It’s been a day since the Globe and Mailinterview 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.
While the Commons and Senate calendars are out of sync, the Senate is sitting this week while the Commons is not, and we still had ministerial QP in the Senate today, with special guest star, health minister Jane Philpott, this being her third appearance before the Senate. Just before things got underway, the Speaker noted that the leaders had agreed to tweaks on the order of questions, and cutting down on the number of supplementals asked in order to get more questions in. Senator Carignan led off asking about the plans for legalised marijuana, worrying that they were not following evidence-based policy especially around the risks. Philpott said that despite appearances, there are a number of gaps in knowledge around cannabis and praise the work of Anne McLelland’s panel. She also noted that because the largest number of pot users are younger people, they need to keep that in mind in the legislation they draft.
It took a couple of weeks, but I will say that I was encouraged to read that Senator Leo Housakos was in the press pushing back against Senator Peter Harder’s comments that the Senate hasn’t been implementing changes to its processes as recommended by the Auditor General. As chair of the Internal Economy committee, Housakos has corrected the record to point out that yes, a lot of changes have happened (and in fact were happening since long before the now infamous audit happened), and also hit back at the issue of an audit committee. Harder it seems has bought into the AG’s wrong-headed notion that an external audit body be formed, which I will reiterate is absolutely an affront to parliamentary democracy. The Senate is a parliamentary body, and parliament is self-governing. It needs to be, full stop. Making senators answerable to an outside body puts a stake in the ability to be self-governing, and pretty much says that we don’t deserve to be a self-governing country anymore, and should just hand all of the power back to the Queen. That Harder can’t see that is blind and a little bit gobsmacking. While the Senate does plan to announce an audit body soon, it will be of mixed composition, and if they’ve paid attention to Senator McCoy’s proposal to mirror the House of Lords’ body – basically three senators and two outside experts – then we’ll be fine. But make no mistake – such a body must be majority senators and be chaired by a Senator. Otherwise let’s just start the process of shuttering parliament, and no, I’m not even being dramatic about it.
While we’re on the topic of the Senate, I just wanted to give a tip of my hat to now-retired Senator Nancy Ruth (who was on Power & Politics yesterday at 1:49:00 on this link). Nancy Ruth (that’s one name, like Cher or Madonna) was one of my early entry points into political journalism, when I came to the Hill writing for GLBT publications like the now-defunct Outlooks and Capital Xtra. As the only openly lesbian parliamentarian, and the only openly LGBT member of the Conservative caucus who wasn’t media shy, she was my point of contact into that caucus and that particular political sphere. The relationship I built there gave me my first by-line for The Canadian Press, and I eventually moved into more mainstream outlets. She was an absolute joy to cover, and I will miss her terribly.
In case you missed the news, the new Independent Senators Group got core funding to hire staff to help coordinate independent senators’ activities and logistics. This came around the same time that they managed to strike a deal when it comes to getting more independents on committees without waiting for a prorogation to hit the reset button as the rules would otherwise dictate. Why this matters is because it allows the ISG to effectively organise their own members, to help them hire staff and do things like that – efforts which Government Leader – err, “representative” Senator Peter Harder has been attempting to bigfoot with his own offers to help these senators get staffed up and offering briefings and assisting in legislative coordination and so on. The fact that he represents the government and has been sworn into the Privy Council – regardless of his protestations that he’s independent because he’s actually not (you can’t be both an independent and represent the government – it’s like being half-pregnant) – makes this a blow to actual independence that these senators are supposed to be exercising. Giving the ISG the funds to do that on their own is an important step. Of course, the same piece mentions that Harder plans to move motions in the Senate in the spring related to his ability to restyle his title as he wishes, and that I have a problem with. This particular semantic game that he and the Trudeau government are playing around his role is a very big problem when it comes to how the chamber operates in our Westminster system, and Harder playing silly buggers with what he calls himself in order to cloak his role with the government is a problem. He and this government need to drop the charade and just come clean – Harder should be a cabinet minister in keeping with the role, and be the point of contact for accountability in the Senate. Playing games around it weakens accountability and the duty of the Senate in that role.
Meanwhile, with the appointment process for six upcoming vacancies having been announced, we also got the release of the report on the statistics from the previous round (highlights here). Maybe this time we’ll see an appointment from Southwestern Ontario, a new LGBT senator or even someone from outside of the social sciences!
Finally, Senator Denise Batters appears to have broken the rules to record a video in the Senate Chamber, accusing Trudeau of authoritarian tendencies in trying to destroy opposition in the Senate. While her basic premise – that there is a movement to shut down the position of Official Opposition in the Senate – is correct and concerning, Batters cranked it up to eleven in being completely overwrought about it, and does more harm than good to the issue. I’m not sure how much the move to weaken Official Opposition in the Senate comes from Trudeau or from Harder and his particular vision of Senate “independence” where he can co-opt the independents to his causes, but that remains a concern that I’ve heard from not only the Liberals and Conservatives in the Senate, but a couple of the independents as well. But this kind of stunt doesn’t help.
Today’s special guest star for Senate Question Period was Health Minister Jane Philpott, whose birthday it also happened to be. Senator Ogilvie led off, and he raised the social affairs committee’s report on dementia, which the full Senate endorsed last night, and he wanted to know if she was aware of its contents. Philpott said that she has had a preliminary briefing on the report and she personally has experience with the file, given her own father suffers from it and she was looking to working on the file together.
As tributes to Jim Prentice continue to roll in, we see one in particular from Michael Den Tandt, who says that the particular blend of civility and competence that Prentice had is becoming a fading quality in politics, not only looking south of the border to the giant tire fire that they call their presidential election, but also toward the Conservative leadership race in this country. Why is it fading? Because that kind of politics isn’t selling to the angry populist wave that seems to have captured so many imaginations, and in that race, it’s less Maxime Bernier who is capturing that angry populism (despite his claiming the “Mad Max” label by being “mad” about so many government problems) than it is by Kellie Leitch and her campaign manager, Nick Kouvalis. And case in point, Leitch officially launched her campaign on the weekend (remember, it was just an exploration beforehand), and lo, was it full of angry populist rhetoric that doesn’t make a lot of sense when you actually listen to it. Leitch continues to insist that she’s not anti-immigrant – she just goes about completely mischaracterising this country’s immigration system (you know, which the government that she was a part of had an opportunity to apparently do something about over the last decade and apparently didn’t), and pits “good” immigrants against “bad” ones – which, to be fair, is something Jason Kenney got really good at over his time as the cultural outreach guy in the Conservative party. Suffice to say, here are Justin Ling’s tweet’s from Leitch’s launch, and if it sounds like her going down the angry populist checklist, it’s because that’s what it pretty much is – which lends a little more credence to what Den Tandt was saying about Prentice’s breed of politician fading away.
This dude is not Kellie Leitch. This dude is from Jordan. He assures us that Canadian values are important. pic.twitter.com/s5g6I90GOv
Supply day motions – also known as opposition day motions – can be tricky business, and unless the opposition party that moves it isn’t careful, they can wind up giving the government a free pass on supporting said motions without fear of consequence. Never mind that the point of supply day motions is to debate why the government should be denied supply (and hence confidence), these have largely turned into take-note debates on topics of the opposition’s choosing. These free pass motions happened with surprising regularity in the previous parliament, with the NDP frequently offering up mom-and-apple-pie motions that the Conservatives would obviously support the intent of, despite never having the intention to follow through with substantive action on, because hey, the motions are non-binding, and why not look like they support the idea of the motion? And lo and behold, the Conservatives offered up just such a motion around the Supreme Court of Canada, imploring the government to “respect the custom of regional representation” when making appointments to that court, “in particular, when replacing the retiring Justice Thomas Cromwell, who is Atlantic Canada’s representative on the Supreme Court.” While I will quibble with their use of “custom” as opposed to “constitutional convention” (which it really is at this point), this was one of those motions worded just loosely enough that the government could vote for it (and it did pass unanimously, as these kinds of motions often do), and should they go ahead and appoint a non-Atlantic justice to the court, they have room enough to turn around and give some kind of a nonsense excuse like “Oh, we felt that such-and-such diversity requirement was more needed at this point,” or “we felt that the Atlantic nominees were insufficiently bilingual,” or what have you. Or, as the talking points have been turning to, they will point to the number of Atlantic nominees on the short-list and said that they got equal opportunity and were not prejudiced against or some such, and make the merit argument. Suffice to say, there is more than enough wiggle room, and for a party that was so recently in government, the Conservative should have known better than to word a motion in a way that the government can support and later wiggle out of. This having been said, the government has been under enormous political pressure from the premiers regarding this Atlantic seat, so it is not inconceivable that this as a step in walking back from having the nominations being too open, but that remains to be seen.
So, the electoral reform committee was back again yesterday, and they heard from two academics – one was an avid proponent of proportional representation that Elizabeth May fangirled over so hard, while the other was a former Quebec MNA who spearheaded that province’s failed attempt at moving to a multi-member PR system. There wasn’t much takeaway from either, other than Arend Lijphart (the former of the two) was a big fan of multi-member ridings in Canada (because apparently the problem of enormous rural ridings escapes him), and the fact that he felt that we should avoid a referendum because like Brexit, it would fall victim to demagoguery and “outright lies.”
To which I immediately have to ask – whose lies? The proponents of the status quo, or those of the advocates of PR? Because having seen both in the state of the debate so far, they’re equally odious. How about the lies that majority governments formed under our system are “illegitimate?” Because Lijphart was peddling that one. Or the lies about “38 percent of the vote gets 100 percent of the power”? Because a) the popular vote figure doesn’t actually exist (it’s a logical fallacy based on a misreading of our elections as a single event when they’re 338 separate but simultaneous events), and b) even in proportional systems, parties don’t get a share of power equal to their share of the vote, particularly if they are not part of the governing coalition and even if they are, the “share” of power will not be equal to their vote share. How about the lies about how voter turnout will suddenly blossom under PR? Because research has demonstrated that the most increase we might see is maybe three percent (because declining turnout in Western democracies is a widespread problem that has nothing to do with the electoral systems but rather a great many other factors). How about the common lies of PR advocates that votes are “wasted” and that they don’t count if the person they voted for doesn’t win, and that they system is so unfair? Are those lies any better than the ones about how a PR system would turn us into Israel or Italy and we would have nothing but unstable governments, and the sun would become black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon become as blood? Or are the lies that PR advocates tell okay because they’re well intentioned and lies about a future full of rainbows, gumdrops and unicorns better than lies about doom and destruction? Is pro-PR demagoguery morally superior to the demagoguery of status-quo doomsayers? That’s what I’d like to know.
Another day, another column with a plaintive wail that Proportional Representation (PR) is really nothing like its critics say – really! And like Andrew Coyne last week, this defence by Devon Rowcliffe for iPolitics.ca relies again on comparisons that are problematic. The argument that small parties better reflect our diverse society ignores that large brokerage parties that exist in this country are adaptable and diverse in their own right, and seek to attract diverse candidates. Many countries that rely on PR systems are fairly ethnically homogenous, and I would be concerned that a system that privileges smaller ideological parties would also favour parties founded on ethnic nationalism – a party of Sikh voices or Ismaili Muslims, for example. There are plenty of stories that exist among people who currently organise in our system about attempts by these communities to turn themselves into voting blocs for one party or another, and in a system that privileges those kind of blocs with the promise of outsized power – as opposed to one that diffuses these differences among the many factions being brokered into a big tent – there would be the danger of rewarding sectarianism, which would do nothing for social unity. And no, Canada is not New Zealand, so trying to force that comparison is yet another attempt to draw lessons that may not be applicable.
Rowcliffe also cites that there’s no real fear of unstable coalition governments, and then cites the Danish political drama Borgen as an example of this in action, apparently taking the wrong lessons as every other episode of Borgen that I’ve seen (granted, I’m only into the second season currently) has the coalition being in danger of falling apart because one party or another that forms it is looking to leverage their way into more power or influence. Look at the Liberal Democrats in the UK! You mean the part where the party was virtually wiped out in the next election? Shouting “Stephen Harper!” as an excuse to implement PR ignores that there was a significant following for Harper and his policies at the time, and it should not bear repeating but trying to change the voting system to keep out a party you don’t’ like is a very poor reason to do it because that leads to all manner of unintended consequences. Pointing to the 1993 election as examples where the current system has failed ignores both the circumstances around it and the fact that it was a blip and not the norm (not to mention that once again, the logical fallacy of the popular vote is cited as being a real figure when it is not, and hence the epithet of the system being “broken and archaic” is reliant on a lie).
One last point, which is that constantly whining about how unfair the current system is to the Green Party (as Rowcliffe borders on) ignores that the Green Party is not a grown-up political party. It’s a loose collection of conspiracy theory-minded hippies and bitter Red Tories with a policy development system that consistently falls prey to marginal groups like “Men’s Rights Activists,” and their inability to effectively organize or come up with a coherent policy book is not the fault of the system. Pretending otherwise ignores the facts for the sake of sore loserism.
The Senate’s internal economy committee is signalling that they are looking into setting up an independent audit committee, and my alarm bells are going off so hard right now because if they follow the path that the Auditor General wants them to go down, then they are risking serious damage to our entire parliamentary system. And no, I’m not even exaggerating a little bit. You see, Michael Ferguson wants to ensure that if there are any senators on this independent committee, that they are in the minority and not in a position to chair it, because that would mean they’re still writing their own rules. And the answer to that is of course they’re writing their own rules. They’re Parliament. Parliament is self-governing. In fact, it’s not only ignorant but dangerous to insist that we subject our parliamentarians to some kind of external authority because that blows parliamentary privilege out of the water. If you don’t think that Parliament should be self-governing, then let’s just hand power back to the Queen and say “thank you very much, your Majesty, but after 168 years, we’ve decided that Responsible Government just isn’t for us.” So no, let’s not do that, thanks. And it’s not to say that there shouldn’t be an audit committee, and Senator Elaine McCoy has suggested one patterned on the one used in the House of Lords, which would be five members – three senators, plus an auditor and someone like a retired judge to adjudicate disputes, but the Senate still maintains control because Parliament is self-governing. It allows outsiders into the process to ensure that there is greater independence and which the senators on the committee would ignore at their peril, but the Senate must still control the process. Anything less is an affront to our democracy and to Responsible Government, and I cannot stress this point enough. Ferguson is completely wrong on this one, and senators and the media need to wake up to this fact before we really do something to damage our parliamentary institutions irreparably (worse than we’re already doing).