renegotiations in English, and Lebouthillier stuck to her guns — and talking points.

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QP: Here’s how your riding benefitted!

A rainy Wednesday in Ottawa, and all of the leaders were once again in the Commons, awaiting QP — three days in a row! It’s been a long time since that happened. Andrew Scheer led off, mini-lectern on desk, reading a stilted condemnation of Bill Morneau. Justin Trudeau reminded him that they have an Ethics Commissioner to protect the integrity of the institutions. Scheer insisted that it only works when they disclose, as the villa was not (not entirely true — the villa was disclosed but not the ownership structure), and Trudeau reiterated that they have confidence in the Commissioner. Scheer tried to press on when he learned about the villa’s ownership corporation, and Trudeau reminded him that they have a habit of attacking officers of parliament. Scheer accused the government of “hiding” things from the Commissioner — not really true — and then demanded to know if the Ethics Commissioner was advised of Morneau’s recusals, and Trudeau offered the lecture on the importance of opposition and why it was important to have a Commissioner that was above that. Scheer demanded to know if the Commissioner was advised before Bill C-27 was tabled, and Trudeau reiterated that they work with the Commissioner constantly. Guy Caron was up next, leading for the NDP, and read out statements that Trudeau made about leadership and accountability during the Harper era, and accused him of not living up to his word. Trudeau insisted that he has raised the bar with openness and transparency, and after a second round for the same in French, Marjolaine Boutin-Sweet repeated much the same question in French. Trudeau reminded the House about their move for proactive disclosure that the NDP balked at. Boutin-Sweet repeated the question in English, and got much the same reply.

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Roundup: Abandoning a fiscal anchor

In yesterday’s National Post, economist Stephen Gordon cast a critical eye on the fall economic update and the government’s excuse for running deficits, and the decision to abandon the fiscal anchor of balanced budgets in favour of a declining debt-to-GDP ratio. And rather than worrying about the non-existent debt-bomb, Gordon is mostly looking for answers why the policy shifted post-election. Fair enough. (He also does the math on how much more a government can spend by shifting the fiscal anchors like the government did here).

Enter fellow economist Kevin Milligan, who digs through and finds an answer. Enjoy.

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Senate QP: Infrastructure questions

The first Senate ministerial Question Period of the fall was the return of Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi, his third time before the Senate in such a manner. Senator Larry Smith led off, raising the government’s financial reports and the PBO report talking about delays to Infrastructure spending rollout, and wondered why things were so slow. Sohi noted the approval process and the lag time that was part of it, and that they will pay invoices as they are forwarded to the federal government. Smith noted the Senate national finance committee study on infrastructure spending, and Sohi noted that they had streamlined some of their processes and eliminated some of the the paper burden, but they were still working toward simpler bilateral processes with the provinces based on four funding streams.

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