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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QP: Tightly scripted tax concerns

On a sweltering Monday, Justin Trudeau was off in Toronto meeting business leaders, leaving the rest of us in Ottawa to suffer through the 40 degree humidex. Andrew Scheer led off with his now standard plaintive wail about how the proposed tax changes would kill “local businesses.” Bill Morneau reminded him that they were looking to restore fairness to the tax system, and after another stilted round of the same, Scheer read his script that since the PM wouldn’t answer, he would try the finance minister instead. In a word, pathetic. Alain Rayes was up next to reiterate the questions in French, and Morneau offered his very same points in French for another two rounds. Tracey Ramsey left for the NDP, complaining that the Americans haven’t brought forward any demands, particularly with the auto sector. Chrystia Freeland wanted people in the sector to know that they were looking out for their interests, and that autos were top-of-mind. Ruth Ellen Brosseau was up next and asked about the same in French, and she got much the same answer in French. Brosseau then moved onto the usual concerns about Supply Management, and Freeland assured her, once again, that they would protect it. Ramsey then repeated that exact same question in English, and Freeland repeated her previous answer.

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Roundup: Senator Greene’s lament

Conservative-turned-independent Senator Stephen Greene took to the pages of the National Post yesterday to decry Andrew Scheer’s plans to return the Senate to a more partisan institution by making partisan appointments, should he ever form a government and be in a position to do so. Much of Greene’s op-ed makes a series of good points, but at the same time, I find myself a bit leery of his particular conclusion that partisanship is a bad thing period. I agree with his points that a too-partisan Senate can simply act as a rubber stamp, which there were many cases that it appeared to during the later Harper years, when they had a comfortable majority in the Upper Chamber and simply went on neglecting needed appointments while letting their caucus be whipped into continued votes in support of legislation, no matter how flawed.

Where Greene’s analysis falls down, however, is the fact that while the tendency in a more partisan Senate to whip votes means there is less pushback against the government of the day, it fails to take into account that to a great degree, it’s not so much the final vote that matters in the bigger picture than what goes on the record. Courts rely on the parliamentary record to help determine what parliament’s intentions were when they are asked to interpret the law, and in cases where opposition parties in the Senate are unable to get enough votes to push through amendments to a bill, they can at least attach observations to it, and ensure that their objections are on the record – something the courts find valuable. The other aspect is that having senators in the caucus rooms provides a great deal of perspective to MPs because the Senate is the institutional memory of Parliament. Not having those voices in the caucus room, behind closed doors, can mean even more power for the leader because there are fewer people who aren’t constrained by the blackmail powers of that leader to not sign nomination forms, for example, who can push back and who can offer the cautions to the other MPs when the leader is overstepping their bounds. Not having those voices in the caucus room diminishes them, which is something that the Liberals have been dealing with (while Trudeau’s office centralizes yet more power as a result).

Greene also doesn’t seem to appreciate the fact that not having party caucuses in the Senate means that opposition is harder to organize, thereby advantaging the government of the day. It also makes ideological scrutiny of government legislation more difficult because a chamber of independents, especially when you have a mass appointed by a government on ideologically similar lines. That is an underappreciated element of the Westminster structure in the Senate that most modernization proponents continually overlook.

While I sympathise with many of his points, and I do recognise that there have been problems with how the Senate has been operating for the better part of a decade, partisan caucuses weren’t the sole cause of those problems. Breaking up the two-party duopoly has been a boon to the Chamber’s governance and management, and that’s why having a “crossbencher” component has proven to be extremely valuable. But doing away with party caucuses entirely is short-sighted, and causes more problems than it solves.

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Roundup: Disingenuous leadership promises

In the wake of the unity vote in Alberta on the weekend, there were a number of developments around the United Conservative Party yesterday morning, starting with the fact that one of the other PC leadership candidates who lost to Jason Kenney left the party, citing that it wasn’t going to be centrist enough. Meanwhile, the Wildrose house leader, Nathan Cooper, was named interim leader of the united party, while they get their Elections Alberta paperwork sorted. (Incidentally, the leadership is supposed to be decided by October 28th and the legislature not recalled until October 30th).

Brian Jean also tendered his resignation as Wildrose party leader, and made a bid for UCP leader by mid-afternoon. And that’s where some of the fun/frustration sets in.

These were two statements that Jean made, but they’re among the most problematic.  For starters, his promise on the carbon tax should be taken with a giant shaker of salt because by the time there’s an election in Alberta, there will be a federally mandated carbon price, and it would make absolutely no sense for a hypothetical Jean-led UCP government to withdraw the provincial tax only to be hit with a federal one that is designed roughly the same way – especially when the oil industry in Alberta has largely been behind the tax process because it offers them predictability and price measures that they can work with. And if Jean thinks that there will be a Scheer-led Conservative government federally who will cut the federal carbon tax, well, that sound a lot like counting chickens before they’re hatched.

The promise around equalization is even more nonsensical because there’s nothing that a referendum would actually accomplish. Equalization is a federal programme that comes out of the consolidated revenue fund. Alberta doesn’t write a cheque to Ottawa, who then turns it over to Quebec. Equalization comes out of the income taxes that everyone pays to the federal government, and is used to ensure that all provinces – especially those who don’t have a lot of revenue-generating potential – can offer roughly equal levels of services for things like healthcare. Alberta is a rich province. Its incomes are well above those in the rest of the country, and hence, they pay more income tax. That’s it. That’s how equalization works. If he thinks that he can somehow hold is breath and withhold paying, well, he’s utterly mistaken, and to promise otherwise is disingenuous, populist bilge. He can’t change the constitution either, so good luck with that. Sadly, because nobody actually explains to people how equalization works, people end up believing Jean’s nonsense.

Incidentally, Jason Kenney is expected to announce his UCP leadership bid this Saturday. Colby Cosh takes on the coming leadership contest here (and it’s a pretty cracking read).

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Roundup: Virtue signalling over Khadr

It’s official – Omar Khadr got his apology and settlement, but the terms of which are confidential (as is par for the course in most settlement offers), and now the Conservatives are really steaming mad. For his part, Khadr says that he hopes the apology and settlement will restore a bit of his reputation and help people take a second look at his case to see that there was more going on, but also notes that he is not really profiting from his past. While the ministers where quite neutral in their tone, when the parliamentary secretary accompanying them translated in French, he took the partisan shots that the government didn’t, which was odd. Later in the evening, the government put out further clarifications, no doubt bombarded with accusations of bad faith.

Later in the afternoon, Andrew Scheer took to the microphones to offer a take so utterly disingenuous that it borders on gob-smacking. Essentially, he argued that a) they should have spared no expense in fighting Khadr’s suit, and b) that the remedy for the Supreme Court of Canada decisions around Khadr was his repatriation, which is a complete and utter fabrication. And there’s a part of me that would have like to see them argue that case before the Supreme Court, if only to watch the justices there flay them before laughing them out of the room.

And then the rest of the weighing in, including Stephen Harper, who wanted to pin the blame on the current government, while Conservatives continued to virtue signal that no expense should be spared to give the appearance of fighting terrorists, never mind that this decision is about Khadr’s Charter rights being violated. For a law-and-order party to decide they want to cherry pick which Charter rights don’t apply to people they consider icky, well, that’s a pretty big problem right there.

Here are some further legal opinions on the settlement, while Craig Forcese offers a reminder of some of the legal points at play, including where successive governments screwed up and made this settlement necessary where they could have repatriated him earlier and put him on trial here, an opportunity now lost. There is also a reminder that the government didn’t disclose the details of earlier settlements with former terror suspects who were cleared of wrongdoing. Terry Glavin has little patience for how this was handled on all sides, while Susan Delcarourt sees signs that people are still open to being convinced about Khadr.

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Roundup: Lighting a fire under the minister

It’s been a year since the Supreme Court of Canada decision in Jordan, which set upper limits for trial delays, and so The Canadian Press had a couple of good pieces on it today, both looking at the fallout in terms of what needs to change in the justice system, as well as looking at the numbers of cases that have applied or been granted a stay of proceedings owing to delays that have been deemed unreasonable. I will note that while justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould says that the decision “lit a fire” under her, she’s been agonizingly slow in responding.

I write a lot for the Law Times, and I talk to a lot of players in the legal community, and there has been a sense of mystification as to what all of the delays are. The fact that it took her a year to start the process of reforming how judges are appointed was baffling, and that slowed down the process for making said appointments – especially as some of the committees advising on appointments still aren’t up and running, six months later. While more appointments are finally being made, it’s taken a long time and it’ll take even longer for those judges to be fully prepared and worked into the system.

There is the legislation that has been coming out in drips and drabs. For example, they made a big deal about a bill that would finally equalise the age of consent for gay sex, but then abandoned said bill to roll those provisions into a larger bill on doing away with “zombie laws” that have been struck down but remain on the books. How much time and energy was spent on that abandoned bill? We keep hearing about the big promised justice reforms promise – looking at the Criminal Code, sentencing, bail, the works, but we’re nearly two years in, and there’s still no sign of them. Yes, they’re big files, but this is nearly the halfway point in the mandate, and big, complicated files like that are going to take time to get through Parliament – especially in the more independent Senate where they will face pushback from law-and-order Conservatives who are looking to hold onto the “reforms” of the previous government.

And then there are the whispers about Wilson-Raybould’s office. There is a constant churn of staff, but not before great delays when it comes to actually filling positions, like the judicial affairs advisor – a pretty key role that took months and months to fill. And if these kinds of necessary staffing decisions are taking forever, what does that mean for the managerial skills of the minister? There are whispers in the legal community, and they’re not too flattering. So when Wilson-Raybould says that Jordan lit a fire under her, one shudders to think about the pace of progress had it not.

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Roundup: The Khadr settlement

News that Omar Khadr’s lawyers have reached a settlement with the government for some $10 million over his mistreatment and violation of his rights set off a firestorm, particularly among Conservatives, who took to the Twitter Machine to perform some outrage and to virtue signal, ignoring all of the relevant facts about the case, like the fact that he was a child soldier, that he was tortured, subjected to an illegal court process, confessed under duress to a made-up offence and pled guilty under similar duress, and the fact that thrice the Supreme Court of Canada found that we violated his Charter rights. (The government, incidentally, will only confirm that there is a judicial process underway, nor have any Liberal MPs joined in the online fray). And before you ask, no, this isn’t just something to be worn by the Harper government, but goes back to the Chrétien and Martin governments.

And it cannot be understated, no matter what Khadr is accused of having done (and there is much disputed evidence that he could have thrown that grenade), the reason he would be getting compensation is because Canada violated his rights. And while Andrew MacDougall may explore the partisan point-scoring on Khadr, we cannot escape the simple fact that, as Stephanie Carvin drives home, that we are now paying the financial price for violating his rights for no tangible benefit. I would add that this financial penalty should also serve as a deterrent to future governments who think that they can get away with violating a Canadian’s rights and there not be any consequences. Amidst this, that a party that purports to be concerned with “law and order” to have trouble grasping with the basics of the rule of law, and coming up with a myriad of disingenuous justifications for ignoring said rule of law, is troubling. Oh, and the widow of the soldier that Khadr is alleged to have killed, and the other he is alleged to have blinded, are applying to the Canadian courts to claim his settlement (but I would be curious to see, if it makes it to trial, if their claims would hold up in court considering that they are based on charges and evidence that would not have stood up to Canadian law).

Meanwhile, while all of this outrage is being performed, remember that these same conservatives who insist that he was fully capable of having the mens rea to commit war crimes (which there are no legal basis for) who also insist that fifteen-year-olds can’t consent to sex, or that they need parental consent to attend gay-straight alliance clubs at their schools. Because there’s so much logical consistency there.

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QP: Final accusations of the spring

One what was almost certainly the final sitting day (for real!), and after a number of statements for National Aboriginal Day (to be renamed next year), QP was on. Andrew Scheer led off, worrying that the changes to national security laws will make things too difficult for CSIS to do their jobs, per the fears of a former director. Justin Trudeau assured him that they we getting the balance right of safety and protecting rights. Scheer worried that security was being watered down, and Trudeau reiterated that they were getting the balance right. Scheer then changed to the issue of taxes and demanded he listened to the Liberal senators and stop the escalator taxes on beer and wine, and Trudeau reminded him that they lowered taxes on the middle class. Scheer railed about how they were hiking taxes on ordinary people (and no, cancelling a bunch of tax credits does not equal raising taxes), and Trudeau reiterated his response. For his final question, Scheer spun up a hyperbolic rant about all of the awful things the government has done, and Trudeau responded with a list of accomplishments and promises kept. Thomas Mulcair was up next, accusing the government betraying their promises to Indigenous people, and Trudeau assured him that they were committed to reconciliation and the relationship. Mulcair accused the government of breaking their promises on Access to Information, and Trudeau hit back that the NDP were completely absent on the transparency file. Mulcair worried about the Infrastructure Bank and the spectre of user fees, and Trudeau reminded him that they were looking for new ways to invest in the things Canadians need. For his final question, Mulcair railed about fundraisers, and Trudeau said that they were raising the bar and were exhorting the opposition to do the same.

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QP: Tired jabs and deficit questions

Nearly all the desks were filled on what was possibly the final QP of the spring. Andrew Scheer led off, concerned about the “astronomical” debt the Liberals were leaving behind (which, in absolute terms, is one of the envies of the world because it’s quite low). Justin Trudeau reminded him that they won the election on promises to invest. Scheer tried again, giving a lame “budgets don’t balance themselves” quip, and Trudeau again reminded him that they needed to invest after the previous government didn’t and hey, lower taxes for the middle class and the Canada Child Benefit. Scheer railed about all of the new taxes being levied (most of which were not new taxes but cancelled tax credits that had little efficacy), and the PM reiterated that he lowered taxes. Scheer jabbed that Trudeau had never been part of the middle class, and Trudeau hit back that boutique tax credits and lower taxes on the wealthiest didn’t help those who needed it the most. Scheer then turned to the new national security bill, saying it removed needed tools for law enforcement agencies. Trudeau noted that they were balancing community safety with rights and freedoms, and that they welcomed recommendations for amendments. Thomas Mulcair was up next, grousing that the government broke their promise on allowing Access to Information requests to ministers offices and the PMO. Trudeau simply noted that they made the biggest reforms to the bills and increased proactive disclosure. Mulcair tried again with added mocking, but Trudeau didn’t budge, and Mulcair then railed that they kicked journalists out of a party fundraiser. Trudeau reminded him that they have raised the bar on transparency and that other parties weren’t doing. Mulcair tried again in French, but Trudeau’s answer didn’t change.

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Roundup: Demanding ATIP perfection may be the enemy of the good

I find myself torn about the government announcement on new legislation to amend the Access to Information Act because on the whole, they made most of the changes that they promised to, but they failed to uphold one promise, which was to make the Act apply to the PMO and minister’s offices. And yes, We The Media let them know how displeased we were about it.

Part of the problem here is that like so many of their other election promises, it may have been a stupid one – kind of like their promise around electoral reform. Why? Because it was always going to be problematic to promise access to cabinet documents, and there’s a very good reason for that, because much of that information should remain private because it will otherwise damage the ability for there to be unfettered advice to ministers or between cabinet colleagues, and they need to have space to make these kinds of deliberations, otherwise the whole machinery of government starts to fall apart.

Like Philippe Lagassé says, the better discussion would have been to have specific proposals as to what falls under cabinet confidence. Currently the Information Commissioner has some determination around that, and with the changes in this bill, the onus will be reversed – the government will need to convince her (and if that fails, the courts) that information should remain secret, as opposed to her having to take the government to court to get that access. That’s significant.

There is a lot of good in these changes, but I fear that it will be lost amidst the grumbling that it didn’t go far enough. And let’s face it – sometimes We The Media are our own worst enemies when we use Access requests for cheap outrage stories rather than meaningful accountability, and then wonder why the government suddenly clamps down and turns to message control, and worst of all, nobody wants to talk about that problem. That may wind up making things worse for everyone in the end.

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