Roundup: Threatening marathon votes

Because apparently this Jaspal Atwal issue refuses to die, the Conservatives have decided to spend today’s Supply Day motion demanding that the Prime Minister instruct the National Security and Intelligence Advisory to attend the public safety committee and give the MPs there the same briefing he allegedly gave journalists (on background). Or else.

That’s right – in order to overplay their hands, they’re openly threatening to force some forty hours’ worth of votes on the Estimates as consequence for defeating this motion – because that doesn’t come across as petulant or childish. And while they couch it in the fact that they have a responsibility to hold the government to account – which they do – they’ve also been demonstrably obtuse about this whole affair. The different versions of what happen are not impossible to reconcile – they are, in fact, eminently reconcilable. The PM has defended the facts put forward by the senior officials, and have stated that they did not put him up to it. Media outlets have since dribbled out versions of “reviewing my notes” and toning down some of  their reporting of what was actually said to show that it wasn’t actually as inflammatory as initially reported as (because by the point at which it initially happened, they were focused more on wedging it into the narrative they had all decided on rather than acknowledging what was happening on the ground if it didn’t fit that frame). Nobody has acted responsibly in this – the government, the opposition, or the media. And digging in to entrench the narrative that somehow we have damaged relations with India (not true, unless you’ve conveniently forgotten the fiction about how it led to new tariffs) and that the trip was some giant disaster (forget the investments or the constructive conversations with Indian officials) is just making it all worse for everyone.

The bigger issue, however, is the fact that this committee is not the venue for this conversation to happen, and MPs are kidding themselves if they think it is. We have the National Security Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians to review this kind of intelligence data in confidence, and then issuing a report on what was said. Commons committees have been down this road before, and have actively damaged our national security and intelligence agencies because they can’t help themselves, and now they’re demanding the chance to do it yet again. There are proper ways to hold the government to account. This planned stunt and threat is not it.

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Roundup: What vice-regal appointment process?

Prime minister Justin Trudeau made two notable vice-regal appointments yesterday – new lieutenant governors for both Newfoundland and Labrador and British Columbia, both women (the first for Newfoundland and Labrador). While the new BC LG is the chair of Vancouver’s YWCA, the new Newfoundland  and Labrador LG is former cabinet minister Judy Foote, which seems like a curiously partisan appointment for a position such as this – especially when Trudeau keeps going out of his way to ensure that there are “independent, non-partisan” appointment processes to other key positions, most especially senators.

The point that none of the stories on these appointments made yesterday was that since Trudeau came to power, he dismantled the process that Stephen Harper put into place to find new vice-regal appointments in a depoliticized fashion. The Harper-era Vice Regal Appointments Committee was headed by the Canadian Secretary to the Queen, had two permanent members, and then had additional ad hoc members for whichever province or territory they had to search for candidates from in order to get the local perspective. Short lists were forwarded to the PM, and for the most part, they were appointments without partisan histories (though the last Manitoba LG appointment was the wife of a former provincial politician it does bear noting). When he came in, Trudeau and his people said that the system was working well, and that they were likely to continue it. Except they didn’t. They replicated portions of it for their Senate nomination committee, but dismantled the Vice-Regal Appointments Committee after they let the memberships lapse, including the post of Canadian Secretary to the Queen (which remains vacant to this day). And the only reason anyone can figure out as to why is because it was simple antipathy to the Harper government, regardless of whether the idea worked. Instead, appointments are made in a black box, and Foote’s appointment seems to indicate that he’s willing to let partisans into these posts in contrast with others.

And don’t get me wrong – I have nothing against Judy Foote personally, and I’m sure she’ll do a fine job, but the whole thing is a bit odd in the context of every other appointment process that Trudeau has put into place (which are interminable and can’t fill any position in a timely manner, Supreme Court of Canada excepted). There was a system that worked. What Trudeau has done instead makes no sense at all.

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Roundup: The big Mali announcement

The formal announcement was made yesterday – six helicopters (two medical evac, four armed escorts) and approximately 250 personnel are headed to Mali as part of UN peace operations, and while this initial deployment covers off for German and Dutch forces that are pulling out, time there will be spent evaluating other ways that Canada can help build capacity in the country, which will involve training troops from other countries. While there have been some 162 peacekeeper deaths so far in Mali, all but four of those are from less advanced militaries than Canada’s, and the four Western countries’ deaths were related to a helicopter accident and not hostile actions. Chrystia Freeland did a great interview that helps lay out more of the details as to why Mali and why it’s taken so long.

Opposition reaction has been swift, and a bit curious. The Conservatives are demanding a debate and a vote on the deployment (reminder: a vote is wholly inappropriate because it launders the accountability that the government should be held to regarding the mission), while the NDP keep pointing out that this will not fulfil all of the government’s peacekeeping promises (not that they have claimed that it would), while demanding more details. Former senator Roméo Dallaire says that this is a good deployment, and reiterates that Canadians training troop-contributing nations and mentoring those forces will help to modernize peacekeeping.

In terms of hot takes, John Ivison sticks to the point that this is a political move by the government designed to help them get their UN Security Council seat as opposed to having anything to do with national security – err, except that peacekeeping isn’t supposed to be about national security. That’s kind of the point.

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Roundup: Giving the PBO confidential data

In his report to parliament about the latest federal budget this past week, the Parliamentary Budget Officer made note that some of the information that they requested was given to them on a confidential basis – in order for them to check the maths, but not report on it public (at least for the time being). It’s a bit of an oddity that the PBO says it puts them in an awkward position, and it also raises questions about the government’s commitment to transparency.

Recently, the Department of National Defence gave the same kind of confidential information to the PBO regarding its 20-year expenditure plan, which one suspects may have to do with either sensitivities in the procurement process (remember that they have been insisting on particular secrecy declarations for those involved in the process), or not wanting to tip their hands on how they’re planning on rolling out their procurement just yet. Maybe. The government says that the budget information that was confidential was because it related to departments or Crown corporations whose information had not been approved by Treasury Board or vetted for release, which makes a certain amount of sense, and does give rise to concerns that the real stumbling block is the bureaucracy and not the government. Backing up this supposition has been complaints that Treasury Board president Scott Brison has made around his difficulty in getting departments onside when it comes to the process of reforming the Estimates, so that they reflect the budget rather than the previous fall economic update and subsequently relying on Supplementary Estimates in order to “correct” the spending plans to reflect said budget (and part of that problem has been ever-later budget releases that come after the statutory Estimates tabling dates). And our civil service, for all of the plaudits it gets internationally, is sclerotic and resistant to change, often exacerbating the “culture of secrecy” around any kind of transparency (though one also has to factor in a certain amount of incompetence around that secrecy – sometimes they’re not being secret for the sake of secrecy, but because they’re simply unable to find needed information).

There have been complaints from the pundit class that the Liberals have subverted the PBO in this manner of giving confidential information, but I’m not sure that I’m ready to go there. They could have simply stonewalled, forcing an escalation of tactics, but they didn’t. They wound up caving and giving the PBO way too much authority and way, way too broad of a mandate when they reformed his office and turned him into an Independent Officer of Parliament, and I will reiterate that they did turn over the information. The question is does this start a pattern, or is this a kind of temporary status while they continue to push the departments into making this kind of data available in a timelier manner, much like the Estimates? I’m not willing to make a final pronouncement just yet, but I am going to consider this notice, and will keep an eye on how this progresses (particularly because I do think Estimates reform is vitally important to Parliament, and if we have the same kinds of problems, then it’s a sign that there’s a systemic issue that needs to be dealt with).

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Roundup: 20 years of Vriend

There was a particular milestone that has personal significance to me yesterday, which was the twentieth anniversary of the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in Vriend v Alberta, where sexual orientation was official “read into” the Charter of Rights and Freedoms when it comes to protection from discrimination. Why it has particular significance for me was because this happened shortly after I came out, and in many ways, it opened my eyes to the cynicism of politics.

This was shortly after I completed my time as a page in the Alberta legislature, and I had become familiar with the MLAs who worked there. As a page, you have so many friendly interactions with them, as they ask about how you’re doing in school, and they sneak candy to you from the stash at their desks, and generally made you feel like a welcome part of the functioning of the chamber. But as the decision was rendered, the newspapers were full of statements from these very same MLAs whom I had come to like and respect that were full of vitriolic homophobia that it was very much like a betrayal of everything I had come to experience about them during my time as a page. Ralph Klein, who was the premier at the time, was also publicly mulling the use of the Notwithstanding Clause to opt out of the Court’s decision, but in the end, opted to respect it, and thus proving that so much of the trials and the foot-dragging by the provincial government was merely about the performance of having to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the present, and being “forced” to accept that gays and lesbians had rights. In other words, nobody – especially Klein, who was described by many as a liberal who adopted the Progressive Conservative mantle – had the political courage to stand up for what was right because they were afraid of the province’s Bible belt (which continues to be a thorn in the side of many to this day, with the battles of Gay-Straight Alliances in the province, and the “acceptability” in the former Wildrose party of the “Lake of Fire” comments by one of their MLAs, which eventually forced then-leader Danielle Smith to walk out, sinking the party’s fortunes).

So yes, this had a very formative impact on my political sensibilities, before I even considered journalism to be my career path. It forged much of my cynicism about electoral politics, and about the kinds of performative jackassery that is considered normal in the execution of political duties, and it especially gave me a real sense of the profiles in political courage that we see time and again, every time there’s a tough decision that MPs will defer to the Supreme Court, every single time, most recently with the decision to return the tougher decisions around medical assistance in dying back to the courts after the government refused to accept expert recommendations in their legislation. The pattern remains the same, even if the moral goalposts have shifted ever so slightly. So here’s to twenty years of Vriend, and to my human rights as a Canadian.

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Roundup: Jagmeet Singh’s past catches up with him

Yesterday was a bit of a day for NDP leader Jagmeet Singh. After the Globe and Mail published a piece that showed him at a 2015 rally of Sikh separatists in San Francisco under a banner featuring the armed extremists leader of the group that prompted the raid on the Golden Temple in Punjab, Singh put out a statement saying that he was there as a “human rights activist” and that he condemns terrorism – but was vague in just whom he was denouncing, which raised yet more questions.

Since then, more information came to light by the National Post which showed Singh at a 2016 panel devoted to Sikh sovereignty along with a particular leader who advocated violence, and another organizer later said that he appreciated Singh not denouncing the architect of the Air India bombing when he was on Power & Politics, essentially feeding the conspiracy theories that said architect was set up. And since even then, Ujjal Dosanjh has come out with video where Singh has denounced him as an opponent of Khalistani separatists. So, it looks like Singh could be in for a difficult time ahead as more questions get asked, and we’ll see if his comms team remains as cagey as they have been so far.

Paul Wells notes that Singh’s half-answers and the lengths to which he’ll go to give clear answers demonstrates that he is, after all, a lawyer. Martin Patriquin notes that Singh will have a hard time saying that he can support Sikh separatists with regard to Khalistan while opposing Quebec separatists in Canada.

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Roundup: Scheer’s British adventure

Conservative leader Andrew Scheer is off to London to talk about a possible future free trade deal with a post-Brexit UK if he were to become prime minister. Which is odd, because the current government has already said back in September that they will lay the groundwork for this very kind of free trade deal once the path to do so is clear, and it won’t be clear until after Brexit happens because the UK literally can’t negotiate until then. (They also may not be able to afterward by the sheer fact that they don’t actually have any negotiators in their civil service, as they’ve all been working for the EU parliament since the 1970s). It’s an open question as to just how appropriate it is for Scheer to go over there to talk trade – even the hypothetical possibility thereof – given both his position and that of the UK government at present.

A couple of  other observations:

  1. Scheer’s people are trying to sell this as “relationship building,” right after they derided a trip by Trudeau doing the very same kind of work in India as a trip without substance and being dubbed a “family vacation” with a few meetings tacked on. (Oh, look – yet more disingenuous and mendacious framing. How novel).
  2. Said people are also trying to bill this as taking advantage of “generational change” as the UK gains “independence,” and as a new market for Canada to enter into in the age of a protectionist United States. Err, except the UK market is pretty small, and in no way could actually replace what the US market is for us.
  3. The Canadian Press story makes no mention that Scheer was a Brexit supporter at the time of the referendum, and it’s likely not a stretch of the imagination to see Scheer going there to try and lend succour to Brexiters in the midst of very live political debates, to assure them that they have Canadian allies should he become prime minister in a few years (and indeed, the fact that Scheer has used phrases like “independence” in relation to Brexit is telling). And again, the appropriateness of this becomes an open question.

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Roundup: A return to “bold” policy

The federal NDP had their biannual policy convention over the weekend, and Jagmeet Singh’s leadership was “reaffirmed” when some 90 percent of delegates voted not to have a leadership review. So they’ll keep giving him a chance despite his intransigence in not running for a seat, apparently. And while they got a new party executive, and talked about how they need to do better when it comes to dealing with the harassment allegations in their own ranks that went ignored (particularly around Peter Stoffer), they also decided it was time to return to “bold” policy ideas after a fairly timid electoral platform the last time around. Not so bold, mind you, as to embrace the Leap Manifesto, which went unspoken during the convention despite rumours that it would rear its head once again, but rather, they went for things like universal pharmacare, dental care, and free tuition – you know, things that are the ambit of the provinces. Oh, and re-opening the constitution, as though that’s not going to be any small hurdle. (The free tuition debate, meanwhile, took over Economist Twitter over the weekend because the NDP’s adherents have a hard time understanding how a universal programme actually disproportionately benefits the wealthy rather than applying targeted benefits that would benefit those who are less well-off).

Chantal Hébert, meanwhile, finds the same core message of the NDP unchanged despite the changing slogans. There is some disagreement about that.

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Roundup: Begun, this wine trade war has

The dispute between the NDP governments of Alberta and BC picked up intensity as Alberta decided to ban future purchases of BC wine within the province – without the consultation of groups like Restaurants Canada – and everyone is demanding that Justin Trudeau step in and do something. Anything. Never mind that Trudeau did just days ago tell audiences in Edmonton and Nanaimo that the pipeline was approved and that it was going to get built, and that it was part of the deal that came with stronger environmental laws.

There are a couple of problems in all of this. For one, there’s nothing for Trudeau to actually do at this point – BC hasn’t done anything yet besides put out a press release, and they actually can’t do anything. There’s nothing they’re actually doing at this point for Trudeau to step in and stop. It’s all just rhetoric at this point. And ultimately, this is all politicking, because Rachel Notley needs an enemy to fight against to show Jason Kenney’s would-be voters that she’s doing the job, and John Horgan is holding onto power only with the support of the three Green MLAs in his province, and he needs to keep them happy, so he’s making noises to do so. Add to that the federal Conservatives are amping up the rhetoric to try and “prove” that Trudeau isn’t really on the side of the industry, or that he’s secretly hoping that these delays will make Kinder Morgan think twice about the project like what supposedly happened with Energy East (never mind that what happened with Energy East had more to do with Keystone XL being put back on the table and being the better option for TransCanada to pursue), everyone is trying to score points. So, until there’s something that Trudeau can do, maybe everyone should hold their gods damned horses and not make the situation worse.

Incidentally, Jagmeet Singh has been dodging questions on this very issue, trying to play his own politics while other levels of NDP government battle it out. So there’s that.

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Roundup: Procedural shenanigans beget the new anthem

There has been some drama in the Senate over the past couple of days as the procedural shenanigans to bring the national anthem bill to a final vote culminated in a motion to call the vote, and eventually that happened. The bill has passed, and the new national anthem will be law once the Governor General gives it royal assent. But the procedural moves have the Conservatives in a high dudgeon, somewhat legitimately.

My understanding of events was that the main motion to call the vote has been on the Order Paper for months, and was finally called Tuesday night. This was a debatable motion, and likely would have sparked a few weeks of adjournments and debate, but ultimately would have delayed the vote for only that long. But a second, also legitimate procedural move was used by another Independent senator immediately following, and Speaker apparently didn’t hear Senator Don Plett’s desire to debate it. What I’ve been able to gather is that this was likely a mistake given lines of sight, but were compounded by tactical errors on the Conservatives’ part in demanding to debate the first motion and not the second (or something to that effect). Points order were debated last night, but they had agreed to end the sitting at 4 PM in order to have the votes at 5:30, and when they didn’t get unanimous consent to extend the sitting, debate collapsed and when 5:30 rolled around, the Conservatives boycotted the vote in protest. According to those I’ve consulted, the moves were all legitimate but messy, and have the danger of setting up bad precedent for not allowing debate on this kind of motion.

The Conservatives in the Senate, meanwhile, are caterwauling that their democratic rights have been taken away, and there is talk about conspiracy between Mélanie Joly’s staff, and other threads that are hard to track when they’re throwing them against the wall like spaghetti. And while I share the concerns about bad precedent, I can’t say that I have too much sympathy because they’ve used (and one could argue abused) procedure for over a year to keep the bill at Third Reading, with the intent to ultimately delay it until it died on the Order Paper. They insist that they offered the chance to amend it to the more grammatically correct “thou dost in us command” rather than the clunky “in all of us command,” but I find it a bit disingenuous, because it was simply another delay tactic. And I’ve argued before that this continued tendency to use procedural tactics to delay bills is going to end up biting them in the ass, especially because it plays into Senator Peter Harder’s hands in his quest to overhaul the chamber in order to strip it of its Westminster character. The Conservatives are overplaying their hand, and it’s going to make it very difficult to drum up enough legitimate concern to stop Harder when crunch time comes, and they should be very aware of that fact.

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