Roundup: The Order Paper is not a race

The House of Commons has risen for the season, but still has a number of bills on the Order Paper slowly working their way through the process. And as usually happens at this time of year, there are the big comparisons about how many bills this government has passed as compared to the Conservatives by this point. But those kinds of raw numbers analyses are invariable always flawed because legislation is never a numbers game, but is qualitative, as is the parliamentary context in which this legislating happens.

Part of the difference is in the set-up. Harper had five years of minority governments to get legislation in the wings that he couldn’t pass then, but could push through with a majority. He went from having a Senate that he didn’t control and was hostile to his agenda to one where he had made enough appointments (who were all under the impression that they could be whipped by the PMO) that it made the passage of those bills much swifter. And they also made liberal use of time allocation measures to ensure that bills passed expeditiously. Trudeau has not had those advantages, most especially when it comes to the composition of the Senate, especially since his moves to make it more independent means that bills take far longer than they used to, and are much more likely to be amended – which Trudeau is open to where Harper was not – further slowing down that process, particularly when those amendments are difficult for the government to swallow, meaning that they have taken months to either agree to them or to come up with a sufficient response to see them voted down. And then there are the weeks that were lost when the opposition filibustered the agenda in order to express their displeasure with the initial composition of the electoral reform committee, the first attempt to speed through legislation, and the government’s proposal paper to “modernize” the operations of the Commons. All of those disruptions set back legislation a great deal.

This having been said, Trudeau seems to remain enamoured with UK-style programming motions, which he may try to introduce again in the future (possibly leading to yet more filibustering), because it’s a tool that will help him get his agenda through faster. So it’s not like he’s unaware that he’s not setting any records, but at the same time, parliament isn’t supposed to be about clearing the Order Paper as fast as possible. Making these kinds of facile comparisons gives rise to that impression, however, which we should discourage.

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Roundup: Embattled ministers sticking it out

With three cabinet ministers currently “embattled” (to various degrees), Aaron Wherry wondered about the drop-off in actual ministerial resignations, and found the comparison to the days of Brian Mulroney, who was far quicker to accept resignations than is customary these days. Mulroney came to regret this, mind you, but it can’t be denied that the demands for resignations have never left us, and in fact are pretty rote performance by this point. That the Conservatives made their demand for Bill Morneau’s resignation without any real damning evidence as to why it’s necessary has made it seem as unserious as it actually is, making it harder for them in the future to make a legitimate demand.

But with that having been said, I’m going to say that there’s something that Wherry has left out in his analysis, which is the way in which Cabinets are constructed is a different calculation now than it was in Mulroney’s day, and that matters. Back then, the dominant concern was federal construction, so while you had to ensure that you had enough ministers from certain regions, and some token diversity in terms of religious or cultural background, with a woman or two in the mix, it was easier to swap out white men for one another when it came to accepting resignations and replacing them. That’s not really the case right now. Trudeau’s pledge for a gender-balanced cabinet that is also regionally representative as well as diverse in terms of race and ethnicity means that there are far fewer options for replacing ministers when it comes time to either accepting resignations, or swapping them out for fresh blood. What that ends up doing is creating an incentive for a prime minister to stick by an “embattled” minister (though I’m not sure just how serious any of the allegations against any of the current ministers really is – the attacks against Morneau are largely baseless, while Lebouthillier has done her due diligence with regard to the AG’s report and has technically been correct in what she’s said regarding the disability tax credit; Hehr, meanwhile, has been chagrinned but I’m not sure there is a cardinal sin here in the grand scheme of things). Sure, there will be a few tough days in the media, but eventually, when there turns out to be nothing to what is being said, the storm passes. It passed with Harjit Sajjan and Maryam Monsef (who was given a promotion for sticking with the flaming bag of dog excrement that was the electoral reform file), and I’m pretty sure it’ll pass for the current three. Until Parliament itself is more diverse than it is now, the demands for a representative Cabinet means that there are fewer options available for a Prime Minister to accept a resignation. What it does mean, however, is that they need to get a bit better around communications and managing the issues that do come up, but also seems to be a recurring theme with this government.

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Roundup: Another run refused

Over the weekend, the NDP made a big deal out of the fact that new leader Jagmeet Singh was “going home” to Windsor, a city where he grew up. But immediately upon arriving, he told reporters that no, he had no plans to run for a seat in the area. Never mind that he a) doesn’t have a seat currently, b) has a connection to Windsor, and he says he wants to run in a riding that he has a connection to, and c) he has three seats in the region which are relatively safe for the party, all of which are conducive to his actually doing the time-honoured thing in our system of getting one of those three MPs to temporarily step aside and let him run for a seat there in their stead for the next couple of years. And it’s not like the party won’t be able to come up with some kind of job for the displaced MP for those two years – they have found work for other displaced MPs, and hell, they could even put him or her to work in the local riding office to keep that connection going, and top up their salary from party coffers rather than pay Singh from them outright for the next two years. But no.

Meanwhile, Guy Caron is in the House of Commons four days a week, and apparently is taking a bigger hand in running the staff in the leader’s office in Ottawa (given that Singh can barely be arsed to be in Ottawa even once a week), which leads me to wonder what exactly Singh’s role as party leader actually is. Furthermore, how is he able to actually wield any authority, either with the caucus or with the staff in the leader’s office, if he’s never there? And if I’m Charlie Angus or Niki Ashton, who did better than Caron in the leadership and who are now back to their old critic roles with nothing more to show for it, I’m probably getting pretty sore that Caron, who came in last, is now the de facto leader. If I’m an NDP supporter, I’m also probably pretty concerned that Singh has immediately sidelined himself into the role of a figurehead who has no institutional role, wields almost no authority, and is merely there to tour the country, give a couple of speeches and have a few photo ops.

Nothing about this situation is acceptable in a parliamentary democracy, and absolutely no part of this is acceptable when it comes to defending Parliament itself. By insisting that parliament is irrelevant, Singh is doing fundamental damage to the institution in the eyes of Canadians, and that should raise the red flags of everyone. How can you lead a party that wants to win more seats in an institution when you personally can’t even be bothered to do so? It’s perverse, and people in his party need to start demanding that either he respects our system of government and gets a seat immediately, or maybe it’s time to find a leader who can.

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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: Share sales and the sputtering outrage cycle

As the full-blown moral panic into what financial assets cabinet ministers own continues, we see the news that Bill Morneau has indeed sold off his shares in Morneau Shepell, for what it’s worth. Not that it will stop any of the chatter at this point – the outrage cycle continues to exhaust itself, and until some new outrage crops up, we’ll continue hearing about this as it sputters and runs on fumes.

And hey, why not find out what every other cabinet minister owns? The Star did, and I’m not really sure how edifying this whole exercise was in the end. Never mind that once again we’re reaching the point of absurdity with all of this. Are there problems with the ethics and conflict of interest legislation? Probably. Were loopholes identified previously? Yup. Did MPs do anything about it then? Nope. Do they really have an interest in closing any of them now? Probably not (and no, the NDP motion that the government voted down was not indicative of anything because it also contained a bunch of other stuff, as these things so often do, that was designed to embarrass Morneau and the government had they voted for it. Because in politics, we can’t have nice things). And once you add in all of the tall poppy nonsense, we’re left with the same tiresome moralizing that we’re always left with when it comes to “perceived” conflicts that aren’t actually there but which were invented out of whole cloth with the convenient lining up of “facts” that don’t pass the bullshit filter. And then we complain that nobody wants to get involved in politics.

Meanwhile, the Liberals are pointing out that Andrew Scheer has assets in Real Estate Limited Partnerships that are really only for the wealthy. Predictably, the Conservatives cite that he’s worth only a fraction of Morneau, and then cries of hypocrisy flew from both sides, and the outrage cycle continues to chug along.

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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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Roundup: A surprise by-election win

In the two federal by-elections that took place last night, it was no surprise that the Conservatives won handily in Sturgeon River–Parkland riding that Rona Ambrose used to hold. Mind you, the newly elected MP there, Dane Lloyd, may prove to be uncomfortable given his past history of saying some fairly controversial things, but that’s now Andrew Scheer’s problem to manage. The real surprise, however, was that the Liberals won the Quebec riding of Lac Saint-Jean, the former riding of Denis Lebel. Why is it so surprising? Because for a Conservative riding where the NDP were a close second in the 2015 election, this time around it was a Liberal victory, with the Conservatives barely managing second place, the Bloc in a close third, and the NDP a distant fourth. And this was the Liberals’ weakest Quebec showing in 2015 and a riding that they haven’t held since 1980.

So can we draw any conclusion from these results? Probably not yet – it’ll probably take a few days to suss out the data and get a sense of what happened on the ground, but it does bear mentioning that the of the three opposition parties, all of them had new leaders, and each of them spent a fair bit of time in the riding over the past couple of weeks, hoping to drum up support. That the Conservatives lost the riding may simply be indicative that the riding was more loyal to Lebel himself than the party he ran for (remember that he was a former mayor from the region), but it can’t be a ringing endorsement of Scheer either. And while the pollsters are all out in force talking about the Liberals’ fall from grace in their polling numbers lately, the fact that the Liberals still managed to win a seat that the Conservatives held, even amidst weeks of headlines about tax changes and Bill Morneau’s assets, in a region where they didn’t have any historic strength, probably still says something about the party’s appeal nationally. Maybe it’s about the collapse of the NDP vote in Quebec, which could possibly be a harbinger of things to come under Jagmeet Singh? Maybe it’s the appeal of sock diplomacy and selfies? Suffice to say, it’s going to be an interesting few days for all of the parties as they figure out what happened, and prepare for the next round of by-elections.

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Roundup: Another CRA overreach?

It came up in QP at the end of the week, and then on a rare Sunday afternoon press conference, where the Conservatives are accusing the government of going after the disability tax credit, particularly when it comes to diabetics. I’m not sure that this is “the government” per se, and not CRA wielding its authority, especially when you add in the recent furore over the folio on employee discounts, where they were looking to enforce some Tax Court decisions, but not necessarily communicating the specifics in the best way possible. Now, the CRA says that nothing has changed with this particular tax credit, and that they’re in fact trying to make it easier by re-hiring nurses that had previously been fired in order to process these claims, but I guess we’ll have to wait and see if there is a decent response from the government on this (as opposed to some more pabulum around tax fairness for the middle class and so on), but one would trust that they would want to get on top of their messaging for a change, rather than letting the Conservatives keep up with this drip-drip-drip narrative. That said, I’m not sure that “this is another tax grab to pay for Trudeau’s out-of-control spending” is the best message, since most of what these measures collect are mere rounding errors. That said, this might also be CRA flexing its muscles now that it has more resource to do this kind of work, when they were merely treading water beforehand.

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Roundup: Morneau’s pabulum problem

Oh, Bill Morneau. After weeks of rough treatment, and the last week most especially, it’s no wonder that he was getting a bit testy when the questions kept coming up yesterday. That he snapped at a journalist just got our backs up because how very dare he, and so on. But it’s hard not to see how this is almost entirely a mess of his own making. Not just the fact that he didn’t divest his shares earlier, which make of that what you will – he was still within the law. I find myself ambivalent to the sanctimonious cries that he needs to appear to be whiter-than-white because that’s a Sisyphean task for which there will never be satisfaction short of being reduced to sackcloth and ashes, especially compounded by the oh-so-Canadian reflex of treating him like a tall poppy who must be brought down to size. The Conservative line that he’s a rich guy who can’t understand the woes of the working guy is certainly suffused with that narrative, but that’s also populism for you.

For me, the bigger problem is that so much of this is about the fact that it all goes back to this government’s particular communications problem of responding to everything with a spoonful of pabulum rather than taking their criticisms head-on. When the Conservatives launched into outright falsehoods about the proposed tax changes, Morneau didn’t fight back – he mouthed the same platitudes and shovelled more pabulum in our faces, and the myths metastasised until he was playing defensive when there was no reason for him to. That the CRA bungled their release of the folio on employee discounts just fed into this same problem, and again, the government couldn’t communicate their way out of a wet paper bag there either, sticking to the pabulum lines of not taxing the middle class rather than actually explaining that no, these are very specific circumstances that won’t actually capture retail workers. And given the current questions around his holdings, there are certainly better ways that he could have communicated decisions that were made (including why a blind trust would not have made sense, for example), or why the various conspiracy theories about how legislation or tax changes he’s proposing are apparently for the benefit of his company are patently absurd (because hey, attacking the messenger is always the sign that you’re on the winning side of the argument). But nope. Pabulum. And you would hope that maybe, just maybe, the government will learn that this is not the way to go about communicating, but I doubt it. They’ll probably hold tight and weather this manufactured outrage for another week or so until something else distracts the opposition, and the outrage cycle will start up again over something else, for which the government’s solution will be yet more pabulum. It’s tiresome from all sides. But this is what politics has devolved into.

Meanwhile, Andrew Coyne castigates Morneau for his poor judgment, while Colby Cosh thinks of him fondly as a great quasi-Albertan for using a numbered company registered in that province, paying taxes there and giving back to the province’s economy.

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Roundup: No constraints, please

After Kady O’Malley suggested last week that the Senate adopt some kind of formal mechanisms to prevent the Senate from indefinitely delaying private members’ bills so that they die on the Order Paper, Senator Frances Lankin wrote this weekend that as much as she wants to see some of those bills get passed, she has no desire to adopt any mechanisms that would constrain debate in the Senate. And while I’m sympathetic to O’Malley’s point to an extent, I think Lankin has it right – and it’s good that she said something, because a lot of the newer senators look to her for guidance given that she is a senator who came into the job with previous legislative experience. The reasons why those bills can face delays are varied, but sometimes it’s legitimate that they do, and I think it would be a mistake to put in a mechanism that would essentially force those bills to be passed – especially as that would create an incentive for governments to start trying to pass difficult agenda items as PMBs (as the Conservatives tried to do on more than a few occasions when they were in power).

Meanwhile, Conservative MP Todd Doherty took to YouTube to bully senators into passing his private members’ bill. This is one of those kinds of stories that bothers me because nowhere in the piece does it mention who the sponsor of the bill in the Senate is, nor does it try to reach out to them to ask them about state of the bill and what efforts they are taking in order to see it passed, and that’s a detail that matters. If it is indeed waiting to come up for debate in committee, that’s not out of the ordinary considering that usually committees are bound to deal with government legislation before they deal with private members’ bills, and they’re the masters of their own destiny. Never mind that the bill itself is of dubious merit – these kinds of PMBs that demand “national strategies” for everything under the sun, no matter how worthy the cause, tend to be little more than feel-good bills that have little impact other than moral suasion, because they can’t oblige a government to spend money, and they figure that demanding a national strategy will push a government to take action. They don’t, but it’s all about optics, and Doherty is really pushing that optics angle.

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